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Team Previews

SEC East Preview

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

*Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline

 

 

Finish

Team Projected Record
1 Georgia 12-0 (8-0)
2 South Carolina 7-5 (4-4)
3 Florida 6-6 (3-5)
4 Missouri 6-6 (3-5)
5 Kentucky 5-7 (2-6)
6 Vanderbilt 5-7 (2-6)
7 Tennessee 4-8 (1-7)

 

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****

Georgia Bulldogs


NFL Draft prospect to watch: CB Deandre Baker (Round 1)


How should I think of this team? A slow-motion video of a shark jumping out of the water to eat a seal.


The case for: Nobody this side of Alabama has it better than the Bulldogs right now. Georgia made the national championship game -- and nearly won it -- while starting a true freshman quarterback last year. That title-game defeat came in the midst of a brilliant recruiting run by HC Kirby Smart and staff, one of the best we’ve seen in the last decade. To sum up, they were awesome last year while simultaneously turning into a perpetual motion machine in recruiting. That’s how you set yourself up as a title contender for the long run. It’s only going to get better from here.


They’ve reached that point where things just go right for them. Case in point, they just recently gained Cal WR Demetris Robertson on transfer (immediately eligible on a waiver) because sure, of course they do. As if the Bulldogs needed another former five-star receiver. Robertson joins a quietly stacked receiving corps on an offense which boasts a dark horse Heisman candidate at running back in D’Andre Swift (that dark horse tag will disappear by mid-October) and a still young offensive line which rocked its trial by fire a year ago and returns all kinds of talented depth. Isaiah Wynn’s loss will not be felt. Or it will at least be minimized.


Then there’s Jake Fromm, who passed every test asked of him a year ago. Fromm’s already been given the “game manager” label in some corners. We’ll have none of that talk in our parlor. Fromm was given the freshman treatment early, yes, but Smart, OC Jim Chaney and crew smartly adjusted as he warmed to the starting gig -- remember, Fromm was not practicing with the first team last August, as Jacob Eason was already entrenched. He finished the year hitting on 9.0 YPA, an identical mark to that of Will Grier. In his final seven games of the campaign, Fromm posted an 11/3 TD/INT ratio. We don’t seriously view super frosh Justin Fields as a threat to his starting job at this point. Smart has no reason to move off Fromm barring injury or unexpected ineffectiveness. Assuming UGA can step around possible booby traps from South Carolina (Sept. 8) and LSU (Oct. 13), their schedule is easy street until they play Auburn on Nov. 10. We expect them to be undefeated entering that match-up. We expect them to win that match-up.


The case against: We touched briefly on the running backs room earlier in our effusive praise of Swift, but if Georgia is to stumble, this might be their secret weakness. We’ll reiterate that we love Swift, who managed to impress even in a backfield led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That he fit perfectly in the complementary role as a true freshman was impressive in its own right. With Chubb and Michel no longer in the fold, this will be his show. We think it will be a hit, but defenses will now be gearing their gameplans around him. Sometimes the complementary-to-workhorse transition is not a perfect one. Five-star frosh RB Zamir White will no longer be around to help carry the load this year, either, as he tore his ACL over the weekend. Georgia essentially being Alabama, there’s still plenty of talent we haven’t even mentioned in the running backs room -- Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield, James Cook -- but another injury would make matters uncomfortable. At a certain point, you begin to expose your depth. Again, Smart and company aren’t at that point. But it’s no longer realistically out of play.


The Bulldogs' other soft spot, so to speak, comes in the front seven, with the team working to make up for the loss of linebacking wizard Roquan Smith. Smith’s not the only departure, here -- four of the team’s most productive linebackers from a year ago are no longer on roster -- and UGA could use an emergent name or two in the secondary just to help bolster depth on top of that. With a team like Georgia, we must take a very close reading in looking for flaws. Because this is a squad that probably won’t face a serious test until they meet Auburn in November. Until then, it’s going to be about shoring up small imperfections and looking to maintain health in the interim.


