Alabama will win the SEC West, we've already established that. In the East, Georgia is the prohibitive favorite and that means the two teams will likely meet for a third straight year in the SEC Title Game. Here is the way I see things stacking up in the SEC East in 2019.
The Commodores have done well in Derek Mason's tenure and the offensive unit is filled with talented folks. The biggest question marks this fall are in the offensive line and on defense where Vandy has struggled greatly the past two seasons.
The 'Dores play with a lot of savvy and confidence as exemplified in three wins in the last four years against rival Tennessee. Gone is all time leading passer Kyle Schurmer but coming in for 2019 is graduate transfer Riley Neal from Ball State. Neal is a more than adequate passer. Running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is one of the best in the nation and keeping him healthy is of utmost importance.
The Wildcats have won twenty-four games in the last three seasons which averages out to eight per year. Not bad at all for Kentucky. They've been to three straight bowl games and with a manageable schedule this season they are within reach of six-seven wins and another bowl trip. The 'Cats suffered a key loss to graduation when running back Benny Snell played his final game. Snell is the best in Kentucky history and will be very difficult to replace. Quarterback Terry Wilson ranked dead last in the SEC last year in passing stats but he can be a game changer running the football. Coach Mark Stoops must replace the entire secondary on defense and much of the defensive line as well.
5. South Carolina
The Gamecocks are led on offense by senior quarterback Jake Bentley. It seems like only yesterday that Bentley as a freshman guided South Carolina to an upset of Tennessee when Josh Dobbs was a senior. That loss cost the Vols a share of the SEC East title and started the team on a huge downward spiral. The Gamecocks won nine games two years ago and this year's squad is just as talented. The only thing standing between South Carolina and a huge season is a treacherous schedule that features North Carolina on one end and defending national champ Clemson on the other. Sandwiched in between is the always tough SEC schedule so Will Muschamp has his work cut out in his fourth season.
Coach Barry Odum picked up a big addition when Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant joined the Tigers. Bryant will have to replace quarterback Drew Locke who put up some impressive numbers at Mizzou. Bryant inherits a talented offense and some people even think the Tigers could even challenge for the SEC East. Hanging over their heads however, is a proposed year's probation levied by the NCAA for violations. The case is still in appeal. Meanwhile, Missouri moves forward with six returning starters on defense to go with a potentially explosive offense. Odum needs consistent play to be able to compete. After winning their first three games of 2018, Missouri lost three straight. They won five of their last six to advance to the Liberty Bowl where the Tigers lost a close one to Oklahoma State.
As I have done many times before, I'm going out on a limb with the Volunteers. I have faith that Jeremy Pruitt is doing the right thing at Tennessee. The Vols should be much better than the 5-7 mark a year ago in Pruitt's first season; one that saw upset wins over Auburn and Kentucky. They missed a bowl game when they lost once again to Vanderbilt in the season finale. In 2019 the Vols will show the most improvement on offense. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returns for his junior season with a talented group of receivers and a much improved offensive line, which is a good thing because of the fact he had to run for his life a lot last season. A very manageable schedule means that if Tennessee takes care of business, they will need to post just two SEC wins to be bowl eligible. I believe they will do much better than that with four league wins and an overall 8-4 record.
The Gators went from four wins in 2017 to ten wins in Coach Dan Mullen's first season as head coach. Mullen can flat out coach and that's why I pushed so hard for Tennessee to take a serious look at him when searching for a replacement for Butch Jones. Mullen has one of the most fruitful recruiting areas in the country but it remains to be seen how well he will do recruiting the Sunshine State in the long term. Meanwhile, he must replace six starters on offense but he gets all three wide outs back to go with quarterback Felipe franks. The Gators also return seven starters on defense from a year ago and while this may not be your typical Gator squad from a few years ago, they will be talented and will win a lot of games. Don't be surprised however, if they take a step back from their ten wins a year ago.
Georgia has averaged just under eleven wins in Kirby Smart's first three years as head coach. That's amazing and bettered only by Alabama and Clemson nationally. Smart continues to recruit very well, and Bulldog fans are beginning to ask, "Why can't we win a national crown?" Alabama has stood between Georgia and that national championship all three years and the Crimson Tide is doing it again. It's easy to see that both 'Bama and Georgia are the two elite programs in the SEC. They are each heads and tails above the other programs in the league and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Jake Fromm is an established quarterback and is easily the second best in the SEC. Smart has brought in three straight top three national recruiting classes so the talent is there for an 11-0 run to the SEC Title game and a third straight meeting with the Tide. It's too early to pick a championship game winner but I might be leaning toward the Bulldogs if I was forced to choose on July 19th.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org