Thrill of Victory

The key question for each SEC East team this fall

SEC FootballFootball season is still over two months away, but being that it’s Southeastern Conference country, it’s never too early to start looking ahead. Today, we take a look at a key question for every SEC East team.

Florida: How far can the Gators go on an old-school offense?
The Gators finished in the top 10 last season because of a defense that ranked fifth nationally in both scoring and total defense, plus some good special teams play. The offense, meanwhile, ranked 103rd out of 120 teams in total offense.

Now, that comes with a bit of a context: the Gators had a new quarterback last year in Jeff Driskel and a poor receiving corps. Coach Will Muschamp knew that Driskel could run a bit, and trusted senior Mike Gillislee as a workhorse back, and so Muschamp figured his best bet was a ball-control offense. Sure enough, UF finished ninth in the country in time of possession as the Gators won 11 games.

The Gators recruit at an elite level, and so Muschamp can get away with some things that most programs can’t. But also consider this: only six teams in America averaged fewer yards through the air than the Gators last season. Four of those teams (Air Force, Army, Georgia Tech and Navy) were triple-option teams, and Navy (8-5) was the only one of the six teams to post a winning record.

UF also finished plus-15 in turnover margin last year, and that’s a stat that can vary considerably to one season to the next. Throw in the facts that Driskel is the only quarterback on the roster who’s thrown a pass, and that the receivers still aren’t very good, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the how the Gators’ record could revert closer to the 8- and 7-win teams of 2010 and 2011 than to last year’s performance.

Georgia: How will the Bulldogs rebuild a defense?
Optimism is high in Athens after the Bulldogs were one play away from perhaps playing for a national title. A big reason for that was defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has steadily improved the defense in his three years at UGA not only in terms of yardage allowed, but also in an aggressive philosophy that has forced a lot of turnovers.

But let’s be skeptical for a minute: a lot of coordinators could win with talent like Sanders Commings, John Jenkins, Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Cornelius Washington and Shawn Williams. Each of those guys was selected in April’s NFL Draft, and Jones and Ogletree were first-rounders.

Like Florida, UGA recruits at a high level. One Georgia insider told me this spring that this year’s unit would actually be faster that last year’s. That may be so, but talent has to translate to execution. With just three starters back, we’ll get a better idea as to just how good a coach Grantham is.

Kentucky: How much can Mark Stoops win with one hand tied behind his back?
Kentucky’s pockets of success in the last few decades have come with gifted offensive minds like Hal Mumme and Rich Brooks at the helm, so when UK hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, it registered as a mild surprise. It’s been a great hire so far, as Stoops has already landed five Rivals 4-star recruits for the 2014 class, which right now ranks the Wildcats second nationally in recruiting.

The problem is that the talent that Stoops inherited is nowhere near even mid-level SEC-caliber. The Wildcats lost every SEC game last year and only once, a 29-24 loss to an unmotivated Georgia team, did they come within single-digits of a league opponent.

That said, UK was racked with injuries from start to finish, and his predecessor, Joker Phillips, had to count on far more true and redshirt freshmen than anybody. Players improve considerably from their freshman to sophomore seasons, and so last year’s injury curse could be this year’s blessing in disguise.

Still, Stoops is playing from behind, since those two classes don’t appear to be that talented: Rivals ranked the 2011 class 61st nationally, and the following class, 62nd. Then again, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin inherited what according to Rivals rankings and took a team that had back-to-back 2-win seasons and took it to the Liberty Bowl in 2011.

I’m not saying the ‘Cats are going to do the same, but it’s just a reminder that an outstanding coach can sometimes transcend the talent level. Can Stoops do the same?

Missouri: Can the Tigers’ backfield make a comeback — and stay healthy?
If there’s an SEC coach to feel sorry for, it’s Missouri’s Gary Pinkel. His fan base underestimated how tough a transition to the SEC was, and when Pinkel’s team won five games instead of the eight-to-10 that had become almost a birthright in Columbia, he felt the brunt of it.

But Pinkel wasn’t playing with a full deck. Quarterback James Franklin played hurt most of the year, and his production fell off markedly from the 3,846 yards of total offense he compiled in 2011. Missouri was already playing without starting tailback Henry Josey, who gained 1,168 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry in 2011, but sat out with a knee injury.

Franklin’s confidence appeared to be damaged last year, and he was splitting reps with Maty Mauk in spring. Josey reportedly looked like his old self in the spring, but who knows how that translates this fall to health and production. If the Tigers are to rise to their former level, they’ll probably need both to perform like they once did.

South Carolina: Do the Gamecocks have enough offensive play-makers to be elite?
Even more surreal than seeing South Carolina picked in the top 5 in some preseason polls is the fact that pass-happy coach Steve Spurrier is running the ball about 60 percent of the time. Of course, Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders weren’t exactly Sidney Rice and Alshon Jeffery last year, and starting quarterback Connor Shaw suffered from a bum shoulder from the opening game on, so keeping the ball on the ground made sense. What’s remarkable is that Carolina did that, and won 11 games, even though star back Marcus Lattimore got hurt two-thirds of the way through the season.

Carolina will try to attain that level of success once again with an offense that’s relatively anonymous: scanning Athlon’s three preseason All-SEC teams, tight end Rory Anderson (second team) is the only Gamecock represented. If Carolina is going to keep those double-digit wins coming, it might help to have someone like Ellington or running back Mike Davis to have a breakout year.

Tennessee: Is UT’s defense really that bad, or was it just that poorly coached?
Last year’s UT defense under head coach Derek Dooley and first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri was so bad, it’s easy to forget that the Vols were respectable (341 yards and 22.6 points per game) in 2011 with largely the same bunch. Yes, the Vols were out of position and confused from start to finish of last season, but at the same time, UT’s corps of defensive backs was also one of the slower SEC groups I remember watching in some time.

Taking the glass-half-full view, linebacker A.J. Johnson (who led the SEC in tackles in 2012) is an excellent player, and if gargantuan defensive lineman Daniel McCullers can get in shape, he can be, too. A healthy return of linebacker Curt Maggitt would also boost spirits. The Vols have also recruited well, so it’s fair to say that the talent is better than the results showed last season.

But how much better? Coach Butch Jones is likely going to improve this group immediately, but he’s going to have to overcome some huge challenges in the defensive backfield.

Vanderbilt: Can the Commodores get that breakthrough win?
What coach James Franklin has done in two years at Vanderbilt has to rate as one of the best short-term rebuilding jobs in college football history. Critics, though, have focused a lot on how Franklin “really hasn’t beaten anybody” in those two years. While that laser focus is unfair to Franklin’s overall accomplishments — hey, we all remember the days when Vandy struggled to beat anyone — the fact is, the ‘Dores have not beaten a team that’s finished in the Top 25 in the last two years.

To also be fair to Franklin, some of VU’s most impressive performances have come against outstanding teams where the Commodores came just short of winning — a three-point loss to Arkansas in 2011, a five-point loss to Georgia in ’11, and a four-point loss to South Carolina last year, for example. VU has games against Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M this year; don’t be surprised if the Commodores get that Top-25 win in one or more of those contests.