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In down SEC East, the division is only title anyone's winning

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Earlier this year I visited South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. He pointed to a blank space along the interior façade of Williams-Brice Stadium. That space, he said, would eventually be filled with a painted sign recognizing South Carolina's SEC Eastern Division championship of 2010.

"I'm not real big on putting up signs for division championships, but we haven't won a whole lot around here, so for now that's the best we can do," Spurrier said.

Spurrier's reality is now being shared by every coach in the SEC East because, for the second consecutive year, a division championship is going to be the best they can do.

The SEC East winner is destined to replay the role of Miss Congeniality in 2011 because the league's Western Division is again significantly better. LSU and Alabama currently hold the top two spots in the AP poll with Arkansas (4-1) and Auburn (4-1) both in the top 15. LSU and Alabama, to be perfectly candid, are playing the game at a completely different level than everyone else in college football.

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The only solace for the SEC East is that the gap between the divisions is not quite as wide as it was a year ago. In 2010, the SEC West was 16-3 in games against the East. Here's why:

  Auburn went 14-0, destroyed South Carolina in the SEC championship game, and then beat Oregon for the BCS title.

  LSU won 11 games and played in the Cotton Bowl.

  Alabama won 10 games, played on New Year's Day and called it a disappointing season.

  Arkansas won 10 games and played in the Sugar Bowl.

  Mississippi State won nine games and played on New Year's Day for only the fourth time in school history. The Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC West.

"There are never any easy games, but last year our division was pretty strong," said Alabama coach Nick Saban.

"It was ridiculous," said Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. "We finished fifth and we were pretty good."

This season the West looks like it will go four deep instead of five because Ole Miss and Mississippi State are a combined 0-5 in SEC play.

The SEC East, meanwhile, is a real mess:

 Georgia started 0-2 with losses to Boise State and South Carolina and large portions of the Bulldog Nation wanted to throw Mark Richt overboard. Georgia has rallied with three straight wins, but they have come against FCS opponent Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss (2-3), and Mississippi State (2-3). Right now Georgia looks like it has the best chance to win the division because it does not have to play Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas from the West. Georgia also gets an edge because the rest of the division is getting ready to really struggle.

Specifically:

 Florida(4-1) just got scattered, covered and smothered by Alabama 38-10 Saturday night in The Swamp. In the process the Gators lost starting quarterback John Brantley to a high ankle sprain. His return is uncertain. Florida goes to LSU on Saturday followed by a trip to Auburn.

 Tennessee (3-1) lost its best offensive player, other than quarterback Tyler Bray, when Justin Hunter suffered a knee injury on Sept. 17 against Florida. LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas are still to come on the schedule. Two of the three are on the road.

 South Carolina (4-1) is coming unglued before our very eyes. After last week's 16-13 loss at home to Auburn, Spurrier finally threw up his hands and has benched starting quarterback Stephen Garcia in favor of Connor Shaw.

"Stephen is trying as hard as he can. It just hasn't worked out for him and the other guy is going to get his chance," Spurrier said. After a home game with Kentucky on Saturday, South Carolina will have three consecutive trips to Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

 Vanderbilt started 3-0 before losing its first game to South Carolina. Now reality is about to set in for the Commodores who face Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas in the next four weeks.

 And Kentucky? The 2-3 Wildcats knew they would miss Randall Cobb, and they have. Big time. Basketball season starts in less than 10 days and it can't get here soon enough.

The SEC East today is a far cry from the salad days of the 1990s when Tennessee and Florida began every season in the top five and the winner of their September game was the conference's best hope for the national championship. Florida won two national titles (2006, 2008) under Urban Meyer, who is out of coaching. In the current streak of five consecutive national championships by the SEC, three different Western Division teams (LSU, Alabama, Auburn) have claimed one. Now that's depth.

So somebody is going to win the SEC's Eastern Division. But that team understands that it is going to play the role of stepping stone at the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 3. More than likely that team will be the final obstacle between LSU or Alabama on the way to a spot in the BCS championship game. It won't be pretty. But at least they'll get to hang a sign inside their stadium.

But there is a bright side to all this for the SEC East. If Missouri joins Texas A&M and becomes a new member of the SEC, Alabama and Auburn may be moved from the West to the East. That should liven things up a bit.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Wednesday at 8 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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