In our certain-to-fail attempt at predicting the 2016 order of finish in each SEC division, we’re ranking the teams on offense, defense, coaching and X-factors. Then we’ll tally them up and project the overall standings.
We kicked it off with SEC West offenses and continue now with East Division offenses, which last season left a lot to be desired. None of the league’s top five teams in explosive plays (20-plus yards), none of the top six in total offense and only one of the top eight in scoring came from the East.
There’s major work to be done here for all but one team in the division:
1. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Strength: Versatile ground game
Weakness: No home-run passing threat
Best Player: RB Jalen Hurd
The Vols made huge strides in coordinator Mike DeBord’s first season, leading the East in scoring, rushing and total offense in 2015. Now all the weapons are back. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs, with 1,329 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground in his career, is the SEC’s most dangerous runner at the position. He’s coming off his best passing season, too, in which he threw three times as many touchdowns as interceptions.
But all the pieces around Dobbs mean he won’t have to carry the offense. There’s a veteran line, led by top-shelf guards Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman, a loaded backfield and seven of the top eight receivers from last fall returning.
About that backfield: the thunder-and-lightning combination of 6-4, 240-pound Jalen Hurd and 5-10 speedster Alvin Kamara might just be the best duo in the league. With 2,187 career rushing yards, Hurd is on pace to break Travis Henry’s school record. Kamara produced almost 1,100 all-purpose yards last season and scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a punt return.
If we’re looking for a nit to pick: no receiver had more than 405 yards last season and none ranked top-20 in the league in yards per reception, so there’s no dominant vertical presence in the passing game. But will UT even need one?
2. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strength: Power running
Weakness: Unproven passing game
Best Player: RB Nick Chubb
No offense to the Vols, but if Nick Chubb’s torn ACL and Sony Michel’s broken arm are healed up and not a hindrance, this is the best backfield pair in the conference — if not the country. They’ve combined for nearly 4,000 rushing yards the past two seasons and both are likely to become high NFL draft picks next spring.
New coordinator Jim Chaney (Pittsburgh) and line coach Sam Pittman (Arkansas) should ensure that Chubb and Michel will thrive in a pro-style, power-running offense. But there are concerns, starting with who’ll play QB (and how well). Returning starter Greyson Lambert was underwhelming last fall, but is 5-star freshman Jacob Eason ready to play at a high level against SEC defenses?
And who’ll be his reliable target? Malcolm Mitchell took 174 career catches and 2,350 yards with him to the NFL, leaving a massive hole in the receiving corps.
Up front, the good news is Georgia allowed just 15 sacks last season — second-fewest in the league — but the bad news is All-SEC tackle John Theus is gone. There’s still plenty of experience on the line, particularly in senior center Brandon Kublanow, but there could be growing pains after a spring reshuffling of positions that might not be finished.
3. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Strength: Depth at skill positions
Weakness: Inexperience at QB
Best Player: RB Stanley “Boom” Williams
If this seems high for UK, consider: The Cats finished third or better in the East last season in scoring, passing, rushing, total offense and plays of 20-plus yards. They return four of five starting linemen, their top four rushers and every receiver who caught a pass of any significance in 2015. Add to that new coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, whose Cincinnati offense last fall ranked sixth nationally in total and passing yards.
The only real question mark is a big one: quarterback, where third-year sophomore Drew Barker has thrown just 70 passes in college. But the staff went all-in on him late last season, prompting veteran starter Patrick Towles to transfer to Boston College, and offseason reviews of Barker (a former blue-chip recruit) have been glowing.
He’ll have plenty of help. Jon Toth arguably is the league’s best center, while Williams and Jojo Kemp have rushed for 2,700 career yards between them. Williams is UK’s most electric playmaker since Randall Cobb, breaking 14 runs of 20-plus yards in just 10 games last season. The Cats also have a quartet of receivers that has produced 3,475 career yards and a tight end, C.J. Conrad, who looks like a future star.
