SEC - Eastern Division
August 1st, 2013
August 1st, 2013
1. South Carolina
Two consecutive games against LSU and Florida cost the Gamecocks an undefeated season and an SEC Championship game berth--rather, I should say, a National Semifinal birth. They lost by two points in Death Valley against LSU and played a sloppy game against the Gators that resulted in a blowout; however, the score wasn't indicative of how close the game actually was. Both Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson saw the field, both playing well under center. The two signal-callers return, which will be a tremendous luxury as they try to capture their first National Title.
Connor Shaw will start at QB after his breakout year in 2012. The son of a football coach and brother of former Georgia Tech QB Jaybo Shaw, Connor is a smart and effective offensive leader. Unlike last year, he will have the pressure of being a playmaker and not just a game-manager. Like his brother, his main nemesis will be the Georgia Bulldogs as the winner of the September 7th matchup will have control of the division. Marcus Lattimore's departure at Running Back will be a blow, but South Carolina did not lose a game after Lattimore went down with his injury against Tennessee. The offensive line should be improved as the unit returns four starters, including 6'8" 340 lb. Corey Robinson. The offense will need to take advantage against Georgia's depleted defense if the Gamecocks want to win the crucial game.
On defense, it starts with All-Everything DE Jadeveon Clowney. The proud owner of an ESPY award, Clowney is already a household name as he heads into his junior season. Clowney has been rumored to run a 4.4 40 yard dash in summer workouts and must live up to the ridiculous expectations if the Gamecocks want to take the next step as a program. Kelcy Quarles returns to start next to Clowney and should reap the benefits of one-on-one blocking due to Clowney's presence. None of the LBs from last year's team return so this could be the greatest weakness on this team. And finally the secondary returns three of four starters including CB Victor Hampton who must step up as the leader of the unit.
South Carolina, Georgia, and Clemson all play each other this season. If one team can go 2-0, they will be on the fast track to a national title appearance. Unfortunately for Georgia and South Carolina, the road there also goes through Tuscaloosa. If the Gamecocks can take advantage of their soft SEC schedule, they will be one of the most legitimate title contenders in the nation.
UGA picked to finish second in one of the most difficult divisions in football--good, right? Not if you are Mark Richt. Richt has made a living of being second best; and while the talent and execution has been very good, he needs to break through and win the big one. This season he will have a legitimate chance to bring home the crystal ball once again as the Bulldogs return one of the nation's most prolific offenses. Aaron Murray returns at QB after turning down the NFL in January. The 'Dream Team'--Richt's moniker for last season's sophomore class--lived up to the hype and can now be relied on as juniors.
The dynamic WR corp led by 'Dream Team' members Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley should light up the box score week in and week out. Conley scored six times last year and Mitchell is poised for a breakout season as he is one of the more dynamic playmakers in the conference. Surprisingly, this talented group is the biggest question mark on offense. The entire offensive line returns and so does the two-headed monster at running back in 1st team All-SEC selection Todd Gurley and his sidekick Keith Marshall. Aaron Murray is the last piece of the puzzle for this group that looks to improve upon its insane 37.8 point per game average last season.
DC Todd Grantham has out-performed his predecessor, but still has some work to do before the Bulldogs win it all. Last year, UGA had some of the best defensive talent in the nation. I expected Georgia to hold opponents to less than 19.6 points per game, which is good, but not good enough. This season, the Dawgs will have to improve upon last year's 4.14 allowed yards per rush. In the SEC Title Game, Alabama ran the ball at will. However, NT John Jenkins and Alec Ogletree do not return presumably leaving UGA less talented up the middle. Ogletree played a bit out of control, but his talent cannot be replaced. Ultimately, this hole is why I have Georgia second in the division. Another notable loss was the national sack-leader Jarvis Jones. Sophomore Jordan Jenkins looks to replace him and I believe he will do a fine job in doing so.
This year, UGA will be forced to play LSU after avoiding Alabama, Texas A&M, and the Tigers in 2012. Also on the schedule is a week one matchup at Clemson, which could provide one of the more exciting, high-scoring games all year that already has national title implications. For the Bulldogs to win The Coaches' Trophy, they will have to go through one of the more daunting schedules. Simply put, I don't think they will get it done.
