Following is the conclusion of our SEC preview from Chief Analyst Gary Olshan, focusing upon the Eastern half of the loop, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2014 striahg-tup and spread records included                                                                     ...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                                              by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

                                                        SEC EAST

GEORGIA (2014 SUR 10-3; PSR 8-5)—
As usual, UGA’s 15th-year mentor Mark Richt owns the overall talent level to make a run at the SEC title and the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Bulldogs return a solid nucleus on both sides of the ball, with 12 starters back, plus both kickers. But it’s an unknown at QB, where for the first time in nearly a decade UGA entered the summer without knowing who the starter would be. The defense, which seriously improved under second-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt last season, should continue its upward trend, aided by another strong recruiting class. To wit: The Bulldogs signed seven defensive linemen and eight defensive backs, with a handful of those prized newcomers likely to make an impact right away. UGA has a good chance to be 4-0 before its major home showdown vs. Alabama on Oct, 3, while the Oct. 17 home battle vs. the two-time defending East champ Missouri could be a pivotal in determining the frontrunner in the division.

Six starters are back on a offense (41.3 ppg LY), now instructed by first-year offensive coordinator Brain Schottenheimer, who takes over after Mike Bobo left to become the HC at Colorado State. In the spring, strong-armed soph Brice Ramsey (24 of 39 & 3 TDs LY) and more mobile junior Faton Bauta (4 of 5 LY) were competing for the starting job. But it suddenly turned into a three-way battle in the fall, with Virginia graduate Greyson Lambert deciding to transfer to UGA in early June. Lambert, who has two years of eligibility left, started nine games in Charlottesville LY (10 TDP, 11 ints. LY), but clearly lost his job to Cav QB Matt Johns in the spring. The infantry could arguably be the best in the nation, led by “electric” soph Nick Chubb (1,547 YR, 14 TDs LY), who’ll make a run at the Heisman in 2015. There’s outstanding depth behind him, with soph Sony Michel (410 YR & 5 TDs LY), dangerous but oft-injured Keith Marshall & RS frosh A.J. Turman (injured LY), who turned heads in the spring. WR is a concern, however, with four the six top pass catchers gone. Senior Malcolm Mitchell (31 grabs LY) is the No. 1 guy, emerging soph Jeb Blazevich (18 grabs & 2 TDs LY) should an expanded role, while shifty, speedy blue-chip frosh WR Terry Goodwin will get a chance to work into the rotation. Four starters return to a stout OL.

Six starters return to a sure-tackling defense (20.7 ppg LY) smartly guided by coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was rewarded with a salary raise up to $1.3 million this year. Pruitt was thrilled that his stellar duo of OLBs Leonard Floyd (6 sacks LY) & Jordan Jenkins (70 stops LY) decided to return for one more year, with blossoming soph LB Lorenzo Carter making up a fearsome trio. If frosh Trent Thompson, rated the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit by one recruiting service, can live up to his press clippings, UGA could field one of the best front sevens in the nation. Therefore, the run defense should stiffen after finishing 8th in the SEC & allowing 4.2 ypc LY. The experienced secondary is anchored by jr. SS Quincy Mauger, who collected 51 tackles and team-high four interceptions. Opportunistic Dawgs finished an SEC-best +16 in TO margin LY.
Two terrific special teams performers return. Blazing 5-8 soph return man Isaiah McKenzie (returned two punts and one kickoff for TDs) & super-steady kicker Marshall Morgan, who has nailed 38 of 45 FGs L2Ys.

The resilient Dawgs are 6-1 vs. the spread last 7 following a SU loss and 6-1 as a 10-pt. or fewer favorite in 2014.

TENNESSEE (2014 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6)—After a string of four consecutive losing campaigns, we believe UT is finally ready to compete for a division title following a 7-6 season last year, including victories in 4 of the last 5 tilts, punctuated by a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. However, UT’s third-year HC Butch Jones--who has the most experienced team in the East Division--is remaining a bit low-key at this stage (at least publicly) by saying before spring practice, “We have not arrived. We’re a long ways away from where we need to be from a competitive depth standpoint to be really able to compete at a high level and an elite level.” The Vols get a golden opportunity to show they’re ready to return to the national spotlight, with a payback game vs. Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma in Knoxvile on Sept. 12. Win or lose, that contest should help hone UT for a brutal quartet of tough SEC games following a home tuneup with Western Carolina on Sept. 19.

