Tennessee's path to the SEC Championship Game appears particularly perilous. Arkansas (Nov. 10) returns most of the lineup that trounced the Vols 31-14 last year in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks are coming off a 541-yard rushing performance vs. South Carolina, and the Vols have a weak run defense. Moreover, wideout Marcus Monk – who burned UT for eight catches, 137 yards and two TDs last season – is back from a preseason knee injury. This shapes up as a very difficult game for Tennessee.
Vanderbilt (Nov. 17) prevailed on its last visit to Knoxville and recently defeated South Carolina more soundly in Columbia (17-6) than the Vols did in Knoxville (27-24 in overtime). The Commodores are no pushovers and they always get up for Tennessee.
Kentucky (Nov. 24) obviously poses a tremendous threat at Commonwealth Stadium, where the Big Blue upset a top-ranked LSU team on Oct. 13. The explosive Wildcats could score at will against a Vol defense that already has been torched by Florida (59-20) and Alabama (41-17). Throw in the fact UK is looking to end a 22-game losing streak in the series – longest in the NCAA after Navy beat Notre Dame on Saturday – and it's a safe bet the Vols will get Kentucky's best shot.
Georgia's path to Atlanta is only slightly easier than Tennessee's. Like the Vols, the Bulldogs have been wildly erratic this fall, playing like champs one weekend and playing like chumps the next. How else can you explain trouncing Florida (42-30) three weeks after being trounced by Tennessee (35-14)?
Auburn (Nov. 10) might be playing the best football of any team in the SEC right now. The Tigers have won six of their last seven games, with the only setback coming by six points at the hands of talent-rich LSU in Baton Rouge. Tommy Tuberville's team has won 13 of its last 15 SEC road games, so it won't be intimidated by facing Georgia at Sanford Stadium in Athens. The Bulldogs will be hard-pressed to win this game.
Kentucky (Nov. 17) will be a tough test for Georgia, as well. The Wildcats have enough weapons to neuter the Dawgs, who struggled to stop Troy in a 44-34 victory on Saturday. Georgia is simply too erratic to beat Auburn AND Kentucky.
So, what happens when Tennessee and Georgia suffer another loss each? Most likely, there will be a three-team tie atop the East ... possibly a four-team tie. Florida (4-3) and Kentucky (2-3) have a chance to finish 5-3, as well.
Here are some possible scenarios:
1. Tennessee loses to Arkansas, then beats Vanderbilt and Kentucky ... The Vols probably share first place with Georgia and Florida, assuming the Gators win at South Carolina this Saturday. The SEC's first tie-breaker is head-to-head competition but the Vols, Dawgs and Gators would all be 1-1 against one another. The second tiebreaker is divisional record. Georgia would drop out of the running by virtue of a 3-2 record in SEC East play, so Tennessee and Florida, both 4-1 within the division, would advance to tie-breaker No. 3 (which, frankly, is too convoluted for me to understand).
2. Tennessee beats Arkansas and Vandy, then loses to Kentucky ... The Big Orange most likely shares first place with Florida and the winner of the Nov. 17 game between Georgia and Kentucky – all at 5-3. Florida's 4-1 record in the division would send the Gators to Atlanta because UT, Georgia and Kentucky would have at least two losses each within the division. Should South Carolina beat Florida this weekend in Columbia, however, the Vols likely would share the East's top spot with the Georgia-Kentucky winner. If it's Georgia, UT would reach the SEC Championship Game by virtue of a head-to-head win vs. the Dawgs. Should Kentucky beat Georgia, however, it would move on to Atlanta by virtue of a head-to-head win vs. Tennessee.
3. Tennessee loses to Arkansas, beats Vandy, then loses to Kentucky … The Big Orange could still finish in a five-way tie with Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia – all at 4-4 in league play. For that to happen, though, Florida would have to lose at South Carolina (Nov. 10), Kentucky would have to lose at Vanderbilt (Nov. 10) and Georgia would have to lose to both Auburn (Nov. 10) and Kentucky (Nov. 17). South Carolina would advance to the SEC Championship by virtue of a 3-1 head-to-head record against the other four co-champs. Florida and UT would be 2-2, Georgia 1-3.
Given how crazy SEC competition has been this season, seeing a 4-4 team play for the league title would be strangely appropriate.