The NCAA Tournament is over. Pre-football season has officially begun. This will be the first of our early conference previews for 2013. The SEC is important and, thus, gets two post. Here is a look at the East.
Will Georgia have a defense? The Bulldogs have few offensive concerns. They were the nation’s No. 1 yards per play unit in 2012. Ten starters return from that group, including Aaron Murray, the Gurley/Marshall combo and the entire offensive line. Georgia’s limiting factor will be on defense. That side brings just three starters back and loses a ton of NFL-caliber talent.
Todd Grantham spurned NFL interest to stay on as coordinator. The all new defensive line, anchored by juniors Ray Drew (a former top 10 overall recruit) and Chris Mayes, impressed during Spring play. Engaging Jordan Jenkins could slide into Jarvis Jones’ impact role. Their talented young safeties could form a capable secondary with experienced corner Damian Swann.
Georgia was a play away from the SEC (and possibly the BCS) title last season. Whether they get back depends on how this young defense comes together. With three of the Dawgs’ first four against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU, it has to be quick.
Will Florida have an offense? The defense carried the Gators in 2013. Their offense ranked 12th in the SEC in yards per play and was proficient at little more than not turning the ball over. With six defensive starters leaving, including Floyd, Elam and Bostic in the middle, Florida declining on defense is conceivable. For the Gators to replicate last year’s 11-win performance, the offense may need to be good, not just good enough.
That will mean getting more production from junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. Some of the malaise was the fault of the supporting cast. The line, with talent and depth, should be better. But issues remain at the skill positions. Some big recruits have underperformed. Their best options at receiver are a true freshman, Demarcus Robinson, and cornerback Louchiez Purifoy in a cameo role. Some of it was just Driskel. He has to get better throwing down field and avoiding sacks. Will Muschamp bought himself time with 11 wins, but a drop off accompanied by a fourth-straight year of putrid offense could place him right back on the hot seat.
Can Steve Spurrier finally win an SEC title at South Carolina? The HBC has reformed perpetual also ran South Carolina into a perennial contender. But coming off consecutive 11-win seasons contention is no longer enough. They have to win it. That could be a daunting task this season. Th Gamecock offense returns two options at quarterback, two options at tailback and the entire offensive line. But their big play threat, Ace Sanders, left early for the NFL Draft. Their defense has been top 20 in yards per play four of the past five years. It features the nation’s most dominant player, Jadeveon Clowney. It should be formidable against the pass. How they fare against the run, with mostly freshman in the linebacker rotation, is another question.
Despite the concerns, though, South Carolina’s schedule should be more forgiving than the past few years. The Gamecocks face Clemson, Florida and Vanderbilt at home. They drew Arkansas and Mississippi State from the West. There is a road trip to Georgia the second week of the season, but Spurrier’s team has beaten the Bulldogs three years running.
How far can James Franklin take Vanderbilt? Franklin has changed the football culture at Vandy. He went to a bowl game his first year. He won nine games his second. His infectious enthusiasm has him rumored for a number of top jobs coming available. Vanderbilt has signed him to a massive contract extension. The issue this season is whether the hot commodity coach can bring Vanderbilt to the next rung, competing with good SEC teams.
The Commodores have won seven SEC games in two seasons under Franklin, but only one conference win (27-26 over Ole Miss last year) came against a team that reached a bowl game. Vanderbilt’s schedule gets tougher in 2013, with away trips to South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M, as well as Georgia and Ole Miss at home. Vandy also loses a senior quarterback, a reliable running back in Zac Stacy and a lot of depth in the defensive front seven.
Franklin could be college football’s next big thing. He also could be Dan Mullen in a softer division. A feasible down year could dull Franklin’s glow a bit. It could also dull Vanderbilt’s glow for Franklin long-term.
Will Butch Jones stick at Tennessee? Derek Dooley was fired, but rough times remain for Tennessee under Butch Jones. They return most of their defense in 2013. The trouble is that defense was, by a significant margin, the worst in the conference last season. This will be their third defensive coordinator in three years. The offensive line should be decent. But that won’t matter much, as the team loses Tyler Bray and his top four receivers from last season. This team should struggle scoring and stopping anyone from scoring.
Add those problems to Tennessee’s hellacious schedule. The Vols have back to back road trips to Oregon and to Florida in September. Their next three FBS games after that are Georgia, South Carolina and then at Alabama. Even 5-7 with this team would be a pretty good season. There’s reason for optimism moving forward. Tennessee has the beginnings of a top ten recruiting class with it is early commitments. Jones executed a great turnaround his second year in Cincinnati. Tennessee fans need to have patience. After the Kiffin and Dooley debacles, that won’t come in abundance.
Does Missouri Have an SEC football future? Moving to the SEC proved right for Texas A&M. For Missouri, the jury remains out. They were competitive at times in 2012, though offensive line and quarterback injuries short-circuited their offense and cost them winnable games. There’s some reason to expect more in 2013. James Franklin and Henry Josey will be healthy and together for the first time since 2011. Former No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham has room to improve after an inauspicious debut. That said, their defensive front seven kept them in the games that weren’t blow outs last year. Sheldon Richardson will be a huge loss at defensive tackle.
Missouri must also be concerned with their ceiling beyond next season. They aren’t a football power. They have been cut off from their natural recruiting grounds. When 13 SEC teams finished in the Top 30 overall recruiting classes, the Tigers were the 14th. However well coached, the SEC isn’t a conference where unheralded recruits get you very far. Tiger fans could also sharpen the knife edge a bit.
Will Kentucky show a pulse under Mark Stoops? Mark Stoops has brought football excitement to Lexington. He stole a recruit from USC before Signing Day. People actually paid money to watch Kentucky’s Spring Game. That said, Stoops has a steep hill to climb with only modest rewards waiting for him at the top. His offense was the worst in the SEC last season and is switching to an Air Raid with a dearth of playmakers. The Wildcats were a little bitter on defense last season, though that only meant they were “among the worst” teams in the SEC. Couple that with a schedule that includes a four-game stretch of Louisville, Florida, at South Carolina, Alabama and, yeah, not this year.
[Photos via USA Today Sports Images]