By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we get to the SEC East, where the Volunteers look to capture their first division title since 2004.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Tennessee Volunteers
2) Florida Gators
3) Georgia Bulldogs
4) Kentucky Wildcats
5) Missouri Tigers
6) Vanderbilt Commodores
7) South Carolina Gamecocks
The Volunteers have improved their win total in each of head coach Butch Jones’ three seasons, going from five to seven to nine wins. This year, they have their most experienced group with 17 returning starters (tied for most in SEC), a third-year starting senior QB in Joshua Dobbs and a Heisman candidate at running back in Jalen Hurd along with backfield mate Alvin Kamara. The Vols are extremely talented offensively, have their top four wide receivers returning and lost just one offensive lineman from last year’s group (LT Kyler Kerbyson). The one question I have about the offense is how much has Josh Dobbs progressed? He threw for just under 2,300 yards last year with only 15 touchdowns and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Typically you’d expect more from a junior quarterback with prior starting experience. Now entering his senior season, Dobbs should be better, but he needs to prove that he’s made progress.
On the defensive side, there is just as much talent returning. Three of four starters are back along the defensive line led by junior defensive end Derek Barnett who had 69 tackles and 10 sacks last season. Add to that all three linebackers coming back and top corner Cam Sutton returning and new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has plenty to work with in his first year at the helm. This unit should be able to improve upon the 152 rushing yards per game that they gave up last season.
The Volunteers have improved every year under head coach Butch Jones and the defense has allowed fewer points each year (29.0, 24.2, 20.0 last year). The biggest question many have about the Vols heading into the season is whether they will start to win the big games. They’re just 3-28 against ranked teams the last eight seasons and they’ve lost 11 straight to rival Florida. Turning around those trends will determine whether this group lives up to preseason expectations.
Toughest Games: vs Florida (9/24), @ Georgia (10/1), vs Alabama (10/15)
The Bulldogs will enter the season with a new head coach in Kirby Smart after parting ways with long time head man Mark Richt. Smart, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama, was brought in to try and take this team back to the SEC championship for the first time since 2012. Smart inherits an uncertain QB position as Greyson Lambert is back, but he was only so-so last season, throwing for 1,959 yards and 12 TDs. The Bulldogs retained top QB recruit Jacob Eason who will battle with Lambert for the signal caller duties. The team will hope that both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel can stay healthy as the injury bug has been biting the Bulldogs’ running backs for several years now going back to Todd Gurley. They will be running behind a relatively inexperienced offensive line that loses both tackles and their center from last year. Rhode Island transfer Tyler Catalina is expected to come in and solidify a tackle spot so that will help.
On defense last year the team allowed 149 yards per game on the ground (4.0 average) and this season they need to replace starters all along the front seven. The secondary remains mostly intact after losing only CB Jonathan Abram. With Kirby Smart taking over as head coach and Mel Tucker coming with him to be the defensive coordinator, you’d expect the defense regardless of experience to be pretty good. Consider the fact that in his seven years as the Tide’s defensive coordinator, Smart’s defense never finished outside the Top 10 in the country. If Georgia can get consistent production from the QB spot, this team will contend for the East title.
Toughest Games: @ Ole Miss (9/24), vs Tennessee (10/1), vs Florida (10/29)
The Gators have struggled to find a starting quarterback since the Tim Tebow years. Just a small sample of the names who have transferred after starting for the Gators over the past few years: Jeff Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, Skyler Mornhinweg, Will Grier and Treon Harris. That means that once again we’re looking at a new person under center this season. There is talent there with transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby and highly recruited freshman Feleipe Franks. Staying in the back field, Kelvin Taylor left early, leaving a hole at the running back spot but head coach Jim McElwain seems to be pretty excited about Mark Thompson stepping into the starting role. Their top receiver, burner Antonio Callaway is back, but they lose DeMarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee. The offensive line loses a couple of starters, but it was hit by so many injuries last year that plenty of guys got experience.
Defensively, CeCe Jefferson comes back after a standout freshman season in which he had 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Add him to returning linebackers Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian and the front seven has some good experience returning. On the back end, Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal were both taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, but their partners in CB Jalen Tabor and S Marcus Maye are both back.
As mentioned in the Vols’ section earlier, Florida has owned their East rival winning 11 straight. They have to travel to Neyland Stadium this year, but they get LSU and Georgia both at home before facing in-state rival (and potential ACC winner) Florida State on the road. Jim McElwain has questions to answer at the QB and RB spots, but the Gators have plenty of talent and should be battling with Georgia and Tennessee for the top spot in the East.
Toughest Games: @ Tennessee (9/24), vs LSU (10/8), vs Georgia (10/29), @ Florida State (11/26)
The Tigers have a new head coach as defensive coordinator Barry Odom takes over for the retired Gary Pinkel. He brings in Josh Heupel as offensive coordinator (Oklahoma) to try and help an offense that was brutal last season. They averaged just 280.9 yards per game on offense (115 rush, 165 pass) last season. Sophomore QB Drew Lock is back after starting the last eight games of last season. He completed just 49 percent of his passes for 1,332 yards and four touchdowns versus eight interceptions, but with more starting experience under his belt, those numbers should improve. Lock will have help from his top two receivers returning (J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown) and adding Alabama transfer Chris Black who had to redshirt last season. The Tigers add a transfer at running back as well in former Oklahoma back Alex Ross who joins Ish Witter (126 car 518 yards 1 TD) in the backfield. The question is the offensive line that returns just one starter. Regardless, the offense has nowhere to go but up from last season.
