As the 2013 college football season draws ever closer to kicking off, all eyes this year are once again focused on the Southeastern Conference, as the league vies for its eighth consecutive BCS championship. While most consider Alabama the odds-on favorite to represent the SEC West in the SEC Championship Game in December, the SEC East is another wide open race. So, for your reading pleasure, here’s what I see in my crystal ball for the SEC East heading into the 2013 season. We’ll go in order of projected finish, beginning with my pick to represent the East in Atlanta.
The Dawgs come into 2013 after falling just a few yards short of winning the SEC and playing for a national championship in 2012. The buzz around the program is that the narrow loss to the Tide served as inspiration during the offseason, causing senior quarterback Aaron Murray to choose to return for his senior season and prompting record participation in voluntary offseason workouts. The potential is high and the ultimate goal is clear, but Georgia will have some questions to answer as the season goes along.
Key losses — OLB Jarvis Jones and the rest of the NFL draftees from last year’s defense (John Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, Cornelius Washington and Bacarri Rambo) — Without question, the biggest uncertainty for Georgia heading into 2013 is the defense, especially as Georgia prepares for a high-octane Clemson offense in week one. The thought process is that Georgia could struggle defensively based on the amount of NFL talent gone from a year ago. However, the 2012 defense severely underperformed at times, something defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and head coach Mark Richt have said could have been caused by a lack of depth. During spring practice and preseason camp, the focus has been placed on developing more players to be ready to contribute on gamedays, rather than leaning mostly on the starters. Both coaches have also said they expect the defense this year to be a quicker, more mobile defense. Jarvis Jones was the star a year ago, but sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins was impressive playing on the opposite side of Jones in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme. Jenkins has the tools and potential to be a dominant pass rushing force, but probably won’t equal Jones in terms of sack statistics. In Georgia’s two biggest wins from the last two seasons (both wins over Florida in Jacksonville), Jones came up with a total of eight sacks. Jenkins won’t quite do that, but he’ll do just fine. In the secondary, Georgia must replace both its starting safeties and nose tackle is a concern on the defensive front. Georgia’s defense should get better as the season goes along, but the schedule is toughest in the first month of the season. If the D can be ready to play at a high level from the start, Georgia could be a force in the national championship picture.
Key addition — S Tray Matthews —As the defense is thrown right into the fire against Clemson and South Carolina the first two weeks of the season, Georgia must find a way to have solid play in the secondary. True freshman Tray Matthews was perhaps the star of spring practice, and is the unquestioned starter at free safety. If Matthews can carry his success from the spring and fall scrimmages into Death Valley on August 31, the Dawgs could walk out of Death Valley 1-0.
Key Games — August 31 @ Clemson — This is the marquee matchup of week 1, with two preseason top 10 teams squaring off under the lights in Clemson’s version of Death Valley. The two schools are less than 100 miles apart and were traditional rivals up until the 1990s, when meetings became less frequent. This year, both teams have national championship aspirations, are led by senior quarterbacks who passed on entering the NFL Draft in favor of returning to college and both have question marks on defense. The good thing for Georgia is that under the current BCS system, early losses aren’t nearly as costly as late losses, meaning Georgia could conceivably fall to the Tigers and still fight its way back into the BCS conversation. Personally, I think the stage and the atmosphere will be too much for Georgia’s young defense. The offensive firepower should be fun to watch, though.
September 7 vs South Carolina — The past two years, Georgia has made it to Atlanta despite losing to Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks. That likely won’t be possible this year, however, as South Carolina does not face Alabama, Texas A&M or LSU from the SEC West, meaning Georgia will likely have to defeat Carolina in week two in order to hope to return to the Georgia Dome. Last year’s contest was a laugher in Columbia, as Georgia struggled throughout in a 35-7 beatdown. However, Carolina will be without Marcus Lattimore, who gave Georgia nightmares during his three-year career. If Georgia can find a way to contain Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Murray could finally break through against USC and put Georgia in the driver’s seat in the SEC East.
