In SEC East, it's Georgia and everyone else, but don't sleep on the Gators
Spring football is over, and so begins the molasses-slow march toward SEC Media Days in Hoover Atlanta (weird, right?) this July.
For players, the end of spring football means the beginning of the grind, a full-steam ahead dive into the summer strength and conditioning program and, no matter the southern heat and humidity, the informal individual and position workouts that build chemistry and cohesion as teams lurch towards August camp. Ask any SEC coach and they’ll tell you that next to recruiting, the summer grind is the most vital component of building an elite program: Contenders are made, and pretenders are left behind in these critical months before Media Days.
“Teams get better in August and September, but foundations are laid from May to July,” a Florida assistant told me this week.
For fans, the end of spring football represents the beginning of what Steve Spurrier called “talking season,” where fan bases full of spring optimism talk smack and whittle away the tedious expanse of time before toe meets leather in September.
Down south, where college football is a religion and Saturday a holy day, talking season never truly ends, beginning within minutes of the prior season’s final game and building to a crescendo by SEC Media Days in the summer.
The end of spring football is critical, because it often shape the narratives for talking season, framing the debate until — to again borrow from Faulkner — the light of August and the dawn of a new season.
In the SEC East, the conclusion of this year’s edition of spring football has generated a handful of narratives, from the feelings of relief and renewal in Gainesville and Knoxville to the sense of eagerness and anticipation in Athens and Columbia.
Clearly, Georgia is the new king of the ring in the SEC East, having claimed the SEC Championship in 2017 and come a blown coverage from winning its first national championship since 1980. Kirby Smart enters his third year in Athens with a bullet train’s worth of momentum, a consensus top-ranked recruiting class in tow and his program looking, as Dawgs fans might say, very much like a mean machine in red and black.
The Bulldogs do lose 37 letter-winners from last year’s roster, including program heartbeats Roquan Smith, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, but thanks to Smart’s recruiting prowess, there’s a “reload, don’t rebuild” mentality that was on full display this spring.
A quarterback battle looms, maybe, but it isn’t like the ones at Clemson, Ohio State or Florida State where there’s genuinely no firm belief who will win and the outcome might dictate the season. Georgia will likely start sophomore Jake Fromm, because seriously, how do you bench the guy who nearly won you a national championship as a freshman, but if they must start the electric true freshman Justin Fields, the spring demonstrated that Georgia will likely be fine.
There are questions as to who the No. 2 running back will be, but when you’re debating between multiple blue-chip talents for a second and third ball carrier, you don’t really have a problem.
Georgia is talented and ridiculously deep on defense, despite losing the nation’s best linebacker in Smith. If the secondary gels, this unit could be better than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, the Dawgs return the SEC’s best placekicker and have special team units loaded with 4- or 5-stars trying to get on the field.
In other words, Georgia is loaded.
Can anyone challenge them in the East?
Gators are best of the rest
Start by eliminating Vanderbilt, which lacks the talent and the coaching; Kentucky, which will fight for bowl eligibility again in 2018 but might have plateaued under Mark Stoops; and Tennessee, which will fight in 2018 under Jeremy Pruitt but are putting the pieces together again after the trash can fire that was the end of the Butch Jones era.
That leaves Missouri, South Carolina and Florida.
Missouri has an All-American candidate at quarterback in Drew Lock, and while the hire of Derek Dooley as offensive coordinator was as mystifying as Dooley’s fashion choices can be, spring ball demonstrated that Lock has an elite cast of playmakers in the Damarea Crockett, Larry Rountree III and receivers Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson.
Still, as strong as Mizzou was last season after a horrendous September, this is a program that has plenty of improvement to do defensively (90th S & P last season!) if they hope to contend, and there’s just not enough talent on the roster defensively to make the necessary leap.
The talking heads have fixated on South Carolina, which in Year 2 under Will Muschamp was one of the best stories in the country last year, defying low expectations and finishing second in the SEC East with a 9-4 record in 2017.
Paul Finebaum and Marcus Spears of the SEC Network have each thrown the talking-season gauntlet down on Muschamp’s Gamecocks, with Finebaum declaring “Georgia should be concerned” about the Gamecocks this season and Spears excited about what Muschamp is building in Columbia, calling the Gamecocks the “biggest threat to Georgia in the SEC East for the foreseeable future.”
