2015 SEC East preview

For six consecutive seasons now, the SEC East champion has failed to capture the conference championship in Atlanta. If the east is going to shake its “little brother of the SEC” image, then it’s time for one of these programs to step it up. The division is certainly as wide open as it has ever been, and for the second consecutive season, the bulls eye will be on the Missouri Tigers as they attempt to three-peat as SEC east champions.

 

Arkansas v Missouri

1. Missouri

How can you pick against them at this point? The national media continuous to ignore the accomplishments of the Missouri Tigers, a program that was not supposed to be able to even compete in the vaunted SEC. If Mizzou is going to three-peat, they are certainly going to have to answer many questions on the offensive side of the ball.

Quarterback Maty Mauk has shown flashes of greatness and has amassed a robust 14-4 record as a starter, but the junior gunslinger will have to improve on his 52% pass completions as well as his decision making if Missouri is going to continue to make noise in the SEC East. The Tigers will have to rely heavily on its running game behind the solid legs of Russell Hansbrough, as the receiver position will be a huge question mark going into the 2015 season. Only three returning receivers have ever caught a pass in a football game so Gary Pinkel is hoping and praying that on of his young, talented pass-catches will step up.

Defensively, the Tigers will have to replace yet another tenacious defensive end tandem in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, but this could very well be Missouri’s deepest and most talented defense in some time. Linebackers Kentrell Brothers (the teams’ leading tackler from a year ago) and Michael Scherer are proven players and leaders on this team. The secondary should be outstanding as well, considering the high-level play Mizzou has gotten out of returning corners Aarion Penton and Kenya Dennis.

2015 Outlook

10-2 (6-2) 1st place SEC East


"Georgia vs. Kentucky"

2. Georgia

On paper, it would be easy to assume that Georgia should be the favorites to make it to Atlanta this December. The truth is, this is a team that has found a way to squander away the division for two straight seasons and they will have to prove they are worthy of their first trip to Atlanta since 2012.

The Bulldogs are certainly built to win games in the trenches and running back Nick Chubb is one of the best players in the country and a legit Heisman candidate. Will he be able to stay healthy unlike former teammate Todd Gurley? That (along with one of the best offensive lines in the conference) could be the key to Georgia’ season and will likely decide the teams’ fate. The next question: Who is going to play quarterback? The Bulldogs were able to land former Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert in the off-season and Mark Richt seems pretty high on sophomore Brice Ramsey as well.

Defensively, Georgia should have one of the better units in the SEC and the team is certainly hoping that linebacker Leonard Floyd returns to top form after suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery in the off-season. Georgia is loaded at the linebacker position and if the defensive line continues to improve, this could be a very dangerous unit. Georgia will have to navigate a tougher schedule than will the Missouri Tigers so it’s not difficult to see the Bulldogs finishing just short of an SEC East title once again.

2015 Outlook

9-3 (5-3) 2nd place SEC East


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3. Tennessee

Tennessee is certainly a program on the rise in the SEC and with a proven play-maker returning at quarterback in Josh Dobbs, it’s not going to be a shock to anyone to see the Vols make a run towards their first division championship since 2007. SEC pundits are all over Tennessee this year after the team showed flashes in 2014 under second-year head coach Butch Jones.

Undoubtedly, Dobbs presence is going to play a huge role for Tennessee in 2015, but the backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara might be one of the best tandems in the SEC. Experience a the receiver position will be a huge key for this team as players like Pig Hoard, Marquez North and Von Pearson will be called upon to help light up the scoreboard for the Vol offense all season long. The offensive line, which had been maligned in the past, could be a strength this year as Butch Jones is hopeful that youth will give way to dominance this season.

On defense, Tennessee ranked slightly below average in the SEC in most categories in 2014. That will need to improve if a run to Atlanta is going to become a reality, and for Tennessee, this starts up front. Derek Barnett is a rising star at defensive end and if Curt Maggitt is able to return from injury, you will likely see unbelievable sack totals out of this unit.

It looks like Tennessee finally has the horses to bring them to the next level in the SEC East, but they still have a tough road to hoe if they are going to make it to Atlanta. They will have to get through a tough schedule that includes Alabama and Arkansas from the west as well as survive tough trips to Missouri and Florida. Overall, this should be a very solid team, but perhaps one that is not quite ready to win the east.

2015 Outlook

8-4 (5-3) 3rd place SEC East


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4. South Carolina

Coming off a very disappointing 2014 campaign, which featured the Gamecocks’ first losing conference record since 2008, Steve Spurrier’s squad is looking to regain much needed stability.

2015 could be an interesting experiment for the USC offense after losing Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and two very key lineman in A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson. This year, we will likely see the debut of Connor Mitch at quarterback. Mitch has ideal size at 6’3, 220 and had a monstrous high school career in North Carolina. Running back Brandon Wilds will play a huge role in the Gamecock offense this year as he looks to improve on his 570 yard season from a season ago. Junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper is the best skilled position player on the roster and was a first-team All-SEC performer in 2014 after grabbing 69 balls for 1,136 yards.

