Photo courtesy of Georgia athletics
That time has come.
College football wouldn’t be officially back unless there were some preseason predictions. We’ve spent the last few weeks studying teams to try to give you the best predictions possible for the upcoming season.
We will certainly be wrong on some things, but we’re more than confident in these picks. Almost nothing is for sure in the SEC, but one thing is for certain: it never finishes how you imagine it.
Without further ado, here is how the SEC East will shake out, starting with the order of finish:
The Dawgs are on top, literally. This group finished strong last year with JT Daniels at quarterback. Daniels gave Georgia something it didn’t have all season — a downfield passing attack. Now, the quarterback position is finally viewed as a strength for the Bulldogs.
If Daniels can stay healthy, Georgia should have no issues moving the ball through the air with the amount of talent it has at receiver. Even with the loss of George Pickens, this is one of the best units in the country. Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton both had huge years in 2020, and will only get even better. The addition of elite transfer Arik Gilbert also gives Georgia a polarizing threat on the outside.
Defensively, you could argue that Georgia has the best front seven in the country. It starts with Jordan Davis up front, and the Bulldogs have a tackling machine at linebacker in Nakobe Dean. Defensive back has been viewed as a weakness, but they have tons of talent and hit the portal to bring in two All-Americans in Tykee Smith and Derion Kendrick.
It’s hard to view any position as a weakness for Georgia, even at the places where it may lose some talent. It has tons of playmakers on offense, and finally found the missing piece at quarterback. Additionally, Georgia should be extremely physical at the line of scrimmage.
The Dawgs have a Week 1 test against Clemson. Clemson seems to have the early edge, but expect Georgia to improve as season goes along. We predict that Georgia will go unblemished in the SEC on its journey to Atlanta.
This one might be a surprise considering Florida doesn’t sit in one of the top two spots. With 2021 set to be somewhat of a down year for the Gators, someone else should step up in the East, and that team is Missouri.
Missouri has two things that it takes to be successful: Solid quarterback play and physicality strong up front. Connor Bazelak had a roller coaster ride as a freshman in 2020, but flashed his potential when he lit up LSU for over 400 yards passing and three touchdowns. Bazelak should take a step forward next season, and he has almost all of his playmakers back at wide receiver — not to mention that Tyler Badie is a receiving threat out of the backfield.
Things get dicey on the second level of the defense. Missouri will have to replace Nick Bolton at linebacker and the Tigers have depth concerns at cornerback. They did hit the portal to try and remediate those losses, but that is still to be determined.
Missouri’s 2021 schedule is also significantly easier than some of its SEC counterparts. Despite road trips to Kentucky and Georgia, Missouri should handle its non-conference schedule and gets Texas A&M and Florida at home.
It will be a dog fight behind Georgia in the SEC East, but it’s not hard to like the direction that head coach Eli Drinkwitz has Missouri headed. Expect eight or nine wins for the Tigers.
Talent-wise, Florida is still the second best team in the league. Unfortunately, the Gators lose a borderline historic amount of talent. Kyle Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is gone at quarterback. Along with Trask, they lose a generational talent at tight end in Kyle Pitts and their two other leading receivers at wide receiver. Emory Jones is a solid quarterback, but it will be extremely hard to replace Trask. It will be even harder to replace Pitts, Kadarius Toney, and Trevon Grimes.
Not all is bad though, as Florida does return a lot of talent defensively. Granted, this defense was really bad at times in 2020. It the potential to be strong up front to go with one of the most talented defensive backfields in the country. Kaiir Elam will be the leader back there for Florida in 2021, and he has been generating some serious buzz.
This isn’t the same Florida team as last season. The Gators aren’t going to be able to outscore people all year. If the defense doesn’t step up, they could be one of the most disappointing teams in the land. There is always that one team that starts out with a high ranking but ends up finishing unranked. Florida could be one of those teams.
Florida takes on Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 30 and travels to Columbia to take on Missouri for its last SEC game of the season on Nov. 20. Those two games will go a long way in deciding the SEC East. Expect an 8- or 9-win season for Florida, but not a trip to Atlanta.
Kentucky is going to run the ball extremely well on offense, but the big question is the passing game. New offensive coordinator Liam Cohen comes from the NFL and has promised to throw the ball downfield more. The downfield passing game has essentially been nonexistent at Kentucky in recent years.
While this move makes sense, turnarounds don’t always happen overnight. The scheme has caught up with the times; the question is the personnel.
Kentucky gets both Florida and Missouri at home before traveling to Georgia on Oct. 16. Those contests will determine how well the Wildcats fare in the division. Expect between six and eight wins for Mark Stoops’ team.
The gap between the SEC East’s fourth and fifth-place finisher is huge. Each of the three remaining programs are going through rebuilds under first-year head coaches. Tennessee gets the edge over South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Why? The Volunteers are going to be able to score a lot of points. Still, the defense will prevent them from being an upper-tier team in this division.
New head coach Josh Heupel comes from UCF where he has put together some impressive offensive performances. He also has a long track record with developing quarterbacks. The Vols already had freshman sensation Harrison Bailey on the roster, but went out and added two other Power 5 starting quarterbacks in Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton. Nobody knows who will get the nod, but it’s hard to complain about the options Tennessee has.
Tennessee has some playmakers as well. Velus Jones and Jalin Hyatt form a borderline elite wide receivers duo, and will get the majority of the receptions. Even with some hefty losses at running back, there are numerous big-play options in the backfield.
Consistency and defense will be Tennessee’s kryptonite in 2021. Making a bowl game in Heupel’s first season would be considered a success for the Volunteers.
6. South Carolina
Of all the new hires in the SEC, one could argue that Shane Beamer has done the best job so far. Granted, he has yet to ever coach a game at South Carolina. Still, he has done a great job on the recruiting trail and people are starting to notice. Unfortunately, 2022 recruiting won’t fix the personnel issues that South Carolina has.
Running back Kevin Harris is back after a super productive 2020 season, and he will be the bell cow back for the Gamecocks in 2021. Outside of Harris, South Carolina will search for some weapons offensively.
Defensively, the Gamecocks are strong up front, but things are really sketchy on the back end. They lost just about everyone in the defensive backfield, including top-10 NFL Draft pick Jaycee Horn.
Beamer has things headed in the right direction, but it may take a few years for the results to show on the field. As is the case with Tennessee, a bowl appearance would be a success for South Carolina. Expect the Gamecocks to win between four and six games.
Clark Lea is the perfect hire for Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, winning is just extremely difficult at Vandy. On top of that, Lea is working with a team that went 0-9 in 2020.
Vandy does have a veteran at quarterback in Ken Seals. Outside of that, it is hard to find anything to be excited about. Talent-wise, the Commodores are clearly the worst team in the conference.
Five wins would be a successful debut season for Lea, but at this point, that seems like a stretch.