Reviewing preseason picks for SEC East: Florida, Tennessee worse than expected
While the East is still vastly inferior to the West top to bottom, Georgia just defeated Auburn on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game.
Back at Media Days in July, I predicted the Bulldogs to live up to the hype and win the division. Even if I had Alabama holding on to the conference crown, my confidence in second-year coach Kirby Smart was on display.
As for the rest of the East, I was higher on South Carolina and Kentucky than most of the print, radio and television personalities in Hoover. I was also lower on Tennessee than just about everybody, too. For the most part, I was proven to be correct on the Gamecocks, Wildcats and Volunteers, although I had no idea of such impending doom on Rocky Top.
Of all the things I’m asked to do in this job, making predictions is my least favorite. Nobody remembers or gives any credit when you’re right, but everyone has a long memory and criticizes accordingly when you’re wrong.
Nevertheless, let’s review the Crystal Ball series picks I made before the start of the 2017 campaign and see how I did.
Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 SEC), 2nd in East
Performance: 4-7 (3-5 SEC), 5th in East
To be honest, I wondered right before kickoff on opening weekend if not picking the Gators to win the East again was a mistake.
Needless to say, it wasn’t. Fairly predictable was Feleipe Franks (below) not being the answer at quarterback and UF continuing to have trouble on the offensive side of the football. Quite unpredictable was coach Jim McElwain getting handed a midseason pink slip for reasons both on and off the field. It sure was a strange season in Gainesville.
The future is bright after stealing Dan Mullen from Mississippi State, but the roster he’s inheriting isn’t what we’re used to seeing in those orange and blue uniforms.
Prediction: 10-2 (7-1 SEC), 1st in East
Performance: 12-1 * (7-1 SEC), 1st in East
The more games that the Bulldogs played with Smart on the sideline, the more Athens started to resemble Tuscaloosa East.
I believed that UGA would be the best team in the division, although nobody could’ve predicted what a difference it would make once Jake Fromm took over for Jacob Eason at QB. Smart used an Alabama-like formula that revolved around a strong running game and suffocating defense to wrap up the East without much of a fight.
Even if the Dawgs were the class of a mediocre division, they dominated West champ Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta and are going to the College Football Playoff.
* includes win in SEC Championship Game
Prediction: 7-5 (4-4 SEC), 4th in East
Performance: 7-5 (4-4 SEC), 3rd in East
It took him four seasons to get to his first bowl game, but coach Mark Stoops now has the Wildcats going to a second.
While Stephen Johnson was far from a prolific passer, he earned the full faith of his teammates and made enough plays with his arm. Benny Snell shouldered quite a load with Stanley “Boom” Williams leaving early for the NFL, but he is clearly the league’s most underrated ball carrier. The defense finally began to make some strides, as well.
If it hadn’t blown the Florida game at home in September, UK could’ve had a magical year and ended that losing streak once and for all.
Prediction: 6-6 (2-6 SEC), 6th in East
Performance: 7-5 (4-4 SEC), 4th in East
I thought the Tigers would be a shade better in 2017 than they were in 2016, but it sure didn’t look that way early.
Mizzou was a mess for the first month and a half, as the offense wasn’t consistent against quality competition and the defense couldn’t get off the field, but second-year coach Barry Odom refused to quit and finished the schedule on a six-game win streak. Drew Lock was prolific through the air, plus the D showed some signs of life.
This is a program that would’ve been in big trouble had it failed to reach bowl eligibility. Instead, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Prediction: 7-5 (4-4 SEC), 3rd in East
Performance: 8-4 (5-3 SEC), 2nd in East
He won’t get much consideration, but Will Muschamp gets my vote for SEC Coach of the Year for what he’s done in Columbia.
Statistically, the Gamecocks didn’t bring much to the table running it, throwing it, stopping the run or stopping the pass. But they were 5-1 in one-score games, including big wins over Tennessee and Florida, which speaks to coaching. USC was also opportunistic with 11 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions, leading to a turnover ratio of plus-9.
Not to mention the fact that the ‘Cocks lost Deebo Samuel, their No. 1 receiver and ace return man, in Week 3.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC), 5th in East
Performance: 4-8 (0-8 SEC), 7th in East
As far as I was concerned, if the Volunteers couldn’t capture the East in 2016, then they may never ascend to the top of the division again.
So many of the key contributors on that team were long gone, which is why I didn’t expect much for UT this year. There were simply too many questions to be answered at the same time, plus now-departed coach Butch Jones (below) was his own worst enemy in the past on game day. On offense in particular, the Vols were an absolute disgrace.
An ugly year on the field has only been made worse by an uglier search for a new coach, so a quick turnaround in 2018 isn’t very likely.
Prediction: 4-8 (1-7 SEC), 7th in East
Performance: 5-7 (1-7 SEC), 6th in East
Coming off a bowl, there was reason for optimism with the direction the Commodores were heading under coach Derek Mason.
However, I wasn’t so optimistic. Specifically, a defender as talented and productive as Zach Cunningham doesn’t wear a Vandy uniform often. I felt that his early departure for the NFL Draft would leave a gaping hole in the middle of Mason’s unit, and that turned out to be the case. The ‘Dores took a big dip defensively.
Credit Kyle Shurmur for showing some real growth as a signal caller, but he didn’t have enough talent around him to win a bunch of shootouts.
* * *
In the end, my picks for the East turned out to be fairly accurate. Getting Georgia right at the top was the first step.
Also, my belief in South Carolina and Kentucky was justified. I had them finishing third and fourth in the division, respectively, and they actually both did me one better at second and third. They were more competitive than Tennessee by far.
Where it fell apart for me was not just underestimating how bad the Volunteers would be, but maybe not appreciating how flimsy Florida’s grasp was at the top. The Gators were my biggest miss by picking them to finish second, as I was off by a full three spots since they came in fifth. That being said, I was hardly alone.
For the most part, I had the contenders and pretenders correct. In terms of overall record, I was within one game for five of seven teams. When it came to records in SEC play, I got three of seven exactly right.
The orange-tinted ridicule ran rampant when I set my over/under for UT at 6½. It turns out that even I gave the Vols too much love.