SEC East will try to end West’s long football title run

July 12, 2017 GMT

HOOVER, Ala. • Atlanta Falcons chief executive Rich McKay visited with reporters at Tuesday’s Southeastern Conference Media Days session to discuss his shiny new $1.6 billion downtown bird’s nest, also known as Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Scheduled to open next month, the Falcons’ new home features a seven-story video column made up entirely of high definition TV screens … a 360-degree, 63,000-square foot halo video board that encircles the stadium’s retractable roof … 24 bars and restaurants … ridiculously cheap concession prices … and 1,264 beer taps.

What McKay failed to mention is which SEC East fan base will drown its sorrows in those moderately priced beers come Dec. 2.

Yes, the SEC championship game is moving from the Georgia Dome to Atlanta’s shimmery new facility. But unless the league’s balance of power shifts sides this fall, the results will be more of the same.

It’s been nine years since a team from the SEC East Division won the conference championship game, not since Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow guided Florida to the 2008 title over Alabama. Since that game the SEC has added two schools while the other dozen teams have undergone 20 head-coaching changes. SEC West teams have since captured five national championships, and four West players have won the Heisman Trophy.

Maybe the streak ends this year when the division champions collide in Mercedes Benz Stadium. For that to happen, whether it’s two-time East champion Florida or Georgia or Tennessee, or a surprise contender such as South Carolina or, you never know, Missouri, the East champion must go through Alabama — or whichever West team topples the three-time defending SEC champion Crimson Tide.

“To finish,” Florida defensive back Marcell Harris said, “that’s our biggest goal.”

Finishing was easier said than done for the Gators the last two years in Atlanta, where they lost to Alabama 29-15 and 54-16.

But long before the Gators or Bulldogs or other East hopefuls can dream about beating Alabama — the Tide have won 18 straight games over East opponents, dating to 2010 — someone has to emerge from a division loaded with questions.

Florida’s Jim McElwain is the SEC’s first coach to win division titles in each of his first two seasons, but the Gators have done it with a stagnant offense. McElwain has added Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire to compete for the quarterback job with 2016 starter Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks but hasn’t settled on a starter. On defense, Florida must replace seven NFL draft picks. Should the Gators still be favored to win the East?

“Why wouldn’t we?” Harris snapped at the question, saying it’s “disrespectful” to pick any other team in the division.

“If you don’t pick us, I mean, what team wouldn’t want to be picked to go to the SEC championship?” he continued. “We’ve proven it year after year after year that we win the SEC East championship and make it to the SEC championship (game). At the same time, people are going to pick who they want to pick and we can’t change their decisions and opinions.”

Then perhaps Georgia should be the choice. It’s been five years since the Bulldogs made the short drive to Atlanta to play for the league championship and 12 years since their last SEC title. Last fall, Kirby Smart’s first season as coach was uninspiring, an 8-5 finish with losses to Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Georgia Tech. Unlike Tennessee’s Butch Jones, who on Monday wouldn’t consider his team’s nine-win 2016 a disappointment, Smart took a different approach Tuesday. A former Georgia player and Alabama assistant under Saban, Smart understands eight wins and a Liberty Bowl victory are below Georgia’s standards.

“We don’t want players who don’t expect to win,” Smart said. “When you come to the University of Georgia … you’re going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country. We expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field. And we have not performed on the field from the level we should. That’s something we have to continue to improve on.”

There’s some history on the side of a Bulldogs revival. In 1997, Jim Donnan’s second season at Georgia produced 10 wins and a New Year’s Day win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. In 2002, Mark Richt’s second season at Georgia produced 13 wins, an SEC championship and a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State.

The Bulldogs came Tuesday talking about unfinished business. It’s why running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel passed on the NFL draft for one more season in Athens.

“Our ultimate goal is to get to Atlanta,” Michel said.

But should the Bulldogs be the division favorite when the media’s preseason SEC projections come out Thursday?

“Not at all,” Michel said. “The SEC has great football, great competition. Whoever plays the best and competes the best will go out and get it.”