SCOTT: Anyone's guess in the SEC East

The day after Auburn upset Florida the previous Saturday, Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer set the tone for his players in a team meeting.

"I actually said, 'War Damn Eagle,"' Fulmer said. "That's the first thing I said, to be honest with you."

 

The Vols got his point. With Florida losing, the SEC East Division race was once again wide open.

 

"It's a new ballgame in the SEC East race right now," Fulmer said. "We need to take advantage of it and do our part, and we can only do that by getting better where we need to get better and get ready and just focus on Georgia."

 

That's exactly what the Vols did last week. After an open date that gave Tennessee a chance to start over following a 2-2 start that included decisive road losses to Cal and Florida, the Vols did just that. The result was an impressive 35-14 victory over a Georgia team that had won three consecutive games at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

 

"We needed it," said senior quarterback Erik Ainge. "A win is a win, but when you win it like that ... 35-14 doesn't really show what the game was like."

 

What it was ... was dominating, with the Vols opening up a 28-0 halftime lead and rarely giving Georgia any breathing room in any phase of the game. The running game laid the foundation on offense with 190 yards, the defense held Georgia to 243 yards and the special teams blocked a punt without giving up any big plays.

 

For a team that had a lot to prove, the performance proved a lot. It might not make Tennessee the instant favorite to win the East or even solve all of the Vols', but it sure makes a statement that no one inside the football program is giving up.

 

"There was a lot of apprehension going in," Fulmer said. "They were excited and anxious to prove people who might have been doubting us wrong."

 

Every team talks about starting over after a poor start but not every team can do it. Auburn is doing it. If last Saturday was any indication the Vols are doing it, too. Suddenly, the parameters and the possibilities have changed.

 

"It was huge from a confidence standpoint and, as everybody knows, the SEC East is wide open," tailback Arian Foster said. "We'd had enough."

 

There's still a lot of work to do be and a lot of football to be played, but as the SEC enters the second half of the season this is how the East stands:

 

- South Carolina: At 3-1 in the SEC, the Gamecocks own victories over Georgia and Kentucky and a loss at top-ranked LSU. That still leaves big games Tennessee and Florida, two teams South Carolina can beat if it can continue to improve in the passing game and not lose any more stars (such as injured linebacker Jasper Brinkley).

As coach Steve Spurrier said when he took over at South Carolina three years ago, "why not us?"

 

"I feel really good," said redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Smelley, who has replaced struggling senior Blake Mitchell as the Gamecocks' starter. "I think we are controlling our own destiny."

 

 

- Kentucky: At 1-1 in the SEC, Kentucky still has six SEC teams left on its schedule.

 

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the next two opponents are LSU and Florida. Fortunately for the Wildcats, both games are at home. Then again, it might not matter where those games are played. Consecutive victories over Louisville and Arkansas were impressive, but as last week's 38-23 loss to South Carolina showed, the Wildcats won't win the East without a better defense or a near-perfect offense – or some combination of both.

 

"We're 5-1," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "We're in great position. We're still in the battle. If you told the team that they'd be 5-1 after six games, maybe they'd be a little disappointed, but you know that's a pretty good deal."

 

 

- Tennessee: A controversial story in last Saturday's Knoxville News-Sentinel quote several anonymous former players who said the program had slipped in recent years, questioned the direction of the program and wondered if Fulmer and his coaching staff could get things back on the right track. Fulmer, his coaches and his players have been under constant attack since a 59-20 loss at Florida on Sept. 15 and their response against Georgia was firm and demonstrative.

 

The temptation here is to get a little carried away and believe the Vols have cured all their ills but those former players, even the ones who refused to speak on the record, might be right about a few things. Still, the Georgia game says a lot about what the Vols can do when everyone is on the same page and committed to doing things the right way.

 

"Tennessee was 2-2, but they played some pretty doggone good teams," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Florida is a very good team, we all know that, and Cal is a pretty good team, we all know that. No one seems to want to give the other teams any credit. Tennessee is a good football team."

 

That could take the Vols a long way this fall. They can't change those two losses but they're capable of winning all of their remaining games.

 

"It's only a start for us - a step in the right direction," Fulmer said, "but I'm really proud to get this done.''

 

 

- Georgia: At 2-2, the Bulldogs are a tough team to read.

 

The team that lost to South Carolina and Tennessee didn't look anything like the team that won in overtime at Alabama or dominated the second half against Ole Miss. Richt said, "I believe we're a better football team than what showed up today," but believing it isn't enough.

 

With Florida and Auburn still left on the schedule, it's hard to imagine the Bulldogs coming out on top in the SEC East at this point.

 

"You really can't look at the big picture right now," safety Kelin Johnson said. "You have to look at what we have to do to be better as a football team. Every win counts right now. Taking control of the East, that's the last thing on our mind right now."  

 

 

- Florida: Oh yes, the Gators. Two weeks ago the Gators were commonly referred to as the "defending national champion Gators" or the "third-ranked Gators." Now, at 2-2 in the SEC, they are the "reeling Gators" following losses to Auburn and Florida.

 

Should any of us be that surprised. Between all the players lost from their national championship team, the lack of seniors and juniors and injuries, this is a young team – too young to make a run at another national title. An SEC East title may be too much to ask, too.

 

Then again, Auburn needed a last-second field goal to beat Florida and LSU had to convert two fourth-down runs on its game-winning drive against Florida and didn't take the lead until 1:09 remained in the game, so it's not like the Gators are falling apart.

 

"I do believe we're a better football team than we were at the beginning of the year," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I don't know if I've ever done this, but I guarantee we'll be back. The Florida Gators will be back. Smokin'."

 

At this point it might not matter how hot the Gators get. A look ahead suggests the Florida-Georgia on Oct. 27 has been replaced as the most important SEC East game on the remaining SEC schedule. Instead, the critical game could be Tennessee-South Carolina the same day in Knoxville.

 

"That should be a barn-burner," Richt said. "South Carolina's defense has been playing pretty well all year long and their offense is getting better and better. I think it's just going to be a really tight match up."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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