HOOVER, Ala. — Don’t fault Roquan Smith for not knowing the answer, even if the question wasn’t especially tricky. Do you know, he was asked, the last SEC East team to win the league?
“Just off the top of my head?” the Georgia linebacker asked. “Actually, I’d have to think about it.”
It was Florida, back in 2008.
The Gators went on to win the BCS national championship. Tim Tebow was a football player at the time. And Smith, who will be a junior this fall, was a sixth-grader.
Yeah. It was a different world.
In December, when Alabama pounded Florida 54-16, it was the eighth consecutive championship for the SEC West. And the score — well, it seemed indicative of the severe imbalance, over the last few years, between not just the best teams in each division, but the divisions themselves.
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It’s not only the championship games. The SEC East’s overall record against the West since 2012, when the league expanded from 12 schools to 14, is 24-51.
“Give me that again?” said Florida offensive lineman Martez Ivey.
That’s 24-51, Martez. A .320 winning percentage. Which is why even as the SEC West developed a reputation as the roughest, toughest division in college football … well, SEC folk don’t talk much about the East. Frankly, it’s amazing that the division’s historic powers Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have struggled as much as they have, and all at the same time.
It’s no coincidence that the SEC West’s reign began when Nick Saban got things cranked up at Alabama. But not long after that, Urban Meyer left Florida and retired from football (if only briefly). Tennessee has struggled to regain traction since the firing of Phillip Fulmer.
In 2012, Georgia was 5 yards away in the final seconds from beating Alabama in the SEC championship game. Given what the Crimson Tide then did to Notre Dame in the BCS title game, it’s very probable the Bulldogs would have blown out the Irish, too — and what happens if that happens?
But that seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Mark Richt was forced out after the 2015 season. It’s way too early to assess Kirby Smart, who’s set to start his second season. As he tries to build the program in the mold of Saban, his mentor, the Bulldogs have recruited well but are just getting started. At least Smart knows the standard:
“When you come to the University of Georgia,” Smart said, “the expectation is to win championships.”
But these days, no one really expects the SEC East to win them. After Georgia’s near miss, SEC newcomer Missouri won the next two East titles, but was blown out by Alabama in the SEC championship game. Florida has won the last two — and then been handled twice by Alabama in the SEC championship game. Stop if this sounds repetitive, but the gap only seems to have grown.
“They’re right now at the top,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said, “and, you know, it’s up to the rest of us to go get them.”
And while that’s true when measuring Alabama against any other SEC opponent, the overall imbalance between the West vs. the East remains a sore spot — especially if you’re talking to, say, guys affiliated with the East.
“You hear that,” Smith said. “I don’t pay much attention to that. We control what we control. It is what it is.”
And what it is, of course, is a dilemma.
“I’d love to give you a great answer on that one,” McElwain said, “but I’m not sure I have one. … You’ve got to go win those games.
“I don’t know. Some very good ball squads out there.”
Just maybe, Florida could be one of those. The Gators open the season against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. It’s the kind of high-profile matchup that brings luster to the winner — and to its conference, or in this case even to a division. The last time the teams met was the 2016 Citrus Bowl, when Michigan blew out the Gators 41-7.
McElwain, who’s set to start his third season, might finally have a quarterback (or quarterbacks, although Malik Zaire transferred in from Notre Dame, he’s still calling it a four-way competition). Though there’s obviously more to it than this — Florida has to replace eight defensive starters — mediocre quarterback play has been a real issue throughout the division; the last seven all-SEC quarterbacks have been from the West.
“If you’ve got one of those, you’ve got a real chance,” McElwain said.
For the SEC East to have a chance, its historic powers have to rebound. But it’s worth noting that after losing nine of their first 10 games against the West last season, SEC East teams closed the regular season strong, winning four of five. That includes Florida’s loss to Bama in the SEC championship, of course. But while everybody’s chasing ‘Bama, the finish at least provided hope that the divisional imbalance might close some.
But let’s try that trick question one more time: Hey Martez, can you name the last SEC East team to win the conference? The Florida junior paused for a long moment.
“I want to say it was Georgia,” he said.
Given the right answer — Gators, Tebow, BCS titles and so on — he shook his head.
“I really started watching SEC championships when Tebow played,” he said. “That’s what made me a Florida fan.”
Ivey stopped, reflecting on 2008, when he was an impressionable 13-year-old, and then asked:
“That was the last year? That was the last year?”
But what no one can answer is this: Which is the next East team to become SEC champion? And when?