Football coaches are saying the race is wide open in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, and there's really nothing new in that.
They repeat the mantra every summer, when breaking Florida's and Tennessee's hammerlock atop the division is much easier to envision than accomplish.
This year, it's different. Coaches are saying it in mid-October, not mid-July. Stumbles by everyone in the East has made a jumble of the race to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.
"I don't know how it's all going to play out," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier. "It just seems like there's a lot of good teams on the Eastern side this year."
Before the season, the Gators and Volunteers were expected to continue their dominance. The two teams have gobbled up all the division titles since the conference expanded in 1992. Florida has won the East seven times, Tennessee twice - and there was little reason to expect dramatic change.
The Gators were ranked No. 1 in the preseason, and the loaded Volunteers were supposed to return to championship form after slumping to 8-4 in 2000.
South Carolina, which returned most of its starters from an eight-win season, was picked to finish third in the East. Georgia had plenty of talent but wasn't deemed fit to contend under first-year head coach Mark Richt.
The Gamecocks bolted to a 5-0 start (4-0 SEC) to add at least a grain of suspense to the race, and Georgia dealt Tennessee a knee-buckling upset in Knoxville on Oct. 6.
Then came last week, when the division hierarchy was cast into virtual anarchy. South Carolina went to Arkansas a nine-point favorite but left a 10-7 loser, its dreams of an undefeated season dashed when a late field goal try was blocked.
News of the Gamecock shock made Florida breathe a bit easier while preparing for that night's game at Auburn. But a sigh of relief turned to a heave of disbelief after the heavily-favored Gators suffered a 23-20 upset.
"Everybody in the SEC ought to be hungry after that loss," said Georgia defensive end Charles Grant, whose team bagged last week's lone league blowout by beating Vanderbilt 30-14. "It's a brand new season. I guarantee you everybody's more hungry and more focused."
The East is decidedly out of focus, and that's good for teams not wearing orange. The Gamecocks (5-1, 4-1), Gators (5-1, 3-1), Bulldogs (4-1, 3-1) and Volunteers (3-1, 2-1) have one conference loss apiece. Georgia finally has hope in a traditionally hopeless fight, and South Carolina still appears a legitimate contender despite its loss in Little Rock, Ark.
"It's just like everybody is back in the race," said Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz, whose team plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday before traveling to Tennessee on Oct. 27. South Carolina closes out its conference slate at home against Florida on Nov. 10.
"This thing is wide open."
The race appeared to pass Georgia by Sept. 8, when the Bulldogs fell at home to South Carolina. With the most difficult portion of their schedule still ahead, most backers were just praying their team would earn a bowl appearance.
The upset of Tennessee changed things. Last week's losses by the Gators and Gamecocks changed them even more.
"It looks like a brand new season for everybody," said Richt, whose team plays Kentucky at home Saturday (12:30 p.m., CBS-Ch. 12) before its showdown with Florida on Oct. 27. "Just about everybody still has got a chance."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
| CONFERENCE TILTS|
The next few weeks will say a lot about who will emerge to win the jumbled SEC East. A look at the contenders' remaining conference games:
South Carolina (5-1, 4-1)
Oct. 27-at Tennessee
Florida (5-1, 3-1)
Nov. 10-at South Carolina
Georgia (4-1, 3-1)
Nov. 17-at Mississippi
Tennessee (3-1, 2-1)
Oct. 27-South Carolina
Nov. 17-at Kentucky
Dec. 1-at Florida
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