Nine starters return to an attack (28.9 ppg), which should make a reasonably smooth transition under first-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who replaced Mike Bajakian after he left to become the QB coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs. After all, Jones was the offensive coordinator under DeBord at Central Michigan from 2001-03. Debord—who last coached in 2012 with the Chicago Bears before spending the last two years in the athletic administration at Michigan—directs an offense loaded with SEC-level skill performers. Brainy, dual-threat jr. QB Josh Dobbs (4-1 as starter; 63%; 9 TDs, 6 ints; 469 YR LY), who is an aerospace engineering major, must stay healthy since no other QB on the roster has taken a collegiate snap. The Vols own a 1-2 punch at RB, with versatile soph Jalen Hurd (899 YR, 5 TDs) & soph Alvin Kamara, an Alabama transfer, who’ll complement Hurd’s punishing style with his maneuverability and speed. Plus, the top seven WRs are back, including now-healthy jr. Marquez North (68 career catches), who suffered a late-season shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2014 season. And after being a liability LY( allowed more yards due to sacks than all but two FBS teams), the more cohesive OL should be sturdier in pass protection TY.

Eight starters return to a defense (24.2 ppg LY), which needs to do a better job vs. quality rush attacks after finishing 9th in the SEC in run defense in 2014. Finding a suitable replacement for MLB and team leader, A.J. Johnson, will be paramount in achieving that goal, though sure-tackling jr. OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (101 stops LY) will help mentor the reinforcement at that critical spot. Five-star frosh recruit DT Kahill McKenzie and four-star frosh DT Shy Tuttle, who enrolled early, should push for playing time along the front. The Vols will consistently bring the heat once again, with 6-3, 268-pound soph DE Derek Barnett (20.5 TFL LY) & DE/LB Curt Maggitt, who combined for 21 sacks LY. Plus, the secondary should be among the finest units in the SEC, featuring hard-hitting sr. FS Brian Randolph (88 stops; 2 ints. LY) & tight-covering jr. CB Cameron Sutton (3 picks LY).

Soph kicker Aaron Medley (20 of 26 FGs LY) was nearly automatic on three-pointers from within 40 yards LY, while the new punter figures to be sr. Nathan Renfro, who was a three-year starter for Maryland before transfering.

MISSOURI (2014 SUR 11-3; PSR 9-5)—Though we’ve picked Mizzou to finish third in the up-for-grabs SEC East, we won’t be surprised at all to see the confident, hard-working, well-coached Tigers garner their third straight division title. Coming off back-to-back East crowns, Mizzou was able to land its highest-ranked recruiting class since joining the league in 2012. Plus, the Tigers—who return the most accomplished QB in the division—have a good chance to roar to a 6-0 start before a visit to Athens on Oct. 17, in what could be a showdown with Georgia for SEC East supremecy. Mizzou is aching for that rematch after absorbing an embarrassing 34-0 whitewash in Columbia LY.

Six starters are back on an offense (27.8 ppg LY), which struggled at times, due to an erratic aerial game that finished 99th nationally. But we expect unflappable jr. QB Maty Mauk (only 53.4%; 2,648YP, 25 TDs, 13 ints. LY) to significantly raise the level of his game, with solid support supplied by a seasoned OL, coupled with productive & versatile RB Russell Hansbrough (1,064 YR, 10 TDs; 11 catches LY). Sure, the WR corps is basically starting from scratch for the second straight campaign, with 6-3 soph Nate Brown (5 catches LY) the top returner of that green group, though coaches feel 6-3 soph J’Mon Moore could quickly become a go-to receiver. So, expect Mauk to arget more of his aerials to rangy 6-6 jr. TE Sean Culkin (20 grabs LY), who figures to play a more integral role right out of the chute.

Six starters return to a defense (21.1 ppg LY), which lacks a senior defensive lineman for the first time ever under 15th-year HC Gary Pinkel, with All-SEC DE Shane Ray leaving early for the NFL. There still is an All-SEC caliber performer anchoring the interior in jr. DT Harold Brantley (54 stops, 5 sacks LY). And the battle-tested LB corps couldn’t be in better shape, thanks to Kentrell Brothers & Michael Scherer, who’re ranked second & third among SEC returning tacklers, with a combined 336 stops. And the return of three experienced CBs along with senior FS Ian Simon will be problematic for a division with precious few seasoned passers. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel left to take over the head coaching position at Missouri State, but we anticipate a seamless transition to the former Pinkel assistant, Barry Odom, (safeties coach from 2009-11), who had spent the last three seasons engineering a remarkable turnaround as Memphis’ defensive coordinator.

