The red-headed stepchild of the Southeastern Conference, the SEC East has struggled for credibility over the past five seasons. Mainly cannon fodder for the SEC West champion in Atlanta, the SEC East has lost by an average of 23.5 points per title game over the past four years. While last year’s game was competitive, the East still has a long way to go in order to carry the flag of the SEC. But could this season be any different? With about four teams that could compete for the SEC East title, this year’s race to Atlanta could be closer than ever. Here are my predictions of how the season will shake out in the eastern half of the South.
1) Georgia Bulldogs: With his entire offense practically returning minus minus star receiver Tavarres King, quarterback Aaron Murray is poised for a big season. If he can live up to preseason Heisman expectations, there is no telling how far these Dawgs will do. But with a defense full of fresh faces, Georgia will rely on its offense to put points on the board fast. Also, their schedule is relatively decent for a SEC team. Hosting a weaker than usual LSU team and divisional rival South Carolina, Georgia is poised to make a return trip to Atlanta. An early matchup with Clemson in Death Valley will prove to be very telling of the character and drive of this Bulldogs squad that looks to finish on top of more than just the SEC East.
2) South Carolina Gamecocks: With plenty of returning talent, including the reincarnation of Sampson, running back Mike Davis will have everyone in Columbia saying “Marcus Lattimore. Who?” by the end of the season. The return of a healthy Connor Shaw is critical for these Gamecocks. Look for the quarterback to turn heads. But with a tough in- and out-of-conference schedule, the ‘fake USC’ could easily trip up and lose early in the season. If the Gamecocks can handle UNC and UGA in their first two games, there is no telling how far the Old Ball Coach can take this squad.
3) Vanderbilt Commodores: A risky pick for third, but this season belongs to head coach James Franklin as he is finally primed for a big season. After back-to-back bowl appearances, Vanderbilt is ready to compete in the SEC East. While the SEC schedule-makers were not kind to the ‘Dores, I believe this squad has an upset or two in them. Look for a fast start but difficult road games against South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Florida to send this team back to reality.
4) Florida Gators: The away game against Miami will be very telling for how the Gators’ season will unfold. On the road against a dark horse National Championship team in Miami early on is a recipe for disaster. Expect more of the same from last year — incredible defense with an extremely mediocre offense bumbling and stumbling its way down the field. But with such a strong defense, every game is winnable for this Florida team and they could easily find themselves leading the SEC East come December.
5) Missouri Tigers: Mizzou struggled under the harsh SEC spotlight last year and their usually potent offense performed poorly against stout SEC defenses. Only 82nd in the country in points for, Mizzou needs to find its spread-offense magic soon. Fortunately they return quarterback James Franklin and a host of dynamic playmakers. Especially with a very favorable schedule, road games against Vandy, UGA, UK, and Ole Miss, this Tigers team has plenty of opportunity to rediscover their lost groove.
6) Tennessee Volunteers: Summary of last season — explosive offense gets the lead, then beyond terrible defense fails to hold it. Will new coach Butch Jones turn things on Rocky Top? I for one don’t believe so. After losing many stars on offense while keeping their defense mainly intact, this will be a new look Tennessee team. Expect struggles on both sides of the ball, especially with the schedule ahead of them. With brutal road games against Oregon, Florida, and Alabama on the schedule, Jones truly will understand the phrase “baptism by fire” after his first year in Knoxville.
7) Kentucky Wildcats: Don’t worry Kentucky, you’re a basketball school. Already a rough 2013 for Kentucky fans, don’t expect the fall to get any better. Featuring a new “Air Raid” offense under Mark Stoops, these Wildcats will at least put some points on the board. But still plain and simple, this Kentucky team lacks the talent to compete in the conference and it is safe to say their season is over even before it begins. Look for these Wildcats to be much more competitive and keep games closer than they did last year.