It’s hard to believe that we are six years removed from an eastern division team winning the prestigious SEC conference. Since the Florida Gators won the SEC in 2008, Auburn, Alabama and even LSU have all found themselves dancing in the confetti following conference title wins.
The SEC East is loaded with talent in 2014, but the question remains: is there a team in the east that is capable of capturing the hardware in Atlanta this year?
10-2 (6-2) SEC 1st place SEC East
2. Georgia. The Bulldogs were riddled with injuries during a disappointing 8-5 2013 campaign and coach Mark Richt knows that it’s time for Georgia to fight back to the top of the SEC East. Despite losing quarterback Aaron Murray to graduation, Georgia’s offense seems to be in great shape under former Murray backup Hutson Mason. Mason threw for nearly 1,000 yards while playing for an injured Murray a year ago and with players like Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and receiver Malcom Mitchell all returning, things are certainly looking up in Athens, GA. Defensively, Georgia must improve as they boasted just the 10th ranked scoring defense in the SEC (giving up 29 points per game). The linebacker position should be a huge strength anchored by players like Ramik Wilson and Leonard Floyd. The secondary will also need to improve as they ranked ninth in 2013 in both pass defense and third-down defense. The schedule will be salty as the Bulldogs will host an early-season non-conference game against Clemson, in addition to going on the road to Missouri and hosting the defending SEC Champions Auburn.
10-2 (6-2) 2nd Place SEC East
3. Missouri. The defending SEC East Champions should factor into the mix once again in the division race despite returning only eight starters from a year ago. Quarterback Maty Mauk has generated a lot of pre-season hype based off his 1,071 yard, 11 touchdown performance a year ago while playing for an injured James Franklin. The biggest question mark for the Tigers is at the receiver position where they must replace 73% of last year’s production. The running game should be pretty solid despite the loss of Henry Josey as Mizzou returns two 600+ yard rushers from last season in Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough. On defense, Missouri will certainly miss pass rushers like Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and the presence of linebacker Andrew Wilson although Shane Ray and Markus Golden may well be the best pass-rushing tandem in the SEC. The schedule should keep Mizzou in the mix as they avoid Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss from the west and will play Arkansas and Texas A&M.
9-3 (5-3) 3rd place SEC East.
4. Florida. There is no doubt that the 2013 Florida Gators were a complete dumpster fire under coach Will Muschamp as they finished the year just 4-8. Muschamp enters 2014 on the hot seat as he tries to position the Gators back into SEC East contention. The return of quarterback Jeff Driskel should help the hapless Florida offense and his running ability should bolster the running game which ranked 13th in yards per game last season. A difficult schedule (including LSU and Alabama from the west) is going to make Florida’s climb to the top a strenuous one indeed although the defense should keep them in most games. Their secondary ranked 1st in the conference a year ago in pass defense and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III might be the best overall player at his position in the country. Look for Florida to be a bowl-eligible team in 2014 but will anything less than 9 or 10 wins satisfy Gator Nation?
7-5 (4-4) 4th place SEC East.
5. Tennessee. Head coach Butch Jones is certainly winning recruiting battles for the Vols as he enters his second season in Knoxville, but fans are wondering when the recruiting will lead to on-field success. For Tennessee, becoming bowl eligible needs to be the goal in 2014 and the quarterback position will go a long way towards determining their fate. Riley Ferguson, Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs could all play a factor, but settling on “the guy” is very important for Butch Jones. The Vols should have as stout running game led by backs Marlin Lane and incoming freshman sensation Jalen Hurd but they must improve as a team offensively where they ranked 94th in scoring offense nationally a year ago. Defensively, junior Brian Randolph will be counted on to lead a young secondary although the linebacker position should be the defenses’ strength. Tennessee will have to find some home wins out of Florida, Missouri, or Kentucky because the Vols have some severe road tests against the likes of Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina.
6-6 (3-5) 5th place SEC East.
6. Vanderbilt. The Commodores lost successful coach James Franklin to Penn St. offseason and first-year coach Derek Mason may have his hands full as he tries to keep the Dores winning this year and beyond. There is some quality talent on the roster, but replacing receivers like Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause will be very difficult. Vandy’s running game should be its’ offensive strength as Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow combined for over 1,000 yards rushing in 2013. Defensively, the team must somehow replace Kenny Ladler and Andrew Hal in the secondary which could be daunting. The Commodores moved to a 3-4 defense this offseason, which should allow nose guard Vince Taylor to flourish. Vanderbilt should be a fringe bowl team in 2014 which could set the course for future success under coach Mason.
(6-6) 6th place SEC East
7. Kentucky. The Kentucky Wildcats have not won an SEC game in two years, but there is reason for hope under second-year head coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats were much more competitive last year during SEC play and a solid recruiting class could pay dividends early on. Stoops is expecting big things from true-freshman quarterback Drew Barker, who could wind up starting this season. Running backs Braylon Heard and Jojo Kemp should anchor a solid running game and could take some of the pressure off of a freshman quarterback. On defense, Kentucky returns eight starters although losing Avery Williamson and Donte Rumph are huge losses. Expect for UK to be a better-coached team in 2014 and for the squad to squeak out an SEC win somewhere along the way as the program tries to climb out of the cellar.
4-8 (1-7) 7th place SEC East.
SEC East Tidbits
Most devoted fans: Georgia
Most attractive co-eds: Georgia
Best campus: Tennessee
Richest alumni: Vanderbilt
Best stadium atmosphere: Florida
Best Mascot: Missouri (Truman the Tiger)
Best tailgating: Florida