10 burning questions that will decide the SEC East race
The easy consensus in the SEC East this season appears to be Georgia or Florida headed to Atlanta in December. There are some dark horses, sure, but the safe money is on one of those two teams emerging from the pack. How the season unfolds is a much more winding path.
Here are 10 questions that will explain how the season plays out:
Will Georgia’s offensive line improve enough to make a difference?
One of the bright spots of the most recent recruiting cycle was the influx of bigger and more talented linemen and the recruiting prowess of Sam Pittman. It’s one of the more noticeable changes from the Mark Richt era, which in its final years had a lackluster effort to bring in talented offensive linemen. With a shortage of experienced 5-star linemen, and with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jacob Eason expected to have big years, the O-line needs to deliver. If it does, they’ll help pave the short path to Atlanta.
Will the Florida quarterbacks deliver the best offense of the McElwain era?
Jim McElwain’s reputation before Gainesville was fueled by offense, but the Gators have been led by defense to get to Atlanta in consecutive years. Last year, they were last in the SEC in total offense, and in 2015, they were 12th. Malik Zaire and Feleipe Franks are expected to make a difference at quarterback. But questions remain: If Franks were a clear-cut starter, why bring in Zaire? Conversely, if Zaire is a quarterback of a winning team, would he have left Notre Dame?
If either quarterback solves their problems on offense, Florida could be the first East team to win three consecutive division titles since the Gators won the first five from 1992-96.
Will the South Carolina sophomores take the next step?
One of those dark horse picks will be counted on to make that next step behind a largely sophomore-laden backfield. It is tough to see the second half of 2016 going much better for the Gamecocks, and extrapolating that into 2017 is at best a stretch. So there will be bumps in the road, but for the Gamecocks to be a factor late in the season, they must avoid a rash of injuries and have new freshmen and youngsters step up like Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle did in 2016.
Can Kentucky produce a winning record in the SEC for the first time since 1977?
Last season was the fifth time the Wildcats finished .500 in the SEC since 1977, when they went 6-0.
They are another team capable of spoiling a championship run if not contending and are similar to South Carolina in that they have some key young players and put together an exciting run at the end of 2016.
Outside of the league, despite the rivalry game being in Lexington, it’s difficult to see them beating Louisville in back-to-back years. They haven’t done that since winning four straight from 2007-10. They are good for an upset, but don’t yet have the depth to challenge as a serious contender.
Will Butch Jones go with a two-man quarterback rotation?
It’s still up for debate how the quarterback snaps will be divided between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, or whether they will at all. It comes down to style of play and preference in certain game situations. Dormady has a slight edge in experience, but that hasn’t separated the candidates to this point.
How will the Tennessee offensive line crystalize?
The Vols used a bevy of line combinations last year, and this year add super recruit Trey Smith, who is expected to eventually start at tackle. The O-line’s play is especially important given the quarterback situation being influx, and a lack of quality depth behind starting running back John Kelly.
The added twist here is the contrasting styles of the quarterbacks and how that impacts blocking schemes. Keeping the pint-sized Kelly healthy is also a priority because, while the freshmen are talented, there is next to no experience behind him.
Who will emerge in the Georgia passing game?
Terry Godwin is a known commodity among Georgia receivers, and there are a host of others who at least show potential, from Riley Ridley to Javon Wims, Michael Chigbu and Jayson Stanley. Throw in tight end Isaac Nauta and there is no shortage of options. Don’t forget wild card late addition Mecole Hardman, a high school quarterback who started his career on defense. If Georgia wins the East, at least two of the above have to have banner seasons.
Can Florida continue hot home streak?
Jim McElwain is 2-0 against Georgia, and 11-1 at home so far. Keep those numbers up against the likes of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU and Texas A&M and the Gators are again on their way to Atlanta. That’s how the Gators have stayed alive late in the season when rivals like Tennessee beat them and Georgia. Even with losses to Michigan and Florida State (at home), wins against the SEC teams at home will make it a pretty successful season for McElwain.
How soon can Will Muschamp rebuild the defense?
Plenty of people noticed when South Carolina brought three offensive players to SEC Media Days. The Gamecocks, despite their strong second half in 2016, left a lot to be desired on defense. Against Clemson and in the bowl loss to South Florida, the Gamecocks gave up 102 combined points and 1,091 yards. Sure, Skai Moore is a big veteran addition and it’s Year 2 in the system, but will that be enough?
Can Kentucky snap streaks against Florida or Tennessee?
Kentucky has lost 30 consecutive games to Florida, and five straight (31 of 32) against Tennessee. With a program that hasn’t had a winning record in the SEC since 1977, Kentucky will not get too many benefits of the doubt. But dark horses have to start somewhere, and the Wildcats get both the Vols and Gators at home.
Another factor is their 17 returning starters. If it doesn’t happen at home with that kind of experience, it’s difficult to visualize a scenario where Kentucky beats either rival.