SEC East Preview
Top Draft Prospects
1: Trenton Thompson, Georgia
2: Nick Chubb, Georgia
3: Martez Ivey, Florida
4: Roquan Smith, Georgia
5: Jordan Jones, Kentucky
Order Of Finish
1: Georgia I’m not as sold on Georgia as everyone else is but I do believe that there are enough circumstances that differentiate them from Florida that they will eventually win the division. First, Georgia is led by Nick Chubb at running back. They also have a promising second year starter in Jacob Eason and Chubb is backed up by Sony Michel, who would start at 10 SEC schools, including Florida. I do not worry about Georgia being able to score points. Secondly, the Bulldogs return 10 starters to a defensive unit entering its second year under Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker. Also the defense is stocked with talent and should put 9 or 10 of those starters in the next two NFL drafts. Finally, the Bulldogs have a much easier schedule than Florida. Should they win that game their only other regular season challenge should be Auburn, who I think will beat them. This really comes down to who will win the Florida/Georgia game in October. I think Georgia’s experience will be enough. I think they’ll win 11 regular season games.
2: Florida The Gators have a lot of talent but, unfortunately, so do their opponents. They return 9 offensive starters to a unit that has not been very good offensively under Jim McElwain. Martez Ivey is the real deal at tackle, but tackles don’t score points. The Gators averaged 2 points per game last year, and only 18 against ranked opponents. I would expect much of the same in 2017. Defensively they will be talented but inexperienced. They should get through September unscathed but their October opponents are LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. I expect them to lose at least one or two of those games. Florida State late in the season is a toss up if everyone stays healthy, but Florida State is the better team, with better coaches. I think Florida wins 9 or 10 games and plays in a good bowl game as the 5th best team in the SEC.
3: South Carolina I look for a big improvement to come out of the Gamecocks this year. With 10 returning offensive starters including a promising young quarterback, both leading rushers, and 7 of their 8 leading receivers from a year ago the offense should show improvement. Hayden Hurst should be a player to watch at tight end. He is among the best in the nation. Defensively the Gamecocks return only 6 starters but they have playmakers like Bryson Allen-Williams at linebacker and Taylor Stallworth at defensive end. Jamarcus King, Chris Lammons, and DJ Smith should stabilize the secondary, as each are seniors. The problem for Will Muschamp is twofold; he doesn’t have the talent and depth his major rivals have and the schedule is among the toughest in the nation. I expect South Carolina to win 8 or 9 games. I feel like 8 is the best bet.
4: Tennessee This year appears to be the end of the great Butch Jones experiment. Jones, who did an excellent job at Cincinnati, has been over his head in both a conference that recruits as well as the SEC and at a destination job at a program as big as Tennessee. The Volunteers have 14 players returning which ties them for the lowest total in the SEC East with Florida, who simply has 5-6 top more top tier players than Tennessee, depending on whether Florida as 5 or 6 top tier players. Offensively I think John Kelley has a good chance at getting 1000 yards rushing this season and Jauan Jennings might be on the cusp of a third or fourth team All Conference team but the Vols don’t have the players to keep up with the top programs in the SEC. Defensively Darrin Kirkland is the leader, and a heck of a player, but, again, Tennessee simply doesn’t have the players it needs in the program. I see them winning 7 games and firing Jones after the Alabama loss. I think Jones will be successful in another conference like the Big 12 or Big Ten, though probably not at one of the stronger programs.
5: Kentucky The Wildcats fans are optimistic for the first time in a long time and they have good reason to be. Kentucky returns 17 players from their best team in recent memory including one of the best linebackers in the SEC in Jordan Jones. The offense returns 8 starters, although Benny Snell will start at tailback after amassing a 1000 yard season as a backup in 2016. I expect their offense to score more than 30 points a game. The big improvement for Mark Stoops’ team should be on defense where 9 starters return, led by All Conference contenders Jordan Jones and Josh Allen. Kentucky should be able to hold opponents to less than 31 PPG this year and I expect them to improve on that number, as well as their efficiency. They will lose to the best teams and beat the worst teams but how they fare from October 21 through November 11 will determine the success of their season. I expect them to go 3-1 in those games. They’ll win 7 or 8 games and possibly push Tennessee for4th in the East.
6: Missouri Missouri is in a bit of a transitional time. The jury is still out on Barry Odom as a head coach, and he should be given at least 2 more years before he is evaluated, but the Tigers are not going to continue with business as usual. This is because Gary Pinkel was fairly unique in how he built the program, at least by SEC standards. 10 players return for the Tigers offense which should improve off of last season’s good, but not great, numbers. J’Von Moore and Damarea Crockett each return after 100 yard seasons - in the air and on the ground, respectively. I expect the offense to be improved. They’ll need to be since the defense only returns 5 starters. Senior defensive end Marcell Frazier is a star, but he can’t do it all by himself. I think Missouri will be improved enough to win 6 games this year.
7: Vanderbilt Derek Mason almost doubled his career win total last season at Vanderbilt. This year the Commodores return plenty of starters but they are still playing against a stacked deck. Ralph Webb returns to lead an offense with 9 returning starters. Defensively the Commodores have 7 players returning. They’ll be far more efficient on both sides of the ball, but that might not be enough. I expect them to need a win against Tennessee in order to make it to 6 wins. They might get there.