Breaking down the road to the SEC East title
Florida took care of Vanderbilt on Saturday despite dealing with a number of injuries and some penalty issues, thanks in a large part to Jeff Driskel’s 3 rushing touchdowns and his record-breaking 177 yards rushing, the most for any Florida quarterback in history (yes, even more than Tim Tebow himself, who’s highest total was 166 yards). Shortly after the Gators wrapped up their game in Nashville, South Carolina fell to LSU in Baton Rouge to take their first loss of the season. That leaves Florida on top of the SEC East standings at 5-0 with three games to play as they are now the only East team without a loss. There are really only three teams in the mix at this point as Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Missouri all have only one SEC victory or less. That leaves Florida in first place, followed by South Carolina and then Georgia.
With the picture becoming a little more clear, the question is this: how can Florida assure itself of an SEC East title and a berth in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta at the end of the season? The easy and simple answer is to win out. Victories over the remaining SEC opponents of South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri will guarantee the East title for Florida. This much is certain, just as it has been since the beginning of the season; if you win all of your SEC games, you go to Atlanta. But of course, things don’t always work out so perfectly. The next two weeks are the most important of the season for Florida thanks to the back-to-back matchups with the other two contenders in the East. Here’s a quick look at those games, as well as a look at the remaining SEC schedule for both South Carolina and Georgia.
South Carolina at Florida, October 20th
The winner of this game will be in sole possession of first place in the East. If Florida wins, they’ll remain unbeaten and will hand South Carolina their second SEC loss, all but eliminating them from the hunt for the East title. A South Carolina victory would be crushing for Florida, as that would give both teams one SEC loss but South Carolina would take first place due to their head-to-head victories over both Florida and Georgia. Florida would need South Carolina to lose to Arkansas or Tennessee to be able to retake the East lead. The Gamecocks have played very well at home, so the chances of them taking a loss to either of those teams in Columbia are highly unlikely.
Florida vs. Georgia, October 27th (in Jacksonville)
Following a win over USC: If Florida enters the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party unbeaten, then a victory over the Dawgs in Jacksonville would clinch the East for the Gators. That would put Florida at 7-0 with only a game against Missouri remaining, while Georgia and South Carolina would each have two losses. If Florida loses to Georgia, then Georgia would be in first place (assuming Georgia beat Kentucky on 10/20 because, well, Kentucky) as they would be tied with Florida at one loss each but would hold the head-to-head tie-breaker. Just like with the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs have an easy remaining SEC schedule with a home game against Ole Miss and a road match at Auburn. Florida does not want to find themselves relying on either of those teams to beat Georgia to be able to win the East.
Following a loss to USC: A victory over Georgia would basically eliminate the Bulldogs from contention, but it only does enough for Florida to keep hope alive for Arkansas or Tennessee to upset the Gamecocks. A loss to Georgia practically eliminates Florida from the race as they would need Georgia and South Carolina to lose both of their remaining SEC games which will not happen.
There are all sorts of fun tie-breakers that go into determining the division champion if more than one team finishes with the same record (including certain scenarios that involve going to the BCS rankings to break ties), but the most important tie-breaker is head-to-head victories. That is why the next two weeks are so crucial for Florida. Taking a loss to another division contender is almost like taking two losses at once by losing the head-to-head tie-breaker.