10 things we learned about the SEC East this offseason
We’ve had a few months now to digest spring practice along with the comings and goings at programs this summer to complete a list of things we’ve learned about the SEC East during the offseason.
Here’s the Top 10:
10. Georgia anxious to unleash Lorenzo Carter
The youngest player in the Bulldogs’ standout trifecta at outside linebacker, Carter packed on the muscle during the offseason and flourished as an every-down threat in spring practice. When broken down by percentage of snaps, Carter was one of the SEC’s most productive pass rushers as a true freshman last fall and turned his focus on run support in the offseason, an area coach Mark Richt and DC Jeremy Pruitt said needed improvement. Carter’s a dark horse candidate for the SEC’s defensive player of the year award and arguably has more upside than any player in the South at his position as a second-year talent.
9. Kentucky, at least inside the locker room, believes it has a shot
Despite the lack of on-field success, Mark Stoops should be commended for the job he’s done at getting others to buy into what he’s building in Lexington — a program with potential staying power. Not only has a revamped Commonwealth Stadium given Kentucky new life, but the Wildcats’ recent strength on the recruiting trail shows this program is on an upward slope if they can translate that to success on Saturdays in the fall. Kentucky’s tired of the ‘division doormat’ label and as a team picked to finish sixth yet again in the East, is intent on proving the prognosticators wrong.
8. Derek Mason’s days could be numbered
It’s unfortunate that the start of Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt has been met with such disappointment, but what starts well doesn’t always end well in the SEC. Mason took the necessary steps after the 2014 season to improve his team, notably replacing his offensive coordinator and taking over play-calling duties on defense, but public perception of the program has fallen back to the pre-James Franklin days and the only way out is to start winning. The Commodores’ non-conference slate won’t be a walk in the park and the team’s biggest issue (quarterback play) took a hit after spring practice with likely starter Patton Robinette quit the team.
7. Tennessee won’t fly under the radar
So much for the Vols’ cloak of anonymity this season. Ranked in the preseason coaches poll for the first time since 2008, Butch Jones’ team is expected to finish in the top half of the conference and contend for a division crown — a far cry from projected disappointment this team’s grown accustomed to in recent years. The hype will continue to swell if Tennessee comes through at Neyland in Week 2 against Oklahoma.
6. Numbers won’t show it, but Florida’s offense will improve
Addition by subtraction. The Gators never looked comfortable on offense during the Will Muschamp era, so what did they do — went out and reversed philosophy altogether, welcoming offensive-minded Jim McElwain to Gainesville to try and send a spark through a program in dire need. McElwain’s done a great job thus far keeping expectations tempered in his first season since the Gators will be one of the youngest teams in college football along the offensive line. Brandon Powell’s a breakout candidate along with quarterback Will Grier and returning weapon Demarcus Robinson is an underrated, highly-valuable wideout.
5. Mizzou’s third straight division titles hopes in jeopardy
No team since Florida in 1996 has won three consecutive division titles, so achieving the feat in this era of college football (filled with parity) is hard enough. Add in considerable personnel losses offensively in the weapons department and notable exits up front defensively and the Tigers’ shot at their third straight isn’t favorable. Losing Shane Ray and Markus Golden was big, but the unexpected dismissal of Marcus Loud followed by potential All-American Harold Brantley’s season-ending injury was a considerable depth blow to Mizzou’s primary strength — its pass rush. Without it, much of the responsibility will be on Maty Mauk who doesn’t yet know which receivers will emerge this fall.
4. Nick Chubb will contend for ‘CFB’s best’ title
By all accounts, Chubb will be even better as a sophomore following a 1,500-yard rookie campaign. He’s bigger, faster and stronger than before and will now shoulder the bulk of the load throughout as a first-teamer. New OC Brian Schottenheimer understands Chubb’s importance to this offense and should be creative enough with Georgia’s backfield depth not to over-use the premium ballcarrier. Behind a veteran-heavy offensive line, Chubb should exceed last season’s numbers if he stays healthy as one of the few legitimate Heisman candidates in the SEC.
3. Steve Spurrier’s tired of negativity from outsiders
At this point, it’s personal for the Head Ball Coach. His recent rant hurled toward an Atlanta-based sports columnist came off as arrogant and whiny, but wasn’t outside the norm for South Carolina’s all-time winningest coach. He’s tired of hearing retirement-related questions and becomes disgusted when his age is mentioned as a factor in last season’s lack of notoriety. With ‘enemies’ now on alert, the Gamecocks are anxious to show they’re better than most believe and their coach will lead the way.
2. Several teams have quarterback concerns
It’s important to differentiate between concerns and competition. Georgia and Kentucky appear comfortable offensively no matter which player separates from others under center, but the situation’s not as stable at Florida, South Carolina and especially, Vanderbilt. The Gators will choose between Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier, whose never thrown a pass in a game but appears to be the frontrunner. In Columbia, Steve Spurrier hasn’t given any player an edge and seems to believe true freshman Lorenzo Nunez has just as good a shot at winning the job as perceived favorite Connor Mitch or second-teamer Perry Orth. Derek Mason wants a sound decision-maker, but Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck have proven inconsistent in that department.
1. ‘Lack of respect’ narrative still carries weight
Georgia, Tennessee and Mizzou are expected to carry the division’s torch this season, but until the East avoids falling on its face in Atlanta and consistently beats Top 25 competition outside the conference, the West will continue to dominate conversation. There are several ‘games of prominence’ on the docket for the East this fall, momentum-builders as far as gaining respect is concerned. It’s essential the teams we perceive as good, in fact are, this fall.