It was already going to be an interesting year in the SEC East in 2011. For the first time in eight years, the division was going to have a first-time defending champion. (The last team being Georgia, after the Dawgs' 2002 SEC title.) Florida would be coming off of its worst regular season in terms of losing percentage since 1988. The perennial Florida runners-up or replacements, Georgia and Tennessee, both finished the regular season at .500.
So to say that the SEC East was going to be slightly unsettled in 2011 would be to engage in gross understatement. To say that things will be near-chaotic after the departure of Urban Meyer would be to get things just about right.
It's important to note that we don't know a few things that are key to figuring out just how much of a shake-up Meyer's retirement will be. We do not know who will replace Meyer in Gainesville, and whether that person will scrap everything and start over or try to build on the system Meyer has in place. (If it's Bobby Petrino, for example, expect the former; Dan Mullen, it's the latter.) We don't know who will be brought in as coordinators and assistant coaches. And we don't know how any of that will alter the recruiting landscape at Florida, in the SEC and across the region.
But it's easy enough to get so caught up in some rival fans' joy at the retirement of Meyer that we don't step back and take a look at what his record in the East really means -- and doesn't mean. And here's where I get to the point where many of you are probably going to disagree with me: When it comes to the individual SEC East rivalries that Meyer coached in, he did not dramatically shift the balance of power in those games positively in Florida's direction.
|Rival||Meyer Record||Spurrier/Zook Record||Spurrier Record|
|Georgia||5-1 (0.833)||13-2 (0.867)||11-1 (0.917)|
|Kentucky||6-0 (1.000)||15-0 (1.000)||12-0 (1.000)|
|South Carolina||4-2 (0.667)||13-0 (1.000)||10-0 (1.000)|
|Tennessee||6-0 (1.000)||9-6 (0.600)||8-4 (0.667)|
|Vanderbilt||6-0 (1.000)||13-0 (1.000)||10-0 (1.000)|
Now, there are a few things worth keeping in mind here. Steve Spurrier largely played against Ray Goff and Jim Donnan when he was playing Georgia, while Ron Zook and Meyer had to contend with Mark Richt. (Spurrier won his only game against Richt as head coach at Florida.) And of course, Spurrier never had to face himself as head coach at South Carolina, and Zook was coach during the latter part of the Holtz Era. But those caveats go both ways; Spurrier and to a lesser extent Zook faced Tennessee while Phil Fulmer was in his prime; Meyer faced the Vols during the decline of Fulmer and the chaos of the Kiffin and Dooley years.
And that Tennessee series remains the only one in which Meyer improved upon the combined record of Spurrier and Zook. For all the criticism Zook received from Florida fans -- much of it justified -- he rolled four of Florida's five opponents during his time in Gainesville. He was still 2-1 against Georgia and perfect against Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Tennessee was the only SEC East team against whom Zook did not sport a winning record when he left Florida.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves here: Coaching is more than just a series of records against individual teams. No one can argue with a straight face that Zook is a better coach than Meyer. (I think the Spurrier-Meyer debate is probably never going to be resolved, unless Spurrier rings up three or four consecutive SEC East championships in Columbia, which seems unlikely.)
That is a long way of saying this: Florida's reign over the SEC East has been the rule for the last 20 years, not the exception. If anything, Meyer simply restored order in the division. Florida has represented the East in the SEC Championship Game 10 of the 18 times the game has been played; three of the misses took place during the Zook Era and three more in Meyer's time at the helm.
So we can dispense with this idea that Meyer was a singular coach when it comes to winning in Gainesville; he's not. That doesn't mean that Meyer isn't great, or that Florida can win on auto-pilot, because we can all agree that the latter was disproved by Zook. But the idea that Meyer's retirement will now usher in an era when Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee can expect to win a significant number of games against Florida, while even Kentucky and Vanderbilt can hope for a win here or there, is a little bit ridiculous. If Ron Zook can go a combined 12-3 against the other teams in the SEC East, then Dan Mullen or Bobby Petrino can do the same.
But will they? The new Florida coach will face a more challenging terrain than Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer did when they signed on. Spurrier has South Carolina on the rise, there are signs of new life at Georgia with Aaron Murray's improvement and Tennessee looks to be at most a year or two away from returning to form. Don't discount the chances of Joker Phillips continuing the work of Rich Brooks because of one mediocre season, and a good Vanderbilt hire could restore the continuous upset alert that once followed the Commodores from game to game. And there is, of course, the rebuilding work that will need to be done in Florida after Meyer's disappointing last season.
So it might be harder for Florida to win the SEC East over the next few years -- but it would have been if Meyer had stayed and will be no matter the caliber of the next coach Florida hires. How much more difficult that challenge will be depends on who takes the reins in the next few weeks.