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The SEC East is Florida’s mess to clean up

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The Gators have a great shot at winning a second straight divisional title.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You may not believe this, but: The SEC East is bad.

Florida sits atop the division, 6-1 and 4-1 in conference play. Its lone loss is by 10 points on the road against desperate-to-end-a-streak Tennessee, with a backup quarterback; if not for the 21-0 lead Florida had in that game, it would hardly be a bad loss.

The Gators are also the only SEC East team with fewer than three losses on the year, fewer than two conference losses, and a positive scoring margin in conference play. Florida is one of three SEC East teams with a positive scoring margin, period — and the Gators have outscored their seven foes by a 206-82 count, while Tennessee is ahead on aggregate by just one point, 234-233, and Missouri — winless and outscored by almost 100 points in conference play — is still in the black for the season, at 265-243, thanks largely to stomping Eastern Michigan and Delaware State by a combined 140-21 count.

Florida is the SEC East’s only ranked team in the polls and the College Football Playoff rankings, and Tennessee is the only other East team even receiving votes. The Gators sit at No. 9 in S&P+; Tennessee, the next East representative in those rankings, is at No. 32, and Missouri — again, winless in SEC play — is third in the division — at No. 55.

Even the metrics that don’t like the Gators as much still prefer them to the rest of the East. Florida may be only No. 15 in ESPN’s mostly inscrutable Football Power Index, but Tennessee is still behind Florida, at No. 19, and the rest of the division is again well behind the Gators and Vols, with No. 68 Kentucky once more taking third in the seven-team cesspool that is the SEC East.

So, yeah, the East is a mess. But Florida’s poised to clean up.

Let’s look at the win probabilities for the remaining SEC games featuring East teams, via Football Study Hall’s indispensible advanced statistical profiles.

SEC Record November 5 November 12 November 19 November 26
Florida 4-1 at Arkansas, 81% South Carolina, 94% at LSU, 47%
Kentucky 4-2 Georgia, 60% at Tennessee, 26%

Tennessee 2-3
Kentucky, 74% Missouri, 69% at Vanderbilt, 79%
Georgia 2-4 at Kentucky, 40% Auburn, 9%

South Carolina 2-4 Missouri, 38% at Florida, 6%

Vanderbilt 1-3 at Auburn, 2% at Missouri, 22% Mississippi, 13% Tennessee, 21%
Missouri 0-4 at South Carolina, 62% Vanderbilt, 78% at Tennessee, 31% Arkansas, 59%

What you should get from that is that Florida isn’t just well out ahead of the pack in the SEC East: It’s very likely to stay there.

All Florida has to do to win the East on its own is win two of its last three SEC games. Florida’s chances of winning its next two games are, per S&P+, approximately 76 percent. That’s really good, obviously — and even though S&P+ is far more bullish on the Gators beating Arkansas than Las Vegas is, given that many casinos have Florida favored by just a field goal, there’s no question that the Gators will be favored to win this week and next.

The chances of Florida dropping one of those three games is pretty good, sure: S&P+ suggests only a 36 percent chance of winning out. But the most likely route to dropping two — at Arkansas and at LSU — still only has a 10 percent chance of coming to pass.

Any two of those wins would give the Gators a record no worse than 6-2, one that only Kentucky can tie — and because Florida drubbed the Wildcats earlier this year, Florida would win the East in any two-way tie with them, whether at 6-2 or 5-3 or 4-4.

From the Gators’ perspective, winning twice makes everything nice.

But it’s helpful to consider just how dire things are from the Kentucky and Tennessee vantages.

Tennessee would win the East at any two-way tie with Florida, yes, but any scenario in which that could happen requires at least two Florida losses. The most likely one, in which Florida loses to Arkansas and LSU and Tennessee wins out? It has about a four percent chance of occurring.

Kentucky, meanwhile, essentially has to win outright at 6-2 — which, granting the same two Florida losses at Arkansas and LSU and two Kentucky wins, has about a 1.6 percent chance of happening — or at 5-3 — which would require three Florida losses, two Kentucky wins, and Vanderbilt losing a game somewhere along the way, all of which together has less than a one percent chance of transpiring — or hope that more than three teams pile up at 4-4.

Tha’s because Kentucky basically can’t win a three-way tie. Tennessee can’t finish better than 5-3 in SEC games, and neither Florida nor Kentucky can finish worse than 4-4, making those the only two potential records for a three-team tie.

But Tennessee going 5-3 requires a win over Kentucky, and such a win would make the Vols 2-0 against the Gators and Wildcats, clinching a victory on the SEC’s first three-team tiebreaker in a hypothetical three-way tie between Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Kentucky beating Tennessee, meanwhile, would mean that the Wildcats cannot go 4-4 and Tennessee cannot go 5-3, eliminating every three-way tie scenario featuring those two teams.

And a three-way tie between Florida, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt — a three-loss team that could implausibly make a run at the East if it rips off four straight wins in games in which S&P+ gives the Commodores less than a 25 percent chance of prevailing — still wouldn’t work for the Wildcats, who would be bested by Florida, already 2-0 against the ‘Cats and ‘Dores.

(It is here that I should mention Vanderbilt’s miracle scenario — in which Florida and Kentucky both lose out, and Vandy claims the SEC East by winning out, culminating with a division-clinching win at home over Tennessee — for its sheer lunacy. It has an 0.00002 percent chance of happening, which happens to be the same as the estimated rate of voter fraud in American elections this millennium.)

If you haven’t yet caught on: It is way, way better to be in Florida’s shoes than those of any other SEC East team right now. And even though all of those shoes are arguably spackled with mud — or, y’know, other brown stuff that mixes with mud — someone from the division has to earn passage to Atlanta.