GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The official SEC media preseason poll will be released Friday morning and the Florida players have already advanced the disrespect narrative without needing to see the results.
This is becoming an annual tradition for the Gators, who seem to feel their back-to-back SEC East titles haven’t garnered enough appreciation from the pundits and prognosticators.
Last year, Tennessee entered the season as the popular pick in the East before settling for a “champions of life” consolation prize, and the hype train has now been pushing Georgia hard this summer.
“We never get enough credit. A lot of guys have been telling me that they have us not picked to win the East again, but at the same time we honestly don’t even — I don’t even hear it,” safety Marcell Harris said Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.
“We use it as motivation. We’re the underdog nobody expects nothing from,” Florida left tackle Martez Ivey said.
Missouri, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Kentucky might have something to say about that hyperbole.
There are plenty of expectations on the Gators as they enter their third season under coach Jim McElwain, and again, the preseason SEC media poll won’t be unveiled until Friday morning.
At that point, the Gators can take whatever motivation they need from it. Or dismiss it, as McElwain would prefer.
“That’s not something that we really focus on because the only way you have an opportunity to test yourself and see who you are is to go out there and play. It doesn’t matter at this juncture where we’re picked,” he said. “And how much truly does motivation get you through the hard times? I’m not sure. It’s the preparation and the attention to detail that you put into it that’s going to help you be successful. … I don’t know, will somebody at least say that we exist?”
McElwain was joking on that last part.
Nobody is dismissing Florida as a top contender again in the SEC East. Meanwhile, here is a look at the challengers and what we learned during SEC Media Days.
2016 record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC
Returning starters on offense: 8
Returning starters on defense: 10
5 key players: QB Jacob Eason (2,430 passing yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs in 2016), RB Nick Chubb (1,130 rushing yards, 8 TDs), RB Sony Michel (840 rushing yards, 4 TDs), LB Roquan Smith (95 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), SS Dominick Sanders (7 pass break-ups, 3 INTs in 2016, 12 career INTs).
Contender status: Legit. The expectation is Eason will take the next step after debuting as a much ballyhooed true freshman, and the return of both Chubb and Michel gives the Bulldogs one of the best rushing tandems in the conference. Returning all but one starter on a defense that ranked 16th nationally in 2016 (327.5 yards per game allowed) is another reason it’s easy to understand the preseason expectations placed upon the Bulldogs heading into coach Kirby Smart’s second season.
Head coach Kirby Smart says: “Our players expect to win. And we don’t want players who don’t expect to win. When you come to the University of Georgia … you’re going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country — we expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field. And we have not performed on the field from the level we should. That’s something we have to continue to improve on.”
Against Florida: Florida defeated Georgia, 24-10, last season. The teams have their annual showdown in Jacksonville, Fla., set for Oct. 28, right after Florida’s bye week.
2016 record: 9-4, 4-4
Returning starters on offense: 7
Returning starters on defense: 7
5 key players: S Todd Kelly Jr. (71 tackles, 2 INTs, 4 PBUs), RB John Kelly (630 rushing yards, 5 TDs in 98 carries), WR Jauan Jennings (40 catches for 580 yards and 7 TDs), LB Darren Kirkland Jr. (45 tackles, 5 TFLs in eight games), OL Jashon Robertson (35 career starts, including 12 at left guard last season).
Contender status: A lot to prove. Joshua Dobbs is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady to compete for the starting quarterback job. The defense also has questions after losing stud defensive end Derek Barnett, one of the best pass rushers in the SEC, and star defensive back Cameron Sutton. Even with those guys, the Vols ranked 95th nationally in total defense last year (449.2 yards per game allowed). This is a pivotal year for Butch Jones and Co., who seemed to be better positioned to contend last fall.
Head coach Butch Jones says: “I don’t view (2016) as a disappointment. The way I view it is we didn’t accomplish everything we set ourselves out to do. And again, our goal every year is to win a championship and compete to win a championship. So was it a disappointment? No. Did we not accomplish some things we set out to do? Absolutely. We have to learn from the things that went wrong that we could have done better.”
Against Florida: Tennessee used an incredible rally to come back and defeat Florida, 38-28, in Knoxville, Tenn., last year. The teams meet Sept. 16 in Gainesville.
2016 record: 7-6, 4-4
Offensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters returning: 9
5 key players: QB Stephen Johnson (2,037 passing yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs), LB Jordan Jones (109 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 4 sacks), S Mike Edwards (100 tackles, 3 INTs, 5.5 TFLs), RB Benny Snell Jr. (set UK freshman rushing record with 1,091 yards, scored 13 TDs), WR Garrett Johnson (39 catches for 585 yards and 5 TDs)
Contender status: A stretch. Kentucky enjoyed a breakout season last year, surging into the mix in a jumbled SEC East race while ultimately reaching its first bowl game since the 2010 season. There’s newfound momentum in coach Mark Stoops’ program, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are ready to compete for a division title. They’ll need to improve defensively after ranking 85th nationally last fall in allowing 434.2 yards per game and 86th in allowing 31.3 points per game.
Coach Mark Stoops says: “We’re ready to take it to the next level. Again, each and every year I’ve been here we talked about build, select, develop. And that’s building a winning culture, selecting the right players and developing them. … We’re more mature. We’re a stronger football team. Things are going exceptionally well through the summer. We’re optimistic. We’re excited. And we’re ready to get going.”
