Wednesday, July 25, 2012

SEC East Preview: All Quiet on the Eastern Front

After taking a look at the SEC West on Monday, it's time to take on the other half of the conference.

The SEC East has had a bit of a rough go of it as far as its top powers go the last few seasons. After Tim Tebow's Florida team took two national titles in three years (well, the 2006 team wasn't "Tebow's team", obviously), things started to go downhill after 2009, when Tebow's Gators fell to Alabama in the SEC title game. If I was ESPN, I would probably attempt to prove a causal relationship between Tebow's graduation and the SEC East's decline thereafter, and I would engage you in a debate ring constructed completely from circular logic, moronic statements, and needless shouting.

Luckily, I am not ESPN, so I'll take about things that actually matter, like football and stuff. The Tennessee Volunteers under Phil Fulmer were kind of Michigan's SEC doppleganger for years: a school depending largely on out-of-state talent, long and storied traditions, and a conservative coach with a national title to his name but also the tendency to "underachieve" from time to time (in the minds of completely rational and not at all overly demanding fans). The Volunteers eventually had to cut ties with Fulmer after a 5-7 2008 year...then Pandemonium truly broke lose in Knoxville. Lane Kiffin happened. I say that he "happened" because it was like his tenure was just one really long second; he was there for a year, hanging out in Tennessee's front lawn at 11 p.m. before deciding to ding dong ditch and run back to California. Enter Derek Dooley, who in three seasons at Louisiana Tech amassed a 17-20 record.

Thus far, things at UT haven't gone much better. Dooley has gone 6-7 and 5-7 in his first two years, resulting in the expected "AHHH NEPOTISM IS STUPID AND TERRIBLE" and "AHHH HOT SEAT" type sentiments. Tennessee's football program is definitively stuck in a RR-esque quagmire, one that they may not get out of unless Dooley is let go. Either way, this appears to be a make or break year for Dooley: if the Price Is Right Wheel of College Coaches' Fate lands on a number that puts them over a dollar, Dooley is gone and UT will be searching for a new HC once again.

One of the SECE's other traditional powers, Florida, has fallen on some hard times as well. After a mediocre post-Tebow year in 2010 and health issues, Urban Meyer stepped down, leading to the hiring of Will Muschamp. Muschamp had led some tremendous defenses at both Auburn (including that 2004 14-0 team) and Texas under Mack Brown, so a HC job was coming his way eventually. It was by all accounts a good hire, but it's still unclear if the dreaded college coaching Peter Principle will apply. Last season was similarly mediocre, as the Gators struggled to put points on the board despite having a decided schematic advantage (which can now be found in a Lawrence, KS near you!). Still, he's only had one year in Gainseville, and the Gators are sure to improve upon their 7-6 mark last season.

The last of the East's name brands, Georgia, has also fallen on some relatively tough times. After starting with a preseason #1 ranking in 2008, UGA ended with a disappointing 10-3 mark. The next two years, UGA went 8-5 and 6-7, the latter season ending in a bowl loss to Central Florida. Keeping this in mind, UGA's 0-2 start to last season--including a loss to Boise State in ATL and then against South Carolina--really turned up the heat on Richt (in my mind, extremely unfairly, by the way). On the bright side, the Dawgs rattled off 10 straight wins before losing to LSU in the SEC title game and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. Georgia brings back a talented team, particularly on defense, and a top notch QB in Aaron Murray. Georgia is set up well for another division title.

Otherwise, South Carolina has secretly built itself up into one of the more underrated teams in the country. After 5 years of 6-8 wins, the Gamecocks won 9 in 2010 (including a trip to ATL for the SEC title game) and an 11-2 year last season, ending in a thumping of Nebraska and an end of season top 10 ranking. Outside of LSU and Alabama, there are few teams playing better defense than South Carolina these days.

Kentucky is still Kentucky, proven by the fact that Joker Phillips seemed to talk about basketball just as much as he did during football during his SEC Media Day appearance. Vanderbilt is also still Vanderbilt, but now second-year HC James Franklin has quickly made a fan out of me. Expecting regular bowl appearances from Vandy might be unrealistic, but if anyone is going to do it, Franklin seems to be the man for the job.

Lastly, we have newcomer Missouri, who, like Texas A&M, will stick out like an elephant at a crocodile cocktail party.

Marcus Lattimore (via Saturday Down South

Comings and Goings 
Notable losses:

  • Florida-DT Jaye Howard, RB Chris Rainey, RB Jeff Demps, QB John Brantley
  • Georgia-RB Isaiah Crowell, OT Cordy Glenn, C Ben Jones, TE Orson Charles, CB Brandon Boykin, OT Justin Anderson, DT DeAngelo Tyson 
  • South Carolina-CB Stephon Gilmore, OLB Melvin Ingram, WR Alshon Jeffrey (p.s. BEAR DOWN), OG Kevious Watkins, SS Antonio Allen, DT Travian Robertson
  • Tennessee-DE Malik Jackson, WR DeAnthony Arnett, RB Tauren Poole 
  • Vanderbilt-CB Casey Hayward, DE Tim Fugger 
  • Kentucky-SS Winston Guy, OLB Danny Trevathan
  • Mizzou-TE Michel Egnew 
As for returning starters, again, in order of most returns (forgot to mention this on Monday, but these figures include special teams): 1) Tennessee-20 2) Florida-18 3) Vanderbilt-18 4) Georgia-15 5) USC-14 6) Kentucky-13 7) Mizzou-13 

So, as you can see, Dooley is in a little bit of luck, as most of his 2011 team returns intact. Whether or not that is actually a good thing remains to be seen, but it's better than the alternative. Florida and Vanderbilt also bring back most of their 2011 starters. UGA and USC will field good squads once again, but there was a solid bit of NFL turnover in those rosters. Richt losing Brandon Boykins could be big early on, as UGA has several DBs serving suspensions to start the year (Bacarri Rambo, Saunders Commings, and Branden Smith). 

