Complete Predictions for Every SEC East Team in 2014
On Wednesday, the full SEC West predictions were released. Now, it's time to head across the division and pick the winners and losers from the SEC East.
Will South Carolina get back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2010? Can Georgia pick up the pieces and get back into the national discussion? Will Florida's offense get back on track?
The SEC East has been the lesser of the two SEC divisions over the last few years, but 2014 could mark its return to national power.
Full picks, previews and predictions for the SEC East are in this slideshow.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
Most Important Storyline: Ease The Transition
Former head coach James Franklin set the bar pretty high in Nashville, and now new head coach Derek Mason not only has to deal with some rather significant roster turnover, but also fight against expectations generated from back-to-back nine-win seasons. Not an easy task for any coach, much less one at Vanderbilt where winning has been more myth than reality.
There are some solid pieces for Mason to work with, particularly at running back where Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow will provide a solid one-two punch that will help the new quarterback ease into the role.
But who will that quarterback be? Patton Robinette saw some time last year, Johnny McCrary is a hot-shot freshman with upside and Stephen Rivers transferred from LSU this summer. Those three have been locked in a heated battle during fall camp, and whoever wins the job will have to settle into the role quickly with the season right around the corner.
Defensively, Vandy has some solid pieces, but Mason's new 3-4 scheme will still take some time for the 'Dores to adjust to.
Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback
It's not Mason's fault, but whoever wins the quarterback job will have valuable first-team reps taken away from him by virtue of the prolonged three-way battle during fall camp. That means it's more likely for Vandy to be ground-and-pound early with those running backs, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the new wide receivers.
Jordan Matthews is gone, but another Jordan—Jordan Cunningham—is expected to step in and become one of the centerpieces of the new-look receiving corps. He'll have to play big early, because the offense will need him to click with the new quarterback early to take some pressure off the running game.
Toughest Game: at Georgia on Oct. 4
Vandy has seven games in seven weeks to start the season, and the sixth game in that stretch is a road trip to Athens to take on a Georgia team that will have revenge in mind. Georgia's offense, when healthy, will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Vandy's new-look defense thanks to running back Todd Gurley, a talented wide receiving corps and Hutson Mason, who should establish himself as an SEC star by that point in the season.
MVP: Running back Jerron Seymour
Seymour rushed for 716 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and is back for more in 2014. He is the most important offensive piece of the 'Dores' offensive puzzle and will dance around the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
Prediction: 4-8 (0-8 SEC)
It will be a rebuilding year for Mason in year one in Nashville, with Vandy winning all four of its nonconference games (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion) but none of its SEC games.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
Most Important Storyline: Consistency
Mark Stoops' first year in Lexington didn't exactly go according to plan, with a 2-10 record and 0-8 mark in the SEC. The best is yet to come, but it might be a slow trek back to a bowl game.
The key for Kentucky this year is consistency. Patrick Towles was tabbed as the starting quarterback, and he's going to have to establish a connection with Javess Blue, Demarco Robinson and the rest of those bigger Wildcat receivers. That air-raid offense clicks when there's at least a threat at running back, and JoJo Kemp can absolutely provide that threat.
Defensively, there's a solid foundation with "Bud' Dupree and Za'Darius Smith at defensive end and monster defensive tackle Matt Elam in the middle. If they can get pressure with four, those guys will force mistakes and help out the secondary.
A solid foundation is in place, and if these Wildcats are consistent, they'll be competitive.
Biggest Question Mark: Linebacker
Avery Williamson finished second in the SEC in tackles in 2012 (135) and sixth in 2013 (102), and his absence has left a big void in the middle of that Wildcat defense.
Junior Khalid Henderson has plenty of experience and has to evolve into the leader of that defense. Alongside him, Josh Forrest, TraVaughn Paschal and/or one of the newcomers needs to step up and help the linebacking corps be more consistent.
Kentucky's front four will be stout and take up blocks, and it's up to the linebackers to clean up.
Toughest Game: at LSU on Oct. 18
Death Valley is one of the toughest places to play in all of college football, and the Wildcats will head to LSU on Oct. 18 in the middle of a stretch of eight games in eight weeks. The front seven will be tested by LSU's deep and veteran offensive line, and that air-raid offense will be going up against one of the best secondaries in the SEC.