Player to watch — RB Keith Marshall — While fellow sophomore Todd Gurley returns as the incumbent starter at running back, Marshall will continue to see 15-20 touches per game as well. Gurley came into his freshman season as the more college-ready back with a larger frame, but Marshall has added some bulk during the offseason and by all accounts, still looks to have the breakaway speed that made him one of the SEC’s most dangerous players a year ago. With a year under his belt, more bulk to withstand hits and break tackles and an experienced offensive line in front of him, look for Marshall to improve on his numbers from a year ago and become essentially the co-starter by season’s end. It’s not unreasonable to expect 2,200 yards rushing or more from Georgia’s dynamic duo at RB, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Marshall winds up being the team’s leading rusher.
Overall, it looks as if Georgia is primed to put a team on the field equal to, if not better than last year’s squad that went 12-2 and won the SEC East. The problem, however, is the early schedule. It’s entirely possible that Georgia could have a better team, but miss out on a return trip to Atlanta and thus finish with fewer wins. If Georgia can at least split the opening doubleheader of Clemson and South Carolina, a 10-win season or better will be obtainable.
Prediction —11-1 overall, 8-0 SEC record, SEC East champions, BCS bowl bid
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks come into 2013 still searching for the SEC Championship that has thus far eluded the team. Head coach Steve Spurrier will rotate quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson in true Spurrier fashion, giving him the ability to basically ride whoever has the hot hand that day. And then there’s the matter of star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who some opposing coaches have called the best player in college football.
Key loss — RB Marcus Lattimore — While Lattimore did miss sizable chunks of the 2011 and 2012 seasons with horrifying injuries, this will be the first season since 2010 that the Cocks will have to prepare for a full season without Lattimore. The pressure will be placed on both quarterbacks to continue to make strides in the running game, and for new starting running back Mike Davis to continue to progress and prove that Carolina can still be a physical team when it needs to be. The offensive line is huge and experienced, so things should be ok. However, Lattimore was one of the best backs I’ve ever seen at making sure he was always falling forward, gaining that extra yard and pushing the pile. Those few yards Lattimore won’t be there to provide could make all the difference in Carolina’s championship aspirations.
Key addition —LB Larenz Bryant — While Clowney returns to lead the USC defense, the Cocks must replace four of their top five tacklers from 2012. Two of those were linebackers, which are key in Carolina’s 4-2-5 scheme. Bryant comes to Columbia from Charlotte, N.C., and could have played anywhere from safety to running back coming out of high school. In the 4-2-5, athletic linebackers that can crosstrain at multiple positions are necessary for success, and Bryant fits that mold perfectly. He’ll play all over the field and he’ll have the opportunity to make an impact from the get-go.
Key games — September 7 @ Georgia — The Cocks have won three straight against Georgia, but have missed out on the SEC East crown each of the last two years after Georgia was able to win the remainder of its league games. This season, however, there is no Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M on USC’s schedule, while Georgia will face the Tigers Sept. 28 and have a date with Clemson one week before facing the Cocks. If Carolina can leave Athens with a win, it’s highly unlikely Georgia would be able to catch the Cocks this time.
November 30 vs Clemson — Carolina has owned its in-state rival the past few years, but there’s a very real possibility that these two teams could play the biggest game in the history of the rivalry this season. Clemson’s soft ACC schedule has only SEC foe Georgia and Florida State as potential pitfalls, while Carolina’s only true road test comes at Georgia in week two. If everything shakes out, we could be looking at a matchup of 11-0 teams come the final weekend of the season. We should also have an idea of where Clowney’s Heisman candidacy stands at this point, and he has made a habit of embarrassing the Tiger’s offensive line the last two years. Could this be the stage for Clowney’s Heisman moment?
Player to watch — DE Jadeveon Clowney — Most of the time, when writers and other members of the media choose players to watch or potential MVPs for teams coming into the season, they try to go with a player that isn’t the obvious choice. I’m not going to do that. Clowney is the player to watch for the Cocks this season because he’s going to MAKE you watch him. He’s one of the more dominant physical specimens to come along in years, and he’ll have the opportunity to make a serious run at becoming the first defensive player to win the award since Charles Woodson in 1997. Whether he wins the Heisman or not, Clowney has established himself as one of the few defensive players capable of showing up on the highlight reel each and every week. His hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith during last season’s Outback Bowl has become the stuff of legend, and Clowney is set to further his legacy this season.
