Handicapping the SEC East: Ranking the offenses
How can the SEC East pick itself off the proverbial canvas and conquer its Western brethren this season?
It starts on offense.
The quarterback situation is cloudy at four of the division’s seven programs, but offensive line should be a strength and every unit flexes at least one standout playmaker, even Vanderbilt with tailback Ralph Webb.
Georgia and Tennessee possess comparable offensive talent team-wide to Auburn and Alabama, a good sign if either of those two programs expects to prevail in Atlanta this season and win the East’s first SEC title since 2008.
1. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strength: One of nation’s best backfields
Weakness: Minor questions at wide receiver
Best Player: RB Nick Chubb
Behind Malcolm Mitchell, who will step up as Georgia’s second leading receiver this season? It may not matter on an offense that will be defined by its backfield talent with Chubb, Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and the blossoming A.J. Turman, who I’m projecting will be a household name by season’s end. Chubb has 1,500-yard potential (again) while Michel and slot man Isaiah McKenzie give the Bulldogs an interesting dynamic as yards-after-the-catch threats. First-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has a wealth of options in his arsenal and will try and keep things relatively easy for Brice Ramsey, Georgia’s projected starter at quarterback who is still very much in a tight race with Faton Bauta. Tight end Jeb Blazevich is often overlooked, but he’s emerging as one of the nation’s best after an impressive true freshman season.
In addition to Georgia’s speed and athleticism edge across the board in the East on offense, the Bulldogs should have a dominant group up front thanks to four returning starters and a second-team that goes 3-4 players deep. Senior tackles Kolton Houston and John Theus provide this offense with the best bookend pair in the division.
2. TENNESSEE VOLS
Strength: High-powered balanced offense
Weakness: Potential struggles along the offensive line
Best Player: QB Joshua Dobbs
As the leader of the SEC’s most dynamic and balanced offense, Dobbs has all the necessary ingredients around him to whip up a spectacular creation this season in Mike DeBord’s scheme. He’s the reason Tennessee has received so much preseason love and why the Vols are a legitimate contender in a division that appears top-heavy to the naked eye. JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara is a weapon to pair alongside rising star Jalen Hurd in the backfield. He had a fantastic spring and should be in for an impact season. There’s a few lingering questions at receiver based on injury concerns and a suspension, but the Vols expect to be solid there. Projected early-round pick Marquez North has a wide-ranging skill set, but needs to put it together as Tennessee’s No. 1 option on the outside.
The Vols gave up 43 sacks last season — seven more than their next nearest competitor in the SEC (Kentucky). Tennessee doesn’t have the depth at quarterback if Dobbs goes down, a catastrophic reality if he’s forced to run for his life behind an inconsistent wall of blockers. Of course being on the move is one of Dobbs’ strength and led to several memorable rushing performances last fall. The Vols did get help up front in the 2015 class and lead the SEC with 18 returning starters overall including several in the trenches.
3. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Strength: Depth in the running game
Weakness: Inexperience at the skill positions
Best Player: ATH Pharoh Cooper
Steve Spurrier’s not sure what he’ll have a quarterback this season with Connor Mitch as his likely starter and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez as the primary backup, but the Gamecocks have talent elsewhere on offense. All-American Pharoh Cooper is the most talented receiver in the division and is the SEC’s top returning pass-catcher this fall after recording 69 grabs for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. He can run and throw as well. Finding a No. 2, probably redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel, to step up could take the passing game to another level.
The most underrated element on the South Carolina offense is its 1-2 punch at running back — Brandon Wilds and David Williams. If Spurrier took a stubborn approach and focused on eating up yards on the ground this fall, the pair could combine for 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns. But we know he wants to air it out. Keep an eye on tight ends Jerell Adams and Kevin Crosby as well. Both were excellent this spring and Spurrier is putting a heavier influence on these big targets this season.
4. MIZZOU TIGERS
Strength: Veteran offensive line
Weakness: Questions at wide receiver
Best Player: RB Russell Hansbrough
I’m a big fan of winning in the trenches and multi-year starter Evan Boehm gives the Tigers a dominant blocker at the center spot, an outspoken leader on offense. This year’s success will hinge on Hansbrough’s production and his season-long bill of health. If Missouri can establish a couple reliable secondary ballcarriers to take some of the pressure off of the productive senior, the Tigers will be one of the SEC’s most physical teams off the snap.
Maty Mauk’s continued development is key, a player who took a step back last season despite leading the Tigers to another Eastern Division crown. If possible, the junior quarterback needs to trust Josh Henson’s system and let plays develop down the field this fall. His tendency to freelance often damages the offense’s rhythm and makes Mizzou one-dimensional at times, nullifying the passing game. It’s a gift and a curse in a way considering Mauk’s escapability also leads to first downs.
5. FLORIDA GATORS
Strength: Playmakers at running back
Weakness: Inexperienced offensive line, quarterback
Best Player: WR Demarcus Robinson
First-year coach Jim McElwain may have to tweak his offensive philosophy a bit to fit the Gators’ personnel this season in Gainesville if he wants to stay above water in the Eastern Division. Thin at wideout behind possible All-SEC pass-catcher Robinson, Florida could rely on a running game (at least early in the season) led by Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane while projected starting quarterback Will Grier adjusts to the speed of the college game. Replacing four starters up front is the offense’s biggest question, a potentially devastating cocktail for a rookie signal caller matched up against some of the nation’s top pass rushing units.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Strength: Mark Stoops has his most talented offensive personnel in three seasons
Weakness: Youth at wide receiver and tight end
Best Player: RB Boom Williams
It’s new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson’s job to make the Wildcats’ offensive pieces fit this season which was easier said than done each of the last two years under Neal Brown. It’s a largely young and unproven group, but there’s talent on offense for Stoops including junior quarterback Patrick Towles, an emerging star in sophomore ballcarrier Williams and potential second-year breakout performer Garrett Johnson on the outside. Junior wide receiver Ryan Timmons is one of the offense’s X-factors, a gifted athlete who is a terror in the open field when healthy. Should Jojo Kemp bounce back from a disappointing 2014 season, he’ll add another wrinkle in a Kentucky rushing attack which could surprise some folks this season if its finds consistency.
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Strength: Run-heavy approach
Weakness: Quarterback play
Best Player: RB Ralph Webb
New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig promises the Commodores will use a power-run scheme this season — similar to what he handled at Wisconsin — to disguise deficiencies at the quarterback spot and take advantage of one area that’s considered strength on offense — running back. Vanderbilt returns a veteran core at the point of attack, but the group vastly underachieved last fall according to Derek Mason, leading to an offense that rarely found a rhythm. Wide receiver C.J. Duncan’s move to a hybrid position gives him more touches and takes advantage of his speed in space. Until someones steps up as a true No. 1 target, tight end Steven Scheu is top priority in the passing game.
It appears Johnny McCrary may give Vanderbilt its best chance to win now since he has a wealth of knowledge in the system, but inconsistency has been his calling card. Four-star 2015 signee Kyle Shurmur is the future under center, the highest-ranked passer the Commodores have ever signed.