The Georgia Bulldogs seem to finally be close to full strength. A plethora of injuries derailed what could have been a promising 2013 season after being 5 yards shy of winning an SEC championship and a berth in the BCS National Championship game in 2012. Mark Richt, the longest tenured coach in the SEC (besides Steve Spurrier who had his hiatus in the NFL) has won 2 SEC titles, 5 SEC East titles and also 2 Sugar Bowl in 3 appearances, has seem to have done it all…except win a National Championship. The Dawgs have some studs on both sides of the ball but may have too many questions to be the team to beat in the East.
921 completions, 13,166 yards, 121 touchdowns, 13,562 yards and 4 years later, Hutson Mason is now the starting quarterback. For those of you who don’t know, those stats belong to current Kansas City Chief and former UGA quarterback Aaron Murray. Mason has been patiently waiting behind one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the SEC. Now, there is no doubt that Mason is the guy, which is what UGA fans wanted to hear. Mason has control of the reins of the offense and had a couple of opportunities to start when Murray tore his ACL in November. Mason has some names around him like Todd Gurley, who might be the best running back in the country. Star wide receivers, Chris Conely, Michael Bennet, and an experienced center in David Andrews also lead a group of young players and a bunch of players still returning from injury.
After a couple of years with some less-than-stellar defenses, the Dawgs made a change this year by letting go of Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham and hiring Florida State’s Defensive Coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt is coming off a national championship season with the Noles whose defense was one of the best in the nation and gave up only 12 points per game. Similar to the offense, there are both big time play makers and questions. Linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Armarlo Herrera, and the SEC’s leading tackler, Ramik Wilson, will anchor the Dawgs defense. The recent transfers of “star” backer Josh Harvey Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins have put holes in the defensive secondary that has been a disappointment in the past two seasons. If Pruitt can find out what the issue is with the secondary then the offense won’t have to score 40 points to win a game.
It just seems that there are too many puzzle pieces that the Dawgs have to fit before the season begins. Georgia will win some games and will go bowling this year, but will probably miss out on the inaugural playoff. That being said, if theBulldogs find a way to beat Auburn and South Carolina, there is no reason why Georgia can't compete for a National Title.
South Carolina continues to hit new highs as a program in the golden era that they have reached under Steve Spurrier. However, fans are clamoring for their team to break through to the next level of college football’s elite, failing to reach a BCS bowl amidst tremendous success. The Gamecocks have won 11 games each of the past three years and there is one reason why they did not reach a BCS bowl game: the Southeastern Conference. They have proven to be the superior Carolina team, but Clemson has been in the national spotlight come January because of its weaker conference. Still, USC finds itself in contention to win the SEC once again, or at the very least the East Division.
The offense returns nine starters, but it might as well be ten because of the experience Dylan Thompson brings to the table at QB. While Connor Shaw was an all-time great Gamecock QB, there is room for improvement. Shaw was the perfect QB given South Carolina’s makeup, which has been an elite defensive team. Shaw threw for 24 touchdowns and only 1 interception last year! That type of play cannot simply be replaced. However, Shaw played poorly in their losses and lacked the elite throwing ability to truly carry USC over the hump. While I have been back-and-forth in my assessment of Shaw, I will say this: while it is unlikely Thompson takes care of the ball and orchestrates the offense as well as Shaw, there is a chance he can take this offense to a new level given his arm talent. With Mike Davis running the ball behind him and a great offensive line, the opportunity will be there for Thompson to really open this offense up with his arm. WRs Damiere Byrd and Shaq Roland are both very capable receivers and will get open for Thompson. Jerell Adams will probably be the only real TE threat after Rory Anderson’s injury and surgery, which will have him shelved for the season.
Defensively, USC may take a slight step backwards. The back seven is probably improved, but the defensive front will certainly take a hit with the loss of Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. Quarles benefitted from the double and triple teams that Clowney received and tallied 9.5 sacks on the year. The front allowed 4.3 yards per carry, which could be improved with better linebacker play. Skai Moore was the leading tackler and had the most interceptions on the team last year as a freshman and could be a star this year in the middle alongside Sharrod Golightly, who was an all-conference performer in 2013. I think this linebacker unit will be one of the best in nation and could power this defense to a better performance than last years. However, on paper, this defense will take a small hit.
