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SEC Team-By-Team Preview: Eastern Division

Here’s a look at each team in the SEC Eastern Division. This story originally appeared in the USA Today Sports 2013 college football preview — now available on newsstands. 

Florida

Star watch – DE Dominique Easley, LB Antonio Morrison and CB Loucheiz Purifoy will lead a loaded defense. QB Jeff Driskel returns with experience and more responsibility. Matt Jones emerged as the No. 1 RB during spring practice. Purifoy will likely see time on offense, too.

Top newcomer – RB Kelvin Taylor. He showed flashes of a bright future during spring practice.

Big question – Will the defense carry Florida again? The Gators ranked 12th in the SEC in total offense (334 yards per game) in 2012.

What to expect – Florida has high expectations after an 11-1 finish in the regular season in 2012. Florida’s defense should be strong despite the loss of several key starters. The biggest concern is the same as last year – Florida needs a player (or two) to emerge at wide receiver.

 

Georgia

Star watch – QB Aaron Murray will lead the way. RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and WR Malcolm Mitchell will make offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s job fun. LB Jordan Jenkins will take on the Jarvis Jones role. OT John Theus could break out as a sophomore.

Top newcomer – S Tray Matthews. The freshman should relieve depth concerns in the secondary.

Big question – How will Georgia replace seven starters on defense? The Bulldogs will be explosive on offense, but they’ll need help on the other side of the ball.

What to expect – Georgia expects to not only return to the SEC championship game but to win it this time. It’s been eight years since the Bulldogs won a conference championship, a streak Georgia fans are anxious to end. Murray knows it will be championship or bust in his final season in Athens.

 

Kentucky

Star watch – Leading tackler Avery Williamson returns at LB. The defensive line will be solid with tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Newcomer Za’Darius Smith should benefit from their presence at defensive end. Leading rushers Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George are back.

Top newcomer – DE Za’Darius Smith. A junior college transfer, he was signed to provide an immediate pass rush.

Big question – Who will win the starting quarterback position? Jalen Whitlow made a great case for himself during the spring against Max Smith and Patrick Towles.

What to expect – Kentucky’s offense will be fun to watch if it finds the right quarterback. New coach Mark Stoops has pieces to work with on defense. But the Wildcats will face a talent disadvantage in most games. Division matchups with Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will have a major influence on the season’s outcome.

 

Missouri

Star watch – Dorial Green-Beckham has the talent to become one of the league’s best wide receivers. QB James Franklin needs to return to his 2011 form. RB Henry Josey is back after missing last season with a knee injury. E.J. Gaines is one of the SEC’s most experienced cornerbacks.

Top newcomer – Freshman Chase Abbington. Gary Pinkel’s offense needs plenty of athletes.

Big question – Who will start at quarterback? James Franklin has the experience, but sophomore Corbin Berkstresser and freshman Maty Mauk are challenging him.

What to expect – First, get the ball to Green-Beckham, who’s shown a greater level of maturity in the offseason. A healthier backfield should help the Tigers return to some normalcy on offense. Missouri needs to take advantage of a favorable schedule, which possesses no real threat out of conference.

 

South Carolina

Star watch – It starts with Jadeveon Clowney. He’ll get help from defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson will both see time at quarterback. Mike Davis finished the spring as the top running back. Receiver Bruce Ellington and TE Rory Anderson will be weapons.

Top newcomer – RB David Williams. Williams, a freshman, should provide relief for Davis.

Big question – Will the Gamecocks have receivers step up to take pressure off Shaw and Thompson? Their young receivers are talented but unproven.

What to expect – South Carolina won’t be the favorite to win the East, which is no problem to the perennial underdog Gamecocks. South Carolina has experience at quarterback, elite talent on the defensive line and confidence from its head coach. The Gamecocks will know more about their season after their Sept. 7 game at Georgia.

 

Tennessee

Star watch – Linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will be asked to lead a revamped defense. DT Daniel McCullers needs to be a force. Offensive tackles Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson are All-SEC candidates. Rajion Neal brings experience to a thin offensive backfield.

Top newcomer – WR MarQuez North. The freshman was signed to play right away.

Big question – Will Tennessee find replacements for departed receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson? The Vols will rely on multiple freshmen at wide receiver. They also need to replace QB Tyler Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 TDs, despite a losing record.

What to expect – Tennessee is trying to avoid its fourth consecutive losing season and fifth in six years. Returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 should be the goal. Butch Jones needs positive results on the field to sell to future recruits.

