Can ranking each team in 10 categories predict final standings in SEC East?
Picking the winner in the West is one of the easiest tasks at SEC Media Days. More often than not, just go with Alabama.
Such is not the case in the East, though. Not since Georgia in 2012 have print, radio and TV types gotten the division champion right. Last year’s choice, Tennessee, finished a disappointing 4-4 in conference play and came up short.
This season, all the signs points to the Bulldogs. Second-year coach Kirby Smart returns an awful lot of talent on both sides of the ball, led by rising sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason, and has a negotiable league schedule. Needless to say, two-time defending champ Florida might have something to say about that.
As I did Wednesday for the West, instead of making traditional picks — guesses, really — for how the East shakes out top to bottom, I devised a ranking system that puts equal weight on 10 separate categories of varying importance.
The results seemed to make sense for the West. To reiterate, lower numbers are better. Here are the categories once again:
Quarterback: Because it’s the most important position in sports, it deserves its own category. The better your QB, the better your team.
Rushing offense: Not only does this include the talent in the backfield, but blocking up front is considered. So is the quarterback’s ability to run.
Passing offense: This accounts for the non-quarterback elements of throwing the ball, like receivers, tight ends, protection and even scheme.
Rushing defense: Fairly self-explanatory, the ability to stop the run is paramount for any team and helps a defense get off the field.
Passing defense: More than just secondary play from cornerbacks and safeties, the personnel rushing the passer is every bit as important.
Special teams: From kicking to punting and the coverage units to the return game, football’s third phase tends to be overlooked.
Coaching: Needless to say, the head coach is the most important member of any program. However, coordinators also play a role.
Schedule: Who plays who at home or on the road in 2017 can be crucial, as well as any cross-division matchups against the West.
Recruiting: Instead of trying to get fancy locating immediate-impact freshmen, I simply borrowed February’s team rankings from 247Sports.
Momentum: Some teams appear to be headed in the right direction. Others seem to be fighting gravity. This is mostly intangible, of course.
The rankings below are entirely my own. They’re a product of what we saw last year and what we can expect to see this season:
1. South Carolina
While he was originally supposed to redshirt as a freshman, Jake Bentley came out of the bullpen last year once the Perry Orth/Brandon McIlwain tandem failed and saved South Carolina offensively. He has enough skill-position stars around him to flourish in 2017. Feleipe Franks looks like the guy at Florida but has zero experience.
7. South Carolina
Yes, Kentucky lost Stanley “Boom” Williams early to the NFL Draft, but Benny Snell was every bit as good this past season as a freshman. He might have a new partner in crime with Sihiem King, who had a big spring game. While South Carolina likes what it has in Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams, a lot less has been proven.
1. South Carolina
Not only does Bentley have all the traits to be a great one, but he has a legitimate No. 1 option in receiver Deebo Samuel and an ideal safety valve in tight end Hayden Hurst. They’re both capable of being All-SEC. Kentucky, conversely, will live and die by its running game. Stephen Johnson is a limited passer at best.
3. South Carolina
Assuming that Georgia gets Trenton Thompson back in the middle of its defense, then the Bulldogs should dominate the line of scrimmage. The linebacking corps is deep and battle-tested, too. As for Missouri, no unit in the East gave up more yards per game on the ground than the one in Columbia. That can’t continue.
4. South Carolina
If the depth chart holds true, then Georgia will start three seniors and a junior in the secondary. The leader is safety Dominick Sanders, who can be special. All of its top pass rushers are back, as well. Missouri must pick up the pieces defending the pass, this time without D-end Charles Harris and cornerback Aarion Penton.
5. South Carolina
The kicking game is solid for Florida, which features a pair of booming legs in kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend. Additionally, Antonio Callaway is always a threat to return a punt to paydirt. Georgia kicked and punted poorly most of 2016, plus return man Isaiah McKenzie is off to the pros.
2. South Carolina
It’s not an easy question to answer: Who’s the best coach in the East? Right now, Florida’s Jim McElwain deserves consideration. He’s overachieved for two staight years and taken the Gators to Atlanta twice. Missouri’s Barry Odom still has a ways to go if he ever wants to get out of Gary Pinkel’s considerable shadow.
4. South Carolina
Because Florida was forced to play one extra road contest last season due to Hurricane Matthew, it picks up another home date this year. Also, its annual neutral-site matchup against Georgia may as well be a home game at this point. Tennessee has to play at Florida and at Alabama. Both are two-time defending division champs.
4. South Carolina
We don’t know if Smart can truly coach yet, but we’ve already seen him recruit. Receiver Jeremiah Holloman and safety Richard LeCounte look like difference makers right away as early-enrollee freshmen. Due to the admission standards necessary just to get into Vanderbilt, coach Derek Mason is always at a disadvantage come signing day.
2. South Carolina
In all likelihood, Georgia will be the betting favorite to capture the East. Even if last season’s club fell short of expectations, most of the key contributors are still on campus and hope to make this the Year of the Dawg. For reasons both on the field and off, Missouri hasn’t had much of a positive vibe lately.
1. Georgia (27)
2. Florida (31)
3. South Carolina (33)
4. Kentucky (40)
5. Tennessee (48)
6. Missouri (50)
7. Vanderbilt (51)
It wasn’t a runaway win necessarily, but the numbers lead us to conclude that Georgia is indeed the team to beat in the division.
Florida will be heard from, though. Still desperately out of balance, its offense needs to catch up to its defense. With all that experience on offense and linebacker Skai Moore returning on D, South Carolina is ready to play spoiler.
Kentucky is fresh off a bowl game, which was a first for coach Mark Stoops, but has he taken this program as far as it can go? With so many name players no longer on the roster, Tennessee is in danger of taking a major step back toward mediocrity. Missouri’s defense needs to lend quarterback Drew Lock a helping hand.
Like Kentucky and Stoops, Vanderbilt finally got back to the postseason with Mason at the controls. The offense will revolve around the running of Ralph Webb, although the departed Zach Cunningham did everything for that defense.
It’s been half a decade since the preseason favorite in the East came out on top. Of course, UGA was the last correct call.