The SEC East should be an interesting division in 2012. Overshadowed by the historic dominance of the SEC West in recent years, the East is ready to rebound. Two teams—Georgia and South Carolina—are likely to be ranked in the top 15 to start the season, and we could see two traditional powers, Florida and Tennessee, rebound a bit.
Let’s take a look at the lines and discuss the opportunities each present.
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Georgia (+175) – The Safe Bet
The Bulldogs are one of the most talented teams in the country. I put them on the same talent level as LSU and even slightly ahead of Alabama. There’s no way around it: This is the most talented team in the East and is Mark Richt’s best team in years.
Georgia is loaded on both offense and defense. Veteran quarterback Aaron Murray has plenty of weapons. The offensive line loses some starters, but the rest of the squad should be able to compensate. The biggest question mark on offense is coordinator Mike Bobo and the play calling.
On defense, Georgia is stacked. The defensive line is one of the best in the country as well as the linebacker corps. The secondary should also be good (the Dawgs will look to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell to also get some action at defensive back as they look to replace the presence of Brandon Boykin.) Todd Grantham will have one of the country’s top defenses.
The talent level is clear. Perhaps equally important is the schedule. For the second year in a row, Georgia drew a very favorable schedule. From the West, Georgia gets Auburn (on the road) and Ole Miss. The other key road games are at Missouri (Week 2) and at South Carolina. Georgia plays Florida in Jacksonville annually.
The coaching staff has been criticized in recent years for not doing more with the talent on its roster. This is a huge year for Richt’s legacy, and I think Georgia puts it together and wins the East—and maybe more—in what could be a special year for Georgia football.
Florida (+250) and South Carolina (+250) – Sucker Bets
With attractive odds, some folks might be tempted to put money on the potential of the Gators rebounding or the Gamecocks following up their 11-win season with another huge year. I don’t see either happening. Let’s look at Florida first.
The theory is that coaches typically see a big improvement in their second year. Urban Meyer won his first national title in his second year, after all. But this is a very different scenario from 2006. While Florida will have one of the top defenses in the country along with Georgia and LSU—and maybe even a better defensive line than both—the offense still has too many issues. The offensive woes of the last two seasons are well documented. The quarterback play was atrocious, the running game was built around light-weight speedsters and the receivers repeatedly underachieved.
The Gators will improve this year. Fans will see progress and begin to believe in Will Muschamp’s ability to orchestrate a turnaround, but they will still lose games. The offensive line will be good, but there are too many question marks at receiver and quarterback. Against strong defenses of Georgia and South Carolina in the East, I will bet on the better offenses of the Dawgs and Cocks. Also, Florida draws a pretty tough in-conference schedule with away games at Texas A&M and Tennessee and games against powers LSU and Georgia. A possible 9-3 season will be a good second year for Muschamp, but the Gators won’t win the East.
Note: Phil Steele, in his annual college football preview, has Florida listed as one of his surprise teams and he has picked the Gators to win the East.
The Gamecocks come off their best season in history with 11 wins. While the team is talented, I don’t like them to repeat last year’s success for a couple reasons. First, the Gamecocks had their best NFL draft in decades having two first rounders in Stephon Gilmore (10th pick) and Melvin Ingram (18th). These losses in addition to nine other starters will have an impact on the team. The Gamecocks still have a very good defensive front seven with freak Jadeveon Clowney on the end.
On offense, the Cocks have one of the country’s best running backs in Marcus Lattimore. The question is his health. In his first two seasons, he’s carried the ball more than most running backs. The load has affected him as he’s missed time each of the last two seasons, most notably with an ACL tear mid-year in 2011. Steve Spurrier has leaned hard on his workhorse in recent years, and probably will lighten his load to keep him healthy. They do have more help at this position in 2012 and will be able to share the carries, but Lattimore will still be the anchor on offense.
Quarterback Connor Shaw is a talented kid, but I’m not confident in his ability to lead his team from behind and win games. The Gamecocks also lose wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from last year, though he somewhat underachieved last season.
South Carolina’s tough schedule could ultimately doom. While Georgia gets Ole Miss and Auburn from the West, the Cocks get LSU and Arkansas—a brutal pair of likely preseason top ten teams. Moreover, the Gamecocks get plenty of road games: at Vanderbilt, at Kentucky, at LSU and at Florida. The Gamecocks are a top-25 team but the odds are stacked against them to win the division.
Tennessee (+800) – Dark Horse
If you want to gamble, Tennessee at +800 might be worth a small speculative bet.
Overall, the team returns plenty of starters and has some of the highest levels of in-game experience on its two-deep roster. Phil Steele, in his 2012 college football preview, names Tennessee as his sixth most improved team in 2012 and 11th among his 2012 surprise teams.
The Vols’ offense goes as the gunslinger Tyler Bray goes. He’s been both incredible and erratic in his first two seasons. He returns one of the best receiving corps in the country with Da’Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and new JUCO signee Cordarrelle Patterson. This squad will put up plenty of points. The nonexistent run game in recent years should also be improved with a good offensive line up front.
Defensively, the team is also much improved and features a strong secondary, led by Prentiss Waggner.
The Vols have a very tough first month in 2012 with a non-conference game against NC State in the Georgia Dome on Aug. 31, the usual Week 3 matchup against Florida (at home) and then on the road against Georgia at the end of September. The Vols could finish 4-1 in this month which would be very good.
After a bye week, the Vols then have a brutal three-week run at Mississippi State, Alabama at home, then at South Carolina. If they can escape this stretch intact, the remainder of the season is significantly easier.
Derek Dooley has had a rough go of it in Knoxville, but 2012 should see big improvement. A nine or 10-win season is possible if the team stays healthy and a few key plays bounce in the Vols’ direction. SEC East champion? Not likely. But with 8-to-1 odds, it might be worth a look.
Missouri (+800), Vanderbilt (+1200), Kentucky (+1500) – Stay Away
Missouri is a major unknown at this point. The Tigers have some talent on their roster, but it’ll be a significant adjustment in the SEC. While they could upset a team or two and have a nice first year in their new conference, I don’t like their chances at all to win the East, and believe Tennessee is a better look with the same odds.
Vanderbilt has momentum, and I’m a big fan of head coach James Franklin, but they’re not going to win the division. The Commodores have a fairly favorable schedule, drawing Ole Miss and Auburn from the West, but they just don’t have the talent to get past Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in the East.
Kentucky is undermanned and also has a fairly tough schedule. There’s no chance the Cats win the East this year.