SEC East preview: Can Georgia avoid a hangover?

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Throughout the SEC East in 2022, there is plenty of familiarity.

Florida is starting over yet again: Billy Napier will be the Gators’ fourth head coach in nine seasons, their seventh including interims. We could soon be playing another rousing rendition of everyone’s favorite game, Tennessee Versus Big Expectations. Missouri looks destined for a fourth straight year of .500-ish ball, Vanderbilt looks destined for a fourth straight year at .250 or lower, and we all appear destined to spend another fall raving about Mark Stoops’ performance at Kentucky. Sure, South Carolina is a little tricky to figure out at the moment, but this all feels pretty safe, pretty normal.

The biggest storyline in the division, however, is completely unfamiliar.

From 1981 to 2020, Georgia finished in the AP top 10 16 times, finished ranked 26 times and won or shared five SEC titles. The Bulldogs were one of the most consistently strong programs in the country over an extended period of time. But after winning the 1980 national title, they could never quite secure another one. They came close on many occasions — 1981, 1982, 2002, 2007, 2012, 2017 — but never quite got it done.

They got it done last season. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs began the 2021 season 12-0 before falling to Alabama in the SEC championship game. But they still reached the College Football Playoff, where they pummeled Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal, then scored 20 points in the last eight minutes of the national title game to take down Alabama, 33-18. It was Georgia’s first title in 41 years, it was Smart’s first win over former mentor Nick Saban … it was as cathartic a win as you’ll see in this sport.

Now what? Of all the ways Saban has redefined college football, his ability to avoid hangovers is at the top of the list. Of the past 10 national champions that weren’t coached by Saban, only half have finished in the AP top five the following year. Three finished unranked (all SEC teams), and the teams’ cumulative win percentage fell from 0.958 (13.7 wins per year) to 0.788 (10.4).

Saban’s Crimson Tide, on the other hand, have just continued to roll after title runs. They racked up a win percentage of 0.952 in his six title seasons in Tuscaloosa, and in the next season their win percentage fell only a bit, to 0.882 with six top-10 (and four top-two) finishes.

Smart spent 11 seasons as a Saban assistant and is as close to Saban 2.0 as college football has seen. If that remains true, then Georgia will reload defensively, play at a top-three level and plow through the SEC East once again. If the Dawgs suffer a hangover … well, they might still plow through the East, but they could lose two or three times and open up a CFP spot.

Regardless, this is unfamiliar territory. Let’s preview the SEC East!

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (Nos. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big 12 (Nos. 6-10) | Big 12 (Nos. 5-1) | Big Ten West | Big Ten East

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