Handicapping the SEC East: Ranking the X factors
In our latest ‘Handicapping the SEC East’ series in advance of the 2015 season, we’ll look at the division’s X-factors — circumstances that could lead to a title — and attempt to rank them in order from favorable to least desirable.
Some of the factors included in this exercise is last season’s record in close games, number of returning starters, special teams, 2014 fumble recovery rate, turnover margin, bye week placement and strength of schedule.
On Friday, we’ll compile divisional personnel group, coach and X-factor rankings to project the 2015 standings. Here are the previous installments:
- Handicapping the SEC East by ranking the offenses
- Handicapping the SEC East by ranking the defenses
- Handicapping the SEC East by ranking the coaching staffs
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Positives: Returning starters, return to health, strength of schedule, Darrius Sims
Negatives: Bye week placement, urgency, turnover margin, quarterbacks
Summoning a .500 season may not be possible this fall thanks to the ever-fluctuating quarterback situation in Nashville, but the Commodores do have a couple athletes on offense capable of keeping opposing defenses off balance if they can find a rhythm. Tailback Ralph Webb and multi-position threat Sims (who returned two kickoffs for scores against South Carolina last fall) give this offense reason for hope as it attempts to improve on a miserable 17.2 points per game during Derek Mason’s first season. Most of Vanderbilt’s toughest league contests come at home and there’s a glimmer of optimism surrounding Mason’s move to defense, a unit with several future pros at linebacker.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Positives: Bye week placement, returning starters, return to health, defensive takeaways, Austin MacGinnis
Negatives: Urgency, strength of schedule
Kentucky’s most underrated player in 2015? Sophomore kicker Austin MacGinnis, the SEC’s most accurate last fall with at least 15 makes. MacGinnis drilled a league-best 21 field goals on 27 tries and gave the Wildcats a sense of relief when the offense moved inside the opposition’s 35-yard line. An intriguing X-factor strength this season is the team’s bye week placement coming before a nationally-televised Thursday night home game against Auburn. It’s a game Mark Stoops would love to win marking a signature moment in Kentucky’s football turnaround.
The 2015 schedule doesn’t have many breaks however and includes road games at Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State — all teams with superior talent. The SEC finale in Nashville is a must-win as far as bowl aspirations are concerned. It’s difficult to judge this team’s sense of urgency considering the lack of fanfare following the program’s fifth consecutive losing season last fall. Preseason publications near unanimously agree that Kentucky’s the SEC’s 13th-best team this fall.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Positives: Bye week placement, urgency, return to health
Negatives: Strength of schedule, turnover margin, pass rush, returning starters
Just splitting their four road games this season will be a serious challenge for these Gamecocks, a team oddsmakers expect to post seven or fewer wins this season. Other than reserve linebacker Larenz Bryant’s abdominal injury, South Carolina finished spring practice with a clean bill of health on defense heading into fall under first-year co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke. He’ll try and generate some nastiness up front along a defensive line that was among the nation’s worst last season (14 sacks).
Offensively, South Carolina no longer has the luxury of a veteran quarterback, lost its leading rusher, said goodbye to its No. 2 and No. 3 receivers (although All-American Pharoh Cooper’s not a bad returning starter) and has questions on the left side of the offensive line following the departures of Corey Robinson and A.J. Cann. Steve Spurrier’s not sold on a starting quarterback at this point and said this week in Destin, Fla. at spring meetings that Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nunez and Perry Orth will compete for the job under center leading up to the season opener against North Carolina. If the Gamecocks struggle at that all-important position this season, South Carolina could suffer its first losing campaign in the Head Ball Coach’s tenure.
4. FLORIDA GATORS
Positives: Bye week placement, returning starters, strength of schedule, defensive takeaways
Negatives: Urgency, return to health
We’ve already mapped out how the Gators could easily win eight games this season despite obvious depth issues during Jim McElwain’s infancy, a promising development for a program that was headed in the wrong direction under the previous regime. The most important step for Florida is finding continuity on offense. Not since 2009 under Urban Meyer have the Gators had an offense ranked inside the SEC’s Top 10, somewhat of a surprise considering the annual number of athletes associated with one of the SEC’s longtime elites. Getting back to an uptempo pace and scoring points in bunches would bring Florida to the forefront in a division not necessarily known for its offensive prowess in 2015.
