HOOVER, Ala. – Historically, parity has made the SEC great. When there are championship-level programs on both sides of the aisle, it makes the brand as a whole that much stronger.
But ever since Nick Saban’s Alabama team announced its arrival with a dominant win over Florida in the 2009 SEC Championship, the balance of power has shifted dramatically.
The West Division has won seven consecutive SEC title games by a combined 154 points. The East representative came within a touchdown only once (Georgia vs. Alabama in 2012). This culminated last season with the East struggling to a pathetic 2-13 record against the West. The debacle ended with Florida losing to Alabama by two touchdowns in the title game.
“I think balance and parity is a key for any conference,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was an assistant at Alabama last season. “It certainly hasn’t been that way. It’s our job on the East to do something about that. We’ve got to do a great job on our side to compete, recruit, get the right facilities, put the right programs in the position to be successful.”
East teams have moved quickly to address the disparity. With the departures of conference mainstays Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt and Gary Pinkel, the East’s longest-tenured coach arrived in 2013. This season alone, the division boasts three new coaches: Smart, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and Missouri coach Barry Odom.
But for the first time in years, it appears the traditional powers in the SEC East are starting to awaken in unison. Florida coach Jim McElwain led a resurgent 10-1 start in his first season with the Gators. Smart is expected to improve a program that averaged 9.7 wins per year under Richt. Under coach Butch Jones, Tennessee is ranked the second-most likely team to win the SEC per ESPN’s FPI, behind only LSU.
The schedule also sets up well for the East to have a strong showing in 2016. Alabama, the league’s two-time defending champion, has to travel to Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss. Tennessee’s toughest out of division road game is against Texas A&M.
Several SEC West teams played at a high level last season, but Tennessee All-American CB Cameron Sutton is not fazed by previous results.
“It’s very close because there’s a new team each and every year,” Sutton said. “A team’s identity is never the same year in and year out. New faces not just on our team, but every team in our conference.”
Sutton has a point. Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas, the top three teams in the SEC West last season, all lost several star players. Georgia brings back most of its offense, while Tennessee only lost five starters total. Experience and talent are starting to catch up.
“The West has been pretty powerful the past couple years, but we can only focus on what we’re doing,” Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “We’re not focusing on other programs, we’re focusing on ourselves. We’re climbing our own ladder.”
Success has been cyclical in the SEC. The SEC East combined to win six consecutive conference championships during the 1990s and only trails the West 11-13 since the SEC Championship Game was established in 1992. The recruiting bears that out too. Three SEC East teams raked in top 15 recruiting classes this year.
“I think that parity is good for [the SEC],” Smart said. “It creates a better balance. I think when you get your every-year opponent from the other side, when there’s more balance, it certainly is a little more fair. And I think that’s important to have that … the onus is on the Eastern teams to do that.”
With great expectations can come great letdowns. Georgia struggled to meet championship expectations, and eventually fired Richt. Florida’s expectations eventually killed Will Muschamp’s coaching tenure. There’s a reason five of the league’s seven coaches have been replaced within the last three years. Regardless, East coaches do not back down.
“That’s what you work for,” Jones said. “You want high expectations. You want high standards. I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago and the room was half filled and nobody was talking Tennessee football. This is why you coach.
“Now, it’s what you do with that opportunity.”