The SEC East is a bunch of bad teams. No, the SEC East is a model of parity. Actually, it's a combination of the two. Or maybe it's neither. What is the SEC East? That question gets increasingly asked as the season progresses. We are five weeks into the season, and the answer seems further away than when the season began.
The SEC West is easier. It is that steady beacon glinting atop a tower on the rocky shoreline out yonder. The inconsistent and confusing "fog of sports" obscures our passage to college football clarity, but the SEC West serves as our lodestar. Those teams provide scale to the rest of college football. They play good football there (I don't know if you've heard). Meanwhile, the SEC East seemingly rejects order. It just does things.
Using F/+ rankings, perhaps there is an explanation as why the SEC East "just does things". Contemplate with me.
"Bad Teams" Argument
Social media has labeled the SEC East as being down this year. Perhaps that's true, or maybe social media is being too cynical. Below are the F/+ rankings of the SEC East teams since 2010. Keep in mind that a rating of "0%" means a team is perfectly average.
SEC East 2010-Present (F/+ %)
The overall quality of the SEC has stayed safely above average the last five seasons. The quality has dipped a bit below the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but online chatter may have led you to believe otherwise. Georgia is the only double digit F/+ team, but the East only has one negative team as has been the case the previous five seasons. Last season the East had three double-digit teams, but top-to-bottom may have actually been weaker.
So, it's fair to say that the quality has dropped, but not by an alarming amount. How does the East compare to other divisions?
Comparing To Other Divisions
The SEC East record against non-SEC Power 5 schools so far this season is 3-3 with the three losses being Tennessee's on the road at Oklahoma (though Tennessee did beat Utah State, which is not in a P5 conference, but defeated a good BYU team Saturday), Missouri's loss to Indiana, and Vandy's loss to Temple. The wins come from Missouri's victory over Central Florida, Georgia over a ranked Clemson team, and South Carolina's win over East Carolina. The median F/+ ranking for those P5 teams defeated by a SEC East team is 6.1%, while the median F/+ ranking of the three teams that beat a SEC East team is -1.6%. The East is beating above average teams, and is losing to teams slightly below average.
That's a limited sample size [this is all based on limited sample size obviously] so let's compare to PAC-12 and ACC divisions.
The Pac-12 North is 3-2 against P5 opponents. Cal defeated Northwestern, Oregon beat Michigan State, and Washington whipped Illinois. The defeats come from Stanford's loss to Notre Dame, and Washington State's loss to Rutgers. Median F/+ of teams defeated by the Pac-12 North is 5.7%, and the median F/+ ranking of Notre Dame and Rutgers is 11.7%. The Pac-12 North is beating teams comparable to the teams the SEC East has defeated, if a bit lower, but is losing to much better teams.
The Pac-12 South is 4-1 against P5 opponents, mainly due to UCLA beating Virginia, Memphis, and Texas. Utah also beat Michigan. The median F/+ of those defeated teams is 4.3%. The only loss comes from USC's loss to Boston College which is rated 5.2%. The SEC East is beating higher rating teams than the PAC-12 South.
The ACC Atlantic is 3-1 against P5 opponents. The median F/+ for teams defeated is 7.6%, and the F/+ of Colorado State (which beat Boston College) is 4.7%. The ACC Coastal is 4-5 against P5 opponents. The median F/+ for teams defeated is -10.9%, and the median F/+ rating of the teams that beat ACC Coastal opponents is 6.1%. The SEC East is not as impressive as the ACC Atlantic but does look favorable compared to the ACC Coastal.
Drop a random SEC East team in the Pac-12 South or the ACC Coastal, and it probably has a winning divisional record, but if a random SEC East team was in the ACC Atlantic or PAC-12 North it would probably have a much harder time.
The SEC East has also seen increased parity, while overall quality hasn't fallen steeply, according to F/+ rankings. There is only one double-digit F/+ team in the East this season when last year there was three, for example. Additionally, the median difference in F/+ between SEC East teams has steadily shrunk since 2010.
Competition is increasing in the East. Georgia and Florida remain big-time programs. South Carolina has turned itself into a power under Spurrier; Vanderbilt improved under Franklin's watch; Missouri was a quality addition; Kentucky and Tennessee both appear to be in capable hands under their current coaches. All of these programs have regularly started signing Top 40 recruiting classes, and most of them are Top 20. They all have undertaken new infrastructure projects, and carry the seal of the SEC brand name. With that comes prestige, but more importantly it brings money.
Little wonder competition has increased given these factors. Every team is moving forward, and is starting to cannibalize the success of one another. A coaching change could have negative or positive consequences for these schools in the short-term, but the fundamentals of university commitment, spending, SEC prestige, and geographic recruiting advantages should persist.
The SEC East is an increasingly competitive division, but that's not due to a steep drop-off in quality. It may be a new paradigm going forward.