Bovada win total over/under: 10.5


Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 12-0 (8-0 in SEC)

 

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****

South Carolina Gamecocks


NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Deebo Samuel (Round 2)


How should I think of this team? The best outfit of Will Muschamp’s career.


The case for: We’ll always be suckers for a good redemption story, and that’s what has coalesced between South Carolina and Will Muschamp. At the time they found each other in the winter of 2015, Muschamp had just spent a year licking his wounds as defensive coordinator at Auburn after a broken stay at Florida, while South Carolina was reeling in the immediate aftermath of Steve Spurrier’s midseason retirement. The Gamecocks lost to The Citadel just 15 days before Muschamp’s hiring. He immediate set about bringing USC to a bowl in 2016, then upped the ante with an 8-4 record in 2017 capped off by a comeback win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. And all of that was with two of the team’s best offensive players -- WR Deebo Samuel and RB Rico Dowdle -- missing significant time with serious leg injuries.


That Muschamp and staff managed to put such a respectable campaign can largely be credited to a defense which ranked as S&P+’s No. 36 unit. They were especially fierce when tasked with holding down opposing running games, where they ranked No. 17 in the FBS when examined through the lens’ of Bill Connelly’s proprietary statistic. There’s a fair amount of turnover, here, at several levels, but given Muschamp’s tendencies to mix and match his personnel, there’s enough experience waiting in the wings to take over that the Gamecocks should be able to hold steady defensively, especially in the front seven.


So let’s talk Jake Bentley. We should say upfront, he’s not there yet. He wasn’t a year ago, at least. South Carolina ranked 99th in scoring offense, an S&P+ 121st on passing downs, and Bentley threw 12 interceptions (against 18 touchdowns). If you’re bullish on the Gamecocks, though -- like bullish to the point that it has crossed your mind at least three times whether hey, are you sure Georgia has this division? -- then you’re in on Bentley taking that next step. The great thing for South Carolina is that they don’t need the world from their signal-caller. Just a small part of it. USC gets Georgia in Week 2, too. That’s absolutely when you want to get Georgia.


The case against: So let’s talk Jake Bentley. But let’s be serious. He failed to throw for more than 240 yards in nine of 13 games a year ago. He failed to throw for 200 yards in six. Quantum leaps in improvement certainly happen, with a player like Bentley -- who skipped his senior year of high school -- the kind whom would be in a prime position to hit his stride this year. In the same breath, we’re uncomfortable making major pronouncements.


The Gamecocks were a 24-point a game offense a year ago. That’s fine, but that’s our baseline. Even with Samuel and Dowdle back, it’s difficult to view this as a 30-point-a-game offense. And that in turn makes it difficult to take them serious as a realistic contender to take down the Bulldogs. It’s not just an offensive ceiling that brings a clouded vision to bear. It’s a suspect pass defense, too, one which landed as No. 40 on S&P+ last year. That’s not a horrible mark, but in the same breath, it’s probably not going to improve. South Carolina brings back just one starter in the secondary.


Bovada win total over/under: 7.5


Prediction: UNDER


Projected record: 7-5 (4-4 in SEC)


****

Florida Gators


NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Round 3)


How should I think of this team? Time to find out just how badly Jim McElwain broke the Gators.


The case for: Florida dabbled in a dance with Chip Kelly in November, but Chip opted to return to the Pac-12 instead. The Gators then calmly stepped up with what might have been the best coaching hire of the winter -- Kelly included -- in bringing Dan Mullen in from Mississippi State. It’s a hire that made sense on a number of levels. There’s such a value in being able to coach with your back against a wall, and Mullen proved on an extended basis that he could spin relatively lesser recruiting classes into tangible on-field gold. Now he’s got Florida’s resources to work with. One other factor, which we think will make this a smoother stay than Jim McElwain’s -- Gators AD Scott Stricklin worked comfortably with Mullen for years in Starkville, before he headed off to Gainesville.


