It’s Alabama and then everybody else in the conference.
That’s what the national perception of the SEC has become this year. The Crimson Tide is 10-0 and No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, but the next closest team in the SEC is Auburn at 15. Four of the SEC West teams (out of seven) are ranked inside the top-25, while just Tennessee (19) and the Florida Gators (23) remain ranked from the East.
Alabama has looked every bit of the best team in the country this season but they’re not alone. The SEC West has held its own, even if the East hasn’t been able to keep pace. Florida head coach Jim McElwain acknowledged the gap between the two divisions following a 31-10 loss to Arkansas, Florida’s fourth consecutive road loss to a SEC West opponent.
“Pretty big,” McElwain said of the gap between the SEC West and the SEC East. “You know as a Florida Gators, it is our responsibility to get it closer.”
Florida hasn’t done its part. The last time the Gators won a road game against a SEC West opponent it was at Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s first start for the Aggies. Since then the Gators have lost twice at LSU, once at Alabama and this season at Arkansas. The Gators have given up an average 31.25 points per game in those four losses and have been outscored 125-65. Florida will get another opportunity this weekend when they hit the road to play LSU.
“The SEC West has just been better,” former Florida Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow last week, “I think the East has to step it up.”
This season the East is 2-9 against the West with just three cross-divisional games to be played but the gap isn’t new. Jordan McPherson of the Miami Herald broke the numbers down over the last decade and they’re alarming.
The SEC West has won eight of the last 10 SEC Championships (Florida has won two). Since 2006 the West has won 63% (117-68) of its matchups against Eastern foes and only Georgia (19-11) has a winning record in cross-divisional matchups. The Gators are 14-17 against the West in the last decade but have are 4-9 since 2011 and haven’t won in Tiger Stadium since 2009.
“It’s mind boggling, man, to me. I can’t figure it for the life of me,” former LSU Tiger defensive tackle Marcus Spears said. “Then you think about where these schools are placed, right? We’re here in Florida. There’s so many football players here in the state of Florida that either should be going here or Florida State. Not that the programs are not successful, there’s been a tremendous amount of success.”
Jim McElwain is right. The University of Florida should be the flag carrier of the SEC East. They haven’t been in some time but will have the chance to do that this weekend in Baton Rouge. If the Gators can end their SEC West road skid on Saturday McElwain will become the first head coach to take his team to the SEC Championship in each of his first two seasons. Nobody will give the Gators a chance against Alabama but it would show that the Gators are heading in the right direction.
A good showing against LSU this weekend could narrow the gap in the minds of the media and fans. A loss, however? Another loss to a team from the West and the gap will continue to stretch to a point where one will begin to wonder if it’s a margin that is simply here to stay.