 

Vanderbilt

Star watch – Receiver Jordan Matthews could have left early for the NFL. Chris Boyd is an experienced No. 2 receiver. Austyn Carta-Samuels appears to be the favorite at quarterback. Vanderbilt’s three leading tacklers (Kenny Ladler, Chase Garnham and Javon Marshall) all return.

Top newcomer – WR Jordan Cunningham. The freshman will add depth behind Boyd and Matthews.

Big question – Will Vanderbilt be able to replace its backfield? Zac Stacy had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and Jordan Rodgers proved solid at quarterback.

What to expect – Expecting Vanderbilt to win nine games again would be unfair. But reaching a bowl game for a third consecutive year appears realistic. Franklin will demand a lot out of his quarterback, whether that’s Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. The Commodores won’t sneak up on anyone. Franklin has people paying attention.

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SEC Meetings Recap: The Spurrier Proposal

Heading into this week’s SEC Meetings, it was well known that Steve Spurrier’s out-of-the-box proposal to not count cross-division games in the league’s standings would be the controversy of Destin.  Not because it’s likely to become a reality, but because a) it involves Spurrier who always finds a way to make these get-togethers interesting and b) it’s so far outside of the darn box.

Indeed, it was an issue that media folks kept querying coaches about yesterday.  Judging by the responses, battle lines have been drawn up already and one side seems to have more support than the other:

 

Spurrier:  “I was thinking about the most fair conference I was ever in, the ACC, ’87, ’88, ’89.  I think we only had eight teams and everybody played each other, so it was very simple. Whoever had the best record was the league champion and so forth. Now with the mega conferences, everybody can’t play everybody and sometimes scheduling might be the reason somebody wins the division or even the conference championship… (If cross-division games weren’t counted) Now, maybe winning a division is kind of like winning a conference championship.”

 

LSU’s Les Miles:  “I want it to be fair.  I don’t want to lock in an Eastern-Western Division opponent that historically has won the conference and that those games make a difference in how you fare in the East and in the West.  You have to find the SEC champion the best way you can.  You have to find the West and East division champions without regard to a crossover game.  The best team in the West should play for the championship.  The best team in the East should play for the championship.  I think there’s a view of a loss in a crossover game that it could be detrimental and not allow the best team to come into the championship game.”

 

Vanderbilt’s James Franklin (who wasn’t as committed to the idea yesterday as he’d sounded earlier):  “It’s something we need to at least look at. I want to hear everyone’s opinions on it.”

 

Alabama’s Nick Saban:  “You’re going to minimize the importance of these cross-division games if you say they don’t count toward the championship.  Then we’re really not an SEC.  We’re really just an East and a West, so why would we even play the games?”

 

Florida’s Will Muschamp:  “It’s hard for me to say that I could lose to an Eastern Division team and have that Eastern Division team lose to two Western Division teams and go play for the SEC title.  That doesn’t make any sense to me. An SEC game should count as an SEC game.”

 

Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen:  “I hate doing anything to devalue those league games because every game you play in this league is so critical and it’s such a competitive game against tough teams that you’d hate to devalue that game.”

 

Georgia’s Mark Richt:  “If it gets changed, then good for him I guess this year.  I don’t know if he’d feel that way every year.  This year he’d probably feel good about it.  I don’t think it’s going to change.  I’ve always said for me personally tell me what the rules are at the beginning of the year and let’s go play by them. I’m used to what we do.  My mind’s ingrained that every game counts.  The reality is in our league play if you lose to somebody head to head or if you beat somebody head to head you’ve basically got a two game lead on that team.  So there is an advantage to that still.  It’s not like there is no advantage or difference.”

 

Commissioner Mike Slive:  “I think that will be brought to the table for athletic directors to think about.  It’s hard for me to think about a conference game that doesn’t count.”

 

We continue to point to one practical reason Spurrier’s proposal is likely doomed — it won’t be easy for the SEC to sell CBS and ESPN on carrying meaningless games while simultaneously asking them for more money.

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Miles Backs Spurrier: Only Division Games Should Count

Steve Spurrier and a group of South Carolina fans have found a friend outside the Palmetto State.  LSU head coach Les Miles told a group in Birmingham today that he’s in favor of the SEC’s divisional champs being decided by division games only:

 

“I want the schedule to be fair and I want it to give everybody the same opportunity.  I’m for the Western Division deciding the Western Division champion and the Eastern Division deciding the Eastern Division champion.”

 

And there you have it — two SEC coaches are now in favor of making cross-divisional SEC games meaningless.  Totally meaningless.  Exhibitions actually.

