At the outset of the 2015 season, Florida heading back to Atlanta to appear in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2009 seemed like a pipe dream. Now, in the middle of October — even after a loss to LSU — it's both possible and logical, and even close to probable.
In fact, the Gators could possibly clinch the division on Halloween against Georgia.
Florida's lead in the SEC East was briefly a full two-game advantage late last week, after Auburn's win at Kentucky gave the Wildcats two SEC losses. From the moment that game ended until Treon Harris's final Hail Mary fluttered out of bounds in Baton Rouge, Florida was the only unbeaten team in the SEC East, and led Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee — essentially the only other SEC East teams still capable of winning the conference — by at least two games each. (Both South Carolina and Vanderbilt were winless in conference play, and the Gamecocks' narrow win over Vandy on Saturday only boosted them to 1-4 against SEC foes.)
And 10 points on Saturday were the difference between the Gators having an almost unassailable lead in the East and merely controlling their own destiny.
If Florida had beaten LSU, and Georgia — a 9-6 winner over Missouri — had lost to the Tigers, the Gators would have had at least a two-game lead on each of Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee and head-to-head victories against all three. No team but Florida could have controlled its own destiny in the East — all six other teams would have needed substantial help to prevent the Gators from taking the throne — and the Gators would have only needed to beat any two of Georgia, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina to assure themselves of a trip to Atlanta.
Instead, Florida is now 4-1 in conference play, and Georgia is 3-2. But Florida still controls its own destiny in the East, while Georgia's shot at winning the division still requires some help. While Florida's path is simple — if the Gators win out, they'll win the East outright, with a 7-1 record no other East team could match — Georgia's is slightly more complex, and involves a Tennessee loss.
The Bulldogs' only route to a 6-2 SEC record includes wins over Florida and Kentucky, and the Bulldogs would win the East because of their head-to-head win over Florida (just as in 2012, when both teams were 7-1 in SEC play) if they and the Gators were the only two 6-2 teams.
But Tennessee can tie both of those teams at 6-2 in SEC play, and owns a win over Georgia. And if Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee all finish at 6-2 after Georgia beats Florida, then the SEC's divisional tiebreakers wouldn't just come into play — they might be used down to the fifth tiebreaker, with all three teams possessing 5-1 records against the SEC East, sweeping East teams that aren't the other two teams in that three-way tie, and going 1-1 against SEC West opponents that would stalemate things after the second through fourth tiebreakers.
That fifth tiebreaker is this:
E. Combined record against all common non divisional teams
By my reading — which could very well be wrong, as a commenter noted! — it would give the East title to Florida in the hypothetical scenario laid out above.
I believe "common non divisional teams" only applies to SEC West teams, and Florida doesn't share a common opponent with either Georgia or Tennessee outside of the SEC East this year. The Gators played LSU and Mississippi from the West, while Tennessee has played Arkansas and will play Alabama, and Georgia has played Alabama and will play Auburn; the Vols can only get to 6-2 in SEC play by beating Alabama, so Tennessee would necessarily have a better combined record than Georgia against the schools' only common non-divisional team in this hypothetical.
That would, I think, break the tie between Georgia and Tennessee, and put Florida and Tennessee in a two-way tie; thanks to Florida's head-to-head win, the Gators would obviously advance to Atlanta.
So what Georgia has to hope for is straightforward, if somewhat less likely than what the Gators are hoping for: Tennessee losing at some point while the Dawgs win out. Fortunately for Georgia (and those who don't like tiebreaker-induced migraines), that seems pretty likely to happen soon: The Vols trek to Alabama this weekend, where they haven't won since 2003.
A Tennessee loss in that game would make the SEC East, for all intents and purposes, a two-team race, and would give Georgia a chance to all but seal out every other SEC East team with a win in Jacksonville.
