If this were the NBA or the NFL, we’d be talking about reseeding. The SEC championship, once the crown jewel of the first Saturday in December, has become a snooze. The West – mostly meaning Alabama but not just Alabama – is too good. Or, put another way, the East is too feeble.
The average margin of the past seven SEC title tilts has been 22 points. Think about that: Since 2008, the nation’s biggest and presumably best conference has seen its champion crowned by an average spread of three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion. The West, duh, has won all seven. (Alabama winning four.) The only time the East came close was in 2012, when Georgia lost nobly but still squandered an 11-point lead.
By recent standards, Saturday’s Alabama-Florida matchup was fairly competitive, or as competitive as a game can be when you know all along who’s going to win. Even when the Gators took a stunning 7-2 lead on Antonio Callaway’s 85-yard punt return, nobody would have bet a farthing on the boys from old Florida. The Gators, see, play great defense. And that’s where it ends.
Their offense is terrible. (Ranked 104th among 127 FBS teams coming in.) Their kicking is worse. (Seven of 16 on field goals coming in, soon to become seven of 17.) Even at 7-2, you knew that the only way Florida could stay close – forget about winning – would be if Alabama kept messing up. Alabama doesn’t often mess up come December in the Dome.
Back to Calloway’s return: By then, Alabama had already blocked two kicks – a punt and a field goal. Florida had outdone itself in the first quarter, gaining 83 yards. (Forty-six of those came on one Calloway catch; it’s a good thing he showed up.) In the second quarter, the Gators ran 10 plays and gained …
By halftime, Bama led 12-7. By the end of the third quarter, it was 22-7. In that third quarter, the Gators’ offense had distinguished itself by amassing …
No matter how it seems, the intent isn’t to lampoon the Gators, who are what they are. Coming off a coaching change, they were picked fifth in a seven-team division. To their credit, they won the thing. They would not have won the SEC West. They might have finished sixth. That they were 6-0 against SEC East competition tells us less about them than their division, which reached a nadir this season.
Georgia fired its coach. South Carolina and Missouri saw their coaches retire. Tennessee spent the first half of the season blowing leads. Kentucky and Vanderbilt remained Kentucky and Vanderbilt. In league play, the bottom four teams in the East beat only each other. The teams that finished second and third are, at this moment, unranked. If its loses its bowl game, Florida mightn’t be ranked, either.
Florida won the East largely by default – and because Mark Richt chose to start Faton Bauta against Florida. We cannot overemphasize how crushing that loss was. It got Richt fired, and the loss wasn’t only Bauta’s fault. A fumbled punt became a Florida touchdown. Georgia yielded 413 yards to an offense that averaged 351.9 yards over the regular season and was held to 180 Saturday. For all those feeling sad about Richt’s forced departure, let’s note that his Bulldogs lost to these Gators 27-3 on a neutral field. A week later, Vandy lost to these same Gators 9-7 in the Swamp.
Midway through Saturday’s fourth quarter, Bama led 29-7. With 5:02 remaining, Florida changed the scoreboard. C.J. Worton snatched Treon Harris’ long pass away from two defenders in the end zone. The official nearest the play signaled an incompletion, working under the assumption that the Gators’ offense couldn’t possibly muster a touchdown against Alabama. Replay overturned the ruling. It was 29-15. That’s how it ended.
On score alone, it was the second-closest SEC championship in seven years. In truth, it wasn’t close at all. Alabama outgained Florida by 257 yards, had 25 first downs to the Gators’ seven and held the ball for 43 1/2 minutes. There’s nobody in the SEC East cut from championship cloth. But maybe you knew that already.