Miles says he wants the schedules to be fair.  Well, then he should be in favor of a 13-game round-robin format in which every SEC team plays every other SEC team.  That or he should favor just going back to the six-game schedule of old with only games against division foes on the docket.  (In reality, those scenarios wouldn’t be fair either because some teams would play at home and some on the road and some would meet pre-injuries, some post-injuries, etc.)

Personally, I’m tired of writing about this subject because it’s so utterly ridiculous.

If the SEC wants to become the only major league — college or pro — in America to not count all its games, fine.  Might as well.  I’m already on record as saying the SEC is being flat-out cowardly when it comes to avoiding a ninth conference game.  What’s a little more nonsense?

If Mike Slive and his presidents are content to let the league’s athletic directors do what’s best for themselves rather than what’s best for the league as a whole, then why not add more cupcakes to the nonconference portion of the schedule and stop counting or even playing cross-divisional league games?  Hell, perhaps they can get the folks with the BCS computers and the poll voters not to count those games, either.

“Loss?  What loss?  That exhibition with Alabama didn’t count in the SEC standings so it shouldn’t count in the BCS rankings!”

Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News was on hand for Miles’ engagement today and he has more on the ongoing soap opera that is the SEC’s struggle to put together a new schedule format.  An SEC vote at the end of the month can’t get here soon enough for this writer.  Time for this story to be put to bed.  Regardless of the final decisions.

 

SIDENOTE — Miles also managed to chuck a little warning in the direction of SEC newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M, today: “I would say strap it up.  They’re going to really not enjoy their welcoming to this conference.”

 

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Spurrier Won’t Call Saturday’s “Must Win” Game “Must Win”

Georgia is 5-1 in the SEC, South Carolina is 5-2.  For the Gamecocks to repeat as East Division champions, they need to win Saturday at home against Florida and then hope that the Bulldogs are knocked off at home by either Auburn (on Saturday) or Kentucky (next Saturday).

If the Cocks and Dawgs finish 6-2 in league play, Carolina’s 45-42 win over Georgia way back on September 10th would break the tie and Steve Spurrier’s team would head to Atlanta for the league’s championship game.

So unless Carolina expects Auburn and Kentucky to knock off Georgia, the Cocks must win Saturday against Florida to keep hope alive, right?  Not according to the Ol’ Ball Coach:


“We’ll try our best to win.  I don’t like to use the word ‘must.’  Sometimes your guys get too uptight if you say we have to do this or do that.  The only thing we say is play your best.  When you look at the way our team has played this year, you have to say those guys are 7-2 (overall) and in position to achieve some things this year.  We’re not moping around that we’re 7-2.  We have to play the game and fire up some emotion.”


Fair enough.  If the coach doesn’t want to put added pressure on his team — something he’s never worried about with quarterbacks — then that’s his call.  But any Carolina player capable of reading a leaderboard knows what’s at stake Saturday.

As for the team he’s now chasing, Spurrier said yesterday, “If Georgia wins seven straight conference games, they probably deserve to be the Eastern Division champion.”

Probably so.

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Mizzou Could Announce Departure At Big 12 Meeting Today

Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton is planning to personally attend a Big 12 board of directors meeting today in Dallas.  There’s a growing belief in the Show-Me State that Deaton did not announce a full split with the Big 12 last weekend because he wanted to handle the breakup in person.  (Considering the back door deals and double-crosses of the expansion/realignment game, it’s almost shocking to see such a display of principles.)

PowerMizzou.com — the Rivals site covering the Tigers — reports that “the expectation is that Missouri will withdraw from the Big 12 at that time.”  (For the record, Gabe DeArmond of PowerMizzou is the son of Mike DeArmond of The Kansas City Star.)

Both sites believe Missouri will be welcomed into the SEC by the end of the week.  The Rivals site also includes the following in its report:  “Multiple sources have indicated that Missouri is likely to be placed in the Eastern Division of the SEC.”

On Saturday morning, we reiterated our previously-stated conclusions – based on what we’ve heard from sources at multiple SEC schools:

1.  Missouri will be in the SEC by the end of the week (with an announcement likely coming Wednesday, Thursday or Friday).

2.  The Tigers will be slotted in the SEC East.  (The why is something we also covered here on Friday.)

3.  And we stand by our view that the SEC will eventually go to a nine-game league schedule.

Nothing’s happened since Saturday to change our opinions.  In fact, what’s being reported in Missouri seems to confirm what you read here first.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Gators?: Notes on Restoring Balance in the Georgia Bulldogs’ Most Important College Football Rivalry (Part I)

Georgia
Content provided by Dawg Sports.

