The fatal flaw that could keep every SEC East team from getting to Atlanta

Sep 24, 2016; Knoxville, TN, USA; Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain during the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 38-28. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Spring football is underway across the SEC, and hope springs eternal in a wide open SEC East. The division that hasn’t won the conference championship since 2008 is up for grabs. There’s a clear favorite heading into this fall, but Florida and Missouri would kindly like to remind you that the media has a tendency of hyping the wrong team.

RELATED: Fatal flaw that could keep every West team from reaching Atlanta

The past four years have shown us not to count out any team in the division, but every squad has a fatal flaw which could prevent it from making to Atlanta in December.

Florida

Fatal flaw in 2017: Depth issues on defense

The Gators are in the process of replacing eight starters on defense. The good news is that due to the injury bug, most of the replacements gained valuable experience last fall. Depending on how a few position battles play out, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon could send out a starting 11 full of players with at least one start. Shannon, however, has no way of preventing the injury bug from striking again.

When injuries start to add up, depth issues will impact the Gators. At linebacker and defensive back, injuries will likely lead to Florida playing true freshmen in SEC competition. Both positions were under-recruited in 2015 and ’16, and it’s about to catch up to Jim McElwain.

Georgia

Fatal flaw: Lack of a play-making wide receiver

The Bulldogs are the offseason favorite to win the division in the eyes of many, and for good reasons. Highly talented QB Jacob Eason is back after gaining experience as a true freshman and should be ready to take the next step. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two of the best running backs in the SEC, decided to return for their senior season in Athens. The defense is loaded with talent, and its head coach is one of the most respected defensive minds in the sport.

All that’s missing at UGA is a play-making wide receiver. With Isaiah McKenzie gone, Georgia’s top returning wideout is Terry Godwin, whose 38 catches for 397 yards (and no touchdowns) were No. 36 among SEC pass-catchers.

Nov 19, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) runs against Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns defensive back Savion Brown (6) during the first half at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receivers can always emerge, but Eason would benefit this offseason if he had a clear go-to wideout.

Kentucky

Fatal flaw: Unable to stop the run

After a strong finish to the 2016 season, including an upset of Louisville, the Wildcats have been talked about as a potential sleeper in the SEC East for 2017. The team returns a 1,000-yard rusher at running back (Benny Snell) and has capable quarterbacks in Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker (if he’s healthy). Scoring points isn’t the problem; slowing down the other team is.

Opponents rushed for a problematic 5.2 yards per play on Kentucky last season. Coach Mark Stoops shook up the staff, promoting inside linebackers coach Matt House to defensive coordinator. House has been a defensive coordinator before, recently at Pittsburgh and FIU. At Pittsburgh, fans became frustrated over opposing teams having record days against House’s defenses in 2014.

Missouri

Fatal flaw: A struggling defense just lost its top players

The Tigers came out on the low end of many high-scoring games last season. The quick strikes produced by Josh Heupel’s offense and a lack of rest for the defensive players were thought to be a problem. Heupel is back for a second season, and head coach Barry Odom is getting more involved with the defense. Odom’s speciality is defense, as he was Memphis’ defensive coordinator from 2012-14 before returning to Missouri to take the same position in 2015.

Odom’s involvement on defense should help, but MU is replacing too many top players at multiple positions to make any significant improvement that will show on Saturdays. DL Charles Harris, LB Donavin Newsom, LB Michael Scherer and CB Aarion Penton are all gone. The schemes might improve, but it’s tough to see the defense getting better while having to replace the best pass-rusher, tacklers and cover corner.

South Carolina

Fatal flaw: The depth chart on defense

Similar to Kentucky, the Gamecocks are being talked about as a potential sleeper. QB Jake Bentley got the offense going in 2016 and he should only get better entering his sophomore season with a solid supporting cast. Second-year coach Will Muschamp was always an in-demand defensive coordinator. On the surface, that seems like a worrisome combination to the rest of the SEC East.

USC’s fatal flaw in 2017, however, is the defensive depth chart. South Carolina loses Marquavius Lewis, Darius English, T.J. Holloman, Jonathan Walton and Chris Moody. Recruiting was trending downward toward the end of the Steve Spurrier era, and Muschamp has only had one full cycle on the trail to get the players for his system.  South Carolina signed an impressive 2017 class, but it takes more than one class to properly build a defense.

Tennessee

Fatal flaw: Too many changes on offense

Despite whatever coachspeak Butch Jones chooses to describe the 2017 season, it’s a rebuilding year in on Rocky Top. Everything was lined up for the Volunteers to be SEC East champs in 2016, but Muschamp and the Gamecocks derailed those plans.