Will Muschamp, who looks more like a frat boy than an accomplished football coach, flourished in his second season as head coach. LB Ronald Powell was the former number one overall recruit out of high school--there are three number one overall recruits in this division, no big deal--and was finally looking the part in 2012 spring practices before he tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Had he been available last season, the Gators could have had one of the all-time great defenses, and maybe we wouldn't be talking about Alabama's national championship reign. Still, the Gators are talented again and may surprise people for the second straight season.
The offense was stagnant in 2011 and improved last season behind an improved QB Jeff Driskel and RB Mike Gillislee. Driskel will have to make his receivers better this season as there is talent but no bonafide star. Although he didn't fill up the box score in every game, Driskel was efficient. I feel that Driskel could take the biggest leap of all the SEC QBs this season and will have to play that way if the Gators want to capture the division. The do-everything Trey Burton returns for his senior season at WR and should improve his production after a lackluster 2012 campaign. The offensive line is extremely talented led by bookends DJ Humphries and Chaz Green. Humphries has the feet of a boxer and is a future first round pick.
The defense was the only SEC unit to hold ranked teams to less than 100 yards rushing and 20 points per game. It also held the Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in check, providing my argument as to why the signal caller should not have won. Unfortunately, the stars will not align this season as Powell returns while Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Omar Hunter, Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic. The Gators reload, but these losses cannot simply be replaced. UF finished ninth in the conference in sacks last year, which may have been their one weakness on defense: taking down the QB. Particularly, the defense struggled getting to Aaron Murray, who the Gators failed to sack once in its only regular season loss. The secondary is supremely talented, but the front seven will take a step back this season, which is why I do not expect Florida to beat out Georgia or South Carolina in the standings.
Winning the division is certainly the goal for Florida, but whether they want to accept it or not, this is a rebuilding year. Fans should be proud of the talent their team can field during a rebuilding year--talent capable of winning the division--but ultimately, the Gators lack the star power that UGA and South Carolina possess limiting them to a third place finish.
After Texas A&M took the SEC by storm and finished top five in the national polls to end the season, it was easy to forget about the other, less-fortunate new member. Missouri was the team with higher expectations, but caught the injury bug and failed to adapt to the physical style of play in the conference. QB James Franklin was one of those players plagued by injuries and recorded a disappointing season after a big 2011. This season, I feel good about predicting a more fortunate season in the injury department. For this reason, I think Missouri will bounce back to its usual self.
The offense averaged seven points less per game than it did in 2011. The offensive line was the unit hit hardest by injuries and is also the unit that relies most on stability and continuity. Therefore, I feel that improved play under center and in the trenches will solve most of the problems from last year. However, if it doesn't, improved skill position talent should. Dorial Green-Beckham had a subpar freshman season, but the good news is that he is still a freak of nature. Former five-star recruit Darius White transferred to Missouri from Texas and is now eligible to play giving Missouri, on paper, one of the best receiving tandems in the nation. And Henry Josey returns at RB after sitting out last season with an injury; he was 1st team All-Big XII in 2011.
Defensively, I do not feel as confident that the Tigers will improve upon last year's effort. They lose first round pick DT Sheldon Richardson who single-handily dominated offensive lines last season. Four other starters do not return. DE Kony Ealy was one of my favorite recruits out of high school and has the potential to be very disruptive this season. The back seven isn't one of the most experienced groups in the conference, but another season of seeing the same offenses should help as I see this group improving a bit from last year's unit. If the offense improves like I think it will, the defense does not need to improve mightily. It cannot regress from its allowed 28.4 points average per game.
While a three game stretch of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina prevents me from calling this schedule easy, it is certainly manageable. Do not be surprised if the Tigers upset Texas A&M to end the year as they get the Aggies in Columbia for an old-school Big XII matchup. Expect the Tigers to make a big jump in 2013.
Vanderbilt, the elite academic institution in the conference, is outperforming many of it resource-rich counterparts on the gridiron as well. Much to the chagrin of local teams like Kentucky and Tennessee, Head Coach James Franklin has been making waves since his arrival in Nashville. This year, the Commodores should compete in a similar fashion as 2012: not contend for the division, but go bowling and surprise teams week in and week out. Although, at this point, we can hardly say Vanderbilt is surprising anybody.