South Carolina’s defense ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring a season ago, although, unfortunately they also squandered fourth-quarter leads in losses to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. Junior linebacker Skai Moore is the leader of this defense and is South Carolina’s leading returning tackler. There are some questions in the secondary, but Chris Lammons was a bright spot for the team a year ago and will look to continue to improve on his impressive true-freshman season.

Ultimately, South Carolina is at a bit of a crossroads right now. “The Ol’ Ball Coach” is certainly not getting any younger, but he is still one of the top coaches in the country. There is still talent in Columbia, so it will be interesting to see where the team heads in 2015 and beyond.

2015 Outlook

8-4 (4-4) 4th place SEC East


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5. Florida

First year head coach Jim McElwain will attempt to return the Florida program to respectability following two sub-par seasons under Will Muschamp. He will have to work hard to fix an offense that struggled mightily under the previous regime, and finding a reliable quarterback will be the first step.

As spring football came to a close, it appeared that freshman Will Grier has the slight edge on the position. Running back Kevin Taylor will be the focal point of the Gator rushing attack as he looks to build on the 565 yards that he gained a year ago. There is talent at the receiver position and we should all look for Demarcus Robinson to have another solid season. The junior had 817 yards in 2014 despite instability and lackluster play at the quarterback position. A lack of depth and talent on the offensive line, however, could stall any progress coach McElwain is trying to make in year one.

Florida’s strength will once again be its defense. Last year the Gators led the SEC by holding opponents to a mere 4.6 yards per play and they will have the luxery of returning seven starters from that defense, including All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There is seemily a lack of depth at the linebacker position, although, Antonio Morrison is an established star at middle linebacker. Big John Bullard decided to return to school for his senior season which is huge for an already veteran defensive line.

It’s going to take some time for Florida to return to the dizzying heights that the program experienced under Urban Meyer. Florida State has taken over as the top program in the state and Jim McElwain will have his work cut out for him during his first year in Gainesville. Getting back to a bowl game should be the expectation for the 2015 Gators and anything beyond 7 wins will be considered a stunning success.

2015 Outlook

7-5 (3-5) 5th place SEC East


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6. Kentucky

There is good news and bad news for Kentucky fans: The good news is that Mark Stoops and the Wildcats improved their win total last year by three games. The bad news…They still lost their final six contests and missed out on a bowl game once again.

2015 looks like the kind of year where Kentucky can probably return to its first bowl game since 2011, but anything beyond six or seven wins is hard to see for this team right now. Luckily, there is some stability at the quarterback position as Patrick Towles returns in hopes of improving on a solid season a year ago. There is talent at the receiver position and Ryan Timmons is probably going to be Towles’ favorite target this season. Kentucky will need to improve on its 11th place SEC finish in rushing yards if they have any hopes of being a threat this season and running back Boom Williams will be the catalyst of that attack.

The Wildcats had, statistically, one of the worst defenses in the SEC a year ago and they will have to replace standout Bud Dupree. If the defense does not show improvement, then you can be assured that there is no ceiling for this squad beyond six wins. The defensive front will be completely re-tooled although defensive tackle Melvin Lewis could be a huge bright spot. Linebacker will  hopefully be a much improved position and seniors Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan will anchor that unit.

It is extremely important for Mark Stoops to build on last season and get this team to a bowl game. If not then his seat will begin to warm up immensely starting in 2016 as it will be evident that the improved recruiting is not paying off on the football field.

2015 Outlook

6-6 (2-6) 6th place SEC East


NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Vanderbilt

7. Vanderbilt

It didn’t take long for Vandy return to the SEC East cellar after going to three straight bowl games under coach James Franklin. Derek Mason’s first year in Nashville was disastrous as the Commodores failed to win a conference game and struggled to beat both Carleston Southern and UMASS in route to a 3-9 record.

After enduring never ending drama at the quarterback position a year ago, Vanderbilt will be left with either Wade Freebeck or Johnny McCrary to take the snaps in 2015. If there is a bright spot on this offense, it is running back Ralph Webb who notched over 900 yards on the ground a year ago. With precious few play-makers at the receiver position, Webb will literally be carrying the Commodore offense all season long.

Unfortuantely, things aren’t look any better on the defensive end for this team. Vandy’s D gave up an SEC worst 33.3 points per game in 2014 and were 10th in the conference in total yards. If this team is going to gain any footing whatsoever, the defense will have to drastically improve and it could start up front with defensive tackle Adam Butler, who has been a solid performer at that position. Leading tackler Nigel Bowden will be asked to do it all from his inside linebacker position because the secondary looks to be shaky once again.

Derek Mason really needs to win a conference game in 2015 or it could be all she wrote for his tenure at Vanderbilt. James Franklin proved that you can build a winner at this program and there is no reason for the team to lose every bit of the momentum that they took so long to build.

2015 Outlook

3-9 (0-8) 7th place SEC East


Missouri-TigersSEC East Tidbits

  • Best Quarterback: Joshua Dobbs
  • Best Stadium: Neyland Stadium
  • Best Uniforms: Florida
  • Best Coach: Gary Pinkel
  • Coaches On the Hot Seat: Mark Stoops, Derek Mason

 

 

Avatar of Clint Switzer
Full-time sports fan, part-time contributor to society. GASN Sports co-founder, podcast host, filmmaker and writer.

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