SEC Football: Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Paul Augustin, Jr.Senior Analyst IJuly 9, 2008

Since the SEC went to a two-division format in 1992, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee have dominated the East.  They are the only three schools to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game.  Florida has made eight appearances, Tennessee has made five, and Georgia has made three. 

I don’t see anything changing this year.

In a previous article which previewed the SEC West, I mentioned that the schedule plays a factor in determining the success of a season.  Everyone has an opinion on what makes a schedule difficult.  I don’t have a magic formula, but when comparing teams that play many common opponents, I look at the road schedule.

I’m throwing out non-conference opponents because they do not determine standings within a division or conference.

Easiest Schedule: Vanderbilt.  Three of the Commodores' road games are against the middle and bottom of the conference: Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Ole Miss.  Their toughest game of the season is at Georgia.

Hardest Schedule: Georgia.  Many media members have speculated that Georgia has the toughest schedule in the SEC, and I think they may be right.  They are the only SEC team whose intra-conference schedule is against the three best teams in the other division.  They have to play LSU and Auburn on the road and get a visit from Alabama.  That’s not exactly Ole Miss, Vandy, and a rebuilding Arkansas there.

It’s a shame that one of Mark Richt’s most talented teams has to go through that gauntlet.  I guess that’s life in the SEC, though.

Nine intriguing SEC games involving at least one East team:

September 13 – Georgia @ South Carolina

The Bulldogs lost last year’s field goal bonanza to the Gamecocks in Georgia.  They will go into this game with revenge on the brain.

September 20 – Florida @ Tennessee

In any normal year, this game is fierce.  However, Tennessee has revenge on its mind after the 59-20 whupping the Gators put on the Volunteers last year.

September 27 - Alabama @ Georgia

The Tide might be able to spoil the Bulldogs' championship hopes in this battle in Athens.

October 11– Tennessee @ Georgia

Georgia’s loss to Tennessee last year helped cost them a trip to Atlanta. 

October 11 - LSU @ Florida

This is a meeting of the last two national champions.  Tim Tebow cried on his way out of Tiger Stadium last year and is looking for redemption.  This is turning into one of the better rivalries in the SEC.

October 25 - Georgia @ LSU

Another tough spot in Georgia's schedule.  Their last visit to LSU ended in disappointment.

October 25 - Alabama @ Tennessee

This intra-divisional rivalry is the second-oldest in the SEC.  These two teams play every year and hate each other.

November 1 – Florida @ Georgia

This is on the schedule as a home game for Georgia, but most SEC fans know this game is played in Jacksonville.  The “Planet’s Biggest Fresh Air Mixed Beverage Festival” (we aren’t supposed to call it by its famous moniker) is always intense.

November 15 - Georgia @ Auburn

The loser of this game may have blown its chance to play in Atlanta. 

Now here’s how I think things shake out in the SEC East:

6. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt is going to experience another season in the cellar of the SEC East. 

On offense, they return quarterbacks Chris Nickson and MacKenzi Adams.  Last year’s starter, Nickson was hurt much of last year and will battle Adams for this year’s starting job.  Losing all five starting linemen from a year ago should be frightening for whoever starts at quarterback and for the running game.

The Commodores must replace many starters on defense.  All-SEC performer D.J. Moore leads a decent secondary.  Despite his talents and leadership, look for this defense to struggle all season long.

5. Kentucky

The Wildcats will battle Vanderbilt for fifth in the East.  They lost tons of talent on offense, including QB Andre Woodson, and are not the type of team that just reloads every year.

Besides losing Woodson, Kentucky lost their best skill players in Rafael Little and Keenan Burton.  The good news for the offense is that Coach Brooks feels very comfortable about the skill and depth of his offensive line.

As bad as the offense may be in 2008, the defense may be worse.  They gave up nearly 200 yards on the ground per game last year, along with an SEC-worst 29.6 points per game. 

4. South Carolina

The ole visor’s team started 2007 really well.  They were 6-1 and were ranked as high as No. 8 in the country.  It seemed as if they might win the East and get into a major bowl game.  Then South Carolina fell on its face.  They lost their last five games and a spot in the rankings.

