KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The SEC East is wide open in 2017.
Florida is the reigning champions of the division looking for a three-peat – but will it reach Atlanta again with its offense?
Georgia returns the most dynamic backfield in the conference and many have the Bulldogs as the favorite to win the SEC East based on that factor alone.
South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt all look to take the next step in competing for the division championship.
Then there’s Tennessee. Which direction will the Volunteers take offensively in Butch Jones’ fifth season on Rocky Top?
With so many variables that can determine the SEC East champion this season – what is the makeup offensively of each team heading into fall camp?
SEC Network analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic previewed the division from an offensive standpoint with Saturday Down South.
Redshirt junior Luke Del Rio missed spring practices as he is recovering from shoulder surgery. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks took advantage in spring practices with the increased reps and enters fall camp as the favorite. Four starters return up front on the offensive line.
Antonio Callaway remains a dangerous threat at wide receiver. Brandon Powell joins Callaway in the receiver unit as a one-two punch. Tyrie Cleveland, C’yontai Lewis and Josh Hammond round out the receiver unit’s depth. DeAndre Goolsby will bring stability to the tight end position.
At running back, Florida has depth and talent, led by Jordan Scarlett, who finished with 889 yards last season after splitting carries most of the year.
Cole’s take: “Florida’s offensive line will be a lot better. They are loaded at running back and have a good group of tight ends. Then you have Callaway being a game changer at wide receiver. Florida needs consistent quarterback play for what they want to do offensively. The offense will be good this fall, but it will come down to the offensive line being a power-run team first that can open up play-action and being able to use their tight ends.”
Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason is the talk of the Georgia offense in 2017, but what else makes up Jim Chaney’s offense? The Bulldogs have to replace a starting center and both starting tackles from 2016.
Georgia’s leading wide receiver in 2016 Isaiah McKenzie declared for the NFL Draft, leaving Terry Godwin as the Bulldog’s top wide receiver in 2017.
At running back, the Bulldogs are loaded. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could have gone to the NFL but returned. Both have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield provide the depth.
Cole’s take: “Georgia has a chance to be really good. A lot of that is based on the ability of Jacob Eason who has the best arm talent in maybe the country. I would like to see him manage the game by keeping drives going, moving the chains, and take less shots with the gunslinger, big-play type player.
“I’m not really confident in their offensive line. They are good at guard and will be fine at center, but are lacking at tackle. Then there are the solid running backs, but it comes down to Jim Chaney’s offense improving in Year 2. They have the personnel, but I am not sure about the offensive line.”
The Wildcats return eight starters, including Benny Snell, but will miss Boom Williams and receiver Jeff Badet. The Wildcats also lose center Jon Toth, but return four starters on the line. Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson provide the depth at the quarterback position under offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
Cole’s take: “Kentucky has a 1,000-yard runner returning, an in-side and out-side runner, who is big (in Snell). C.J. Conrad is at tight end, with four starters back on the offensive line. Kentucky has one of the best quarterback depth in the SEC.
“If something were to happen, they can turn to someone that has multiple starts in the SEC. Drew Barker has started games and is a good option if Stephen Johnson were to go down. It will be the second year under offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and they have a mobile quarterback, there’s still a power-run game mentality first and still will spread you out and take shots.”
It’s year No. 2 in the Josh Heupel offense at Missouri. Drew Lock looks to continue improving and increase his 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns in one season under Heupel. The Tigers’ offense will also include wide receiver J’Mon Moore and running back Damarea Crockett.
Cole’s take: “Missouri is a team that can be very scary on offense. There’s a lot of experience on the offensive line. They are one of two teams that are coming back with a 2,000-yard passer, 1,000 yard rusher and a 1,000 yard receiver. Crockett will be an inside and outside runner for them.
“The difference is, with Drew Lock settling in at quarterback, and with offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, you do not want to get in a shootout with Missouri with style of play being critical this year.”
Some analysts believe sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley is the best QB in the East. He brings game experience after completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns over seven games.
Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams provide depth for a backfield that will look to improve on an SEC-worst 3.6 yards per carry a season ago. The line returns four starters. Deebo Samuel returns as a threat on the outside in the passing game.
Cole’s take: “As far as skill position, South Carolina is not too far from any other team in the league. Deebo Samuel and the receivers, along with Jake Bentley at quarterback who brings good balance and sneaky mobility with enough arm strength to be accurate, it’s a good fit with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
“The offensive line will be critical for this group with guard play being the best last year. Hurst is the most underrated tight end in the league and South Carolina will move people around in the offense. If the offensive line improves, this will be an offense that can play with anyone in the league.”
The Vols were the highest scoring team in the East last season, but are essentially starting over. They’re also looking to avenge the second half of last season. Tennessee will have to do so with a new quarterback and a new backfield. The offensive line is strong with depth, but Tennessee will be replacing a lot of familiar faces that are now in the NFL.
Cole’s take: “With Tennessee. I don’t know. The quarterback position is new, the leading rushers are gone and the big-play receiver is gone. I am pleased with the offensive line. Trey Smith is the real deal, he may not be the everyday left tackle, but he can play guard. I really like Jashon Robertson at center and he can bring experience in the middle, next to a true freshman in Smith at guard. The quarterback race should go on through fall and I am not sure what my expectations are.”
Junior quarterback Kyle Schumur and Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb are back and are the leaders of an offense that brings back eight other starters. The Commodores return three linemen along with their top nine pass-catchers from 2016.
Cole’s take: “Vanderbilt’s offense has a two-headed monster in the backfield with (Khari) Blassingame & Webb. The Commodores are deep at wide receiver and tight end. The offensive line will have holes. Kyle Shurmer is solid at quarterback, but is limited.”