The SEC West remains the most dominant division in the most dominant conference in college football, and it doesn’t appear as though that will change anytime soon.
Alabama and LSU will likely enter the upper echelon of most preseason polls and Arkansas is bound to make another run. Newcomer Texas A&M hopes to have an impact early, and Auburn should rebound. The Tide even signed the best recruiting class in the land, which bodes well for a team looking to win three national championships in four years.
But there is another side to the SEC, the under-the-radar East, recently down and largely written off, but poised to make a miraculous comeback.
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South Carolina, the 2010 East champ, should be strong again. But the two heavyweights most likely to challenge the winner of the West for a shot at the BCS title are 2011 East champion Georgia and the last team from the Eastern Division to hoist a BCS trophy, the Florida Gators.
It doesn’t hurt that the Dawgs and Gators hate each other with a hot-blooded, snake-venom, spit-on-your-grandma kind of hate. Every coach and player in Athens lives to one-up Florida and vice versa. So, as steel sharpens steel, the thought of losing to Georgia again has the Gators upping their game, just as the prospect of another bitter defeat in Jacksonville has the Dawgs working harder than ever.
The biggest improvements for both come on defense. Scout.com ranked Florida fifth in the nation in recruiting this year with 13 four- and five-star signees, seven in the top-100 in the nation: most coming on the defensive side of the ball. Jonathan Bullard, a five-star defensive-end from Shelby, NC leads the pack, but there is also defensive end Alex McCalister and defensive tackle Dante Phillips.
“When you have a head coach like coach Muschamp, who does a great job with the players and has a great knowledge of the game and really recruits as hard as anyone, it makes my job kind of easy,” Gators linebacker coach and top recruiter D.J. Durkin said. “I am very, very fortunate to be recruiting at a place like Florida. There is obviously great football tradition here. We play in a great football stadium in the best conference in the world. I think the place really sells itself.”
Georgia has some strong selling points as well, not the least of which is defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the emotional soul of the team. The foul-mouthed, hot-headed antithesis of coach Mark Richt, Grantham has returned Georgia to the Junkyard Dawg traditions of past decades and has fans making fond comparisons to former beloved defensive coordinator Erk Russell.
The Dawgs also have 10 starters returning from one of the best defenses in the nation a year ago. Among them: Jarvis Jones, Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Shawn Williams, all who should be better next fall than they were last season.
“The whole defense, it’s going to be one of our goals to finish as the No. 1 defense in the country this year,” Williams said.
Goals don’t get much loftier, but with an impressive incoming class, including linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons and nose tackle John Atkins, Williams’ comments don’t sound like idle bluster.
Then there was this from a guy with one of the greatest names in football, Bacarri Rambo: “God put it on my heart that I need to stay my senior year so I can get better and improve at the small things that I need to and just be a complete safety. I’m going to do my best this offseason to try to get better, work hard, be a leader and hopefully help my team get to Miami (for the BCS Championship) next year.”
Both the Gators and Dawgs should be better on offense as well, but the biggest improvements will be on stopping others. It seems that the best teams in the East have finally figured out what the West discovered a long time ago. Defense wins championships.
They have a lot to prove before anyone will lump them in with Alabama and LSU, but Georgia and Florida are back on the road to relevance.