SEC East Preview



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

It's easy to lose sight amidst all the mythology that Tim Tebow actually WAS a very productive high impact football player. Comparisons to various religious saviors or super-human comic book characters went way over the top. He DID star for a GREAT offense that dominated college football (with a one-game exception) of the past two seasons.

Can Florida play anywhere near that level without him? Will John Brantley the heir apparent to the starting quarterback position wilt under the pressure, or rise to the occasion? The mainstream media seems to think it's the latter. Florida is getting a lot of respect in the polls for a team that loses more than half its starters on both sides of the ball. You'll see in a moment that Athlon has them sixth in the country. How much of that is based on 'old news.' How much of our perceptions of the entire SEC in 2010 are based on old news?

Yesterday we talked about the SEC West, and how Alabama is still Preseason #1 even though they only have one starter back on defense. Let's see how things are shaping up in the East...

Athlon Ranking: 6
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 6th on offense, 4th on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Urban Meyer is back as had coach after temporarily retiring because one of Tim Tebow's eye patches got stuck in his esophagus. Meyer is obviously a proven winner...and doesn't need a superstar quarterback to thrive. Does he need one to compete for a national championship though? We'll find out this year.

You have to generally assume that Florida is a 'reload' rather than 'rebuild' program because of their great recruiting. Nobody's predicting a collapse or a fall from grace. Just be aware that transitions can be more awkward than hoped, even with the superpowers. Southern Cal wasn't supposed to miss a beat when Mark Sanchez went to the NFL. They fell off the map in terms of national championship talk.

Florida catches a break in its early schedule. They open with Miami of Ohio and a South Florida team in transition. That's followed by a road game at rebuilding Tennessee, then another home game with mediocre Kentucky. Brantley will have time to get settled. That's important, because Game Five is on the road at Alabama!

We have to say the SEC could get very interesting this year if the newcomers can't match the level of the guys they're replacing. Several teams will be in position to take steps backward. Don't assume it's Alabama and Florida obliterating the field again. Let the newcomers prove themselves before you invest.

Athlon Ranking: 15
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 75th on offense, 38th on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: These guys were tough to get a fix on last year. They looked great at times, then could barely tie their shoes other weeks. We think a top 15 ranking is VERY optimistic given the fact that a new quarterback will be taking over for a team that was inconsistent on offense to begin with. Defense was the strength of the team last year (with a couple of bad game exceptions). Only four starters are back on that side of the ball.

If you average last year's offensive and defensive rankings, you're talking about a team in the mid 50's. Obviously a strength of schedule adjustment would kick them well above that. Still, all the way to top 15 with a new quarterback and a lot of new defenders? We talked yesterday about how many in the SEC West may be overranked by several spots. That's clearly possible in the SEC East as well. The clear POWER conference of college football the past few seasons is staring a transitional year right in the face. Make sure Vegas oddsmakers are adjusting properly!

Athlon Ranking: 30
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 82nd on offense, 15th on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Defenses ruled the SEC for the most part last year, so you're going to see a lot of teams with much better rankings on that side of the ball. If every game is a war, that means good math for the defense, bad numbers for the offense. South Carolina was a bit of an extreme in this case because they're offense couldn't do much of anything against anyone but the cupcakes (and, frankly, their numbers vs. the cupcakes weren't very impressive either!).

Steve Spurrier's days as an 'offensive genius' are way back in the rearview mirror. He did learn a lot about defense during is brief stint in the NFL. That has helped keep this team in the bowl mix if not a contender in this tough division.

Carolina is hoping the high level of returning experience will allow them to make a run if Florida misses a step the way USC did last year. A Week Two home game against Georgia will tell us a lot about both teams. Carolina has consistently been one of those teams you can back as an underdog when the defense can keep them in the game. If the offense has to score for you to cover, you don't want any part of them. Don't change that view of them unless you see big production vs. Georgia, and in a Week Four game at Auburn.

