It’s never too early to look ahead to the 2014 season and make early projections, right?
Let’s gaze into the crystal ball and see what the way too early projections for the SEC East say:
Related: SEC West predictions for 2014
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Michael Bennett, WR Chris Conley, C David Andrews, DE Ray Drew, LB Ramik Wilson, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OLB Leonard Floyd, CB Damian Swann, DB Josh Harvey-Clemons
Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, OL Chris Burnette, LT Kenarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, DE Garrison Smith
Buzz: Yes, Aaron Murray is gone, but QB Hutson Mason gained some valuable experience playing in three games this year. It’s better to struggle against Nebraska than struggle to start 2014. With 17 of 22 returning starters, Georgia was already set up for a great year. But the addition of DC Jeremy Pruitt really put them over the edge. With 10 of 11 starters returning on defense, this could be the year Georgia puts it all together…but don’t we say that every year? The offense will be loaded, and the defense finally has a coordinator to get bodies in the right position. Georgia has to enter 2014 as the SEC East favorites. To say this is an important offseason for Hutson Mason is an understatement.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
Key returnees: RB Mike Davis, WR Shaq Roland, QB Dylan Thompson, OL AJ Cann, OL Brandon Shell, OL Corey Robinson, LB Skai Moore, Spur Sharrod Golightly, DB Brison Williams, DB Kadetrix Marcus
Key losses: QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Vic Hampton
Buzz: You may as well pencil in South Carolina for double-digit wins next season, because they do it every year now. But the loss of Connor Shaw will prove just how good he was for Steve Spurrier’s offense, even though Dylan Thompson has great experience. However, the biggest concern will be replacing the pass rush and production of Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles along the defensive line. The offense will look different and return to a more conventional style under center with Thompson, but if the Gamecocks can find a pass rush, they should be loaded again.
3. Missouri Tigers
Key returnees: QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough, WR Dorial Green Beckham, WR Bud Sasser, C Evan Boehm, DL Shane Ray, DL Matt Hoch, OLB/DE Markus Golden, DB Braylon Webb
Key losses: QB James Franklin, RB Henry Josey, WR L’Damian Washington, WR Marcus Lucas, OL Max Copeland, OL Justin Britt, DE Michael Sam, DE Kony Ealy, LB Andrew Wilson, CB EJ Gaines
Buzz: The offense has a chance to be even better next season, even though Henry Josey is gone, but the defense will be replacing some integral parts. Maty Mauk and DGB highlight the offensive returners, but replacing Kony Ealy and Michael Sam will be difficult. Then, you add in losing MLB Andrew Wilson and star corner EJ Gaines, and it becomes more daunting. While replacing the production of Sam and Ealy are crucial, the secondary may enter as the bigger question mark.
4. Florida Gators
Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, OT DJ Humphries, OL Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler, DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Michael Taylor, CB Vernon Hargreaves, DB Cody Riggs
Key losses: C Jonotthan Harrison, OG Jon Halapio, DT Dominique Easley, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, DB Jaylen Watkins
Buzz: We know Will Muschamp is going to put together a top-five defense in college football, but what we don’t know is how the offense will respond under new coordinator Kurt Roper. Like Missouri this past year, Florida is hoping to be the Missouri of 2014, posting a huge turnaround after an injury-hammered season. The Gators have a load of talent, but developing or signing an offensive homerun threat is paramount. I’m just not ready to say with the addition of Roper that QB Jeff Driskel’s game will take a major jump. I think he improves in an offense that’s built for him, but the passing game is still a worry.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
Key returnees: QB Josh Dobbs, RB Marlin Lane, WR Marquez North, WR Pig Howard, LB AJ Johnson, LB Curt Maggitt, DB Brian Randolph, CB Cam Sutton
Key losses: RB Rajion Neal, OT Ja’Wuan James, OT Tiny Richardson, OG James Stone, OG Zach Fulton, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Jacques Smith
Buzz: This will be the first year we see Tennessee take a step forward. But how much will that reflect in the record of one of the toughest schedules in the country…again? The Vols have some returning talent, but they replace all five of their offensive linemen, which is just brutal. The Vols’ major problem will be finding a quarterback for good pass catchers like Marquez North, and maybe redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson will be the answer at QB. The defense should improve, but again, it’s all about the offense and the QB scoring points in the current landscape, and that will be tough against an overall brutal schedule.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Brian Kimbrow, RB Jerron Seymour, C Joe Townsend, DE Caleb Azubike, LB Darreon Herring, LB Jake Sealand, DE Kyle Woestmann
Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, MLB Chase Garnham, LB Karl Butler, CB Andre Hal, SS Javon Marshall, FS Kenny Ladler, K Carey Spear
Buzz: Vanderbilt may take a slight step back next year, not so much because of the coaching change either. There’s just so much talent leaving in Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson and Walker May, and the trio of CB Andre Hal, SS Javon Marshall and FS Kenny Ladler is going to be so difficult to replace. The backbone of the Commodores’ success has been the defense, and replacing those key players will be tough. Some nice players are returning, but to say they’ll finish higher right now is probably stretching it slightly. 2014 will be interesting for Vanderbilt.
7. Kentucky Wildcats
Key returnees: QB Max Smith, QB Jalen Whitlow, RB Jojo Kemp, WR Ryan Timmons, WR Javess Blue, OG Zach West, OL Darrian Miller, DE Alvin Dupree, DE Za’Darius Smith, DB Blake McClain, DB Ashley Lowery, DB Eric Dixon
Key losses: RB Raymond Sanders, DT Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble, MLB Avery Williamson
Buzz: Mark Stoops’ rebuilding job is daunting. He returns a nice nucleus of players, and he will get an added influx of talent from freshmen. QBs Max Smith or Jalen Whitlow likely won’t be starting opening week, and building out a receiving corps will be paramount for the pass-heavy offense. The defense will improve, as several guys return in 2014, and the offense has several nice young playmakers. It all comes back to the QB as to whether or not Kentucky will surprise. The Cats will improve, but how high is next season’s ceiling?
Photo Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports