SEC East preview: Georgia and Florida battle for a division on the rise

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Save the most effective for final, proper? Whereas nearly all the FBS applications trying to play soccer this fall have already gotten underway, the SEC remains to be per week and a half from kicking off. When it does, we’ll witness a season stuffed with fascinating questions. Does overwhelming uncooked expertise (Georgia) trump a mix of expertise and continuity (Florida)? How do followers react when a clearly superior staff (Tennessee, maybe, or perhaps Kentucky) goes 5-5? Are we taking a yr off from hot-seat discuss, or is Will Muschamp in hassle?This has been the longest preview sequence within the historical past of the world — it started in February and can finish, properly, per week or two earlier than the Massive Ten finally ends up kicking off — however let’s discuss SEC East.Leap to: Vanderbilt | Missouri | South Carolina | KentuckyTennessee | Florida | Georgia Head coach: Derek Mason (27-47, seventh yr)2019: 3-9 (1-7 in SEC), 106th in SP+2020 projection: 1-9, 110thFive greatest returning gamers: DE Dayo Odeyingbo, OLB Andre Mintze, ILB Dimitri Moore, S Tae Daley, RB Jamauri WakefieldI use the phrase “pushing the boulder up the hill” so much when speaking about laborious teaching jobs. It is a strong go-to, rapidly spelling out how laborious it’s to maneuver a program ahead and what occurs the second your momentum stalls.Derek Mason’s momentum at Vanderbilt stalled out on the finish of the 2018 season. In 2019, the boulder ran him over.Although solely 6-7, Mason’s 2018 Commodores had been simply his greatest staff but in Nashville. The offense jumped to 24th in offensive SP+ behind quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s steadiness together with working again Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s explosiveness, and whereas the protection wasn’t nice, it was ok to assist drag Vandy towards .500.Vaughn returned final fall, however he was with out his quarterback and offensive coordinator (Andy Ludwig, who went to Utah). The offensive line was a large number, the quarterback place was even worse, and after averaging 7.9 yards per carry in 2018, Vaughn needed to do miraculous work to common even 5.2.A rebuilt protection fell aside, too.Vandy’s offensive SP+ rating: 24th in 2018, 104th in 2019Defensive SP+: 57th in 2018, 99th in 2019General SP+: 39th in 2018, 106th in 2019It took a bit of excellent fortune, within the type of a 2-Zero file in one-score finishes, to succeed in even 3-9 final fall. Now, dealing with a 10-game SEC schedule with out Vaughn, most of final yr’s receivers and O-linemen and actually any expertise at QB, successful a single sport would require some favors from the soccer gods.The protection ought to enhance, a minimum of. Its collapse final yr was tied to youth — key sophomores at linebacker, freshmen and sophomores within the secondary — and gamers like finish Dayo Odeyingbo, linebacker Dimitri Moore (who opted out for the season, then opted again in) and sophomore safeties Dashaun Jerkins and Brendon Harris may show to be strong. Mason tried to improve his line by including sort out transfers from Florida (Malik Langham) and Oklahoma (Derek Inexperienced), and depth throughout the board is light-years higher.It’s important to rating factors, although, and I don’t know how Vandy’s going to try this. Senior again Jamauri Wakefield does return after lacking 2019, and sophomores like WR Cam Johnson, RB Keyon Brooks, TE Ben Bresnahan and RT Tyler Steen could possibly be prepared for bigger roles. However they should be superb, in a short time, for the Commodores to threaten SEC defenses.2 RelatedThe QB place is frightening, and never in a great way. 4 gamers threw passes final yr, they usually’re all gone. True freshman Ken Seals seems to be the almost definitely beginning quarterback, although fellow freshman Mike Wright and untested juniors Jeremy Moussa and Danny Clark may additionally step in. Seals and Wright had been fairly well-touted, however with a gaping gap of a line and no actually confirmed skill-corps choices, it is laborious to see how they thrive. It is the explanation SP+ initiatives the Commodores as a minimum of 17-point underdogs in each sport on the schedule. Sure, 17.Head coach: Eliah Drinkwitz (first yr)2019: 6-6 (3-5), 39th in SP+2020 projection: 4-6, 44thFive greatest returning gamers: LB Nick Bolton, RB Larry Rountree III, DT Kobie Whiteside, FS Joshuah Bledsoe, RG Case CookIn a traditional offseason, we may be speaking about what an ideal offseason former Appalachian State head coach, and Gus Malzahn protege, Eliah Drinkwitz had in his first months in Columbia. He retained a few of former head coach Barry Odom’s key defensive assistants after the Tigers posted back-to-back top-25 rankings in defensive SP+. He not solely beat out Bama to signal cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. in