What will happen in the SEC East?

In the last few years, the SEC has not only led the country in NFL draft picks by a wide margin – but also in underclassmen who have jumped to the NFL early. Many SEC powers simply re-load, yet this season could be the campaign where the attrition bears fruit. There are no perfect-looking teams in the SEC this year – and that is particularly true in the East, where flawed teams seem prevalent.

What will happen in the East?

FLORIDA

Alphabetically, Florida is first in the East, and they open with a three game homestand against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky that should help the Gators get their sea-legs after their tumultuous 2013 campaign ended on a sour seven game losing streak. The Gators also get back QB Jeff Driskel who was injured and greatly missed during last season’s 4-8 debacle, along with strength at running back. Driskel certainly posed problems for us – particularly with his legs– when healthy in 2012. Florida’s defense – which also was decimated by injuries last year – should be good, despite losses like Dominique Easley, Jaylen Watkins and Ronald Powell. The Gators’ schedule both giveth and taketh away: from the West, they draw at Bama and home versus LSU – toss in an out-of-conference away game at FSU and the Gators have their hands full with top-tier opponents. The schedule is, at least, kind in that critical East games versus SC and Mizzou are at home, while Georgia is at a neutral site. The Gators face only three road SEC games – Bama, UT and us. There are several trap games – most notably their game with us (wedged in-between Georgia and South Carolina.)

The seat could get pretty hot for Will Muschamp if things are not markedly better this year. Florida’s woes last season could be traced to injuries – but also to an impotent offense. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, fresh off some impressive magic at Duke, may lend some innovation and spark to the Gators, but by the end of 2013, the offense was pretty bleak. An effective (or at least credible) passing attack will be the key to success.

Over/under: 7.5 (regular season wins). Prediction: The Gators will open 3-0, and then run a gauntlet of: at Bama, (bye), at UT, LSU, Mizzou, (bye), Georgia, at Vandy, SC. They will be hard-pressed to win more than they lose during this stretch. They likely return to bowl eligibility – but not by much. Pick: Under. Just under. The Gators suffered 17 season-ending injuries last year, so 4-8 was not really reflective of their talent. My Gator insider, Gainesville Josh, tells me the Gators will bounce back big this year; I say, only part-way back.

GEORGIA

Georgia, once again, faces stiff tests early – opening with Clemson, and then (after a bye) at Carolina. If they win both of these games, the Bulldogs could be off to the races. Georgia returns a lot of weapons on offense – receivers, runners, a decent line. The straw that stirs the drink is QB – and there will be a lot of pressure on Hutson Mason going into 2014. He was fairly shaky filling Aaron Murray’s big shoes late last year – his off-season improvement may be the single most decisive factor in crowning an East champion.

The best running threat in the East clearly is Georgia’s tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Both were injured last year and both are back – along with receiving threats Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. On defense Todd Grantham is gone – and DC Jeremy Pruitt appears to be a step up. Much of the Dawg defense has gotten into legal trouble in the off-season, but there is a lot of talent slated to return. With big early season games looming, suspensions could be interesting. From the West, Georgia faces Auburn and at Arkansas – and aside from the tough start, there is no glaring trap game (although back-to-back road games to Mizzou and Arkansas in October are duly noted.)

Over/under: 8.5. Prediction: Georgia’s games at Missouri and versus Florida will decide whether they beat the spread. Over/unders are supposed to be deadly hard – and Georgia is really tricky this year. I am picking over; but if Hutson is not ready, this is a losing proposition.

KENTUCKY

UK returns a lot of starters. The Wildcats also open with UT-Martin and Ohio at home. A 2-0 start could work miracles for confidence (now that Western Kentucky is off their schedule.) Kentucky is one of the few teams in the East that should be improved this year. But improvement on a 2-10 campaign is relative and there is a long way to go. Kentucky draws at LSU and Mississippi State from the West. The schedule gives UK a bye week before their big home game with us – and UK is wedged into our schedule as a colossal trap road game between SC and at Georgia. Circle September 27 in Lexington as a major confrontation – UK clawed and scratched against us last year.

Improved or not, my over/under for UK is 4. Prediction: push. They win 4. This means I think they will win an SEC game this year.

MISSOURI

Missouri is a pure wild card. Like us, they lose a lot of starters, but they re-load with a lot of capable replacements. After losing a senior QB, Mizzou brings back a highly-touted soph qb in Maty Mauk who engineered several victories last season – the main problem is, he loses his three top wide receivers from last year’s line-up. Also, like us, Missouri loses a lot of talent on defense – names like Kony Ealy, Michael Sam and shut-down corner E.J. Gaines.

From the “intangibles” department: Does Mizzou have incriminating, naked photos of the SEC schedule-maker? For the second year in a row, Missouri opens with four out-of-conference games. This year it is the only SEC to enjoy this luxury – all four games are quite winnable, and it is a big advantage. While the team returns the fewest number of starters in the conference, they should get off to a fast start, gain traction and grow more and more confident.

