There’s still plenty of conversation about last week and plenty of conversation about the future, but in the present Tennessee finds itself in a crowded SEC East field. Fans of a certain age are used to losing to Florida and then only having to care about whether the Gators lost twice. But two things have complicated that equation: one, Nick Saban’s dominance in Tuscaloosa means most will pencil in a second loss for the Vols, requiring an additional Gator loss or a complicated tiebreaker. And two, the SEC East is now much more competitive top to bottom.
Through three weeks, here’s how ESPN’s FPI projects the SEC East in conference win total:
What do Tennessee and Vanderbilt have in common near the bottom of the list? They both play Alabama and both get only an 11% chance from FPI, significantly driving down the overall projection. It’s frustrating to see the Vols fifth on this list right now, but the bigger takeaway to me is how crowded the field is from 1-6. Saying 5-3 might win the East is no exaggeration; three weeks in, it seems like the most likely outcome.
If that 11% doesn’t get it done against Alabama tomorrow and Mississippi State stays hot at Georgia (UGA is a 4.5-point favorite), every SEC East team will have a loss other than the winner of Kentucky/Florida. And if the Cats can turn back three decades of futility, the season outlook will seem significantly brighter for Tennessee.
Florida maintains a scheduling advantage due to moving the LSU game last year, and what seemed like a tough SEC West draw of the Tigers and Texas A&M now seems much easier. Meanwhile Georgia’s draw of Mississippi State this week and their annual meeting with Auburn seems more difficult. You never know how these things are going to turn out, but I do know any win for an East team over a West team this year will be a tremendous asset. Not because the West is necessarily so much better than the East this year, but because the East seems so tightly packed.
So yes, watch the Vols Saturday. But the greatest importance to Tennessee’s season this week is what happens Saturday night in Lexington and Athens. We’ll learn a little more about the East race, and might even find ourselves much more in it than we thought just one week after the Florida loss.