Jim McElwain, like most coaches in the Southeastern Conference, doesn’t put much thought into the talent divide between the conference’s two divisions.
This notion has especially been held true for the second-year UF coach this week as he and his No. 21-ranked Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC) travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to face No. 16 LSU (6-3, 4-2 SEC) on Saturday with their hopes to clinch the SEC East on the line.
To McElwain, a conference opponent is a conference opponent. Simple as that.
“Whenever those games come up,” he said, “you’ve got to treat it as that.”
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But over the past decade, the SEC West has been the clearly dominant division of the SEC.
This year is no exception. While Alabama will once again play in the SEC Championship game for a top-heavy Western Division -- a seven-member group that has four teams ranked in the AP top 25 -- the SEC East is limping its way down the stretch and into the conference title game.
“The SEC West has just been better,” said former UF Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow, “and I think the East has to step it up.”
Just how big is the gap? Let’s take a look at the numbers:
▪ The SEC West has won eight of the last 10 SEC championships, winning those games by an average margin of almost 18 points.
▪ Since the 2006 season, the SEC West owns a 117-68 record in crossover games, about a 63-percent win rate. Since 2010, though, the West’s record is 80-29, almost a 75-percent win rate.
▪ Only one team from the SEC East — Georgia — has an overall winning record against the Western Division in the last decade at 19-11. Florida is second at 14-17 but has gone 4-9 since 2011 heading into Saturday’s matchup against LSU (including 1-7 away from home).
▪ With three regular-season crossover games and the Dec. 3 SEC Championship remaining, the East is just 2-9 this season against its SEC West opponents. The lone wins were Georgia’s 13-7 win over then-No. 9 Auburn on Saturday and a 40-38 Kentucky win over Mississippi State on Oct. 22 that came down to a last-minute 51-yard field goal.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Marcus Spears, a former LSU and NFL defensive lineman who is now an analyst for the SEC Network.
Spears said his best conjecture at the divide was the West’s ability to win at recruiting, which usually requires the seven-school division to pry into the states of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee and sway recruits away from their home school.
As of late, it’s worked.
The SEC West has had 28 top-10 recruiting classes and 16 top-5 classes over the last 10 recruiting cycles, according to 247sports.com’s composite team rankings. For comparison, the East has 20 in the top-10 and just eight in that landed in the top five over that time frame.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, winner of three of the last four SEC titles and three of the last five national championships, has hauled in the top recruiting class each of the last six years.
“[The gap is] pretty big,” McElwain said. “You know as the Florida Gators, it is our responsibility to get it closer.”
Saturday provides Florida a chance to do just that.
When UF and LSU kick off from Tiger Stadium at 1 p.m., Florida has the opportunity to make a statement and show Florida -- and the rest of the SEC East for that matter -- is not that far behind the West.
If that doesn’t happen, the divide between East and West will become apparent yet again.
“The East will become good again,” Tebow said, “but I think it's time.”