Out of the West, Mizzou draws at A&M and Arkansas. Another break. If they have a deceptively tricky game it could be us – as they face us after grinding through: at SC, (bye), Georgia, at Florida.

Over/under: 7.5. Some have set a higher wins-bar for Missouri, but the Tigers are replacing a lot. I think they will have some growing pains, but the schedule breaks right. Over.

SOUTH CAROLINA

On paper, South Carolina looks like the team to beat in the East – but the games don’t get played on paper. Dylan Thompson is ready to step in at QB now that (the much under-rated) Connor Shaw is gone. Mike Davis is plenty good at running back, too. SC’s O-line returns as a strength as well. The Ol’ Ball Coach is coming off three straight 11-2 campaigns, and his offensive prowess is likely to shine again with this personnel. The issue will be defense. The Gamecocks lose not only Jadeveon Clowney, but also Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles from their defensive line. They lose some solid cornerbacks, too.

The early (September 13) match-up with Georgia could decide the East. The pivotal games with Georgia and Mizzou will be played in Columbia. While SC looks like a front-runner, the problem is: Spurrier’s successful hurry-up offense is much more dangerous with a staunch defense that keeps the pressure up. The key to SC’s success will be whether the Gamecock’s defense will be able to get off the field – and I am not sure they will. We are a potential trap game – wedged in between Georgia and Missouri. (An under-rated East Carolina could also be a trap before Georgia.) At Auburn will be hard for the Gamecocks.

Over/under: 8.5. Given the consistent 11 win seasons, it is hard to pick under here – although Georgia, Missouri, at Auburn, at Florida, Clemson are all tough games. Throw in a trap or two and I have real doubts the Gamecocks will reach double digit wins this year. Still, given Spurrier’s recent track record, I say: over.

TENNESSEE

Tennessee’s schedule – like last year – is tough. Too tough. The opener with a very talented Utah State is already a pressure-filled “must win.” At Oklahoma two weeks later will be extremely difficult. The first five SEC games are: at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Bama, at SC. This is a recipe for an 0-5 conference start that could be back-breaking. Yet, last year UT played Georgia and SC tough (beating SC and taking Georgia to OT) and if the Vols plan to step up, this is the stretch to make a statement.

UT could be better this year – but with no returning starters on the o-line, it is hard to be enthusiastic. Whoever emerges as the QB is going to need the O-line to gel early – or get pretty banged up. No returners on the D-line either. While it appears that Butch Jones has his hands full, smart guys like Phil Steele pick the Vols ahead of us and Kentucky in the East.

Over/under: 5. I will tell you a secret. Mrs. Roanoke is a product of the Tennessee university system (UT Martin – go Skyhawks.) I do not feel the animosity toward UT that many staunch Vandy supporters harbor. With that said: Under. The schedule is really hard. If the opening five SEC games crush the Vols’ spirit, it could get pretty ugly.

VANDERBILT

Finally, Vandy is punctuated by question marks. New coaches, new schemes, new QB, new receivers, new secondary, new kicker. Last week, I provided reasons to be optimistic – but there are also plenty of reasons to curb our enthusiasm.

Our out-of-conference schedule should help, although it looks easier than it is. Temple gave a lot of teams fits last year. The Owls are not bad and we will need focus in our opener, with Ole Miss looming. Old Dominion wedged between at Mizzou and Florida is potentially a speed bump, too. Still, a bowl team should do well with this non-conference slate. Kentucky, as noted above, is another danger game as the Wildcats enjoy a bye prior to playing us in Lexington – and the game falls between brawls with SC and Georgia. On the other hand, we could present as potential trap games for SC (between Georgia and Missouri) and Florida (between Georgia and SC) – and a “gauntlet” game for Mizzou (after SC, Georgia, Florida.) From the West we get Ole Miss and MSU – both should be very good this year. Our byes (we have been a great post-bye team of late) precede Mizzou and MSU. We also catch MSU the week after Bama likely bursts their bubble.

Watching Coach Mason defend Ole Miss’ hurry-up spread will be an early indicator of where this season is headed. If we are improved at stopping the spread (our biggest weakness from last year), we can be a very good football team despite our youth. We square off with Ole Miss and SC early – so a lot of question marks need to turn into exclamation points fast. On offense, our O-line and RBs are poised for a big season – the question is: Will we be able to throw the ball well enough to stop opponents from stuffing the line of scrimmage?

Over/under: 6.5. A key will be SEC “home” games, which include some tough opponents – Ole Miss, SC, Florida and UT come to Nashville. We need to win several of these to get past six wins. Pick: Over.

EDITOR's NOTE Friedman believes the winner of the East will be decided by the outcome of the South Carolina-Georgia game. He is holding off on predicting an East champion until player suspensions (if any) for that game are determined.

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