A way-too-early prediction of how the media will vote the SEC East to finish in 2020
Let’s fast forward 5 months. We’ll be finished with SEC Media Days and the stage will be set for the start of the 2020 season.
What a comforting thought that is.
Not so comforting is the fact that we still have to wait another 5 months for the unofficial start of the college football calendar. But the good news is that we can still make predictions and fire off takes to fill that time. As we know, the media’s prediction for how the divisions will finish is far from the only prediction that’s made in the preseason.
Today, I’m going to do something a little different. Because I don’t want to wait 5 months to get the official media ballot for the order of finish in each division, I’ll do it right here and now.
Before I start, I preface this by saying this is not necessarily what my ballot will look like. There could be similarities, but I, as a voting media member, am predicting how I believe my SEC colleagues will vote.
So don’t chirp me saying that I’m not giving Team X enough love. This isn’t my ballot. This is just how I believe the majority will vote when we convence in Atlanta in July.
Also, it’s worth remembering that the media has accurately predicted an SEC Champion just 7 times since 1992. It might be good to fly under the radar like LSU did last year when it got 3 of the 266 total votes to win the SEC.
Here’s how I think the media will vote on the East (the West will be released Sunday):
The year was 2017. Oh, I thought you asked me, “when was the last time Vandy wasn’t picked to finish last in the division?” That was 2017 when the Commodores got enough love to be predicted to finish 6th in the East ahead of Mizzou, which actually won 7 games that year and finished 4th in the division. It turned out to be a good prediction that year with Vandy finishing 6th in the division, but it was Tennessee that failed to win a game in conference play.
This year, yeah, there’s not going to be a whole lot of optimism in Nashville. After losing the likes of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney, there are major questions about where the reinforcements are coming from a 3-win team that just had its coaching staff overhauled by Derek Mason. The quarterback situation looks murky at best, and there’s going to be talk in Atlanta about whether this is a make-or-break year for Mason.
All of that suggests that Vandy will have its usual last-place prediction.
This sort of comes with the territory for a non-splashy hire taking over a program that’s been mediocre in recent memory. It’s a different story than last year when we were talking about Mizzou with Kelly Bryant taking over a roster that had talent and a favorable schedule. Now, we don’t know what to expect from this defense in the post-Barry Odom era, and Eli Drinkwitz has had offensive success, but it’s a mystery how it’ll look in Year 1 with former TCU transfer Shawn Robinson.
Mizzou doesn’t often get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the preseason polls. They had some sleeper buzz last year because Bryant was a household name. But this year, Mizzou will be considered fortunate if it can reach a bowl game coming off last year’s ban.
In the coming months about Mizzou, you’ll hear the “R” word a lot. You know, “rebuild.”
5. South Carolina
When you win 4 games and are facing another daunting schedule, it’s hard to convince anyone that you’re about to finish in the upper half of the division. Last year’s disappointing season put Will Muschamp firmly on the hot seat, and as we know, those conversations tend to carry a lot weight when it comes to offseason narratives.
While there are promising underclassmen players on that roster like Ryan Hilinski, Zacch Pickens and the recently-signed Jordan Burch, it’ll be hard for media members to overlook a schedule that has South Carolina facing 6 SEC teams that won at least 8 games last year. Replacing valuable weapons on both sides of the ball like Javon Kinlaw and Bryan Edwards will be no small task, either. If the media has the Gamecocks finishing any higher than this, it’ll be because everyone is not just sipping, but chugging the Mike Bobo-Hilinski Kool-Aid.
The Cats are in the midst of their best 4-year stretch since Bear Bryant was in Lexington, yet here’s what the preseason poll predicted for them:
This year, Kentucky again figures to be on the outside looking in as it relates to the top 3. Whether that should be the case is a different question.
What we do know is that Mark Stoops’ team is suddenly loaded with experience and he just added his highest-rated recruiting class yet. With 15 starters back after last year’s 8-win season, there could be a lot of people who start talking themselves into Kentucky later in the summer. Will they talk themselves into having Kentucky finish ahead of Tennessee? Probably not. After all, it’s the Vols who won that matchup each of the past 2 years.
But in a way, Stoops would be totally out of his element if his team was considered one of the preseason favorites in the division.
The Tennessee hype train is going to roll into Atlanta with a bunch of steam. Considering the way that last year started and the fact that the Vols’ quarterback situation is totally up in the air, that’s a credit to Jeremy Pruitt. When you finish the season winning 6 games in a row, people notice. The turnaround was dramatic, and now, Tennessee is going to deal with a different kind of offseason buzz. Well, at least different than anything we’ve seen since 2016.
Yeah, we were guilty, too:
The Tennessee hype train for 2016 is leaving the station. We’re conductors. All aboard! #Team120
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) January 12, 2016
The thing that’ll hold media members back from picking Tennessee to hurdle Florida and Georgia is still what we saw last year. When you lose by a combined score of 77-17 to the division favorites, it’s hard for the masses to justify that step up happening. But with the way Pruitt finished the season with that defense, and now that he’s got a bunch of 5-star talent on that offensive line, the Vols being picked 3rd in the East won’t seem like a leap at all. After all, that’s where they finished last year.
If Tennessee had a returning quarterback of Kellen Mond or Kyle Trask’s caliber, the hype train would really be off the rails.
Georgia fan, I’m talking to you right now.
Before you tell me I’m an awful human being who should sleep with an eye open for saying the media will predict the Dawgs not to win the division they claimed each of the past 3 years, remember this: Offseason narratives will be taken into account when it comes to the preseason poll. Because of all that offensive talent that Georgia lost, especially on the offensive line, my guess is that there will be slightly more media members talking themselves into Florida as the division winner than Georgia.
That, as Georgia fans have already seen, is going to be at the root of the notion that now is Florida’s time. The lone thing standing in the Gators’ way of making that next step up into a legitimate SEC contender is Georgia. That could still be the case in 2020, especially if Todd Monken’s offense with Jamie Newman takes off. Georgia is loaded on defense, especially in the front 7.
Having said that, we’ve now reached the point where there’s going to be some Georgia fatigue. It’s more exciting to predict the team who has been in the cusp as opposed to the one that’s been there 3 straight years. It’ll be close, but Florida will get the edge.
Here’s something that’s amazing. Last preseason, Florida got 21 1st-place votes compared to 233 for Georgia. Last year, Florida lost to Georgia for the 3rd consecutive year. Last recruiting cycle (2020), Florida had the No. 8 class while Georgia finished No. 1.
Yet despite all of that, yes, I expect the Gators so have a slight edge over the Dawgs in the preseason media poll.
The aforementioned Georgia fatigue is part of that, as is the fact that Kirby Smart’s team completely overhauled its offense and has 9 starters to replace with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator. But Florida has a lot working in its favor. It’ll return a wealth of experience on the offensive line, not to mention several key weapons for Kyle Trask to work with including Kyle Pitts, Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney.
There are obviously some household names gone from this defense like Jon Greenard, Jabari Zuniga and CJ Henderson, but with guys like Zachary Carter and Marco Wilson back for Todd Grantham, that group won’t be predicted to fall off a cliff.
Now, the expectation will be for Dan Mullen to put it all together. Florida is no longer in position where it can rise above expectations just by winning a New Year’s 6 Bowl. Fair or not, the next step will be the entire offseason conversation surrounding the Gators.
For the first time in the post-Urban Meyer era, the Gators will be predicted to win the division.