East crowded at top but not for long

he Southeastern Conference’s East Division race will take on a sort of playoff atmosphere this weekend with the four contending teams — Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia — playing each other.

In a traditional game at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, the Georgia Bulldogs will face the Florida Gators while in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., Tennessee will meet the South Carolina.

The Tennessee-South Carolina game will begin at 6:45 p.m. and will be broadcast by ESPN, with the Florida-Georgia game starting at 2:30 p.m. It will be televised by CBS.

Both games hold great impor tance toward deciding the East championship. Since the SEC began divisional play in 1992, only Florida or Tennessee has represented the East in the SEC Championship Game. This year, that is not a certainty.

“It is one of the bigger weekends that I can recall as far as big games being played on the same weekend,” Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said. “But the only one I’m concerned with is the one we’re playing in. It should be a very exciting afternoon.”

In fact, South Carolina has just two SEC games remaining on its schedule and if it wins both games it claims the SEC East title. But those two games are quite testy — Saturday’s game at Tennessee and versus No. 6-ranked Florida in Columbia on Nov. 10.

All the remaining league games for the four contenders have great importance, with all four having just one league loss each. Florida has Georgia, Vandy, South Carolina and Tennessee remaining.

“This is a big weekend for East teams,” South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. “You normally expect to have three good teams in the SEC East. The fact that we can sneak in there makes things more exciting, although I don’t know if we belong there. …I think this week will clear up some things, but at the same time, there are some tough games ahead. You really can’t tell what is going to happen.”

This weekend’s games will go a long way toward separating the logjam, especially if South Carolina, which is alone in first place right now, should win.

History is not on the side of the Gamecocks, 5-1 in the SEC and 6-1 overall, against Tennessee. They have only beaten the Vols twice in 19 previous meetings (two ties) and Tennessee has won the past eight games. What’s more, the Vols are 10-0 against South Carolina in Knoxville.

The Vols, 4-1 and 3-1, have battled injuries all season but a recent off week helped them heal some key players. South Carolina, which was 0-11 two seasons ago, continues to make progress under Holtz. This is considered the Gamecocks’ best chance so far at winning the East.

Tennessee’s biggest test comes in durability, not just in keeping players healthy but in the fact the Vols still have six games remaining on their schedule.

Florida enters its game against Georgia with a 5-1 overall record and 4-1 mark in SEC play, its lone SEC loss coming at the hands of SEC West leader Auburn. That loss dropped the Gators from the No. 1 national ranking in the AP poll. Florida was off last week, the idle time coming just prior to the Gators’ most challenging stretch of games.

“It’s a huge game,” Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. “(Georgia) has a lot of confi dence and is playing well. It’s our oldest rivalry. We are still far behind (in the overall record) but we are trying to catch up.”

Georgia carries the same 5-1, 4-1 records as Florida into Jacksonville. The Bulldogs’ lone SEC loss came at the hands of South Carolina in a 14-9 loss in Athens. Since the loss to the Gamecocks, the Dawgs’ offense has shown great improvement and the defense has also demonstrated improvement.

“If we win we have a chance to get to where you want to go,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

In Florida, the Dawgs will receive quite a test. It will be a matchup of the top two passing offenses and top two total offenses. Yet Florida has the upper hand in past meetings, having won 10 of the past 11 games.

This week’s winners will move ahead of the pack, at least for a week.