Handicapping the SEC East offenses
Earlier this year, we set out to dissect what to make of the SEC East this season, a top-heavy division led by three teams ranked inside the preseason Top 25 that hasn’t won a league championship since 2008.
Now that we’re one week from the opener, we’re going to re-rank the division’s offenses and defenses based on what we’ve seen during fall camp including various position battles, notable injuries, players emerging, etc.
We’ll start on offense where two teams are considerably more talented than others:
1. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strength: SEC’s top running game
Weakness: Depth issues at wide receiver
Best Player: RB Nick Chubb
We’re five days from the official start of game week in Athens and the Bulldogs still haven’t picked a starting quarterback. there’s no need to panic, however. This situation’s not as dire as the uncertainty at Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt, comparatively. In recent practices, Brice Ramsey and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert have split reps with the 1s, pushing third challenger Faton Bauta to a third-team role. It’s a two-horse race at this point and many think Lambert, who analyst David Pollack so brazenly picked as the frontrunner at SEC Media Days, will win the job.
Recent news of Justin Scott-Wesley’s career-ending knee injury weakens a wide receiver group already short on experience. It’s an unfortunate situation for a player who has battled through various ailments throughout his career to return and give it one more go as a fifth-year senior. His absence puts pressure on five-star true freshman Terry Godwin to succeed as an eventual featured option. Godwin’s made waves with the second-teamers during camp and should get his share of targets this fall along with Malcolm Mitchell, Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie.
Not much needs to be said about Georgia’s other position groups on offense, the talent-rich backfield and offensive line. The Bulldogs will at times go four-deep in a running game this season led by Chubb as their featured option. If Brian Schottenheimer has his say, Chubb’s workload won’t be as intense as it was during the second half of his freshman campaign, giving way to Sony Michel and Keith Marshall to keep Chubb fresh throughout.
2. TENNESSEE VOLS
Strength: High-powered balanced offense
Weakness: Inexperience up front
Best Player: QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee received great news earlier this month following a false report concerning the severity of a knee injury to star wideout Marquez North. He’s a pass-catcher with All-American potential who went down with a sprained knee, but returned to practice on Tuesday. The update wasn’t as positive for senior guard Marcus Jackson who is expected to miss the season with an arm injury. Redshirt sophomore Austin Sanders will likely fill that void along an offensive line that gave up the most sacks in the SEC last fall. The Vols can’t afford another injury to a thin wall of blockers.
The tailback tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara is poised to become one of the league’s best this season in Mike DeBord’s balanced attack. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs developed into a leader early in his career and now enters his junior campaign as the primary reason many are expecting the Vols to compete for an Eastern Division title. His play has been flawless throughout camp and it appears several young receivers are ready to become breakout performers including Josh Malone and Josh Smith.
3. MIZZOU TIGERS
Strength: Veteran offensive line
Weakness: Unproven wide receivers
Best Player: RB Russell Hansbrough
Based on performances during fall scrimmages, this offense might be better than advertised this fall despite ‘The Replacements’ in the receiving game. The Tigers have depth under center behind Maty Mauk and feel comfortable with their rotation at running back heading into the season. The pressing issue coming into camp was establishing a group of four to five wideouts who were comfortable — and reliable — within the offense following a lackluster spring. J’Mon Moore and DeSean Blair appeared ready to contribute earlier this month before recent injuries have slowed their progress.
At SEC Media Days, Mauk mentioned renewed confidence in the passing game despite Mizzou’s heavy personnel losses at the position. Wesley Leftwich and Nate Brown have each been consistent targets as well as the Tigers’ two talented tight ends Sean Culkin and Jason Reese. Mizzou’s remade offensive line is an obvious strength, led by preseason All-American center and two-year starter Evan Boehm. He’s one of four seniors projected to start up front in the opener against Southeast Missouri State.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Strength: Depth in the running game
Weakness: Inexperience at quarterback, wide receiver
Best Player: ATH Pharoh Cooper
Steve Spurrier announced Connor Mitch as the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback on Tuesday, a decision we’ve known for months. This was always Mitch’s offense when it was time to take over the controls from Dylan Thompson, but by refusing to announce it publicly, Spurrier created valuable competition at the position. How will South Carolina’s scheme change with Mitch at the helm? Not by much. He’s more mobile than Thompson, but not as polished from the pocket. There’s also not enough separation between himself and Perry Orth to indicate the job is exclusively his if play turns south in a hurry next month, but he’ll have every opportunity to earn job security.