Fortunately for the Gamecocks, most of this offense that averaged 34.1 points per game returns and looks to be one of the best units in the conference. They are a tight number two behind Georgia even though there is a part of me that wants to move them ahead of UGA. However, I have a little more faith in the Georgia defense, which is why the USC falls here. I believe that Georgia and South Carolina are legitimate contenders in the SEC, making them legitimate contenders in the National Title race. If Thompson steps up like he is capable of doing, watch out. We may finally have the Gamecocks knocking through the proverbial roof and into the College Football Playoff, a sweet consolation for missing out in the BCS era.
What was once a powerhouse program and the crème de la crème of the SEC has taken a couple of steps back in recent years. The Florida Gators are looking to bounce back from a year that they want to forget. The Gators saw a plethora of injuries and bad luck in 2013 which culminated in a 4-8 record and Head Coach, Will Muschamp, landing on the hot seat. The Gators seem to have the pieces returning from injury and also the pieces coming in to be a contender in the East, but if the Gators have another sub-par year, then Muschamp might not be in Gainesville in the next year.
Jeff Driskel has proven himself to be the field general and has quite a few wins to his resume. He needs to be under center for the Gators to have a chance in the east. After Driskel went down in 2013, the Gator’s season was over. Driskel, Andre Debose, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and Tyler Moore return for the Gators in an offense that will stress protecting its quarterback and have the mentality that, at any moment, anyone can be in. Debose is a down field threat and could be one of the best receivers in the SEC. Solomon Patton, who was one of the most consistent players for the Gators, led the team with 44 receptions, six touchdowns and 556 receiving yards and will be called on with Debose to lead the Gators attack.
Like the offense, the Gators defense was devastated by injury. One of the only bright spots on the defense was freshman Vernon Hargreaves, who had a break out year and is looking to lead the Gators secondary and defense. Hargreaves earned All-SEC honors as well as Freshman All-American Honors. The Tampa native might now seem to have some supporting cast. Incoming Freshman Jalen Tabor, Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley headline the Gators recruiting class that is looking to improve the defense. All three of the guys should see immediate action.
The Gators look to be one of the most improved teams this year. Last year, injuries hurt the Gators a lot and the season just sort of unraveled. While the jury is out on Will Muschamp as the leader of this program, he has shown he can be very competent for a year as long as the talent is there. In 2012, the Gators were arguably the best team in the country. The defense won't be quite at that unbelievable level so I don't expect a National Title run, but I could see a National Title run before I could see a repeat of last year. This is an important year for UF. With the momentum of the state clearly in Florida State's favor, the Gators can't stand around and let them take over.
2013 was a season to remember for Missouri as the Tigers went 12-2 including an SEC East Division crown and maybe most importantly the confidence in knowing that they can win big in the Southeastern Conference. In 2012, Mizzou’s inaugural year in the conference, the injury bug hit home in Columbia. The Tigers’ season was over before it really got started. I predicted them to finish higher than anyone else last year (4th) but obviously not quite as high as they climbed. This year, Missouri only returns four starters on each side of the ball and will struggle to duplicate what they did last year.
Offensively, it begins and ends with Maty Mauk, the sophomore Quarterback who did a great job maintaining Missouri’s dream season last year while James Franklin was injured. Mauk was only a freshman last season and should continue to grow under center this year. Unfortunately he loses just about his entire supporting cast. The offensive line loses a major cog in LT Justin Britt, but returns three players and should be in decent shape. The skill positions really take a major hit after losing specimens L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham at Wide Receiver and Henry Josey at Running Back. Washington had speed to burn and in his 6’4” frame was one of the most lethal weapons in the SEC. Green-Beckham was 6’6” and one of the most intimidating receivers in the country. Not to mention, the Tigers’ third target, 6’5” Marcus Lucas does not return either. The loss of these three targets is a huge loss. This isn’t any ordinary loss of a team’s top three receivers. The Tigers relied on these three receivers and dictated how defenses defended three huge targets on the outside. And the aforementioned loss of Henry Josey leaves a big hole in the backfield. Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy showed they are more than capable of handling the load, but Josey’s speed and vision cannot simply be replaced.
