Unbelievably, it has been since 2008 since a team from the SEC East has brought home a conference championship. Despite the recent rise of former powers like Florida and Tennessee, it remains questionable as to whether one of these programs will be able to slay one of the giants from the west (likely Alabama or LSU) in Atlanta this season.
The Volunteers have been slowly on the rise since Butch Jones was hired back in late 2012. Tennessee were the popular pick by many pundits to win the SEC East a year ago but a couple puzzling losses left the Vols out of the championship hunt yet again. This year it appears that all the parts are in place for Tennessee to get back to Atlanta and contend for a conference championship. 18 starters return overall including offensive incumbents Josh Dobbs (QB) and Jalen Hurd (RB).
Tennessee looks to be the most balanced team in the division and with defensive stars like linebacker Jalen Reeves-Mayben and cornerback Cameron Sutton returning, you are likely looking at a top 20 defense to go along with an already established offense.
10-2 (6-2) SEC East Champions
Gone is Mark Richt, who was fired after 15 (mostly) successful seasons and in is former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, whose savvy recruiting is already paying large dividends in Athens. There may be pressure early on to start freshman quarterback Jacob Eason especially if the passing game continues to struggle under senior Greyson Lambert. Clearly, much of Georgia’s offensive success will be on the shoulders of perhaps the country’s best one-two punch at running back: Nick Chubb and Sony Michelle.
Without question, Georgia’s defense was nasty in 2015, finishing 8th nationally in total defense, an there is no reason to expect a drop off on that side of the ball with Smart’s impressive defensive resume. Look for the Bulldogs to contend early and often under Smart and don’t be surprised to see Georgia sniffing at the doorstep of an SEC East title as early as this season.
9-3 (6-2) 2nd place SEC East
The Gators were one of the biggest surprises in the country last season under first-year head coach Jim McElwain and he will be looking to keep the momentum going into 2016. Florida became anemic on offense after the departure of quarterback Will Grier and the question remains if sophomore Luke Del Rio or senior Austin Appleby will get the majority of the snaps this year. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway was recently re-instated after some academic struggles and will likely play a huge roll in Florida’s passing game.
The Gators were very good defensively in 2015 and that trend is going to have to continue if they hope to return to Atlanta this year. Cornerback Jalen Tabor is one of the best in the country at his position the secondary in general may be the best in the SEC. Despite recent defensive success, look for Florida to take a bit of a step back this year despite the SEC East being wide open once again.
7-5 (4-4) SEC East 3rd place
No school in the country has had to deal with the amount of adversity that the University of Missouri has in the past year. Gary Pinkel was forced to retire from coaching after 16 years at Mizzou after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. New head coach Barry Odom brings an impressive defensive resume to the table and looks to be the right man for the task of bringing the Tigers back to contending for the SEC East. Clearly, the offense is going to have to improve mightily if that is going to happen. Mizzou ranked an unfathomable 127th in total offense a year ago but there is certainly hope for the future.
Highly-touted quarterback Drew Lock returns as a more experienced player and will have some new weapons at his disposal in transfers Chris Black (WR from Alabama) and Alex Ross (running back from Oklahoma). The good news for Tiger fans is that the team is returning a plethora of starters from the 5th ranked defense in that country in 2015. The Tigers are very stout up front with star defensive end Charles Harris returning to join Terry Beckner Jr. and Josh Augusta to form one of the best defensive lines in the SEC.
6-6 (3-5) 4th Place SEC East
The Wildcats have still yet to reach a bowl game under Mark Stoops and the clock could be ticking for the fourth year coach. It’s hard to to put Kentucky in the “believe it when we see it” category despite a pretty solid roster including two-time team leading rusher Boom Williams. Clearly, the development of sophomore quarterback Drew Barker will go a long way in deciding Kentucky’s bowl game fate this season.
Defensively, Kentucky ranked near the bottom of the conference a season ago, a trend that cannot continue if this program is going to turn the corner. There is definitely some young talent on this defense including corner back Chris Westry, who was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team last year.
5-7 (2-6) 5th place SEC East
It’s been tough sledding so far for coach Derek Mason at Vanderbilt, but there is no doubt that some progress has been made during his tenure as the Commodores won two SEC conference games last year and are hoping to build on that once again. Vanderbilt actually boasted the SEC’s sixth ranked defense in 2015 and clearly Mason has established an identity for this football team.
The offense is going to need to improve drastically if Vandy is going to build on the four wins they posted last year. Junior running back Ralph Webb will be counted on to be the work horse, but they are going to have to find something in the passing game with quaterback Kyle Shurmur at the helm if they hope to stay in games this year.
4-8 (1-7) 6th place SEC East
7. South Carolina
The Steve Spurrier era (which included 3 11-win seasons) has come to an end and former Florida coach Will Muschamp is the man in charge of a hefty rebuild. Mushcamp will look to immediately transform the Gamecock defense from last in the league in 2015 to respectful in 2016. Linebacker Skai Moore is the best player on that unit but others are going to have to step up immediately if improvement is going to occur.
Offensively, things weren’t much better for the Gamecocks a season ago and they are hoping that freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain (he will absolutely play at some point) will be able to inject some life into the offense this season. Overall, this could be a very long season for South Carolina fans but they have to hold out hope that Mushamp will be able to turn the defense around quickly making them into a Florida 2012 2.0.
4-6 (1-7) 7th place SEC East