Way-too-early look at SEC East: Georgia the pick, but not a confident one
On paper, Georgia is the team to beat in the East. Expect the Bulldogs to be the pick next week at SEC Media Days.
However, in each of the last four seasons, said paper has been ripped to shreds by the time the schedule came to a close. Not since 2012 have print, radio and television types gotten the division winner right.
A year ago, Tennessee was the toast of Hoover. The Volunteers were loaded with returning starters on offense, defense and special teams, plus the other six clubs all seemed to be in some state of the rebuilding process. Nevertheless, a combination of difficult matchups, devastating injuries and poor play doomed coach Butch Jones and Co.
RELATED: Way-too-early look at SEC West
UGA, which was atop most ballots in 2013 and 2015 but came up short each time, hopes to avoid a similar fate. It’s only Year 2 for coach Kirby Smart, yet he’s already feeling some pressure in Athens.
Here’s my way-too-early look at the East for 2017. While I’m going with the Dawgs, I’m not brimming with confidence.
Head coach: Kirby Smart (2nd season)
2016 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC, 3rd in East)
Returning starters: 17 (7 offense, 10 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 3 (2 5-stars, 17 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 15
Quarterback situation: It was an up-and-down 2016 for Jacob Eason, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he was a just true freshman.
Of the 12 QBs with enough attempts to qualify, Eason only finished 11th in the SEC with a passer efficiency rating of 120.3. While he crossed the 300-yard plateau twice, in seven of 13 contests he failed to go north of 165. His offensive line and receiving corps were both below average, but he missed on a lot of throws, too.
Eason must develop a better sense of touch with the ball. There’s no need to throw every pass 100 miles per hour.
Offensive outlook: The return of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the running back position was a pleasant surprise, plus both of them should be healthier than they were at this time last year. Eason requires a more reliable crop of pass catchers, though. Fortunately, Isaac Nauta can be a difference-making tight end.
More than anything, the offensive line simply has to be better. Eason is a decent athlete, but he’s not fleet of foot enough to buy himself a ton of extra time in and out of the pocket. Make him more comfortable, and he’ll make more plays.
Defensive outlook: Like Chubb and Michel, pass-rushing linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter also came back to school. Roquan Smith, the defense’s leading tackler, was just a sophomore last season. Only three of 21 double-digit tacklers off this past year’s squad used up their eligibility, which is encouraging.
But the straw that stirs the drink for this unit is Trenton Thompson, who is terrifying in the trenches when fully healthy but missed the entirety of spring practice. If he’s 100 percent again, watch out.
Toughest home game: vs. Florida (Oct. 28) *
Toughest road game: at Auburn (Nov. 11)
Non-conference highlight: at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
* At EverBank Field in Jacksonville
Head coach: Jim McElwain (3rd season)
2016 record: 9-4 (6-2 SEC, 1st in East)
Returning starters: 14 (9 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 11 (11 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 16
Quarterback situation: Feleipe Franks appeared to come out of spring practice atop the depth chart under center.
But then former Notre Dame signal caller Malik Zaire was added to the mix as a graduate transfer, and he brings one thing to the table Franks doesn’t: experience. Even if Franks is a high-upside passer if he lives up to his potential, he’s yet to run a play in a college game. Zaire didn’t come to Gainesville to sit the bench, obviously.
Franks (below) has to win another battle in fall camp, this time against Zaire. Luke Del Rio and Kyle Trask seem to be on the outside looking in at this point.
Offensive outlook: No matter who the field general ends up being, he’ll be handing the football off early and often to Jordan Scarlett. The only receiver with a real track record, Antonio Callaway is one of the SEC’s home-run threats but can’t keep himself out of trouble for a significant period of time.
While there are a few ball-carrying options behind Scarlett, another wideout or two has to help take some of the pressure off Callaway. Tyrie Cleveland is a good bet to do so with his ability. The blocking should be improved, as well.
Defensive outlook: Once again, the Gators said goodbye to a slew of top-notch defenders thanks to the NFL Draft. A year ago, it was Vernon Hargreaves, Keanu Neal, Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison. Then this past April, it was Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson, Teez Tabor, Alex Anzalone, Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie.
Still, the cupboard is far from empty on that side of the ball. D-end Jabari Zuniga and D-back Chauncey Gardner flashed here and there in 2016 as freshmen, so they hope to be even better this season in more featured roles.
