Seemingly in rebuilding mode since the final days of Phillip Fulmer, this could be the year for Tennessee.
While Florida is the defending champ of the SEC East, exceeding meager expectations in Year 1 under Jim McElwain, the Gators were blown out in each of their final three games. A Year 2 step back is reasonable.
That leaves the door wide open for the Volunteers, who have spectacularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at times during the Butch Jones era — the program’s resurrection has hiccupped once or twice as a result. Nevertheless, an experienced roster and a favorable home schedule have the Vols in the driver’s seat.
With three new coaches in the East, from Kirby Smart at Georgia to Barry Odom at Missouri to Will Muschamp at South Carolina, Tennessee has no excuses left. This is the season for Rocky Top’s return to relevance.
Not to mention the fact that the division is much more watered down than the West, which remains loaded.
Here’s my way-too-early forecast for the SEC East in 2016.
Head coach: Butch Jones (4th season)
2015 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 14 (10 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 7
Quarterback situation: Senior Joshua Dobbs is far from an accomplished passer, as his career average of 6.5 yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-17 are rather pedestrian, but his dual-threat ability certainly makes him effective. With the one-two running back punch of juniors Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara totaling nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground last year, Dobbs (below) added another 671 and 11. But if the Volunteers are truly going to be a high-powered offense, then the passing game must become more consistent.
Offensive outlook: While Dobbs will be on some preseason watch lists for the Heisman Trophy, the more qualified Vols candidate is Hurd. If the blocking in front of him improves, and his yards-per-carry average — 4.7 as a freshman and sophomore — improves along with it, then the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder can narrow the gap separating him from the likes of LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb. Leading receiver Von Pearson is out of eligibility, but juniors Josh Malone and Josh Smith and sophomores Jauan Jennings and Preston Williams are all back, as is junior tight end Ethan Wolf.
Defensive outlook: Tennessee returns a pair of difference-makers who were second-team All-SEC selections this past season in junior defensive end Derek Barnett and senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin — Barnett led the team in sacks (10.0), Reeves-Maybin topped the unit in total tackles (105). While the Volunteers only surrendered 20 points per game in 2015, fifth in the conference, comparatively they did allow a lot of yardage. A championship defense doesn’t finish ninth against the run and eighth against the pass.
Toughest home game: Alabama (Oct. 15)
Toughest road game: Georgia (Oct. 1)
Possible upset alert: Virginia Tech (Sept. 10 in neutral-site Bristol)
Head coach: Kirby Smart (1st season)
2015 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 7 (3 5-stars, 10 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 16
Quarterback situation: Rarely is a returning starter at the game’s most important position greeted with so many eye rolls, but that’s the case in Athens with senior Greyson Lambert. Even though the Virginia transfer only threw 2 interceptions in 256 attempts last year, former coach Mark Richt — now down at Miami, his alma mater — exhibited less and less confidence in his aerial attack as the season progressed. Five-star freshman Jacob Eason (below), one of the more celebrated recruits in the country for the class of 2016, is oozing with arm talent and has between-the-hedges fans foaming at the mouth.
Offensive outlook: The Bulldogs seem to always have an NFL-caliber ball carrier in the backfield, but the aforementioned Chubb, a junior, is a special player. He was on the short list of Heisman contenders in 2015 before suffering a devastating knee injury against Tennessee, and although fellow junior Sony Michel ran for 1,136 yards himself this past season, Chubb averaged an astonishing 8.1 yards per attempt prior to exiting. No matter if Lambert or Eason is at the controls, an unsteady receiving corps needs to improve dramatically with No. 1 option Malcolm Mitchell now in the pros.
Defensive outlook: UGA has to replace a pair of All-SEC performers from a year ago, as linebackers Leonard Floyd (second team) and Jake Ganus (third team) are gone. On a positive note, Dominick Sanders, a ball-magnet junior safety and a second-team all-conference pick, is back after 6 interceptions, 205 yards in returns and a TD in 2015. The top two pass rushers from last year, Floyd and linebacker Jordan Jenkins, are a memory, but Smart was Alabama coach Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons and has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Getting junior linebacker Lorenzo Carter to play like his first-round draft projection is a good place to start.
