SEC Football: Predicting the Final East Division Standings
The anticipation is building, the pads are popping and we are just a few short weeks away from toe meeting leather in Nashville on Aug. 30 when the South Carolina Gamecocks and Vanderbilt Commodores get the SEC season started on national television.
With all of our position, coaching and schedule rankings in the rear view mirror, it's time to get down to business and go on the record with some SEC divisional predictions.
This week, we predict the SEC East. Can Georgia repeat? Will South Carolina emerge? Can Tennessee and Florida get back in the discussion?
SEC lead blogger Barrett Sallee gives his predictions in this slideshow.
7. Kentucky Wildcats: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
It's a big season for Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. Unfortunately for him, it's going to be a long one.
Kentucky returns just five starters on defense, and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey—a projected starter at cornerback—was recently ruled academically ineligible. That move forces starting safety Martavius Neloms, who is Kentucky's leading returning tackler after notching 71 last season, back to cornerback.
Offensively, the Wildcats have to find a passing game, but so far during fall camp, neither Maxwell Smith nor Morgan Newton has locked down the top spot atop the depth chart.
The Wildcats draw Arkansas out of the west, and have to play the Hogs in Fayetteville. That trip, coupled with intra-division road trips to improved Tennessee and Florida teams, and trek to newcomer Missouri, will be too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
Projected wins: Kent State, Western Kentucky, Samford
Projected losses: at Louisville, at Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State, at Arkansas, Georgia, at Missouri, vs. Vanderbilt, at Tennessee
6. Vanderbilt Commorodres 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
Vanderbilt is a program on the rise. There's no doubt about that. But the ascent out of anonymity is going to take some time.
Zac Stacy is the best running back that you've never heard of. The rising senior finished third in the SEC last season with 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns on 201 carries. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers emerged as a viable signal-caller last season, but he is going to have to improve upon the touchdown-to-interception ratio (9:10) if the 'Dores want to make the next step.
The Commodores draw Auburn out of the SEC West, in addition to their permanent cross-division matchup with Ole Miss. The opener on the first Thursday night of the season vs. South Carolina will have that "game-of-the-century" feel for Commodore fans.
That game, along with the Auburn game on Oct. 20, will determine if the 'Dores take the next step or are still a year away.
Projected wins: at Northwestern, Presbyterian, UMass, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss, at Wake Forest
Projected losses: South Carolina, at Georgia, at Missouri, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee
5. Missouri Tigers 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
As the newcomer to the SEC, Missouri has the chance to establish a new legacy for its football program in the rough and tumble SEC.
With James Franklin, a candidate to post a 3,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season, calling the shots, the Tigers offense has the potential to be lethal. He has an established weapon outside with wide receiver T.J. Moe, and got another one this summer in the form of super-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham.
The running game is a bit of a question with Henry Josey's return doubtful, but Kendial Lawrence is a talented running back that beat out Josey for playing time last season before getting hurt.
Defense has been an issue in Columbia. The Tigers finished 61st in total defense last year after giving up an average of 380 yards per game. The linebacking corps is solid with Will Ebner, Andrew Wilson and Zaviar Gooden, and cornerback E.J. Gaines returns to anchor the secondary.
If Missouri can get by the Georgia Bulldogs on Week 2, its season could become something special. It won't, though.
Projected wins: SE Louisiana, Arizona State, at UCF, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Syracuse, at Texas A&M
Projected losses: Georgia, at South Carolina, Alabama, at Florida, at Tennessee
4. Tennessee Volunteers 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
It's a big year for the Tennessee Volunteers. Head coach Derek Dooley enters the 2012 campaign fighting for his job.
That's a bit unfair, considering he lost star wide receiver Justin Hunter for the majority of the season and quarterback Tyler Bray for part of it last season. It's hard for any team to withstand losses like that.
The Vols enter the season with the best wide receiver duo east of USC, with Hunter re-joining Da'Rick Rogers. The offensive line was a sore spot last season, but Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is a star in the making; and the line will benefit from another year working together. That should help Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal and Devrin Young at running back.
Defensively, Sal Sunseri comes in with this 3-4 defense, and that should make linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt household names sooner rather than later—if they aren't already.
The Vols have a tough stretch out of the gate, but if they can survive the bye week with some confidence, the stretch run is rather easy.
Projected wins: Georgia State, Akron, at Mississippi State, Troy, Missouri, at Vanderbilt, Kentucky
Projected losses: N.C. State (Atlanta, Ga.), Florida, at Georgia, Alabama, at South Carolina
3. Florida Gators 9-3 (5-3)
It's not necessarily a make-or-break year in Gainesville, but the Gators do need to improve upon the 7-6 record from last season to keep Will Muschamp off of the hot seat in 2013.
Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel remain locked in a quarterback battle, even after Driskel dinged up his shoulder in fall camp. But that's not the issue that should be of greatest importance to Gator fans.
Mike Gillislee emerged as the running back of choice for offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and if he can stay healthy, a stable running game may be all that Florida needs to get back in the title discussion.
Defensively, the Gators will be fine, even if Ronald Powell stays sidelined all season recovering from offseason ACL surgery. Matt Elam is one of the SEC's best safeties and Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins lead a talented linebacking corps.
Florida is on its way back, but it won't be all the way back in 2012.
Projected wins: Bowling Green, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, Kentucky, at Vanderbilt, Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State, at Florida State
Projected losses: LSU, South Carolina, Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
2. South Carolina Gamecocks 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
South Carolina is probably the most talented team in the SEC East, but for the second straight season, the schedule is their enemy.
The Gamecocks have to travel to LSU and host Arkansas out of the SEC West, while Georgia avoids LSU, Arkansas and Alabama.
Quarterback Connor Shaw emerged as a legitimate dual-threat after taking over for Stephen Garcia last season, and he will only benefit from the return of running back and Heisman trophy contender Marcus Lattimore from the knee injury he suffered midway through last season.
The biggest question is who will emerge as Alshon Jeffery's replacement, and true freshman Shaq Roland may be that guy.
Defensively, the Gamecocks won't miss a beat under the guidance of Lorenzo Ward, who is taking over for Ellis Johnson. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are monsters off of the edge, and their ability to put pressure on the quarterback will help the entire defense.
Projected wins: at Vanderbilt, East Carolina, UAB, Missouri, at Kentucky, Georgia, at Florida, Tennessee, Wofford, at Clemson
Projected losses: at LSU, Arkansas
1. Georgia Bulldogs 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
The defending SEC East champions will again play for the SEC title in 2012.
The Georgia Bulldogs enter the season with a lot of questions, but the absence of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas fro their schedule is too big to ignore.
Aaron Murray set the single-season school record with 35 touchdown passes last season, and despite that, his season was viewed as inconsistent thanks to 14 interceptions. That will improve with another offseason of seasoning under his belt.
The loss of running back Isaiah Crowell hurts, but Ken Malcome, Richard Samuel, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are fully capable of handling the load by committee.
Wide receiver Tavarres King returns after a sizzling performance in the Outback Bowl, and sophomore Malcom Mitchell will move back to wide receiver after pitching in at cornerback for the early part of the season.
Defensively, Georgia is loaded. Linebacker Jarvis Jones is one of the best linebackers in the country, and he will lead a defense that is extremely underrated under third-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Cornerback Sanders Commings is suspended for the Week 2 showdown against the potent Missouri offense, and safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree are facing suspensions of their own. If the Bulldogs can get past that trap, a return to Atlanta is likely.
Projected wins: Buffalo, at Missouri, Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, at Kentucky, Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.), Ole Miss, at Auburn, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech
Projected losses: at South Carolina
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