The SEC West has been dominant since 2009, winning seven consecutive SEC title games. The SEC East has had five different schools reach Atlanta in the last 10 years.
This year, the SEC East favorite is Tennessee. The race often is unpredictable, though. Florida, last year’s East champion, was picked fifth in the preseason.
Here are three things that must go right for each team to win the SEC East this season:
- Luke’s no fluke — Luke Del Rio, the much traveled transfer, is trying to become the starting quarterback. With some uncertainty in Florida’s defensive front seven, Del Rio will need to be more than a game manager.
- Finding the next wave — Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister are big losses on the defensive line. Antonio Morrison, the team’s leading tackler, must be replaced, too. Bryan Cox and Cece Jefferson will provide the push from the edge. Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie will play tackle. Alex Anzalone will get to play linebacker next to standout Jarrad Davis. The Gators need to develop depth, but the talent is there.
- Keep the streaks rolling — Florida has 11 consecutive victories against Tennessee, two consecutive wins against Georgia and 29 consecutive wins against Kentucky. Knocking off its two biggest East rivals and pushing the Kentucky streak to 30 would give Florida a better chance to repeat as East champion.
- Avoiding the training room — Georgia needs running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to be healthy. As summer workouts began, Chubb was rehabbing after a knee injury, and Michel was recovering from a broken forearm. Both need to be ready when the Bulldogs face North Carolina in the season opener on Sept. 3.
- Replacement parts — Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Jake Ganus combined for 235 tackles last season. Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and others will need to replace that production.
- A search for balance — Last season, Georgia quarterbacks (with Greyson Lambert posting most of the attempts) were 10-0 in games in which they completed at least 52 percent of their passes. The Bulldogs were 0-3 when they failed to reach that number. Lambert, Brice Ramsey or incoming freshman Jacob Eason will need to complete more passes.
- Getting after the quarterback — Kentucky posted 17 sacks last season, the worst total in the league. In the past five seasons, no SEC East champion has had fewer than 32. Projected starters Denzil Ware and Courtney Miggins will need to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
- Banking on Barker — With the transfers of Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips, Drew Barker was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster on Jan. 1. Gunnar Hoak enrolled soon after, and Stephen Johnson II transferred from junior college. Kentucky’s success hinges on Barker’s development, though. Barker completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards and 1 touchdown last fall.
- Cash in on winnable games — Kentucky has road games at Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Ouch. Home dates against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are more manageable. The game at Missouri is favorable, too.
- Getting offensive — If new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel can turn around one of the nation’s worst offenses, he’ll become the next hot assistant on search lists. Heupel needs to replace four starters on the offensive line and develop Drew Lock into an above-average quarterback. Adding about two touchdowns a game to Missouri’s average point total (13.6) from last season would be good, too.
- Adjusting on the fly — When camp started, Missouri had one of the better pass-rushing tandems in the SEC in Walter Brady and Charles Harris. After coach Barry Odom dismissed Brady from the program for violating team policy last week, the position went from a strength to a potential weakness. Fellow lineman Harold Brantley was ruled academically ineligible. Marcell Frazier, Nate Howard and Spencer Williams are the most likely candidates to replace Brady, who had 7 sacks in 2015.
- Get more from the return game — Last season, the Tigers were last in kickoff returns and 12th in punt returns among SEC schools. Kick returns were especially poor. Missouri was second in the league in returns per game (3.2) but averaged just more than 15 yards per try. League leader Tennessee averaged more than 33 yards per return.
- McIlwain is masterful — Perry Orth is the most experienced quarterback on the South Carolina roster. Freshman QB Brandon McIlwain might be the key to the season, though. McIlwain has athleticism and throwing ability.
- Learning the lessons — The Gamecocks went 3-9 in 2015. New coach Will Muschamp also must learn from his tenure at Florida. Bringing Kurt Roper along to run the offense was a good first step. Muschamp, who is known for emotional tirades along the sideline, will need to tone down his “Coach Boom” act.
- Hidden gems — South Carolina was at or near the bottom in virtually every defensive metric last fall. Muschamp and his staff addressed that in their abbreviated recruiting cycle. Junior college transfer Jamarcus King and true freshman Keir Thomas are the most likely candidates to have significant roles this fall.
- Don’t believe the hype — A buzz started building after Tennessee’s Outback Bowl victory against Northwestern. In the spring, it continued. Tennessee is the clear favorite to win the division, but it should not look too far ahead.
- Go out with a bang — Quarterback Josh Dobbs accounted for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns in a win against Georgia last season. A week later, he couldn’t make enough plays to complete an upset of Alabama. Dobbs was eighth in the league in passer rating last season. With his talent and the Vols offense, he has a chance to finish better.
- Avoid potholes — Avoiding injuries and off-field distractions is a must for Tennessee’s title hopes. An injury to Dobbs or running back Jalen Hurd would be hard to overcome.
- Shurmur shines — Coming out of high school, Kyle Shurmur was the 13th-ranked pro-style quarterback recruit in the country. He did OK as a freshman (503 yards, 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in five games). For the Commodores to make a surprise run at an SEC East title, Shurmur will need to be outstanding.
- Be greedy — The defense, which was better than expected last season, needs to become elite. How? By forcing more turnovers (12th in the league last year), getting more sacks and being consistent against the run. In consecutive weeks last season, Vanderbilt allowed 93 yards on the ground to Florida, followed by 225 to Kentucky.
- Build some momentum — The Commodores open the season with home games against South Carolina and Middle Tennessee State. Then they travel to Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky. How nice would it be to face Florida at home with a 4-0 record?