We conclude our preview of the SEC with Chief Analyst Gary Olshan taking a look at the East half of the loop.  Last year's straight-up and sppread records are included as teams are presented, as always, in predicted order of finish...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                                by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

TENNESSEE (2015 SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5)—With a whopping 18 starters returning, expectations are sky high at UT, which is our pick to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007. The Vols have shown steady progression under fourth-year HC Butch Jones, who has gone from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. But UT must learn how to pull out the close ones after suffering four losses by a combined 17 points, including a 31-24 double-OT home defeat to Oklahoma and a bitter 28-27 loss at Florida LY, when Jones eschewed an obvious 2-pt. conversion try when up by 12 in the 4th Q. The Vols, who’re excited for their Week 2 showdown with Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway (with potentially 150,000 fans in attendance!), will be especially jazzed to snap a protracted 11-game losing skein at major nemesis Florida on Sept. 26.

Nine starters are back on an attack (35.3 ppg LY) that figures to display even greater explosiveness under crafty second-year o.c. Mike DeBord, who made a big difference in his debut in 2015. The offense improved significantly in scoring, rushing and third-down conversions. But for that unit to continue its upward trending, fleet-footed sr. QB Joshua Dobbs (2,291 YP, 16 TDP; 59.6%; 671 YR, 11 TDs) needs to improve his downfield accuracy after finishing 92nd in passing yds. LY. Dobbs is blessed with one of the nation’s premier RB duos—jrs. Jalen Hurd (1,288 YR, 12 TDs) and Alvin Kamara (698, 7). But UT is seeking more consistency and explosiveness at WR, considering that the leading receiver was Kamara (34 catches). Experienced jr. pass-catchers Josh Malone and Josh Smith (combined 54 grabs LY) are seeking improved rapport with Dobbs, who’s on pace to become the school’s career leader in rushing yards and rushing TDs.


First-year d.c. Bob Shoop, who said he never met a blitz he didn’t like, gladly takes over a veteran defense (nine starters return; 20.0 ppg LY) that own standouts at every level. DE Derek Barnett (20 sacks L2Ys) is a beast on the edge, while Jalen Reeves-Maybin (more than 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons) and Darrin Kirkland Jr. compose one of the top LB tandems in the league. Super-quick 6-5, 265 soph DE Jonathan Kongbo—who was rated the No. 1juco prospect in the country by some recruiting services—could be the next great Vol sackmeister. Plus, sr. CB Cameron Sutton & ball-hawking jr. FS Todd Kelly Jr (6 picks in 5 starts spanning 2 years) spearhead a secondary that is deeper and more athletic than any Butch Jones has had.

Returning kicks is a specialty for the Vols. Aforementioned Sutton leading the FBS in punt-return avg. (18.7 yds.) and SS Evan Berry nearly broke the NCAA’s all-time single-season record for KO return average (38.3) a year ago.

GEORGIA (2015 SUR 10-3; PSR 5-7)—Though Georgia has won at least 10 games in four of the last five seasons, the administration grew dissatisfied with Mark Richt after years of coming up just a little short in the quest for the brass ring (the school hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005). Enter defensive-minded HC Kirby Smart, who was patiently waiting for the right opportunity to come along after serving as a loyal assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, while Richt, after his dismissal, landed at alma mater Miami-Florida. Sure, Smart inherits enough overall talent to win the East. But whether UGA is put in the driver’s seat or probably relegated to a spoiler role will be determined in critical back-to-back battles vs. Ole Miss (in Oxford) Sept. 24 and Tennessee (in Athens) Oct. 1.

Eight starters are back on an offense (26.3 ppg LY) that displayed an impotent aerial attack sputtering to a 104th ranking in 2015. But we envision a rapid ascent in that category, whether it’s fifth-year sr. Greyson Lambert (Virginia transfer had 12 TDP, 2 ints; 10-2 as a starter LY), five-star freshman prodigy Jacob Eason or strong-armed jr. Brice Ramsey, who played his way back in the conversation with a strong spring. RB depth is bit tenuous right now. Superb RB Nick Chubb (747 YR in six games) is reportedly making great progress in his recovery from a serious knee injury suffered vs. Tennessee LY, but he hasn’t yet been cleared to practice. And now his dangerous backfield mate, Sony Michel (1,161 YR in only six games), who stepped up for an injured Chubb LY, suffered a broken arm during an ATV accident in early July. A full recovery is expected, although no timetable has been given. Consequently, the coaches might need to rely more heavily on reserve sr. Brendan Douglas along with a quartet of underclassmen. The skillful WR duo of Terry Godwin and jr. Isaiah McKenzie will prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box, especially if the latter can his elevate his game from role player and return specialist to a likely full-time starter.

