Here are a few things that have been a little overblown, and a few more that may not be getting enough attention, in the run-up to the 2016 SEC season.
Georgia’s pass defense — The Bulldogs had the nation’s best pass defense in 2015, allowing about 157 yards per game. All four starters from the secondary return, so surely we can pencil them in for another strong finish, right? Maybe not.
Last year’s numbers were skewed by the Bulldogs’ schedule. Five opponents (Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Missouri and Vanderbilt) ranked worse than 100th nationally in passing offense. The best passing offense Georgia faced all season was Alabama, which finished 62nd.
They’ll be solid again, but a regression in the numbers seems likely.
Joshua Dobbs as an elite QB — Dobbs is a tremendous representative and a great leader for the Volunteers. But the numbers suggest he has some room for growth as a SEC quarterback.
He had his best season in 2015, throwing for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns with 5 interceptions. He added 671 yards and 11 scores on the ground, making him one of the league’s better returning quarterbacks heading into this season.
But for all the positives, there are a few negatives. He finished behind both Patrick Towles and Brandon Harris in passer rating (127) last season, and his 6.7 yards per attempt ranked 10th among qualifiers.
For Tennessee to reach its lofty goals in 2016, Dobbs will need to produce a few more big plays and finish his career with a flourish.
Florida’s 2016 prospects — Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville was an unqualified success. The Gators claimed the SEC East title, but the wheels came off a bit late in the season, thanks in large part to quarterback Will Grier’s suspension.
Luke Del Rio is the new quarterback, and while he’s comfortable with Doug Nussmeier’s offense, he’s far from a sure thing.
In addition, a slew of departures from last year’s strong defense must be replaced. Finally, while the Gators, picked to finish fifth in last year’s preseason poll, took teams by surprise in 2015, they won’t have that luxury this season.
There’s enough talent to work through these issues, but it won’t be as easy for Florida as it was last season.
Missouri’s 2016 prospects — New coach Barry Odom is absolutely the right guy to step in for the retired Gary Pinkel, and he deserves much of the credit for the team’s 5-7 record last year.
Odom’s defense carried the Tigers in 2015, and it had to. The offense was one of the nation’s worst, averaging a paltry 13.6 points per game.
That’s the issue with picking Missouri in the middle of the pack in the East, as a few pundits have. The problems on offense may not be a one-year fix.
New offensive coordinator Josh Heupel must replace four starters on the offensive line and mold Drew Lock into a serviceable SEC quarterback. He must do both without a lot of proven options at running back.
Keeping the defense strong isn’t a slam dunk, either, following the graduation of the nation’s leading tackler, Kentrell Brothers, and a sudden lack of depth on the defensive line.
Long term, Odom is a good fit in Columbia. But this season could be a tough one.
South Carolina’s 2016 prospects — Last season was a Cockaboose wreck for the Gamecocks. Will Muschamp’s run at Florida a few years ago wasn’t much better. So, it’s natural for some to assume that Muschamp’s time at South Carolina will go very much the same way.
But you know what happens when you assume, right?
This is a house-money season for South Carolina. Picked last by everyone, and on the back of a 3-9 season, no one expects anything from the Gamecocks. It’s just the sort of situation where Muschamp can play a ton of young players without the normal amount of pressure.
The new coaching staff has already raised the talent level. If a few things break right, a bowl berth isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
SEC East as a whole — The East has been the weaker half of the SEC recently, and last season the gap between the divisions was particularly wide.
But in 2016, Tennessee is a contender to win the entire conference, while Georgia and Florida should push the Volunteers for the division crown. South Carolina and Missouri face rebuilding jobs, but Kentucky and Vanderbilt both figure to make modest improvements upon last year.
The West is still king, but the East shouldn’t be as soft as it was in 2015.
Georgia’s offense — Georgia’s offensive numbers were modest in 2015. The Bulldogs averaged about 26 points per game last fall, good for ninth in the conference.
Quarterback play late in the season was the primary culprit, but it’s an area that should be improved.
If last year’s starter, Greyson Lambert, hangs on to the job, he can build on his plus-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the fact that he was, despite his struggles, the fifth-rated passer in the SEC in 2015.
If the highly touted Jacob Eason supplants him, it will be because he plays better than the fifth-year senior.
With a good supporting cast, a bump in production seems likely in either case.
Ralph Webb — It hasn’t translated into wins and losses, but Webb has been one of the league’s better running backs since he cracked the lineup at Vanderbilt.
In his redshirt freshman season, he tallied 907 yards and 4 scores. He upped his production last fall with 1,152 yards and 5 touchdowns.
If Kyle Shurmur can add a little punch to the Commodores’ passing game, Webb will see fewer seven- and eight-man fronts. That will help him post even better numbers this time around.