Atlanta sits at the intersection of three major interstate highways. If you can tolerate the spider’s web of interchanges, overpasses and clover-leafs that make up Atlanta’s road network, you can drive to Atlanta from just about anywhere.
But if you are a football team playing in the SEC East, there is only one way to get to Atlanta for the league championship, and that road runs through Gainesville, Fla.
Rarely has a single team dominated its division rivals the way that Florida dominates the likes of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. Don’t even mention Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The Gators’ superiority calls to mind the way that Alabama cast its shadow over the entire conference during the decade of the 1970s.
Like him or hate him — and the list of names under each heading is long and growing — Urban Meyer has accomplished more than Florida fans believed possible. Paul 'Bear' Bryant once said that if Florida could figure out how to recruit, it would be unstoppable.
Granted, Bryant could not have foreseen the artificial parity that NCAA scholarship limits are calculated to achieve, but his larger point is still valid. Meyer has recruited well. He has harvested an abundant crop of athletic talent and done a good job developing his players. But it is a fair question to ask whether Meyer and the Gators would be sitting on the cusp of a third BCS Championship in four years without Tim Tebow playing quarterback.
My guess is that they would not be.
A player of Tebow’s caliber comes around less often than Halley’s Comet, and Meyer happened to be the Gator coach when the quarterback came of age.
Now, every championship team needs two kinds of good luck: injury luck and schedule luck. The first of these is impossible to forecast, but when it comes to schedule luck, the Gators’ 2009 schedule looks like the product of that good-luck potion in the latest Harry Potter movie. The array of Florida’s non-conference opponents is laughable. I mean Charleston Southern!? Yougottabekiddingme!
The Buccaneers of Charleston Southern are proud of the fact that they promote “academic excellence in a Christian environment,” and well they should be. But in their 18-year history of playing college football, they have managed only two winning seasons and compiled a record of only 68-129. The program’s “signature win” came last year — a 48-6 stomping of Edward Waters. Reports do not disclose the results against the other 10 guys on the opposing team, but this Waters dude really got a butt-kicking!
Every big-time program plays the odd “small school,” and occasionally, the football gods use such games as an opportunity to teach lessons in life and humility. Just ask Michigan about the lessons learned in the defeat at the hands of Appalachian State. But I know Appalachian State. My middle daughter goes there. I’ve seen them play. And believe me — Charleston Southern is no Appalachian State.
What business does the defending BCS Champion have playing the likes of such a team? Regardless, the SEC East consists of Florida and everybody else.
The rest of the pack
The only real horserace in the East is for second place and at this point you have to give the edge to Georgia. Granted, the Dawgs will have a difficult time replacing Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, and Georgia’s chronic failure to live up to expectations has broken more hearts than Scarlett O’Hara, but the fact remains that Georgia has more talent than the rest of the field in the East.
The Fighting Chickens of South Carolina will claim third place. Steve Spurrier is like the guy who is being chased by a bear in the woods. He doesn’t have to outrun the bear, he just has to outrun the other guys he’s camping with, and Spurrier will outrun the bottom half of the SEC East. Along the way, he will hang an embarrassing loss around the neck of UT’s Lane Kiffin.
Vanderbilt, under the superb coaching of Bobby Johnson, has come farther than most schools faced with the same disadvantages could have come. The ‘Dores are recruiting better than at any time in recent memory, and the extra practice time that comes with appearing in a post-season bowl game is bound to give this year’s team a stronger foundation on which to work in the spring and summer.
I’m making the predictions now that Vanderbilt will defeat Tennessee and also be bowl-eligible again this year.
While the positive results of good coaching are being celebrated on West End in Nashville, over in East Tennessee, the Vol Nation is going to be wondering if the weird science experiment that is the UT coaching staff was such a good idea after all.
Tennessee will serve as a reminder to all observers that you cannot play competitive football in the SEC without a quarterback.
The most interesting wager in Vol-ville, is how long it will take before distressed callers to sports-talk radio shows start longing for the good ole days of Phil Fulmer. Some experts have picked Tennessee to finish dead-last in the East. Maybe they are right, but I’m willing to give the Volunteers a bit more respect than that. UT will win a game it ought not to win, and it will do so with its defense, led by the superb Eric Berry.
At the bottom of the SEC East will be Kentucky. Wildcat football will be as inept as it usually is, but nobody in the Bluegrass State will care. That’s the blessing the hiring of John Calipari as UK’s head basketball coach brings to the football program.