Mark this down as the third consecutive summer in which we’ve been really stoked for Florida’s sill-position talent. One of these years, we’ll be right. This one? This year we’ll be right? The Gators are out-and-out loaded at running back, especially if Jordan Scarlett can come back from his year off without having missed a serious beat. Scarlett rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns back in 2016, if you need a refresher as to his most recent spot of work. He has some upside as an NFL prospect, and if nothing else, is incredibly fresh after his year in the timeout corner. Scarlett’s joined in the running backs room by the intriguing Malik Davis, who was the team’s best offensive player prior to being sidelined for the season by a knee injury (it was a rough year in Gainesville, guys). Add in Adarius Lemons and Lamical Perine and Mullen’s not lacking for toys to play around with.


It’s not just the returning talent at running back that excites with the Gators’ embryonic new offense, though. This is also an uber-experienced offensive line anchored by left tackle Martez Ivey. It’s not always been the most consistent of groups, but we trust Mullen and staff to have this line playing to its upside. It’s hard to under-stress just how dysfunctional this team was under McElwain -- remember, NINE players were suspended a year ago due to that credit card scam. Mullen might not immediately put up wins in Gainesville, but we at least trust him to run a competent ship. The team should house a productive running attack this year, and the receiving corps is a deep one (we’re anxious for a Tyrie Cleveland breakout). If only there was a quarterback on roster to unlock Mullen’s gameplan.


The case against: After Emory Jones signed with Florida in December a year ago, there was an immediate uptick in energy toward the possibility that Mullen had found his quarterback of the future. He may well have found that future signal-caller, that remains in play, but it’s looking less and less likely that Jones will start this coming season. At least not immediately. Former Gators QB Luke Del Rio passed along earlier this month that Feleipe Franks had the inside edge on the starting job. That’s depressing.


We’ve tried to hold out hope for Franks and his big arm, but the redshirt sophomore failed to hit on even 55% of his passes last season and managed just a 9/8 TD/INT ratio. He passed for more than 200 yards in just one game. Even accounting for the wreckage that was that Florida team, Franks was bad, and even more distressingly, we saw little in his game that indicated any sort of development as the season progressed. We love Mullen as a quarterback whisperer, but this might be a test even his golden tongue is unequipped for. And if the offense remains stagnant -- it ranked as S&P+’s No. 108 unit last season -- this isn’t an elite enough defense to make up for that, even if we do believe that Todd Grantham will get them there eventually. Consider this a stepping stone year for Florida. They might truly blossom next season. A bowl this year would be nice.


Bovada win total over/under: 8


Prediction: UNDER


Projected record: 6-6 (3-5 in SEC)



****

Missouri Tigers


NFL Draft prospect to watch: Drew Lock (Round 3)


How should I think of this team? A broken clock is right twice a day.


The case for: Missouri’s path should not be viewed as a particularly complicated one. It comes down to whether or not he can level up as an overall passer, one who plays consistently -- or relatively so -- regardless of the opponent. Regular readers of Rotoworld’s college football content will know that we have a resident grouch on staff when it comes to Missouri and specifically Drew Lock. That would be Mr. Thor Nystrom, whose railings against Lock this summer have become something of a G-Chat joke in these parts. We’ll dive more deeply into Nystrom’s points (they’re valid, even if he’s shouting them from a street corner while wearing a sandwich board proclaiming Missouri’s downfall) below. But first, the upside (hopeful) for Missouri.


Last season, Lock led the SEC in a slew of offensive categories (touchdowns, passing efficiency, passing yards, total offense, passing yards per game, passing yards per completion, points responsible for) and led the country in both touchdown tosses (44) and yards per completion. Lock, especially if he can level up in his development, has the on-paper upside to make serious noise in the division, rattle a few cages from the big boys. If he is, indeed, hitting his developmental stride, what to look for on Gameday would be more crisp decision-making. Lock was picked off 13 times a year ago.