Senior kicker Andrew Baggett—who nailed 18 of 25 FGs last year—will be asked to compete with incoming frosh Corey Fatony for the punting job in the fall.

Mizzou is a profitable 20-8 vs. the spread the last two seasons, including a 10-1 mark as an 11-pt. or fewer favorite over the same time span.

FLORIDA (2014 SUR 7-5; PSR 7-5)—Since the Florida offense never displayed much punch under Will Muschamp, he was given his walking papers after the Gators won just 11 games over the past two campaigns. Muschamp had his squad finish the past four regular seasons ranked among the nation’s top 10 defenses. UF, however, finished last in the SEC in passing in 2012, last in scoring in 2013 and 12th in total offense in 2014. There was no reminder of Steve Spurrier’s Fun n’ Gun or Urban Meyer’s spread offense under defense-minded Muschamp. Enter former Alabama offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, who guided Colorado State to a 10-3 finish in 2014 (best record in Fort Collins since 1997) in only his third year at the helm. McElwain, who is personally paying $2 million of his own buyout to his former school, immediately set out to upgrade Florida’s offensive talent. But with too many issues and changes on the offense, we believe the Gators will probably finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC East, though a minor bowl is a realistic goal.

Only four starters return to an offense (30.3 ppg) unsettled at QB and in search of needed playmakers. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier & McElwain must decide between dual-threat soph QB Treon Harris (only 50%; 1,019 YP; 4-2 as a starter LY) & blue-chip RS frosh Will Grier, a pocket passer better suited to McElwain’s scheme, which favors high-percentage throws with some vertical passes of play-action mixed in. But on the other hand, Harris’s improvisational running skills might be required behind a highly-inexperienced OL (only one starter back), which is likely to start four underclassmen. RB Kelvin Taylor (565 YR, 6 TDs LY) has a high ceiling, while frosh gem Jordan Scarlett could make an immediate impact. But for the ground attack to flourish, it’s imperative that the young OL (six recruits were signed in February, led by the nation’s No.1 OT, Martez Ivy) becomes synchronized ASAP. At WR, junior Demarcus Robinson (53 grabs, 7 TDs LY) will be the go-to guy, while sr. TE Jake McGee is expected to play a larger role in the revamped attack. Coaches are desperately seeking other pass-catchers from an unproven group. Look for converted TB Brandon Powell (turned heads in the spring) and Vandy transfer QB/WR Josh Grady, who is immediately eligible, to try and help the cause.

The fast, athletic defense (7 starters back; 21.1 ppg), which was ranked third in the SEC in stopping the run (only 116.2 ypg; 3.2 ypc), has a solid nucleus in place for new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (former Mississippi State d.c.), who’ll install an attacking, aggressive scheme. Collins has high goals for his defense when he exclaims, “We want to be one of the best defenses in the country.” But the DL returns just two performers with starting experience, while established LB duo of Antonio Morrison (101 stops LY) & Jarrad Davis, who are still recovering from knee injuries sustained last season, need to get healthy. But the LB corps got a shot in the arm when Georgia Tech’s graduate transfer Anthony Harrell recently decided to finish his career in Gainesville. The ball-snatching secondary (16 picks LY) is the undeniable strength of the defense, with two-time All-SEC CB Vernon Hargreaves II (50 tackles, 3 ints. LY) anchoring the star-studded unit that also returns three other starters. McElwain certainly feels good about that unit by beaming, “I am really impressed with the amount of talent they have collected at that position.”

On special teams, kicker Austin Hardin needs to become more reliable after making a combined 11 of 22 FGs in 2013 & 2014.

SOUTH CAROLINA (2014 SUR 7-6; PSR 5-8)—South Carolina, which was one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2014, opened spring practice with a sense of urgency that may have lacking last season. The Gamecocks, who had strung together three consecutive 11-2 campaigns, were the preseason favorite to capture the SEC East Division. “Sometimes after you go 11-2 three years in a row, some people assume, ‘We’re going to keep on winning, but it didn’t quite happen that way", Spurrier laments, “We were not a real strong team. We are by a long way not a finished product, but we’ve got time.” That time must be well spent on a team breaking in a new QB and rebuilding a defense that lost its swagger in a season where it made a habit of squandering DD leads. The Gamecocks should go”bowling” for a seventh straight campaign, but finishing in the upper division will be challenge, especially with early road trips to Georgia and Missouri before hosting LSU on Oct. 10. Hey, the conference home opener is no sure bet vs. rising Kentucky, which sprang a 45-38 upset win over South Carolina in Lexington LY.

