So let's talk about the SEC East. How do you see things shaking out in the Eastern Division this season?
The Georgia/South Carolina game is going to put somebody in the cat-bird seat early on. Clowney and the Sakerlina defense versus Murray and Georgia's returning offensive playmakers. The winner of that has a huge advantage, and while the Bulldogs have the matchup with LSU, the Gamecocks don't exactly have the best track record for handling prosperity. Plus, as much as I like Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington, I think that offense will need more to navigate the league. Georgia will be rebuilding on defense, but that offense should be enough until the other side of the ball can come together.
Florida, at least to me, is in for a bit of a "step back/step forward" season, where they may improve in ways that don't show up in wins/losses. Last year, Jeff Driskel was really inconsistent, and the offense really had to live on the back of Mike Gillislee. He's gone, and while Driskel may be better, I'm not sold that he can carry the load himself, either, especially given a receiving corps that has looked very "meh" the last few years. That Miami game in the first month will tell us a lot. The Canes have 18 starters back, and while you know Will Muschamp's defense will be ready, replacing Matt Elam and Jon Bostic might take a few games.
Behind the top three, I think you can pick'em with Mizzou/Tennessee/Vanderbilt. The Vols seem to have a bit of first-year momentum under Butch Jones, but what's that translate to on the field? I'm not so sure. Everybody knows Vandy has been on the upswing, but they have to replace a quarterback and a pretty good running back in Zac Stacy. Mizzou had a ton of injuries last year, so a little luck there could easily net them a few closer games and maybe an extra conference win. Kentucky seems a safe bet to hold down the league's bottom (phrasing).
I think Mizzou can make some strides this year. They return 13 total starters and, as you mentioned, surely the injury bug won't bite them so hard again. I find it interesting they sent James Franklin to media days. Pinkel is obviously trying to anoint confidence here, but he's been a pretty maligned player. Their season will likely depend on his success.
But when I say "make strides" that's really a matter of crawling up from the doldrums into middle of the pack. They can maybe out perform Tennessee and Vandy. They'll be better then Kentucky. They should go bowling.
The top 3 are clear: USC, Georgia, Florida. Each is rebuilding in their own ways. UF lost a good deal on D. Georgia too. South Carolina needs to find an offense, though I'm not sure you'd label that a "rebuild." Maybe a re-tooling, since they can't operate with the "all things Lattimore" mentality. Obviously they were able to play on without him last year, but their production took a notable nose dive. Not to mention they also lose deep threat Ace Sanders. Is Connor Shaw ready to take the next step? He seems to be one of the more capable QBs in Spurrier's time there. But he still has his highs and lows.
The team I'm really fascinated by is Georgia. Let's not forget they were seconds away from playing for a National Title last year. They've got a veteran QB, they've got offensive playmakers, and while Grantham flirted with the NFL for a better part of the offseason, he stuck around and we all know the talent coffers at Georgia always run deep. They lose 8 starters on D, most notably Alec Ogletree, Sanders Commings, Baccarri Rambo and John Jenkins.
But they are bringing in a DT from JUCO (Atkins) and already have talented recruit Mike Thornton ready to fill the hole. Thornton played in 14 games last year, so he's not so green, either. Several of their other new starters (James DeLoach, Jordan Jenkins, Ramik Wilson, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson) played in double digit games last year. So while they are "new starters" they aren't completely new to this. I think Georgia is the clear favorite to win the East.
Florida has a lot of work to do on offense and their defense won't be quite as strong to support as last season.
I think the East has three distinct tiers right now: the top contenders (UGA, UF, and USC), the middle class (Vandy, Mizzou, Tennessee), and Kentucky. The top three should go unbeaten against the rest of the division, though I wouldn't put it past Florida to slide back a bit this year for the reasons Paul mentioned. Really, any finish between the middle class would not surprise me, though it would be a spectacular year for any of those teams to finish in third. It's possible if Florida struggles or Georgia collapses, but I wouldn't put any money on it or anything.
I've said this in the comments of other articles, but I mean it, if South Carolina can't win the SEC this year, they are never going to do it. The Lattimore injury was a bit of a blessing in disguise for the program, as they started figuring out what their post-Lattimore offense was going to look like in the second half of the season (not as bad as you would think). They have the SEC's best player, a favorable schedule, and all of the major powers are undergoing a bit of a rebuild. If they make the title game, the Western team will have figured out their issues, but LSU and Alabama both have to rebuild their lines, which is never easy. Neither team looks as intimidating on paper as they did at this time last year.
I love Georgia. I think outside of Oregon, there is no program in the past decade that has been so consistently successful without a national title to show for it. They have been the ultimate victims of bad timing and bad luck. It's unfair that Georgia gets slotted on a tier below when they have been every bit as great of a program as anyone else in the nation. Richt has lost control of the narrative. I also think Aaron Murray is the best QB in the SEC, even better than Manziel. That's no knock on Johnny Football, that's just how highly I hold Murray, who is going to be one of the rare obscenely talented senior quarterback in today's game. Unfortunately for UGA, they kick off the season against Clemson and South Carolina while they try and replace pretty much their entire defense. By season's end, I think they will be the best team in the East, but I think USC will have the leg up in September, and that could cost the Dawgs a shot at the national title. Again.
Florida's success last year shocked the hell out of me. I could double down on their being a bit of are build going on there, but I think this is a program that's earned the benefit of the doubt. I whiffed on 'em last year, and I'm not going to do it again. It comes down to this: I'd feel much more stupid if I picked them to do poorly and they won the division than if I picked them to be great and they fell on their face. When in doubt, pick the Gators. I'm not in doubt, though. The winner of the South Carolina-Georgia game is winning the East and will have a terrific shot at winning the national title. I really like both teams right now.
I, too, see this as a clear three- team race between USC, UGA and Florida. I like Georgia as the best team, just slightly ahead of South Carolina. And with the Dawgs hosting the Cocks this year, they'd seem to have the edge. However, Carolina dodges the heavyweights from the West division while both UGA and Florida must play LSU. As is often the case, this could come down to schedule.
Starting with Florida, their three big conference games (UGA, USC and LSU) are all away from the Swamp. Like Billy said, I don't see this team being quite as good as last year's, and I think they'll lose a few games. If one of the three contenders is going to drop a surprise game to one of the other teams from the East, I think it will likely be Florida. Mike Gillislee really made that offense go last year, and he's gone. Jeff Driskel didn't strike me as a guy that built much positive momentum towards the end of last year, and he'll have to shoulder more of the burden in 2013. It's tough to see how that offense comes together.
It sure seems that the Week two matchup between UGA and Carolina could decide things. The game will essentially count twice as it will serve as the primary tie-breaker at the end of the year. A year ago, Georgia walked into a buzz saw when they went to Williams Brice Stadium and got smacked around for a few hours. They'll have revenge on their minds, and I love their returning talent at the skill positions on offense. They'll be balanced and figure out a way to win. If Carolina loses, then they'll need to run the table and get two losses out of Georgia, which isn't entirely impossible with LSU, Florida and a trip to Vandy still on the schedule. If Georgia loses to the Cocks, it's tough to see them battling back. They still have a tough schedule ahead of them while Carolina really does not.
At the end of the day, I like Georgia to return to Atlanta for a third straight year.
The rest of the East will be interesting. What can Tennessee and Kentucky do with new head coaches? Both new coaching staffs have built some serious momentum on the recruiting trail. With some signs of life on the field, they could really get that snowball rolling downhill. Can Vandy possibly match, or even build upon, last year's 9-4 record? Dan seems to think Mizzou could make some noise; although, I just don't see it from them.