SEC East’s surge threatens No. 1 Georgia’s hopes to repeat

FILE - Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) carries the ball against Auburn during the...
FILE - Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) carries the ball against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. Georgia plays Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)(Butch Dill | AP)
Published: Oct. 19, 2022 at 12:44 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2022 at 5:23 PM EDT
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(AP) - Top-ranked defending national champion Georgia is far from assured of a return trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game.

With the SEC East making its biggest AP Top 25 power play since Florida’s Steve Spurrier and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer ruled the division 25 years ago, Georgia is facing a grueling series of games in the second half of the season.

Led by Georgia and No. 3 Tennessee, the East Division boasts two of the top three teams in the country for the first time since Sept. 2, 1997. In that AP Top 25 poll, No. 2 Florida was one spot ahead of No. 3 Tennessee, the eventual SEC champion led by senior quarterback Peyton Manning.

Georgia and Florida were both in the top five of the poll for one week in 2020, but at no other time since 1997 have two teams from the East been ranked in the top three.

The East Division showed its renewed strength in winning two showdowns against ranked teams from the West last week.

Tennessee beat then-No. 3 Alabama 52-49 and Kentucky defeated then-No. 16 Mississippi State 27-17. The Wildcats moved to No. 19 in this week’s poll.

The SEC has six teams in the Top 25, including three from the West — No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Mississippi and No. 24 Mississippi State.

The SEC could be in position to have as many as three teams in the four-team College Football Playoff.

For now at least, the East holds bragging rights in the league.

“By no means do you see the West slipping, but you certainly see the East coming back around, for sure,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said.

“There’s great programs, there’s traditional programs that have a lot of pride as well. There are programs continuing to get better. To me, it’s just one of those that if you’re in this league, you better recruit your butt off or it will eat you up and spit you out pretty quick.”

Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) is off this week before playing Florida on Oct. 29. The annual neutral-site game in Jacksonville, Florida, is never easy, and the Gators also have been ranked this season.

Georgia must play three consecutive games against current Top 25 teams after the Florida game: Tennessee on Nov. 5, at Mississippi State on Nov. 12 and at Kentucky on Nov 19.

Coach Kirby Smart knows his Bulldogs must take advantage of their off week. They’ll need to be well-rested to survive the four-game grind.

“I’m not looking down at that run because if you start looking at that run you get caught up,” Smart said after Saturday’s 55-0 rout of Vanderbilt.

“I’m looking solely at one thing. It’s not Florida. It’s not anybody else. It’s us. I’m going to dig, chew and claw to get every player on our roster better because one of those guys is going to be counted on to make a play in a tough game.”

Three of the opponents in the four-game stretch are from the East.

By beating Alabama, the Vols did more than show they can compete with Georgia in the East. With their fourth win over a ranked opponent, Tennessee gained support to move past Georgia for the No. 1 spot in the Top 25. The Vols received 15 first-place votes, their most since 1999.

Tennessee (6-0, 3-0) has proved it deserves to be included in the discussion of championship contenders.

Tennessee takes a break from its SEC schedule to play UT-Martin this week. Coach Josh Heupel says there won’t be a letdown.

“I say it every week, it’s about us, it’s about our preparation but the challenge is about us becoming our best, too,” Heupel said. “They all understand there is a lot of things we have got to get better at.”

For more than a year, it seemed clear Alabama and Georgia were the SEC’s elite teams.

Alabama beat Georgia in last season’s SEC championship game and the Bulldogs earned revenge by stopping the Crimson Tide to win the national championship. This year, the teams have taken turns at No 1.

Tennessee has emerged as a candidate to give the SEC its fourth different national champion in four years. LSU, Alabama and Georgia have won the last three titles.

The last year the Vols had four regular-season wins over ranked teams was 1998 — their last national championship season.