Add it up: Have-nots still have no prayer


Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 1:00 a.m.

Even with the Charlie's Angels III speakerphone fiasco of Phil Fulmer, even with Nick Saban's dog getting more attention than the coach of the defending national champs, even with the droning of Mike Shula, even with the polar opposite speech patterns of David Cutcliffe and Ron Zook, the recently concluded Southeastern Conference Media Days did what they were supposed to do.

They got me thinking about football. OK, I'm kidding. I'm always thinking about football. And in the summer, it teases me mercilessly. I find myself shaping my mashed potatoes into a bust of Kirk Herbstreit and mowing the grass in 10-yard increments.

So the annual trip to Hoover, Ala., actually just got me thinking more about football. And one of the things that popped into my skull was the differences between the SEC East and SEC West.

Anyone who has followed the league since it expanded to 12 teams and split into divisions in 1992 knows two things - that the West has been wild and the East is always a three-team race.

Every team in the West has at least shared a division title and every one of them except for Mississippi has been to the championship game. But in the East, it's always been Florida, Tennessee and Georgia.

The top-heavy division isn't expected to change this year. Vanderbilt should be better but winning four games would be better. Kentucky doesn't scare anyone. South Carolina, even with Lou Holtz re-dedicating himself to the job, aspires to mediocrity.

Georgia should be really good. Florida has a chance to be. Tennessee might be.

And even though LSU may be emerging as the dominant team in the West under Saban, you know that hasn't been the case during the last dozen years.

"The way it has been," Cutcliffe said, "you could put all of us into a hat and pull the names out. We've proven that time and time again."

But not in the East. We all know how the three teams have dominated, but I decided to look it up anyway.

Since the divisions were set up, the three have-nots have compiled a sparkling record against the have-players - 7 wins, 101 losses.

That's right, 7-101. That's a winning percentage of .065. I know this because I have a calculator. I also know that's not very good.

Florida is 36-0. Tennessee is 35-1, losing to South Carolina in 1992. Georgia picks up the rear with six losses in 36 tries, four of them to the Gamecocks.

"We played them all very close last year," Holtz said. "We've played Tennessee close for four years in a row. You could say we're close. We're not. We're light years away when it comes to changing the culture.

"It's a difficult barrier because they expect to win. They're going to figure out ways to win in the fourth quarter. I was on the other end of that at Notre Dame."

In Hoover, I asked coaches and players for their theories as to why the West has been diverse and the East has been monopolized.

"I think you can look at defense," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "Everybody in the West plays good defense. As long as you have a good defense, you can win games. In the West, defenses have gotten much faster and stronger."

Georgia quarterback David Greene said he had no clue. Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler said he does.

"They're winning programs," he said of the elite East teams. "If you win, you get players. Nobody wants to go to a school that's losing."

But it goes deeper than that. Both Florida and Georgia are located in fertile recruiting states.

"It all goes back to recruiting," Georgia's Mark Richt said. "There are an awful lot of football players in Florida and Georgia, and Tennessee has found a way to become a national draw."

So the rich keep getting richer in the East and the poor try to figure out how to make it stop.

Cutcliffe has coached in both divisions as an assistant in Tennessee and the head coach at Ole Miss.

"When I was in the East, Florida and Tennessee jumped forward," he said. "They were dominant. I think it's more balanced now in the East than when I was there."

Well, maybe not.

The bottom feeders haven't won against the top of the food chain since 2001. But this is the preseason where hope and optimism bubble out of half-full glasses.

"It's very difficult, obviously," said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks. "Last year we were competitive with all three teams. We were in touch with them. The bad news is we haven't beaten them. We have to get over that hurdle.

"It can and will change in my opinion."

Of course, opinions are just like stadiums. Everybody has one. But to make yours credible, you have to do better than 7-and-101.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053.

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