Whew. This is it, the last in our series ranking SEC East and West offenses, defenses, coaching and X-factors. Tomorrow, we’ll begin tallying them up to produce a projected order of finish in each division.
Today, a look at the East X-factors, which include returning starters, turnover margin, fumble-recovery rate, special teams, strength of schedule, timing of the bye week and players likely to swing the momentum of a game with a single explosive play.
RANKING X-FACTORS: SEC West
1. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Positives: Schedule breaks, returning starters, special teams
Negatives: Close losses
There’s a hyped Week 2 meeting with Virginia Tech, a couple of tough SEC road trips and that season-defining month with Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama all in a row, but this is really a great schedule for the loaded Vols. The Gators and Tide must come to Knoxville, and the second half of the season is a cake walk.
Tennessee’s final five games are against Tennessee Tech and four East opponents who went a combined 6-26 in league play last season. ESPN rates this the third-easiest schedule in the SEC.
Combine that with these important facts: No team in the league has more returning starters (18), had fewer turnovers last season (12) or boasts better special teams. Evan Berry led the nation (and nearly set an NCAA record) at 38.8 yards per kickoff return, including three touchdowns, while Cameron Sutton led the SEC at 18.7 yards per punt return, including two scores.
Those two, plus Trevor Daniel (school-record 45.7 yards per punt in 2015), are the reason Tennessee ranked third nationally in average field-position margin, per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. Junior kicker Aaron Medley is back after a great freshman season (20 of 26 FG) and slight sophomore slump (21 of 31), eager to atone for three misses in a loss to Alabama and a failed game-winner against Florida.
Speaking of, the Vols were this close to a special season in 2015, if not for a 2-4 record in one-possession games. Losses to the Gators, Tide, Oklahoma and Arkansas came by a combined 17 points. The question is whether that’s the sign of a team that can’t finish or the precursor to a major breakthrough.
Most of the data, including the East’s second-best fumble recovery rate (55.6 percent) and turnover margin (plus-7), points to the latter.
2. FLORIDA GATORS
Positives: Soft schedule, turnover margin, explosive plays
Negatives: Inexperience, kicking uncertainty
Placekicking was a major problem in 2015, which was even more costly with an offense that struggled (and might again this year) to produce points. Three kickers combined to make just 7 of 17 field goals and miss a remarkable five extra points.
But a hero (the Gators hope) has arrived in the form of JUCO transfer, former Alabama commit and YouTube star Eddy Pineiro, who has been caught on video nailing a 77-yard field goal and is hailed as an NFL-level talent. He needs to be.
The rest of Florida’s special teams are set: junior Johnny Townsend was an All-SEC pick after averaging 45.4 yards per punt last year, while Antonio Callaway was second in the league in punt-return average as a freshman and ran back two for touchdowns. He’s also a game-breaker on offense with six plays of 40-plus yards.
The Gators led the East in turnover margin (plus-8) and forced turnovers (25), but they return the second-fewest starters (11).
By SEC standards, the schedule is “easy,” ranked 52nd nationally (and softest in the league) by ESPN. Home games against Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Texas allow Florida to build up to that Sept. 24 showdown at Tennessee. LSU must come to Gainesville, the customary Week 8 bye precedes the UGA rivalry game in Jacksonville and gimmes against South Carolina and Presbyterian offer two tune-ups before the finale at Florida State.
But about those gimmes. The Gators’ East title last fall was precariously built on a 5-1 record in one-possession games. Wins over Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt came by a combined eight points.
3. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Positives: Return game, turnovers forced
Negatives: Kicking game, close wins over bad teams
The Bulldogs went 4-1 in one-possession games last season, which is a good thing, right? Not when three of those victories – over Georgia Southern and bad Missouri and Georgia Tech teams – should never have been such nail-biters. In other words, not all 10-win seasons are created equal. Thus a coaching change.
New boss Kirby Smart must replace his starting kicker and punter and is likely to do so with an unproven walk-on and a true freshman. He has referred to the situation as “scary,” and not in a good way. On the flip side, Isaiah McKenzie is a terror in the return game. He’s run back five career kickoffs/punts for touchdowns. UGA ranked 22nd nationally in average field-position margin last season.
The schedule is strong – ESPN’s 16th-toughest in the country – and includes an opener against North Carolina (11-3 last year), but it is not brutal. A road test at divisional crossover opponent Ole Miss is offset by trips to Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky (four combined SEC wins in 2015). The Week 8 bye, per usual, precedes the showdown with Florida in Jacksonville.
Thirteen returning starters is second-most in the division and, if healthy, the Bulldogs have two game-breakers: Sony Michel produced eight offensive plays of 30-plus yards last season and Nick Chubb led the league in that category with a dozen “home runs” in 2014. Explosive offensive threats and a defense that was second in the East with 22 turnovers forced last fall can change games in a blink.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Positives: Fumble recovery rate, solid special teams
Negatives: Roster turnover, no home-run threat
Was last season as bad as USC’s 3-9 record would suggest? Consider: The Gamecocks went 1-5 in one-possession games, and their five-game losing streak to end the season came by an average margin of just 5.2 points.
