10 biggest questions about the SEC East in 2018
The 2017 season was interesting, as Alabama and Georgia lost to Auburn in the regular season, but the Bulldogs beat the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game, and both the Dawgs and the Crimson Tide made the College Football Playoff.
The Bulldogs lost the National Championship Game, but coach Kirby Smart is building a juggernaut in Athens.
Can he keep it up? Can any of the other teams upset the Dawgs? These questions, and many more, will be at the forefront of many minds heading into the spring.
1. Can anyone challenge Georgia?
The Bulldogs reached the National Championship Game in 2017, taking a big leap in coach Kirby Smart’s second year.
The Dawgs are losing a lot but return several key pieces in 2018, and they’ll be the heavy favorites to win the division once again as well.
South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Mizzou and Vanderbilt are all playing catch-up, so it’ll be interesting to see if any can emerge as a legitimate threat to Smart’s crew next season.
2. Will Tennessee or Florida have a better rebound year?
Both SEC East blue-blood programs struggled in 2017, with Tennessee going a program-low 0-8 in SEC play.
Both teams have new coaches, and both jobs will need a lot of work to dig out of last year’s hole. However, with Dan Mullen in Gainesville, and with the Gators’ biggest weakness being at the quarterback position, Florida could turn things around quickly.
Tennessee will be back eventually, too, but the Vols might need until 2019 to become serious SEC East contenders again.
3. Can South Carolina take the next step under Will Muschamp?
Perhaps the team best positioned to make a run at Georgia in 2018 is the Gamecocks, who will have star QB Jake Bentley and WR Deebo Samuel returning, among others.
The Gamecocks have questions at running back and on defense, but this is a talented squad heading into next season.
Coach Will Muschamp needs to prove he can help a team take the next step under his leadership, and the Gamecocks will get to show how much they’ve improved in Week 2, when they host the Bulldogs in Columbia.
4. Is Emory Jones the next Dan Mullen success story?
Mullen has a long history of developing quarterbacks, from Alex Smith at Utah to Tim Tebow at Florida (as an offensive coordinator) to Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.
If he’s going to help the Gators turn around, he’ll need to find his next star quarterback.
Feleipe Franks likely will get the first chance, but it could very well be incoming freshman Emory Jones, who flipped from Ohio State during the Early Signing Period. If Mullen can work his magic on Jones, the Gators’ fortunes could change quickly.
This team that made it to the 2015 and 2016 SEC Championship Games, after all, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them back in the fold for an SEC East title in 2018.
5. What will Derek Dooley’s offense look like?
The Missouri Tigers made an interesting decision to make former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley their offensive coordinator heading into 2018.
Dooley has never called plays at any level, so Tigers fans will have to wait and see how he decides to use star QB Drew Lock and the high-powered Mizzou offense.
After rebounding from a 1-5 start to finish the 2017 regular season with a 7-5 record, Dooley’s ability to keep the offense humming along will be a big factor in whether the Tigers improve or fall back in the standings.
6. Can Drew Lock become the No. 1 overall pick?
Lock, not Heisman Trophy-winning Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, actually led the nation in touchdown passes in 2017, with 44 to Mayfield’s 43. Lock set the SEC single-season record in the process.
He opted to return to Columbia for his senior season, which is good news for the Tigers. It was also a good move for Lock, especially since this year’s quarterback draft class is stacked.
Next year, if he puts up more big numbers, Lock could draw a lot of interest, and could even work his way into the No. 1 pick conversation if all goes according to plan. However, as mentioned above, a lot of that will have to do with Dooley’s offense and whether Lock is a good fit in his system.
7. Can Derek Mason keep his job?
The expectations are never that high at Vanderbilt, but after last season’s collapse following a 3-0 start, Mason may find himself on the hot seat in 2018.
The Commodores have a manageable cross-over schedule next year, traveling to Arkansas and hosting Ole Miss. They also have a star quarterback returning in Kyle Shurmur, who took a huge step forward last year.
If the Commodores miss out on a bowl berth again in 2018, Mason, despite his well-deserved popularity in Nashville, could be on his way out.
8. Who will play quarterback for Kentucky?
Stephen Johnson has graduated and Drew Barker is transferring, so the Wildcats are in search of a new quarterback.
The favorite is JUCO star Terry Wilson, who is the No. 3 dual-threat JUCO quarterback in the 2018 class, but he’ll have some competition from other players on the Wildcats’ roster. Gunner Hoak has been viewed as a potential QB of the future, even though Wilson’s game is better suited to the Cats’ style.
Kentucky doesn’t need 3,000 passing yards, but it needs enough production to keep defenses from loading up to stop Benny Snell.
9. Can Tennessee approach .500 in SEC play?
The Vols have a brutal start to SEC play in 2018, hosting Florida before playing at Georgia, at Auburn, vs. Alabama and at South Carolina.
Those games could all very well be losses for first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt, and after an 0-8 SEC record in 2017, that’s something the Vols can’t afford.
It won’t be easy, but Tennessee needs to find a way to compete again, even without star RB John Kelly. Vol fans aren’t exactly a patient bunch, so the team needs to be better in 2018 or they’ll start to get restless again.
10. Can Georgia’s defense remain at a championship level?
The Bulldogs had an incredible defense in 2017, but they’re losing star LB Roquan Smith and DL Trenton Thompson to the NFL Draft a year early. They also lost key seniors at every level of the defense.
However, Smart’s big-time 2018 recruiting class could have some immediate impact players, with LB Adam Anderson leading that charge.
If the Dawgs want to win another SEC title and qualify for the College Football Playoff again in 2018, the defense is going to have to remain great, and that will be easier said than done for DC Mel Tucker’s unit.
The offense has a few question marks, but the biggest worries lie on the other side of the ball, and it could spell the difference between a good season and a great season in Athens.