Toughest home game: Tennessee (Oct. 1)
Toughest road game: Ole Miss (Sept. 24)
Possible upset alert: North Carolina (Sept. 3 in neutral-site Atlanta)
Head coach: Jim McElwain (2nd season)
2015 record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 13 (9 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 20
Quarterback situation: The Gators thought they had finally settled their QB situation with Will Grier, who got off to a sensational start in 2015, but he was popped for performance-enhancing drugs, subsequently suspended by the NCAA and transferred as a result. To put it kindly, replacement Treon Harris wasn’t up to the task, as UF’s passing game was an utter embarrassment by year’s end. Four new names are in the mix, transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby and freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, with the well-traveled Del Rio currently leading the field.
Offensive outlook: Despite the aerial attack struggling so mightily last season, wideouts Antonio Callaway and Demarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee were all quality targets — Callaway is presently suspended, while Robinson and McGee are in the NFL. As for the running game, with Kelvin Taylor heading to the league early, sophomores Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite both must take a giant step forward in Year 2. Adding JUCO standout Mark Thompson (below) was big, and not just because he is 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds. The offensive line, which has been a concern for a while now, doesn’t have a single senior on the two-deep.
Defensive outlook: Florida put four defenders on the first-team All-SEC squad a year ago (lineman Jonathan Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor), but Tabor, a junior, is the only one to return for 2016. Some scouts like Tabor more than Hargreaves, who just went 11th overall in April’s draft, plus he will be joined in the secondary again by senior safety Marcus Maye (second-team all-conference). A pass-rushing void must be replaced with Bullard and Alex McCalister gone, but sophomore defensive end Cece Jefferson flashed some big-time ability last season right out of high school.
Toughest home game: LSU (Oct. 8)
Toughest road game: Florida State (Nov. 26)
Possible upset alert: South Carolina (Nov. 12 in Gainesville)
Head coach: Mark Stoops (4th season)
2015 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Returning starters: 14 (9 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 35 (3 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: Patrick Towles, a former high school player of the year in the Bluegrass State, was supposed to be the long-term solution under center, but he got benched this past season due to a poor completion percentage (56.1) and a negative TD-to-INT ratio (9-to-14). After the season, he transferred. Enter sophomore Drew Barker, another one-time prep player of the year in Kentucky who turned down scholarship offers from sexier programs. His numbers in limited action (35-of-70, 364 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) weren’t impressive, but the upside is there.
Offensive outlook: Junior running back Stanley “Boom” Williams is coming off a terrific campaign, rushing for 855 yards on just 121 attempts to earn third-team All-SEC honors. He’ll be expected to carry the load once again with Barker still in the embryonic stage of his career. Both Barker and Williams (below) need the blocking up front to mature in a hurry, as junior center Jon Toth will most likely be joined in the starting lineup by four sophomores.
Defensive outlook: UK’s two all-conference choices on defense from a year ago, tackle Cory Johnson (second team) and linebacker Josh Forrest (third team), have departed Lexington. Johnson tied for second on the squad in tackles and sacks, which was doubly impressive at his position, and Forrest was the unit’s leader in both categories. Stoops better get creative from a pass-rush perspective like he did once upon a time as the D-coordinator at Florida State, as he doesn’t have a single returning defender that recorded multiple sacks in 2015. Sophomore Chris Westry is an emerging star at cornerback.
Toughest home game: Georgia (Nov. 5)
Toughest road game: Alabama (Oct. 1)
Possible upset alert: Missouri (Oct. 29 in Columbia)
Head coach: Barry Odom (1st season)
2015 record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
Returning starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 43 (2 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: The circumstances under center in Lexington are somewhat similar to what we have in Columbia, where sophomore Drew Lock was thrown to the wolves last season after Maty Mauk flamed out once and for all — his issues, however, were off the field, not on the field. Lock, a four-star recruit for 2015 offered by the likes of Texas and Ohio State, didn’t even complete 50 percent of his passes for what was an abysmal offense. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder has nowhere to go but up from here.
