We'll start our SEC Preview by doing a quick overview of the Eastern Division, in alphabetical order:
Florida: Florida's a really good team, and they figure to be right in the thick of the SEC race again this year. The offense, led of course by Sir Tim Tebow, could be even more explosive than last year's squad, which was an outstanding offensive team. They could actually have a running back or two this year, which will take some heat off of Tebow, and maybe help him stay healthy this year. Tebow is a mule in the running game, but he's not that much of a scrambler in the passing game, nor is his release particularly quick. I think the way to play him is to rush and blitz him and get heat on him in the passing game. In the running game, when he runs that little inside option from the shotgun, the rushing end should hit. him. every. time. Forget about the running back. Tebow's reading the end, and you should make sure he reads each time that he's about to get hit. Who knows? Maybe you force a fumble. Maybe you get him off his game.
Defensively, this team struggled last year, but the inexperienced and talented members of the secondary are one year more experienced and no less talented. This defense should go from being pretty vulnerable to one of the better in the conference.
The key games are @Tennessee in week 4, and Georgia (neutral site) November 1. People are kind of forgetting about Tennessee this year, and I know I said they could be heading for a decline, but they're pretty loaded this year. Plus, they're in the enviable position of actually being able to sneak up on people. If they win those two games, it doesn't matter what happens when LSU goes to Gainesville. Of course, it will be very hard to win both of those two.
Georgia: I'm a Georgia skeptic. There's a lot of hype there. Knowshon Moreno is a great running back. Matt Stafford shows great promise as a quarterback, but that promise is only realized in bursts so far. Otherwise, where are the great players? Not one Georgia offensive lineman made either the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team pre-season All-SEC. On defense, five started made the All-SEC squad, but only Danell Ellerbe made 1st team. Only one wide receiver returns with over 20 career receptions. Yeah, there's some great talent there, but I am not sure why this team is getting preseason #1 hype at this point. Outside of Knowshon Moreno (and I realize that is a pretty big qualifier), this team looks like a pretty average Georgia squad. Of course, an average Georgia squad is still pretty good, but you get the idea.
Key games are @South Carolina (revenge game!) in week 3, Tennessee on the 2nd Saturday in October, and the neutral site Florida game November 1. Get through those unscathed, and you write your ticket to Atlanta no matter what happens @LSU.
Kentucky: The Wildcats return to the SEC underclass this year. They lost virtually all of their best skill position players, including their really good quarterback. The defense should be solid, but a solid defense plus a mediocre offense equals mediocrity. I think a bowl berth is a long shot. Any team they beat in the SEC other than Vandy is probably a mild upset.
South Carolina: I am not doing it again! Every year, I say, "South Carolina really has the talent to make some noise this year and maybe be a dark horse to win the East." Every year, they come apart and fail miserably. This year, once again, they appear to have the talent to break into the same stratosphere that Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee have occupied to this point. They return 10 starters on defense, and they have arguably the best pure wideout in the conference in Kenny McKinley. Linebacker/defensive end Eric Norwood is a true NFL prospect, and the whole defense looks solid.
But rest assured, they will choke something serious. The schedule is backloaded, with most early season contests (other than against Georgia) looking pretty one-sided in their favor. If they avoid an early upset, they'll enter October at least 4-1 with the next two games being winnable contests against Ole Miss and Kentucky. Win those two, and at least you have confidence heading into the hellish close of the season, where they face LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas (well, they're not so hellish), Florida, and Clemson.
Tennessee: They've quietly put together what appears to be a very solid squad this year. Arian Foster is legitimately one of the best backs in the conference. Jonathan Crompton has patiently waited his turn, and if he is as solid as they say, the receivers look like they can be dangerous playmakers. The offensive line is going to be one of the best in the conference. The defense has arguably the league's best defensive player in Eric Berry, and should be solid all around.
They open the season against UCLA in Los Angeles, and if they win there, they may not sneak up on anyone anymore. The key contest is, of course, week 4 when Florida comes to town. Pull the upset there, and the whole complexion of the conference changes. It doesn't really get easy for them after that, as they have to go to Auburn a week later, and then they host Georgia two weeks after that. Yikes. That's the key 4-week stretch of the season. If they're still contenders after that, the schedule opens up, and they should be favored against the rest of their opponents.
Vandy: Welcome to Crapsville, population: You. OK, that's too harsh. Vandy has come a long way. They are no longer the automatic win they used to be. But it appears Vandy's window of opportunity closed when Jonathan Goff, Earl Bennett, and Chris Williams left. This was not a great team by any stretch, and they lost their three best players. I would be surprised if they won a conference game, but then again, I said the same thing about Mississippi State last year.