I hate to be a wet blanket. I really do.

But as we ramp up for SEC Media Days in a few short weeks, I feel the need to get out ahead of something.

Not everyone in the SEC East is going to improve. In fact, several will regress.

I know. Call me Debbie Downer. I’ll own that.

But given the way a whole bunch of SEC East teams are being talked about this offseason, you’d think that all of them are destined to improve by multiple regular season wins. Suggesting anything but that is considered some massive sign of disrespect.

Well, except you, Georgia. Unless you can find a way to play 14 regular season games, don’t take it personally when we say you’re not progressing from 12-0.

As for everyone else in the East, though, there are some extremely sound arguments to make that justify multi-win improvements. Of course, there are also some extremely flimsy arguments that might make me question if you’ve watched any of these teams play. For example, if your argument is “Mizzou is about to overtake Georgia because of how close that game was last year and the Tigers return more production,” we’re gonna need to have a chat.

We can chat about percentage of returning production. It’s a fantastic offseason metric by ESPN’s Bill Connelly. It isn’t a predictor of wins and losses, but it’s an excellent way to project progression vs. regression.

Here’s where East teams rank nationally:

  • No. 9 Mizzou
  • No. 58 Vanderbilt
  • No. 69 Tennessee
  • No. 73 Kentucky
  • No. 80 Georgia
  • No. 102 South Carolina
  • No. 107 Florida

Therein lies the problem. Those numbers don’t project obvious progression for anyone outside of Mizzou, yet is anyone making an argument for the Tigers to jump to No. 2 in the East? It’s tough to do that considering the Tigers’ lone Power 5 wins away from home under Eli Drinkwitz came against Vandy and South Carolina.

Speaking of those 2 teams, you won’t find a ton of people banging the drum that Vandy is going to take another big step. Never mind the fact that Clark Lea’s team broke through with wins at Kentucky and vs. Florida. Those assuming Vandy is automatically going to revert back to a 3-win team will probably ignore that it’s 1 of 3 SEC squads who returns its offensive coordinator and starting quarterback. For all the talk about the year-to-year improvements of Tennessee and South Carolina, we mustn’t forget that Vandy actually tied the Vols for the SEC’s second biggest regular season win improvement (+3 and LSU was first with +4).

Both Lea and Shane Beamer are entering Year 3, albeit with different progression expectations. The former would love to get to the postseason while the latter will be a trendy pick to reach a New Year’s 6 Bowl game for the first time in the post-Steve Spurrier era.

When you finish the regular season like South Carolina did — by clubbing Tennessee and stunning Clemson in Death Valley — of course another progression is assumed. Who in their right mind is arguing that South Carolina is about go 6-6 and earn a trip to the Liberty Bowl?

Last year, 6-6 was Florida’s start to the Billy Napier era. Since his arrival in Gainesville, Napier preached patience. Still, though. No Gator fan wants to imagine any world in which a third consecutive 6-win regular season is in store. So naturally, the expectation is “it can’t get much worse than that.” With a schedule that features probably 5 games against preseason top-15 teams, can we really say a Graham Mertz-led Florida team is destined for improvement? Not yet, but who knows?

Maybe we’re overlooking the impact of new 20-something defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. If Florida suddenly has 1 of the 10-15 best defensive coordinators in the country after 3 years of being a total doormat on that side of the ball, that changes the equation.

I don’t assume Florida will be in the running for a preseason No. 2 spot in the East. I do assume that’ll be the case for Tennessee and Kentucky, with South Carolina also getting some love.

Let’s start with Kentucky.

You could make the case that the Cats might be the best candidate for improvement in the East. That’s because 2022 was wildly disappointing. After breaking into the top-10 ahead of what turned into a very winnable game at then-unbeaten Ole Miss, Kentucky imploded. Call it a combination of pour offensive line play, a banged up Will Levis and a whiffed offensive coordinator hire.

All 3 of those areas are new in 2023. The Cats were active in the transfer portal to improve up front. They also replaced Levis with 2022 preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary, who signed on in part because he wanted to work with 2021 UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen. Combine that with a group who returned its top 3 receivers while adding 1,000-yard rusher Ray Davis from Vandy, and yes, the UK should improve after it couldn’t crack the top 100 in scoring last year.

What about the defense, you ask? Didn’t it rank No. 86 in percentage of returning production? Yes. Hasn’t it also finished in the top 30 in scoring in the last 4 non-COVID seasons? Also yes. Brad White and Mark Stoops have earned a lot of faith on that side of the ball, even though there are questions in the secondary if that front 7 can’t get home. Those questions could be answered by mid-October.

But there’s a world in which Kentucky struggles with depth late and that schedule turns into a gauntlet. Half of it is comprised of either road games vs. teams who won at least 8 games last year or home games against 11-win teams Alabama and Tennessee. Five of those games will end the regular season. Health could determine if UK avoids regression.

In some ways, Josh Heupel’s squad doesn’t fit the “regression” mold. When a team finally breaks through and beats Alabama en route to its best season in 21 years, we have a tendency to assume it’s a linear progression that awaits. Lord knows Tennessee fans, with Joe Milton and Nico Iamaleava in that quarterback room, aren’t expecting to come back down to earth. There are still plenty of weapons capable of delivering a 6th consecutive top-8 offense for Heupel.

But think about it this way. The Vols just lost their best quarterback since Peyton Manning. They lost a top-10 pick on the offensive line and a pair of Day 2 receivers, one of whom won the Biletnikoff Award in 2022. That team went 10-2 and was firmly in the Playoff discussion in late-November up until South Carolina happened. It’s hard to maintain that, much less improve. If the Vols get to 8-4 or 9-3, that’s not some sign that 2022 was a one-off. Knowing how difficult that schedule is with Georgia and Alabama, not all 8 or 9-win seasons are created equally.

Tennessee is the best bet for regression in the East, which isn’t a slight. If the Vols had gone 7-5 or 8-4 last year, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

And it also might be fair to have skepticism about South Carolina’s path to improvement. That’s an unpopular take given how likable Shane Beamer is and the aforementioned top-10 wins to close the regular season. What that thrilling bowl game against Notre Dame showed was how South Carolina has mostly struggled in the trenches under Beamer, yet because of its all-world special teams play, it won in spite of that. Under Beamer, the Gamecocks have yet to crack the top 90 in rushing offense or rushing defense. Hence, why they haven’t shown they can stay on the same field as Georgia.

Like Kentucky, South Carolina’s schedule could prove to be the biggest regression culprit. But unlike Kentucky, South Carolina will be tested early. Four of those first 5 games are against teams who won at least 9 games, and that doesn’t include a road game at Mizzou (who is on a 4-game win streak in the matchup), at A&M (0 wins in College Station they became crossover rivals in 2012) and obviously home against Clemson, who is still a good candidate to be a top-10 team.

That, South Carolina fans, is why FanDuel has the regular season over/under at 6.5 wins.

Go figure that Mizzou is actually the only East team with an over/under set higher than last year’s regular season win total. Does that mean everyone will regress? No, but it does mean some fanbases need to recalibrate expectations.

This is how this works. At SEC Media Days, every non-Georgia East team (and their fans) will talk about that disrespect and why improvement feels imminent. It’s not that all of those arguments lack validity. I can be talked into a variety of them.

Just remember that even if the East repeats its 2022 showing against the West — wherein it finally had a case it was the stronger division for the first time since expansion in 2012 — regression awaits a handful of teams.

Debbie Downer guarantees it.