Florida shocked the world last year when then-first-year head coach Jim McElwain led the Gators to the SEC East title despite massive roster upheaval in the middle of the season, including the suspension of former starting quarterback Will Grier.
Will the Gators repeat? Will Tennessee or Georgia take charge?
Tennessee was picked to win the SEC East when the assembled members of the media predicted the order of finish in each division at SEC media days earlier this month, with Florida and Georgia coming in second and third, respectively, prior to a big gap to the rest of the division.
What weakness could derail the season for each of the three primary SEC East contenders? That question and more are answered in this week’s edition of SEC Q&A:
We’ll start with the favorite, Tennessee, and move down from there.
Without a doubt, the one thing preventing Tennessee from being elite is the absence of a downfield passing attack. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs finished eighth in the SEC in passer rating (127.01), and that rating dropped to 105.66 when facing ranked opponents.
That won’t cut it.
I’ve said all offseason that Dobbs‘ issues in the passing game stem from underdeveloped and injury-plagued wide receivers more than the senior signal-caller himself, and head coach Butch Jones echoed those sentiments at SEC media days.
“Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback, but sometimes playing winning football at the quarterback position is a byproduct to the players around him,” he said. “We’ve had the unfortunate circumstances the last couple of years to be decimated by injuries at the wide receiver position. So one of the keys for us in moving forward and continuing to gain those 25 points [the combined total the last five losses have come by] is having a healthy receiving corps.”
If Tennessee doesn’t develop a downfield passing attack, good defenses—specifically the one in Gainesville, Florida—can shut down its one-dimensional offense.
For Florida, it’s easy to point to the quarterback position. I’m not sure that’s the main question at Florida, though.
Kelvin Taylor was incredibly underrated last year, when he rushed for 1,035 yards and 10 touchdowns in a painfully one-dimensional offense and didn’t lose a fumble. If the trio of Mark Thompson, Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett can match that kind of reliability, it will take a ton of pressure off the eventual winner of the quarterback battle and stout defense.
At Georgia, it’s all about the defensive line.
Head coach Kirby Smart is coming from a program at Alabama where there were 12-15 players he could trust up front, and he has nowhere close to that. Jonathan Ledbetter can’t stay out of trouble, only one upperclassman exists on the defensive two-deep on the defensive line, and outside of sophomore Trent Thompson, there’s not much to get excited about in the trenches.
“The biggest concern for me and our team is the defensive line,” Smart said at SEC media days. “We have to do a great job there and stay injury-free. We have to develop the guys on campus. If those guys get better, we’ll have good depth there.”
Getting stable defensive line play and winning the battle in the trenches will keep the Bulldogs in games and give the offense—which is undergoing a makeover under first-year coordinator Jim Chaney—plenty of chances to navigate through growing pains.
I don’t think it’s wide receiver (or quarterback). In fact, it isn’t a sexy position at all.
When I ranked the conference’s offensive lines in April, I will admit that I was floored with the lack of stability around the conference at what is, arguably, the game’s most important position unit. Even LSU, which I ranked No. 1, has issues.
And these are the units that are supposed to hold back the likes of Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Alabama’s Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen, Auburn’s Carl Lawson, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Florida’s Caleb Brantley, Ole Miss’ Marquis Haynes, Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise Jr. and Missouri’s Charles Harris?
I don’t think so.
I could probably rattle off another couple—or 10—top-flight members of SEC front sevens to further illustrated the talent the conference boasts, but I think you get the point.
The SEC will be won and lost this year by its offensive lines.
Who can come together, and which program takes a little more time? The answer to that question will not only lead to wins, but will likely lead to division title contention.
It’s one of the best years in terms of pass-rushers in SEC history, and that upward trend comes at a time in which the offensive lines around the conference are very much in question.
This year, no, because South Carolina’s issues are far deeper than just the quarterback.
Absence of a stable running game, no experience outside at wide receiver, a defensive line that has been less than stellar and a linebacking corps that will be without star Skai Moore will make this a big-time rebuilding year for first-year head coach Will Muschamp even if true freshman Brandon McIlwain wins the starting quarterback spot and shines.
Down the road, though, I could certainly see it happening.
McIlwain, a dual-threat early enrollee who completed 19 of 26 passes in the spring game, is a perfect fit for the tempo-based attack employed by offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. His ability to create with his arm and legs will give him a chance to win the job over incumbent Perry Orth during fall camp.
Can he hold the job, though?
Hotshot freshman Jake Bentley, who reclassified from the 2017 class to the 2016 class this spring, is another ultra-talented player who could evolve into the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback once he becomes familiar with the system.
Muschamp isn’t ruling Bentley out as a contributor this season, but it certainly seems like McIlwain is trending toward winning the job.
He won’t lead South Carolina to an East title this year, but he could down the road if he meshes with fellow freshman receiver Bryan Edwards and holds off the challenge of Bentley in an offense that’s perfect for his skill set.
This is in reference to my ballot we released on Bleacher Report last week, where I have Arkansas finishing last in the SEC West in 2016.
Alabama and Ole Miss deserve different levels of the benefit of the doubt after the two programs have showed over the last two seasons they can plug roster holes and still achieve success. Behind them, I think the positive changes Auburn and Texas A&M made this offseason—dual-threat quarterback John Franklin III in at Auburn and the presence of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his power-spread attack at Texas A&M—will make both of those programs contenders in 2016.
I’m not so bullish on LSU due to a very stubborn offensive philosophy that won’t allow the program to keep pace in shootouts against good teams consistently, whereas a program like Alabama recently won a national title playing “Clemson football” over Clemson 45-40 and the 2014 Iron Bowl 55-44 playing “Auburn football.”
With that said, though, LSU still has plenty of talent to be competitive week in and week out.
I’m not sure Arkansas does.
With three new offensive linemen, a new top running back after Alex Collins bolted, new quarterback in Austin Allen and new primary tight end Jeremy Sprinkle stepping in for Hunter Henry, the Razorbacks offense is going through a lot of upheaval from where it was at the end of last year.
Couple that with a secondary that gave up far too many big plays, and I don’t have faith in the Hogs contending.
They’ll still make a bowl, be competitive in most conference games and could spring an upset or two. But it really comes down to who I trust more—Arkansas or Mississippi State—to finish sixth in the SEC West. Give me Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen because that offense will be fine after the departure of quarterback Dak Prescott thanks to the system and several “Dak-like” options under center.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report CFB