Defensively, the Tigers lose just as much. They lose SEC Defensive Player of the Year DE Michael Sam, 2nd round draft pick DE Kony Ealy, 2nd team All-American CB EJ Gaines, and leading tackler Andrew Wilson. They do return some key players, however, like DTs Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent and DE Markus Golden, who garnered 3rd team SEC honors last year while splitting time with Sam and Ealy. While the defensive line may not be as dominant as it was last year, it should still be one of the better units in the SEC. Shane Ray will move into the starting lineup opposite of Golden and the interior line should have a lot of depth with Josh Augusta, Harold Brantley, and spring standout DeQuinton Osbourne. The back seven will need to fill a lot of holes, particularly in the secondary. MLB Kentrell Brothers returns after a very good sophomore season, but the jury is still out on the rest of the corp.
Overall, the best thing Missouri may have going this season is their schedule. Texas A&M and Arkansas are two very beatable foes from the West Division while also getting Vanderbilt and Kentucky at home. Those are four very winnable games along with their game at Tennessee, which will be big in deciding the fourth spot in the division. Overall, I can certainly see Missouri in a bowl game, but nowhere near a nationally-ranked top 5 team like they were last season.
Butch Jones returns for his second season in Knoxville. Already, he has eclipsed Lane Kiffin’s mark and Vol fans hope he can be a long-term solution and not a quick cog like Kiffin and Derek Dooley have been since Phil Fulmer’s departure. Jones has recruited well since getting to Knoxville and has shown he is a good in-game coach as well. Kiffin struggled in games and Dooley did not quite recruit at the level it takes to break through in this tough conference. Jones seems to be in the process of fixing this prideful and historic program, but this may not be the year they exactly break through.
Justin Worley returns at QB for his senior season after a pretty lackluster season in 2013. Joshua Dobbs also returns who saw time last year as a true sophomore, but struggled with only two touchdowns and six interceptions. Worley passed for right around 50% on the road and/or against teams with winning records. He now loses the luxury of playing behind one of the best lines in the league, but will have much more talented skill players around him. The offensive line is talented but young and inexperienced. I do expect a bit of a drop off in that regard, but an improved Worley and receiving corp could make up for these losses along the front. Freshman Wide Receiver Josh Malone had a legendary spring game for an early enrollee. He reeled in three touchdowns and looked excellent. Big target Marquez North had a big spring game and struggled at times last year to be the number one target. However, he is very talented and will certainly benefit from being surrounded by Josh Malone and JUCO transfer Von Pearson. Another standout from the spring was freshman RB Jalen Hurd. In time, Hurd will be a force in the conference. At 6’3” he is extremely versatile and athletic to be playing running back. He reminds me of Darren McFadden and the only question is if he will break out this year or next.
Defensively, it starts and ends with 1st team SEC LB AJ Johnson. He is the leader of the defense and the best linebacker in the conference. Curt Maggitt and Jalen Reeves-Maybin flank him to form the linebacker corp. Both players had great spring practices and should give the Vols a good second level of defense. The line loses a lot including Jacques Smith and Daniel McCullers. However, last year’s unit struggled mightily in getting pressure on the quarterback. I don’t know if the answer lies on this roster, but I can’t imagine this unit performing much worse than last years. And finally, the secondary returns everybody, including Brian Randolph, one of the league’s best safeties. He will need to have the best season of his career as he heads the secondary.
Overall, I like what Jones is doing. Last year, I jumped the gun a little bit on Ole Miss because I liked what Hugh Freeze was doing too. I don’t think this is Tennessee’s year, similar to how the Rebels weren’t quite ready last season. However, if Jones keeps recruiting the way he is, I expect the Vols to be on top very soon.
Big Blue Nation watched its beloved basketball team put together a magical late-season run in the march. Could something similar happen on the gridiron? The program certainly has a lot of momentum in its favor and it returns 15 starters from last year. Mark Stoops has injected a shot of adrenaline and then some into this football team. Just take a look at their recruiting classes. This could be a Cinderella-type year for the Wildcats depending on what your expectation for the season is. Last year, the Wildcats were pretty much a lock for the cellar of the division. This year, I could see the Wildcats maybe even making its way up to 4th in the division behind Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.
