Optimistic, Pessimistic and Realistic Predictions for Every SEC East Team
Yesterday, we hit on the SEC West's optimistic, pessimistic and realistic 2014 predictions. Now, it's time to head to the wide-open SEC East.
Defending SEC East champ Missouri surprised the world last year but now has to deal with the target on its back and some major holes on both sides of the ball.
Can Georgia, Florida, South Carolina or Tennessee get back to Atlanta, or will this be another year of surprises and upsets in the East?
Optimistic, pessimistic and realistic picks are in this slideshow.
The biggest mystery in the SEC this season lives in Gainesville, where fourth-year head coach Will Muschamp is on the hottest seat in the conference with very little margin for error. He knows it, though, and made a philosophical change this offseason, bringing in Kurt Roper to install his hurry-up offense for the Florida Gators.
But just how well will it click?
Quarterback Jeff Driskel is a perfect fit for what Roper wants to do, and there's no shortage of running back talent to work with. Somebody has to step up outside, though, and whether that's Demarcus Robinson, Quinton Dunbar or somebody else, it needs to happen in the offseason and not this fall.
Defensively, the Gators are loaded. Dante Fowler is a monster off the edge, and Vernon Hargreaves III leads one of the most talented secondaries in the country.
Optimistic: 11-1 with one loss coming to Florida State, Georgia, Alabama, LSU or South Carolina.
Pessimistic: 5-7, with losses to all five of those teams, Missouri and Tennessee.
Realistic: 8-4, with loses coming out of a group consisting of Alabama, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.
Despite an injury list that read more like a novel during the 2013 season, the Georgia Bulldogs managed to win eight games and were in the discussion for the division title in mid-November. The majority of that roster will return intact and healthy, including running back Todd Gurley, four established wide receivers and eight starters on defense.
Hutson Mason will take over at quarterback after four years of watching Aaron Murray. With all of those weapons, all he has to do is be a caretaker for the offense to click. If he's a difference-maker, look out.
The big question is on defense, where new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is charged with simplifying a talented unit that was incredibly lost last year. But the linebacking corps is loaded with talent, including Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, and Pruitt has a nice, shiny national title ring that indicates he can handle one-year turnarounds.
Optimistic: 12-0, SEC champs, No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.
Pessimistic: 6-6, with losses to Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and two out of a group consisting of Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Realistic: 10-2 with losses to Auburn and either South Carolina or Florida.
Mark Stoops' second year at the helm of the Kentucky program might be a struggle, but there's no doubt that he has momentum turned around on the recruiting trail.
On the field, it's still a work in progress. This season hinges on the health and consistency of the quarterback—likely either Patrick Towles or true freshman early enrollee Drew Barker. They both have the skills to handle the air-raid offense, but Kentucky needs somebody to step up outside at wide receiver.
The duo of "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith up front will make Kentucky's defensive line something to be reckoned with. If the front four can generate pressure on their own, it will help the back end of that defense tremendously.
Optimistic: 6-6, but Kentucky will have to spring an upset or two along the way.
Pessimistic: 3-9, with wins coming against UT-Martin, Ohio and ULM.
Realistic: 4-8, with those three wins and an upset of Vanderbilt or Mississippi State.
Missouri has some hardware to show for its 2013 run to the division title, but will that momentum continue in 2014 with a new full-time starting quarterback, a new running back, a new-look wide receiving corps, and defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy gone?
That's a lot to ask.
Maty Mauk was solid in place of quarterback James Franklin last season, but he will have to improve upon a completion percentage (51.1 percent) that simply won't cut it. Russell Hansbrough is a talented running back, and Bud Sasser has shown flashes at wide receiver, but they're all going to have to grow up in a hurry for the offense to click.
Defensively, Markus Golden and Shane Ray are solid, but they'll have to be able to generate pressure—which was a big reason Missouri was successful last year.
Optimistic: 10-2, and a return trip to Atlanta.
Pessimistic: 6-6, with losses to UCF, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Realistic: 8-4, with losses to Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and either Texas A&M or Tennessee.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Three straight 11-win seasons have South Carolina fans clamoring for the program to take the next step, and it's certainly possible with the squad head coach Steve Spurrier is returning in 2014.
Mike Davis is a bona fide Heisman contender at running back, Shaq Roland leads a talented receiving corps, new quarterback Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience under his belt to hit the ground running, and four starters are returning on the offensive line.
The big question is on defense, where three holes on the defensive line need to be filled. Tackle J.T. Surratt is the only returning starter, and Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr. (two players, same name), Darius English, Abu Lamin and others are vying for playing time. The secondary has issues too, but the versatility of Brison Williams will help coordinator Lorenzo Ward mix and match his best four options.
Optimistic: 12-0, SEC champs, No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff.
Pessimistic: 6-6, with losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, Missouri, Florida, Auburn and Clemson.
Realistic: 10-2 with losses to Auburn and Georgia, but watch out for Florida.
Tennessee is going to be interesting this season. Second-year head coach Butch Jones has skill players everywhere, including running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd as well as wide receivers Marquez North, Josh Malone and Von Pearson.
But no returning starters on either the offensive or defensive line is very concerning.
Tennessee will show signs that it is ready to take the next step this year, and if it figures things out in the trenches, it could be the surprise team of the SEC. But consistency is a lot to ask of a program that's been remarkably lacking consistency since 2007.
Optimistic: 9-3, with losses to Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia, Florida or South Carolina.
Pessimistic: 4-8, with losses to all of those teams above as well as Ole Miss, Missouri and Vanderbilt or Utah State.
Realistic: 6-6, with losses to Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss.
New Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason has his work cut out for him. Not only is he fighting an uphill battle from a personnel standpoint at Vanderbilt, but he also has to deal with expectations left over from back-to-back nine-win seasons.
He found a talented running back corps when he got to Nashville, led by Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. The quarterback situation is still unsettled, but Patton Robinette got experience last season, and Johnny McCrary has some upside. How well the established players adjust to the new system will be key.
Defensively, Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann stepped back to play linebacker in the multiple 3-4 system and could shine there just as they did with their hands in the dirt.
Optimistic: 9-3, with losses to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Pessimistic: 4-8, with those four wins all coming out of conference.
Realistic: 6-6 with four out-of-conference wins, a win over Kentucky and an upset.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @BarrettSallee.