Five starters return to a defense (16.9 ppg LY) that is highly inexperienced in the front seven but offers plenty of upside. Soph DT Trent Thompson, considered by many to be the nation’s best overall recruit LY, figures to be a more consistently disruptive force TY. LB Tim Kimbrough (67 tackles) should get required help from projected starter soph LB Reggie Carter (4.5 sacks and 19 QB pressures as a freshman), who missed most of last year with a shoulder problem. Plus, the young front seven can probably overcome some early growing pains since the confident, intact secondary was the No.1 pass defense in the country LY. With ball-snatching jr. FS Dominick Sanders (SEC-leading 7 ints.) holding down the back end of the secondary, Smart says he plans to unleash his CBs to play more man coverage so they run more aggressive schemes like he did when he was the Alabama d.c.

FLORIDA (2015 SUR 10-4; PSR 8-5-1)—We picked Florida to finish third in the SEC East. But it won’t be any surprise if talent-rich Gators finish atop the standings under upbeat, savvy, second-year mentor Jim McElwain, who brought a new vibe to the program in his auspicous 2015 debut. Recall, McElwain led his team to 6-0 start en route to the Gators’ first outright SEC East title since 2009. But a season-ending three-game losing skein was precipitated by the NCAA suspension of QB Will Grier for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Moreover, UF has had a hex on preseason favorite Tennessee, seeking its 12th straight series win TY. With a probable 3-0 start (with home games vs. UMass, Kentucky & North Texas), Gators should build some momentum for their early-season showdown in Knoxville on Sept. 24.

Five starters return to an offense (23.2 ppg LY) that will be led by either well-traveled soph QB Luke Del Rio (redshirted at Bama in 2013 & participated in spring ball at Oregon State in 2014), the son of Jack Del Rio, current Oakland Raiders head coach, or Austin Appleby, a Purdue graduate transfer, who started 11 games and threw for 2,777 career yards at West Lafayette. Either signal caller should benefit from firmer protection from a ripening OL that often started three freshmen and surrendered a nation-leading 42 sacks LY. Coaches are hoping that the physical, soph RB duo of Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite (combined 338 YR) can emerge from the shadow of departed 1,000-yd. rusher Kelvin Taylor. Progress in the aerial game somewhat hinges on the return of big-time soph WR Antonio Callaway (35 catches & 4 TDs), who’s currently suspended for “academic issues.”

Six starters are back on a stop unit (18.3 ppg;, 310 ypg LY) that ranked fourth in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense in 2015. The Gators lost some key pieces, including two All-Americans (CB Vernon Hargreaves III & DT Jon Bullard). But a boatload of quality performers remain, beginning with All-SEC jr. CB Jalen Tabor (4 ints.), who spearheads a seasoned, blanket-covering secondary, and topflight LB Jarred Davis (98 stops, 11 TFL LY). Quality depth, however, is lacking at both LB and at DB. That isn’t a concern on a deep DL, anchored by sr. DE Bryan Cox Jr and jr. DT Caleb Brantley (3 sacks).

Three-point production can only improve after shaky PK Austin Hardin ended up making a dismal 16 of 36 FGs in Gainesville. Untested RS soph Eddy Pineiro, a former Alabama commit, figures to be a huge upgrade. Punter Johnny Townsend is among the nation’s best, averaging 45.5 yds. per kick LY.

MISSOURI (2015 SUR 5-7; PSR 3-9)—After finishing 23-5 the previous two seasons along with two SEC East titles, Mizzou shocklingly fell to 5-7 with beloved, long-time HC Gary Pinkel announcing his retirement late in the 2015 campaign after going public with his battle with lymphoma. Pinkel steps away after leading the Tigers to a school-record 118 wins over 15 seasons, while a new era commences under LY’s d.c. 39-year old Barry Odom, a former Mizzou LB. We expect the the prideful, gang-tackling stop unit to continue to perform at a high level for the defense-minded mentor. But LY’s sputtering offense needs a major reboot after bottoming out a year if the Tigers are going to be a factor in the East. The schedule-makers, however, provided no favors, with Mizzou traveling to Morgantown, Baton Rouge and “The Swamp” over the first month of the season, along with a tough home contest vs. Georgia Sept. 17.

