Probably, I should have recognized the SEC West’s fraudulent credentials in early October after Tennessee invaded Tiger Stadium and destroyed LSU.
Warning signs had already surfaced, like when LSU lost to Florida State, Texas A&M lost at home to Appalachian State, or when Penn State entered Jordan-Hare Stadium and blasted Auburn, or when Alabama needed a last-second field goal to beat a Texas team playing its backup quarterback.
And yet, I’ve become so accustomed to the SEC West’s dominance that I did not truly appreciate this division’s freefall into mediocrity until I saw Missouri celebrate with the Battle Line Rivalry Trophy on Black Friday after beating Arkansas.
That’s when reality sunk in: The 2022 SEC West is a tin god, and, by default, the East claimed divisional superiority.
If Georgia wins the SEC Championship, as is widely expected – the Bulldogs are a 17½-point favorite – it would mark just the second time in the past 14 seasons that the East supplied the league’s champion.
This extends beyond defending national champion Georgia, though. East teams went 8-6 in inter-division games this season.
Notable streaks ended. The Vols beat Alabama for the first time since 2006. South Carolina beat Texas A&M for the first time.
Georgia and Tennessee each went 2-0 against the West, and every East team except Vanderbilt won at least one crossover game.
Alabama is being discussed as a longshot contender for the College Football Playoff, but the West’s mediocrity means the emperor has no clothes in this debate. Alabama suffered two losses despite not playing the SEC’s best team, because the SEC’s best team resides in the East, and the Crimson Tide finished second in the conference’s weaker division.
To what do I attribute this reversal of superiority?
Is talent flocking to the SEC East? A bit more, yes. The division also improved its overall coaching lineup.
Mostly, though, I think the answer for this reversal resides with the West: Auburn and Texas A&M are in the dumps, and Alabama and LSU are not at their best.
Those four programs should by the tip of the West’s spear, but each is far from its peak. That shifted the pendulum toward the East.
Auburn made a bad decision to fire Gus Malzahn and a worse decision to hire Bryan Harsin. It paid the price. Harsin will go down as one of the worst coaches in program history. The Tigers suffered consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1998-99.
Texas A&M’s coach, Jimbo Fisher, also is faring worse than his predecessor, and a young Aggies team will fail to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2008. At least Auburn took a step toward fixing its woes by hiring proven winner Hugh Freeze on Monday.
Alabama has lost its way on defense. Georgia now does Alabama better than Alabama does Alabama. It reminds me of the story of how Dolly Parton once secretly entered a drag queue,en Dolly Parton look-alike contest – and lost. An impersonator did Dolly better than Dolly did Dolly. That’s what Georgia has done to Alabama.
Credit LSU for seizing on the West’s vulnerable state to win the division in Brian Kelly’s first season, but this won’t be Kelly’s pinnacle. He’s merely getting started.
Oh, the East deserves some credit.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer are each an improvement over their predecessor.
That Jeremy Pruitt and Will Muschamp were simultaneously employed as SEC head coaches remains an indictment of the profession.
Transfers helped East schools, too.
The Vols, South Carolina, and Kentucky each started a Power Five transfer quarterback.
And Georgia became college football’s preeminent force with a tried-and-true formula that flourished at Alabama: It stockpiled the most talent.
By combining elite recruiting with outstanding player development, Smart built Georgia into a powerhouse reminiscent of the heyday of Alabama’s dynasty.
This West vs. East argument is sunsetting.
After Oklahoma and Texas join, divisions will be eliminated in favor of a cohesive 16-team SEC. If divisions were gone today, Tennessee would face Georgia in Atlanta instead of LSU.
For 30 years, we’ve debated SEC division superiority, and for more than a decade, the debate was never very compelling. Since Urban Meyer’s exit from Florida, the West ruled the SEC.