Steve Spurrier has two experienced quarterbacks on his roster in Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher, though Beecher’s experience is minimal.  Spurrier changed his mind at quarterback more often than a parent changes a baby’s diaper.  More inconsistency at quarterback will lead to more inconsistency in this football team.

The Gamecocks do have one star on offense.  All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley caught nine TDs and accumulated nearly 1,000 yards last season. 

Along the offensive line, South Carolina has nearly the opposite situation as Vanderbilt.  They return four starters.  The line has good size as well—each starter weighs over 300 pounds. 

Defensively, South Carolina is fairly solid and experienced.  They are led in the front seven by All-SEC DT Ladi Ajiboye, All-SEC CB Captain Munnerlyn, and LB Eric Norwood.

3. Tennessee

Inexperience at quarterback is a theme for many SEC teams this year, and Tennessee can’t escape it.  Eric Ainge graduated and is replaced by Jonathan CromptonCrompton has only thrown 78 passes in the past two years. 

The Volunteers will lean on RB Arian Foster to fuel their offense.  He rushed for almost 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns.  He is also a threat receiving out of the backfield.  He caught 39 passes for 340 yards and two TDs in 2007.

WR Lucas Taylor racked up exactly 1,000 yards on a team that often goes to three and four wide receiver sets.  The Volunteer offense has many talented wideouts to which Crompton can throw the ball.

On defense, the Vols are thin up front but return solid linebackers, despite the loss of Jerod Mayo.  Rico McCoy was All-SEC last year and recorded over 100 tackles playing alongside Mayo.  Tennessee returns one of the more experienced defensive backfields and should be solid against the pass.

2. Georgia

The Bulldogs looked like one of the very best teams in the country after destroying Hawaii last season in the Sugar Bowl.  Georgia appears to be the most talented team in the East, and maybe the entire SEC.  But their difficult schedule will trip them too many times to allow for a spot in the SEC title game.

Fortunately for Georgia, they return one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the conference, Matthew Stafford.  Stafford improved greatly as a sophomore.  He threw 12 more TDs and three fewer interceptions than his freshman year.  He must improve his 55 percent completion rate if he wants to further improve.

RB Knowshon Moreno and WR Mohamed Massaquoi lead the skill positions.  Moreno broke out as a freshman with over 1,300 yards rushing and 14 TDsMassaquoi is a big-play receiver who should see more passes judging by the way he performed in the Sugar Bowl, and with a more experienced Stafford under center.

The defense brings a lot of talent and depth as the Bulldogs return nine starters.  They are led by All-SEC performers DT Geno Atkins and LB Dannell Ellerbe.  Georgia’s defense was tops in the East last year in terms of scoring and total yards allowed.

Besides its schedule, Georgia’s biggest hurdle is the lack of offensive play-making depth.

1. Florida

Urban Meyer and his spread offense are back for a fourth season in Gainesville.  The Gators led the SEC and were fourth in the nation in scoring. 

Heisman winner Tim Tebow returns for his third season and second as a full-time starter.  After many doubts outside of Gainesville about his passing ability, Tebow could not have had a better season.  He completed two-thirds of his passes and threw for 32 TDs with only six interceptions.  He also rushed for 23 TDs as the Gators really didn’t have a reliable tailback. 

As a junior, Tim Tebow may have to reduce some of his running.  He took a big pounding in the middle of the season and suffered shoulder and hand injuries.  If Tebow goes down for any extended time, the Gators are in big trouble.

Biletnikoff candidate Percy Harvin also returns to the Gator offense.  He had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs last season.  Whether he receives the ball in the backfield or in the secondary, Harvin is always a threat to score. 

Florida’s defense was a sore spot last year.  The run defense was good, except for the Georgia game, but the play of the secondary was terrible.  They were near the bottom of the entire NCAA in passing yards allowed and surrendered over 25 points per game, including 41 to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.

Linebacker is the strength of Florida’s defense.  They are led by All-SEC defender, Brandon Spikes.  Florida has other LBs with quality experience with Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones.

Florida’s explosive offense will get them through most of their games.  Luckily for them, the overall quality of quarterback play within the SEC will probably be down from last season.

Their biggest test will be against Georgia.  If they can contain Moreno, they should be able to hold off the Bulldogs for a victory and go on to capture the SEC East.


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