Five starters return to LY’s anemic offense (13.6 ppg; 127th nationally; 280.9 ypg), which has a chance to make rapid advances under new o.c. Josh Heupel, the former Oklahoma QB and longtime Sooner assistant. In charge of the faster-paced attack, which will continue to go no-huddle and use 3-4 WR sets, will be soph QB Drew Lock (49%; 2-6 as a starter LY), who quickly clicked with Heupel in the spring. Lock will have a whopping 11 scholarship receivers at his disposal, including Alabama graduate transfer Chris Black, who is a likely starter, while rangy 6-6 sr. TE Sean Culkin (team-high 37 grabs) serves as a “security blanket” early on. Late-developing jr. Ish Witter (518 YR), who is the only experienced RB, will be pushed by soph Trevon Walters and newcomers Nate Strong and Dararea Crockett. A top priority for the coaches is solidifying a retooled OL (only one starter back) that was doomed by injuries and depth issues LY.

Eight starters are back on a defense (16.2 ppg, 302.0 ypg LY) that still managed to post impressive stats LY despite being heavily overworked. The Tigers have a well-stocked front seven, returning five DTs and five DEs, led by second-team All-SEC edge rusher Charles Harris and DT Terry Becker Jr, a Freshman All-American, who had his season abruptly end in the 10th game by a knee injury. Departed MLB Kentell Brothers—the nation’s leading tackler LY and team MVP—has gone, but 6-3, 235 sr. Michael Scherer (93 stops) is primed to fill his spot, helped out by veratile OLB sr. Donavin Newsome, who can rush off the edge and cover downfield. CB Aarion Penton and FS Anthony Sherrills were steady performers LY, combining for 8.5 TFL & 14 passes defended and two forced fumbles. The calling card of a Barry Odom defense is variation, and he and new co-d.c. Demontie Cross (former TCU assistant) will enjoy mixing between a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme.

KENTUCKY (2015 SUR 5-7 PSR 3-9)—After failing to get to a bowl in his first three seasons, there is mounting pressure on fourth-year HC Mark Stoops, who has instigated some needed progress in the form of upgraded facilities and higher-level recruiting. But after fast starts the past two years, Kentucky suffered collapses in both seasons. The Wildcats started 5-1 in 2014 but finished 0-6. After opening 4-1 last term, UK stumbled to a 1-6 second half, both times watching its bowl hopes dashed with season-ending setbacks to archrival Louisville. Even at basketball-crazed Kentucky, where football still takes a backseat to the perenially-successful hoops program, the honeymoon appears to be over for Stoops. But for the Wildcats to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010, they will probably need to finish at least 5-2 in their home games (it’s possible), since four road contests look daunting, with visits to Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisville.

Nine starters are welcomed back on a offense (24.7 ppg; 394.2 ypg LY) tutored by its third offensive coordinator in the three seasons after Stoops fired Shannon Dawson and his “Air Raid” attack. UK will add pro-style elements to the playbook but will still be mostly a spread attack under new, co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, both formerly of Cincinnati. With former starter Patrick Towles leaving for Boston College as a graduate transfer, the reins will be handed to highly-regarded soph Drew Barker (35 of 70 in five appearances; 2 two starts in his debut), who reportedly has shown serious strides in maturity on and off the field. Barker directs the new-look offense, featuring a three-headed rush attack of All-SEC contender Stanley “Boom” Williams (855 YR), sr. Jojo Kemp and soph Mikel Horton. Jr. Dorian Baker (55 catches) heads up a highly-experienced WR corps, while an expanded role is envisioned for blossoming soph TE C.J. Conrad, an All-SEC Freshman in 2015.

Four returning starters will suit up on a defense (27.4 pg LY) that finished 12th or worse in the SEC in scoring rushing, rush defense, and total defense and at the bottom in both sacks and TFL. To strengthen that unit that has usually lacked the required uoverall physicality in the rough-and-tough SEC, the coaches are counting heavily on a pair of FBS transfers—MLB Courtney Love of Nebraska, who has already been hailed as the new leader of the stop unit, and OLB De’Niro Laster from Minnesota. While coaches are searching for the right combination on the front seven, which lost six of seven starters, the young but experienced secondary (four soph might start!) is well-set, paced by All-SEC Freshman CB Chris Westry (2 ints.) Kicker Austin MacGinnis, an All-SEC selection, is healthy again after an injury-plagued 2015. The Cats are still looking for more excitement from the return units, which haven’t generated TD returns since 2010 (punt) and 2009 (kickoff).

SOUTH CAROLINA (2015 SUR 3-9 PSR 6-6)—After reaching unprecedented heights under Steve Spurrier, including three consecutive 11-2 campaigns from 2011-2013, South Carolina has gone only 10-15 the past two years, with LY’s 3-9 mark its worst season since 1999. Spurrier, who did a marvelous job raising the bar in Columbia, is replaced by Will Muschamp (former Florida mentor served as the Auburn d.c. LY), who’ll bring a completely contrasting style to Gainesville. Muschamp retained only one assistant, making the choice of keeping OL coach Shawn Elliott, who served as an interim coach for Spurrier after he quit midway through last season. Muschamp, who looks to prove he’s better than his results during his four-year run at Florida, has major concerns on both sides of the ball. The Gamecocks do enjoy a string of five straight home games commencing Oct. 1, but open up with a critical two-game SEC road trip vs. defensively-sticky Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

Three starters return to an offense (21.9 ppg LY) under the guidance of co-offensive coordinators Kurt Roper, who worked under Muschamp at UF in 2014, and Byran McClendon.

