Why the SEC East no longer looks like the SEC Least

Florida's win over LSU is one reason why the SEC East is 3-1 against the West this year. [ BRONTE WITTPENN  |  Times ]
Florida's win over LSU is one reason why the SEC East is 3-1 against the West this year. [ BRONTE WITTPENN | Times ]
Published October 12 2018
Updated October 12 2018

When the Gators removed their list of SEC East championships from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium over the offseason, the official reason was that no other Florida team showed off its division titles.

There might as well have been another factor, too: Winning the SEC Least hasn't been worth celebrating.

Not anymore. The East's slump appears to be over.

One advanced metrics tool, the Sagarin ratings, ranks the East as the nation's No. 3 division, behind only the SEC West and Big Ten East. In another set of advanced metrics, S&P+, four East teams sit in the top 25: Georgia (third), Florida (14th), Missouri (23rd) and Kentucky (24th). If that holds, it'll be the first time since 2007 that four current East teams finished that high.

The rest of the division is better, too. Its worst team (according to S&P+) is No. 75 Vanderbilt. Compare that to last year, when the East had only one top-30 team (Georgia) and four that were 80th or worse.

On-field results back up the data. The East is 18-3 in games outside the division. Its 3-1 record against the West includes the Gators' back-to-back wins over LSU and Mississippi State. It has a shot at two more cross-division victories Saturday when the Bulldogs face LSU and South Carolina hosts Texas A&M.

"I don't know if the East is stronger than the West or the West is stronger than the East," said Gators coach Dan Mullen, who spent the nine previous seasons in the West at Mississippi State. "I just think the league as a whole has a tremendous amount of depth to it with a lot of good football teams."

The East is finally starting to add to that depth thanks in part to its coaching decisions.

Georgia's Kirby Smart was Nick Saban's longtime lieutenant at Alabama and has constructed the closest thing to 'Bama outside of Tuscaloosa. Mullen transformed Mississippi State from a doormat into a respectable program and seems to be on his way to returning the Gators to national prominence.

In the first five years after Kentucky hired him from Florida State, Mark Stoops went 26-36 and lost both bowl games. The Wildcats stuck with him, allowing him to continue to build the program his way. Now Kentucky has a realistic shot at its first 10-win season in 41 years.

"They made a commitment to Stoops, and that's important," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "Anytime you make a commitment to a coach and a program, you can move it."

Especially if that commitment comes with more funding.

In 2003, current SEC East programs averaged $8.8 million in football-related expenses, according to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. That's $1.4 million less than the Power Five average.

By 2016, East programs averaged $32.6 million in football-related expenses. That's $3.8 million more than the Power Five average.

The $45 million football-only complex Kentucky opened two years ago will soon be outdated in its own division. South Carolina and Missouri plan to open their facilities before the start of next season, and the Gators hope to break ground on their $65 million complex by early 2020.

"I just believe you're starting to see the investments in these programs…" Mason said. "When you do that, you can push your program in the direction it needs to go to be competitive."

There are also smaller, less expensive reasons for the East's rebound.

Georgia, Kentucky and Florida all have top-20 defenses. Every team but Kentucky returned its starting quarterback. Georgia's Jake Fromm is fourth nationally in passer rating (192.46), and UF's Feleipe Franks has a rating (139.31) that's 26 points higher than last year. Missouri's Drew Lock is one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation.

RELATED: The SEC reigns (again) thanks to college football's best quarterback collection

"I don't know how many quarterbacks are better than him in the country," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose No. 1 Crimson Tide will try to slow Lock down Saturday.

The final reason the East's renaissance is that success is cyclical.

UF, Tennessee and Georgia have all won national titles since 1980, and Mizzou finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll five times from 2007-14. Given the tradition, resources and recruiting grounds of those teams, prolonged mediocrity was unlikely.

All it took was the right coaches, finances and players to click for the SEC East to resume playing like an SEC Beast.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.