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Athlon Ranking: 47
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 60th on offense, 22nd on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: This is one of the most interesting teams in the nation in terms of possibilities. The program has recruited athletes, particularly those with a penchant for getting into trouble with the law. They now have a head coach in Derek Dooley who may or may not be in way over his head in a major conference like this. With the right 'us against the world' mentality, the Vols could make a run at respectability with the talent they have on hand. If the right hand doesn't trust what the left hand is doing, a complete and utter disaster wouldn't be a shock.

Is that too extreme? Look at the schedule. September includes highly regarded Oregon and Florida. October has LSU, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina in succession, with three of those games on the road. November supplies a chance to recover, but that won't matter if the players and fans have thrown the towel in on the season.

Right now, we think it's probably 75/25 in favor of collapse, setting up a 'rising from the dead' storyline in 2011. Too many new faces in skill position spots. Too much turmoil in the offseason. And a nightmare schedule the first two months. UGLY!

Athlon Ranking: 51
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 93rd on offense, 53rd on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Could Kentucky be the team to watch in the SEC East this year? They did beat Georgia on the road last year, as well as Auburn. Joker Phillips takes over as head coach with an eye on returning the offense to prior form. He'll have two quarterbacks with decent experience to choose from. And, the fact that nobody ever takes this team seriously can only help in their efforts to catch people napping.

Now, we're not going to get crazy here. A team like Florida has a huge edge in athleticism, speed, size, and probably 15 other things we could think of. Kentucky isn't likely to pull a true shocker season unless Florida really does do a USC cannonball into the shallow end. The Wildcats do match up well though with Georgia (who they beat last year on the road), South Carolina (nailbiter loss on the road last year), and Tennessee (team in turmoil). If Joker Phillips is ready for the big time, the big time may be ready for him (in a transitional year in the SEC anyway).

Study the quarterback play in the season opener at Louisville. That's the only meaningful test before SEC play begins.

Athlon Ranking: 78
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 110th on offense, 56th on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We have to say that we were surprised at how bad Vandy became last season. You can't take yourself seriously as a program if you're playing overtime games with Army. The offense was just pathetic, which became an even bigger problem in the great SEC. Vandy scored 16 or less nine times in 12 games!

We'll give credit to the feisty defense for showing up all year. You often see doormats throw in the towel when things are going badly. Vandy's defense never did that.

This year? Only four starters are back on that side of the ball. Not a pretty picture. The good news for Vandy is that the SEC may not be as tough this year as in the recent past. That gives them a chance to hang around by default. But, it's not like we're seeing anything on the offensive side of the ball to get excited about. Head coach Bobby Johnson may have worn out his welcome.

You longtime readers know we're pretty skeptical as a general rule. If the media is hyping 20 teams, we'll tell you they're blowing smoke about 15 of them, and only five are truly great. We're a bit surprised that we're THIS skeptical in 2010 about a conference we've been raving about for years. The media was very slow to realize that the SEC was WAY above the rest of the field when it came to top notch football in recent seasons. This summer, that's all the ESPN guys are talking about on the afternoon pundit shows...and it's happening just as the bloom may be coming off the rose!

Quick review of the East:

Florida has a new quarterback
Georgia has a new quarterback
South Carolina is treading water
Tennessee has a new coach, quarterback, and is under a cloud of doom
Kentucky has potential, but has a new coach
Vanderbilt is trying to upgrade from helpless

Combine that with all the new QB's we talked about yesterday in the SEC West, and you can see why things could get very interesting in college football this year. The SEC is showing vulnerability, and the rest of the nation is in the mood to take them down a few notches.

We'll start talking about the rest of the nation tomorrow as we move from East to West across the landscape. We preview the Big East on Wednesday. After a one-day hiatus for baseball (summarizing the first half of the MLB season), we pick up with the ACC Atlantic, ACC Coastal, and Big Ten through the weekend. After that, we move through the Big 12 and the Pac 10. The mid-majors will come closer to the end of the month. NFL divisional previews are set to start with the beginning of the exhibition season in early August.

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