Looking back at the SEC East

On paper the SEC East finished with three teams bunched together atop the standings, but from the perspective of long-term reality Georgia and Florida appear to have a jump on the competition.

Georgia (10-2, 6-2)

In a nutshell: Efficient Bulldogs keep plowing along

Quarterback David Greene has another season left at Georgia.

When Georgia was forced to start the season with no upperclassmen on its offensive line, no returning starters at linebacker and questions at running back, most people picked the Bulldogs to post a mediocre record and come back to compete for the division in 2004. Georgia had other plans.

The young offensive line came through in a big way, Michael Cooper and Kregg Lumpkin acquitted themselves well at running back and Odell Thurman emerged as a star at linebacker.

Quarterback David Greene continued to work operate the offense well and head coach Mark Richt showed again why he was a superb hire for the program. All Georgia has to do now is not screw this up. The secondary will have to be rebuilt and kicker Billy Bennett replaced, but Georgia has been faced with greater odds and has come through with flying colors.

With the jury still out on Florida's Ron Zook and the recent turmoil surrounding the Tennessee program, it appears as if Georgia and LSU will rule the conference for awhile.

Tennessee (10-2, 6-2)

In a nutshell: Nothing fancy, but the Vols got results

Phil Fulmer and UT finished up with a good record.

For a team that saw its coach run afoul of the fan base after losses to Auburn and Georgia, get dragged into Ronnie Cottrell's lawsuit against the NCAA and generally fail to impress anyone at any point in the season, the Volunteers still finished with a 10-win season. In fact, the Vols would have gone to the Georgia Dome had Georgia fallen to Georgia Tech on the season's final week.

Tennessee has gotten into the practice of winning ugly -- not a bad strategy; Gene Stallings made it work at Alabama for seven seasons.

Looking at next season, Tennessee must first concern itself with replacing quarterback Casey Clausen. While it was questionable whether the team ever fully solidified behind Clausen, his talent was undeniable. Backup C.J. Leak also graduates, meaning Clausen's replacement could be -- Clausen, as in Rick, Casey's younger brother and a transfer from LSU.

Whoever the new quarterback will be, he will be operating behind a new offensive line, and the defense also gets a new look as the secondary and defensive line have to be rebuilt.

It's unlikely the Vols will repeat 2003's performance -- but if the Tennessee fans are as willing to get rid of head coach Phillip Fulmer as they seemed to be following the Georgia loss this year, Fulmer had better put forth his best effort to repeat 2003's record in 2004.

Florida (8-4, 6-2)

In a nutshell: Young Gators show promise for the future

Zook is defying critics from his own school.

While Florida fans continue to grouse about head coach Ron Zook and compare him to the incomparable Steve Spurrier, the fact remains that Zook did a very good job in 2003 and has the Gators positioned for a title run in 2004.

Zook's gutsy decision to bench Ingle Martin and start true freshman Chris Leak at quarterback early in the season paid dividends, both for 2003 and beyond. Florida's biggest challenge in '04 will be replacing cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, who almost single-handedly turned an average Gator defense into a strength.

Florida also protected the football well, finishing in the top 20 nationally in turnover margin. Florida must develop receiver depth and replace a pair of senior starters on the offensive line, but overall, the Gators were a young team in 2003 and should be in good shape for the next year or two.

Zook has also proven to be a formidable recruiter. Steve Spurrier may be coaching in Washington, but the staff that took over in his stead isn't doing a bad job in its own right.

South Carolina (5-7, 2-6)

In a nutshell: Firing of four assistants made for an ominous end to a poor season

"Sweet Lou" fired half his staff this year.

It's hard to say what South Carolina fans should expect in the SEC. The Gamecocks simply do not have a large enough recruiting pool from which to draw if the long-term goal for the program is year-in, year-out competition for the SEC East title.

South Carolina was a dangerous team throughout the season, but finished with four consecutive losses including a 63-17 humbling at the hands of rival Clemson.

The good news for South Carolina is that its team returns mostly intact. The Gamecocks lose only three offensive starters, three defensive starters and placekicker Daniel Weaver. The talent will be there to score a winning record, but the Gamecocks must get more consistent play out of quarterback Dondrial Pinkins and improvement out of its secondary, which has put up disappointing pass defense numbers given its talent level.

Any Lou Holtz-coached team will be dangerous, and this veteran group should be able to give most of its opponents a reason to be worried in 2004. But if South Carolina posts another losing record after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the questions about Lou Holtz's abilities will only get louder.

Kentucky (4-8, 1-7)

In a nutshell: Talented team squandered last opportunity in years for a bowl appearance

Kentucky loses the incomparable Derek Abney.

Lost amid the more highly-publicized collapses at Alabama and Auburn was the collapse of the Kentucky Wildcats, who fell from 7-5 under Guy Morriss in 2003 to 4-8 under Rich Brooks in 2004--with practically the same core players.

While Brooks was committed to installing a new offense -- one that actually contained a fullback -- he may have kept the Wildcats out of a bowl game. And it almost surely will be the last bowl for which Kentucky qualifies for the next few years.

Kentucky is about to feel the crunch of the same scholarship limitations that are affecting Alabama, and the Wildcats go into 2004 having to replace most of its offensive playmakers and a couple of top defensive performers as well.

Shane Boyd should be able to replace Jared Lorenzen at quarterback without much fuss, but finding receivers, developing a consistent running game and finding a way to stop the opposition's running attack are challenges of a different kind.

It will be interesting to see how much leash Brooks is given by the Kentucky faithful.

Vanderbilt (2-10, 1-7)

In a nutshell: Bobby Johnson's rebuilding project taking hold, but will he be around to see the finish?

Johnson has made progress in a tough job.

The biggest mystery in the SEC this season may be how Vanderbilt managed to lose to Mississippi State on October 4.

Vanderbilt did manage to beat Kentucky in the season's next-to-last week, which should give the Commodores something to build on in 2004.

The best news for Vanderbilt is its youth. Only one starter on the entire team -- tight end Nick Getter -- graduated. The entire starting defense will be juniors.

Teams that play Vanderbilt in 2004 and especially 2005 should be in for a fight.

Head coach Bobby Johnson seems like a good man and it would be great if Vanderbilt leaves him alone to work his rebuilding efforts. A winning season is not out of the realm of possibility in the next two years if everything goes well. But patience is what is needed most for Commodore fans, lest the struggles of the last two years go for naught.


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