Just a month ago, the Tennessee Volunteers were poised to win their first SEC East title since 2007. The Vols had wins over Florida and Georgia for the first time in the same season in over a decade, and they were sitting atop the East with tiebreakers over their division rivals. Fast forward to where we are now, and the Vols are having to fight against both adversity and history in order to claim that crown.
Thanks to three consecutive conference losses, the Vols need help in order to even win the SEC East at this point. Not only does Tennessee have to win their remaining three games, they also need Florida to lose at least one more SEC game in order to clinch the division. Tennessee has games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt remaining while Florida has games against South Carolina and LSU left.
Not only do the Vols need to take care of their own business while also receiving outside help, but they’re also fighting against history as well.
Since the SEC split into division play in 1992, only one team has won the SEC East with three conference losses. The 2010 SEC East crown went to South Carolina with a 5-3 conference record. South Carolina lost to Auburn, Kentucky, and Arkansas that season but was bailed out by the fact that no other SEC East team had better than a 4-4 record in conference. The Gamecocks were then blown out 56-17 by Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
Only one SEC West team has ever outright won the West with three conference losses as well. The 2001 LSU Tigers squad won the West with a 5-3 record in conference and won the crown on the last weekend of the regular season by defeating Auburn 27-14. Auburn had the division lead before the game. LSU would go on to upset Tennessee 31-20 in the SEC Championship Game. Arkansas actually won the West in 2002 with a 5-3 conference record despite finishing second in the division because Alabama, who had a 6-2 conference record, wasn’t allowed to participate in postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. Arkansas lost to Georgia 30-3 in the SEC Championship Game.
Oddly enough, each time a team with three conference losses has won their division outright, they’ve gone on to have a rematch in the SEC Championship Game. LSU lost to Tennessee 26-18 in the regular season in 2001 then defeated them in the Championship Game. South Carolina faced Auburn in the regular season of 2010 and lost 35-27 before facing the Tigers in the Championship Game and getting routed. If the Vols were to make it, odds are they would have a rematch with Alabama as well.
Tennessee had a chance to be in the driver’s seat of the East even after back-to-back losses to Texas A&M and Alabama before their bye week. But a loss to South Carolina on the road complicated things, and it thrust Florida even further into the lead. Then the Gators dropped a game to Arkansas last weekend, and the Vols are now back in the thick of things and need the Gators to drop at least one of their remaining two conference games while also winning out themselves.
The odds aren’t in Tennessee’s favor. Only once in the previous 24 seasons of divisional play in the SEC has an SEC East team won the division with three conference losses. That means a team with three conference losses has only won the East 4.2 percent of the time since 1992. Throw in everything else the Vols have to have go their way, and Tennessee faces a tall task ahead of them.
The Vols are more than capable of winning the SEC East. They’ll just have to make a little history in order to do it.