February, however his celebration after doing so went viral. He used the grad switch market to plug key depth chart holes. His first full recruiting class is shaping as much as be Mizzou’s highest-ranked class in a minimum of half a decade. He even in some way averted throwing an enormous public slot in August when Mizzou was given Alabama and LSU as additional SEC opponents.That is good. And none of it issues when the video games really begin. Whereas the protection ought to once more be sturdy, the offense has numerous floor to make up if the Tigers are going to threaten .500.Odom left Drinkwitz some presents up the defensive backbone. As an unheralded true sophomore, Nick Bolton got here out of nowhere to develop into probably the greatest linebackers in faculty soccer; he mixed 7.5 TFLs with 10 passes defensed (two INTs, eight breakups) and 17 run stuffs final yr. And whereas sort out Jordan Elliott is now a Cleveland Brown, battery mate Kobie Whiteside returns. Within the secondary, senior safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe are bodily and versatile.Coordinator holdover Ryan Walters does have a number of questions to handle on the perimeters of the protection, as Mizzou hasn’t had a stellar cross rush in a number of years, and Jarvis Ware is the one cornerback to return out of the Tigers’ high three from final season. However there’s so much to love right here.The offense has far fewer knowns. The quarterback will likely be both TCU switch and former blue-chipper Shawn Robinson or redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak. Robinson did OK when thrown into the deep finish in Fort Price, and Bazelak bought time late in 2019 earlier than injuring his knee, however neither is confirmed. The road in entrance of them is transformed, too, with three three-year starters gone and three again, together with Rutgers switch Michael Maietti.If the dual-threat Robinson wins the job and the road holds up, the run sport must be stellar. Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie are a strong working again duo, with Rountree a significant yards-after-contact menace and Badie an excellent pass-catcher. The receiving corps is a thriller, although. The Tigers lose final yr’s high three targets, and Drinkwitz should craft one thing strong from a mix of transfers (Virginia Tech’s Damon Hazelton, Angelo State’s Keke Chism), semi-used juniors (former walk-on Barrett Banister, Jalen Knox) and freshmen. Hazelton, Chism and Knox have all flashed explosiveness at instances, however they’re going to all be in new roles. And with six SP+ top-25 opponents of their first seven video games, the Tigers’ assault should jell instantly to keep away from a tough begin. Exhausting to depend on that.Head coach: Will Muschamp (26-25, fifth yr)2019: 4-8 (3-5), 47th in SP+2020 projection: 4-6, 36thFive greatest returning gamers: LT Sadarius Hutcherson, CB Israel Mukuamu, DE Aaron Sterling, RG Jovaughn Gwyn, WR Shi SmithMaybe nobody within the nation is extra ready for an all-SEC schedule than South Carolina. Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks, in spite of everything, performed 10 groups that completed within the SP+ high 40 final yr and 9 from the highest 42 in 2018. They’re used to dealing with minimal tuneup video games and most problem.After all, being ready for it and being good at it are two various things. They had been 5-14 towards stated top-42 groups, 2-Eight final yr. Muschamp recruits at a top-20 stage, however whereas he has rounded his protection into kind and his special-teams output is superb, he is present process his third offensive restart in his fifth season.Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo returns to the SEC after a number of years as Colorado State’s head coach, and whereas the bar’s low (SC averaged simply 17 factors per sport towards top-40 opposition), the talent corps is a ghost city. Final yr’s high three working backs are gone, as are six of the 10 gamers focused with a minimum of 15 passes. Blue-chip freshman Marshawn Lloyd is misplaced for the season with an damage, and two totally different quarterbacks — sophomore Dakereon Joyner and freshman Luke Doty — may log fairly a number of snaps at wideout. Contemplating how a lot quarterback Ryan Hilinski struggled with a full talent corps final yr, that is greater than alarming.Bobo’s historical past suggests he enjoys deep passing and a pleasant, gradual tempo. The latter may be a requirement with the depth points at hand, however we’ll see if Shi Smith and Josh Vann, former blue-chippers who averaged simply 10.6 yards per catch between them final yr, can do any form of field-stretching. Colorado State switch Collin Hill is aboard to push Hilinski, and the offensive line ought to enhance after fixed shuffling final yr, however expectations are low. And that is earlier than we keep in mind the potential area place results of dropping an incredible punter (Joseph