MVP: Quarterback Patrick Towles
Kentucky's offense is dependent on the quarterback making smart decisions and getting the ball out quick, and the keys to that offense are in the hands of Towles. The big-armed former 4-star prospect sat out last season but impressed the coaching staff this spring and then won the job over Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Maxwell Smith during fall camp.
If he stays healthy, he'll keep Kentucky in games thanks to his familiarity with the offense and ability to stretch the field and keep defenses honest.
Prediction: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)
Stoops will get his first SEC win when Vanderbilt rolls into town on Sept. 27, but that will be the only one in his second season in Lexington. Good enough? It should be. He has the program going in the right direction, but it's going to take some time to get back to a bowl game.
5. Missouri Tigers
Most Important Storyline: Offensive Identity
Losing quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey and massive wide receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas was going to be tough enough for head coach Gary Pinkel, but losing stud wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham one week prior to the end of spring practice is the biggest issue facing this Missouri team.
Whether he had the ball in his hands or not, DGB was the focal point of the offense that demanded attention from opposing coaches and players. With him gone, Missouri needs to figure out what it's going to be offensively. Will it still spread the ball around and stay balanced, or go back to a more run-based approach similar to the one in 2011 when it finished with the ninth-best rushing offense in the nation?
That hinges on quarterback Maty Mauk. Mauk filled in admirably for Franklin last season, tossing 11 touchdowns and only two picks for the year. But he only completed 51.1 percent of his passes (68 of 133), and that was with three wide receivers who resembled NBA power forwards.
If Mauk can be more consistent in the passing game, the Tigers offense will stay balanced and keep defenses honest. If not, it could be a long season in Columbia.
Biggest Question Mark: Repeating the Feat Defensively
Missouri was fantastic last season up front, with ends Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray rotating for a full four quarters to help the Tigers get pressure with four. The back end capitalized, notching an SEC-best 20 interceptions.
Sam and Ealy are gone, along with cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder. Those are some pretty hefty names to replace, and while Golden is a budding superstar, he's still going to need some help and depth around him to follow the same blueprint.
Toughest Game: at Florida on Oct. 18
Missouri's schedule isn't terribly daunting by SEC standards, but the road trip to Gainesville the week after hosting Georgia should scare Tiger fans. Florida's defense is legit, and if the offense is just average, the Gators are going to get back into the SEC East mix in a hurry. The winner of the game between the Tigers and Gators will stay in the division title discussion, while the loser will fall into a hole that will be difficult to dig out of.
MVP: Running back Russell Hansbrough
Hansbrough rushed for 685 yards and four touchdowns last year as Josey's primary backup, and Missouri needs him to dance around the 1,000-yard mark this year if that offense is going to be successful. He has a pretty solid offensive line to run behind, but he's going to have to be a workhorse early while Missouri figures out its passing game.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC), AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
Missouri won't stay in the SEC East discussion, but it will still make a bowl game and be competitive even in losses. Their three SEC wins will be over Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas, with Tennessee and Texas A&M also being possibilities.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
Most Important Storyline: Progress
It's a lot to ask Tennessee fans to be patient after all that's gone on since Phillip Fulmer resigned after the 2008 season, but one more year of patience is needed in order for second-year head coach Butch Jones to get the program back on stable footing.
Progress needs to happen this year, even if it's a baby step.
The good news for the Vols is that there's talent at the skill positions all over the place, with wide receivers Marquez North, Josh Malone, Pig Howard and Jason Croom; along with running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd.
The bad news is a brand-new offensive line that features five new starters, which will lend itself to inconsistencies.
Defensively, the Vols' need to find a way for that new front four to come together quickly, which will go a long way toward helping out a secondary that's going to be pretty good.
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line
Coleman Thomas and Kyler Kyberson are battling for the job at right tackle, Jacob Gilliam and Dontavius Blair are working at left tackle with Jashon Robertson locked in at right guard, Mack Crowder at center and Marcus Jackson at left guard.
Once the roster gets settled, the starting five need to come together quickly. If they do, Tennessee's offense is capable of being the surprise of the SEC in 2014. If the offensive line doesn't come together, the Vols will still show flashes of brilliance throughout the season but will lack the consistency needed in order to make a gigantic leap forward.