Against Florida: The Gators steamrolled the Wildcats for a 45-7 win last fall in Gainesville for their 30th straight win in the all-time series. Kentucky plays host this time as the teams meet Sept. 23 in Lexington.
2016 record: 6-7, 3-5
Offensive starters returning: 10
Defensive starters returning: 6
5 key players: QB Jake Bentley (Started final seven games as true freshman, totaled 1,420 passing yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs), WR Deebo Samuel (59 catches for 783 yards, 1 receiving TD, 6 rushing TDs, 1 kickoff return TD), TE Hayden Hurst (set program TE record with 48 catches for 616 yards), LB Skai Moore (led team in tackles three straight seasons before missing 2016 with a neck injury), RB Rico Dowdle (764 rushing yards, 6 TDs).
Contender status: Not yet. However, coach Will Muschamp has the Gamecocks moving in the right direction heading into his second season. For starters, they found their quarterback last year as Bentley showed great poise as a freshman. He’ll only get better. In Samuel, Hurst and Bryan Edwards, he has a very capable collection of receivers to throw to, an offensive line that only lost one starter and a running back in Dowdle that averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season. The bigger questions may be on defense, where the Gamecocks lost three of their top five tacklers, including productive linebackers Jonathan Walton and T.J. Holloman and their top pass rusher in defensive end Darius English (9 sacks). Getting Moore back is a major boost, but it would be a surprise if South Carolina proves ready to make the leap into the class of contenders this fall.
Coach Will Muschamp says: “I think offensively you see a bunch of knowns and some competition. Competition is great because that breeds consistency in your performance. … Defensively, a little different story as far as the known is concerned. We’ve got some questions that need to be answered. Matter of fact, I was finishing scripting our first 11 practices last night and our 11th practice is going to be a scrimmage, and that’s going to be D-Day for a lot of these young guys. We need to make a decision on the who and the what, who is going to be playing and what they can handle”
Against Florida: The Gators defeated South Carolina, 20-7, at home last season. The Gamecocks host this time as the teams meet Nov. 11 in Columbia, S.C.
2016 record: 6-7, 3-5
Offensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters returning: 7
5 key players: RB Ralph Webb (the Gainesville native is Vanderbilt’s career rushing leader with 3,342 yards, including rushing for 1,283 yards and 13 TDs in 2016), QB Kyle Shurmur (passed for 2,409 yards, 9 TDs and 10 INTs as a sophomore), NT Nifae Lealao (4 TFLs and 2.5 sacks), WR Trent Sherfield (34 catches for 472 yards and 1 TD), S LaDarius Wiley (76 tackles, 4 PBUs, 2 forced fumbles).
Contender status: A reach. Vanderbilt plays tough under coach Derek Mason. The Commodores kept it close with Florida last year (13-6 loss), upset Georgia (17-16) and blew out Ole Miss (38-17) and Tennessee (45-34). The defense should be strong again and Webb is one of the best running backs in the SEC, but Shurmur has plenty to prove at quarterback and the Commodores simply don’t have the depth of top-tier talent as the top teams in the division.
Coach Derek Mason says: “I’ve gotten our guys to understand that we don’t want to apologize for what we do, who we are or how we work. It’s a grind, and everybody’s on that grind right now. This team has grinded as hard as any team that has been around since I have been here. Part of it is because they understand what’s on the other side. They finally got a chance to see what can happen if they play the right way, if we do the right things, if we don’t beat ourselves. They are not planning on going back. This is what I will say to you. Once you taste it, the idea is to make sure you go forward, not backwards. That’s where we are.”
Against Florida: The Gators needed a late interception to hold on to a 13-6 win in Nashville last season. The teams meet in Gainesville on Sept. 30.
2016 record: 4-8, 2-6
Offensive starters returning: 10
Defensive starters returning: 5
5 key players: QB Drew Lock (3,399 passing yards, 23 TDs, 10 INTs as a freshman), RB Damarea Crockett (1,062 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns a a freshman), DE Marcell Frazier (8.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), DT Terry Beckner Jr. (limited to seven games, 24 tackles, 2 TFLs last year after totaling 8.5 TFLs in 2015), WR J’Mon Moore (62 catches for 1,012 yards, 8 TDs).
Contender status: No. Missouri looked overwhelmed last fall in its first season under coach Barry Odom. The Tigers lost by double figures to LSU (42-7), Florida (40-14), Kentucky (35-21), South Carolina (31-21) and Tennessee (63-37) and also gave up 51 points in a loss to Middle Tennessee. There are some nice foundation pieces here if Lock continues to progress and Crockett builds on his breakout freshman season. But that defense was terrible last season, ranking 118th nationally while allowing 479.7 yards per game. Odom needs his team to show considerable strides this fall.
Coach Barry Odom says: “We looked back at last year. We did a very, very thorough self-evaluation throughout the year and then when the season was over on who we were and why we didn’t achieve the things we wanted to. I didn’t do a good enough job as the head coach getting us ready to go win games.”
Against Florida: The Gators’ 40-14 win at home over Missouri last year tied for the Tigers’ second most-lopsided loss. The teams meet Nov. 4 in Columbia, Mo., this season.