For quite some time the SEC East has been considered the lesser of the league’s two divisions. Some go as far as labeling it the SEC LEast. Week one matchups offer several opportunities to improve upon or maintain its reputation within the conference and all of college football.
Two neutral site games vs. Power 5 opponents are accompanied by one home matchup against a 1AA foe as well as two road games and two at home vs. Group of 5 opponents.
Let’s take a look:
Florida vs. Michigan, Arlington TX | September 2nd
Michigan is favored by 3. The Gators must find a resemblance of an offense with a new quarterback while replacing 8 defensive starters. Florida’s kicker and punter are excellent; that should make Steve Spurrier proud. Redshirt freshman QB Feleipe Franks or incoming grad-transfer Malik Zaire will compete for the starting job in fall camp. Zaire makes three grad-transfer quarterbacks to call Gainesville home in a very short period of time. At some point in time continually bringing in mercenaries at the team’s most vital position could cause friction.
Michigan was also hurt by attrition. It lost 17 starters, 10 from the defense. This will be a contest of the unknowns in both personnel and team quality. Both teams are talented and extremely well coached. Annually Florida reloads defensively. New coordinator Randy Shannon may not have an overabundance of experience, but his unit will possess elite talent across the board. The Wolverines should be refreshed and bonded from its Italy vacation but may lack the athletes to keep up with the speedy Gators.
Florida Loss Probability: Low
Kentucky at Southern Miss | September 2nd
Kentucky is favored by 12. Former Wildcat offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson put it to his former team a year ago. In a game that was defined by two distinct halves, Southern Miss won the contest by dominating momentum, tempo, and the scoreboard in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Last year’s game was no fluke. Southern Miss out-played, out-toughed, and out-ran the home team.
USM will be without the services of longtime starting quarterback Nick Mullens. But, it returns RB Ito Smith. You’ll read this many more times this summer; Ito Smith is a bad, bad man that must be taken seriously. Reminder, he rushed for 173 on the Cats in 2016. Don’t be logo fooled, Smith will be one of the better running backs that UK will face all year.
The Wildcats are nearly a two-touchdown favorite for the 4:00pm kickoff in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It’s going to be nasty hot which could benefit the team with the most line-of-scrimmage depth. Kentucky’s offensive line has a dominant advantage in this category. Defensively, not so much which could be a cause for concern; see the Ito Smith and 2016 outcome reference above.
Golden Eagle fans have this game circled on the scheduled as it marks a shot to knock off a SEC team at home. Mark Stoops should have no problem motivating his team after last year’s second half meltdown. September 2nd will be a heated game, and I’m not talking about the 100-degree temperature.
Kentucky Loss Probability: Low-Medium
Georgia vs. Appalachian State, September 2nd
Georgia is a 14-point favorite. The game is between the hedges and the Dawgs have a potent offensive that should be able to score touchdowns in bunches. Only question on that side of the football is offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s ability to effectively utilize the plethora of talent under his control. Chaney’s play calling a year ago baffled fans, media, and players alike. Here’s a foolproof game plan; hand the football off to RB’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Then, use future NFL QB Jacob Eason to throw play action passes to elite TE’s Isaac Nauta and Jeb Blazevich. Game over. UGA is arguably the most talented team in the East and returns 10 defensive starters off a Top 20 unit a year ago.
Appalachian State is favored to win the Sun Belt Conference. It put a scare into Tennessee a year ago as the Volunteers required an overtime period to win 20-13 in Knoxville. Expect the fearless Mountaineers to put up a valiant fight.
Georgia Loss Probability: Low
Missouri State at Missouri | September 2nd
Spread not available. Missouri State (1AA) went 4-7 in 2016. The Tigers may score 80 in this one with South Carolina coming to town the next week.
Missouri Loss Probability: Extremely Low
South Carolina vs. North Carolina State, Charlotte | September 2nd
North Carolina State is favored by 4. South Carolina is the trendy pick to contend for a division title. The Gamecocks will have their collective hands full in Charlotte. NC State returns 11 starters, 8 of which are on defense. The Wolfpack also sports one of the better defensive lines in college football.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley impressed as a true freshman. He’ll be surrounded by 8 returning starters that include talented and fast skill players that have the potential to light up a scoreboard. Unlike the vast majority of media types, I’m yet to be completely sold on USC. But, I will become a complete believer in the Fighting Muschamps if Carolina consistently blocks the Wolfpack defensive line that’s led by Bradley Chubb (22 TFL, 10.5 QB sacks).
South Carolina Loss Probability: High
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee State | September 2nd
Vanderbilt is favored by 9 against a dangerous MTSU team. Two questions surround this neighborly grudge match: 1. How will the Vanderbilt defense cope without the services of All American LB Zach Cunningham? 2. Will MTSU QB Brent Stockstill be fully recovered from a February shoulder surgery?
MTSU beat Missouri 51-45 in Columbia a year ago. Ironically it now has former Mizzou Tiger Walter Brady leading its pass rush. Vanderbilt has 17 players on its depth chart that saw extensive action in 2016. QB Kyle Shurmer and RB Ralph Webb led the Commodore offense to a strong finish to the 2016 regular season before falling flat in a 41-17 loss to NC State in the Independence Bowl. I’d be more confident in the Blue Raiders if Stockstill was completely healthy.
Vanderbilt Loss Probability: Medium
Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech, Atlanta | September 4th
Tennessee is a 4-point favorite. The Champions of Life trophy wasn’t exactly the prize that Volunteer fans coveted going into 2016. Head coach Butch Jones has many sets of shoes to fill after several of his building block stars moved on. For beginners, he has to find a new starting quarterback to fill a void vacated by Josh Dobbs. Furthermore, the program’s all-time leading sacker Derek Barnett now plays his football on Sundays.
Georgia Tech finished last fall much like as senior led team should. The Yellow Jackets beat its archrival (Georgia) then went on to win the Taxslayer Bowl with a victory over Kentucky. Coach Paul Johnson must also find a replacement for his starting quarterback as Justin Thomas finally graduated. Seems as if he’d led that option attack for a decade. But, don’t fret my cut blocking friends, several key offensive pieces are coming back to Atlanta including Clinton Lynch and Dedrick Mills.
Butch Jones will be joined by six new assistant coaches and a bus load of new non-coaching coaches (aka support staff) to prepare for Johnson’s perplexing rushing attack in the offseason. A Tech win would give it three consecutive victories over SEC East opponents (Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee).
Tennessee Loss Probability: Medium
It’s June. Suspension and Dismissal Season hasn’t gotten into full swing just yet. Fall camp injuries will also play a factor in projections changing from now until September. Mizzou is the only team that will be serving dessert in its opener. The other six programs best be on their toes in order to quiet the SEC Least detractors.