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