Way too early SEC East predictions for 2015
The SEC East has partial bragging rights heading into 2015 after finishing 5-0 during the bowl season, three games better than its perceived dominant division out West. In a way-too-early look, here’s how we see things shaking out in the SEC East for next season:
Editor’s note: The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline is Jan. 15 and a couple standouts in the East are still weighing their options. We’ve tried to accurately project their decisions ahead of the deadline and those are reflected in the ‘key losses’ category.
1. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Key returnees: QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Jalen Hurd, WR Marquez North, WR Josh Malone, WR Von Pearson, ATH Pig Howard, DL Derek Barnett, DL Curt Maggitt, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, DB Cam Sutton, DB Brian Randolph, DB Todd Kelly, DB LaDarrell McNeil
Key losses: RB Marlin Lane, LB A.J. Johnson, DB Justin Coleman
Buzz: There’s no team in the Eastern Division more talented roster-wide than the Volunteers heading into 2015, but can Butch Jones put together the pieces to the puzzle in championship fashion? There’s enough firepower returning on both sides of the ball to make this team a formidable foe for any squad in the country if the offensive line continues to improve and Joshua Dobbs performs the way he’s capable of playing (3-1 SEC record, bowl win) with extreme confidence. Oft-criticized early in the season after Justin Worley was pounded throughout the first month, the line marginally made a difference as the season progressed. Defense is where the Vols are expected to truly flourish anchored by a veteran secondary filled with returning starters along with a fierce front seven headlined by the Eastern Division’s top sack man Derek Barnett. If most of Tennessee’s incoming recruiting class sticks, which could be the SEC East’s best by signing day, the Vols have depth and possible instant impact-type talent at numerous positions. Jones’ brick-by-brick mantra is coming to fruition by player addition.
2. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Key returnees: RB Nick Chubb, RB Nick Marshall, ATH Sony Michel, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Justin Scott-Wesley, WR Isaiah McKenzie, TE Jeb Blazevich, DL Lorenzo Carter, DL Leonard Floyd, LB Jordan Jenkins, DB Quincy Mauger, DB Dominick Sanders, K Marshall Morgan
Key losses: QB Hutson Mason, RB Todd Gurley, WR Michael Bennett, WR Chris Conley, DL Ray Drew, LB Amarlo Herrera, LB Ramik Wilson, DB Damian Swann
Buzz: Even without Todd Gurley for the first time in three seasons, Georgia may have the SEC’s top returning player overall in Nick Chubb, a talented ballcarrier coming off a 1,500-yard true freshman season. Chubb was lights out during Georgia’s season finale win over Louisville, rushing for the second-most yards in a single game in program history (266). With new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer set to arrive in Athens this week, how will the Bulldogs look with a new philosophy driven by an unproven quarterback? Speed kills and Georgia still has plenty of it. You have to respect Georgia’s talent returning on Jeremy Pruitt’s side of the ball, a reason why the Bulldogs will likely fall somewhere in the preseason Top 10. There’s two potential All-SEC ballhawks at the back end (Sanders and Mauger) along with linebacker and rising senior captain Jordan Jenkins and pass-rushing specialists Lorenzo Carter and Leonard Floyd back in the mix. 2015 could be a ‘contract year’ so to speak for Mark Richt who hasn’t won an SEC Championship since 2005 despite consistently bringing into a Top 10 signing class annually. This season’s expected haul, currently sitting at No. 2 nationally behind Alabama, is no different.
3. MIZZOU TIGERS
Key returnees: QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough, OL Evan Boehm, DL Harold Brantley, LB Michael Scherer, LB Kentrell Brothers, DB Aarion Penton, K Andrew Baggett
Key losses: ATH Marcus Murphy, WR Bud Sasser, WR Jimmie Hunt, DL Shane Ray, DL Markus Golden, DL Lucas Vincent, DB Braylon Webb, DB Duron Singleton
Buzz: Would it surprise us if the Tigers win a wide-open Eastern Division? No. They’ve done it back-to-back years despite a talent disadvantage compared to some of the team they have beaten. At this moment, Gary Pinkel is the best coach in this division and that’s an important element to watch at a program forced to replace its most prolific defensive line tandem in school history along with its top four leading receivers. You don’t make up the production of Shane Ray and Markus Golden off the edge in a single season with two pass rushers, a harsh reality the Tigers must face early. Mizzou’s success in 2015 hinges on the play of junior quarterback Maty Mauk along with top returning rusher Russell Hansbrough. The Tigers won’t have the personnel on defense to bail Mauk out of mistakes, so his development is paramount. The schedule, by SEC standards, sets up for another late-season run but Mizzou will need multiple players — perhaps a few unknowns — to step up on defense.
