Why Tennessee will or won't win the SEC East in 2015
While the SEC West is probably the deepest division in college football among the Power 5 conferences — the Big 12 doesn’t feature divisions — the SEC East might have been one of the weakest in recent seasons. But all things are cyclical and it’s not going to stay down long.
It appears that the East Division is potentially there for the taking for a rising Tennessee program in 2015. The Vols haven’t represented the East in the SEC title game since 2007. Here’s why that may change this season — the media voted Tennessee to finish second to Georgia — or why perhaps UT fans will have to wait until 2016.
THE CASE FOR TENNESSEE
Other than Mississippi State with Dak Prescott, the Vols have likely the most talented returning quarterback in the entire conference in Joshua Dobbs, and they definitely do in the SEC East. Two-time reigning division champion Missouri brings back Maty Mauk, but his numbers were a bit worse in 2014 than in ’13 when he filled in for an injured James Franklin.
Florida is still deciding between Treon Harris and Will Grier, and now you hear rumors that coach Jim McElwain might use both in the season opener next week against New Mexico State. When you have two quarterbacks, that usually means you don’t have one good one.
Georgia has to choose between Brice Ramsey and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert, and neither of those guys are likely to scare anyone. Coach Mark Richt could have a decision following Thursday’s final fall scrimmage.
South Carolina just picked Connor Mitch, a redshirt sophomore who has thrown all of six collegiate passes in his career. But true freshman Lorenzo Nunez will also get some playing time, likely as a Wildcat QB. And does it really matter who the quarterbacks are at Kentucky and Vanderbilt?
- I would argue that UT has a chance to have the most explosive offense in the East with the deepest group of receivers in the division — although several have had trouble staying healthy — as well as a potential excellent 1-2 punch at running back in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. It’s not quite what Georgia has with Heisman Trophy favorite Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but it should be the second-best in the East.
- The defensive line also could be the best in the SEC outside of Alabama. Derek Barnett was a Freshman All-American last season and outplayed Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Brandon Scherff of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Barnett had 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Curt Maggitt largely plays end and had 11 sacks and 15 tackles last year, although you will see him at linebacker some. Five-star true freshman tackle Khalil McKenzie has been a man among boys at times in camp.
- Other than sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, the secondary is a veteran group. It’s led by preseason second-team All-SEC cornerback Cameron Sutton, a likely NFL early-round pick in 2016 if he declares, and safety Brian Randolph, the current active leader in tacklers in the conference.
THE CASE AGAINST TENNESSEE
Butch Jones has done an amazing job in recruiting but there’s a lot of untested backup players who could be thrown into action. The Vols, for example, have used three quarterbacks each of the last two seasons but could be in trouble if Dobbs goes down with freshman Quinten Dormady behind him. Sure, Dormady was a four-star recruit, but you don’t want him taking his first collegiate snaps against, say, Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama or Georgia.
- The offensive line depth is also a concern with the loss of the most experienced guy up front, guard Marcus Jackson. Brett Kendrick moves over from tackle to replace him. But the fact that McKenzie, among others, has dominated that line at times in camp is a worrisome sign. The O-line was a weakness in 2014, allowing the sixth-most sacks in college football. UT’s yards-per-carry was near the bottom of the SEC.
- Who replaces 2014 leading tackler A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker? It’s a moderate surprise the competition hadn’t been decided as of this writing. The battle between freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr., sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper and redshirt junior Kenny Bynum is ongoing. I had projected Bynum as the winner last week, but Kirkland is really coming on.
- Finally, the schedule is a monster with five preseason Associated Press Top 25 teams on it: Sept. 12 vs. No. 19 Oklahoma, Oct. 3 vs. No. 18 Arkansas, Oct. 10 vs. No. 9 Georgia, Oct. 24 at No. 3 Alabama and Nov. 21 at No. 24 Missouri. Who knows, maybe Florida and South Carolina will be ranked as well by the time UT plays them.
- Remember, the Vols have lost eight straight to ranked teams. And it’s going to be virtually impossible to get through that four-game stretch which opens at Florida and then features the Razorbacks, Bulldogs and Tide without two losses at a minimum. No team with at least two conference losses has won the SEC East since South Carolina in 2010.