The last week of May marks the arrival time for college football magazines. Athlon, Street and Smith, and several other periodicals are stocked at Kroger stores across the Commonwealth. All will proclaim to be the most accurate predictors of all things college football.
I’m still eagerly awaiting Phil Steele’s dissertation. Steele’s work fits my statistic-driven wheelhouse. Annually I’ll buy two of his books; one to mark up with highlighters that also features several underlined factoids. The other is used as a desktop reference. Respect.
The SEC East has been dissected in every format imaginable. I find it difficult to prognosticate the outcome of football games that are 90+ days out. Way too much time for teams to incur personnel losses with the dog days of summer probations-suspensions on the horizon. We’ll have a better grip on the situation following Media Days in mid-July.
So, here’s my way too early and abbreviated overview of the SEC East (In alphabetical order):
Strengths: All in the foot; kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend are excellent. The duo is perhaps the Gator’s most potent weapons.
Concerns: First year defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has to replace eight starters, many of which are now in the NFL. Freshman QB Felipe Franks will be charged with upgrading an offense that absolutely gasped in November.
Summary: Jim McElwain is one heck of a football coach. He could have his hands full in 2017 but don’t count him or the Gators out of contention.
Strengths: Personnel. The Dawgs are flat loaded. I mean flat out loaded.
Concerns: Must replace 3 starters off an underachieving offensive line. Sophomore QB Jacob Eason is poised to soar. TE’s Isaac Nouta and Jeb Blazevich are elite pass catchers. But, UGA lacks a go-to, downfield threat at receiver. Can Georgia effectively stretch the field in order to take the pressure off two, alpha-dog RB’s in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel? We’ll see in September.
Summary: Ten extremely talented starters return from a 2016, Top 20 defense. Two of the best running backs in the country call Athens home. Georgia could be a tough out and should be the preseason pick to win the East.
Strengths: Lots of starters coming back.
Concerns: Defensive line depth and explosiveness. Stoops also has to replace two homerun offensive threats.
Summary: Winnable but contested road games will define the 2017 Wildcats: @ Southern Miss, @South Carolina, @Vanderbilt, @Mississippi State.
Strengths: Plenty offensive skill players put up huge numbers in a wide-open system could light up scoreboards. This group includes the conference’s top rated-returning passer in QB Drew Lock, the 5th ranked rusher RB-Damarea Crockett, and the league’s leading receiver-J’Mon Moore.
Concerns: Defense. Bad defense. The Tigers allowed 302 yards per game in 2015. 2016 saw an increase of 177 yards in the same category. Astonishing. And, it lost veteran defenders at critical positions.
Summary: Barry Odom limped to a 4-8 record in year one. Not much on paper indicates that his defense will be much improved. The Tigers can win games, but it will have to do so in Big 12 fashion.
Strengths: Momentum and youthful, rising stars at offensive skill positions. QB Jake Bentley started 7 games a year ago and completed 65% of his passes.
Concerns: Defensive personnel losses and inconsistency.
Summary: Which end-of-season, 2016 game will act as a precursor for the 2017 Gamecocks: demoralizing loss vs. Clemson (56-7) or an encouraging performance in a loss against South Florida (46-39)? I’m not as sold as many are on Carolina, but Will Muschamp surely overachieved in year one.
Strengths: UT’s offensive line returns 7 players that have logged time as a starter. Experience and talented offensive linemen will be necessary to pull along other question marked position groups.
Concerns: Who’s going to score the touchdowns? Gone are its QB, 2 RB’s, and its top receiver. An unsettled quarterback situation going into fall camp certainly won’t expedite the situation.
Summary: Butch Jones failed to capitalize on less than stellar East with a loaded roster. Back-to-back nine-win seasons would be a blessing on most campuses. However, a year-five rebuild may ignite the head Vol’s seat.
Strengths: Coach Derek Mason will field a depth chart compiled of juniors and seniors after getting a justified raise and contract extension.
Concerns: Replacing LB Zach Cunningham. Cunningham is arguably VU’s best all-time defender.
Summary: RB Ralph Webb returned. QB Kyle Shurmer finished 2016 with a flare. A bad showing (41-17 loss) vs. NC State in its bowl game is the only reason I’m not more bullish on Vanderbilt. The Commodores have a chance to be pretty darn good in 2017.
What does all this mean?
The SEC East is wide open even with Georgia’s pro-filled depth chart. Again, lots can happen between the first of June and September openers.
UP NEXT: My theory that SEC East RB’s NLF decisions are the most impactful personnel storyline of the offseason.