Tailback Brandon Wilds, tackle Brandon Shell and tight end Jerell Adams assume leadership roles as seniors this season on an offense that suffered heavy personnel losses at wide receiver. Preseason All-SEC stud Pharoh Cooper’s back at wide receiver, but that’s it for the Gamecocks. South Carolina’s hoping redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel, on the heels of a solid spring and impressive fall camp, is in for a breakout season as Cooper’s sidekick down the field.
Behind Wilds, David Williams will likely double his carries — and production — when the Gamecocks go to a two-back look. Mike Davis and Wilds have been in front of the former four-star signee from New Jersey each of the past two seasons. The third-year sophomore is one of South Carolina’s fastest players and flexes an array of moves that will benefit this running game.
5. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Strength: Depth in the backfield, at receiver
Weakness: The unknown up front
Best Player: QB Patrick Towles
Tip of the cap to quarterback Patrick Towles whose confidence as Kentucky’s leader on offense is commendable. He hasn’t been afraid to talk division title during camp and never wavered during this lengthy battle under center with the touted Drew Barker. Several of Towles’ top targets have impressed during camp including Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson, two players capable of stellar seasons in Shannon Dawson’s revised Air Raid offense.
For the first time in Mark Stoops’ tenure, the Wildcats have depth at wide receiver. The necessity for a wealth of skill players in the SEC can’t be undersold and Kentucky’s comfortable with the guys it has coming back. Nine receivers on roster have caught at least one pass and Ryan Timmons, a speedy playmaker who caught a team-best 45 passes despite an injury-marred sophomore campaign, isn’t even listed with the first-teamers. That speaks volumes for the Wildcats’ depth and confidence in their rotation.
Despite 77 career starts between left tackle Jordan Swindle, guard Zach West and Jon Toth, there are questions along the offensive line. The Wildcats are putting pressure on 6-foot-6 freshman George Asafo-Adjei to start at right tackle and keep pass rushers off of Towles. This group struggled with consistency down the stretch during the 2014 campaign, an element Stoops hopes will be cleared up this season.
6. FLORIDA GATORS
Strength: Budding talent at skill positions
Weakness: Inexperience up front
Best Player: RB Kelvin Taylor
Jim McElwain’s tinkered with the idea of playing two quarterbacks this season in a rotational sense, but redshirt freshman Will Grier has earned the majority of first-team reps during camp and the job appears to be his for the taking. With that being said, McElwain plans to play both Grier and Treon Harris in the opener and ‘go from there’ so to speak, allowing the competition to play itself out through production.
Much of the fall camp emphasis offensively has been placed on Florida’s wide receivers, a largely inconsistent group last season outside of standout Demarcus Robinson. Drops were an issue and assistant coach Kerry Dixon had made it a priority that’s not a lingering problem this fall. The acquisition of new OC Doug Nussmeier means the Gators will focus on putting the ball in the hands of playmakers quickly off the snap. Projected Y-WR starter Brandon Powell’s the speed threat Florida has picked to become a featured option in the slot. The former backup ballcarrier will move around a good bit in this offense and Nussmeier will cater to his strengths.
Birmingham Bowl MVP Adam Lane’s departure this month means Florida’s running game will be led by Kelvin Taylor and touted true freshmen Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Conkrite. Senior Mark Herndon will also get a look in McElwain’s multiple-back philosophy. It’s important for each of Florida’s ballcarriers to be reliable options for Grier and Harris in the short passing game as well in screen or third-down situations.
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Strength: Andy Ludwig’s new run-geared philosophy
Weakness: Lost two key starters to season-ending injuries
Best Player: RB Ralph Webb
Fall practice has been unkind to the Commodores. A week after losing No. 1 wideout C.J. Duncan for the season, a similar injury happened to starting left tackle Andrew Jelks, arguably Vanderbilt’s best player up front. The former freshman All-American was considered one of this team’s offensive leaders alongside tailback Ralph Webb and his absence creates a major hole at a key position on a unit that struggled mightily last fall.
Derek Mason knows who will start at quarterback in the opener against Western Kentucky, but he hasn’t divulged that information yet to keep others in the race still motivated. If one had to project, Johnny McCrary gives the the Commodores the best chance to win now considering he has the most experience on roster in game situations. Decision-making has come into question in spurts, but McCrary’s shown he is capable. Four-star 2015 signee Kyle Shurmur is taking reps and isn’t expected to redshirt unless he falls to the No. 3 spot behind Wade Freebeck.