Four starters return to an offense (32.6 ppg) that must find a QB to fill the big cleats left by departed gunslinger Dylan Thompson, who set the school’s single-season passing record last year with 3,564 yards. The frontrunner is soph Conner Mitch (only 6 pass attempts LY), who had a highly-decorated career as a prepster, throwing for 12,078 yards at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C, with 63 TD passes in his senior year. Spurrier believes he ready to take control by stating, “Conner Mitch is tremendously improved from when he first got here, and I think he’s ready to take some giant steps.” To help alleviate some of the burden from the untested triggerman are a couple of prime-time skill performers in senior RB Brandon Wilds (570 YR & 4 TDs LY) & All-SEC junior WR Pharoah Cooper (69 grabs, 9 TDs LY). Three starters return to the OL, led by grizzled senior RT Brandon Shell, who has a team-high 36 starts.

Six starters are back on what was a surprisingly weak defense a year ago (30.4 ppg; 437.2 ypg; 212.2 ypg rushing--105th nationally) after allowing a miserly 19 ppg over the prior three seasons. That terrible performance prompted the Head Ball Coach to hire his old friend Jon Hoke, who coordinated the defense for Spurrier from 1991-2001 and spent the last 13 years in the NFL as a defensive backs coach. And while Spurrier retained defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, co-d.c. Hoke will call the formations, which will probably be a base 4-3 after unsuccessfully juggling between a 4-2-5 and 3-4 look LY. Hoke, who has already had several player swap positions, is counting on the nation’s No. 1 juco DE Marquavius Lewis to bolster a DL, which collected only 14 sacks (ranked 118th) & 52 TFL (ranked 121st) LY. Coaches believe they have four high-quality LBs, led by the jr. duo of MLB Skai Moore (93 stops LY) & WLB Jonathan Walton (61 stops LY), while Kansas graduate transfer sr. SS Isaiah Johnson (Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in 2012!) packs a wallop in a retooled secondary. So, if that unit quickly internalizes the new scheme and if several other jucos quickly make an impact, the re-focused defense atones for LY’s poor performance.

Junior kicker Elliott Fry has nailed 33 of 43 FGs for his career, but a new punter must be found.

KENTUCKY (2014 SUR 5-7; PSR 7-5)—Though nobody is expecting championship-level results like its prestigous basketball program, this is a critical season for third-year Mark Stoops and Kentucky. The administration has given him the resources--huge raises for him and his staff, a $120 million stadium renovation that open this fall and a $45 million practice facility under construction. There were plenty of positive vibes with a 5-1 start last fall, but those good feelings evaporated with the Wildcats’ disastrous 0-6 finish, with depth-shy UK enduring 5 DD losses vs. the SEC. But after three straight top 40 recruiting classes, Stoops is confident the tide is turning. “The talent level is significantly better right now" Stoops says. “I think it’s hard to put into words exactly. I definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.” So, it’s fair to envision at least a bowl appearance in 2015, which would be UK’s first the 2010 campaign. Be sure, the Wildcats will be geeked to end their 28-game losing streak to transforming Florida at home on September 19, especially after an excruciating 36-30 triple OT loss in Gainesville LY.

Six starters are back on an offense (29.2 ppg) that will continue to run the “Air Raid” attack despite the loss of offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who left to become the new Troy head honcho. To maintain continuity, Stoops hired West Virginia o.c. Shannon Dawson, who spent four years under Dana Holgorson. Poised, mobile 6-5 jr. Patrick Towles (2, 718 YP, 14 TDs, 9 ints. LY) & blue-chip, 6-3 RS frosh Drew Barker battled to a near draw in the spring. But the opening day QB figures to be the more experienced triggerman, Towles, who’ll direct a balanced attack blessed with the best supporting cast in Lexington in many a moon. It’s a strong 1-2 punch in the backfield with soph TB Stanley “Boom” Williams (1,159 all-purpose yards LY) and jr. backup Jo Jo Kemp (323 YR LY). And Towles can throw to a quartet of big and breakaway targets, led by jr. WR Ryan Timmons (45 grabs LY), while four-star frosh TE C.J. Conrad, an early enrollee, looked like a genuine threat in the spring. Four starters are back on an OL, which is deepest and most physically imposing of Stoop’s three-year tenure.

