The Unpredictable (Non-UGA) SEC East

Two weeks into the season, our top two thoughts about the SEC East remain unchanged:

  • Georgia is waaaaaaayyyyyyy better than everyone else; the Vols shouldn’t compare themselves to UGA right now.
  • There’s little separation between the rest of the division; the Vols may have finished last in 2017, but how they do against the non-UGA East is still a good barometer in 2018.

South Carolina was the most popular choice to come in second; they got dusted by Georgia at home, trailing 41-10 until a late touchdown trimmed the final margin to 24. And on the other end of the spectrum, Kentucky beat Florida – in Gainesville – for the first time in more than three decades.

There’s an anything-can-happen feel to the rest of the division behind the Dawgs. Case in point: look who’s leading the non-UGA pack in S&P+ through two weeks:

Team S&P+ FPI
Missouri 16 27
Vanderbilt 23 53
Kentucky 35 47
South Carolina 43 33
Florida 46 32
Tennessee 57 61

Wyoming-over-Missouri was a trendy preseason pick; the Tigers routed the Cowboys 40-13 and now face a suddenly 0-2 Purdue team this week. And if your reflex is still to pick against Vanderbilt no matter what, you paid dearly for it the first two weeks: 35-7 over MTSU, 41-10 over Nevada.

These numbers will be tested over the next two weeks. Vanderbilt is in South Bend Saturday afternoon, Missouri hosts Georgia next week. We’ll see how good those two are against top-level competition. But the anything-can-happen-ness among the rest of the division is still good news for a Tennessee team looking to move its way up the ladder.

Recruiting is still the long-term solution, and Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Missouri are still not threats there. The Vols (11th) have the lead on South Carolina (16th) and Florida (18th) in the 247 Composite Rankings, but the Gators (53.3%) and Gamecocks (44.4%) now lead the Vols (40%) in blue chip ratio. Without the on-field results, it will be difficult for Jeremy Pruitt and staff to separate themselves from Muschamp and Mullen in recruiting.

That makes whatever separation can be earned on the field even more important. Thus Tennessee’s five most important games are all against the non-UGA SEC East, all of them some version of up for grabs. The Vols get one more tune-up this week, then the Gators, then three straight “brace yourself” opponents with a bye week thrown in for good measure. But whatever happens there or even against Florida, four of those most important games are in the last five down the stretch (plus Charlotte). What happens against those big rivals in the middle may feel like it carries more weight, but it may be what the Vols can do against their secondary rivals from the SEC East down the stretch that becomes the best sign of progress. For Tennessee to be successful, historically speaking, it has to separate itself from Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina. The Vols can’t allow those secondary rivalries to become actual rivalries in the long-term.

In the short-term, though, we should be in for interesting outcomes when these six teams face each other.


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