A year ago at this time, the new darling of the SEC was Tennessee. Everything was lining up for the Volunteers to have a breakout season.
Instead, coach Butch Jones and Co. disappointed to the tune of a 9-4 mark that ended with a rather forgettable W over equally overrated Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Not much of a breakout.
If UT couldn’t win the watered-down East in 2016, then a convincing case can be made that it never will again — at least not with Jones at the controls. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is gone. So is the tailback tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Difference makers at every level defensively are on their way to the NFL, too.
So if the Vols can’t unseat back-to-back division champion Florida, then it’s time to find another program that possibly can.
Look no further than Georgia. Despite the fact that the Bulldogs were a similarly ho-hum 8-5 a season ago, wrapping up with a victory over a mediocre TCU team in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, second-year coach Kirby Smart is ready to make The Leap.
The conference’s hype machine can understandably run off the rails at times. Two seasons ago, then-Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson was anointed as a Heisman Trophy candidate before making a single start — he got benched after three games. This past year, the Vols dominated the offseason water-cooler discussion.
With all that hype having withered up and died in Knoxville, it’s looking for a new home in 2017. Athens is the most logical destination.
Tennessee boasted the most experienced QB in the league with Dobbs last season. But this year, UGA features perhaps the most talented field general. Jacob Eason (below) rode the highs and lows typical of a true freshman in 2016.
Taking over for incumbent Greyson Lambert in Week 2, Eason was a 55.1-percent passer and assembled a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-to-8. Statistically, he was superior to Matthew Stafford (52.7, 7-to-13) right out of high school.
There were plenty of highlights, particularly his 47-yard scoring strike to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds left in the Tennessee game to take a 31-28 lead — Dobbs’s subsequent Hail Mary to Jauan Jennings at the buzzer made Eason’s cross-field missile no less incredible. There are NFL signal callers who couldn’t have made that throw.
But there were a fair share of lowlights, as well. Eason’s 5-of-17 performance a week later in an escape of South Carolina was puzzling.
Still, it’s reasonable to expect the former 5-star phenom to improve drastically in Year 2. The aforementioned Stafford almost tripled his touchdown passes as a sophomore and fired three fewer interceptions on 92 more attempts.
Eason is going to need much more help from his supporting cast, though. His own one-two punch in the backfield, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, battled ineffectiveness here and there. His receiving corps dropped way too many passes. His offensive line ebbed more often than it flowed and may have been the root cause of everyone’s struggles.
A pleasant surprise, Chubb and Michel return for their senior campaigns. Additionally, both should be healthier than they were as juniors.
Conversely, Eason’s weapons through the air remain somewhat of a question mark. His most reliable target, Isaiah McKenzie, bolted early for the draft. Terry Godwin is the top returning wideout, but he didn’t reel in a single TD last season.
Eason would be wise to lock on to his rising-sophomore tight end, Isaac Nauta, early and often. He flashed at times as a frosh and presents legitimate matchup problems for safeties and linebackers alike. Smart’s much-ballyhooed recruiting class — No. 3 nationally — also features a trio of 4-star pass catchers.
That being said, it’s a moot point if the Dawgs don’t get better play up front. Isaiah Wilson, a 5-star tackle, was a must-sign.
On the other side of the ball, there was a lot to like between the hedges. Georgia was a Top 5 unit in the league in rushing defense, passing defense, total defense and scoring defense. Only Alabama, Florida and LSU can say that.
Just like it’s reasonable to anticipate growth from Eason under center as a sophomore, the same can be said of Smart’s D after another year in the system. For nine seasons, he coordinated the premier defense in the land — yes, Nick Saban is ultimately in charge, but still — in Tuscaloosa. That’s his bread and butter.
The Bulldogs had 27 defenders record 5 or more tackles last season. Remarkably, only four of them were seniors.
Trenton Thompson (above) is borderline unblockable at the tackle position. The pass-rushing combination of Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter is back. Like Bellamy and Carter, safety Dominick Sanders said no to the pros. They want another run as collegians.
UGA’s border-state rival, Florida, has captured the East and secured a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in each of the last two seasons. Nevertheless, the Gators are unlikely to be the odds-on favorites to do it again — they weren’t last year, either. It was supposed to be Tennessee’s time in the division.
The prognosticators look like fools now for putting so many eggs in Rocky Top’s basket, although no lesson appears to have been learned.
By the time we get to Media Days come July, the Dawgs are a safe bet to be the talk of the town in Hoover. Eason’s upside. Chubb and Michel’s production. Smart settling in as head coach. Momentum on the recruiting trail.
Florida’s quarterback issues are yet to be resolved, plus so many of those defensive stalwarts left behind by Will Muschamp are now gone. Tennessee had a chance — even ending an 11-year losing streak to the Gators — but couldn’t take the next step. Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt aren’t viewed as serious contenders.
The league’s hype machine is sure to be painted red and black, even if UT orange and white didn’t turn out to be such a good look.
* All recruiting figures courtesy of the composite rankings at 247Sports.