It’s hard to imagine South Carolina not being an improved team this year, even with the loss of Lattimore. The schedule is there for the Gamecocks, and if they can win the week two showdown against Georgia in Athens, we won’t just be talking about the Cocks as an SEC title contender — they’ll be national title contenders.
Prediction — 11-1 overall, 7-1 SEC record, 2nd place in the SEC East
The Gators enter 2013 still smarting a bit from the embarrassing Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville. Florida probably overachieved a bit in year two under Will Muschamp, but this year the talent on the roster could provide for another special season in The Swamp. Quarterback Jeff Driskel should continue to improve, but there are question marks all over the offensive side of the ball.
Key loss — RB Mike Gillislee — Florida was dreadful in the passing game last season, ranking 114th in the nation in passing offense. As such, Florida leaned heavily on Gillislee throughout the season and will likely be forced to rely on the run game for consistency again in 2013. Muschamp prefers a smashmouth style on both sides of the ball, and new starter Matt Jones was impressive in preseason camp before being sidelined with a viral infection. With Jones’s status for the opener against Toledo in question, Florida must get freshman Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown ready to play. No position is more important to the Gators’ success in 2013 than running back, meaning Florida’s backs must perform when the lights come on if Florida is to have any hope of contending for an SEC title.
Key additions — WR Demarcus Robinson — While Driskel deserves some of the criticism for Florida’s poor passing last season, the fact remains that there is no excuse for a team that recruits such a skill player-rich state as Florida to have such an underwhelming crop of wide receivers. Robinson is one of five freshman pass catchers that will have a chance to play early for the Gators, and he will be counted upon to give Florida a downfield threat that was largely nonexistent a year ago. If Robinson can produce from the start, Florida could work their way into the SEC East title race once again.
Key games — November 2 vs Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. — For the first time in two decades, this game may actually be more important to Florida’s success than it is to Georgia’s. Muschamp has yet to experience victory in the series, losing four times from 1991-94 while playing for the Bulldogs, and both of his two games as Florida’s head coach. Georgia will also be looking to win three in a row in the series for the first time since 1987-89. More than that, however, Florida must win in Jacksonville in order to be a contender in the East. The good news for the Gators is that Jarvis Jones, Georgia’s star linebacker from the last two seasons who recorded eight sacks over the two contests, is no longer around to torment the UF offensive line.
November 16 @ South Carolina — Florida destroyed Carolina in 2012, riding a wave of USC turnovers to a 44-11 blowout at The Swamp. However, that game was an anomaly that is unlikely to be repeated this year. With a raucous home crowd behind Carolina, this is undoubtedly Florida’s toughest true road test.
Player to watch — CB Louchiez Purifoy — Purifoy is perhaps the best player on a stacked Florida defense, and has shown an ability to make game-changing plays at opportune times, much like former LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu. However, Florida isn’t content to simply let him affect games on defense, and the Gators have been slowly working Purifoy into the rotation at wide receiver during preseason practices. If Purifoy can translate his speed and instincts to the offensive side of the ball, he could be the spark that Florida needs to get over the hump on offense.
All in all, I believe the Gators are primed to be a better, more complete team than they were a year ago. However, Florida did overachieve last year and the schedule has a couple of spots where Muschamp’s squad could be caught off guard. Ultimately, Florida just doesn’t have the firepower on offense to be a factor in the SEC East race.
