The SEC is truly an unpredictable beast in college football. Fans can simply assume it is the best conference in the nation, but picking the best team in the conference is much more difficult. This writer is not prepared to prognosticate the SEC West at this point, but the SEC East appears to have already tipped its hand.
Before delving into prognostications for the SEC Eastern Division, one must consider that this is still a second tier division when compared to the SEC Western Division. The starting talent of the top teams in the SEC East is beginning to catch up with the talent in the West, but these teams still lack the quality and depth to compete with their rival division.
Fans can expect more parity between the two divisions in coming years, as young talent begins to develop into quality depth for these top teams. The SEC appears to be even stronger top to bottom in 2012 than in 2011. This trend is likely to continue as the SEC teams continue to dominate recruiting in their region and nationally.
Kentucky is the only team in the SEC that appears to be in decline this season. There is little to discuss about the Wildcats on the gridiron. Kentucky fans will again be waiting for the basketball season to start long before the football season is over. They will likely bring up the cellar in the SEC East for 2012.
Tennessee is a young team that returns the most starters in the conference for 2012. The problem is that the overall talent at Tennessee has fallen consistently over the last years. The Vols would fare well in the B1G, ACC or Big 12, but they are simply out classed right now in the SEC.
There are possibly seven losses in their SEC schedule for 2012. For Vol fans, simply becoming bowl eligible for 2012 is the only reasonable expectation.
Vanderbilt is a team on the rise from the cellar of the SEC East. They were a much improved team in 2011, and look to continue that improvement into 2012. Improved recruiting and schemes tailored to the talent at Vanderbilt should see the Commodores back at a bowl for 2012.
Georgia is a team that ended 2011 with four losses while playing one of the least challenging schedules in the SEC. The schedule remains one of the least challenging for 2012. The problem is that Georgia did not beat a single good team in 2011.
Conditioning has not been as intense as at other SEC schools this off season and depth issues in the defensive backfield that caused losses to Michigan State and South Carolina in 2011 only gets worse for 2012. To make things worse, Georgia will start one of the least experienced offensive lines in the SEC to protect their coveted quarterback. So far there is only one solid member of this unit moving into the fall.
Georgia will likely take at least at least four losses in their SEC schedule for 2012, starting with Missouri in their opening conference game. They will have tremendous difficulty with teams that can stretch the field and contest their secondary on every play. They will also have depth problems up front when they face more elite offensive lines.
Expect Georgia to take a step back this season as their competition improves while they remain somewhat stagnant. Georgia should become bowl eligible if injuries do not become a big issue.
Missouri is new to the SEC and blessed with a much less challenging schedule than Texas A&M, the other new arrival. This is a bowl-quality team that will challenge some of the contenders in the SEC Eastern Division for 2012. There are only two probable losses on their schedule with three other games in question.
Missouri fans can expect a good inaugural season in the SEC with a quality bowl at the end of the season.
Florida is a team that had no rudder in 2011. Their ferocious defense still made them a formidable challenge for teams like Georgia. That defense will only get better for 2012, and they will field a competent offense this season.
There is only one probable loss on their schedule as Texas A&M replaces Auburn on their schedule from the West. They must play LSU but have South Carolina at home this season. The only obstacle that appears to stand in the way of Will Muschamp and his Gators winning their first divisional title since his arrival appears to be an improved South Carolina team.
Florida fans can expect a nine win season or better for 2012. It is likely they regain dominance over their old in state rival Florida State and their divisional rival Georgia. With a little luck, they could pull off an upset finish in the SEC East for 2012.
South Carolina appears to be both a better and deeper team for 2012. They have only one probable loss on their schedule due to the unexpected coaching change at Arkansas. This should be another stellar year for the Gamecocks in the SEC Eastern Division, and they could end with another trip to Atlanta to end the season.
South Carolina fans can expect a more potent offense for 2012 with better production from the quarterback and running back positions. The defense remains formidable with added depth from young talent. Less than 10 wins should be disappointing for the Gamecocks this season.
Expect four and possibly five of the SEC Eastern teams to become bowl eligible for this bowl season and the Eastern Division to continue to stride toward eventual parity with the Western Division in coming seasons, but not this one. Fans can expect South Carolina to lose to an SEC Western Division power in the SEC Championship Game and continue on to a BCS Bowl appearance.