7 reasons to restore your faith in the SEC East in the year ahead
Alabama is a problem. A virtually unsolvable one. But as our focus shifts to the new year, there is zero reason for the SEC East to enter next fall still considering itself the younger, helpless little brother any more.
In fact, here are seven reasons that will restore your faith that the beaten down division can catch the rest of the West in the year ahead.
1. East has better returning QBs: Five of the seven East teams will return quality starting quarterbacks. Others were slightly more productive in 2016, but Georgia’s Jacob Eason will be the headliner as he enters his sophomore season with the clock racing toward a likely junior departure for the NFL Draft.
But mid-level teams such as Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt have reason to feel extremely optimistic about their starting signal-caller, too.
Last offseason nearly every East QB job except Tennessee’s was subject to debate or doubts. This offseason will be much more about fine-tuning what’s already in place, and what’s in place is pretty good.
2. Coaching stability: The East had three new coaches in 2016, including two first-time head coaches. That screamed road bumps and construction ahead. In 2017? Every head coach is back and most of the coordinators, too.
New can be fun, but new also takes time to learn. The learning curves will be dramatically shorter this spring.
3. East is potentially loaded at RB: The West is loaded, too. The league’s top two rushers — Rawleigh Williams and Derrius Guice — are returning to the West. But relative to last offseason, the East will enter 2017 in better shape. Benny Snell, Damarea Crockett and Rico Dowdle are proven commodities; Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be healthy for their surprising senior seasons and Vanderbilt’s career rushing leader, Ralph Webb, could return for his senior season as well.
Jordan Scarlett emerged at Florida, as did John Kelly at Tennessee.
Each team in the East has a featured back capable of reaching 1,000 yards. Nobody was writing that last offseason.
4. Florida has had enough time to solve its QB situation: We’ve seen redshirt freshmen dominate. Jim McElwain would settle for one of his 2016 recruits to merely be better than average. Eason and Shea Patterson are the only two 5-star quarterbacks remaining in the SEC.
Everybody else is making it work with 4-star or even 3-star talent — and Feleipe Franks was as highly regarded as any of them, more so than many of them.
Year 3 is around the corner. There are no more excuses in Gainesville.
5. Dominant defenders heading to NFL: New stars always emerge, and some of this year’s best juniors still might decide to return. But it’s hard to imagine Derek Barnett, Zach Cunningham (No. 41, pictured), Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson not joining Charles Harris and leaving early for the NFL Draft.
This relatively new three-and-out NFL Draft preparation model is taking over college football, which impacts the overall product but also makes it easier on quarterbacks who don’t have to deal with senior stars.
Every year, the game gets younger and younger. Which is good because …
6. East is closing the gap in recruiting: Alabama is still No. 1 nationally, but Georgia’s 2017 class is ranked No. 3 overall and second in the SEC. Four East teams are ranked in the Top 20 nationally by 247Sports.com’s composite. That’s just one fewer than the West.
Last year, the West had four teams in the top 9 and the East had just 3 in the top 23.
In 2015, the West had six in the top 20, compared to just three from the East.
7. Better offenses: Tennessee was the lone East team to average more than 32 points this season. Georgia, Vanderbilt, Florida and South Carolina each averaged fewer than 25 and finished 11 through 14, respectively, in the league.
The returning stars on offense, combined with the departing stars on defense should produce more crooked numbers next fall.
No promises on the East ending its eight-year SEC title drought, but certainly the regular season product should be a lot more fun to watch in 2017.
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.