Toughest home game: vs. LSU (Oct. 7)
Toughest road game: at South Carolina (Nov. 11)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Florida State (Nov. 25)
3. South Carolina
Head coach: Will Muschamp (2nd season)
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC, 5th in East)
Returning starters: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 21 (6 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: 40
Quarterback situation: One of the league’s most surprising stars last season, Jake Bentley is ready for a breakout sophomore campaign.
After watching the first six games of 2016 with plans to redshirt, Bentley took over after Muschamp pulled the plug on the two-headed monster of Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain. A three-game losing streak suddenly morphed into a three-game winning streak, plus the aerial attack was noticeably more effective.
Razor sharp in the spring game, Bentley has enough still-position talent around him to be quite dangerous this year.
Offensive outlook: The two top rushers for the Gamecocks last season, Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner, were only freshmen. Additionally, North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams has a lot of buzz. Deebo Samuel is the definitive No. 1 receiver for Bentley, and then Hayden Hurst is an all-conference-caliber tight end.
If the ‘Cocks block more consistently than they did in 2016, this could be an explosive offense in Columbia. Muschamp has never really had one of those before, but it would certainly be a refreshing change for him.
Defensive outlook: Linebacker Skai Moore, three times the leading tackler for this team, missed all of last year due to a herniated disc in his neck. Following a medical redshirt, he’s back and ready to pick up where he left off as one of the league’s most reliable stoppers. Assuming he does, what a shot in the arm he will be.
The front seven lost a handful of seniors. As a matter of fact, five of the top 10 tacklers from last season’s team saw their eligibility expire. The pass rush will desperately miss Darius English off the edge.
Toughest home game: vs. Florida (Nov. 11)
Toughest road game: at Georgia (Nov. 4)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Clemson (Nov. 25)
Head coach: Mark Stoops (5th season)
2016 record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC, 4th in East)
Returning starters: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 29 (4 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: 45
Quarterback situation: Stephen Johnson may not be a gifted passer, but he ran the offense rather efficiently a season ago.
Thrown into the lineup after Drew Barker went down with a back injury, Johnson put together a respectable touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-6. Another year in the system should presumably make him more consistent with his right arm. If the ground assault is similarly effective, then receivers will have room to roam.
Barker’s future is in limbo, apparently. If Johnson (below) falters, it could be Gunnar Hoak getting the call, not Barker.
Offensive outlook: With the passing game somewhat limited, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was all kinds of creative running the ball and got over 1,000 yards each from Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell. Williams left Lexington a year early for the pros, so Sihiem King hopes to pair with Snell now.
In the trenches, center Jon Toth will be missed. Still, three of the five projected starters are fifth-year seniors who’ve had a lot of snaps, which should help absorb Toth’s loss. C.J. Conrad can’t continue to be so feast or famine at tight end.
Defensive outlook: Stoops came to UK with a defense-first reputation, but so far he hasn’t been able to slow down SEC offenses on a weekly basis. Both of his 100-tackle guys from a year ago, Jordan Jones and Mike Edwards, are back for Big Blue Nation. Courtney Love and Denzil Ware are a couple of sure tacklers, as well.
Chris Westry, who was a standout as a freshman in 2015, didn’t show many signs of improvement as a sophomore. Fortunately, Edwards and Derrick Baity displayed good ball skills and got their paws on a fair share of passes.
Toughest home game: vs. Florida (Sept. 23)
Toughest road game: at Georgia (Nov. 18)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Louisville (Nov. 25)
Head coach: Butch Jones (5th season)
2016 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC, 2nd in East)
Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 17 (1 5-star, 4 4-stars)
Preseason ranking: No. 19
Quarterback situation: An argument can be made that Joshua Dobbs is the toughest player to replace in the entire conference.
Not only was he productive on the field, both as a passer and a runner, but he was the face of the Volunteers program off the field. The early favorite to succeed Dobbs was Jarrett Guarantano, a 4-star signee fresh off a redshirt. However, based on what we witnessed in the spring game, Quinten Dormady will probably be given the first opportunity.
Even if it was cut short due to weather, Dormady looked calm in the pocket and more mobile than previously advertised.
Offensive outlook: On top of Dobbs, the backfield has lost the services of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. John Kelly ran the ball incredibly well once Hurd quit the team and left an opening in the rotation, although his 6.4 yards per carry may be hard to duplicate. Early-enrollee freshman Ty Chandler could be called upon immediately.
