The 2015 season became an ultra-competitive one in the SEC East, with Florida and Tennessee taking steps toward their former glory.
Now, several new coaches step into the fold to reinvigorate dormant programs. The SEC East also boasted top recruiting classes, which should only continue to fuel competition in the division.
While every team will be angling to win the division and face off against the SEC West champion next season, only a select few have the ability to do so. Here are the contenders and pretenders in the SEC East.
Last season was easily one of the worst in Missouri history. While a disappointing 5-7 record played a part, it was so much more. Demonstrations broke out across campus that nearly led the team to protest by forfeiting a game. Later, beloved coach Gary Pinkel announced he was retiring because of complications with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
As if the off-the-field concerns were not enough, Missouri was also painful to watch on the field. The Tigers were the second-worst offense in all of college football with 13.6 points per game. Mizzou failed to score more than 10 points in six of the team’s 12 games. With only one skill position player who posted 400 yards returning, this could be a long year for Barry Odom in his first season as coach.
Mark Richt helped grow Georgia’s program tremendously during most of his 15 years at the helm. However, for the first time since 2001, Georgia experienced a coaching change. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart inherits a program filled with talent. He is now tasked with leading the Bulldogs to heights that Richt could not.
Smart’s roster is loaded, led by a pair of offensive prodigies who are both expected to play next season. Running back Nick Chubb suffered a horrific leg injury last season, but the team hopes he’ll be back at full strength for the 2016 season. He may at some point be joined in the backfield by five-star quarterback Jacob Eason, one of the highest-recruited signal-callers in Georgia history. If these two can hold down the offense, Smart should be able to coach defense. This team could improve quickly.
Just like that, the Will Muschamp era is upon us in Columbia, but it does not come on a high note. Legendary head coach Steve Spurrier had never undergone a losing season since joining South Carolina in 2005, but quit during the season and left the program in turmoil. Now, Muschamp will be tasked with reviving a program that posted the 110th-best scoring offense in football last season.
To help, the Gamecocks recruited No. 2 overall dual-threat quarterback Brandon McIlwain in the class of 2016. McIlwain is expected to seriously push senior Perry Orth for the starting job. Around him, the roster is in a dire position. If Muschamp has learned to put more emphasis on offensive coaching, he can turn this program around. Regardless, it will not be this season.
Head coach Jim McElwain made significant strides in his first season, taking the Gators from 7-5 to 10-4. Florida finished 7-1 in conference play and won the SEC East championship last season before stumbling in the final three games against Florida State, Alabama and Michigan. The loss of quarterback Will Grier was felt hard over that stretch.
Because of the talent Will Muschamp was able to recruit on defense over the last few seasons, that side of the ball should be set. Finding a quarterback to take over could make or break the Gators’ season. Currently, Florida has a four-way quarterback battle. However, reports out of camp sound like former Alabama and Oregon State quarterback Luke Del Rio, son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio, has a steady lead on getting the job. If the Gators can get the quarterback position squared away, a repeat of last year isn’t out of the question.
The Wildcats have made some strides under head coach Mike Stoops, but still have a lot of work to do to catch the rest of the conference. Kentucky went 2-6 in conference last season, with the wins coming against a beaten-down South Carolina team and a reeling Missouri squad. Outside of those games, the Wildcats were outscored in the conference by two touchdowns a game.
The Wildcats are young at the skill positions and return running back Stanley Williams (855 yards) and leading wide receivers Garrett Johnson (694 yards) and Dorian Baker (608 yards). However, the Wildcats will need Drew Barker to replace Patrick Towles, who decided to transfer. It might be another long year for Kentucky.
The Volunteers have been young for a few years now under head coach Butch Jones. Tennessee returns a loaded roster, one we recently named among the deepest in the SEC. With the most returning starters in the SEC East, led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the Volunteers have a real shot at the division title.
Tennessee got off to a poor 1-3 start in conference last season, but won six straight games to end the year. In many of those games, key places down the stretch were the difference in a win or loss. The margin of error will be tight next season with matchups against Texas A&M, Alabama and Virginia Tech on the horizon. But if Jones’ squad can build off of last season, this may finally be the Volunteers’ year.
If there is an SEC East contender in the state of Tennessee, it is not Vanderbilt. The Commodores struggled to a 4-8 record and 2-6 conference mark last season behind the 123rd-best offense in the nation. Vanderbilt averaged just 15.2 points per game, one of the worst marks in all of college football.
There are reasons for optimism in Derek Mason’s third season. The Commodores now will hope sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur can turn things around. The former four-star recruit threw for 500 yards and five touchdowns in limited opportunity. Shurmur, combined with an improving defense, bodes well for the future in Nashville.