The SEC East wasn't great in 2011. A few teams made some major gains, but the majority struggled mightily for most of the season. Rebuilding may continue to be the key word for teams like Florida and Tennessee, and 2012 will be an enormously important year in that respect. South Carolina and Georgia look to continue to pull away from the pack. We'll see if they can build upon a good 2012 season. Then there's Vanderbilt. The Commodores seem to be on the move, and if James Franklin can continue to wipe away a dismal history in Nashville, the Dores may have a chance to secure the third spot in the East. Kentucky absolutely has to make progress this year, and I'll believe it when I see it. Where newcomer Missouri will fall remains to be seen. It's going to be interesting.
Kentucky doesn't have to be a bottom feeder this season, but history has shown that they are the most likely to under perform no matter who is at the helm. Joker Phillips needs to get his team at least into the middle of the SEC East pack, but he lost a valuable chance to wrap up that position this past season. If Florida and Tennessee can get back on track and Vanderbilt continues to improve, the task at hand is that much more difficult. The Wildcats could prove me wrong, but I need to see some drastic improvements.
Derek Dooley needs a bunch of wins and he needs them soon. He had two seasons to re-group after the departure of Lane Kiffin, and that's about all the honeymoon anyone gets in Knoxville. This is a program that ran off a man who will eventually have a statue in front of the stadium in Phil Fulmer; so Dooley knows he needs to win now. With Vandy on the rise and Alabama on the schedule every November, it will be important to get every win they can manage against lesser opponents. I think this is make or break for the Vols under Dooley or it'll be back to the drawing boards in Knoxville.
Head man Will Muschamp went to high school in my city, but hometown love doesn't buy him a higher spot on my list. The Gators were ugly in 2011, and now their "larger than life" offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, has taken his rolling cooler and gone west for greener pastures. Muschamp knows SEC defense, but you also have to score against it, and Florida was sloppy last season. Recruiting shouldn't be a problem and the program is far from a pile of rubble, but they will have to clean up their act in Gainesville to move up in the pecking order.
Vanderbilt had a lot to be happy about in 2011, but there is still a ways to go. The Commodores hung in there with some of the best teams in the nation last season, and were a handful of points away from being an eight or nine win team. The bowl birth was satisfying, but several tough losses left a bitter taste in the mouth of James Franklin and his team. The Dores are getting better, and in frightening fashion. 2012 will tell us if the golden domers from Nashville took advantage of a down SEC East, or if they are for real. If I were Tennessee, I'd be on high alert and keep a close eye on my foothold in the state.
The SEC East has more than one individual named James Franklin this season. Expansion brings in a Missouri Tigers team led by a young quarterback who shares this title with the coach at Vanderbilt. This guy is good and will only get better. If Missouri can put up some points on SEC defenses and get a few stops along the way with their own, it could be a good first season for the Tigers. I may have them a little high on my list, but I like this team even though I can't really explain why.
Mark Richt and his Bulldogs were much improved in 2011, but lost the last two after an incredible streak. The season was like a delicious sandwich made on stale bread. The SEC title game birth and big win streak bought Richt a little more time to get his program back on track, but 2012 will be a vital year in that process. A few key positions will need replacements due to players lost to the draft, and the running game is in limbo, but with a solid defense and solid quarterback play, the Dogs might just have another shot at a trip to Atlanta for championship weekend. Without Alabama or LSU on the slate, Georgia needs to make the most of this year.
The Gamecocks blew a shot at back-to-back SEC title games in 2011, but still managed to win eleven games for the first time ever, and finally settle on a quarterback. Conner Shaw will begin camp as the starter and will likely go into 2012 with the spot, and the Gamecocks hope to get their run game warmed back up as well. If South Carolina can take down Georgia early in the season, and not blow more than one or two SEC games, look for them to be back on top this year.