Offensive outlook: Mizzou’s two top ball carriers from a year ago, Ish Witter (below) and Russell Hansbrough, didn’t even crack the 1,000-yard plateau as a tandem. Witter, a junior, returns alongside Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross. Senior receiver Chris Black, a transfer from Alabama, should become one of the go-to guys. With both Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern moving on to Sunday football, the depth chart along the offensive line is a bit green.
Defensive outlook: Kentrell Brothers, Missouri’s do-everything linebacker and a first-team All-SEC pick, is out of eligibility. Junior defensive end Charles Harris is the most decorated defender scheduled to return, as he was a third-team all-conference selection based on the 7.0 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss he racked up this past season. Most recently a defensive coordinator, Odom taking over for the retired Gary Pinkel means the Tigers’ overachieving D should again be solid.
Toughest home game: Georgia (Sept. 17)
Toughest road game: LSU (Oct. 1)
Possible upset alert: Middle Tennessee (Oct. 22 in Columbia)
Head coach: Derek Mason (3rd season)
2015 record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 54 (1 4-star)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: The Commodores bounced back and forth between Johnny McCrary and Kyle Shurmur this past season, and neither had a lot of success. McCrary transferred, so Shurmur, just a sophomore, appears to be the choice heading into the 2016 slate. While Shurmur’s completion percentage (42.7) was Pop Warner-esque at times, at least his touchown-to-interception ratio (5-to-3) suggests that he takes better care of the pigskin than McCrary ever did (6-to-12).
Offensive outlook: The offense will be built around junior running back Ralph Webb, who is coming off a 1,152-yard performance last year. For his effort, he was the only Vandy player on offense to earn an All-SEC nod (third team). Seniors are scheduled to start at center and each of the two tackle positions, so Webb should have holes to run through and Shurmur can expect adequate protection.
Defensive outlook: Junior linebacker Zach Cunningham, who led the ‘Dores in total tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago, is the linchpin on his side of the ball. He was awarded first-team all-conference honors in 2015 and can only get better at this point. Cunningham (below) could use some more help, of course, although junior safety Oren Burks is quite a player himself.
Toughest home game: Tennessee (Nov. 26)
Toughest road game: Georgia (Oct. 15)
Possible upset alert: Western Kentucky (Sept. 24 in Bowling Green)
7. South Carolina
Head coach: Will Muschamp (1st season)
2015 record: 3-9 (1-7 SEC)
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 24 (6 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: N/A
Quarterback situation: The Gamecocks started three QBs in 2015, but nobody did enough to take control of the spot going forward. Connor Mitch got injured and recently decided to transfer, Lorenzo Nunez will always be more runner than passer and Perry Orth was originally a walk-on for a reason. Incoming freshman Brandon McIlwain, a four-star signee from the quarterback-rich state of Pennsylvania, could be the man from Day 1.
Offensive outlook: Junior David Williams is the primary option in the backfield, although he averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry backing up the versatile — and graduated — Brandon Wilds. Receiver Pharoh Cooper might prove to be even more challenging to replace, as his 66-973-8 stat line was miraculous considering the merry-go-round under center. One bright spot could be sophomore tight end Hayden Hurst (below), a former minor league baseball player who opened a lot of eyes during spring practice.
Defensive outlook: Senior linebacker Skai Moore, the only Gamecock defender to make All-SEC this past year (second team), will be out all of 2016 due to a herniated disc in his neck. It’s simply a devastating loss for Muschamp, despite his résumé as a defensive mind, as Moore was the team’s leading tackler and an early-round prospect for the upcoming NFL Draft. As for the good news, South Carolina does return its two top sack artists in linebacker Darius English and end Marquavius Lewis.
Toughest home game: Tennessee (Oct. 29)
Toughest road game: Clemson (Nov. 26)
Possible upset alert: East Carolina (Sept. 17 in Columbia)