ATHENS -- Six seasons have passed since the SEC East put forward a champion in the conference.
The year was 2008 and Tim Tebow was a junior quarterback at Florida. Tebow led the Gators to a 31-20 win over Alabama to win the SEC championship. The Gators went on to win a national title, as well.
Since then, the SEC West has dominated the conference’s title game. Each West team that reached Atlanta entered ranked no lower than third in the nation. The East had three teams -- No. 19 South Carolina in 2010, No. 12 Georgia in 2011 and No. 14 Missouri in 2014 -- ranked outside of the top 10 during this six-year span. The West has been perceived as a more balanced division while the East has been labeled top-heavy.
It begs the question: Has the SEC West become that much better of a division than the East?
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“In my opinion, the West is the toughest (division) in football,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I don’t even think it’s close. You look at the Mississippi schools; you look at adding a very athletic Texas A&M to the West, I mean, it’s a man’s league. There’s no off weeks.”
East head coaches such as Florida’s Jim McElwain and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops admitted last week at SEC Media Days that the West has been the superior division of late. In 2014, West teams went 10-4 against East teams, with Georgia and Missouri both going 2-0 in cross-division matchups.
Georgia head coach Mark Richt has a slightly different perspective on the conference, which might be due to the fact that his team has gone 7-1 against SEC West teams in the regular season since 2011. In addition, the West went 2-5 in bowl games a season ago compared to the East’s 5-0 showing. Richt isn’t sure the West has surpassed the East but did acknowledge the East’s lackluster performance in the past six conference championship games.
Only once since 2009 has an SEC championship been decided by a margin less than 17 points and that was in 2012, when Alabama beat Georgia 32-28 in one of the greatest SEC title games in conference history.
“Oh, I don’t know other than, when you get to the SEC championship game, the East hasn’t got it done, and we’ve been a part of that,” Richt said. “The bottom line is the best team from each side is going to be there. There’s going to be one game, and the winner is it. They’re the SEC champion, obviously. So the bottom line is, like for Georgia, ‘Hey, let’s find a way to get to Atlanta. Let’s get the job done when we get there and move on to the playoff.’ ”
The disparity in talent from the West compared to the East does seem evident this year. For example, Mississippi State has the media’s preseason first-team quarterback in Dak Prescott but is considered a long shot to win its division.
In the East, South Carolina and Florida are thought to be in rebuilding years. No one is considering Kentucky or Vanderbilt as a threat.
“I think the one thing that does separate the division from a lot of other schools is all seven schools think they have a legitimate chance to win the conference title,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “I know as a coach you come into every season saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to find a way to win our division or our conference championship.’ But when you look at the West, I always feel I can look at every team as I’m scouting, as we’re preparing for the season, as I’m evaluating them, and I can make a legitimate argument for all seven teams in the West of how they can win our side of the league.”
When the SEC first created divisions in 1992, the East enjoyed a six-year championship streak with Florida winning the first four and Tennessee winning the following two. Of late, the West has controlled the conference. Richt said all his team can do is put itself in position to be in Atlanta with hopes of ending the West’s streak over the East.
“Things go in cycles, and at this moment, the West has certainly taken care of business on that day,” Richt said.