Intra-Division Games To Watch 
1) Georgia-South Carolina, October 6th. UGA will be looking to avenge last year's Week 2 loss to the Gamecocks, as this will likely be a matchup of the two best teams in the East. UGA has a somewhat tricky path to this game, including a trip to Mizzou and home games against Vandy and what should be an improved UT team. They should be favored in every game, but if they come in with a conference loss, then this game could end up being USC in the driver's seat.

2) UGA-UF, October 27th. It feels weird putting the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party at #2, but I feel that Spurrier's USC squad should be a little tougher than Muschamp's Gators. UGA will long since have been at full strength again in the secondary, but it might not even matter against a UF team that might still struggle to move the ball through the air.

3) Mizzou-UGA, September 8th. Hey look, another game featuring Georgia! It goes without saying, but as Mizzou's first conference game, a W would do wonders for the team's confidence heading into the rest of the schedule. From a football perspective, it will be an interesting battle between Mizzou's spread offense and UGA's suffocating 3-4 defense.

4) Florida-Tennessee, September 15th. These teams have struggled of late, but this is still Florida-Tennessee, one of the premier rivalry games in college football. Florida isn't the Florida of old yet, but a win at home would do wonders for Derek Dooley's seemingly sinking ship.

5) South Carolina-Vandy, August 30th. There are better games than this one that I could have chosen, but I figured I might as well mix it up a bit. This is a much better game than you might think. Vanderbilt isn't a serious divisional contender, but they can jump up and upset some fellow SEC East squads if people aren't paying attention. This game, oddly, is a Week 1 Thursday night matchup; the 'Dores will be hungry to pull of the upset in Nashville to start the season. A loss for USC would be fairly catastrophic. Vanderbilt has picked off USC twice during Spurrier's tenure in Columbia (2007 and 2008), so an upset would not be unprecedented.


  • THAT SPREAD WON'T WORK PAWWLLL. Basically the same point as the one for TAMU in Monday's post, and, after all, this is the lazy narratives section. I think Mizzou's offense should work out just fine against everybody save USC, maybe. The reason I didn't include UGA in that prediction is that Mizzou does have them at home early on when UGA's trio of suspended DBs will still be out, which is pretty much the perfect scenario for a spread-to-pass offense like Mizzou's. 
  • THAT BOISE OFFENSE WON'T WORK PAWWLLL. Likewise, the Gators hired former Boise State OC Brent Pease. Pease has called plays in the SEC before (Kentucky, 2001-02), so the SEC East isn't completely uncharted territory. Who knows how this will actually work out, especially given the fact that neither Jacoby Brissett nor Jeff Driskel are the player that Kellen Moore was, at least at this point (saying that a Boise QB is better than a Florida QB falls under the list of "things I never thought I would ever say"). 
  • Great Expectations. With UGA bouncing back last season, thus effectively taking Richt off the "hot seat"--the worst sports media construction ever--expectations are back to being all lofty and such in Athens. UGA has the defense to take them far, but with some suspensions to take care of in the secondary, the loss of tailback Isaiah Crowell (to be fair, UGA does have some serious talent ready to take over), and the need to replace three starters on the OL, you have to wonder whether or not another slow start could be in the cards. Probably not, but you never know. This is college football, after all. 
Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway
1) Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
2) Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
3) Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
4) Malcolm Mitchell, CB/WR/PR, Georgia

Understandably, the SEC West is getting all the attention these days. However, that doesn't mean that the East doesn't have a good bit of quality to it. Tennessee and Florida still have many questions but both should be improved. Georgia appears to be the favorite in the division, led by defensive stalwarts like OLB Jarvis Jones and DT John Jenkins.

South Carolina appears to no longer be the talented but frustratingly inconsistent squads that Spurrier fielded throughout his first five years in Columbia. Losing Alshon Jeffery, while helping my Chicago Bears, won't help what was already an anemic passing game under Connor Shaw, who took over after Stepen Garcia was finally booted from the team last season. With that said, Shaw did well to make enough plays last season so that, when all was said and done, the Gamecocks had 11 wins, their best season in many years. Also, Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore will be back after suffering an October knee injury against Mississippi State last season. This is obviously no small deal, as Lattimore is probably the best tailback in the country.

Kentucky finally broke their long standing losing streak against the Vols last season, one dating back to 1984 (!). Honestly, they did well to win 5 games last season, but with Vandy looking like a program that's coming in for incremental improvement, it might be tough to win any more games than that this year. Lastly, we have the wild card that is Mizzou. Gary Pinkel is a well-respected head coach, and James Franklin is an exciting dual-threat quarterback. With that said, I could see this team winning anywhere between 4 and 8 wins this season. I really have no idea what they're going to do.

SEC East Standings
1) Georgia
2) South Carolina
3) Florida
4) Mizzou
5) Tennessee
6) Vanderbilt
7) Kentucky 

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