Josh Malone, one of the premier vertical threats in the league, is now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. Jauan Jennings, who also knows how to reel in a 50-50 ball downfield, is the new No. 1 option in the passing game and must do more.
Defensive outlook: The D lost just as much star power as the offense. Every level suffered a significant setback, with Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton no longer in Knoxville. Barnett in particular was nothing short of Herculean in 2016 and can’t possibly be replaced by a single pass rusher.
JUCO transfer Jonathan Kongbo, unhappy last year after being shifted inside to tackle, has moved back outside to end and hopes to be more valuable. While safety Todd Kelly Jr. is a wonderful player, he can’t lead the team in tackles again.
Toughest home game: vs. Georgia (Sept. 30)
Toughest road game: at Alabama (Oct. 21)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 4) *
* At Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Head coach: Barry Odom (2nd season)
2016 record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC, 7th in East)
Returning starters: 15 (10 offense, 5 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 42 (1 4-star)
Preseason ranking: 55
Quarterback situation: There is no quarterback controversy at Mizzou, as Drew Lock remains firmly atop the depth chart.
From a numbers perspective, Lock’s 23 TD passes and six games with multiple scores through the air in 2016 come off as rather impressive. That being said, 10 of those touchdowns were recorded at home vs. non-Power 5 cupcakes Eastern Michigan and Delaware State. In four of six games against divisional foes, he threw at least 2 INTs.
Until Lock (below) can be more potent in the passing game against top-quality defenses, his overall stats will ring hollow.
Offensive outlook: He did it so very far under the radar, but the most prolific freshman runner in the SEC last season was Damarea Crockett of the Tigers. In his last two games, he ran 44 times for 379 yards and 2 touchdowns against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. If he keeps running the rock like that, Lock will be appreciative.
Lock’s primary target, J’Mon Moore, was one of only two 1,000-yard receivers in the league for 2016. Dimetrios Mason, Johnathon Johnson and Emanuel Hall, who finished 2-3-4 on the team in receiving yards behind Moore, were just a freshman, a freshman and a sophomore, respectively.
Defensive outlook: Charles Harris took his 9.0 sacks to Round 1 of the draft, although Marcell Frazier and his 7.5 are still lining up out wide in Columbia. If Terry Beckner Jr. could ever stay healthy along the interior, then the D-line might return to its past glory. This unit curiously gave up 5.3 yards per carry a season ago.
The pass defense wasn’t much better and allowed 246.8 yards per game. Compared to the rest of the SEC, only Texas A&M and Mississippi State were worse. Of the team’s 15 interceptions, departed senior DBs Aarion Penton and John Gibson had 8 of them.
Toughest home game: vs. Auburn (Sept. 23)
Toughest road game: at Georgia (Oct. 14)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Purdue (Sept. 16)
Head coach: Derek Mason (4th season)
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC, 6th in East)
Returning starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)
Recruiting class: No. 64
Preseason ranking: 48
Quarterback situation: There are no more excuses for Kyle Shurmur. Now a junior, he must take the next step as QB1.
He was doing just that last November, averaging 290.5 yards passing in four outings and ripping rival Tennessee with 416 in a regular season-ending upset. But a month later in the Independence Bowl against N.C. State, Shurmur only completed 41.3 percent of his throws without a TD and was picked off three times.
Even if his completion percentage jumped from 42.7 as a freshman to 54.4 as a sophomore, Shurmur remains erratic at times.
Offensive outlook: Death, taxes and Ralph Webb getting 20-plus carries every Saturday for the Commodores. Those should be the only sure things in life this year for SEC fans. Already the leading rusher in school history, he eschewed a chance at NFL riches in order to totally rewrite the record book in Nashville.
That being said, Webb needs some assistance. Khari Blasingame started to emerge as a quality second banana on the ground last season. Of the seven players who were credited with at least 10 receptions in 2016, not one was a senior.
Defensive outlook: If Dobbs leaves the biggest hole in the conference on offense, than his counterpart on defense could be ‘Dores linebacker Zach Cunningham. After going back to back as the team’s top tackler, he turned down his senior year for a shot on Sunday. Even a master of the Xs and Os like Mason could be in trouble.
Mason, a D-coordinator at heart, is inventive scheme-wise and will find a way to get off the field. More turnovers would be a sight for sore eyes. This unit only registered 5 INTs in 2016.
Toughest home game: vs. Alabama (Sept. 23)
Toughest road game: at Florida (Sept. 30)
Non-conference highlight: vs. Kansas State (Sept. 16)