I mentioned the recruiting classes that Mark Stoops has turned in thus far. Look no further than the talent he has been able to bring in at Quarterback. Former Parade All-American Patrick Towles figures to be the starter after looking good in the spring. And if he can’t get the job done, Army All-American Drew Barker could get a shot as a true freshman. In a couple years, Kentucky should be extremely competitive because one of these two players should become one of the league’s best quarterbacks. The rest of the offense should be improved as well after a poor year of averaging just over 20 points per game. The skill players still do not pose a major threat, but with improved quarterback play, the passing numbers and rushing numbers should go up.
As for the defense, I think the defensive-minded Stoops is about to make a huge improvement. The biggest weakness is at defensive tackle. The Cats will be breaking in two new starters along the interior line after giving up 4.9 yards per carry last season. The linebackers should be improved, which could help the run defense. The strength will lie in the pass rush. Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith could form one of the best Defensive End duos in the nation and will be a force in the pass rush. However, if teams can run the ball all day then the pass rush is really just an afterthought. The defensive backs should be improved with the addition of some talented freshmen and the return of all of last year’s starters. The defense failed to come up with many turnovers last year, which will need to change this year if they are to indeed turn it around.
While I clearly don’t anticipate Kentucky finishing 4th, I do think they have that potential. The Cats draw Mississippi State at home out of the West, which could be a potential upset game. With a soft out-of-conference schedule, UK might be bowling for the first time since 2010. It’s too bad the new College Football Playoff only takes 4 teams and not 68!
It seems that everything was looking up for the Vanderbilt Commodores. After coming off back to back winning season for the first time since 1974 and 1975 Vanderbilt sealed their position as one the SEC’s up in comers. During the offseason the business of college football hit Nashville like a storm and stole James Franklin from the Commodores and placed him at University Park as the new coach of Penn State. Vanderbilt now has to start from scratch with new head coach Derek mason and try and keep up the momentum that Franklin was able to bring to the Commodore program. Mason won’t have much time to solidify himself in the grueling SEC
Along with the loss of James Franklin Vanderbilt has to fill the vacancies left by the departure of the SEC’s all-time leading receiver, Jordan Matthews, and quarterback Austyn Carta Samuels. Matthews was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Carta-Samuels, who missed 2 games with an ACL injury was spelled by Patton Robinette who has a chance to be the starting quarterback at the start of the Season. There is still no clear starting quarterback and Mason is in no rush to name the starter. Robinette is in a competition with redshirt freshman Johhny McCrary and recent LSU transfer Stephen Rivers. Vandy’s greatest offensive threat is 5’6” running back Jerron Seymour who ran for 14 touchdowns and 744 yards while sharing snaps with Brian Kimbrow. This season, the offense has to start with Seymour who will have to do more with other proven offensive threats like Jordan Matthews.
The Defense has to replace 7 starters in 2014 which won’t be an easy task with the SEC being loaded with offensive talent. Derek Mason was able to help transform the Stanford Cardinal defense into one of the country’s elite defenses. If there is anyone that can fit in 7 new starters it will be Mason. Caleb Azubike “the Nigerian Nightmare, team sack leader Kyle Woestmann and Darreon Herring, the defenses returning tackler, are three great players that Mason will rely on to lead this defense. If no one else is able to step up then it will be a long 2014 for Vanderbilt who play Ole Miss, UGA, Florida, Miss St., Tennessee and South Carolina whom all have high-octane offenses. Like Seymour, the defense has to start with these proven names who will have to over achieve in 2014.
Vanderbilt seems to be the only team, along with Missouri, that will not be improving in 2014. Couple that with the loss of their leader and I just can't see the Commodores doing to well in the SEC East this year. While the cupboard isn't exactly bare, the SEC doesn't allow for teams to get by with the cupboard "not exactly bare." I have confidence that Derek Mason will not allow Vandy to go back to be the old Vandy, but I do expect a rough first season.