The NFL-er to-be will have all sorts of skill-position talent to work with, too, with a top wideout in Emanuel Hall, a top tight end in Albert “Aquaman” Okwuegbunam, and an emerging runner in sophomore Larry Rountree and the more established Damarea Crockett. Serving as a shield to all of this will be one of the best offensive lines in the country, one which has five starters from a year ago back and ready to do battle. If Lock can’t make dents against the bigger competition on his schedule, that’s going to be on Drew Lock. Just about everything around him is set.


The case against: The essence of Nystrom’s vehement opposition to Lock’s hype is that he has never shown that he can step up against the better competition in the conference. To whit, 33 of Lock’s 44 touchdown passes a year ago came against Missouri State, Kentucky, Idaho, UConn, Florida and Arkansas. Another four came against Tennessee, which did have a strong pass defense last season, but was also a flaming wreck as a team. To put that in perspective, Missouri State plays in the FCS, Kentucky is perpetually mediocre, Idaho does not even exist in the FBS anymore, UConn is UConn and Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee all have new coaches.


The schedule’s not nearly as palatable this year, with Phil Steele ranking it as the 27th-toughest in the country. It is particularly so upfront. By the time Missouri is midway through October, they’ll have already played Wyoming (possessing of one of the best defenses in the Group of 5), Purdue (road), Georgia, South Carolina (road) and Alabama (road). The frontloading of the schedule becomes even more problematic if Lock is unable to make the immediate transition to new OC Derek Dooley’s pro-style system after lighting the world on fire in Josh Heupel’s spread a year ago. Such as a struggle in transition would not be surprising in the least, especially given what we know about Lock’s sometime-issues with the more cerebral parts of the game. Dooley’s hire, on the whole, was one which looked ill-advised at the time and only feels more and more so as the season nears.


Bovada win total over/under: 6.5


Prediction: UNDER


Projected record: 6-6 (3-5 in SEC)


****

Kentucky Wildcats


NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Josh Allen (Round 1)


How should I think of this team? The pieces are better than the sum of parts.


The case for: The case for the Wildcats in the estimation of star tailback Benny Snell would be star tailback Benny Snell. Kentucky’s workhorse made headlines at SEC Media Days by proclaiming himself to be the best running back in the conference. Such boasts make for fun offseason chatter, but rather than pull on the threads here to unravel his case, let’s just say that if Kentucky’s going to have a successful season, it’s going to require another special season from Snell. He rushed for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago and the Wildcats still only managed to crack .500 due to bowl play.


There’s more to this offense beyond Snell, though, as even water-treading SEC teams benefit in recruiting from existing in the conference and HC Mark Stoops has gathered a degree of exciting athletic talent. The versatile Lynn Bowden immediately made his foes feel his freshman wrath with 869 kick return yards, a mark which paced the conference. Bowden made less of an impact on offense, but the return prowess is a flashy notice of his upside. You’ll also see him working as a receiver and runner this season upcoming, though there’s still work to be done on both those developmental fronts. The Wildcats also boast a representative offensive line one which boasts multiple former four-star recruits.


Assuming Snell can avoid his up/down tendencies from a year ago -- he was held under 70 yards rushing in three of the first seven games -- this Wildcats team has the potential for big things on the ground. There’s no word as of yet as to the team’s starting quarterback (it’ll be one of JUCO transfer Terry Wilson or redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak) but so long as they can get just a little from the passing game, there’s reason for slight optimism with this offense.


