2017 SEC Football Preview: East Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl teams are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention/the push for a bow bid. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Jim McElwain led the Gators to an SEC title game appearance for the second consecutive season despite once again having to play multiple quarterbacks and dealing with a slew of defensive injuries. This season, the Gators are the favorites to win the East, but they could get a challenge from their rival to the north.

Contenders

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Running back Jordan Scarlett #25 of the Florida Gators. Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Florida Gators

Last year, Jim McElwain’s squad once again had a dominant defense and an offense that would disappear against some of the better opponents on the schedule. This season, the offense has almost its entire starting group back and the defense has to replace some key starters.

The QB position once again was a trouble spot for the Gators as Luke Del Rio got hurt in the third game of the year, which put Austin Appleby in the spotlight. Appleby started two games before Del Rio came back and then was out for the year three games later. This season, Del Rio is back, but the starting job is up for grabs with former four-star recruit, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire battling for the job. Regardless of who wins the job, the supporting cast is strong. The top three running backs return from last year led by junior Jordan Scarlett (889 yards 6 TDs), as do the top six receivers led by speedster Antonio Callaway (721 yards 3 TD). The offensive line brings back four starters from last year’s group and gets the return of LT Martez Ivey. With better health, even with a redshirt freshman QB, the offense should improve on the 23.9 PPG and 344 YPG averages from last year.

The defense has been stingy the last two seasons allowing 18.3 PPG in 2015 and 16.8 last season. The problem was injuries and inconsistency. The Gators were dominant in eight games, allowing 14 points or less. In the other four? They allowed 31 points or more, including 54(!) to Bama in the SEC title game. This season, they lose a pair of defensive tackles in Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie, along with five draft picks between the LBs and secondary. The LB unit should be okay as Jordan Davis and Alex Anzalone missed a combined 11 games last season, so the young guys saw plenty of playing time. The secondary however, lost both starting corners and a starting safety, all of whom were draft picks. It’s going to be tough to replace that production, even with highly talented recruits. I’d expect the numbers to decline slightly.

The schedule opens with a big one right off the bat as the Gators play Michigan in Arlington and it’s book-ended by the rivalry game with Florida State. In conference, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia come calling with a road trip to Kentucky as well. The schedule isn’t easy but this number still seems low to me. I’m going over. Over 8 wins.

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Quarterback Jacob Eason #10 of the Georgia Bulldogs. Credit: Michael Chang/Getty Images

Georgia Bulldogs

The first year under Kirby Smart was an up-and-down one with the Bulldogs losing big games to Ole Miss and Tennessee, but then knocking off #8 Auburn towards the end of the season. All in all, an 8-5 year with a true freshman QB and a young defense was understandable. This year, expectations will be higher with 17 starters back.

Jacob Eason was the number five overall recruit and the number two or one QB in the nation (depending on which ranking system) last season. His freshman year was filled with flashes of good (17/28 211 2 TDs vs Tenn) and bad (5/17 29 yards vs. South Carolina), but with a full year under his belt, his numbers should improve. He’ll be helped by one of the most dangerous backfield duos in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who are both back for their senior seasons. In addition, four of the top five receivers are back and, with an offseason to get into better rhythm with Eason, their numbers should increase too. The only question is the offensive line, which loses three starters. Despite that, I’d expect improvement in last year’s 24.5 PPG.

On defense the Bulldogs lose just one starter from a group that allowed opponents 24 points and 327 yards per game last season. That kind of returning talent, with the depth that the Bulldogs developed along the defensive line, points toward an improvement in those numbers this season. Their top five tacklers return led by LB Roquan Smith who had 95 tackles and 5 TFL. Smart’s defenses at Alabama were dominant and while the talent level may not be quite as high here, it’s a unit that should be very good this season.

The schedule has four tough road games on it with trips to Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Then of course, there’s the neutral site game against the Gators. Those road games will be tough, but this veteran group should be able to handle those environments. Over 8.5 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Jauan Jennings #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tennessee Volunteers

The Volunteers entered 2016 with sky high expectations and hopes of reaching the SEC title game. Injuries and inconsistent play derailed those hopes and led to a 9-4 finish. Butch Jones’ team is still fairly experienced, but they have to replace a couple of team leaders from last season.

Four-year starting QB Joshua Dobbs is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers which leaves a void at QB. Dobbs was the leading rusher for the team as well and last year’s two big-name running backs depart as well (Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd). At QB, junior Quinten Dormady will battle redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano who was a four-star dual-threat QB in the Class of 2016. Whoever wins the job will have a veteran line in front of them with four starters back and, top running back John Kelly (630 yards 5 TDs) also returns. The wide receiver group returns No. 2 guy Jauan Jennings, but the other three top guys (Josh Malone, Kamara, Jason Croom) depart. Those losses lead me to think that the Vols will take a step back in terms of points per game from last year’s 36.4.

The defense loses its leaders as well in DE Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen (20 sacks combined). They do have junior DE Jonathan Kongbo who was highly touted when he joined the program last year. The linebackers corps should be okay due to this year’s starters seeing plenty of time last year due to injuries to the guys who departed. In the secondary, Tennessee does lose corners Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman, but they return a pair of starting safeties and add grad transfer Shaq Wiggins from Louisville. This unit disappointed last season in allowing 28.8 PPG and I’d expect, with better help, improvement there.

The Vols path to contention will have to go through road trips to Florida and Alabama and home games with Georgia and LSU. Overall, even with a new QB, the defense should improve enough to get the Vols to eight wins. Over 7.5 wins.

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Jake Bentley #4 of the South Carolina Gamecocks. Credit: Rob Foldy/Getty Images

South Carolina Gamecocks

Will Muschamp did a nice job getting a young Gamecocks team to a bowl game in his first season. The 6-7 record was better than what many expected to start last year and this season, the offense should take a leap forward.