Six QBs will be competing for the starting job in the fall, with four-star recruit frosh Jake Bentley graduating high school early and enrolling at USC in the summer. On the plus side, there are three QBs with starting experience in mobile Lorenzo Nunez (375 YR), Connor Mitch & Perry Orth (1,929 YP, 12 TDP, 9 ints.), but the latter two were unable to compete in spring practice due to injuries. Departed All-SEC WR Pharoh Cooper is a tough act to follow, with soph Deebo Samuel the only proven playmaker at that position. It’s the same deal at RB, with David Williams (299 YR) the top returning rusher, though coaches hope that RS freshman A.J. Turner can be a factor early on. Three new starters must also be found on the OL,

Five starters are back on a defense (27.5 ppg; 429.8 ypg LY) that did receive some good news when LB Saki Moore—the team’s leading tackler each of the last three seasons—decided to return for his senior year rather than jump to the NFL. The stop unit, which is transitioning to a 3-4 scheme under new d.c. Travaris Robinson, needs to uncover some pass rushers on the DL after finishing near the bottom nationally in both sacks and TFL LY. The new Buck position (a hybrid DE/LB spot) a staple of Muschamp’s defense, should help bring some heat, esppecially if soph Boosie Whitlow can have a breakout season. The biggest concern of the defense is the shaky secondary, where soph CB Rashad Fenton is the only player who drew consistent praise from the coaching staff in the spring.

The undeniable strength of the squad is the excellent kicking game, featuring PK Elliott Fry, who is second on the school’s all-time scoring list, and punter Sean Kelly and punter Sean Kelly (44.3 avg.).

VANDERBILT (2015 SUR 4-8; PSR 6-5-1)—Year Two of the Derek Mason Era was one of modest progress, with Vanderbilt slightly rising from 3-9 (0-8 in SEC play) in 2014 to 4-8 and (2-6 in league play) in 2015. But it’s still a far cry from the string of three bowl games achieved in predecessor James Franklin’s regime. To take the next step—return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013—and bring back local support that has greatly evaporated in the last two seasons, the Commodores need to show a pulse on offense. Vice Chancellor for Athletics David Williams is an unwavering supporter of Derek Mason. So, as long as Williams remains on the job, SEC sources believe Mason’s job is in no imminent danger. Regardless, we doubt Vandy escapes the East cellar, unless SEC-level consistency can be found at QB. Increased improvement in TO margin again (-16 in 2014; -8 in 2015) would help, too.

Five starters return to an offense (15.2 ppg; 123rd nationally LY) that was about as exciting to view as watching paint dry in 2015. Soph QB Kyle Shurmur (only 44 of 103; 5 TDs, 3 ints. LY; son of former Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur), who showed flashes at the end of last season, has the inside track on jr. Wade Freebeck, a four-game starter as a true freshman in 2014, who’s back in the mix after a strong spring. The No. 1 weapon is elusive jr. Ralph Webb, who’s on pace to become the school’s career rushing record by season’s end. Big gap, however, exists behind Webb. There’s also optimism in the passing game with three key receivers back who missed most or all of last season with injuries—WR C.J. Duncan, who was the Commodores’ best receiver in 2014, and TEs DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney. That trio should alleviate some focus from jr. WR Trent Sheffield (team-high 51 grabs & 3 TDs).

Seven starters are back on a sturdy defense (21.0 ppg; 350.5 ypg LY), which boasts one of the best LB corps in the SEC, with the return of leading tackler and preseason All-SEC pick Zach Cunningham (103 tackles, 4.5 sacks). That unit showed drastic improvement in the second year in the 3-4 scheme under Mason, who tweaked his “D” in the spring and installed the Star, a hybrid DB/LB that allows Vandy to deal with spread offenses out of their base defense. Coaches say that new position is tailor-made for jr. Oren Burks, a two-year starter at FS. Mammoth 6-5, 317 jr. NT Nifae Lealao is an emerging run-stuffer inside. But some (any?) ball-stealing play is expected from the veteran CB duo of sr. Torren McGaster (13 PBU) ) and jr. Tre Herndon, neither of whom had a pick last season.

The Commodores are 29-16-1 as a visiting underdog since 2005 (albeit 2-3 LY).


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