Now that I have been forced back into the saddle by the compulsion of intervening events, I might as well begin trying to face up to, sort through, and come to terms with the ugly truth of last Saturday’s loss. I begin from the following premises, which I will accept as givens until and unless I hear a persuasive contrary case made:

  1. Few programs in the country enjoy the institutional advantages possessed by the University of Florida. Jeremy Foley is a first-rate athletic director, who has built championship programs in all sports, generated enormous revenues, and kept an athletic department that previously had multiple run-ins with the NCAA free from scandal. Urban Meyer is a first-rate coach who has won everywhere he’s been; evidence of Coach Meyer’s elite stature may be found in the facts that he is one of only seven men in Division I-A history to have recorded at least 90 wins in his first nine years as a head coach and one of only seven men in conference history to have won two SEC titles in his first five years as a coach in the league. The University of Florida is academically one of the most respected schools in the Southeastern Conference, boasting a top 60 ranking in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and the institution has the benefit of a scenic campus (in every sense of the term), top-rate facilities, a large and generous alumni base, a recent history of success, great weather, and a fertile natural recruiting ground in its surrounding environs. While few schools can compete with the University of Florida in these respects, the University of Georgia has all of these advantages, as well. Damon Evans ran a clean and cash-generating athletic program, which recently was taken over by Jeremy Foley’s longtime right-hand man, Greg McGarity; Mark Richt, while lacking a national championship, is one of the other six men to have won 90 games in his first nine years and two SEC titles in his first five years; Georgia’s U.S. News rank of 56 is right up there with Florida’s rank of 53, and the Bulldogs have the benefit of a longer tradition of success. In sum, Florida has a wealth of natural advantages to make the Gators successful, and, consequently, the Gators succeed. Given Georgia’s comparable institutional strengths, however, there is no reason why the Bulldogs cannot and should not be equally or very nearly as successful as the Gators.
  2. For the foreseeable future, the most important game on the Georgia Bulldogs’ schedule each year will be their game against the Florida Gators. While strong historical cases may be made that the Auburn Tigers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have been bigger rivals traditionally for the Red and Black, the fact that the Sunshine State Saurians are a division rival of the Classic City Canines makes winning the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party imperative if the Bulldogs are to be in the hunt for division, conference, and national championships. The Ron Zook era (in which Georgia could lose to Florida yet still win the SEC East) is over, and the only way past the Gators is through them. Between 1992 and 2009, the Eastern Division was represented in the SEC Championship Game either by Florida or by a team that had beaten Florida thirteen times in 18 seasons; this year, the Eastern Division will be represented in the SEC Championship Game either by Florida or by a team that has beaten Florida. The road from Athens to Atlanta, metaphorically if not geographically, runs through Jacksonville.
  3. Georgia’s marked lack of success against Florida from 1990 to 2010, and in any subset of years within that 21-season span, is intolerable and unacceptable.

Absolutely the most maddening aspect of this entire matter is our inability to overcome this knotty conundrum. Coaching changes, special uniform selections, the location of bye weeks, the respective rankings and won-lost records of the two teams, and the temporary moving of the game to campus all have had no measurable effect on the outcome; irrespective of whether those factors operated in favor of the Bulldogs or the Gators, the Orange and Blue somehow found a way to come out on top.

Some of Mark Richt’s critics would like to believe it’s all his fault, and that firing our current head coach would solve the problem. Unfortunately, the trouble is nowhere near that simple. Coach Richt has gone 2-8 in Jacksonville; his two immediate predecessors combined to go 2-10 against the Gators, with one of those two wins antedating Steve Spurrier’s return to Gainesville. Mark Richt has been responsible for two-thirds of Georgia’s victories over Florida since the Evil Genius came home to the Swamp, while being to blame for fewer than half of the Bulldogs’ losses to the Orange and Blue. His 2-8 record in Cocktail Party contests is atrocious and unacceptable, but it actually represents an improvement upon what came before. (This is especially true, in light of the closeness of the games: Ray Goff and Jim Donnan together lost to Florida by more than 30 points six times; Mark Richt has five losses to the Gators by a touchdown or less. That is small consolation indeed, but it shows how bad the situation was before, and how much improvement was and still is needed.)

There are no easy answers, and a myriad of disorganized yet far from random thoughts are bounding around in my brain (which, I should stress, may be mildly addled by the cold I am fighting and the medication I am taking, so pardon me if something I say sounds too crazy), but I will attempt to cobble together a few ideas to clarify the nature of the problem, in the hope of beginning the process of identifying and implementing the solution we all seek.

Stay tuned. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!


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