Jan 2, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Team Highlight player Jarrett Guarantano throws the ball in the Under Armour All American Football Game at the Orlando Citrus Bowl. Team Highlight beat Team Armour 27-0. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, UT breaks in a new starting quarterback (Jarrett Guarantano, above) or Quinten Dormady) under a first-year offensive coordinator who hasn’t called plays before. Larry Scott has an impressive resume as a tight ends coach and interim head coach, and he might make a solid offensive coordinator – one day. In 2017, he’s learning on the job while dealing with a first-year starter at quarterback.

Both parties are going to experience growing pains, and that will keep the Vols from winning the division.

Vanderbilt

Fatal flaw in 2017: Pass defense

Similar to some of its division rivals, Vanderbilt feels good about its offense with RB Ralph Webb and QB Kyle Shurmur back for 2017. The Commodores’ area of concern is on defense, particularly defending the pass.

Derek Mason’s squad allowed the second-highest completion percentage in the SEC last season (61). One reason that number was so high is Vanderbilt struggled in another area of defending the pass: rushing the quarterback. VU had 15 sacks last season, last in the SEC and at least 10 fewer than 10 SEC teams.

In a division loaded with experienced pocket passers, the Commodores look to be in trouble.

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COMMENTS

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  • Last year was the exception and not the rule for our defense thus far in the SEC. I blame that on coordinator change (twice), lingo and philosophy. The guys were a step behind all season , which stemmed from over-thinking / slow processing mentally. I.E.-The read & react DL scheme. There was rarely any natural rhythm or flow on D. One of the few bright spots from last year was the youth playing experience. I gotta believe that this year’s defense will take a few steps forward based on that. But I do agree that our success next year will hinge on our defense.

  • Also, I agree that media does hype the wrong teams in the east. I would like to remind the media and my division foes that the road to Atlanta for the past four years has gone thru the winner of the Mizzou vs Florida game.

    • That’s good stuff. Don’t let those back to back losing seasons enter to the equation.

      • Right? This is kind of funny honestly. Since 2012 (when mizzou and A&M entered the league) Mizzou has gone 37-27 good for a .578 winning percentage overall. In conference they are 19-21 good for .475. 14 of those wins came in two years and lets not forget you gave up 101 combined points in the SEC title games those years. Please don’t pretend that the road to Atlanta goes through CoMo. To quote you, the exception to the rule for mizzou is the two 7-1 conference years. They are more of a 2-6 sec team.

        • You so eloquently prove the worth of Georgia football. You talk smack about what Mizzou isn’t, but what does that say what Georgia is? You guys can’t spell Atlanta.

        • Can’t spell Atlanta but Georgia is tied with UT and Auburn for third most appearances? Yes I know Mizzou hasn’t been in the SEC as long as Georgia but don’t pretend to be running the east after back to back seasons of 1-7 and 2-6 in league play. You want to talk crap about Georgia but we have won the last three in a row and are 4-1 against you guys since you’ve joined. In those games you have been outscored by 44 and haven’t won at home against Georgia. Do I need to go on?

        • Add LSU to that list too*

      • That’s my point, until proven otherwise, the winner of that game goes to Atlanta. Four years of history proves this.

        • I hope you are just being clever here.

        • Nice logic. The Road to Atlanta goes through the winner of the Florida/Vandy game. The last two years proves that right?

    • Although this story wasn’t written about just Missouri the points made here by everybody are simple and accurate. Yes Missouri has won the East 40% of the time, and yes Missouri has had years of contrast before and after. 2012 however was more of an extreme injury year than anything else. In 2017, i expect everybody in the East to stay in contention till perhaps the last 3 weeks of league play. The media will interpret this as weakness, but the bowl games, and cross-division games with show the East confirming it’s quality. In the West, AL, LSU, will be strong again, Arkansas will still have a skilled quarterback, Ms-state still a well coached plan for it’s roster. AU and OM and aTm are the head scratchers for me. Can we fast forward 5 months now?

  • Writer Olson surely has Missouri’s ?-mark right…. but the reason is not graduation. Notice I wrote ” ? ” and not “fatal flaw”. To really understand this you have to go back to Kentrell Brothers 2015, and losing him in 2016. Coach Cross couldn’t have brought that defense at a worse time in the history of Missouri football. Missouri’s 2017 defense will demonstrate much improvement over 2015, however I doubt it will lead the nation and probably not the SEC in very many stats. It doesn’t have to. Heupel has the roster, coaching staff, experience, and play-book to give Missouri’s defense the breathing room to re-learn quality execution, and expect 2017 to end with a long string of solid Saturdays on both sides of the ball.