Thursday we covered the SEC West in our preliminary, way-too-early look at the SEC after spring games. Next week, we’ll have the WNaBP Top 25, but first we conclude by looking at our own little neighborhood in the SEC East.
What if I told you that the lesser division for almost a decade may finally be on track? Would you believe me? It may not happen this year, but with the numerous defensive issues that most Western teams face, the East has a puncher’s chance to narrow the gap to its slimmest margin since the mid-’00s. It either says something about the East returning a number of young, dynamic quarterbacks or that the middle class of the West is getting a little worse (probably both, TBH.)
After watching the showcases, spring games, and other fan galas, this is how the East shakes out going into the offseason.
1. Florida Gators. The Gators lost nearly their entire secondary, but they looked to some have talent, even if not much experienced depth. The front seven is stout per usual, despite some key losses -- it’s Florida, they throw a rock and hit a blue chip defensive lineman. The kicking game has the potential to be excellent, with some improvement in consistency. But for an offensive coordinator’s team, the offense did not look dynamic. At all. Jordan Scarlett (RB) and Antonio Callaway provide a good nucleus of skills players, but quarterback again is an issue if Luke Del Rio cannot go. RSF Feleipe Franks was passably competent, going 8-14 for nearly 120-yards. He was certainly better than RSF Kyle Trask, who hit just 25% of his 8 passes. You have to think that Luke Del Rio returns to the starting job when he gets back from shoulder rehab. While it’s not exciting football, it is competent. And, for the SEC East, that will probably be enough again.
T-2. Georgia Bulldogs. On paper, the Dawgs should win the division handily. Jacob Eason is a stud, and EE Freshman QB Jake Fromm will probably be just as good. From looked really good early, and Eason looked good late -- the latter still needs to work on his decision making; he had an unconscionable 8-21/3INT first half. The veteran running back corps did not really participate, but Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel return this fall for a proven punch in the backfield (Holyfield was just arrested and his status is up in the air.) The OL is a mix of vets and some incoming players, and that front looked less than stellar against their counterparts. The front seven looked good --easily the strongest unit on the field in the Red/Black Game and can improve further if everyone is healthy and/or not arrested. I still have questions about the secondary, where they were lit up in several conference games last season. Worse, they lost veteran performers back there, with only Dominick Sanders standing out. I don’t think the Dawgs have it all together just yet, particularly in three areas: 1. At head coach where Kirby had a few absolutely terrible moments last season; 2. The OL is very suspect going into conference play; 3. And I don’t know that the defensive backfield can hold up against a sustained passing attack. For now, the more talented Dawgs take a backseat to the boring, but business-like Gators.
T-2. South Carolina Gamecocks. Wait...really? Yup. This team finished its regular season 6-6 last season despite being completely overwhelmed to start the season (and against Clemson, woof.) In the Birmingham Bowl, they held their own with the high flying USF Bulls, losing in OT by a TD. A lot of that optimism has to do with the ‘Cocks new identity as a dynamic passing team. South Carolina returns 10 starters here, including Jake Bentley who was quite good (19-31, 311 yards, 3 TDs). Add to that UNC tranfer RB Ty’son Williams who dropped 83 yards on just 11 carries. Of course, the flipside to the zero-sum game is a defense that looked pedestrian against the run and then occasionally impotent against the pass. The Gamecocks have a little talent at all three levels, but the problem is that each unit on the defense really has one guy that’s a difference maker -- and I’m not even sure that exists in the secondary. Muschamp’s second go ‘round has been night and day from his first: His teams are getting better, more sound, and they are exciting offensively. USC is going to win more games than you think in 2017 just based on the offense, but the defense isn’t talented enough to keep them in the race till the end. The USC-Georgia game and the Gameck-Missouri game should be barnburners. Talent is coming slowly but surely on Boom’s classes, but they’re still a year away from being a potential front-runner.
4. Missouri Tigers. Call this another dark horse. I like Barry Odom a lot. He is defensive guy who has worked around MU’s talent limitations by installing the OU Air Raid with Josh Heupel. MU’s growing pains on that side of the ball eventually started to yield dividends by season’s end. The Tigers return a ton of talent on offense, including veteran QB Drew Locke. The running game should be the heart of the offense, although many backs sat out the Black and Gold Game. Dawson Downing looked like an SEC-calibre back, and he may not even be the best one in that stable. More encouragingly, the defense was significantly improved. Last year the only team worse than Arkansas, State and Ole Miss was Missouri. Mizzou finished 118th in total defense. In the spring game, the defenses held the offensive units to a 24-0 tally. Keep an eye on JUCO Rashad Brandon, he’s a fireplug that can also pressure the quarterback -- very impressive player. The defense still probably isn’t as improved as the spring would suggest. This team, like South Carolina, is going to be in a lot of shootouts. But, I don’t think it’s as good on either side of the ball as the Gamecocks are. So, call it a 7-win season in a rebuilding Columbia.
T-5. Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols lost an absolute ton this year, including its best linebacker, defensive lineman, defensive back, running back and a senior quarterback. Worse, the Vols still have Butch Jones coaching them, not the most gifted Xs and Os guy. The Vols spring game was one of many affected by storms but Quinten Dormandy was perfect. He all-but wrapped up the job, going 10-for-10 for 120 yards. RB John Kelly is a very nice back, a big body with good top-end, even though he did not play. The OL still has question marks but looked somewhat improved over last season’s tire fire. The defense has question marks all over it though. The Vols have done a great job stocking up talent the last five recruiting classes. Still, they are very raw on this side of the ball, and I do not like the WRs, who are not as good as their star ranking suggest they should be. The kicking game is very solid, so, in what I think will be a trying season in Knoxville, at least the Vawls have that. Butch has won 9 games two years in a row; it won’t happen a third year. This team probably wins 7 games in 2017.
T-5 Kentucky Wildcats. The Tennessee-UK game will be for 5th place in the division, though I do think both teams make bowl games. The Wildcats lose Boom Williams, but rotated in a pair of backs with speed and power: Shihiem Carter (your probable starter) and Benny Snell. As with last season, the running game can carry the ‘Cats a good ways. RSF Gunnar Hoak played a great game, being accurate and efficient, throwing for two TDs in the first half and leading two TD drives in the second. Still Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson are the veteran incumbents and will probably beat him out on that alone. However, given the Wildcats’ penchant for swapping QBs, I think Hoak is the starter by the end of the year. The ‘Cats have to work on the defense though. The secondary is tall, athletic, and very sure tacklers. But, the front four is soft as room temperature butter. They neither rush the passer well nor play the run well. A competent QB and an improved front four is the difference between an 8-win season and this year, probably 6-6 with the potential to slip into the cellar or into 4th place.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores. Derek Mason wants to win with power football: Play defense and run the ball. With Ralph Webb back, half of that equation is solved (Khari Blasingame also looked like an explosive change-of-pace back.) And, the ‘Dores are going to have to play that kind of football. The Commodores Spring Showcase featured Kyle Shurmur flailing around in a miserable quarterbacking effort (7-13 88 yards, 1 INT/1TD.) Losses up front at DE and especially LB hurt Vanderbilt more than most SEC teams, but the defense looked active, athletic, and in-position — that excuses a lot of sins. This team is Florida’s less-talented second cousin: competent, unexciting, one injury away from disaster. However, because Vandy doesn’t have that talent, it looks more like a 5-win squad than a 10-win East winner.
What team is going to fall the furthest this year relative to its talent and expectations?
This poll is closed
Other -- below