Step two in the “Countdown to kickoff,” with a look at how I think the SEC East Division will play out:
1. South Carolina: With the dysfunction gone at quarterback and the specter of an NCAA probe not hovering over the Gamecocks, they stand as the team to beat in the East because they have talent at several key spots – most notably more on defense than anybody in the division. Connor Shaw stabilized the offense when Stephen Garcia finally fizzled out and now he’ll have a healthy Marcus Lattimore back in the backfield. There won’t be a proven go-to receiver, but there seems to be more depth from a hungry and talented crew that toiled in the shadow of Alshon Jeffery. On defense, the Gamecocks’ two ends – Jadevon Clowney and Devin Taylor – challenge LSU’s duo of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo as the most potentially destructive in the country to anchor a defense that may be the difference between another strong season and a potential spot in the national championship race. Steve Spurrier has a few good years left, but the next few might be his best opportunity to take one more shot at glory.
2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best QB in the East in Aaron Murray and plenty of talent to surround him with, and that could add up to another 10-victory season for Mark Richt, whose job security got a shot in the arm after Georgia won the division last season. But the Bulldogs play two of the tougher games in the East on the road – at Missouri and South Carolina – making climbing to the top spot again very tricky. Georgia’s defense will have to come up big, and Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo make that possible. Some offseason drama created some shuffling in the backfield, as Isaiah Crowell was sent packing, which leaves undersized backs Brandon Horton and Carlton Thomas as the only experienced backs returning. Freshman Keith Marshall could get a shot at being the star right away and if he can be the kind of go-to runner Crowell was projected to be, Georgia could punch a return ticket to the SEC Championship Game.
3. Tennessee: After the top two, there’s a logjam among several teams with similar talent, and I think Tennessee rises to the top of that gaggle because of quarterback Tyler Bray’s return to health and the motivation created by a coach on the hot seat. Derek Dooley needs a foothold season, one he can use to re-establish the Volunteers as a legitimate contender in the East. Tennessee has the potential to be one of the league’s more explosive offenses with Bray teaming with Da’Rick Rodgers and Justin Hunter to light up Neyland Stadium. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri brings a needed breath of fresh air to a unit that allowed an average of 35.4 points a loss to Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. A notable edge for the Vols: They play Florida and Missouri at home, while the Gators hit the road three times in the first six games and the Tigers have to go to South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M besides the junket to Knoxville.
4. Florida: If the Gators can keep their defense on the field as much as possible, they have a chance to be as good as any team in the SEC. Problem is, at some point Florida will have to operate with the ball in its possession and that looms as a problem. Will Muschamp did a masterful job of reshaping the defense and welcomes back a core group that should make the Gators stingy again, although forcing turnovers needs to be a priority– the Gators created only 14 a year ago. But the UF quarterback situation is painfully unsettled, as sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel vie for the job after both got time in 2011 when John Brantley battled injuries. Equally as problematic is a receiving corps without much explosiveness, a stunning fact for a program that has churned out as many big playmakers as anybody in the country the last 20 years. Muschamp and his staff began reshaping the Gators’ image with their first real recruiting class and there will be a focus on being tougher on both lines of scrimmage this season. Does that equate to more wins in year two? Maybe one or two, but Florida is at least a year away from being in contention in the East again.
5. Missouri: While there’s no doubt Missouri has been welcomed to the SEC with open arms, the schedule-makers didn’t do the Tigers any favors and that stands as the main reason they’ll find it awfully hard to be in the East Division hunt in their maiden season in the league. A home-heavy first two months seems promising … until you realize Mizzou gets Georgia and Alabama in Columbia. Then when November rolls around, the Tigers are on the road for three games – at Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M. Much like Tennessee, Missouri will make things happen on offense. QB James Franklin goes into the season as the most experienced and dangerous dual-threat signal-caller in the league and T.J. Moe gives him a reliable target. The Tigers’ defense was steady in the Big 12 a year ago but faces a much different level of offense in the SEC, particularly on the offensive lines. It’s likely Mizzou will be competitive most of the season, but breaking even in the SEC would be a major victory.
6. Vanderbilt: Just not ready to choke down the Kool-Aid yet on the Commodores. Last year was a nice story, but if you dig under the surface a little, you’ll see that the Commodores’ six wins came against bad teams (none with a winning record) and most of their losses were to middle-of-the-pack teams. There should be a little more stability at quarterback with Jordan Rodgers pegged as the starter, and having a healthy Zac Stacy to give the ball 25 times a game will bolster an offense that was up-and-down last season. The problem will be on defense where Vandy was gutted by graduation, losing four key players, most notably linebacker Chris Marve and ball-hawking cornerback Casey Hayward. The Commodores surrendered 30 points or more in four losses and may struggle even more, especially early in the season when they have to contend with offenses from South Carolina, Northwestern, Georgia and Missouri – the Bulldogs and Tigers on the road. A step back may still be good enough to get Vandy to a bowl game, though, and in a sense, that’s still progress in Nashville.
7. Kentucky: As hard as this is to imagine, there aren’t a lot of games on the Wildcats’ schedule that you can look at and count as a win. Even Kent State, Western Kentucky and Samford are ones you have to stop and think about. That’s how bad Kentucky could be this season in year three under Joker Phillips. Last season UK fielded the worst defense in the SEC with tackling machine Danny Trevathan, who has graduated to the NFL. And Kentucky scored more than 27 points only three times all year. Sophomore quarterback Max Smith gives the Wildcats some hope after passing for 819 yards and 4 TDs last season, and he has a reliable target La’Rod King (40 receptions for 598 yards and 7 TDs last season). Unless a few more weapons emerge, though, and UK can find ways to consistently out-offense opponents, this season sure sets up as a long one in Lexington, and perhaps the last one for the personable Phillips.
Countdown to kickoff: Predicting the West Division race