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How the SEC East Can Pass Up the West

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The West won't be the dominant division forever.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In the first 11 years of divisional play, the SEC East was the best at winning titles. It won eight of those first 11 championships, with Florida taking five, Tennessee two, and Georgia one. In the 12 seasons since, the West took over that role. The East has won just three of the past dozen league titles, with Florida getting two and Georgia one.

When it comes down to it, it's high-end coaching that wins the titles. Only four coaches have ever won the SEC from the East side, and three own national titles: Steve Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, Mark Richt, and Urban Meyer. It's more diverse on the West side with seven coaches winning SEC crowns from there, but only Nick Saban and Les Miles have won more than one. Gus Malzahn probably deserves a mention too for winning one both as a head coach and as an offensive coordinator that his head coach couldn't win without.

It's unlikely that the script will flip back again soon. The oft-cited fact that everyone in the West makes at least $4 million per year shows that, even in this age of even crazier amounts of money in college football, there aren't any bad coaches on that side. The new coordinator hires over there of John Chavis at Texas A&M and Will Muschamp at Auburn certainly inspire more confidence than some of those in the East like Brian Schottenheimer at Georgia and Mike DeBord at Tennessee. LSU took a step down going from Chavis to Kevin Steele, but picking up Ed Orgeron off the waiver wire was a great move.

Last week, I ranked the SEC coaches from least to most likely to still be around a decade from now. Six of the top seven most likely to still be here are in the West, which means six of the top seven least likely are in the East. If I had to bet on it now, I would put money on the West continuing to win nearly every SEC title for at least the next half decade.

It is possible to paint a picture where the East does get back to winning more league titles than the West, though, and this is one way it could happen.

Ingredient 1: Retirement Wave

Nick Saban decides to hit the links in five years, passing off the program to Kirby Smart. Smart proves to be a great coordinator who just isn't cut out to be a head coach. Lane Kiffin decides to take another head coaching job when Saban retires, and Smart replaces him with someone from the NFL who can't simplify things enough for a college team. Alabama as unstoppable monster is over.

After another season of futility on offense without good quarterbacking play, Cam Cameron goes back to the pro circuit. Miles hires another OC who is best suited for pro-style QBs despite basically only recruiting dual threat guys. After a couple of years of good work, Ed Orgeron gets another crack at a head coaching job. Steele without Coach O has the kinds of problems that led to his dismissal from Clemson. After failing to win 10 games in four of five seasons dating back to 2014, Joe Alleva helps Miles decide to retire. Having to pay buyouts to expensive assistants who the next guy won't want to retain leads Alleva to replace Miles with an inexpensive option who just isn't as good.

After two more seasons, Spurrier again decides that 12 years is about as much time as a coach should spend in once place and retires. South Carolina freshens up the place but keeps the same penchant for excitement by hiring Mark Hudspeth. He recruits like a madman and puts the program back on course for winning 10+ games more often than not.

Ingredient 2: Western Exodus

After a couple years of banging his head on the ceiling that comes with not being able to recruit that many blue chip players to Fayetteville, Bret Bielema finds the right NFL team to take his services to. Arkansas replaces him with a spread option coach who goes through a few down years trying to remake the roster to fit the new scheme.

The Kevin Sumlin-Chavis marriage works wonders, leading A&M to a conference and national title. Having climbed to the summit of college football, Sumlin decides it's time to think about the next challenge. An NFL team offers him crazy money and total roster control, and he takes it. His replacement turns out to be more Fran/Sherman than Sumlin in ability.

The same goes for the Malzahn-Muschamp partnership, only Malzahn never gets the plumb NFL offer. Muschamp does get another Power 5 job offer, though, and his replacement(s) end up being about as effective as what we saw from Ted Roof and Ellis Johnson. Auburn is sporadically elite, but the offense isn't able to make up for the defense every year.

Ingredient 3: Eastern Stability

DeBord somehow learns creativity from Butch Jones or moves on before his lack thereof sinks Jones. Jones continues his excellent recruiting and builds Tennessee back into the perennial division contender it was in the '90s.

In a few years, perhaps after a surprise SEC title, Mark Richt decides his work as a coach is complete. He retires to work the Paul Oliver Network charity he helped found. Mike Bobo returns home from Colorado State and wins over the hearts and minds of the UGA fan base by promising to "run the dang ball" in his intro presser. Bobo continues the steady high level of play that has existed for most of the Richt era.

Jim McElwain modernizes Florida football after its decay from the past five years. His job is made easier by continued malaise at Miami (FL) and a bad choice at FSU to replace the eventually NFL-bound Jimbo Fisher. McElwain resists the siren call of the pro league and enjoys a decade or more of prosperity.

Put It All Together

So what does all of this add up to five years from now? We've got a West where Auburn is the top dog and the Mississippi schools under Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze can take advantage of those down AU defensive years (assuming both stick around for the long haul, less likely in Mullen's case than Freeze's). Alabama is back to its pre-Saban state and LSU is back to the '90s.

The East, meanwhile, has four powers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. They take turns winning conference and sometimes national titles as Alabama, Auburn, and LSU have over the last decade. It doesn't have to be those teams specifically, either. If, say, Spurrier's replacement at South Carolina can't replicate the Head Ball Coach's success, maybe Gary Pinkel gets Mizzou back to its 2007-08 heights and the school makes a great hire after he retires.

The SEC West got as good as it did because its schools were hiring the likes of Saban, Miles, Petrino, Bielema, Malzahn, Mullen, Freeze, and Sumlin while the East was going through guys like Muschamp, Joker Phillips, Derek Dooley, and Willie Martinez. The Pac-12 has itself positioned right now to be the best conference in the country two years running because of outstanding hires.

Just because the West currently has a better coaching slate than the East does, it doesn't mean that state will last forever. And, as far as just winning conference titles goes, it only takes one or two good ones to tip the balance one way or the other.