The only other teams that could challenge for the East without total chaos breaking out are Kentucky, which has also yet to play either Georgia or Tennessee; Missouri, which would need an extraordinary amount of help to win the East, thanks to losses to Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky (Missouri essentially needs Florida to lose to both Vanderbilt and South Carolina); and Vanderbilt, which needs to win out and get some losses from both Florida and Georgia to get back into contention.
Given all that, Florida should be the favorite to win the East, because its only real hurdle is Georgia. Let's put the SEC East's remaining games against conference foes (not including byes and non-conference competition) in table format.
|Week 8||Week 9||Week 10||Week 11||Week 12||Week 13|
|Florida||vs. Georgia||Vanderbilt||at South Carolina|
|Georgia||vs. Florida||Kentucky||at Auburn|
|Kentucky||at Mississippi State||Tennessee||at Georgia||at Vanderbilt|
|Tennessee||at Alabama||at Kentucky||South Carolina||at Missouri||Vanderbilt|
|Missouri||at Vanderbilt||Mississippi State||Tennessee||at Arkansas|
|South Carolina||at Texas A&M||at Tennessee||Florida|
|Vanderbilt||Missouri||Florida||at Kentucky||Texas A&M||at Tennessee|
If that looks very favorable to Florida, it's because it is: The Gators' only remaining SEC games come after a bye and against the conference's two worst teams; one of them is not only at home, but is Florida's homecoming game and the Gators' first home game in a full month, so there's little doubt The Swamp will be fired up for it.
Three things have to happen this weekend for the Gators to clinch the East with a win against Georgia: If Tennessee loses at Alabama and Kentucky loses at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt loses to Missouri this week, the Gators could clinch the SEC East merely by beating Georgia in Jacksonville. Those three results would ensure that Florida could lose to Vanderbilt and South Carolina and, at worst, fall into a three-way tie for the SEC East lead with two other teams it had beaten (Georgia and Missouri) this season, thus winning any tiebreakers.
If you want a really compelling table demonstrating Florida's chances of winning the East, though, it's not enough to just list the games — we have to use win probabilities. These come from Football Study Hall's updated team profiles, which I believe derive the win probabilities from S&P+ (and not F/+, which uses S&P+ as a component), and the Winning Out Chance is just the compound probability of independent outcomes.
|Week 8||Week 9||Week 10||Week 11||Week 12||Week 13||Winning Out Chance|
Not only does Florida have the best chance of winning any one game when it meets Vanderbilt, it has about twice as good a chance of winning out as Georgia does — and only Georgia can top the Gators simply by winning out and having one other game (Alabama-Tennessee) go its way. The chances of that happening? 18.3 percent.
Consider what Tennessee needs to win the East: Florida essentially has to lose twice to avoid any potential tiebreaker, and the Vols need to win out. The probability of Florida losing to Georgia and South Carolina while Tennessee wins out is a minuscule 0.4 percent — and this is despite Tennessee likely being favored in all but one of its remaining SEC games.
Kentucky would have to win out and have Florida lose twice, too, and that's close to a 1-in-1,000 shot. Any other team winning out and getting enough help to win the East is so unlikely it's about a 1-in-10,000 chance at best.
To clinch in Jacksonville, Florida just has to have Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt lose this weekend, then beat Georgia. The probability of that is a cool 16.2 percent, almost as good as Georgia's best-case scenario.
But even if not all three of this weekend's games go the Gators' preferred way, Florida can secure the ability to clinch in either of their November SEC games by beating Georgia. And win probability suggests Florida's chances of beating both Georgia and Vanderbilt are 52.5 percent.
So, yeah: Florida's got as great a shot at the East as it has had this decade — and it largely boils down to what Florida does in Jacksonville.
The Gators' mission over the next two weeks is crystal clear: Beat Georgia.
Note, October 25: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Florida also needed Vanderbilt to lose on October 24 to clinch the SEC East with a win against Georgia. I regret and apologize for the previous assertion that Florida only needed Kentucky and Tennessee to lose.