Offensively, Vanderbilt has one of the top receiving units in the nation led by two-time All-SEC performer Jordan Matthews and junior Chris Boyd. Both are big and physical and can go up and get it in the endzone. Whoever wins the QB job will be fortunate to have the weapons around him to succeed. The question is whether or not Vanderbilt has anybody of worth to sling the rock. Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels would naturally be thought of as the starter, but redshirt freshman Patton Robinette may steal the job. Additionally, the interior offensive line will have a lot to prove after the loss of two guards. The offense average slightly over 4 yards per rush last year, so at least maintaining production from last year will be key.
The Commodores have improved defensively each of the past two seasons. In 2010, the defense allowed over 31 points per game and last year it allowed 18.7 points per game. The unit only returns six starters and will struggled to repeat last year's effort. The back seven is experienced and talented, but the front seven, which was very good in 2012, will be green. DE Caleb Azubike showed flashes last year as a freshman and will need to step up if the Commodores want to effectively rush the passer. The secondary will be anchored by CB Andre Hal, a 2nd team All-SEC selection last year, and should improve upon last year's results despite losing Trey Wilson.
If the Commodores can put together another winning season they will have put together three straight bowl appearances. The three times Vanderbilt appeared in bowl games before that was 2008, 1982, and 1974. While fans may have the taste of victory in their mouths and want more, they need to take a step back and realize that James Franklin is building a winning program, and that is more important than any one season.
Tennessee once again has a new coach, Butch Jones. He inherits a talented team, but talent doesn't just simply win in this conference. Jones did a great job rebuilding Cincinnati after Brian Kelly's departure along with the team's core. Cincinnati was a contender in the Big East far before they should have been and now the Vols think they have their man.
Offensively, Jones will have his work cut out for him if he wants to take a step forward in 2013; QB Tyler Bray and WRs Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson head to the NFL. Bray had more talent than nearly any QB in the nation, but was very inconsistent--a formula that doesn't necessarily lead to W's. Patterson's absence at WR and KR and Hunter's deep ball threat will be missed without a doubt, but Jones may want to install a power running game behind his talented line and stable of backs featuring Marlin Lane. I do not expect the Vols to put up huge numbers this year, but I expect a smarter, better style. For example, UT relied on the passing game in 2012, but only put up 3 passing TDs in the 4th quarter all year.
On defense, Tennessee returns a lot of talent. However, it is talent that failed to produce last season as the Vols allowed an average of 35.7 points per game. The defense is led by Junior LB AJ Johnson who recorded 138 tackles in 2012 and may be playing his last season in the college ranks. Riyahd Jones, Justin Coleman, Byron Moore, and Brian Randolph provide an experienced and talented secondary. Randolph was injured last season and had to redshirt after a very promising freshman campaign. He is a very talented player out of Georgia and could finally provide the void left by Eric Berry's departure after the 2010 season.
While the Vols have a powerful offensive line and a talented defensive roster, I do not expect much from Butch Jones in his first season. The passing attack may struggle and the defense, while talented, hasn't proven much. Jones will eventually field a winner, but Tennessee will not compete for the division title in 2013.
While there is a buzz surrounding the program under the new leadership of former Florida State DC Mark Stoops, this year may still be tough. They haven't had stability at QB since Andre Woodson left and they are still unproven under center. However, Stoops turned around the Florida State defense immediately, and Big Blue Nation will be hoping he can do the same with 7 returning starters on that side to work with.
Offensively, it was a struggle in 2012, being shut out twice and averaging only 17 points per game. Maxwell Smith started the season with great numbers albeit against lower competition. Smith will probably be able to post solid numbers, but staying healthy will be critical in his development and the program's future. Backups Patrick Towles and Whitlow struggled last season, but have experience if needed. Two starters along the line will not return, including the team's best player Larry Warford. The running game was solid last season, averaging over 4 yards per carry, but should dip with Warford's absence.
On defense, Mark Stoops may be the greatest addition. The defense will be led by the front seven including All-SEC performers DE Alvin Dupree and MLB Avery Williamson. The injuries that the defensive backs faced last season should help this team as the younger players now have more experience. The secondary is a major question mark that could be huge in determining this units success. Overall, expect an improved unit that will still struggle against more talented opponents.
Different year, same results. Except this year Wildcat fans should be able to bare it because change is on the horizon. Stoops is hot on the recruiting trail and has all the qualities of a top-tier coach. Fortunately for Kentucky, poor on-field results in the Joker Phillips era will allow Stoops to improve with relative ease; winning only one SEC game will be an improvement on last season and could give the program more momentum heading into 2014.