4. FLORIDA GATORS
Key returnees: QB Treon Harris, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Adam Lane, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Ahmad Fullwood, DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, DB Brian Poole, DB Vernon Hargreaves, DB Marcus Maye, DB Jalen Tabor, DB Keanu Neal
Key losses: QB Jeff Driskel (transfer), OL D.J. Humphries, OL Max Garcia, RB Matt Jones, DL Dante Fowler
Buzz: There’s new blood in Gainesville as the Jim McElwain era is soon to kick-off, but that doesn’t mean instant success in Year 1 for the former Colorado State head coach and Alabama assistant. It’s going to take a season or two for McElwain to get his type of athlete to Florida, ones that fit his system and style of play. Until then, he’s working with Will Muschamp’s leftovers, a roster that’s not necessarily spread-enabled along. The spring quarterback battle should be an interesting one between sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Grier is a pocket passer with mobility while Harris started several games for the Gators during the second half of this season after winning the job over recently-transferred Jeff Driskel. As one would expect, defense will remain Florida’s calling card and the Gators will be stacked next season, especially in the secondary. Several future early-round picks return including Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor. Star linebacker Antonio Morrison should be available by fall camp (possibly spring if not severe) after suffering a knee injury during the Birmingham Bowl.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Key returnees: RB Brandon Wilds, RB David Williams, WR Pharoh Cooper, WR K.J. Brent, LB Skai Moore, LB Jonathan Walton, DB Rico McWilliams, DB Al Harris Jr., K Elliott Fry
Key losses: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Nick Jones, TE Buster Anderson, OL A.J. Cann, OL Corey Robinson, DL J.T. Surratt, DB Brison Williams
Buzz: There’s lots of questions and few answers for the Gamecocks heading into Steve Spurrier’s stretch run at South Carolina following the program’s worst single-season (7-6) since 2008. One of the lone familiar faces outside of Columbia, S.C., coming back is Pharoh Cooper, expected to be the SEC’s top impact receiver next season after finishing second to Amari Cooper in several offensive categories this fall. Cooper’s the type of playmaker that gives the Gamecocks a chance anytime he touches the football, but overuse could become an issue. Thin at the position with the departure of Shaq Roland (quit), Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones, South Carolina will rely on several individuals who haven’t played many snaps. A new era begins at quarterback, likely a spring battle won by redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch. Lorenzo Ward’s leash is short as the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator after an embarrassing season filled with youthful inexperience. South Carolina must generate a pass rush or another 6-6 is inevitable.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Key returnees: QB Patrick Towles, RB Boom Williams, RB Jojo Kemp, RB Braylon Heard, WR Ryan Timmons, LB Khalid Henderson, LB Josh Forrest, DB A.J. Stamps, DB Marcus McWilson, K Austin MacGinnis
Key losses: WR Javess Blue, DL Bud Dupree, DL Za’Darius Smith
Buzz: Entering his third season at Kentucky, 2015 will be a telling year for Mark Stoops and whether he can lift this program where it needs to be. This season started promising at 5-1 before a six-game losing skid to finish out the stretch kept the Wildcats away from a bowl berth. It had much to do with quarterback Patrick Towles and the Air Raid offense backtracking after the hot start. Kentucky lacked a rhythm on offense and struggled against more talented competition? That’s been the issue the last several seasons at a program trying to separate itself from the cellar. Plenty of starting spots will be up for grabs during spring practice and if the Wildcats sign five-star gamechanger Damien Harris, a running back out of Berea, Ky., he’ll provide an instant impact as a true freshman.
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Key returnees: QB Johnny McCrary, RB Ralph Webb, ATH Darrius Sims, TE Steven Scheu, WR C.J. Duncan, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Nigel Bowden, Zach Cunningham, DB Torren McGaster, K Tommy Openshaw
Key losses: DL Vince Taylor, LB Kyle Woestmann
Buzz: It’s not going to get any worse for the Commodores after coach Derek Mason replaced offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and shoved another assistant aside to handle play-calling duties himself on defense following a winless SEC season. Inconsistency at quarterback crippled Vanderbilt during Mason’s first season and forced a defense that played better than the record showed to over-exert itself during games. Rising sophomore tailback Ralph Webb is one of SEC’s best backs and should get the bulk of the workload on the ground in 2015. Vanderbilt returns a solid nucleus on defense — especially at linebacker — but depth is a concern. It appears the Commodores remain several years away from making real noise as a nine-win caliber team like they were with James Franklin. Changing the culture starts with recruiting.