The first preseason SEC football magazine on the newsstands picked Tennessee fourth in the East and didn’t have a Vol on its all-conference team. But Lindy’s isn’t altogether discouraging reading for UT fans.
If it’s right, then the Vols are actually gaining ground on Florida, an astonishing development given the recent history of the series. The Vols haven’t beaten the Gators in six years, during which their biggest divisional rival has won two national titles and had three 13-win seasons.
Lindy’s picks Florida third in the East. And it doesn’t have a Gator on its preseason all-conference first team, either.
The Vols have had a significant talent drop-off and are rebuilding under second-year coach Derek Dooley, the program’s third coach in the last four seasons. But Florida’s non-representation on the first-team is more striking.
In 2009, the Gators had seven players named to the coaches’ All-SEC first team. Moreover, they repeatedly accumulated top-five national recruiting classes under Urban Meyer, who resigned after last season and was replaced by first-time head coach Will Muschamp.
Despite the change in coaches, the Gators seemingly should have talent stockpiled.
Yet when you check SEC depth charts, there’s no obvious all-conference Gator. Even the selection of Andre Debose on the second team as an all-purpose player seems like a stretch. You also might debate Jon Bostic’s inclusion as a second-team All-SEC linebacker.
UT’s second-team picks are offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who started last season as a freshman, and Malik Jackson, the transfer from Southern California who established himself as the Vols’ best defensive lineman.
The absence of Vols and Gators isn’t all that sticks out on the all-conference predictions. Georgia has as many players (nine) on the first- and second All-SEC teams as Alabama, which the same magazine picks to finish second nationally.
If you give Georgia credit for that much talent, how can you put South Carolina ahead of it, especially when you look at its conference schedule outside the division? Georgia won’t have to play the West’s big three of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas — all with top-10 possibilities — and it gets South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State at home.
The favorable schedule aside, Georgia inspires little confidence, and not just because it went 6-7 last year. It has had too many inexplicably awful games the last few years — for example, losing to a less-talented UT team 45-19 in 2009 and dropping consecutive games to the Gators by a combined count of 90-27. Over the last three seasons, it’s an obvious choice as the most under-achieving program in the conference. That helps explain why coach Mark Richt will make everyone’s coaches-on-the-hot-seat list.
Nonetheless, if suspended South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia isn’t reinstated for the season, you might have to pick Georgia to win the East by default. If divisional transfers were allowed, perhaps a second-tier team from the West would win the East.
That’s how far removed the SEC is from its divisional roots.
The first 10 years from 1992 through 2001 were distinguished by the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in the East. The Gators often had the upper hand, but the Vols were good enough as a runner-up to finish in the top 12 nationally four times and eventually won a national title of their own.
In seven of those 10 years, Florida and UT comprised the top two. Georgia broke through in 2002, winning the division for the first of three times in four years.
Still, after the first 18 years of divisional play, Florida had 10 divisional titles; UT had won the division five times and had finished second eight times.
The all-conference teams often reflected that success. Ten years ago, 11 of the 24 All-SEC first-team picks were from either UT or Florida.
Such history never comes to mind while perusing Lindy’s preseason preview, which predicts South Carolina will repeat as East champion. That pick, which likely will be repeated by most preseason publications, is based mainly on the Gamecocks’ nucleus of outstanding players: running back Marcus Lattimore, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and pass rusher Devin Taylor.
The Vols can’t match that kind of star power. But neither can the Gators.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns