A companion piece to the SEC West article that ran yesterday morning, a few thoughts from around the SEC East with only two days left until opening kick-off on the 2012 college football season:
Florida: Lots of raw talent throughout the roster, but several issues to address at numerous positions. Offensive line should be better, and Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown should provide at least some semblance of an interior running game. The bigger concern is the passing game, where quarterback play may yet again be a glaring hole (still no starter named as of this writing, nor will one likely be named until after the season opener) and where there is still no size outside at wide receiver. Given those problems, the defense needs to carry this team, especially early in the season. The raw talent is there, but consistency and discipline has to significantly improve. Strength of schedule could be a backbreaker. With Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Florida State on the slate, this could be a solid team and still finish no better than 8-4.
Georgia: The SEC East favorite, thanks in large part to Aaron Murray and the rejuvenated 3-4 defense under Todd Grantham. Malcolm Mitchell may be one of the big breakout players in the league, and Jarvis Jones will be the best linebacker in the conference if he can stay healthy. The defense should be outstanding after returning nearly every meaningful contributor from a year ago, and may arguably be the best in the conference. Kind of weak on the offensive line, as usual, and that will create significant problems against the South Carolina defensive line, but that won't generally be a major obstacle unless they see Alabama or LSU in Atlanta. Losing Isiah Crowell does not help the running game, but his dismissal does not meaningfully change their season projection. Given the weak schedule, it's hard to see this team not reaching at least ten regular season wins and a return trip to the SEC Championship Game. If it weren't for the fact that this is Georgia and Mark Richt, it would be very tempting to pick this team as a dark horse national championship contender.
Kentucky: Despite the generational upset of Tennessee, this team finished 3-9 a year ago and has suffered significant attrition since then. Given that, hard to see any real signs of hope here. La'Rod King and CoShik Williams are quality players, but struggles seem imminent at quarterback and on the offensive line, and the offense as a whole has no real scheme identity. Defensively some key players have departed, and the defensive back seven looks downright dire. Beyond that, is there anything to suggest that Joker Phillips is a legitimate head coach of SEC caliber? If he survives in Lexington another year, it will likely say more about UK's lack of interest in the football program and their low expectations for the same, more so than anything about Phillip's coaching prowess.
Missouri: James Franklin instantly becomes the best dual threat quarterback in the conference, and the offense looks potent. Wide receiver corps has size, a returning star, and an instant impact freshman to round out the group, the offensive line is experienced, and they have had success in the running game out of the spread passing attack. The problem here is the defense, where the front seven is the culprit. The defensive line badly needs Sheldon Richardson to live up to the recruiting hype, and the linebacker corps looks fairly pedestrian outside of Zaviar Gooden. Should those front seven issues be addressed, though, this unit will surprise because the defensive backfield is a strong group. Many seemingly expect this team to be in for a rude awakening in a tougher league, but Missouri won eight games a year ago, beat Texas and Texas A&M, and were competitive in every game. Don't expect Missouri to reach Atlanta, but this team is too good just to roll over.
South Carolina: One of the hardest projections in the league. Talent level has been rising in Columbia for years and Spurrier is coming off an eleven win season. Still, the NFL Draft hit them very hard, Marcus Lattimore is still an unknown recovering from a torn ACL, and the offense as a whole is a continuing source of concern. Connor Shaw must stay healthy and play well. The defensive line will be one of the best in the country, and Jadeveon Clowney should be a star. Having said that, the loss of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson could be substantial, and question marks at offensive tackle could prove dangerous to a passing game that ranked near the bottom nationally a year ago. Much like last year, hard to see them edging out Georgia in the SEC East due to the scheduling disparities between the two, even if they can pull out the head-to-head match-up.
Tennessee: De facto contract year for Derek Dooley. For a team that expects to rely almost solely on its passing attack, the suspension and subsequent transfer of Da'Rick Rogers and the incomplete recovery of Justin Hunter from a torn ACL has to weigh heavily as a concern. The offensive line should finally be a good unit with some experience in tow, but there is no standout at tailback, the defense is littered with question marks, and the roster as a whole lacks quality depth. After a disastrous 2011 season, Dooley tried to solidify the program with a new defensive coordinator (Sal Sunseri) and numerous JUCO signees. As such, he will need strong performances from transfers Cordarrelle Patterson, Daniel McCullars, Maurice Couch, and former 'Bama product Darrington Sentimore. The hope is that numerous returning starters and a junior college infusion can either catch a spark, or, in the alternative, do enough to give the Tennessee homers a sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Probably one of the most volatile teams in the league this season, Tennessee could be a surprise team in a weaker division, or could crash and burn by late October.
Vanderbilt: James Franklin did a better job than any other coach in the league a year ago, and his impact on the Vanderbilt program has been nothing short of incredible. The talent level is rising quickly due to numerous recruiting successes, but in the interim it's still an uphill battle even against the middling teams of the SEC. Jordan Rodgers was named the starting quarterback after a tough 2011 season, and his improvement, or lack thereof, will be key. Zac Stacy is likely the best tailback in the conference you have never heard of, and Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd bring legitimate size at the wide receiver position, giving Vandy far more firepower at the offensive skill positions than you would otherwise suspect. The defense returns seven starters, but the four losses were big ones, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will have to craft a formidable unit from a group of players long on experience but short on top-end talent. Avoiding Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas on the conference schedule will be a tremendous help. Six wins may be feasible.