4. FLORIDA GATORS
Strength: None proven
Weakness: Seven new starters
Best Player: WR Antonio Callaway
Florida started 6-0 with Will Grier at quarterback, then finished 4-4 after he was suspended for using a performance-enhancing substance. An offense that disintegrated without him took an even bigger hit when Grier transferred to West Virginia after the season. His replacement, Treon Harris, was so bad that he moved to wide receiver in the spring and transferred this summer.
Luke Del Rio, son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio, looks like he’ll be the Gators’ ninth starting quarterback since Heisman winner Tim Tebow left town in 2009. Other than solid spring reviews, there’s no proof Del Rio, who transferred from Alabama to Oregon State to Florida, can reignite this offense on his own.
There are a couple of potential stars in Callaway, who had 678 receiving yards and returned two punts for touchdowns as a freshman last fall, and tight end DeAndre Goolsby, who averaged 16.3 yards per catch as a sophomore.
But Florida lost 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor and gave up an SEC-worst 45 sacks in 2015. The Gators could use some power running from 6-2, 242-pound JUCO transfer Mark Thompson and improved play at tackle; David Sharpe is a mountain (6-6, 347) on the left and former 5-star recruit Martez Ivey has moved outside from guard on the right, offering some hope.
5. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Strength: Running game
Weakness: No vertical threats
Best Player: RB Ralph Webb
Among East teams, only Missouri’s pitiful offense produced fewer points, passing yards and total yards last season. No one in the league had fewer explosive (20-plus yards) plays than Vandy. But the Commodores do have an All-SEC talent, Webb, who has rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his career, and might have found their quarterback of the future.
Kyle Shurmur, son of NFL assistant Pat Shurmur, started five of the final six games last season and led Vanderbilt to its only two SEC victories — as a true freshman. The former 4-star recruit threw three touchdowns and just one interception in the season finale against Tennessee and coach Derek Mason called him the “clear-cut” starter this summer.
Back to the bad news: only two starting linemen return (although Andrew Jelks is an excellent one) and there are few proven playmakers outside of Webb. The team’s best wide receiver, Trent Sherfield, is a converted safety. The Commodores should be better on offense, but not likely good.
6. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Strength: Um, well …
Weakness: Zero established playmakers
Best Player: RB David Williams
What could go wrong? The Gamecocks lost seven starters from an already bad offense, including all of their best players to the NFL: receiver Pharoh Cooper (3,205 career all-purpose yards), tight end Jerell Adams and left tackle Brandon Shell. Leading rusher Brandon Wilds and the entire left side of the line must be replaced.
At least Will Muschamp hired Kurt Roper again, despite his leadership of a sputtering Florida offense in 2014 that helped get Muschamp fired. To be fair, Roper’s offenses at Duke were prolific and helped the once-lowly Blue Devils win an ACC Coastal Division title in 2013. But there was probably more offensive talent in Durham then than there is in Columbia now.
USC has quarterback uncertainty, as freshman Brandon McIlwain is pushing incumbent starter Perry Orth for the job. The top returning receiver, Deebo Samuel caught 12 passes last season. And Williams, a former 4-star recruit, is the most known commodity with a modest 555 yards rushing and 192 receiving in his two seasons. In other words, temper your expectations for this group.
7. MISSOURI TIGERS
Strength: Not applicable
Weakness: Depleted offensive line
Best Player: QB Drew Lock
Missouri ranked last in the league in scoring, rushing, passing and total yards last season. It was an absolute mess. One-time rising star Maty Mauk couldn’t stay out of trouble and former top-10 quarterback recruit Drew Lock was pressed into action too soon. He started the last eight games, and it didn’t go well: four touchdowns, eight interceptions.
We have to believe the heavily hyped Lock is better than that. Perhaps new coordinator Josh Heupel – former QB and OC at Oklahoma – will help get his development back on track. But what about the offensive line, which struggled last fall and was down to just eight scholarship players this spring? And where are the playmakers?
Ish Witter led the team in rushing with 518 yards. J’Mon Moore led the team in receiving with 350 yards. Oof. Now the Tigers are hoping Alabama graduate transfer Chris Black can help? He caught all of 25 passes in three years with the Crimson Tide. Looks like another long year for Mizzou’s offense.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.