The Gators need linebackers Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis back to full strength by Week 4 against Tennessee to compete in the division. Vernon Hargreaves headlines a veteran-heavy group of returning starters in the secondary, but Geoff Collins’ defense starts with pressure within the front seven and that’s where rush linebackers like Morrison and Davis could thrive.
3. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Positives: Urgency, returning starters, return to health, turnover margin, special teams
Negatives: Bye week placement, strength of schedule
Why does Georgia, the division’s most talented team and obvious favorite, find itself in the middle of our X-factors ranking? It’s the Bulldogs’ nightmarish schedule, the nation’s toughest from a cross-divisional standpoint. Georgia is the only team in college football faced with the task of playing two likely Top 5s outside of its own division. A 6-0 record against the East and splitting the Alabama and Auburn matchups is essential in getting back to Atlanta for the first time in three years.
In other areas, Georgia will flourish. The Bulldogs welcome back four veteran starters along the offensive line, the SEC’s top personnel group at outside linebacker and one of the league’s early preseason Heisman favorites in tailback Nick Chubb. He’s one of five interchangeable ballcarriers in the SEC’s deepest backfield. Last fall during Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as defensive coordinator, the Bulldogs accumulated 29 takeaways, second to Florida (30) in the East and led the conference in turnover margin (plus-16). If Georgia follows a similar recipe this fall, the Bulldogs could be the league’s best shot at producing a Playoff finalist.
Don’t forget about Georgia’s plethora of weapons on special teams as well. Isaiah McKenzie, the team’s newcomer of the year, returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns as a freshman. Senior kicker Marshall Morgan is one of the SEC’s most accurate.
2. TENNESSEE VOLS
Positives: Bye week placement, urgency, returning starters
Negatives: Strength of schedule, turnover margin, return to health
Road trips to Alabama, Florida and an early-season matinee in Knoxville against nationally-ranked Oklahoma keeps the Vols out of the No. 1 spot in these rankings due to schedule strength, but all other signs are pointing to a successful Year 3 for Butch Jones and Co. Tennessee welcomes back a league-high 18 starters to a squad that won seven games and caught fire at the end of the 2014 campaign. The Vols are hoping to parlay some of that momentum into this season, the most-anticipated in nearly a decade. Better ball security and protecting quarterback Joshua Dobbs is vital to this team’s success as is remaining healthy — especially at wide receiver — for the duration.
Tennessee’s defense will be ranked among the nation’s best this season if a veteran secondary holds up its end of the bargain and an athletic front seven continues to produce. Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt and Cam Sutton are leaders on that side of the ball, a trio that’s focused on getting the Vols back into the national championship picture.
1. MIZZOU TIGERS
Positives: Urgency, returning starters, strength of schedule, defensive takeaways, fumbles lost
Negatives: Bye week placement
Second in the SEC in turnover margin last season and first in sacks for the second consecutive season, it was no surprise Mizzou won another divisional championship based on its prowess for game-changing plays defensively. The Tigers were able to disguise an inconsistent offense with flashy play on the other side of the football led by SEC defensive player of the year Shane Ray. Considering Gary Pinkel’s team has the league’s most favorable conference slate along with four near-automatic wins outside of the SEC, anything less than nine wins during the regular season would be a shock for a team that hasn’t received much love during the offseason despite recent success.
Mizzou’s hungry to get over the hump and take out a Western Division titan in Atlanta after being on the cusp of championships each of the last two seasons. The Tigers’ sense of urgency is perhaps more intense than any team in the East heading into August, one of the primary reasons Mizzou is at the top of these X-factor rankings. The only drawback based on a variety of factors is the placement of this season’s bye week, coming before a Thursday night affair at home against Mississippi State. The Tigers will likely be a 7.5-point favorite (if one had to guess) and numbers show home teams win prime-time mid-week matchups more than 80 percent of the time. Mizzou would’ve been better suited for more prep time prior to a possible season-defining battle between the hedges on Oct. 17.