Charlton) and punt returner (Bryan Edwards).The protection may present hope once more after rating 30th in defensive SP+ and holding Georgia, Appalachian State and Kentucky to 20 or fewer factors every. The secondary was rock strong regardless of youth, and junior corners Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn could possibly be among the many division’s greatest. The line of defense loses 4 of final yr’s high six, however TFLs chief Aaron Sterling is again, and each sort out Keir Thomas and finish/OLB Brad Johnson return from damage. Plus, freshman Jordan Burch is one in all Muschamp’s most high-profile signees. The upside right here is excessive.After going 9-Four in his second yr, Muschamp has received simply 11 video games in two years. Brutal schedules apart, the Gamecocks’ manufacturing hasn’t matched their potential, and they’re, per SP+, projected favorites in simply three video games this fall. You can make a robust case that there must be no sizzling seat in any respect for soccer coaches within the yr of the coronavirus, however it’s protected to imagine Muschamp is below strain. That Sept. 26 residence sport towards Tennessee is big for the staff in garnet and black.It is laborious to think about a coach being on the new seat throughout the coronavirus pandemic however, barring a profitable 2020 season, Will Muschamp will really feel the warmth. Jeff Blake-USA TODAY SportsHead coach: Mark Stoops (44-44, eighth yr)2019: 8-5 (3-5), 35th in SP+2020 projection: 5-5, 22ndFive greatest returning gamers: C Drake Jackson, LB Boogie Watson, LT Landon Younger, DE Josh Paschal, CB Brandin EcholsAlmost each main tactical shift in faculty soccer started with a thought experiment. Don Faurot requested, “What if we turned our run sport right into a sequence of 2-on-1 quick breaks?” and created possibility soccer. Wealthy Rodriguez requested, “What if we turned each drive right into a two-minute drill?” and created the trendy hurry-up, no-huddle offense. And many others.I am not going to say what Kentucky did final yr will change faculty soccer, however I am intrigued. With beginning quarterback Terry Wilson injured, head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran requested the query, “What if we simply went with a full-time Wildcat quarterback?” Like many highschool offenses, they elected to place the ball within the fingers of their greatest playmaker (on this case, receiver Lynn Bowden Jr.) and go from there.Bowden put collectively one of the fascinating stat traces you will ever see — 1,495 dashing yards, 403 passing yards and 348 receiving yards — and after some up-and-down early performances, UK averaged 42.5 factors per sport and eight.1 yards per play in its final 4 video games. After averaging 242 passing yards per sport over the primary month, the Wildcats averaged a triple-option-esque 57 afterward … and received eight video games.This was an unimaginable flip of occasions, and I don’t know what it means for this yr. Wilson’s again in his previous job, and nearly everybody however Bowden returns for the UK offense, however what rules did Gran & Co. study final yr that they will now translate to an offense once more constructed round Wilson, who can really throw a bit and rushed for 726 non-sack yards himself in 2018? I am actually excited to search out out. (Auburn switch Joey Gatewood may be an possibility at QB if Kentucky ever really hears from the NCAA about his waiver request.) Operating backs Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez Jr. are all thick and imply, as is an offensive line that returns 4 starters.The offense was a supply of creativity, however the protection was a steadier supply of high quality. Stoops’ protection surged to 15th in defensive SP+ in 2018, and regardless of dropping fairly a number of difference-makers, it held regular at 34th final yr thanks primarily to an ideal cross protection. The cross rush remained wonderful with out 2018 star Josh Allen, and the secondary was lanky and bodily. Linebacker Boogie Watson and edge rushers Josh Paschal and Jordan Wright ought to guarantee the cross rush nonetheless has pop, and the secondary’s loaded as soon as extra. The run protection may nonetheless be problematic until monumental blue-chip freshman Justin Rogers makes an instantaneous distinction within the center, however this must be a top-30 protection once more at worst.SP+ initiatives UK 22nd total; that might be the Wildcats’ greatest rating since 1977 if it holds. It is a disgrace that, with this yr’s 10-game league schedules, that interprets to solely a couple of .500 file or so, however Stoops is constructing one thing long-term, and this would possibly not be Kentucky’s final probability at top-20 high quality.Head coach: Jeremy Pruitt (13-12, third yr)2019: 8-5 (5-3), 29th in SP+2020 projection: 5-5, 19thFive greatest returning gamers: LG Trey Smith, QB Jarrett Guarantano, LB Henry To’o To’o, WR Josh Palmer, S Theo