On the opening night of the 2016 season, South Carolina and Vanderbilt met in Nashville. Will Muschamp's Gamecocks outlasted Derek Mason's Commodores in a defensive slugfest. They trailed 10-0 at halftime, but Deebo Samuel's 8-yard run tied the game midway through the fourth quarter, and Elliott Fry's dramatic 55-yard field goal gave them the lead with 35 seconds left.
Barely three weeks later, the tables were turned. South Carolina led Kentucky at halftime in Lexington, but a 65-yard touchdown drive capped by Benny Snell gave the Wildcats a 17-10 edge that held up. With barely two minutes left, Denzil Ware sacked Brandon McIlwain on fourth down from the UK 35, sealing the UK win.
Admit it: You knew. When you were watching these spectacular slugfests, you knew that you were taking in vital football. You knew you were watching games that would play a significant role in the title race of what is generally college football's best conference.
Of course you didn't know. No one did. No one should have. The SEC East was supposed to be decided on Sept. 24, when Tennessee finally ended a long losing streak against Florida. The Volunteers' Hail Mary win over Georgia was icing on the cake. This was the year that Butch Jones' squad would take all the drama out of the division race.
Unfortunately for the folks from Knoxville, this was instead the year that Tennessee would get wrecked by injury. Since mid-October alone, defensive linemen Danny O'Brien, Kahlil McKenzie, and Shy Tuttle were either dismissed or lost to season-ending injury. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is out. Defensive back Evan Berry is out. And on offense, starting running back Jalen Hurd got hurt, then transferred. Alvin Kamara, an excellent No. 2, got hurt almost immediately thereafter.
Tennessee began the season 5-0, then lost three straight. Falling at Texas A&M in overtime is no great shame, but the Vols were dominated in a home loss to Alabama, then hit the road after a bye week and lost to a South Carolina team led by a true freshman (Jake Bentley) in his second start.
This opened the door for Florida to take over. Despite shaky offense, the Gators won three straight after the loss to Tennessee. But they got thumped at Arkansas on Saturday, their defense beginning to show signs of strain.
Florida's loss gave Kentucky -- Kentucky! -- a golden opportunity. If the Wildcats could beat Georgia, they would be a stunning 5-2 in conference, one win away from the crown.
They lost via last-second field goal.
With three Saturdays left in the regular season, we know three things:
1. Four teams are still eligible for the SEC East crown.
Florida once again controls its destiny at 4-2 in conference play, but if the Gators slip -- and goodness knows that seems plausible at this point -- then 4-3 Kentucky, 3-4 South Carolina, and 2-3 Tennessee could still seize the title. (Georgia and Vanderbilt could end up tying for the division lead in some scenarios but wouldn't win any of the potential tiebreakers.)
2. The SEC East is really, really bad.
How bad has the SEC East become? According to S&P efficiency ratings by SB Nation's Bill Connelly, the Mountain West's Mountain Division is stronger than the SEC East in 2016.
That's not a misprint. A division with Wyoming, Boise State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Air Force and Utah State is considered better than a division with Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
If that doesn't set the SEC East's hair on fire, I don't know what will. Every time we think the SEC East can't get any worse, the bar drops lower.
The SEC West is by far the best division in the country once again. The average S&P+ rating in the West is plus-15.1 adjusted points per game, and that’s not just because of Alabama (though Alabama helps).
Auburn is up to No. 7 in the S&P+ ratings, and LSU is eighth. Ole Miss, with four losses to teams in the top 12, still checks in at 16th, while Texas A&M is 20th, bipolar Arkansas is 46th, and Mississippi State is 60th. The two worst teams in the divisions just scored huge wins (over Florida and A&M, respectively).
The East, meanwhile, boasts one team in the top 30: a Florida team that could be on the precipice of a huge fall. Tennessee sits at No. 32. And while teams like Kentucky and South Carolina have unquestionably played better football in the last month, no other East team ranks better than 58th.
3. Somebody from the East has to play in the SEC title game.
So let’s find out who that might be. Because of tie-breakers, the following eight games could still play a role in determining the East champion:
- Nov. 12: South Carolina at Florida, Kentucky at Tennessee, Vanderbilt at Missouri, Auburn at Georgia
- Nov. 19: Florida at LSU, Missouri at Tennessee, Ole Miss at Vanderbilt
- Nov. 26: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Eight games means 256 different scenarios of results. In 179, or about 70 percent, Florida takes the East. The Gators are still the obvious favorite due to conference record and a tiebreaker over Kentucky. UK wins in 32 of these scenarios, Tennessee in 28, South Carolina in 17.