The biggest problem early for the Gamecocks was the struggle to find a starting QB as Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain alternated starts for the first six games in which South Carolina went 2-4. That’s when Muschamp took the redshirt off of Jake Bentley and thrust him into the starting role. Bentley acquitted himself well completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards 9 TDs and 4 INTs. McIlwain transferred and this year it’s Bentley’s job from the jump. He’ll have the benefit of an offensive line that returns four starters and the return of top running back Rico Dowdle (764 yards 6 TDs). His top five receiving targets also return and overall this unit should be much better than last year’s 20.8 points and 348 yards per game.

Defensively, Muschamp likely wasn’t pleased with the 203 yards per game the Gamecocks allowed on the ground last season. This year, with a pair of defensive linemen back, and the return of LB Skai Moore from injury, that number should improve. They do lose safety Chris Moody on the back end, but everyone else returns and No. 2 tackler Bryson Allen-Williams will join Moore in looking to stuff the run game.

The schedule is difficult with road games against Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Georgia and home games against Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson. Add in a tough NC State team to start the year and that’s a slate that could break any team. However, this is a more experienced group and what should be a better offense, so I have the Gamecocks once again in a bowl game, beating the number. Over 5.5 wins.

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Stephen Johnson #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats. Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky Wildcats

Mark Stoops has done a nice job slowly building the Wildcats to last year’s bowl appearance. This season, they’re one of the more experienced teams in the SEC with 17 returning starters and they should once again be in postseason play.

The offense made nearly a touchdown leap in points per game going from 24.7 in 2015 to 30 last year and most of that group returns. The biggest losses are RB Stanley “Boom” Williams (No. 1 rusher 1,170 yards) and WR Jeff Badet (31 receptions 670 yards 4 TDs). But, senior QB Stephen Johnson is back along with sophomore RB Benny Snell who ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman last year. Combined with four starters on the offensive line, this unit looks poised again to be a potent group that can certainly match last year’s numbers.

The defense was largely inexperienced last season with only five starters back and it showed in the averages as they allowed 31.4 PPG and 434 YPG. This season, there are nine guys returning, including the top four tacklers from last season and this unit should be improved. The stars are linebackers Jordan Jones and Courtney Love along with safety Mike Edwards. That trio combined for 285 tackles, 16.5 TFL, and 12 PBU last season, and they should lead this year’s group to better numbers.

The Wildcats will have their chance to win the East if they can beat Florida, Tennessee and/or Georgia for the first time in five years. They get the Gators and Vols at home and have to travel to Athens to battle the Dawgs. There’s also an early road trip to South Carolina that could be interesting on September 16th as they beat the Gamecocks by just seven last year. Push 7 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams

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Quarterback Drew Lock #3 of the Missouri Tigers. Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Missouri Tigers

The Tigers had some key injuries on the defensive side of the ball last season that derailed the season leading to a 4-8 record. This year, they’ll have 15 returning starters and hopefully better health.

Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel did a tremendous job last year taking a unit that averaged just 13.6 points and 281 yards per game and improving to 31.4 points and over 500 yards per game. Only one starter departs and QB Drew Lock returns after a 3,300+ yard 23 TD season (10 INTs). Also back are top rushers Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter (1,812 yards 16 TDs combined) and the top four receivers. The offensive line brings back all five starters and this offense is more than capable of putting up the same numbers this season.

Defensively, there a more holes to plug with three starters from the defensive line, two linebackers and one corner departing. But, the line gets back a hopefully healthy DT Terry Beckner, after he’s missed the last two years with ACL tears. In the linebacker corps, one of the starters lost is Donavin Scherer who was lost for the year after seven starts. So, the backups got to see a decent amount of playing time and they add in Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett, so that group should be solid. With three guys back in the secondary, this looks like a group that Odom should be able to get better production out of.

The schedule isn’t easy though. They do benefit from having the first four games at home, though two of those come against South Carolina and Auburn. Add in visits from Florida and Tennessee with road trips to Kentucky, Georgia and Arkansas and it’s difficult to predict more than six wins. I have them just missing out on a bowl with five wins. Under 6.5 wins.

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Ralph Webb #7 of the Vanderbilt Commodores. Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Vanderbilt Commodores

Everyone knows Vanderbilt is one of the more difficult jobs in college football to consistently win at. The best the Commodores can usually hope for is a bowl appearance which they accomplished last season. This year, Derek Mason has another veteran group, but also one of the more difficult schedules in the SEC. They could make a bowl again, but it will require some upsets against the East teams above them.

The offense brings nearly everyone back with junior QB Kyle Shurmur leading the way. Shurmur needs to improve his accuracy (54.4%), but he will have the benefit of three starters on the offensive line back to protect him. Also back is workhorse back Ralph Webb, who ran for 1,283 yards with 13 TDs last year. Complimenting him is punishing former LB Khari Blasingame who had 10 TDs of his own last year (449 yards). With the top seven receivers back, this group should be more potent than last year’s 23 points and 356 yards per game averages.

The defense, led by Mason, loses its star linebacker in Zach Cunningham along with three other starters. Losing Cunningham hurts as he was a first team All American, which is a rarity for this program. There are some solid returnees like linebacker Oren Burks and safeties Ryan White and Ladarius Wiley, who should help keep the Commodores in the same range numbers-wise as last year.

The schedule however, is not kind. An out of conference date against a tough Kansas State team, with other home games against Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky. Then, there’s road trips to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Ole Miss. Despite the returning talent, I don’t see Vandy pulling enough upsets to get to a bowl. Under 6 wins.

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