JacksonFor an informal fan, it was fairly straightforward to pay attention to Tennessee within the preseason AP high 25 and chortle. Oh look, the Vols are overrated once more, proper? Similar to in 2016 (once they had been preseason ninth and ended 22nd) and 2017 (once they began out 25th and went 4-8)! And 2008 (began 18th, ended 5-7)! And 2005 (began third, ended 5-6)!To make certain, the “1990s energy will get a bit an excessive amount of credit score for transient runs of competence” impact is outstanding at instances, whether or not we’re speaking about Tennessee, Nebraska, Michigan or another person. However in the event you scoff at this yr’s No. 25 rating, there is a fairly good probability that you simply did not see Tennessee play late final season.Particularly, you did not see the Vols’ protection.After waffling between the 30s and 40s in defensive SP+ for the primary few weeks of the season (and between the 40s and 50s total), Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols clicked. Following a 35-13 loss to Alabama, they allowed simply 4.5 yards per play and 15.5 factors per sport of their final six video games, all wins.Throughout that span, the offense remained inconsistent however improved its baseline common (6.Three yards per play, 27.2 factors per sport), and UT went from 2-5 and 51st in SP+ to 8-5 and 29th.The offense has inquiries to reply within the talent corps — three of final yr’s high 4 cross targets are gone, and neither of the highest two returning RBs (Ty Chandler and Eric Grey) topped even a mediocre 40% success charge on the bottom. However the Vols are skilled at QB with Jarrett Guarantano again for one more season, and the road boasts six gamers with a mixed 82 profession begins, together with All-America guard candidate Trey Smith. If senior receiver Josh Palmer will get assist from younger blue-chippers like sophomore Ramel Keyton and freshman Malachi Wideman, the Vols ought to have the ability to high final yr’s No. 73 offensive SP+ rating, perhaps by an honest quantity. That is a low bar, positive, however UT will not want to attain many factors to remain in video games.The Vols’ main defensive strengths final yr: They by no means bought torched (first within the nation in features of 30+ yards allowed), they usually lit you up on blitz downs. Higher, they attacked your QB from all angles. Just one participant had greater than three sacks (linebacker Darrell Taylor), however 9 had a minimum of two. Taylor’s now a Seattle Seahawk, however seven of the opposite eight are again, and Pruitt and coordinator Derrick Ansley seem to have loads to work with.Security Nigel Warrior is gone, however the remainder of the secondary returns intact. That features three safeties (Theo Jackson, Shawn Shamburger, Jaylen McCollough) and three cornerbacks (Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, Kenneth George Jr.) with a number of seasoning.A top-25 efficiency may earn you solely a .500 file this yr, however even when the offense stays too iffy for the Vols to threaten within the East, they will be an awfully powerful out.Jarrett Guarantano is again below heart for the Vols and he has an skilled line to guard him in 2020. Tennessee AthleticsHead coach: Dan Mullen (21-5, third yr)2019: 11-2 (6-2), seventh in SP+2020 projection: 8-2, fifthFive greatest returning gamers: CB Marco Wilson, S Shawn Davis, QB Kyle Trask, TE Kyle Pitts, LT Stone ForsytheYour view of Florida’s place within the nationwide title race this fall is nearly 100% decided by your view of Kyle Trask. That is not precisely profound — quarterback is an important place in any staff sport, in fact — however Trask is a tough participant to determine.After taking up for the injured Feleipe Franks final yr, Trask posted a 25-to-7 TD-to-INT ratio and completed 10th within the nation in Whole QBR. However he thrived a minimum of partially due to the sport plan. His passer score was 169.6 on first down, 148.Zero on second and 139.2 on third, and Florida ranked solely 53rd in blitz downs success charge. When situations had been favorable, he thrived. Once they weren’t, he did not. And that was with Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain, final yr’s high wideouts. They’re each now gone.It’s important to return to 2015, with Alabama’s Jake Coker, to search out the final time a staff received the nationwide title with no surefire first-round expertise behind heart. Coker had the nation’s greatest protection at his disposal, and 2014 champion Cardale Jones had a crazy-good run sport for distracting defenses. Florida’s protection will definitely be good, however will the Gators have sufficient going for them to make a run if Trask would not take pleasure in a Joe Burrow-like senior leap? On this yr of uncertainty, will continuity — a third-year teaching workers that has remained largely intact, plus a second-year beginning QB and robust total returning manufacturing numbers — make up for regardless