The case against: “Slight optimism.” That’s cute. The reality is that even with Snell, this was still an average-at-best offense last season, finishing 69th in S&P+ with a rushing mark which ranked a ho-hum 59th. The best running back in the SEC just doesn’t get you it used to, apparently. That’s underwhelming, but perhaps even more concerning, it’s unclear just how steep a drop they could be in for at quarterback. Stephen Johnson emerged from the ashes of the Tragedy of Drew Barker to prove an admirable dual-threat quarterback, one who gave the Wildcats some level of consistency -- if not true upside -- at the position. UK finished with S&P+’s 43rd-ranked passing attack a year ago. He’s no longer on roster. Our worry, what keeps us staring at the ceiling at night, is what the offense becomes if neither Wilson or Hoak can at least somewhat smoothly take over for Johnson. Snell’s had enough downturns in his productive career that we don’t know if he can hold steady without a passing game to help ease his burden.


Should the offense miss a beat without Johnson -- very much in play -- the defense isn’t up to snuff to make up for that. We’ll be keeping our eye on LB Josh Allen (UK is generally good for an interesting defensive prospect or two), but beyond him and another few pieces, there’s little reason for true positivity, here. Kentucky surrendered 251 yards passing on average a year ago (103rd in the country). While they return five leading tacklers from the secondary, we don’t view that as a good thing. This was an experienced unit even as it proved ineffective a year ago. That those juniors are now seniors has limited value.


Bovada win total over/under: 5.5


Prediction: UNDER


Projected record: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC)


****

Vanderbilt Commodores


NFL Draft prospect to watch: CB JoeJuan Williams (Round 4)


How should I think of this team? Bizarro Vandy


The case for: It’s always a good time when a previously inept offense suddenly levels up (for whatever reason). We saw it with Wake Forest and Boston College last season. Also, Vandy, with Kyle Shurmur breaking through after posting a 9/10 TD/INT ratio in 2016. He improved considerably with a 26/10 mark for the past campaign while additionally posting noticeable improvements in both completion percentage (54.4-percent up to 57.9) and YPA (6.4 to 7.4).


Your mileage on Shurmur may vary -- we like him to more or less hold steady -- but even if Shurmur has essentially hit his ceiling, that’s plenty respectable to hang depending on the opponent. He’s got help, too, both upfront -- starting experience that goes two-deep -- and in the backfield, with Ke’Shawn Vaughn transferring over from Illinois as he looks to regain the form that allowed him to run for 723 yards as a true freshman back in 2015. Vaughn’s not going to match the steady-but-boring work of Ralph Webb, but at the same time, he provides a touch more offensive giddy-up than his workman like predecessor.


Shurmur and crew have a workable schedule, so long as they can weather matters early. They’ll be facing off with South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in the first half of campaign, but that October 13th showdown with the Gators is the last truly problematic contest in which they’ll be taking part. As the autumn begins to frost over to winter, Vandy closes up its schedule against (in sequence) Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee. There should be a few asterisks on that run of game, but we’ll leave those to our grouchier, less caffeinated self in the case against Vandy. We’ll just wrap by saying that we’re encouraged for a bowl berth.


The case against: Since our irritatingly more caffeinated self closed on the schedule, that’s a fair enough place to start. That apparently cushy final wrap to the year sees the first three contests -- against Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri -- coming on the road. Followed up by the offensive juggernaut at Ole Miss. There’s room to foul up there. More concerning than the schedule itself, though, is that we saw significant drop-offs from the defense a year ago. Significant, and we fear that there’s a lack of components in place to right this ship before it crashes onto its side.


In 2016, Vanderbilt ranked 35th in the country in surrendering an even 24 points a game. That mark jumped to 88th in the country in 2017, with opponents dropping essentially a touchdown on average more versus the Boilermakers than they did the previous year. They were particularly atrocious against the run (101st) and could actually devolve just a bit more, there, with an undersized-to-begin-with line losing both of its starting nose tackles and two productive linebackers from a year ago, with NFLer Oren Burks the team’s most significant loss from the defensive side. We still trust Mason’s chops as a defensive coach, but in a sign of just how much he’s seeing the writing on his own defensive wall, he dropped “defensive coordinator” from his duties this offseason, hiring out for longtime NFL assistant Jason Tarver. That, as much as anything, tells you how he views last year’s slide.


