Listen to any sports radio phone ins these days, particularly in the SEC belt (for which I geekily admit to doing regularly) and the good folks in the SEC East will gladly shout from the rooftops that it’s going to be a great year. Yes sirree, Jim Bob, this year is going to be a doozy.
So do the good folks of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky have substance to their claims? Or will the SEC East yet again be the poor cousin of Southern football. A role it has performed admirably for some time.
Well the answer, in no particular order is, Yup, Nope and well shucks, kinda. But let’s look at the teams in turn to understand why the East fans are getting so hot and bothered.
Well listen, if you were going to put your money on an East team it would be the Dawgs. In fact if you were going to put a shiny dollar bill on any team outwith Bama and Clemson I expect it would be on the Boys from Athens. They have been real close before in Kirby Smart’s first year when Georgia were outfoxed by that wily ol’ Fox Nick Saban in one of the closest National Championship games perhaps ever. Last year, Georgia didn’t quite live up to the hype of the previous year. Despite Jake Fromm having a very good season, the Dawgs didn’t get past the SEC title game losing out again to Alabama in gut wrenching style.
Returning experience is key for the Dawgs with Jake Fromm now entering his third year as starting QB. Expectations are high. There was a lot of attention levelled at Tagovailoa and Lawrence last year, and rightly so but Jake Fromm’s stats were equally impressive. Last season Fromm had a pass completion rate of 67%, throwing for 2,749 yards for 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions. In fact in the big games – Alabama, Florida and Texas he threw for nine TD’s and only one interception. Fromm might divide opinion but he is the real deal.
The big concern with Georgia is that most of the receiving crew that Fromm was passing to are now enjoying life at NFL summer camps. Running back D’Andre Swift will play a key part in any Dawg’s success this year now that Elijah Holyfield has moved on to the Carolina Panthers. If Swift can stay healthy this year he will be the Dawg’s dominant threat from running back.
The star of the Georgia show is undoubtedly left tackle Andrew Thomas and like Fromm and Swift this too will be his third year as a starter. Thomas is a first team all American and is expected to be a first round pick next year if as suspected he declares for the Draft in Vegas 2020. Thomas has been a starter since freshman year and is rightly credited with the solid protection Fromm gets. At 6’5, 320 pounds Thomas is a big fella who started right guard but has since moved to left tackle, It is this versatility which gets NFL scouts excited.
While the Dawgs have lost depth to the draft, Kirby Smart’s recruiting class is up there with the best, arguably the best in the nation. So I expect Georgia to be top of the East pile come December.
Snapping at Bulldog heels are the Florida Gators
By far the loudest noise coming out of the East is from Gainesville. A bit like Texas, the cry of Florida “is back” is ringing loud and clear from North Florida. I have to say I am a huge fan of Dan Mullen and what he is doing in Gainesville. So yes, I am drinking the Gator kool-aid, to an extent. But I think Florida is short a good quarterback at the moment. Felipe Franks has improved greatly under Mullen but unless he has a stellar season, the Gators come up short this year.
Of course, we now have the benefit of having seen the Gators kick off College football’s 150th season against old rivals Miami. The game was a mixed bag for both teams, with Miami quite possibly coming out of the game looking better, despite losing. For Mullen serious question marks were raised about his offence, including the maturity and decision making of his quarterback. The jury remains out for Franks.
A pre-requisite for SEC title contenders is a stout defence and the secondary at Florida is amongst the best in all College football. The pairing of CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson is one of the best corner combinations in the college game. Wilson ended last season with injury but if fit, both are considered elite corners. However the concern is with Wilson, who has had multiple knee surgeries over his three year period in Gainesville. If Wilson cant stay healthy watch out for true freshman Kaiir Elam who is a four star recruit and thought highly of at Florida. And in Trey Davis III, Florida have a player that replaces Chauncey Gardner-Johnson without missing a beat.
Talking of injuries an early blow for the Gators was the season ending (before it started) injury to four start Linebacker David Reese who tore his Achilles. This is a particularly difficult injury for the Gators to absorb given their very limited coverage at linebacker.
For me the real test for Florida is going to Baton Rouge on October 12 to play LSU. If the Gators get through their schedule unbeaten beyond LSU, which is by far the hardest fixture in those first seven games, then they will be real contenders. Post that, notable games are at Gamecocks and then Georgia in Jacksonville, Vandy in Athens and Mizzou in Columbia. Given the Georgia game is being played at a neutral venue this makes each of these games winnable. Final game of the season is at home to FSU and unless there is dramatic improvement in the situation at Tallahassee, the Gators should prevail.
So all in all, a season to look forward to for Gator fans? Are they too expectant? Well only time will tell. But I expect the Gators will gain momentum and run Georgia close in the end.
The Tigers are my dark horses for the East this year. Many programmes wanted Kelly Bryant when he transferred from Clemson but he ended up in Columbia at the Tigers.
It was noticeable at SEC Media days just how much attention Bryant received from his new divisional competitors. And while securing Bryant can be considered a real coup, the real scene stealer comes from Head Coach Barry Odom and his Coaching staff keeping hold of the player roster despite the likelihood of NCAA sanctions including the potential for no Bowl game this season. To date Mizzou has only lost one player to the transfer portal and more importantly all the noise is that this has brought the team closer together.
