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October 9, 2007

SEC East has few certainties

CAST YOUR VOTE: Who will win the SEC East?

BATON ROUGE, La. In the span of 24 hours, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer went from the hot seat to the catbird seat.

Welcome to life in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, where every team still has reason to believe it could finish in first place.

"The East is wide open now," Tennessee tailback Arian Foster said Saturday after scoring three touchdowns in a 35-14 triumph over Georgia.

No kidding.

Midway through the season, every team in the Eastern Division owns an overall winning record, yet has lost at least one game in conference play. Each division team is talented but flawed.

Florida and Kentucky have electrifying offenses and suspect defenses. Tennessee also is far better on offense than defense. South Carolina has a veteran lineup and a vastly improved defense, but the Gamecocks already have switched starting quarterbacks once this season. Georgia has loads of talent, but most of its top players are underclassmen.

The division is unsettled enough that even Vanderbilt has reason for hope since it hasn't faced an Eastern Division team yet, though the Commodores certainly didn't look like contenders in one-sided losses to Western Division teams Alabama and Auburn.

Tennessee's situation underscores just how much a team's fortunes can change from week to week in this division.

The Vols entered the weekend amid speculation that they might need to beat Georgia for Fulmer to keep his job beyond this season. After all, Tennessee had lost each of its two road games by at least 14 points and was in danger of falling below .500.

By the end of the night, Tennessee controlled its own destiny in the East race.

WHO'S THE BEAST OF THE EAST?
Midway through the season, just about every team in the SEC East has reason to believe it can win the title. Here's a look at the record and remaining conference schedule of each team, along with why each contender may earn a trip to Atlanta.
South Carolina (5-1, 3-1)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 20 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 27 at Tennessee, Nov. 3 at Arkansas, Nov. 10 vs. Florida.
Why they might win it: The Gamecocks finally have a championship-caliber defense to go along with Steve Spurrier's acumen on offense.
Why they might not: South Carolina has to go through a brutal late-season schedule without injured LB Jasper Brinkley, who was playing at an All-America level.
Florida (4-2, 2-2)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 20 at Kentucky, Oct. 27 vs. Georgia at Jacksonville, Nov. 3 vs. Vanderbilt, Nov. 10 at South Carolina.
Why they might win it: Florida proved last week at LSU that it can compete with any program in the nation, let alone the conference.
Why they might not: The Gators have already lost two conference games, which means they no longer control their destiny.
Georgia (4-2, 2-2)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt, Oct. 27 vs. Florida at Jacksonville, Nov. 10 vs. Auburn, Nov. 17 vs. Kentucky.
Why they might win it: Georgia's only remaining game on an opposing team's campus is an extremely winnable game at Vanderbilt.
Why they might not: The Bulldogs don't control their destiny and have so much youth particularly on the offensive line that they may have one more subpar game before the end of the season.
Kentucky (5-1, 1-1)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 13 vs. LSU, Oct. 20 vs. Florida, Oct. 27 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 10 at Vanderbilt, Nov. 17 at Georgia, Nov. 24 vs. Tennessee.
Why they might win it: Kentucky's dazzling array of talent on offense particularly at the skill positions gives the Wildcats a fighting chance against anyone.
Why they might not: Have you seen that defense? Better yet, have you seen the Wildcats' upcoming schedule?
Tennessee (3-2, 1-1)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 13 at Mississippi State, Oct. 20 at Alabama, Oct. 27 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 3 Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 10 vs. Arkansas, Nov. 17 vs. Vanderbilt, Nov. 24 at Kentucky.
Why they might win it: Tennessee controls its destiny, benefits from the senior leadership of Erik Ainge and has gotten solid production from its young receiving corps.
Why they might not: The Vols rank 99th in the nation in scoring defense even after a season-best performance against Georgia. One more loss could lead to more speculation about Phillip Fulmer's future.
Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2)
Remaining conference games: Oct. 13 vs. Georgia, Oct. 20 at South Carolina, Nov. 3 at Florida, Nov. 10 vs. Kentucky, Nov. 17 at Tennessee.
Why they might win it: The Commodores technically still control their destiny since they haven't faced an Eastern Division team yet.
Why they might not: Vanderbilt's uncertainty at quarterback and lack of depth should prevent the Commodores from being anything more than a potential spoiler.
Tennessee benefited from its victory over Georgia as well as LSU's 28-24 triumph over Florida, which resulted in the Gators' second conference loss. Tennessee now finds itself ahead of Florida in the standings despite losing 59-20 to the Gators less than a month ago.

