The SEC Media Days being held this week in Birmingham, officially starts the college football pre-season. Camps at every college in America will open in less than two weeks, with the season openers a little more than a month away. With the members of the SEC media making their seemingly mindless picks this week, It’s also time for my predictions of the best football conference in the country. Before I begin, let me remind you that Alabama and Georgia were the picks a year ago, with Auburn and Missouri being the actual winners. (Nobody saw that coming.) Today, I choose the order of finish for the SEC East and tomorrow, the SEC West.
7. Vanderbilt: James Franklin spoiled the Commodore faithful for three years. He took them to a bowl game all three seasons, before departing for Penn State at the end of last season. New head coach Derek Mason has a huge task ahead if Vandy continues its success. Not only did Vandy lose MVP Jordan Mathews to the NFL, but most of Franklins’ recruiting commitments either followed him to Happy Valley or to another school. Nevertheless, the Commodores still have the potential to be a bowl team, but six wins will be tough to come by. Defense is still the strongest part of the team, though only three starters return from last year. Finding some big-time playmakers is a must.
6. Kentucky: Mike Stoops was 2-10 in 2013, which is the same record that Joker Phillips turned in before being fired in 2012. A pretty good recruiting year (22nd nationally but just 10th in the SEC) caused some optimism in the Wildcat camp, but Kentucky still has a long way to go to reach the success of just five to six seasons ago. The biggest signee (literally) was Kentucky native Matt Elam, a 6-7 375 pound giant who chose Kentucky over Alabama. Elam is just the second five-star signee in Kentucky history and could be the best single player the ‘Cats have had in a while.
5. Tennessee: I’ve been preaching patience for Volunteer fans for a long time, and we can see a gradual improvement in Big Orange country. A top ten 2014 recruiting class for Coach Butch Jones, with a potential top five group in 2015 are leaving U.T. fans chomping at the bits to return to relevance in the SEC. The 2014 squad will be considerably better than 2013’s group but it’s going to be very difficult to better last year’s 5-7 record. The Vols scored a huge upset over South Carolina and should have beaten Georgia last season. Tennessee will get a lot of mileage from true freshman Jalen Hurd, a running back from Hendersonville, Tn. If completely rebuilt defensive and offensive lines come through, Tennessee could even be 7-5, but 6-6 in a stronger possibility.
4. Florida: This not your father or older brother’s Florida Gators. Gone is the high scoring run and shoot offense from the Steve Spurrier era or even the spread option of Urban Meyer’s reign in “The Swamp.” Will Muschamp is a defensive minded head coach who is a mere 22-16 overall in three years. Muschamp’s seat is white hot as we enter the 2014 campaign, but the Gators should be considerably better. How much better remains to be seen. To start with Muschamp hired former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper away from David Cutcliffe; his third OC in four years. A healthy senior quarterback Jeff Driskel is a real key as to how many games the Gators will win. Driskel must have better protection than last year when the offensive line ranked 12th in the league in sacks allowed, and the team ranked next-to-last in rushing. Add in the fact that Florida lost to Georgia Southern at home last year, with the Eagles not completing a single pass, and you can see why Muschamp’s seat is so hot.
3. Missouri: The Tigers surprised everyone last season by winning the SEC East, losing a close one to Auburn in the SEC Championship, and finishing in the nation’s top five. What made this so surprising was the fact Mizzou was just 5-7 in 2012, and nobody saw this coming at all. With several key players returning, including sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, the Tigers could once again be a real challenger for the SEC East crown. The biggest loss for the Tigers could be the dismissal of super-receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Head Coach Gary Pinkel went from being on the hot seat to a new multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. Missouri could be just a play or two away from playing for another SEC Championship.
2. Georgia: Could this finally be the year that Georgia breaks through for Coach Mark Richt? The Bulldogs have been close before, but there is a lot of talk in Athens about Georgia contending for a national championship. Aaron Murray has been replaced by fifth-year senior Hutson Mason, and with a strong running game joined by ten starters returning on defense, this could be –the- year. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt added three other new assistants to the defense, which causes a lot of optimism. Georgia has the type team that doesn’t need a prolific passer like Murray to win. Just a solid performer calling the signals that won’t get them beat.
1. South Carolina: The “Ol’ Ball Coach” just keeps on going. Steve Spurrier who is still among the very best coaches in college football, is coming off a third straight 11-2 season with the Gamecocks. He is 77-39 in nine seasons at Columbia, and is now 219-79-2 in 24 seasons as a head coach. A lot of people are picking the Gamecocks to win the East despite losing top draft choice Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Connor Shaw, who was 27-5 as a starter. Senior Dylan Thompson shouldn’t miss a beat at quarterback, and the Gamecock defense will be good if not great once again. Mike Davis could be the best running back in the league, and the schedule favors South Carolina. Games against Georgia and Missouri are both in Columbia which gives the Gamecocks a big edge.
Tomorrow, the SEC West.
Randy Smith has been covering sports on radio, television and print for the past 45 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has written two books, and has continued to free-lance as a play-by-play announcer. He is currently teaching Broadcasting at Coahulla Creek High School near Dalton, Ga.
His career has included a 17-year stretch as host of the Kickoff Call In Show on the University of Tennessee’s prestigious Vol Network. He has been a member of the Vol Network staff for thirty years.
He has done play-by-play on ESPN, ESPN II, CSS, and Fox SportSouth, totaling more than 500 games, and served as a well-known sports anchor on Chattanooga Television for more than a quarter-century.
In 2003, he became the first television broadcaster to be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame. Randy and his wife Shelia reside in Hixson. They have two married children, (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith.) They have four grandchildren, Coleman, Boone, DellaMae and CoraLee.
To contact Randy: email@example.com