In the wake of South Carolina's stunning domination of the No. 1 team in the country, a lot of people are essentially handing the SEC East crown to South Carolina. And why not? They've been, by far, the best team in the Eastern division. Ironically, the team that may look like the second most dangerous team in the East, Kentucky, is already 0-3 in conference play.
However, South Carolina still has substantial work to do to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship for the first time ever. There is a lot of bad news and some good news. Bad news first:
The Bad News For South Carolina's SEC East Hopes
The first thing to address is how will South Carolina deal with success?
South Carolina has beaten some big teams in the past (last year's victory over then No. 4 Ole Miss springs to mind) only to collapse down the stretch. South Carolina must beat the teams they should, on the road.
Perhaps the most important game of the year is this weekend's matchup with Kentucky in Lexington. Despite their 0-3 conference record, Kentucky is a dangerous team, especially at home. Ask Auburn, who barely squeaked out a win in Lexington on Saturday. This is a game that South Carolina cannot afford to lose.
Will South Carolina's players suddenly become unjustifiably cocky after their win over Alabama and think that the the South Carolina name alone can go out there and win on the road? If so they will likely head out of Lexington with a loss. South Carolina has already seen multiple dynamic playmakers in Cam Newton and Furman's Adam Mims and had a lot of trouble with both of them. There is not a more dynamic playmaker in the nation than Kentucky's Randall Cobb.
They then find themselves on the road against a Vanderbilt team that isn't talented enough to win consistently, but can always spring the upset on a team that's not prepared to play SEC football in Nashville.
These are two near must wins for the Gamecocks. Lose either one of these road trap games and all talk of South Carolina as the favorites in the East goes out the window. With a loss in either game all the great work against Alabama is cancelled out.
Perhaps the easiest game on the rest of South Carolina's conference schedule will be a home date against Tennessee. This is still a dangerous game, as Tennessee has shown some flashes of promise in a few halves. If Rocky Top can put together two solid halves on the road, South Carolina could have all they can handle against a team coached by a bright young gun with a traditional SEC pedigree, in Derek Dooley.
Then Ryan Mallett's Arkansas team comes to Columbia. This is a team and quarterback that absolutely shredded South Carolina's defense last year to the tune of 23-for-27 passing for 329 yards. The Razorbacks doubled up South Carolina that day, 33-16, in a blowout win. This despite South Carolina having one of the premier pass rushers in the country in Eric Norwood. Arkansas's offense is much better this year, South Carolina's defense is, at best, at the same level as they were last year.
Caught your breath yet? Good, because then comes the big one.
In both teams' SEC finale, South Carolina goes to Gainesville to take on the Gators.
Sure, the Gators have looked bad thus far. Sure, South Carolina looks to have the far superior team at this point. All those points may not matter for three reasons:
1. If Florida just takes care of business against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Georgia who are a combined 3-6 in SEC play and 8-9 overall, Florida will only need to beat South Carolina to swoop in for the East title, even if South Carolina takes care of business with all the above mentioned matchups. One could make the argument that every Florida game remaining is easier than any South Carolina game left, save the fact that both play Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt. If both teams win out until the Nov. 13th showdown, and Florida wins at home, both would finish with two conference losses and Florida would have the tiebreaker based on the head to head victory.
2. The Swamp is a tough place to play. Lucky Les and his band of Merry Cajuns not withstanding. Everyone knows there is bad blood between these two schools. Emotions will be high on both sides, especially if an SEC East title is on the line. In that kind of environment, South Carolina winning on the road won't be an easy task.
3. South Carolina has to have the mindset that Florida will be better on Nov. 13th than they are today. Urban Meyer didn't suddenly become a terrible coach. You have to believe that within the next month he will get his offense playing better, which will take the pressure off their defense.
South Carolina may very well have the better resume than Florida, with wins over Arkansas and Alabama and their only losses being tough road contests at Auburn and Florida. However, Florida may still sneak their way into the Georgia Dome, with their only quality win being a home win against South Carolina.
I can't recall two teams ever having more uneven conference schedules within the same division than this year's difference between Florida and South Carolina. However, the schedule is what it is and you play the games.
The Good News
South Carolina is clearly the best team in the SEC East, and right now it's not close. Nobody in the conference looks like they can cover Alshon Jeffery and if he gets too much attention, Stephen Garcia has two other major playmakers in Tori Gurley and Ace Sanders. South Carolina has the best true running back in the East in Marcus Lattimore. And the Stephen Garcia of the Alabama game is far and away the best quarterback in the East.
On defense South Carolina's defensive line gets after the quarterback and has shown they can stuff conventional running games (read not Cam Newton). Alabama had 36 yards rushing.
Stephen Garcia has the team's backing and, for now, the Ol' Ball Coach's backing. Connor Shaw may see a designated series here and there, in designed packages. However, there won't be the specter of being pulled hanging over Stephen Garcia's head after the way he played against Alabama.
Stephen Garcia's most impressive feat in the Alabama game wasn't his 17-20 passing, it was the way he came back from his mental gaffe of taking a safety when he could have just fallen down at the three-yard line and commanded the team down a career-defining 85-yard drive right after. Garcia seems to have turned the corner mentally and has established himself as the tough, but smart leader of a talented offense. He's always had the talent and now he looks to have the intelligence, experience, and confidence.
South Carolina can afford to lose one more conference game, as long as it's not Florida. That was the big result of Saturday's outcomes. South Carolina now has a bit of breathing room. They could suffer one letdown or lose to Ryan Mallett and Arkansas. As long as they take care of business in Gainesville they will likely represent the East in the SEC Championship Game.
What Will Happen
Florida will take care of business against UGA, Miss St., and Vandy. South Carolina will lose to one of Kentucky or Arkansas. However, in a huge game, South Carolina will march down into Gainesville and win. Florida will perhaps play its best game of the year, but South Carolina will outplay them and win their first ever Eastern Division Championship.