The Vols also don't have to worry about facing LSU during the regular season. LSU already has beaten East teams South Carolina and Florida and travels to Kentucky this weekend to close out its cross-division schedule.

"We've shown that we can handle adversity," Fulmer said. "Now we'll see how we handle success."

Tennessee still doesn't lead the division. That honor belongs to South Carolina, whose coach is more accustomed to this position than his team. Steve Spurrier won seven conference titles while at Florida from 1990-2001. His Florida teams never finished below second in the SEC East after the conference went to the divisional format in 1992.

But the Gamecocks never have played in the SEC Championship Game and won their only league title of any kind in 1969, when they went 6-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

This team could change that history. South Carolina (5-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) boasts one of its best defenses in recent school history - even after losing star linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The Gamecocks are ranked second in the SEC in scoring defense after forcing four Kentucky turnovers last week in a 38-23 victory over the Wildcats.

That victory moved South Carolina to the No. 7 spot in the Associated Press poll, its highest ranking in 23 years.

"We're exactly halfway through the season,'' Spurrier said. "A lot can happen in the next six games. We're trying to win the division. If we can improve quite a bit along the way, we feel like we have a chance."

So does just about every other team in the division.

Tennessee (3-2, 1-1) and Kentucky (5-1, 1-1) each have one conference loss. Each team's fortunes could be determined in the next couple of weeks. Kentucky plays host to LSU and Florida in its next two games. Tennessee has back-to-back road trips to Mississippi State and Alabama before playing host to South Carolina in an Oct. 27 game that could go a long way toward determining the Eastern Division champion.

In the unlikely event Kentucky and Tennessee both survive their brutal midseason schedules intact, their Nov. 24 showdown in Lexington could prove more important than anyone could have expected over the summer.

Then again, who would have expected Florida (4-2, 2-2) and Georgia (4-2, 2-2) to have two conference losses this early in the season?

Georgia's loss to Tennessee may have devastated the Bulldogs' chances of winning the division. South Carolina and Tennessee each have only one conference loss and also own tiebreaker advantages over Georgia. The Bulldogs need plenty of help, but they just might get it.

South Carolina still must play host to Florida and travel to Tennessee and Arkansas. The Vols also have a tricky late-season schedule. It's not out of the question that both could lose two more conference games.

The most talented team in the division finds itself in a similarly precarious position. Florida was a fourth-down stop away from beating the top-ranked team in the nation last week and probably boasts more talent than any other team in the division, but the defending national champions will have a hard time winning the East after suffering back-to-back losses to Auburn and LSU.

The Gators have so much youth on defense that they should only get better as the season progresses. It's not hard to imagine Florida winning the rest of its games, even though the Gators still have upcoming road trips to Kentucky and South Carolina - as well as the annual Georgia showdown in Jacksonville, Fla.

But that might not be good enough.

Even if Florida doesn't fall again, the Gators need Tennessee to lose one more game to have any hope of repeating as the East champion and possibly getting a second chance against LSU in Atlanta.

"We can still make it to Atlanta and win the SEC championship," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said Saturday after the Gators' heartbreaking loss to LSU.

In a division this uncertain, it's far too early to count out anything.

CAST YOUR VOTE: Who will win the SEC East?

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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