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SEC East is anyone's to own

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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When the first BCS standings of the 2007 season were released, five of the SEC East division’s six teams — South Carolina (6), Kentucky (7), Florida (15), Georgia (20) and Tennessee (21) — were in the Top 25. When the 2010 season’s first BCS standings were released on Sunday night, not a single team from the SEC East was found in the top 20.

Just one squad — South Carolina at No. 21 — even made the top 25.

POLL

  • Which team will win the SEC East?
    • South Carolina
    • Florida
    • Georgia
    • Tennessee
    • Kentucky
    • Vanderbilt

And thus has been the 2010 campaign for the once-mighty SEC East. Long considered the tougher of the two divisions in the top conference in all of college football, the SEC East has not one of its six teams above .500 in conference play seven weeks into the season..

SEC Beast? Funny. Try SEC Least.

In each of the past two years, Florida — with just one combined regular-season loss in SEC play in 2008 and 2009 — had all but clinched the division by this point in the season. Following Saturday’s games, all six of the division’s teams are still mathematically alive and capable of making it to Atlanta for the 2010 SEC Championship Game.

Vanderbilt, with just one conference victory on the year, can still technically win out and capture its first division championship. Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC game this season and yet it's amazingly somehow still in the hunt.

When Denver Broncos rookie Tim Tebow scored the first touchdown of his NFL career on Sunday afternoon, you couldn’t help but imagine the packs of Gators fans across the country shedding tears and longing for the services of the longtime object of their affection. To be certain, the P.T. (Post Tebow) Era in Gainesville has gone about as poorly as one could have ever imagined.

With Saturday’s embarrassing 10-7 loss to Mississippi State at home, the Gators (4-3, 2-3 SEC) lost consecutive home games for the first time since 2003. They’ve now dropped three in a row for the first time since the 1999 season, while Sunday also marked the first time in Urban Meyer’s six years at Florida in which the Gators were not in the Top 25 of either of the two major polls.

For what it’s worth, Ron Zook never lost three games in a row at Florida.

With Tebow’s longtime backup John Brantley taking over the reins this fall, the transition was supposed to be a manageable one, if not a seamless passing of the torch. It’s been anything but. Blame, however, cannot solely be placed on the first-year starter. A highly decorated pocket passer out of high school in Ocala, Fla., Brantley has long been lauded for having an arm even better than the Gators legend that preceded him. Hardly the athlete Tebow was, Brantley is a traditional pocket passer. And yet he’s still being asked to run and operate Urban Meyer’s spread offense as if he were a fleet-footed quarterback like Tebow or Alex Smith. Single-wing formations, designed quarterback runs and option plays? That’s not John Brantley’s game. Cam Newton’s? Yes, but that’s a whole other story.

Florida’s offense ranks 91st in the nation, and Brantley has thrown just six touchdown passes through seven games. The receivers have been dropping balls all season, the offensive line has been porous and the play-calling has been, at times, downright atrocious. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio had been feeling the heat from an unhappy Gators fan base all season, but the temperature hit new highs this weekend following the most curious of play calls on Saturday evening. After a timeout and a fourth-and-1 at Florida’s own 39-yard line, Addazio called an end around to freshman Robert Clark. Just Clark’s first carry, he was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. The Swamp had never been quieter.

"There’s enough blame to go everywhere,’’ Urban Meyer said following the 10-7 loss to his former offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen.

Mullen, meanwhile, the winner of three straight games, told reporters: “The game shouldn’t have been as close as it was. We had some opportunities to put the game away early and put the game away late. We made some mistakes offensively and put ourselves in a bad situation.”

In other words, “Florida’s not very good.”

And yet, for as bad as UF has looked this season and for as inept as the once high-powered offense was at home on Saturday, the Gators still control their own future in the SEC East.

South Carolina was the hot squad du jour in the SEC following a 35-21 thumping of then-No.1 Alabama two weeks ago. On Saturday night, the Gamecocks squandered an 18-point halftime lead and fell to unranked Kentucky in the most peculiar of fashions.

Kentucky rallied for 21 unanswered second half points and took a 31-28 lead with 1:15 remaining, but the Gamecocks still found themselves in good shape with just 15 seconds left on the clock. At the Wildcats' 20-yard-line with the offense moving, Spurrier called a questionable timeout, leaving South Carolina with zero left in its holster. On the next play, instead of positioning for the game-tying Spencer Lanning field-goal attempt, quarterback Stephen Garcia heaved a pass into double coverage. Interception. Game over.

Kentucky, with the win, notched its first victory in SEC play on the year. In another season, a division title after a 1-3 start in conference play would be a ludicrous thought. In 2010? In the SEC Least? It’s more than possible.

“Our plan is to win the East, and we’re still in that hunt," Kentucky senior receiver Chris Matthews said following Saturday’s game. "No matter how we do it, we’re going to do it. We’re going to find a way to get that done."

At 1-3 in SEC play with Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt left on its conference slate, Kentucky is alive and well.

South Carolina (4-2, 2-2), meanwhile, is still in the division’s driver’s seat, but the Gamecocks still have Arkansas and a trip to Florida ahead on the schedule. They could be playing those games without the services of injured freshman phenom Marcus Lattimore at running back.

The one team in the SEC East that’s looked downright dominant in each of the past two weeks? Mark Richt’s boys down in Athens. Yes, Georgia, despite starting the season with a 1-4 record (Richt’s career-worst loss total is five) has now won two straight over SEC East opponents and done so in convincing fashion. A.J. Green is back, the defense is coming together and the Georgia faithful that were calling for Richt’s head after a bad Oct. 2 loss to Colorado have relented for the time being.

On Saturday, the Dawgs beat Vanderbilt, 43-0, and dispatched Tennessee, 41-14, the week prior. If Georgia wins out and South Carolina loses two of its next four conference games, Georgia is going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

Vandy and Tennessee -- a combined 1-5 in SEC play on the year -- are both still mathematically alive to win the division, too.

Seven weeks through the 2010 season, the SEC East is completely wide open and anybody’s to own.

Some would call this parity, a product of better recruiting, coaching and all-around play from the division’s lesser teams.

I’ll just call it mediocrity.

And that’s being nice.

Tagged: Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, John Brantley

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