Toughest Game: at Oklahoma on Sept. 13
Yes, Oklahoma is an out-of-conference game that has no bearing on the outcome of the SEC East, but it will provide a good gauge of where this Tennessee team is.
The Sooners are loaded on both sides of the ball and ready to make a run at the national title, so if Tennessee can roll into Norman and be competitive, it's a sign that things are going in the right direction.
Moral victories in the SEC? They exist for this Vols team, and one in Norman would be a great sign of things to come.
MVP: Linebacker A.J. Johnson
It seems like A.J. Johnson has been at Tennessee for a decade, and it will be up to him to be the leader of a Vols defense that will benefit tremendously from an experienced quarterback in the middle of that defense. Johnson has finished in the top five in the SEC in tackles in each of the last two seasons and will need to play at that level again if the Vols are going to get back to a bowl.
Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 SEC), Belk Bowl
Tennessee will notch SEC wins over Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season, get to its first bowl game since 2010 and—most importantly—give this very young roster valuable bowl practices. It won't be the giant leap forward like some may want, but the best is yet to come on Rocky Top.
3. South Carolina Gamecocks
Most Important Storyline: Georgia Dome or Bust
If you're looking for the glory days of South Carolina football, these are them. The Gamecocks have posted three straight 11-win seasons but don't have an SEC Championship Game appearance to show for it during that span.
That needs to change.
They enter the season with the No. 9 ranking in the preseason AP poll, the favorite in the SEC East and with legitimate College Football Playoff expectations. Dylan Thompson enters his first year as the full-time starting quarterback and has a solid offensive line in front of him and a Heisman Trophy contender at running back in Mike Davis.
Does South Carolina have staying power, or will it regress? A trip to the Georgia Dome in early December would indicate the former.
Biggest Question Mark: New-Look Defense
With veterans like Skai Moore and Kaiwan Lewis, South Carolina's linebackers are set. The rest of the defense? That's a different story.
It isn't just the absence of Jadeveon Clowney up front who will be missed, it's fellow defensive end Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles. Can Darius English become a threat off the edge? Can Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. fill in for Sutton and Quarles, respectively? That's a lot to ask.
To compound issues, the Gamecock secondary is relatively inexperienced and is depending on freshmen Chris Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. to step in and be key contributors right away, according to the Associated Press.
A new defensive line coupled with inexperience on the back end of the defense isn't a recipe for success, it's a recipe for disaster. South Carolina better hope some fresh faces mature in a hurry; otherwise the defense will prevent the Gamecocks from taking that next step.
Toughest Game: vs. Georgia on Sept. 13
The Georgia game is typically the one that establishes the landscape of the SEC East, and this year's edition in Columbia is no different. Both programs will already have a big game under their belts, but Georgia will have two weeks to prepare for the SEC East showdown. Winner gets front-runner status, with the loser digging itself quite a hole to dig out of.
MVP: Running back Mike Davis
Davis is questionable for the opener against Texas A&M with a hip injury, according to The State, but when healthy, he's one of the best running backs in the entire country. The 5'9", 223-pounder has the power to run defenders over and speed to be a home run hitter in the open field. Thompson is a senior quarterback who has experience, but a solid running game led by Davis will take some pressure off of him as he takes over the starting quarterback role.
Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 SEC), Outback Bowl
South Carolina will take a small step back this year, dropping games to Georgia at home, Auburn and Florida on the road and the regular-season finale at Clemson—breaking the Gamecocks' five-game winning streak over their intra-state rivals. The defense won't be consistent enough against potent offenses and Florida's defense will shut down Davis and the Gamecocks offense in Gainesville.
2. Florida Gators
Most Important Storyline: Redemption
Last year's 4-8 debacle placed head coach Will Muschamp squarely on the hot seat, and he responded by doing what any coach fighting for his job should do—swallowed his pride.
Muschamp abandoned the pro-style offense he favors and replaced it with a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme led by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Roper's system is a perfect fit for quarterback Jeff Driskel, who was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation in 2011. Driskel has responded well according to defensive back Jabari Gorman (via: Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel):
Demarcus Robinson is a potential superstar at wide receiver, Andre Debose is a threat in the slot and Kelvin Taylor has All-SEC potential at running back.
Florida's offense will be back with a vengeance in 2014, and even if it doesn't undergo a "Gus Malzahn-like" turnaround, a defense led by defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and corner Vernon Hargreaves III will keep the Gators competitive.