Six starers return to a defense (31.3 ppg; 406.9 ypg LY) that displayed newfound grittiness the first half of the season before noticeably wearing down during the freefall, allowing a whopping 157 points over the final three tilts. Naturally, the schedule became more daunting down the stretch, and it won’t be easy replacing heat-seeking bookend DEs, Bud Dupree & Za’Darius Smith, both NFL draftees. But UK has upgraded its talent elsewhere. Senior 6-4, 342-pound NT Melvin Lewis, a former juco transfer anchors the line, while Stoops expects a breakout year from fellow sr. juco transfer, LB Ryan Flannigan, Plus, fierce sr. ILB Josh Forrest (SEC’s leading returning tackler) & ball-hawking senior FS A.J. Stamps (56 tackles, 4 picks LY) should continue to excel. And while Stoops, a pass defense specialist, remains concerned about his CBs (42 TD passes allowed L2Y), he does have experienced options to choose from.

UK might boast to have the SEC’s premier kicking game. Sr. punter Landon Foster had a booming 42.6 yd. average, while soph placekicker Austin McGinnis nailed 21 of 26 FGs LY, including three surpassing 50 yards!

VANDERBILT (2014 SUR 3-9; PSR 6-6)—Second-year HC Derek Mason is already feeling some heat after Vanderbilt regressed to a 3-9 mark LY following back-to-back nine-win campaigns under predecessor James Franklin. Vandy went 0-8 in SEC play and scored only nine offensive TDs, ranking dead last in the SEC by a wide margin in both total and scoring offense. And the defense, which had developed a reputation of being tough as nails, also plunged dramatically, permitting 33.3 ppg LY—the most the Commodores had allowed since Woody Widenhofer’s 2001 team. With 17 returning starters back, Mason’s second team should display improvement. But the offense must be drastically better for Vandy to escape the cellar of the SEC East, where seemingly every program is on the uptick, with the possible exception of South Carolina. A big leap in critical TO margin (-16 LY—ranked 121st) would, at least, make the Commodores more combative.

Eight returns to LY’s lifeless offense (17.2 ppg), which will try to find a pulse under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, the former Wisconsin o.c., who replaces fired Karl Dorrell. With jr. QB Patton Robinette (454 YP, 3 TDs, 3 ints. LY) forced to retire in late March due to concussion issues, Ludwig will choose between sophs Johnny McCrary (985 YP, 9 TDs, 8 ints. LY) & Wade Freeback (376 YP, 1 TD LY). Both started multiple games LY, but neither played well enough to be pronounced as the the surefire starter in 2015. The Commodore lack depth at TB, but have a solid starter in soph Ralph Webb (912 YR, 4 TDs LY). Coaches feel better about the overall quality of the WR corps, headlined by blossoming soph C.J. Duncan. But there some lingering doubt whether the top returning receiver, TE Steven Scheu (39 grabs, 4 TDs LY), will be ready for the opener after suffering a broken leg in the spring. Mason is counting on his veteran OL (4 starters back) to be a sturdier bunch after struggling in both run and pass blocking LY.

Nine starters are back on a seasoned 3-4 defense (33.3 ppg LY), which was too often found out of position under defensive coordinatior David Kotulski, who was fired after the end of last season. A month later, Mason, who received accolades as the architect of the Stanford stop unit, named himself as the new d.c. “I am loving it,” Mason said during the spring. “I don’t know why I ever gave it up. Probably the best decision I made is to come back and run the defense.” Mason has a host of potential playmakers on his front seven to implement his more attacking, risk-reward approach. Aggressive jr. OLB Stephen Weatherly (team-leader in sacks & TFL) applies steady pressure, while burgeoning soph LB Nigel Bowden had a team-high 78 tackles LY. And look for RS frosh Josh Smith, who was the prize of the 2015 recruiting class, to make a meaningful contribution. The DL has three talented performers, but is still a work in progress. Pass coverage needs to come a long way after allowing a league-high 7.6 yards per attempt LY and picking off only 11 passes over the L2Ys.

Soph kicker Tommy Openshaw hit 8 of 11 FGs in his debut LY, but the Commodores ranked last in the SEC in net punting.

Despite a disastrous campaign, Vandy still went 5-2 as a DD underdog in its last 7 in that role in 2014.

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