2017 SEC East Preview

1. Georgia Bulldogs– Heading into the fall, they are the favorites to win this division. Jacob Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman last year and will only get better with another offseason to work as the Number 1 signal-caller. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are one of the best backfield tandems in the country. The offensive line is the biggest concern for Kirby Smart’s team along with the defense who started underclassmen across the board but limited teams to 24 points per game which isn’t bad. is unit should be one of the better defenses in the SEC next fall, especially with the development of lineman Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith to anchor the front seven. Safety Dominick Sanders leads the way in the secondary.

2. Florida Gators– Their offense has been horrible and there’s no other way to really describe it. Despite that, they have won the SEC East two years in a row under Jim McElwain. Improving the offensive side of the ball is the top priority coming into the season. Who will be the starting quarterback? Will it be redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders head coach, Jack Del Rio or Malik Zaire, the transfer from Notre Dame. The depth and talent in the receiving corps is improving, with Antonio Callaway and fellow receiver Tyrie Cleveland headlining the options on the outside. Jordan Scarlett became the team’s top running back and will start the season as the number one on the depth chart at his position. The Gators hired Randy Shannon as the new defensive coordinator and the losses on that side of the ball are big ones. He must replace both starting cornerbacks (Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson), linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone and standout tackle Caleb Brantley. Florida also has a tough schedule. They open the season up against Michigas at JerryWorld in Dallas.

3. Tennessee Volunteers– It’s truly a three-way race atop the SEC East. Butch Jones has led the Volunteers to nine win seasons two years in a row and continues to search for that breakthrough within the division and a trip to Atlanta for a shot at a conference title. Despite the fact they lost quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and defensive end Derek Barnett, Tennessee shouldn’t be counted out in the race for the division. Vying to replace Dobbs are two talented options in Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. All eyes will be on the offensive line, a unit that surrendered 25 sacks a year ago. Injuries took a toll on Tennessee’s defense last season, and coordinator Bob Shoop has some work to do this spring retooling a group that surrendered 5.8 yards per play. Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton are the biggest losses to address. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be one of the best in the SEC.

4. Kentucky Wildcats– With a 7-6 record and an appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the Wildcats are coming off their best season under coach Mark Stoops. And there’s optimism for this program to continue its upward trend in 2017. With Drew Barker returning from injury, coordinator Eddie Gran will have two options at quarterback. However, the strength of the offense is on the ground with Benny Snell at running back, as well as an offensive line that returns four starters. Center Jon Toth and receiver Jeff Badet are the biggest losses on offense. The defense has not finished higher than 11th in the SEC in points allowed in each of the last four seasons. Will that change in 2017? Linebacker Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) is a rising star, and the cornerback spot is in good shape with Derrick Baity, Jordan Griffin and Chris Westry. This defense has to get better against the run after surrendering 228.5 yards per game in 2016. Key swing games against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are on the road in 2017. However, the Wildcats host Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee next fall.

5. South Carolina Game Cocks– South Carolina was one of the SEC’s biggest surprises in 2016. Despite returning only six starters under new coach Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks finished 6-7 and picked up three wins in SEC play. While South Carolina has a ways to go in order to challenge for a spot among the top three in the East, a winning record should be within reach for 2017. A promising trio of sophomores – quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards – returns to anchor the offense next fall. Receiver Deebo Samuel (59 grabs) and tight end Hayden Hurts (48 catches) add to a promising group of playmakers for Bentley. The biggest concern on offense remains the line, which surrendered 41 sacks (most in the SEC) last fall. Coordinator Travaris Robinson and Muschamp combined to help the defense cut down its yards per play allowed from 6.03 in 2015 to 5.6 in 2016. A handful of key seniors are set to depart, but standout linebacker Skai Moore returns after missing all of last season. Finding players who can get to the quarterback will be a priority after the defense generated only 21 sacks in 2016 and must replace end Darius English (nine sacks).

6. Vanderbilt Commodores– The Commodores took a step forward in coach Derek Mason’s third season and earned the program’s first bowl trip since the 2013 campaign. Improving upon the six-win mark from 2016 won’t be easy, especially with a schedule that features a non-conference game against Kansas State, road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina, along with a visit from Alabama in late September. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled in the Independence Bowl but finished the regular season by torching Tennessee for 416 yards. If Shurmur can build off a solid month of November, the Commodores should easily improve off the 23 points a game total this unit posted in 2016. Running back Ralph Webb returns after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and the receiving corps returns largely intact. Vanderbilt tied for fifth in the SEC in scoring defense last season and should improve and remain one of the better units in the conference once again. Losing standout linebacker Zach Cunningham will be a tough one to replace.

7. Missouri Tigers– The Tigers finished 2016 by winning two out of their three games but ending a two-year bowl drought won’t be easy in 2017. The offense averaged 31.4 points per game last season. However, that average dipped to 22.6 per contest in league play. Quarterback Drew Lock threw for 3,399 yards and 23 scores and is expected to take another step forward under the play-calling of coordinator Josh Heupel. Lock has a solid supporting cast at his disposal, including running back Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) and the team’s top four statistical receivers from 2016. All five starters from a line that limited opponents to just 14 sacks are back for 2017. After limiting opponents to 16.2 points a game in 2015, the Tigers surrendered 31.5 last year. Can this unit improve on that total after losing end Charles Harris to the NFL and linebackers Michael Scherer Donavin Newsom and cornerback Aarion Penton to graduation? Missouri also has a tough crossover with the West Division with a road trip to Arkansas, as well as a visit from Auburn in September.

Prediction: I like the Georgia Bulldogs to win the SEC East in 2017. I’ve really liked what Kirby Smart is building up in Athens. Jacob Eason should build off his first full year starting and if Nick Chubb can stay healthy and provide that spark offensively, they will be a hard team to beat. I look for their defense to take the next step and improve in the fall.