S&P+ odds also see the Gators as a clear favorite, with a 71.7 percent chance of one of those 179 Florida scenarios coming to fruition. Tennessee’s odds are still decent at 24.4 percent, while South Carolina is at 2.2 percent and Kentucky is at 1.7.
Four of these potentially decisive games take place on Saturday, and the two most important kick off at noon ET: South Carolina-Florida and Kentucky-Tennessee.
If Florida beats South Carolina and Kentucky beats Tennessee, the race is over — Florida wins. But if Muschamp and the Gamecocks pull an upset of Muschamp’s former team, things get weird in a hurry.
SEC East odds, based on the results of Saturday noon kickoffs (South Carolina-Florida and Kentucky-Tennessee):
- Florida and Kentucky win: Florida 100%
- South Carolina and Kentucky win: Kentucky 53%, Florida 47%
- Florida and Tennessee win: Florida 71%, Tennessee 29%
- South Carolina and Tennessee win: Tennessee 55%, South Carolina 23%, Florida 22%
By around 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, you could have any of three different division favorites. That’s exciting, right? Who needs quality when you’ve got uncertainty?
It doesn’t have to be this way, you know. We use divisions to determine title game participants because that’s simply what we’ve always done. But as with the electoral college, there’s a simpler, far more satisfying way to decide this.
We should get rid of divisions, and we should replace them with small groups of annual rivals.
Every major SEC rivalry would be protected.
A couple rivalries complicate the SEC puzzle. Alabama has to play Tennessee every year; Auburn has to play Georgia every year. But those go across divisions. If you move Auburn to the East, Alabama can only play either Auburn or Tennessee every year, and that's how Revelation starts.
Currently, everyone has a cross-division rival, even though most pairs make little sense. We love to make fun of the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt Khaki Bowl, and Florida-LSU is good because it gets weird, but this is a lot of fuss.
So, the core of the proposal: scrap divisions, and give everybody three guaranteed rivals.
You play your three chief rivals and a rotating cast of five other conference opponents each year. Within any two-year span, you end up playing every team in the conference. Within any four-year span, you’ve visited every opponent’s home stadium. How novel!
Under the current format, former rivals Auburn and Florida haven't played since 2011. People born on the day of that game will be in middle school the next time the Gators play at Jordan-Hare, in 2024.
Newer SEC addition Texas A&M hasn't played at Kentucky since 1953, and won't do so again until 20-damn-25.
Georgia went six straight years without facing Nick Saban in the regular season.
This is stretching the definition of a conference and revealing that the whole point of this is ... not competition and kinship. Many fans get one shot per decade at road trips to Baton Rouge or Athens. Most players and many coaches only get three years to make their marks, so entire careers come and go without rivals meeting.
At the end of an eight-game conference schedule, the top two teams in the standings play in the conference title game. Easy peasy.
Only '90s kids remember when the SEC West trotted out division champs with glorious No. 16 poll rankings while a highly ranked East team missed the SEC Championship. These days, the East is the one polluting the Georgia Dome.
Imagine getting the 2011 Bama-LSU rematch out of the way before the BCS (hey, Oklahoma State!). South Carolina's rematch against Cam Newton's Auburn went poorly, but maybe Arkansas or LSU could've competed? In 1995, 10-1 Tennessee would've gotten one more shot at 11-0 Florida, instead of the Gators batting around No. 23 Arkansas.
[What if three or more teams are totally tied for first? Playoff rankings tiebreaker, like some other conferences use. That's the smart business move, since you don't want your Playoff longshot taking a spot from your top teams.]
We’ve drawn morbid entertainment from bad divisions through the years. We joked for years about the possibility of a seven-way tie at 4-4 in the ACC Coastal, and yes, a six-way 4-4 tie is still a technical possibility in the SEC East this year.
Still, we don’t have to do it this way. We could have the two best teams in a given conference against play each other instead, and not in a Big 12-ish, guaranteed-rematch sort of way.
As it stands, there is still a scenario in which South Carolina, the 86th-best team in the country in 2016, according to S&P+, plays Alabama in Atlanta. There’s an industry for snuff film, but blockbusters tend to fare better.