Prediction — 7-5 overall, 5-3 SEC record, 3rd place in SEC East
Key Additions: WR Jason Croom, WR MarQuez North, CB Riyahd Jones, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, DL Jason Carr
Key Losses: WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Justin Hunter, TE Mychal Rivera, QB Tyler Bray, TE Zach Rogers, DT Darrington Sentimore
Key Games: 9/14- at Oregon, 9/21- at Florida, 9/28- Georgia 10/26- at Alabama
Player to Watch: LB A.J. Johnson. The defense was pitiful in Derek Dooley’s last season there (35.7 points per game!) but Johnson was their best player and their leader. He led the conference in total tackles along with 7.5 tackles for loss. Although he got little notoriety for following Brian Kelly in Cincinnati, he coached a few unheralded players into the NFL over the past few years. He will definitely turn to Johnson here. The other pro prospect on defense for Tennessee is DT Daniel McClullers
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? If they do better than 1-7 against conference opponents, which is what they did last year, you have to mark it as an improvement. What will be far worse, though, is the offense, which lost four guys to the NFL Draft. They also lost their offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney, who went to Arkansas. The quarterback situation is still out there and they have to break in all new wide receivers, but they do return one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. The defense HAS to be better than last year, with Jones firing them up and eight returning starters. Expect freshman CB Jones to play right away for them. Overall, they should be a little bit better.
Final Thoughts: They get two cupcakes to start off, then they go through hell on the schedule early on when in a six-game stretch they go to Oregon, Florida, and Alabama and play South Carolina and Georgia at home. Yikes! But after October, the schedule gets much easier for them, and I expect this team to break even in conference play. The defense is going to go from one of the worst in the country to one of the better ones, but like Arkansas under Bielema, the offense has a ways to go. I smell 7-5 with upside in the following season.
Prediction: 7-6 (Liberty Bowl)
– Andrew Riche
Key Additions: RB Chase Abbington, LB Donavin Newsome, Dt Antar Thompson, DT Josh August
Key Losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, Lb Zavier Gooeden, LB Will Ebner, S Karonte Walker
Key Games: 10/12- at Georgia, 10/19- Florida, 10/26- South Carolina, 11/30- Texas A&M
Player to Watch: Dorial Green-Beckham. The former #1 overall recruit in the country last year only had 8 catches in the first 7 games but came on late and still led the wideouts with 5 touchdowns on 14.1 yards per catch. I expect a breakout season for the future star. Another really dangerous players on Missouri’s team is RB Marcus Murphy, who is also a stellar kick returner.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than Last Year? This one is tough to tell because in their first season in SEC play, the Tigers did not really show us much in 2012. Their offense dipped mightily and their defense slightly got worse than they were in 2011 in the Big XII. They hung around in some games but never mounted a key victory except for an overtime victory over Tennessee. At quarterback, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert feel like eons ago now. James Franklin has to get better in his senior year because he has been a major disappointment coming out of high school. He might even lose his starting job to Corbin Berkstresser. The offense loses only four starters while the defense lost their best player in Richardson. I will call it a push and say they go 5-7 again.
Final Thoughts: Like Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, head coach Gary Pinkel is in a tad bit of trouble here. After running some creative offense and making a name for himself as a guru for quarterbacks and defensive prospects (remember Aldon Smith?) over the past few years, they really bit off more than they could chew by joining the SEC, more so than fellow newbie Texas A&M. Pinkel saw the signs of distress and replaced longtime assistant David Yost with Josh Henson as the new offensive coordinator. The one caveat is the schedule, where they are likely to be undefeated going into their 10/5 road game against Vanderbilt. Then they play the big boys down the stretch, where a long losing streak might spell doom for Pinkel if they go bowl-less for a second year in a row.
– Andrew Riche
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the conference a year ago was the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vandy took a big step in year two under head coach James Franklin, finishing 9-4 overall and 5-3 in SEC play, the first time the Dores had finished over .500 in SEC play since 1982. The season also marked the first time in school history that Vandy had reached a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Vanderbilt has managed to ascend from the cellar of the SEC, but can the team continue to improve in 2013? Or have the Commodores hist the proverbial glass ceiling?
Key loss — QB Jordan Rodgers — Vanderbilt’s offense struggled at times last year, but new starter Austyn Carta-Samuels had every opportunity to wrest the starting job away from the younger brother of NFL star Aaron Rodgers. Carta-Samuels was never able to win the job on a permanent basis, and now must improve in order for Vanderbilt to have a shot at another winning season. He’s surrounded by a fair amount of talent on offense, as receiver Jordan Matthews returns, as does running back Wesley Tate. If Carta-Samuels can play at a level equal to his 2009 season when he was the Mountain West freshman of the year while at Wyoming, Vandy could have a chance to have its best season ever.
