Week: Minus OneLast week we looked at Vandy's prospects for 2013 and concluded that a third bowl visit in three years is very much in play. This week we analyze the competition in the rest of the SEC.
Who Will be the Best in the East?
It is a trick question. Because the playing field is lopsided again, schedule-wise – so the "best" team may not actually win the East. From a talent perspective, Georgia looks awfully imposing. With Aaron Murray (photo at right), Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell and a host of other offensive weapons on board, Georgia certainly has the scariest offense in the league. Their defense, however, looked unfocused and undisciplined at times last year (though not against us.) And Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and several other starting defenders are gone. Sometimes, the best defense is an unstoppable offense, which Georgia has.
If Georgia wants to win the SEC-East, they have to beat South Carolina Week 2 at home. It is that simple. The Gamecocks drew the "easy schedule" among SEC-East front-runners this year. Georgia's western opponents are LSU and Auburn; they also play Florida at a neutral site, and catch SC the week after the Dawg's difficult opening match-up with explosive Clemson. This gives Georgia one of the most pressure-packed "opening two weeks" in the country – especially with all the newcomers on defense. This stressful early slate is further complicated by the fact that SC has – somewhat inexplicably – owned Georgia the past three seasons. It is hard to figure SC's 35-7 dismantling of Georgia last year, especially in light of Vandy's games with those teams. I pick Georgia to win the East, which means I pick them to beat the Gamecocks in Athens. But if I were an oddsmaker, SC would have slightly better odds to win the division because their schedule is noticeably easier than Georgia's.
There is a lot of buzz about South Carolina, and for good reason. As far as the schedule is concerned, SC's western foes are Arkansas and Mississippi State – while both Florida and Georgia face LSU. The Gamecocks catch Florida in Columbia– following an SC bye week – and, as noted, they face Georgia after the difficult Clemson opener. SC remains solid on defense. Jadeveon Clowney is probably the most dominant defender in college football – but he will miss several departing stars, including Devin Taylor and D.J. Swearinger, who made his job easier. The offense last year was sluggish at times. And now Marcus Lattimore is gone – and so is his main back-up, Kenny Miles. For that matter, so is receiver Ace Sanders. Lattimore was the entire difference against us last year, and RB Mike Davis will take his place with big shoes to fill. Playmaker-receiver Bruce Ellington, of basketball fame, is also back. A QB controversy is percolating between Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Despite offensive uncertainty, if the Gamecocks beat Georgia in week 2, they will be hard to stop. In fact, if they open the season hot, they could be a force to be reckoned with on a national level. Aside from Georgia, their toughest games are all at home (Florida, Vandy, MSU, Clemson.) Their game with us, immediately following the brawl with Georgia, looms large. Vegas lists SC's over-under as 8.5. That seems a little low to me. SC does, after all, have back-to-back 11 win seasons (including bowls.)
I do not see Florida finishing higher than third this year, given their bone-bruising schedule. Out of conference the Gators face Miami and Florida State (not to mention a decent Toledo team); from the West they catch LSU and Arkansas. In an almost incredible scheduling quirk – no less than four SEC-East opponents have a bye before their game with Florida (Vandy, SC, Georgia, UK.) The Gators will get everyone's best shot, and this year's team is just a step less dominant than the last few teams from Gainesville. Or maybe we all just remember the Sugar Bowl too well? To make matters worse, QB Jeff Driskel had an emergency appendectomy right before fall practice and RB Matt Jones is missing much of camp too. If the Gators survive at LSU, they will, at least, have a margin for error when they play Georgia-Vandy-SC back-to-back-to back in November. It could be a year when two losses can still capture the East – I think Florida has the toughest road to the title, notwithstanding plenty of talent.
Last year, the bottom of the SEC-East was surprisingly inept. Both UT and UK played out the string in uninspired fashion with lame duck coaches. Both schools made excellent hires in the off-season. Still, both new coaches arrived to find the sobering Truth. To be fair, UT's 2012 season was mainly a series of close calls in which they usually came up achingly short. The Vols lost heartbreakers against Georgia, SC and to Mizzou (after James Franklin returned from injury) in four overtimes. The problem is, they also arguably lost the three best players on that 5-7 squad: Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson. The Vols' defense last season was porous enough to rank 108th in the country. Watching a replay of the defensive effort against Troy made me feel like I had to run stairs. To make matters worse, the Vols find a cross-country trip to Oregon on their schedule the week before they play Florida. Their first four conference games are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and at Alabama. This is a recipe, at least, for an 0-4 conference start that could be spirit-breaking. I do expect the Vols will be loaded for bear when they face us – and I respect Butch Jones. He is a good recruiter and a solid game day coach. Just the same, the schedule ensures that Jones will have his hands full in his first year in Knoxville.
Missouri is a team that could surprise. They open with four out-of-conference games they should win. That would bring them to Nashville undefeated and confident. Their QB – the other James Franklin – is a real difference-maker who was running roughshod against us (between the 20's) before getting injured in our game last year. Running QBs were our Achilles' heel in 2012 – and Franklin is a very effective one. Losing Franklin and RB Henry Josey, plus the shock and awe of their first full SEC season, took a toll on the Tigers last year. Expect them to be far more competitive this season. The real question mark will be their defense, where New York Jet Sheldon Richardson will no longer anchor the line. Graduation also hit the secondary and linebacker corps. I have circled our October 5th game with Mizzou as a particularly important turf war in the East. Both teams seek upward mobility and there is really only room for one to achieve it. Last year Mizzou's o-line (and entire offense) had injury issues which were too much to overcome – 2013 looks much brighter in Columbia West. As an added incentive for improvement, if Mizzou is not significantly better, Gary Pinkel may find his seat a little warm.
Kentucky seemed to have potential last year. But it always remained unfulfilled. We shut them out 40-0, and it could have been worse. New coach Mark Stoops needs to do what his predecessor could not – win the early "cupcake" game versus WKU. Last year, the Hilltoppers shocked UK early and the Wildcats never recovered. The Joker Phillips' era was effectively over in mid-September. This year the opener versus WKU pits big name coaches: Stoops versus Petrino. Who saw that coming? If UK can start the season respectably, they might gain the confidence to win a couple of conference games. Most likely, however, they will be underdogs in each conference tilt this season. Maybe 35 point underdogs when Alabama comes calling in mid-October.