This is part six of a series previewing the 2011 SEC college football season.
The Gators may be one of the more perplexing teams in all of college football going into the 2011 season. Between Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyers’ time in Gainesville (sorry Ron Zook), the Florida Gators have been built into a brand name with lots of recognition and high expectations nationally.
With a new coach, new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator, the fact that Florida has 6 returning starters on offense—including senior quarterback John Brantley and three returning starters on defense—can be thrown out the window.
Do we gage UF on Texas’ poor defense last season, Charlie Weis’ poor offenses at Notre Dame, or the quality of recruits Urban Meyer left for Will Muschamp from an 8-5 2010 team? Will the players rally around their new coach? Time will tell.
Florida only has two starting offensive lineman returning and a new system to learn. There will be some growing pains, with 23 seniors gone from last year’s team. The defense may be turned loose, but they are still very young and will take some heavy lumps along the way.
Talent, a new coach and system and a really tough schedule should make Florida a year away—or two—from getting back to their 10 win seasons.
The Gators have a couple of swing games that could make their season or break it: at Kentucky, vs. Alabama, at LSU, vs. Georgia, at South Carolina and vs. Florida State. If the Gators start to slide look for true freshman Jeff Driskel to get a head start on 2012.
Georgia may have the best quarterback in the SEC, but who’s going to catch the ball or run the ball?
Mark Richt is hoping prized recruit, running back Isaiah Crowell, can be Marcus Lattimore-like this season and open up opportunities for Murray downfield. RBs Washaun Ealey transferred out and Caleb King failed to qualify academically. Richard Samuel, a running back turned linebacker and back to running back, will get some looks. RB Carlton Thomas is suspended for the first game versus Boise State.
Any preseason injury or an injury to Isaiah Crowell and the Bulldogs season could be essentially over. Murray will win them some games with his arm, but if you can’t run the ball in the SEC you can’t win.
The Bulldogs have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball, with seven starters coming back and underclassmen pushing those starters for playing time and their positions. Their secondary should be good enough to help the younger defensive linemen and linebackers put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Which SEC East team is being most overlooked nationally?
Coming off their first losing season (6-7) since 1996, Mark Richt has no choice but to win this season—or else. His average of eight wins per season over the past five years is not enough for the Athens faithful. Richt has not taken the Bulldogs to the SEC Title Game since 2005, when he went three times out of the previous four years.
Their 2011 road schedule is soft. The two toughest games should be at Tennessee and Florida in Jacksonville. They avoid playing Arkansas, LSU and Alabama.
The promise of Murray as a junior may not be enough for Richt’s coaching prospects in Athens if Georgia settles for another 8-4 regular season. The Bulldogs can make a statement in week one at home against Boise State. If that game turns into a bad loss…watch out!
The Bulldogs swing games are against Boise State, Mississippi State and at Tennessee.
Joker Phillips had about as good of a first year at Kentucky as anyone could have hoped. The Wildcats played tough last year and were in every game they played. Florida and Pittsburgh got a little out of hand. They shocked South Carolina and gave eventual national champs, Auburn, a run for their money (37-34).
QB Mike Hartline, WR Randall Cobb and RB Derrick Locke are gone and will be tough to replace. UK has four returning linemen which should help Morgan Newton find his way under center.
If UK does not have a running back take control of their ground game this could be a long second season for Mr. Phillips. Look for incoming freshmen running backs Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons to get plenty of opportunities to earn the starting position and show what they can do.
If a couple of defensive lineman can make an impact, this defense can win UK some games. Seven total starters return, including two linebackers and the entire secondary. Co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter should be very aggressive with this group and cause turnovers and extra opportunities for the Wildcats. Linebacker Danny Trevathan is a beast and should be a great person for Minter to build around. Turning on a UK game to watch Trevathan play will be time well spent.
Kentucky has a tough SEC schedule: at LSU, at South Carolina and at Georgia. They get the Gators, Tennessee and MSU at home. Those games should be considered trap games for the visiting teams. Their non-conference schedule should put them in position to make a bowl this year.
The real question is can/could anyone not named Meyer, Saban or God recruit at Kentucky?