Aside from QB Kelly Bryant, the star of the Mizzou show is undoubtedly Tight End, Albert Okwuegbunam. Entering his redshirted junior year Okwuegbunam was one of five Mizzou players voted on the SEC all conference team, despite missing half of last season with a shoulder injury. Indeed in that one half of a season, Okwuegbunam did enough to secure second place in the Mackey Award, given to the nations top tight end. Albert O will certainly be one of the top tight ends in the draft when he decides to move in to the NFL
But Mizzou’s talent doesn’t stop there. Linebacker Cale Garrett and Offensive Lineman Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms continue to impress. Garrett is recognised as one of the SEC’s top LB’s and Simms, returning as senior is a player who did not allow a single sack in his junior year. Drew Lock has a lot to thank Simms for as he starts his NFL career in Denver.
But my stand out is tailback Larry Rountree III who will only improve playing alongside duel-threat QB Kelly Bryant. Last season Rountree, splitting the backfield with Damarea Crockett, ran for 1.216 yards averaging 5.4 yards per carry and scoring 11 TD’s in the process.
The noises coming out of Fall camp is that Bryant is playing with a point to prove and given the number of returning starters to this team and its favourable schedule, I think the Tigers will surprise people this year.
The Mizzou schedule is infinitely winnable until game nine when they come up against Georgia in Athens. Post Georgia, the last three games are Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas. With a head of steam and momentum on their side, these games are winnable also. I like the Tigers and this is a team which can win now. So the Tigers will do all they can to ensure that any NCAA sanctions imposed do not include Post season disqualification.
And then you have the rest of that Conference. Dare I say it, the Pretenders. Although I expect the fans of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Kentucky will have much to say about this.
My colleague, @ojhodgkinson has already season previewed Commodores and Wildcats seasons for NinetyNineYards and you can read these excellent reviews here :
Of the Pretenders, South Carolina has the greatest claim to be a real Contender. But their schedule is tough. Amongst the toughest in all College Ball. In week One they play the Tar Heels in a rivalry game. By week Three, they face Alabama in the first of seven straight Conference games – Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Post some respite against Appalachian State (although don’t say that to Michigan), they play Texas A&M and then Clemson in the regular season finale. Tough.
Will Muschamp it is said is not on the hot seat in Columbia. But a poor return irrespective of the schedule will heap pressure on Muschamp.
I can’t really finish this pierce without mentioning the high, oh so high expectations coming out of Knoxville. So, where to start with the Vols!
So let’s start with the obvious. The job of Football Head Coach at Knoxville is huge. Both in terms of magnitude and the chasm that has to be bridged to make the Vols competitive. Expectations are insanely high at UoT, perhaps only rivalled by those at Nebraska. But let’s be honest it was near impossible for Jeremy Pruitt to turn this job down. It is massive.
This is the start of JP’s second season. The first went largely as expected, a building year, a season of transition. This the fan base could just about accept. Year two is trickier with expectations rising.
And JP has done what any Head Coach should do. He has tried to dampen those expectations. At SEC media day, the line that everyone remembers is that Tennessee should be a Bowl team. Wait. What!? With all due respect, UoT Vols fans are still chasing National Championships. They expect a berth in the College Play Off’s. This is not a fanbase that settles for Bowl Games. But of course, the reality is that the Vols aren’t even getting Bowl games. So JP is right to dampen that enthusiasm. Tennessee went 2-6 in conference and 5-7 overall in what was a miserable season in Knoxville.
The Vols have a lot of starters returning, so they have experience. And key is that the experience is of the pro style 3-4 scheme Pruitt favours.
Of those starters from last season, QB1 Jarrett Guarantano returns . I guess the problem I have is that when the first thing your head coach says about you is “I have every faith in Jarrett and I know he can lead this team” – When I hear that I think the exact opposite. I mean I hardly doubt that Messrs Saban and Sweeney started their Media days by saying , well we have every confidence in Tua and Trev. Of course they do.
But let’s be brutally honest the Vols O-line last year was terrible and gave Guarantano no cover, so it’s not all on the QB. In fact last year’s stats show that Guarantano led the SEC in completion percentage while under pressure. And he was under pressure a lot. Guarantano is 6-12 as a starter and led an offence which was ranked outside the top 100 in college football last season. During that season he averaged fewer than 160 passing yards per game.
The running game was one of the shining lights for the Vols last year. Ty Chandler had a break out year, running for 630 yards but more importantly adding 19 receptions for 183 yards and scoring 7 touchdowns. He is also the first running back in UT history to score 3 consecutive receiving touchdowns. Tim Jordan also returns, who had an equally successful season managing 522 yards and 3 touchdowns.
I mentioned earlier the high number of returning starters for the Vols, twelve seniors returning. That’s a healthy number. Only problem is that four of these, yes one third of seniors play in the wide receiver position. Yes, 33%. That’s crazy. So as JP says, if you’re a wide receiver in high school come on over to Knoxville, we have jobs going!
So there you have it. The SEC East in a nutshell. It will be wild, it will be mad. It will be controversial. But whether an a East team will be SEC Champion or better still, play off bound – well that remains to be seen.
SEC? It just means more……