South Carolina's 27-6 defensive smothering of Tennessee may have been an important turning point in the recent history of the program. The victory over Tennesse and the Vols' own internal problems may signal a re-shuffling of the pecking order in the ultra-competitive SEC East.
Since 1992 when the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina and split into the SEC East and SEC West, the top team in the East has finished with a mean ranking in the ESPN / USA Today Coaches' Poll of 5.19. The team with the second-highest ranking has finished at 13.31. At least 2 teams from the East have finished the season ranked from 1992-2007. In eight of those years, at least three teams have finished ranked (Note: Since the third team didn't always have a ranking and I could only find "Also Receiving Votes" back to 2003, I couldn't come up with a mean ranking for the third-place finisher). And in 2001, the East finished the season with four ranked teams.
Though I have no inclinantion to generate these statistics for all of the major conferences, I have no problem saying that these numbers are probably among the best of the major conferences, to say nothing of the divisions within those conferences. As good as the SEC East is relative to the rest of college football, its ability to produce Top 25 teams is obviously limited by the fact that they must all play each other.
It's difficult to imagine that the fourth team in the East has any realistic shot at ending the season ranked (again, it's only happened once). Presumably, the fourth team will have at least 3 and probably 4 SEC losses, to say nothing of it's out-of-conference schedule and a possible bowl game. Since 2002, only 6 teams have finished the season both ranked and with five losses (Florida did it 3 times, from 2002-2004).
From looking at past finishes since 1992, it seems as though finishing #1 or #2 in the East makes it highly likely that you will finish in the Top 15. The #3 team often finds itself on the bubble of the top 25, finishing the year ranked about once every other season. So it would seem that there is a lot of value to being in this top three.
Traditionally, these three spots have been dominated by three teams. The only teams to represent the East in the SEC Championship game have been Georgia (3 times), Tennessee (5 times), and Florida (7 times).
It has become well-known that the Vols are in danger of dropping out of this top three, as Phil Fulmer stumbles through another season of disappointing the Vols' boosters while the real brains behind Tennessee's success is making the hapless Blue Devils competitive in the ACC (for whatever that's worth). In a state relatively bereft of high school football talent, UT has typically relied on raiding the nearby states of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This isn't happening anymore. The arrival of Mark Richt at Georgia, Butch Davis at North Carolina, and the success of Steve Spurrier and (formerly) Tommy Bowden at keeping their top talent in-state has cut off much of Tennessee's recruiting pipeline. Combine that with their record of 3-6 (1-5 SEC) in 2008, and UT is suddenly in a precarious position just one season after going to the SEC Championship Game.
But for the Gamecocks to take advantage, they need to win two of the next three (beating Florida would be gravy, but even I am willing to acknowledge just how unlikely that is), leaving them at 8-4 for the regular season. With most of their players returning in '09 (unless Emmanuel Cook or Cap Munnerlyn make early departures), such a finish would leave them primed to make a permanent claim for that #3 spot.