South Carolina Gamecocks
Last year Steve Spurrier took advantage of the most talented freshman running back to enter the SEC since Darren McFadden was in the backfield for Arkansas…that and a weak SEC East Division. Spurrier has one mission this season, keep QB Stephen Garcia from self imploding. The final outcome of that mission will be if USC makes their second straight SEC Title Game.
The Gamecocks have a ton of talent returning, especially at their skill positions. All a novice needs to know about USC football before tailgating or a Saturday BBQ in Columbia is RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery.
Saying you love those two guys will get you a cold one and a couple of new friends. Lattimore has three returning lineman who will try to pave the way for another 1,000 season for him. Who will start at LG and RT is the biggest question the Gamecock faithful have going into 2011.
Ellis Johnson is making USC’s defense into a title contending unit. Devin Taylor and true freshman Jadeveon Clowney should spend as much time in the opposition’s backfield as the head referee. Senior DT Travian Robertson will anchor the Gamecock line and give the three returning secondary players time to shut down opposing receivers.
Why Spurrier has not been able to develop a quarterback into an All-American is a question for the ages. In Spurrier’s first three years at USC he seemed to lack the recruiting fire or edge he once had while in Gainesville. Over the past three years he has added great talent and seemingly regained some of that fire. The time has come to cash in on his efforts.
South Carolina has some swing games before anointing them the SEC East Champs: at Georgia, at MSU and at Arkansas. Beating Florida last year at the Swamp had to be a relief for Spurrier. He should be able to do the same again this year at home.
If USC can stay consistent and not have a let down game after a big win like last year (beating Alabama then losing to UK), this is your SEC East Champs. If Spurrier overruns Lattimore again like he did early last year, this could be a better than average year in Columbia—but a true disappointment for the fans.
Derek Dooley got every bit of effort out of his team in his first year in Knoxville. A four game winning streak at the end of the season could be the main motivator for this year’s team. Tennessee is still young, and if they keep improving the balance of power could swing back to the SEC East next season.
Will Tyler Bray or Matt Simms win the starting quarterback position? Bray went 4-1 against weaker teams but still almost throw for 2,000 yards in those five games—impressive. What could he do with an entire year under center?
Whoever is taking snaps will have to learn to play without WR Denarius Moore and WR Gerald Jones. Tauren Poole should be able to increase his 1,034 yard season in 2010 with three returning offensive linemen in front of him.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will have his hands full this season. Wilcox has five returning starters on defense and a bunch of underclassmen fighting for playing time. His unit played really well in the second half of the season. Having an offense eat up time instead of going three and out sure helped.
Dooley gets no help from the schedule this season. His team may improve, but the record will be hard to show it. His biggest coaching job may be to keep his players playing tough and staying motivated through October, similar to last season.
They play versus Georgia, LSU, at Alabama, against South Carolina and then on the road to Fayetteville, Arkansas in November. The sliver lining is that three of those games are at home. The bad news is four of those teams should be in the top 10 at some point during the season.
James Franklin could be in the cat bird seat or he really has his work cut out for him—time will tell.
He inherits a 2-10 team—1-7 in the SEC during the 2010 season—but he has 18 total starters returning. If he can make an impact with his team this could be one of the most overlooked trap games in the SEC. The problem for the Commodores is they basically play every tough team in the conference except for LSU and MSU.
Vanderbilt may be a year away from making some real noise. Their entire offensive line returns and all but one are underclassmen. They have a top quarterback recruit to break in to replace senior starter Larry Smith, Lafonte Thourgood.
If this defensive unit can stay healthy, they could win a game or two at home that everyone expects them to lose. They have a stud middle linebacker in Chris Marve and three players returning in their secondary. The defensive line will have to help stop the run or this could be a repeat season from last year. Vandy’s rush defense was ranked 100th nationally in 2010 and 93rd in overall team defense. A jump 40-50 spots north and this team will make a lot of noise—but that's a big if.
In truth, if Franklin wins all of his non-conference games and leads Vandy to victory over Ole Miss, this will be a pretty good season. Kentucky could be a home swing game for them.
Predicted Order of Finish
Team/SEC Record/Overall Record
South Carolina 6-2, 10-2
Florida 6-2, 9-3
Georgia 5-3, 9-3
Kentucky 4-4, 8-4
Tennessee 2-6, 6-6
Vanderbilt 1-7, 5-7