As we get closer to the start of the college football season, it is very apparent that there are only two great teams in the SEC, then there is everyone else. Alabama and Georgia are the class of the conference and both are overwhelming favorites to meet in the SEC Championship Game in December.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
Somebody has to be picked last and since Vanderbilt is the team that has finished last more often than not, it's them. Vandy got off to a super start last year, winning their first three games and outscoring their opponents 84-13.
Then Alabama came to Nashville and handed the Commodores a 59-0 whipping-a loss that started Vandy on a six game losing streak. They finished 5-7 and 1-7 in the SEC but that one win came against Tennessee in the season finale. If Vandy is to show improvement in 2018 they must get a lot better on defense and quarterback Kyle Shurmur needs to be more consistent.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
This is the lowest position I have ever picked the Vols to finish......ever. Of course the 2017 Big Orange squad was officially the worst team in school history. Only four wins, that's never happened before and -zero- wins in SEC play. That's never happened before either. A new head coach and a new staff will make things better but Tennessee needs a lot of help to be able to post more wins. In the Vols' favor is the return of receiver Jauan Jennings who has already proven to be a big play receiver. Who the quarterback will be is the biggest question in camp but I believe that transfer Keller Chryst who was 11-2 as a starter at Stanford will eventually get the job. There is some talent in Knoxville but most of it is unproven. I think the Vols will be 6-6, maybe even 7-5. Either way they will go to a bowl game. As I've said before, fans need to be patient. It's going to take some time and great recruiting classes to get Tennessee back to the top of the SEC East. The key game is the very first one against West Virginia. If the Vols pull the upset, that would give them a huge amount of momentum for the next eleven games.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Mark Stoops is the dean of coaches in the East. He's been at Kentucky only five years but that's longer than anyone else which proves how bad the SEC East has been for several years. All those coaching changes show how every school is trying to outdo Nick Saban at Alabama. The biggest key for the 'Cats is finding a good quarterback. There is a good deal of talent elsewhere on the field. Junior running back Benny Snell is as good as any running back in the league, with back to back 1,000 yard seasons. On defense Kentucky returns eight starters, but the bad news here is they ranked 92nd in the country last season. If things fall into place Kentucky could win eight games and go to a bigger bowl. After all, the Wildcats have finished .500 in SEC play two years in a row and that means Coach Stoops is doing a lot of things the right way.
4. Missouri Tigers
The Tigers finished strong in 2017, winning their final six games and doing so with big margins. After starting the year 1-5, they went to the Texas Bowl and lost to Texas. Quarterback Drew Lock is one of the best in the SEC, but he has a new offensive coordinator-former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. A big key for the Tigers will be to cut down on the turnovers. They finished 111th in the nation in turnover margin in 2017. They also had the 107th best pass defense in the country as well, but their offense was fabulous, averaging 502 yards per game which ranked 8th nationally. If Missouri can somehow find the magic that led them to those six straight wins in 2017, they could finish higher than fourth in the East.
3. Florida Gators
When Dan Mullen was hired as the Gators' new head coach, it excited the Florida faithful beyond words. Now they must come back down and face reality that the talent level is not close to what it was ten years ago. Uncharacteristically the Florida offense was terrible in 2017. averaging 22 points per game. Mullen, who has a reputation of being offensive minded and a great developer of quarterbacks has his work cut out. Ten starters on offense return but that could be misleading. The Gators were so bad offensively, maybe they needed a good graduation to right the ship. Other coaches around the SEC feel the talent is there but in the past couple of years, player development has been terrible. Dan Mullen is the guy that can change that. How soon he does it, will tell us just how many games these Gators can win in 2018.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
Head coach Will Muschamp brought his Gamecocks to a second place finish last year in just his second year in Columbia. He did it with quarterback Jake Bentley who has established himself as one of the best in the league. There is also plenty of talent around him on that side of the ball as well, as the 'Cocks return eight starters on offense. The defense is less experienced with only five starters back, but Muschamp is a great defensive coach and no one should have any worries there. They do need to find a running game, because last year's squad ranked 111th in national rushing stats. The biggest game on the schedule for South Carolina is against divisional favorite Georgia on September 8th but the game is in Columbia and that early in the season, it's feasible to think the Gamecocks could pull the upset.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Kirby Smart has done a tremendous job in his two seasons in Athens. In year number two, the 'Dawgs won the SEC, made the playoffs and lost in overtime to Alabama in the national championship game. With another outstanding recruiting class coming in Coach Smart is establishing himself as an elite college football coach. Keeping his players from becoming complacent is a big part of being an elite coach and could be his biggest test yet. While eight starters return on offense including quarterback Jake Fromm, only five return on defense and that could pose some problems early in the season. The Bulldogs also lost one of the great running back tandems in SEC history in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel but there are several stud running backs who could fill the void. They will win the East, but how much further they go depends on how quickly the defense rebuilds. 2018 should be another banner year in Athens.
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com