More happy thoughts: South Carolina had the best fumble recovery rate in the East (60.5 percent) and pounced on 15 of its own 18 fumbles – although that level of luck is not sustainable. The Gamecocks had a plus-5 turnover margin and the second-fewest giveaways (15) in the division.
Special teams were solid. Senior kicker Elliott Fry (75 percent career FG) and senior punter Sean Kelly (44.3-yard average in 2015) are back, as is Rashad Fenton, who ranked fourth in the SEC in kickoff-return average and broke a 13-year USC drought by running one back for a 96-yard TD last fall.
The schedule isn’t a total gauntlet, ranked 31st nationally by ESPN. Three of the four league road games are winnable: Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky. Trips to Florida and Clemson will be rough, but Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M come to Columbia.
Now for the real downer: just seven starters return, fewest in the SEC. Among the departed is Pharoh Cooper, the offense’s only real momentum-swinging threat, who produced 10 plays of 30-plus and seven plays of 40-plus yards last season. New coach Will Muschamp must find some difference-makers.
5. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Positives: Returning starters, winnable home schedule,
Negatives: Field position, turnover margin
The Cats haven’t returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown since 2010, coincidentally the year of their last bowl appearance. Speedy tailback Sihiem King was top-10 in the league in kick-return average as a true freshman, though, and aims to end that streak.
Opponents have had better luck, returning three punts and three kickoffs for scores against Kentucky the last two seasons. It’s little wonder Mark Stoops added a quality control coach for special teams in the offseason: Louie Matsakis, who was the special teams coordinator for Kansas’ 2007 Orange Bowl team.
Kicker Austin MacGinnis, after a record-setting freshman season, slumped last fall thanks to a nagging groin injury, but he’s healthy now. The bigger concern is a punter, where four-year starter Landon Foster is gone and likely to be replaced by a true freshman (who at least was rated a top-5 high school punter).
The schedule, despite daunting road games at Florida, Alabama and Tennessee (all of whom would be huge favorites over UK regardless of venue), actually sets up pretty well. ESPN rates it the second-easiest in the league. The Cats could clinch a bowl berth without a single victory away from home. Southern Miss, New Mexico State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Austin Peay (that’s six) are all quite beatable at Commonwealth Stadium.
Five-win Kentucky came so very close to a bowl game last fall, losing by three to Auburn, four to Vanderbilt and five to Florida. Thirteen returning starters, second-most in the East, are eager to finish the job.
Some get-over-the-hump stats that must improve: 113th nationally in average field-position margin, negative turnover margin and the second-most giveaways in the East.
6. MISSOURI TIGERS
Positives: Fumble recovery rate, punting
Negatives: Return game, turnover margin
Not one of the 127 other FBS teams in America had a worse kickoff-return average than the Tigers, who also ranked 100th in punt-return average and 110th in average field-position margin in 2015. But hey, at least they also lost the East’s top field-goal kicker, Andrew Baggett, who made 16 of 20 last fall.
In actual good news: Corey Fatony led all freshmen nationally at 42.9 yards per punt and new kicker Tucker McCann was considered one of the five best high school legs in the Class of 2016.
But there’s still more bad news: Missouri forced the fewest turnovers (16) in the East last season and faces a schedule that, while not overwhelming, is tough enough that it’s a challenge to find any more than six wins for the 2013 and 2014 East champs.
There are road trips to West Virginia, Florida, LSU and Tennessee. At least the Week 6 bye is between Baton Rouge and Gainesville. The Tigers must make hay from Oct. 22 to Nov. 12 against Middle Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt if they want to get back to the postseason.
A dozen starters return, including several key pieces from last year’s stingy defense. But the offense was a mess – Missouri lost consecutive games to Georgia and Vanderbilt despite allowing 19 total points, because it scored only nine – even with some good luck. The Tigers recovered 13 of their own 18 fumbles, getting a few fortunate bounces that might not go their way this time around.
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Positives: Er, um, uh …
Negatives: Turnover margin, special teams
They’re bad at covering kicks, returning kicks and protecting the football, have no known game-breakers and face a schedule ESPN ranks the 14th-hardest in the country. Other than that, the outlook for Year 3 under Derek Mason is quite rosy.
There will be no grace period, as the Commodores open their season with a league game against South Carolina, which might be to the eyes what a whoopee cushion is to the ears: gross, but also funny. Vanderbilt, oddly, will play two non-conference road games that could be L’s: Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky (which beat the Commodores in 2015). Combine that with hard-to-win home games against Tennessee, Florida and Ole Miss, plus trips to Georgia and Auburn, and try to find six victories.
Vandy gave up two punt-return touchdowns last fall and ranked 90th or worse in kickoff and punt-return average, 101st in average field-position margin, so Mason fired his special teams coach and took punting off the plate of Tommy Openshaw (12 of 19 FG, 40.9 yards per punt in 2015). But there are plenty of other problems.
The Commodores forced the second-fewest turnovers (17) in the East, while leading the entire league in turnovers lost (25) and turnover margin. And yet, they were a pair of two-point losses (WKU and Florida) away from making a bowl game. So maybe they’re closer than it looks.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.