Biggest Question Mark: The Offense
The offense should turn around in a hurry, and it better because there isn't much of a margin for error in Gainesville.
Florida has to be clicking on all cylinders when it goes to Alabama on Sept. 20, because after that, a road trip to Tennessee and a home game against LSU are looming. Those could make or break the Muschamp regime.
Driskel better have a firm grasp of what he's doing and stay healthy once toe meets leather, because one slip up could turn the remaining decision-makers in Muschamp's camp away from him and send the season into another tailspin.
Toughest Game: at Alabama on Sept. 20
This is just a massive game for the Gators. Its new-look offense will be going up against what's typically a top-end defense and will leave Tuscaloosa with a firm grasp of where it is and where it needs to go.
Conversely, Florida's loaded defense will be going up against an Alabama offense that has some questions up front and a new quarterback—either Blake Sims or Jacob Coker.
This is a barometer game for both programs, and it will set the tone for the remainder of the season.
MVP: Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III
In a perfect world for Muschamp, you'll never hear anybody mention Hargreaves' name. A third-team AP All-American last year as a true freshman, Hargreaves has established himself as one of the top corners in the entire country. Teams should shy away from him, and if he takes away half of the field and forces quarterbacks to look in the other direction, it would limit options for opposing offenses and allow the rest of Florida's defense to shine.
Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 SEC), Capital One Bowl
Muschamp will keep his job and go bowling in Florida at season's end. The Gators will fall to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Georgia in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and to intra-state rival Florida State in the season finale but re-establish themselves as a team to reckon with in the SEC East.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Most Important Storyline: Getting Back the Mojo
Georgia has the talent to be a contender for the College Football Playoff, it just has to come together.
It will in 2014.
Todd Gurley leads a deep and talented running back corps that will provide a nice insurance policy for Gurley if he gets banged up again. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are potential All-SEC candidates at wide receiver, the Bulldogs should get back Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley sooner rather than later and new quarterback Hutson Mason looked sharp in the offseason and could get the keys to a more uptempo offense.
Defensively, there's no shortage of talent in Athens. The problem was coaching, and Georgia solved the problem by hiring former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt—a teacher by trade. The front seven is loaded, and despite the unexpected departures of Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews, there is experience on the back end with corner Damian Swann and safeties Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger.
Biggest Question Mark: The Secondary
That secondary will get a boost from the move of J.J. Green to safety, the signing of junior college corner Shattle Fenteng and the presence of plenty of options including safety Aaron Davis, versatile Sheldon Dawson, corner Devin Bowman and "star" Dominick Sanders.
There are options there for Pruitt, and, considering Pruitt has national title rings from the last three seasons on his hand, hasn't he earned the benefit of the doubt?
Georgia's secondary looked like it was doing aerobics prior to the snap more times than not last year trying to get on the same page. Pruitt was brought in to be a teacher and to simplify, as he has done at his previous stops.
He'll do it again in 2014.
Toughest Game: vs. Florida on Nov. 1 in Jacksonville, Florida
It may not be for the division title when toe meets leather, but the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville will be the game that decides the winner of the SEC East. Georgia is riding a three-game winning streak over the Gators, and it'd help out Florida head coach Will Muschamp's job security if he could finally take down his alma mater in this heated rivalry.
Both teams have a bye week to prepare for it, so expect them to be refreshed, healthy and ready for the battle on the "First Coast."
MVP: Running back Todd Gurley
When healthy, Gurley is the most complete running back in the country. At 6'1", 226 pounds, he has the size to be a force between the tackles, the moves of a changeup back in space and legitimate track star speed when he gets into the open field. He's not only a threat as a running back, but provides Mason a nice safety valve as a receiver out of the backfield and understands pass protection.
If Georgia is going to be successful, Gurley will have to be successful. He will be a star in 2014 and could find his way to New York City in early December as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Prediction: 12-0 (8-0 SEC), SEC East Champs, SEC Champs, Sugar Bowl Champs, National Runner-Up
Georgia will finally get over the hump and claim its first SEC title since 2005. It will get by Auburn in mid-November in Athens, and then beat the Tigers again in the SEC Championship Game to claim the SEC crown and the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff. They'll top No. 4 seed UCLA in the Sugar Bowl before falling to No. 2 Oklahoma (who will top No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl) in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.