Key addition — QB Patton Robinette — While Robinette was on the Vanderbilt roster a year ago, he took a redshirt season and spent most of 2012 watching Rodgers and Carta-Samuels battle for the right to be the starting quarterback. This year, however, Robinette very well could see extensive playing time, especially if Carta-Samuels struggles or goes down with an injury. Vandy coaches love Robinette’s football IQ and he has received rave review for his pocket presence. I expect Robinette to see the field at some point for Vandy, and it could be tough to unseat him if he does.
Key games — August 29 vs Ole Miss — There was perhaps no team in the conference with more offseason buzz surrounding it than Ole Miss. The game will be the debut of the Rebels’ nationally touted freshman class, and both teams will have a chance to shine on the national stage on the season’s first night. Vanderbilt cannot afford to squander the momentum it has coming off of last season. Fan interest is at an all-time high and a stumble in the first game of the season could be devastating for the program.
October 19 vs Georgia — The one thing Vanderbilt failed to do a year ago was knock off one of the East’s “Big 3.” If Vanderbilt hopes to do that in 2013, Georgia would be the most likely candidate. Vandy has a bye week to prepare for the Dawgs, and Georgia might be caught looking ahead to the annual Jacksonville showdown with Florida. There’s also still a bit of bad blood between Franklin and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham stemming from a postgame altercation the last time the two teams met in Nashville and last year when Grantham played his defensive starters well into the fourth quarter of a blowout in Athens. Expect Vandy’s players to rally around their coach, and give Georgia one hell of a fight.
Player to watch — WR Jordan Matthews — It’s somewhat surprising, but Vanderbilt could have the conference’s best wide receiver in Matthews. Whoever winds up playing the bulk of the snaps at QB will look to involve Matthews in the offense as much as possible, and Matthews has shown game-changing ability when the Commodores are able to get the ball into his hands. If Matthews can find a way to get more touches, he could be one of the SEC’s most dangerous offensive threats.
Overall, it’s hard to imagine Vanderbilt being able to top last year’s 9-4 season. Personally, I think it’ll be very difficult to stay above .500, as unproven quarterback play and a difficult schedule loom. Vanderbilt has gotten better the past two years, no doubt, but so have most of the teams on its schedule. Franklin is a fantastic football coach, but there’s always going to be the perception that you can only do so much at Vandy.
Prediction — 6-6 overall, 2-6 SEC record, 6th place in SEC East
Key Additions: DL Za’Darius Smith, WR Javess Blue, C Zach Myers, WR Ryan Timmons
Key Losses: OG Larry Warford, DE Collins Ukwu, WR La’Rod King
Player to Watch: LB Avery Williamson. The numbers on defense for Kentucky last year under Joker Phillips were not kind, for sure, but they did record 27 sacks. Williamson is s senior and, like Johnson at Tennessee will be asked by new head coach Mark Stoops to lead the way while the offense gets another overhaul. Stoops’ last two Florida State defenses finished third in the country in ’11 and second in the country in ’12, and he loves linebackers going all the way back to his days assisting his brother Bob at Oklahoma. This is a perfect marriage.
Will This Team Be Better or Worse Than They Were Last Year? They lost to Western Kentucky last year, so if they win that game and win their freebies, that is one game improvement right there. WKU is the opener in Nashville where we see Bobby Petrino coach again, so that will be an interesting game. Both sides of the ball bring back 7 starters, but there was not much there to begin with, so to say they will be vastly improved in this tough conference is too much. I see them doing a couple of wins better, but no more than that. Stoops knows this will take time.
Final Thoughts: I did love seeing Stoops hire former Troy and Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown to run the offense. He did wonders for Sean Doege at Tech last year, so let’s see what he can do for Maxwell Smith and his returning wideouts and starting running back. Stoops will tinker with the defense throughout this timeframe and, along with Williamson, look out for DE Alvin Dupree and DT Donte Rumph. They also bring in Smith, who was a top juco recruit at defensive lineman. Expect a lot of sacks. They get a really big test early when they play American Conference favorite Louisville at their building on 9/14.
– Andrew Riche