Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

UGA-State: Race for second place in the SEC will be run in Athens


The last SEC East team to win the conference title was Florida in 2008, when Tebow was a junior. Take out Georgia's epic near-miss against Alabama in 2012 and the closest -- closest, I say -- SEC title tilt over that span was Florida's 14-point loss to Bama in 2015. Since 2009, the East champ has averaged 3.4 losses; the West champ has averaged 1.1.

The SEC West: Clearly better, right? Uh, yeah. But now we ask: The SEC West without Alabama -- still clearly better?

Removing the Crimson Tide from any discussion of the West is akin to rating the Experience as a band if you take away Jimi Hendrix. (Though Mitch Mitchell was a mighty fine drummer.) But the second-best Western teams last season were -- pick one, or none -- Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, each of which finished 8-5. The teams expected to finish second and third in the West this time were LSU, which just lost to Mississippi State by 30, and Auburn, which couldn't score a touchdown against Clemson and led Mercer 17-10 with five minutes remaining.

This weekend brings an intriguing East-West game. Georgia, which should win its division, faces Mississippi State, which might finish second in its. With Jacob Eason presumably a non-participant, both quarterbacks will hail from Georgia -- Jake Fromm of Houston County, Nick Fitzgerald of Richmond Hill. (Three of the past seven SEC champs have had quarterbacks from this state. None played for Georgia.)

There have been years -- 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016 -- when the best team from the East mightn't have finished third in the West. Georgia could be stout enough to finish second in the other division, which might say more about the other division than it does Georgia. Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas could be looking for new coaches two months hence. Ole Miss has an interim coach. LSU has Ed Orgeron, who should never be more than an interim coach.

That leaves Mississippi State as the non-Bama bastion of Western continuity, which again says something. In eight seasons under Dan Mullen, the maroon Bulldogs have finished above fourth in their division once. They've won 10 games once, and that season concluded with them being routed by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. On paper, Mississippi State is no better than the sixth-best job in the SEC West. (Only Ole Miss is tougher, which is way tougher in the wake of Freeze.)

In its modest way, the Starkville program has become something of a beacon. No, Mullen hasn't beaten Alabama under Saban -- only two current SEC coaches have: Sumlin with Manziel and Malzahn on the Kick Six -- but if we ask today, "Who's the SEC's second-best coach?", the State man would get a lot of votes. Because who else is there? McElwain? Gus? Champion of Life Butch Jones?

(You know who might finish third on such a ballot? Derek Mason of Vanderbilt. Seriously.)

For all the SEC's chest-bumping, this is a one-horse town. No other Power Five league is so top-heavy. The rest of this conference has made moves and spent fortunes to emulate Saban -- three of his former deputies are SEC head coaches -- and nobody has gained an inch. Heck, the rest of the conference has lost ground. Alabama is Secretariat in the Belmont, everyone else running 30 lengths behind.

The league's second- and third-best teams could well be on display in Sanford Stadium on Saturday night. Of the two, Georgia (on talent) would figure to be the bigger threat to Alabama. Really, though, it has been a long time since any SEC program truly threatened the Tide. The biggest and brawniest conference has broken into two divisions, and we don't mean East/West. We mean Bama/non-Bama.


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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.