Between a trio of new head coaches and several high-profile position battles, the SEC East provides no shortage of intrigue on the eve of the 2016 college football season.
Here’s a look at what to expect in the division this year, as well as who could represent the East in Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Jim McElwain exceeded expectations in 2015, taking over a seven-win Florida team and leading the Gators to the SEC title game in his first year at the helm. The Gators fell to Alabama in Atlanta, but the team’s surprise performance during a 10-4 season was enough to net McElwain SEC Coach of the Year honors.
He faces significant obstacles entering year two, though, primarily at the quarterback position.
Florida has lost both of its starting quarterbacks from last season, with Treon Harris and Will Grier both electing to transfer. Luke Del Rio, a well-traveled redshirt sophomore, is set to take the reins of the offense. Del Rio has completed just eight passes during a college career that has included stops at Alabama and Oregon State, and if he struggles early on, graduate transfer Austin Appleby and true freshman Feileipe Franks could take the field.
The Gators begin their SEC schedule with a favorable matchup at home against Kentucky, but an ensuing three-game stretch against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and LSU has the potential to lead to a 1-3 start in conference play.
The Georgia Bulldogs are not favored to win the SEC East, but they have still managed to generate a considerable amount of buzz this offseason — something that can largely be attributed to the arrivals of first-year head coach Kirby Smart and prized five-star quarterback recruit Jacob Eason.
Senior Greyson Lambert will battle Eason for the starting job. Even with this position battle, though, the most crucial story line to follow will be Smart’s impact on the defensive side of the ball. The former Alabama defensive coordinator, who won four national titles during his time with the Crimson Tide, will command a defense that returns its entire secondary but loses six of its starting front seven from last season.
Kentucky has been an afterthought in the SEC East of late, with its last winning season occurring in 2009. The Wildcats will try to buck this trend in 2016 while riding the shoulders of running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, one of the most underrated players in the conference. Williams has led the team in rushing in each of his two seasons on campus. He enters his junior season as Kentucky’s undoubted go-to offensive option.
One area were the Wildcats must improve, though, is their pass rush. The team recorded just 17 sacks last season — dead last in the SEC.
The past calendar year has been quite eventful for the University of Missouri, and not in a positive manner. The latest of the negative headlines to hit Mizzou was the abrupt departure of former athletic director Mack Rhoades, who left the Tigers to accept the same position at Baylor on the eve of SEC Media Days.
First-year head coach Barry Odom has handled these and other challenges with poise, including the recent dismissals of defensive linemen Walter Brady and Harold Brantley. Odom will benefit from low expectations in 2016, as will sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, who will try to make positive strides after a rocky freshman campaign.
Will Muschamp may be stepping into the shadow of all-time coaching great Steve Spurrier, but thanks to low expectations for the Gamecocks in 2016, the former Florida head coach does not face any significant pressure during his first year in Columbia.
True freshman Brandon McIlwain and senior Perry Orth are currently battling for the starting quarterback job. While Orth has experience, McIlwain is the clear option for the future. A slow start could force Muschamp’s hand in turning to the freshman for good.
Tennessee has failed to live up to preseason hype in recent years, but 2016 has a much different feel.
Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs will give Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly a run for the title of best signal-caller in the SEC, and alongside junior running back Jalen Hurd, he will enter the Heisman Trophy discussion if the Volunteers get off to a strong start. On defense, Khalil McKenzie and Jalen Reeves-Maybin headline a unit that has the tools and versatility necessary to give any opposing offense headaches.
Tennessee enters 2016 with its first top-10 preseason ranking since 2005. Early-season matchups against Florida and Georgia to start SEC play will likely dictate how the year plays out for the Volunteers.
Vanderbilt has struggled immensely in the two years since James Franklin left the Commodores for Penn State, and after a pair of 5-7 seasons, head coach Derek Mason’s job could be in jeopardy without an immediate turnaround. Fortunately for Mason, his team is poised to improve.
Junior running back Ralph Webb has 1,500-yard, double-digit touchdown potential, and all reports out of Nashville indicate that sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur is ready to live up to his billing as a former four-star recruit. The defense is commanded by arguably the conference’s top defender, junior middle linebacker Zach Cunningham.
In an SEC East featuring significant turnover among coaching staffs and key position groups, an experienced Vanderbilt squad could emerge as a front-runner in the division.
Who will win the East?
Both Georgia and Florida should contend late into the season if they can find consistent production under center, while Vanderbilt has an opportunity to reestablish itself as a legitimate threat in the division. Until proven otherwise, however, Tennessee — a team that boasts a pair of Heisman hopefuls on offense, and a defense featuring multiple NFL Draft prospects — is the clear-cut favorite to win the SEC East.
SEC East Champion: Tennessee
Projected Final Standings
7. South Carolina