The three-team fight for supremacy in the SEC East should be as entertaining a race as any in college football this year. You can make a good argument for any of Georgia, Florida or South Carolina to win the division.
You can make a good argument that any of the three could beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on December 7, and from there, the recent history of this conference tells you that it’s likely any of the three could move on and play for a national championship.
Georgia won the division last year. South Carolina won it in 2010 and won 11 games a year ago. Florida returned to prominence under Wil Muschamp and reached the Sugar Bowl, as well as being the one program in the group with a recent history of national championships. Today’s college football coverage gives a breakdown on how all three look coming into 2013…
THE BIG THREE
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some restocking to do at the skill spots, after the devastating knee injury to Marcus Lattimore in the latter part of last season and the departure of their leading receivers. But with a veteran offensive line and senior quarterback Connor Shaw having been through the SEC wars, Steve Spurrier has a good base to build from.
It’s the defense that carries this team, with heralded defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leading the defensive front and the secondary being filled with experience. South Carolina can get pressure on the quarterback and cover. It will up to some new linebackers to help in plugging the run.
Georgia: Aaron Murray is at the trigger of what might be the best offense in the country. Already an explosive unit, Murray will be in his third year as starter, and Todd Gurley is a top running back. There are four starters back on the offensive front.
The Bulldogs were not a tough defensive team a year ago, something that became apparent when Alabama outhit them in the second half of the SEC title game. I suppose that means rebuilding the front seven isn’t bad, but putting a group of underclassmen into this conference’s wars means short-term pain. The secondary is also rebuilding, and it’s likely highly touted freshman free safety Tray Matthews will get playing time right away.
Florida: Of the three contenders, the Gators are the least set at quarterback. Jeff Driskell is back, but he’s not as explosive as Murray, nor as tough and versatile as Shaw. In reality, Florida’s signal-caller is kind of boring. That works when you play great defense and run the ball, but running back Mike Gillislee is gone, the offensive line is young, as is the defensive front seven.
The Gators will be strong in the secondary, something that can at least help them match up with Georgia. And it’s worth noting that Florida doesn’t have to play either of their two key rivals until November, when Muschamp will have had time to get the new faces in place.
THE ROAD TO ATLANTA
I see Florida as a step behind in this race, and if that’s true, that means this race is going to have an early frontrunner. The South Carolina-Georgia game in Athens will be on September 7, the second game of the year for both teams. Both are jumping right in with preparation—rather than fatten up with an easy opener, the Dawgs will go to Clemson and the Gamecocks will host North Carolina.
There’s a certain philosophical divide in any debate over Georgia and South Carolina, namely, whether you like offense or defense. I like defense, and that leans me in the Gamecocks’ direction. But I also consider South Carolina’s offense to be above average, while I’m not sold that Georgia’s defense is the same.
South Carolina’s program has been a slow and steady rise ever since Lou Holtz arrived in town 14 years ago and eventually gave way to Spurrier. This is now a consistently competitive team, and it’s time for them to take the next step—to make a major bowl game and put themselves in the national title discussion on the first Saturday in December. I’m betting they do it.
THE BOWL CONTENDERS
Vanderbilt leads up the next tier in the conference, which would be teams that have no realistic shot at Atlanta, but could be the kind of spoiler that might spring an upset on one of the top three, and at the very least, put together an eight-win season.
The Commodores have become a winning program in the two years under James Franklin, and while they have to replace quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy, they have an experienced offensive line and a senior-laden lineup on defense.
Tennessee is starting a new era under Butch Jones, and I’m not sold that Jones can get the Vols back to where they want to be—which is in the championship discussion. But the former Cincinnati boss can get them back to a bowl game, and this is another team with a veteran offensive line and defense that will carry the load while a new quarterback is found. The new signal-caller will be able to grow with four-star freshman receiver MarQuez North
Missouri had a rough go of it in their first year in the SEC, winning just two conference games, but they still won five overall. The offense will be interesting—James Franklin is a versatile, albeit somewhat inconsistent quarterback. And there are two possible breakouts at wide receiver and tight end. Dorial Green-Beckham on the flank, and Sean Culkin at TE were top-flight recruits two years ago and ready to take their places in the lineup.
The defense for Mizzou will be no less interesting, with a lot of new starters, but the experience is on the front line, and the back seven has seniors stepping into starting jobs. In the end Missouri being “interesting” probably amounts to an up-and-down six-win year, which at least gets them back into a bowl.
Mark Stoops has taken over the Kentucky program. Ten of his 22 starters will be sophomores. The trenches will be stocked with an underclassmen. That’s not a formula for success in a physically tough league.