Defensively, new coordinator Montie Cross gets to work with the almost entire front seven coming back (lose star LB Kentrell Brothers) and the return of top defensive tackle Harold Brantley from injury. With a secondary that brings back its top corner (Aarion Penter) and safety (Anthony Sherrils), Cross and Odom should be able to keep the defense as strong as it was last year.
Toughest Games: vs Georgia (9/17), @ LSU (10/1), @ Florida (10/15), @ Tennessee (11/19)
The Wildcats have a lot of talent coming back on the offensive side for Mark Stoops to work with. That said, they have lost last year’s starting QB Patrick Towles who transferred to Boston College this offseason. That means sophomore Drew Barker and junior Stephen Johnson will battle for the starting spot. Barker completed 50 percent of his passes for 364 yards with 1 TD and 2 INT’s last season. The good news? The top four rushers are back and the all of the top receivers from last year are back as well. Boom Williams led the team in rushing (855 yards) on a ridiculous 7.1 yards per attempt while at the receiver spot juniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker combined for 101 catches 1,302 yards and five touchdowns. With an offensive line that returns all but one starter, this group should be able to help protect and grow whichever guy steps into the starting QB role.
Defensively, last year the Wildcats had big problems stopping the run, giving up 196 yards per game (4.6 average) there and recorded only 17 sacks. With only five starters back and most of those being in the secondary, the defense is a big question mark for this team and could hold them back.
Stoops signed a contract extension this offseason and the school has been putting more resources into improving the football facilities in recent years, so it seems the Wildcats are doing everything they can to start making some noise in the SEC. How long it takes the QB play and defense to get up to speed will determine what this team can do this year.
Vandy has had a tough time recapturing the magic they found under former coach James Franklin over the past two years. New coach Derek Mason has 15 returning starters to work with this season. Eight of them are on the offensive side, which is where big improvement is needed. Sophomore Kyle Shurmur (son of NFL coach Pat) is the presumptive starter after finishing out the last three games of last season. They do bring in freshman Deuce Wallace who could push Shurmur for the top job. The top running back is back in Ralph Webb (277 carries 1,152 yards 5 TD) and linebacker Khari Blasingame flips to the offensive side as a change of pace option to Webb. The receiver group has its top two back and returns CJ Duncan (former QB) from injury. While the offensive line loses its left guard, center and right tackle, the team will get back Andrew Jelks who’s expected to take over the blindside protection allowing Will Holden to move back to the right side. A pair of solid tackles should help provide good protection and time for the QB’s to find their weapons.
Defense was this team’s strong point last season, giving up just 15.2 points per game and 326 yards per game last season. It should continue to be a strength as the defensive line returns most of the two-deep and the linebacking group adds free safety Oren Burks to standouts Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham to form a formidable front seven. The secondary loses two safeties in Burks and Andrew Williamson (graduation) but should be able to withstand the losses.
Mason’s group has a tough schedule that could prevent them from making the kind of noise that having 15 returning starters would seem to suggest. They do get three of their toughest conference games at home (Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee), which could provide for some upsets. More likely, this team will challenge to get a bowl berth.
Toughest Games: @ Georgia Tech (9/17), vs Florida (10/1), @ Georgia (10/15), vs Ole Miss (11/19), vs Tennessee (11/26)
South Carolina Gamecocks
Year 1 A.S. (After Spurrier) officially begins with Will Muschamp taking over the reins as head coach. There are problems galore for the new coach to figure out beginning with the QB position. The combination of Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez was sub-par last year and many are expecting true freshman Brandon McIlwain to take over as the full-time starter after his performance in spring ball. The quarterbacks won’t have much around them experience wise with their receivers or running backs either. Leading rusher Brandon Wilds is gone as are top receivers Pharoh Cooper and Jerrell Adams. The offensive line returns just two starters from last year. Long story short, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has his work cut out for him.
Defensively they will be without star linebacker Skai Moore who went down with a neck injury in spring ball. The good news is they have six of their top eight back in both the linebacking corps and secondary. The defensive line gets hit hard losing two tackles and three defensive ends from last year’s team that gave up 217 yards per game on the ground (5.1 average). Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson has been working with Muschamp for awhile now and he’ll get his chance to show what he can do.
Overall, the Gamecocks are in rebuild mode following the end of the Spurrier era but they do get seven home games this season and draw two of their three toughest SEC games at home (Georgia & Tennessee).
Toughest Games: vs Georgia (10/8), vs Tennessee (10/29), @ Florida (11/12), @ Clemson (11/26)
Division Winner- Tennessee
The expectations and hype are high this year in Knoxville. The Vols now have all the pressure of being the favorite on their shoulders. In order to win the division title, they’ll have to prove they can close out games – particularly considering last year they gave up 17-3 and 27-10 leads to Oklahoma and Florida, respectively. However, they have the most talent and experience returning on this side of the conference. They benefit from getting the rival Gators at Neyland Stadium where they hope to end that 11-game losing streak to Florida. I think they do it this year and end up advancing to meet Alabama in the title game.
If that were to happen we would have already seen these two teams play during the course of the regular season and we’d then be set up for a rematch. Regardless of who wins the one in the regular season, I expect this match-up to be won by the Crimson Tide. Something to keep in mind when discussing Nick Saban’s squad: The last eight championship games his team has played in (SEC or National) they have won every one of those games.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.