Certainly, South Carolina has some nice pieces, especially in quarterback Jake Bentley and one of the best, if not the most explosive, playmaker in the SEC in do-it-all wide receiver/flex Deebo Samuel (above). New offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon was a coup d’état for Muschamp as well, one of the nation’s brighter young offensive minds and a significant upgrade over Muschamp mainstay Kurt Roper. McClendon, along with new quarterbacks coach Dan Werner, began installing a faster-paced offense in the spring, hoping to lift a Carolina offense that, despite all its weapons, finished a meager 88th in S & P Offensive Efficiency and a horrifying 122nd in pace/tempo.
The spring game left lingering questions about Carolina defensively, but with terrific leaders like linebackers D.J.. Wonnum and T.J. Brunson, plus Will Muschamp’s ability to always answer the bell on that side of the football, it’s easy to be enticed by South Carolina moving forward.
Color me skeptical anyway.
Advanced metrics demonstrate the Gamecocks appear to have vastly overachieved in 2017, as S & P+ pegged their expected wins at only 7.5, given a sluggish offense and a defense that while improved, only finished 36th in S & P efficiency. The Cocks also play their typical brutal scheduled, which this season includes November road contests at Ole Miss, Florida and Clemson.
This is a Gamecocks program that hasn’t beaten Kentucky under Will Muschamp — or any coach — for the past four years. Carolina would do well to win that game instead of talking about upsetting Georgia in Week 2 at Williams-Brice.
That leaves Florida.
Gators are surprisingly loaded
Dan Mullen’s first team in Gainesville spent the spring taking the necessary steps to lay the foundation for the future, with job one aimed at eliminating the toxic culture that derailed the Gators in Year 3 under Jim McElwain.
Mullen certainly inherited a Florida program that was broken, and analysts should be forgiven for thinking this is a long rebuild for the new staff, especially given the not insignificant recruiting deficiencies under the McElwain staff.
Nevertheless, Florida is loaded — repeat, loaded — with blue-chip talent at the skill positions. Tyrie Cleveland, Kadarius Toney and Joshua Hammond give the Gators multiple elite wide receivers, and that’s before the arrival of Under Armour All-American recruit Jacob Copeland. If Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson and Ohio State transfer Trevor Grimes are declared eligible (Florida has sought waivers for both), this unit has the potential to be one of the best in the SEC.
Of course, they’ll need someone to get them the football, and Mullen has his work cut out for him trying to rehabilitate the confidence of Feleipe Franks or in making a SEC caliber quarterback out of Kyle Trask. Program insiders, however, say Mullen was encouraged by Trask’s performance this spring, especially behind a largely backup offensive line in the spring game, and they believe he can competently hold down the fort while Mullen develops the uber-talented freshman Emory Jones, who one Florida assistant compared favorably to now-departed Ohio State All-American J.T. Barrett this spring.
Whomever the Gators choose at quarterback, he’ll have less pressure thanks to the help of a deep, talented backfield, with plenty of personnel well-suited for Mullen’s run-heavy spread.
Jordan Scarlett returned from suspension and looked the part of an All-SEC caliber back this spring. Malik Davis, one of the few bright spots on the roster last season en route to All-SEC Freshmen honors, will return this fall. Lamical Perine, Adarius Lemons and a pair of dynamic freshmen in Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement, add even more depth.
Florida will change its defensive look next fall, switching from Randy Shannon’s base-heavy 4-3 to Todd Grantham’s blitz-happy Steelers 3-4, but unlike Missouri, which lacks the depth to improve markedly on defense, the Gators should be better than last year’s unit, which finished 54th in S & P defense, the program’s worst finish since 2007.
A talented young secondary is a year older, with a lock-down corner in Marco Wilson, and capable deputies in All-SEC Freshman C.J. Henderson and junior Chauncey Gardner also slated to start. Cece Jefferson (once healthy), Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite give Florida an edge and a talented set of pass rushers up front, despite the loss of Taven Bryan to the NFL.
Plus, the schedule is forgiving early, with a cupcake opener, the annual win over Kentucky on tap next and a Colorado State game all at home before Florida visits Tennessee and Mississippi State. That’s three games for Kyle Trask (or whomever wins the gig) to get comfortable for the grind. If Florida can win those games and build confidence, the talent is there for the Gators to get to Jacksonville and meet Georgia with everything on the line. If that happens, well … Florida doesn’t have the talent of Georgia, to be sure, but strange things happen at the Cocktail Party.
In the end, I still think it’s Georgia and everyone else in the SEC East. But don’t sleep on it being the Gators who make things interesting next fall.