If Tennessee fails to live up to expectations again, who wins East?
SEC Media Days are next week. Members of the press like myself surely will pick Tennessee to win the East.
While the Volunteers certainly seem like the obvious choice, as they return 17 starters and have plenty of future pros at key positions, we’re putting a lot of faith in a team that hasn’t won 10 games since 2007.
If coach Butch Jones and Co. fail to live up to expectations in the division, who is ready to step up and book a trip to Atlanta? At this time last year, the credentialed crowd had Auburn — eventual league mark, 2-6 — winning the SEC. Interestingly, the Tigers weren’t even picked to win the West. Mighty Alabama was.
Predictions are simply predictions — Jeremy Johnson was predicted to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Oops.
But if there is one team that is flying under the radar a few days before the throng of print, radio and television reporters makes its way to Hoover, Ala., it might be Georgia under first-year coach Kirby Smart.
While Auburn proved to be worse than expected in the West a season ago, Florida turned out to be better in the East in Year 1 of the Jim McElwain era. The Gators were picked just fifth behind the likes of Missouri and South Carolina. However, McElwain inherited a staunch defense and posted a 7-1 record to win the division.
When ex-coach Will Muschamp exited Gainesville, he maintained that talent wasn’t the issue. He was right.
UF finished 2015 fourth in the SEC in total defense — fifth against the run, fourth against the pass. Led by five eventual draft picks, the D allowed just 18.3 points per game despite so little help offensively after Will Grier’s suspension.
However, to say that McElwain has already resurrected Florida would be premature. The QB position again is in a state of transition, plus the defense lost a handful key contributors to the NFL. It will take another recruiting class or two before Coach Mac has the kind of roster he envisioned when taking the job.
The Dawgs, on the other hand, could benefit from a rookie coach like Smart injecting some fresh blood in the building.
Like McElwain, he won’t inherit a bare cupboard. Even if his backfield is ailing — Nick Chubb due to last year’s torn knee, Sony Michel because of this week’s broken arm — there is reason for optimism in Athens.
If Chubb in any way resembles his pre-injury self, then UGA will have one of the top ball carriers in the land. Michel is good enough to start at most programs and makes for a dynamite No. 2 option. Defensively, Trenton Thompson is a beast in the trenches and Dominick Sanders is a ballhawk patrolling the secondary.
And, of course, there’s five-star freshman phenom Jacob Eason, who could be special one day under center.
Smart’s initial victory between the hedges was getting Eason to sign on the dotted line, as he committed to the departed Mark Richt. The blue-chip passer is a legitimate threat to win the starting job.
The incumbent quarterback, senior Greyson Lambert, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence — transfers from Virginia tend to do that. On the surface, his completion percentage of 63.3 and TD-to-INT ratio of 12-to-2 read nicely on the stat sheet. Nevertheless, Richt’s aerial attack had zero bite with him at the controls.
If Eason is so clearly the higher-upside option, go ahead and throw him the keys. See what the kid can do.
Even if the Bulldogs were decidedly average stopping the run in 2015 (eighth in the SEC), they were No. 1 defending the pass. Most of Smart’s experience as an assistant was coaching DBs. Strength meets strength.
As discussed above, Florida had a dominant defense last year — statistically, Georgia’s was even better. Both in terms of yards and points allowed, the Dawgs topped their hated rivals. If Smart can hold serve on defense while finding a way to get more out of a middle-of-the-pack offense, that just might win the East.
Best of all for Smart, Georgia gets Tennessee at Sanford Stadium in 2016. Circle Oct. 1 on your calendar.
In all likelihood, the division is a three-team race between favorite Tennessee, defending champ Florida and rebuilding Georgia. Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt — each is a pesky spoiler at best.
Because the Bulldogs will again face the Gators in neutral-site Jacksonville, that means they won’t have a difficult road game in the division. They should be favored when traveling to Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky in September, October and November, respectively. That’s clearly a manageable schedule for Smart.
UF needed a new voice. Muschamp’s was falling on deaf’s ears. With Muschamp’s players, McElwain succeeded.
Smart is walking into a similar situation — it’s not like Richt ran the program off the rails. But things had gotten a bit stale. Change was needed. An impressive crowd of 93,000 at the G-Day Game largely agreed.
As I have written liberally the last month or so, everything is lined up for Tennessee to finally break through and reclaim its rightful spot as a premier college football destination. Joshua Dobbs is difficult to defend in the shotgun. Jalen Hurd is a tackle-breaking stud. The defense has playmakers at every level.
But the Vols have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory time and again. That’s a tough spell to break.
Since the Gators overachieved a year ago, expecting some sort of underachievement this time is fair. Narrow escapes over the likes of East Carolina early and Florida Atlantic late were telling. There’s work to do.
Walking into the West is a much more daunting task. Alabama continues to steamroll under Nick Saban. LSU features as many four- and five-star recruits as anybody. When Auburn is good, it can be scary good. The two Mississippi schools are as relevant as ever. Texas A&M can boat race you. Arkansas can bludgeon you.
There aren’t as many land mines out East. And that orange-and-white-checkerboard land mine might be a dud.