A look at some of the contenders for the SEC East
The setup | Tennessee comes into this weekend 3-1, with a 10-point loss to Florida that should have been by a wider margin and blowout wins over the delicious pastries that have filled up the rest of the slate. (Cincinnati is the closest thing to a quality team that the Vols have faced in the non-conference, but the jury is still out on the Bearcats.) Tennessee has done that almost entirely on the arm of one Tyler Bray, who has anchored a passing attack gaining 336.5 yards a game, second only to Arkansas in the SEC. And Bray has the best passer efficiency rating in the conference. But the running game is dead last in the league and the defense, while not terrible, is also not impressive. When you grade that on the curve of the competition, it looks even worse.
The schedule | The toughest games are ahead, but the Vols have one key advantage: The only division game remaining that's on the road is at Kentucky. That means Georgia and South Carolina -- unquestionably the most important games left on the schedule in the form of division standings -- both travel to Knoxville with tiebreakers on the line. But the West schedule is what nearly knocks Tennessee out of contention before things get too heated; trips to Tuscaloosa and Fayetteville and a home game against LSU adds up to perhaps the toughest interdivision sclate in the East.
Why they will win it | What's frightening is that Bray might still be learning to play the game. If that is the case, then the young signal-caller might be able to at least come close to keeping his passer rating this high throughout the season. If they can steal one of the games out of the West and run the table in the East, the only team they have to worry about is the Gators -- who have an interdivision schedule almost as difficult as the Vols and have to go to Columbia.
Why they won't | Justin Hunter's not coming back. Any discussion of the problems that Tennessee faces from here on out have to begin and end with the loss of that wideout. And that's not where Tennessee's attrition is likely to end, which could be the worst enemy for the Vols, who are still trying to rebuild their roster after the Fulmer-Kiffin-Dooley carousel from 2008-10.
Verdict | If Florida completely implodes, South Carolina continues to come apart at the seams and Tennessee can manage to defeat Georgia this weekend, then you have to like the Vols' chances. But that's a lot of ifs -- and the season could end Saturday if Georgia leaves the state with a win. This marks the point of the 2007 when the unlikely started to turn things around to win the division, but as bad as the East is this year, it's not quite as convoluted as things were four years ago.