Bovada win total over/under: 4.5


Prediction: OVER


Projected record: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC)


****

Tennessee Volunteers


NFL Draft prospect to watch: DE Jonathan Kongbo (UDFA)


How should I think of this team? Gone from underachieving to six feet under.


The case for: For so many years, we endured months of offseason hype emerging out of Knoxville, only to be greeted with limp season after limp season. The culmination of this poorly constructed Applebee’s meal came in HC Butch Jones’ midseason firing last autumn. The Vols then embarked on a most absurd coaching search, which saw names ranging from Jon Gruden to Greg Schiano to Mike Leach batted around/down before they finally received a “Yes” from Alabama DC Jeremy Pruitt. All things considered, we can roll with that. The last defensive coordinator to step to it from coordinating defenses in Tuscaloosa to a head-coaching gig was Kirby Smart, and that’s worked out OK for the Bulldogs.


Unlike Smart -- who took over an already-basically-there Georgia team -- Pruitt faces a considerably more difficult immediate task. Tennessee’s biggest strength is one which lines up well with an SEC that could see a notable uptick in passing thanks to the emergence of a number of talented signal-callers (Jordan Ta’amu, Tua Tagovailoa, Drew Lock, Jake Fromm). That strength? The Vols were sneaky-brilliant against the pass in 2017, posting an S&P+ rating of 13th while holding the opposition to an average of 161.7 yards through the air. That ranked third in the country behind only UTSA and Michigan. The team remains strong in the secondary, especially at safety, and it’s no longer going to be overseen by Butch Jones and Brady Hoke. A little competency goes a long way for a unit that was already good.


All that we need is a little spice from the offense. Pruitt is not yet decided between Stanford transfer Keller Chryst and the previously-rostered Jarrett Guarantano, but we’re less interested in the quarterback battle -- the former had one hot stretch at Stanford to close out 2016 but has otherwise been a disappointment while the latter was most notable a year ago for his tendency to be sacked on repeat -- and more in the running backs (notably Ty Chandler) and receivers (notably on-again, off-again dance partner Jauan Jennings and 6-foot-4, 257-pound JUCO transfer TE Dominick Woods-Anderson). Pruitt wants to run run run, and he doesn’t have a quarterback to pass pass pass, anyway. Woods-Anderson could see looks a-plenty in the short-to-intermediate range.


The case against: It’s all well and good that Tennessee can keep the pass in front of them, but their stalwart secondary far too often found itself tackling approaching running backs who had broken through the front seven. While they ranked No. 3 on average versus the pass, the deal they made at the crossroads for immaculate DB play came with a horrifying cost to the run defense, which ranked 126th in the FBS a year ago. That’s one slot worse than ECU.


And Pruitt might want to build an Alabama lite -- eventually the entire SEC is just going to be Alabama lite -- but we’re worried that even for Chandler’s upside, there’s just not going to be enough of a push up front. Outside of star T Trey Smith last year, Tennessee’s line didn’t do much for John Kelly and crew, with the team’s offense failing to make the grade on S&P+, where they ranked just 87th on the ground (a scary 125th in stuff rate). There’s depth on the line. We just don’t view it as quality depth. Even Smith can no longer be considered a guarantee, as he was cleared earlier this month to take part in camp after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs over the winter. How Pruitt’s first year ends in Knoxville pining for Greg Schiano: The offense line fails to improve, Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst remain pumpkins, Chandler can’t find running lanes, nobody can get Jennings the ball, lack of cornerback experience cripples an otherwise stout secondary and the Volunteers finish with three or four wins and no clear direction.


Bovada win total over/under: 5.5


Prediction: UNDER


Projected record: 4-8 (1-7 in SEC)

Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.