Overrated and underrated in 2015: SEC East edition
The time standing between us and the start of the regular season is fast evaporating. The fan bases for each SEC team are sounding more and more cantankerous waiting for a football fix.
It’s officially debate season, as the college football world bickers about menial slights in soon-irrelevant preseason magazines. Fans of teams that don’t look good on paper, or in the Vegas odds, scream and shout at the injustice of it all. (“Do you even watch football?” has become the new “Do you even lift, bro?”)
Since it’s that time of the year, let’s take a close (and maybe even controversial, but not on purpose) look at the SEC East. Here are some of the overrated and underrated aspects within the division ahead of the 2015 season.
- Florida coach Jim McElwain as a recruiter. I’m a believer. I think McElwain will make a good SEC head coach. But it’s going to take him a few seasons to figure it out. The first thing he needs to realize is that the team only has 85 scholarships. It’s not that McElwain can’t recruit — he did well enough at Colorado State and picked up a few key pieces in February in a short window after getting hired. But he’s been handing out scholarship offers to three-star recruits like hot cakes. It’s no surprise that many of them are committing almost immediately. Florida needs to start adding some quality cornerstone pieces for the future, and so far there aren’t many in the ’16 class.
- Tennessee’s 2015 passing game. The Vols are a work in progress here. But No. 1 (or at least 1a) receiver Von Pearson appears to be all but gone. The offensive line gave up the most sacks in the SEC last season, and should return the same lineup. Several other receivers in this group, though talented, just can’t stay healthy. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is poised to make strides, but entering the fall, he’s more adept as a read-option guy who can improvise and escape pressure than a certified pro-prospect pocket passer. Tennessee’s passing game includes some intriguing pieces. But the running game should be more effective in ’15, and there are some kinks to work out through the air.
- Mark Stoops’ progress at Kentucky. The Wildcats beat Vanderbilt and South Carolina last season and nearly clipped Florida. But this defense was awful before losing Bud Dupree (No. 22 overall pick) and Za’Darius Smith (fourth-round pick). UK allowed more than 40 points in five of its last six games, losing them all. Oh yeah, and Stoops has a defensive background. A.J. Stamps, Josh Forrest and Jason Hatcher are nice players, but that’s not enough, and there’s an urgency to develop players like Matt Elam. Stoops has recruited well in spurts, but should have trouble cresting five wins again in ’15 without a major defensive turnaround. The positive vibes after last year’s hot start could be long gone by next spring.
- Missouri’s Connor McGovern at left tackle. McGovern plays with a nasty streak befitting of his weight-room histrionics and blue-collar background. As a right guard, he’d enter 2015 as one of the best in the SEC. He started last season at right tackle and played decidedly mediocre football, reverting into a much better player after an injury saw him return to his most natural spot. Now the Tigers appear poised to slide him to left tackle — a spot at which he did not practice all spring. The team isn’t devoid of options at tackle. It may be a mistake to take McGovern from what he does best and require him to play an even more challenging position than right tackle.
- Butch Jones’ accomplishments at Tennessee thus far. This isn’t a knock on Jones. I think the Vols very much are on track to become an SEC contender — maybe even a national championship contender — in 2016. UT should continue to improve this year, even if the team doesn’t win the SEC East. Jones’ marketing and recruiting, considering the circumstances under which he arrived, are commendable. But, as of today, Jones’ Vols haven’t accomplished very much. All the good vibes are based on what we expect will happen in the future. The team beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina and four non-conference opponents in ’14. That should be a baseline, bottom-of-the-barrel season at Tennessee from now on. Jones and the Vols seem to be headed in the right direction, but the team needs to prove that as a reality in the next two years.
- South Carolina’s SEC East chances. I’m not suggesting we install the Gamecocks as anything close to division favorites. But neither do I think we can totally discount South Carolina in the division this year. Coach Steve Spurrier owns Georgia, and probably cost the Bulldogs a division title with an upset last year. The Mizzou-South Carolina games have been very, very close and entertaining the last two seasons. Tennessee is unlikely to be perfect in SEC play in ’15. South Carolina’s biggest weakness in ’14, its pass defense, should get much, much better thanks to the hire of Jon Hoke as coordinator, an influx of decent pass rushers, the maturation of a young secondary and the installation of Kansas transfer and senior safety Isaiah Johnson. If Spurrier can approximate last year’s offensive production and the defense gets much better, SC could remain in the division mix all year.
- Mark Richt’s career accomplishments. The Georgia coach is an easy target. He’s lost some big games and failed to meet high expectations more than once. But Richt is no scrub, and deserves more credit than he gets. The man has won the SEC East six times. UGA has finished with an SEC record of 6-2 or 7-1 in nine different seasons under Richt. The Bulldogs have claimed two SEC titles and came within five yards of a third (and a likely national title) in ’12. Last year, one game after losing Todd Gurley to a suspension, Richt rallied the team to a 34-0 road win against eventual division champion Missouri. Any other coach would get a lot of credit for that, but with Richt, it’s just more evidence of a season of missed opportunity. Richt isn’t the best coach in the country, or even in the SEC East. To assert the Georgia can’t win with Richt is unfair and misguided.
- Florida quarterback Will Grier. He didn’t play a snap last season, and that’s with Jeff Driskel flailing, Treon Harris doing nothing spectacular and then-coach Will Muschamp desperate to make something happen on offense. But that’s less of an indictment of Grier than it is a blessing for McElwain and the current staff. Harris is more capable of erasing some of the mistakes the inexperienced offensive line is sure to make, and therefore has a fighting chance at the job. But Grier flashed timing and control in the spring game at times, including a pretty back-shoulder throw. He’s a good fit for McElwain’s traditional offense predicated on safe, short-to-intermediate timing routes. We may not see Grier step into his ability until ’16 or even ’17, but assuming Florida hands him the keys, he should become as viable of an option at the position as the Gators have seen in recent seasons.
- Mizzou’s back seven. The defensive line shouldn’t produce as many sacks in ’15, but that could be OK. The linebackers and cornerbacks deserve credit, and this should be a peak year for those units. Kenya Dennis provides aggression and physicality. Aarion Penton’s quick-swivel hips make him an above-average cover corner. Kentrell Brothers is one of the more athletic linebackers in the SEC. Michael Scherer is as intellectual as anyone at the position and does very well with pre-snap reads.
- Georgia’s offensive line. I almost gave this spot to Tennessee’s secondary, which is deserving as well. But UGA’s offensive line may have been the single-most underrated unit in the SEC last season. Gone is David Andrews, the glue of the unit at center. But if the team can find a replacement there — and that remains a big “if” — the Bulldogs still could feature one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the country. Yes, UGA’s running backs are talented. But the team doesn’t gain 6.0 yards per carry (including sacks) and run for 38 touchdowns without this mashing offensive line. Nick Chubb and company don’t need a boost, but the big guys in front of them will provide it anyway.