is mid-July. SEC media days have come and gone. College football begins next month. Can I get a Hallelujah? The media voted on projected finish in the two divisions of the Southeastern Conference. As usual, the media sticks to the status quo in the West picking Alabama and yet again predicts someone other than the reigning champions in the East. Here is the predicted finish by the media for the two divisions.
South Carolina Arkansas
Kentucky Texas A&M
Mississippi State Vanderbilt
Ole Miss Missouri
I disagree with some of these projections. Below is MY prediction for the SEC East. I will discuss the West next week.
Florida: I see the Gators and the Bulldogs as a virtual tossup in the East but Florida is the two-time reigning champions of the division and until someone knocks them off, I will give them the benefit of the doubt. The big question that must be answered in Gainesville is once again the quarterback position. The offensive line finally has enough healthy bodies and experience to be a strength instead of a weakness and there are now a multitude of potential playmakers on offense. Antonio Callaway, Tyree Cleveland and the return of Dre Massey should allow the offense to spread out defenses in 2017. The Gator defense lost a good bit of talent to the NFL but most of those players were unavailable down the stretch due to injury and there was little drop-off in performance by their replacements. Watch for DE Jabari Zuniga to become a star this season. The only real concern on the defense is depth in the secondary. At least one of a trio of highly rated incoming freshmen will need to break the two-deep chart. The Gators return two of the best kickers and punters in the nation. We will know a lot more about Florida after an opening weekend neutral-site game against Michigan.
Georgia: It would be easy to pick the Bulldogs to win the East with the backfield they have returning. Jacob Eason was a five-star quarterback recruit and now has a season of experience under his belt. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel need no introduction. However, the positives on offense pretty much end there. Other than tight end Isaac Nauta, there are no proven commodities in the receiving corp. The offensive line is a serious work in progress and a weak o-liine is a recipe for disaster in the SEC and it may be difficult for Georgia to take advantage of their talented backfield. Games are won and lost in the trenches in this conference which is a big reason why I am picking the Gators. Where the Bulldogs need to hang their hat in 2017 is the defense. There is a long list of returning starters and the first team is made up exclusively of juniors and seniors. Defense should be head coach Kirby Smart’s forte after years of tutoring by Nick Saban. In my less than humble opinion, it will be up to the Bulldog defense if they are going to win the East as a struggling passing game allows opposing defenses to bring their safeties up in run support. Much like Florida, we will learn a lot about Georgia with an early non-conference matchup at Notre Dame.
Kentucky: This may be the season that the Wildcats and head coach Mark Stoops make a push to be relevant in the division. Tennessee lost a lot of talent and even if Will Muschamp is the answer at South Carolina he is at least a year away from having the depth and talent to challenge. If Kentucky is ever going to make the climb, they must take advantage of this opportunity. The biggest question for Stoops is defensive line. Senior Matt Elam was supposed to be a superstar and is now listed on the second string of the depth chart. As I mentioned earlier, the SEC is a line of scrimmage league and a weak defensive line could drop the Tigers all the way down to fifth in the division.
Tennessee: After two seasons where the Volunteers were the flashy pick to win the East, prognosticators have figure out what some of us have suspected all along. Butch Jones is not a very good coach. Last season should have been his year. The youth he touted so heavily in 2014 were juniors and seniors in 2016. Many believed that talent would carry him to perhaps even a conference championship. Instead, the Vols tried to bask in the afterglow of finally beating Florida for the first time in over a decade and forgot to show up for the rest of the season while settling for a life championship. Now, much of that experienced talent so many were banking on last season is gone to the NFL. Jones has recruited well, but his window at Tennessee may have already snapped closed with the rising of both Florida and Georgia in the East.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp inherited a meager roster when he took over in Columbia and though he has recruited well by Gamecock standards, he still has holes and a lack of depth. He may have found a quarterback, something he could never seem to do at Florida, in Jake Bentley. The real question is whether Muschamp has learned from his struggles in Gainesville and can he find more success in the same division with less overall talent. I do not see that happening in 2017.
Vanderbilt: Head coach Derek Mason can lean on an experienced defense this season. That defense came to play most weeks in 2016. He also has the luxury of an NFL caliber running back in Ralph Webb. Mason has been quietly building the Commodores into a solid football team. They will not win the SEC East. They will not finish in the top three. But with a few breaks Vandy could climb as high as third. The Commodores pulled off upsets last year over both Georgia and Tennessee and nobody will take them lightly in 2017.
Missouri: This is a program in a death spiral. This is the Tigers team most people expected when they joined the SEC. Nearly everyone was surprised at the Tigers’ early success in the conference. That is because few outside the state of Missouri realized what a great coach Gary Pinkel was. I am not trying to belittle Barry Odom but he is not on the same level as Pinkel and Missouri desperately needs a spectacular coach to be competitive in the big bad SEC. Look for this team to wallow in the cellar of the SEC for a few years and then change coaches again.