Which contender will break away and win SEC East?
A three-team race to Atlanta added a fourth member last Saturday, when Missouri showed signs it might contend to win the SEC East.
None of the three preseason favorites — Tennessee, Florida or Georgia — looks unbeatable.
Which team has the best chance of finding another gear and pulling away from the pack?
We asked the staff, and of course, we couldn’t agree.
Answer: There are only three teams capable of winning the SEC East: Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
If I had to decide now on which program separates itself, I’d go with the Gators. I believe not being picked to repeat as East champs has fueled them with the right amount of disrespect.
Even though the Volunteers came into the year as overwhelming favorites to win the division, they have been shaky at best through three games. The club simply isn’t improved from a season ago and still has the same limitations offensively. Pressure seems to be mounting, too.
As far as the Bulldogs are concerned, it appears to be a bit of a transition campaign going from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart. Offensively, with each passing week, it’s less about Nick Chubb on the ground and more about Jacob Eason through the air. On defense, the lack of a consistent pass rush means Smart can’t really do what he did all those year as a coordinator at Alabama.
Yes, UF has to pass the baton from Luke Del Rio to Austin Appleby at quarterback. Del Rio was playing well, but he wasn’t carrying the offense by any stretch of the imagination. All Appleby has to do is make routine throws and prevent turnovers. This defense will do the rest.
We know about UT’s 11-game losing streak to Florida. Coaches and players alike can talk all they want about how that’s not a factor. Clearly, it is. One mistake, and it’s “here we go again.”
I won’t be even remotely surprised if the Vols snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet again.
— John Crist, senior writer, Saturday Down South
Answer: I think the division race will come down to Florida, Georgia and Missouri.
No one could’ve imagined offensive coordinator Josh Heupel turning around Mizzou’s offense this quickly, but he’s done it to the point where the Tigers have gone from comfortably last in the SEC in total offense (280.9) to just out of first (526.7). With the potential Missouri has on defense, you can’t leave it out of the discussion if we’re talking “extra gear,” and it was allowing a fourth-down touchdown pass and then fumbling at midfield that led to a 1-point loss to Georgia.
But I’ll take Florida. If the Gators find a way against the Vols, which they tend to do, and Luke Del Rio returns for LSU, things don’t look as bleak. Outside of the QB position, Florida has a lot of talent offensively that’s waiting to emerge.
Among them, freshman Lamical Perine has the talent to be a star, and he may be forced to break out this week as you figure the Gators will go to the ground game early and often. Jim McElwain is also hopeful to get freshman WR Tyrie Cleveland back after dealing with a nagging hamstring issue.
Florida’s offense has already looked more competent than the latter portion of 2015, and a few stars can help the offense compliment a terrific defense.
As for Georgia’s offense, the team has yet to put together a complete game both rushing and passing. When that happens, the Bulldogs will be scary. Kirby Smart is hoping to discover that balance at Ole Miss and vs. Tennessee the next two games.
I left Tennessee out because I don’t see another gear. The Vols are limited offensively with Josh Dobbs, who clearly hasn’t improved in the pocket from last season, and the running game has taken a step back from being ranked second in the SEC.
— Talal Elmasry, managing editor, Saturday Down South
Answer: A few weeks in, and things have changed for Tennessee. The Vols were the media’s preseason darling, but I’m not sure they can win the division. The biggest reason is the upcoming schedule of Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and Alabama. If Tennessee can finish 2-2 during that stretch, it has a chance.
However, I’m going with the Florida Gators. Simply — the Gators have the best defensive unit in the SEC this year and maybe the country. All three levels are littered with future NFL players, and the defensive line can flat get after the quarterback. Also, Luke Del Rio isn’t supposed to miss the season due to a knee injury either. He’ll be back for the LSU game.
If Florida can beat Tennessee this weekend, which certainly seems possible even with a backup quarterback, it will win the division. The extra gear comes from having the best defense in the SEC and potentially having the best special teams play, too, with Eddy Pineiro looking like he’ll be a major weapon this year.
— Jon Cooper, director of operations, Saturday Down South
Answer: Which team has the best quarterback? Georgia, with Jacob Eason.
Which team still has the most room to grow? Georgia, with Jacob Eason.
Which team has the easiest remaining schedule? Georgia, with Jacob Eason.
Which team do you trust on 3rd-and-8, on the road, in the fourth quarter in November? Georgia, with Jacob Eason.
No true freshman quarterback has won an SEC championship since the league went to divisions in 1992. That will change this year when Georgia, with Jacob Eason, travels 70 miles west to Atlanta to play Alabama, with Jalen Hurts.
— Chris Wright, executive editor, Saturday Down South
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at email@example.com.