Georgia is trying to become the first SEC East team to win 3 consecutive division titles since Florida in the early 1990s. (The Gators actually won the first 5.)
Odds are overwhelming that it will happen, too.
At least that’s my expectation when we reconvene in Birmingham in July for SEC Media Days. Georgia will be the runaway favorite. Florida likely will be next. It’ll get interesting from there, as Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky battle for the 3rd and 4th spots on my ballot. (Sorry, South Carolina. That schedule is a dream-crusher.)
We’ve seen some crazy things happen, and the gap is so sizable that it’s going to take another one or two for Georgia in particular or Florida perhaps not to make it to Atlanta.
Here is 1 area of concern each of these 4 teams has that could wreck its chances of playing in the SEC Championship Game.
Georgia: An injury to Jake Fromm
I still don’t see starting NFL QB arm talent, but he’s more than a game-manager.
Because of his size, style and Georgia jersey number, he’ll never escape the Aaron Murray comparisons. As we look toward the NFL, I see him somewhere between Will Grier and Jake Coker.
But that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The only thing that matters in 2019 is that he is the epitome of what you want in a college quarterback, equal parts cerebral and capable.
He’s not going to wow anybody with his arm strength. Competitors have openly mocked it. But there’s a lot to be said for accuracy and avoiding mistakes with haphazard decisions. As 54 career TDs to just 13 interceptions suggest, he has those 2 qualities in spades.
He and Tua Tagovailoa are the 2 most indispensable players in the SEC this season.
An injury to either changes the entire arc of their team’s season and ceiling.
Florida: Bad Feleipe shows up in Jacksonville
Good Feleipe Franks is an NFL prospect with one of the strongest arms in the world. Remember the throw he made against Tennessee? That ball traveled almost 70 yards in the air, arriving in fewer than 4 seconds.
Feleipe Franks' 63-yard walk-off TD! pic.twitter.com/KL2lB5sfZ3
— SportsTalkFeed (@SportsTalkFeed) September 16, 2017
Sorry, boys. Jake Fromm ain’t making that throw.
Or this one, which traveled 61 yards, across his body.
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 11, 2017
Fromm can’t rip it like this, either. This ball traveled 33 yards in about 1.3 seconds, beating double coverage. That’s high-end velocity.
A perfect strike!
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 27, 2018
Gary Danielson recognized it immediately: “That was a fastball, and you see the arm talent.”
Those are the throws that will create all kinds of NFL Draft drama and help shape the storyline when Franks meets Fromm in Jacksonville this season. Division title hopes, championship hopes, NFL Draft pecking order will all be fair topics of conversation.
Of course, there is the other side of Feleipe Franks, the “what in the world was that?” side. His doubters have plenty of those clips, ready on demand.
If that Franks shows up, in Jacksonville or Baton Rouge or Lexington or anywhere else, Florida will suffer another multiple-loss SEC season.
Tennessee: Jarrett Guarantano is who I think he is
This is becoming more quarterback heavy than I anticipated, but there’s a reason it’s the most important position. Now, more than ever.
I think Tennessee’s offensive and defensive lines will be substantially better in Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt. The defense, as a whole, will take another step forward. He has several playmakers returning and added a few more in this class.
Outside of the annual disaster of having to play Alabama, the schedule is somewhat manageable. The 4-game stretch against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama is brutal, but at least the Vols will have a veteran QB leading the way.
The question is: Can Guarantano finally outplay the other QBs in his way? I’m not sold on that. There are others who think he is better than Franks. There are some who still believe he has draftable talent.
Coaches know better than all, and the one thing I keep coming back to is: They haven’t fully turned it over to him. Injuries have played a part, certainly, but he has attempted more than 30 passes in a game just twice in his career.
He averaged just 20.5 passes per game last season, last among the SEC’s 14 starters.
Is he capable of playing 8 or 9 games like he did against Auburn? If so, Tennessee is a threat to stir things up in the East. If not, they’re still a quarterback away from being back.
Missouri: Can the Tigers ride Larry Rountree to Atlanta?
Kelly Bryant isn’t going to break any of Drew Lock’s school or SEC records, but I’m not necessarily concerned about the Tigers’ quarterback situation. Bryant will have enough weapons, and I expect tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to quickly become his favorite target and win the Mackey Award in 2019.
I think this team will more closely mirror the type of team Barry Odom actually wants. Remember, he inherited Lock, and nobody would be foolish enough to limit Lock’s pitch count.
But Odom is a linebacker at heart. Much like Kirby Smart and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops — heck, even Nick Saban — he’d prefer to hand it off 50 times and trade paint in the trenches than throw it 35 times.
Even with Lock, Missouri still finished second in the SEC last year in rushing attempts per game (42). Lock was a narrow second in pass attempts per game (33.6) after leading the league in that category in 2017 (32.2).
I’d be surprised if Bryant averages more than 24 passes per game in 2019. I won’t be surprised if Missouri leads the SEC in rushing attempts per game.
Much like Stoops leaned on Benny Snell in 2017 and 2018, I expect Odom to lean on Rountree and his capable backups in 2019.
It’s actually because Kentucky lost Snell that I like Mizzou’s upset potential better in 2019. But that’s all based on Rountree carrying Mizzou like Snell carried Kentucky.