Bill Shanks

SEC East could seem like old times

Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. hits Florida quarterback Will Grier (7) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Florida won 28-27.
Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. hits Florida quarterback Will Grier (7) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Florida won 28-27. Orlando Sentinel

The expectation for the SEC’s East Division this season is we could have a blast from the past. For the first time in what seems like forever, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee could be the teams to beat in what is considered the SEC’s weaker division.

Tennessee has been down for years, with a revolving door of head coaches that has settled with Butch Jones finally having the Volunteers as the preseason favorites in the division. Tennessee is considered the most experienced team in the Power 5 conferences.

The Volunteers waited for this. We’ve heard for several years, as Jones got his feet under him as head coach, that the Volunteers were just not there yet, that they were too young. But now, their experience, along with questions from the other contenders, has Tennessee as the overwhelming favorite.

The Vols have a two-week stretch that will be crucial, as they host Florida on Sept. 24 and then go to Athens the very next week to play the Bulldogs. If it sweeps those two games, Tennessee will be in the driver’s seat to win the division.

But Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida since 2004. Last year, the Vols had a huge lead in Gainesville, only to see the Gators come back and win by one point. The Vols lost to Florida by one point two years ago in Knoxville, so Tennessee must beat a team that has had its number.

Georgia had done well with the Volunteers until last season, when Tennessee bounced back from a huge deficit and won by seven. Along the way, Nick Chubb was seriously injured, so you know the Bulldogs would love payback for that injury.

If Tennessee splits with Florida and Georgia, then the game in Jacksonville, Florida, in late October between the Gators and Bulldogs becomes even more important. Then the team that has beaten Tennessee might have a chance to clinch the division with a win in the River City.

But what about the other four teams in the division — Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina? Not that they will contend, but what if one of those teams can upset Georgia, Florida or Tennessee?

Tennessee’s experience could give it the advantage to avoid an upset. Plus, the Vols play all four of those teams after an Oct. 15 game at home against Alabama. So if Tennessee survives the first half of the season, it will have smooth sailing against those other pretenders in the division.

If Georgia, Florida and Tennessee can all avoid an upset to one of the other four division rivals, then the head-to-head matchups will determine who plays in Atlanta in early December.

The Vols must learn how to win big games. Last year, they had a lead over Oklahoma, but lost in double-overtime. Then there was the game in Gainesville. They even played Alabama tough, but they lost by five points. If Tennessee is to get over the hump, it must stop squandering leads and win big games.

While Tennessee has a veteran quarterback (Joshua Dobbs), Georgia and Florida have instability at the position. We don’t know who will start for the Bulldogs and Gators at quarterback, at least not yet. We assume Jacob Eason eventually will start for Georgia, and the expectation is Luke Del Rio will win the job at Florida. But compared to Tennessee, the other two teams must answer that question.

So buckle up. It seems we’re in for an old-fashioned battle royal between three teams that have had epic games in the past. It’ll be good for the SEC if Georgia, Florida and Tennessee duke it out, and it’ll definitely be good for fans who want to see good football this fall.

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