of the Gators may lack in star energy in comparison with different contenders?I do not know that reply, however I do know there’s nonetheless so much to love about Mullen’s Gators. The offensive line returns three starters and provides Mississippi State switch Stewart Reese and his 33 profession begins. The receiving corps nonetheless options environment friendly tight finish Kyle Pitts and big-play threats in Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, Kadarius Toney and Penn State switch Justin Shorter. And the protection could possibly be scary.Coordinator Todd Grantham can get a bit predictable in his aggression at instances, however he is introduced outcomes: He inherited a protection that ranked 33rd in defensive SP+ and improved it to 17th in 2018 and seventh in 2019. With most of final yr’s two-deep again, Florida begins out this yr projected third. With out Jonathan Greenard, Grantham wants a brand new ace pass-rusher, however he is nonetheless bought finish Jeremiah Moon, and his linebackers are dynamite. So is a secondary that features security Shawn Davis and nook Marco Wilson.The most important query is the offensive run sport. Florida was a dismal 107th in dashing success charge, which put numerous strain on Trask to make performs on early downs. The road is far more skilled this yr, however a again nonetheless must step up, be it junior Dameon Pierce, Miami switch Lorenzo Lingard or another person. If they will run the ball and defend in addition to it appears they may, Trask may actually play at a Cokerian stage and lead a Playoff push.Head coach: Kirby Sensible (44-12, fifth yr)2019: 12-2 (7-1), fifth in SP+2020 projection: 8-2, fourthFive greatest returning gamers: S Richard LeCounte, WR George Pickens, RG Ben Cleveland, LB Monty Rice, DE Malik HerringFour years into his Georgia tenure, former coach Mark Richt was 42-10 with a convention title and a nationwide title what-if within the type of Terrence Edwards’ late-game drop towards Florida in 2002, which price the Dawgs an ideal file.4 years in for Kirby Sensible, and he is 44-12 with a convention title and a nationwide title what-if within the type of an extra time loss to Alabama in 2017’s title sport.Evaluating Sensible to Richt with Georgia followers is enjoyable as a result of it is concurrently encouraging (Richt has the second-most wins and AP top-10 finishes of any Georgia coach ever) and foreboding (Richt by no means bought over the hump within the nationwide title hunt).Sensible’s recruiting has been otherworldly, however like Richt, he hasn’t fairly mastered offense but. In Richt’s first 4 seasons, he had three top-six finishes in defensive SP+ however had a mean offensive rating of 26th; Sensible’s 2019 protection was ranked No. 1 (and begins 2020 there, too), however his first 4 offenses have averaged 29th.If the Richtian similarities continued for yet one more yr, which may not be the worst factor on the planet: In Richt’s fifth yr, the Dawgs misplaced twice in convention play however took their second league title. In 2020, that probably will get you into the CFP.We all know what the protection will probably ship: Suffocation. Of the 19 defenders who took a minimum of 200 snaps final yr, 14 return. There are all-conference candidates at nearly each place, however the collective swarming capability is what stands out. Georgia is as bodily spectacular as any Alabama protection has been below Nick Saban, they usually had been each fifth in success charge (high 10 on each customary and passing downs) and first in marginal explosiveness.It is probably as much as the offense, then. The Dawgs had been 24th total in success charge in 2019, however they did not make many large performs, and as soon as they had been delayed, drives fell aside — they had been 11th in customary downs success charge however 102nd on passing downs. That is what you’d count on from a triple option-offense, not one overflowing with blue-chippers.New offensive coordinator Todd Monken will try and craft one thing fascinating round former USC quarterback JT Daniels (assuming he beats out redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis for the job) and hope that sophomore receiver George Pickens is able to resume his late-2019 breakout — he had 322 receiving yards and two TDs in his first eight video games and 405 and 6 TDs in his final six. Senior Demetris Robertson and a giant batch of freshman blue-chippers will attempt to play strong complementary roles.Although the road does have to switch 4 of the 5 gamers with 600+ snaps final yr, the run sport must be advantageous with backs Zamir White and James Cook dinner. All of it comes all the way down to Daniels’ capability to catch as much as the chains (and the receivers’ capability to assist him out in that regard). If the offense is regular as soon as once more, all of Richt’s fifth-year success is on the desk, after which some.

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