SEC Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for East Division
The 2013 season just wrapped up, but it's never too early to look ahead to what 2014 has in store in the SEC East.
If it's anything like its predecessor, it will include many twists and turns.
Missouri will hope to repeat as SEC East champs, but it will be doing so without quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey and defensive end Michael Sam.
Can Georgia, Florida or South Carolina vault back into the top spot in the division? Will a team come out of nowhere for the second straight season?
Way-too-early power rankings for the SEC East are in this slideshow.
7. Kentucky Wildcats
Mark Stoops will enter his second season in Lexington with a decent foundation, but with an uphill battle remaining to become relevant in the SEC East.
Coming off of a 2-10 season in his inaugural campaign, Stoops' Wildcats were littered with injuries that hampered their progress.
The most notable of which was quarterback Jalen Whitlow, who was forced out of the lineup several times during the 2013 season, including the final two games of the season. He'll likely be the front-runner this offseason, but he could battle with Drew Barker—a 6'4", 210-pound 247Sports.com composite 4-star prospect in the class of 2014.
Another year of work will help that defense, particularly defensive end Za'Darius Smith, who passed up a shot at the NFL to return to the Bluegrass State for his senior season.
Kentucky draws LSU on the road out of the SEC West as its rotating cross-division rivalry game and has to travel to Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.
There will be improvement at Kentucky, but it will still be bringing up the rear in the division.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
If you're looking for a team that's going to take a step back in 2014, look no further than the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Back-to-back nine-win seasons have the bar set high in Nashville, but without James Franklin as their head coach, just what will the Commodores look like?
It's difficult to predict just how the 2014 season will shake out since the head coaching position is vacant, but we do know that wide receiver Jordan Matthews is gone, as are defensive backs Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler.
The 'Dores won five games to close out the season but sputtered offensively to the tune of 309.8 yards per game over that stretch. The margin for error was thin, and now they have to go through a transition process, which could erase it entirely.
Patton Robinette played well limited action, and Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow constitute a solid one-two punch at running back; but can they make up for the lack of a proven playmaker outside?
The schedule isn't terrible. Vandy visits Mississippi State after a bye week as its rotating cross-division game, and has a bye week before visiting reigning SEC East champ Missouri on Oct. 25. But expect a step back regardless of who takes over the program.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee is certainly headed in the right direction, but there will still be some speed bumps along the way in 2014.
The biggest issue facing the Vols is along the offensive line, where all five starters from a year ago have moved on from the program. It doesn't matter how good wide receiver Marquez North looked down the stretch or who emerges as the No. 1 starter at quarterback if that quarterback isn't protected.
Getting linebacker A.J. Johnson back is big for the defense, and the secondary should be solid with Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman back. Those guys are going to have to put the offense in good field position, because while there are playmakers on the roster and more coming in the recruiting class, they're young and inexperienced, which leads to inconsistency.
Man, that schedule.
Utah State is no slouch to open the season, nor is Arkansas State in Week 2. If either or both of those two out-of-conference opponents don't live up to the challenge, a road trip to Oklahoma in Week 3 should have the Vols battle-tested by the time they travel to Georgia and host Florida to open the SEC season.
It also could leave them beat up.
Tennessee looks like a lower-tier bowl team, which would count as progress for Butch Jones in his second year at the helm.
4. Florida Gators
It's a make-or-break year for Florida head coach Will Muschamp, and he'll be dancing on that fine line between what's "making it" and what's "breaking it."
The good news—and yes, Florida fans, it is good news—is that quarterback Jeff Driskel should be back from his ankle injury in time for spring practice. That gives him ample opportunity to learn new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's system, which should feature more up-tempo and spread elements.
The bad news is there still is a remarkable lack of playmakers outside for him to throw to.
Can Ahmad Fulwood develop into a top-tier wide receiver? Will Driskel be able to get him the ball? Will he even have the time to do so?
It sounds like a broken record because it is. These are questions that have been lingering in Gainesville, but questions Roper has to answer. If he doesn't, he and Muschamp will be looking for work next offseason.
The schedule leaves no margin for error. In addition to the out-of-conference rivalry with defending national champ Florida State to close the season, the Gators have cross-division games versus LSU and Alabama, and they host defending division champ Missouri one week after the typically brutal slugfest versus LSU.
Will eight wins be enough for Muschamp? We'll see, because that's the area where the Gators will be in 2014.
3. Missouri Tigers
The defending SEC East champs will take a step back in 2013, but not all the way back to anonymity.
Maty Mauk looked like the real deal during the season when he filled in for James Franklin. The rising sophomore again appeared ready in the limited action we saw of him during Missouri's 41-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, where he completed two passes for 32 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 73 yards against the Cowboys.
Now it's Mauk's show, but he'll be going to the stage without star running back Henry Josey and wide receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. That will put a ton of pressure on running back Russell Hansbrough and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham to take the next step, respectively.
Defensively, can Missouri replicate the pass rush created departed defensive linemen Michael Sam and Kony Ealy? Can it take advantage without defensive backs E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder?
There are a lot of questions facing the defending division champs, and the schedule does do the Tigers a few favors. They have a bye week before hosting Georgia and another before traveling to Texas A&M.
Missouri will be competitive again in the SEC East, but it won't visit Atlanta for the second straight season.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia was riddled with injures a year ago, but provided those pieces stay healthy, the Bulldogs should be right back in the thick of the battle to win the SEC East in 2014.
Yes, quarterback Aaron Murray was gone, but rising senior Hutson Mason recovered from slow starts in his first two career starts to play well versus Georgia Tech and Nebraska, going 1-1 in the process. He'll have the dynamic duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall in the backfield, which is a nice insurance policy to have. In addition, wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley all should be back.
That's a lot of weapons for Mason and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to work with.
Yes, the defense struggled at times last season. But its weakest link—former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham—is now Bobby Petrino's problem at Louisville. Most of Georgia's problems on defense stem from basic alignment and communication issues. With essentially the same cast returning, you'd think those guys would be able to get on the same page regardless of who's calling the plays.
The Bulldogs have bye weeks before South Carolina and Florida, Kentucky before Auburn and get Arkansas as their rotating cross-division opponent.
Things are looking up for the Bulldogs in 2014.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina has won 11 games in three straight seasons, but it didn't appear in the SEC Championship Game in any of those three seasons.
The Gamecocks will break through that glass ceiling in 2014.
Yes, quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney are gone, but the Gamecocks will return a solid core that includes running back Mike Davis, a veteran offensive line and a linebacking corps that played well as the season progressed.
Dylan Thompson wasn't prepared to start on the road at Missouri last season, but that was the exception to the rule. He has shown throughout his career that he can stretch the field, and a solid running game and the emergence of Shaq Roland late last season as a deep threat should allow this offense to look more like an old-school "Steve Spurrier offense."
It'll be tough for the Gamecocks early, with games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri in the first month, but this team can handle it.