Randy Smith: SEC East Preview

Wednesday, August 4, 2021 - by Randy Smith
Randy Smith
Randy Smith
Twenty years ago, the SEC East was the more dominant of the SEC's two divisions. Tennessee, Florida and Georgia were almost as tough to beat as Alabama is now and, with the addition of Texas A&M and the resurgence of LSU, the West has turned the table. Now it's Georgia and Florida who are year in and year out the teams to beat while the rest of the division struggles to be mediocre. Here's a look at how I see the East shaping up in 2021.

7. Vanderbilt- The Commodores have a new head coach in former Vandy player and Nashville native Clark Lea, who takes over after Derek Mason was fired following a dismal 0-9 season last year. Vandy fans are hoping for new life in a program that has won just 20 games in the last five seasons.  Lea, who is the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, takes over a team that's  faced with a total rebuild.  The good news is the Commodores have 14 starters returning on both sides of the ball.  The bad news is......they have 14 starters returning on both sides of the ball.  Remember Vandy was 0-9 a year ago and they are in dire need of talent.
They won't go winless again, but wins will be few and far between.

6. South Carolina- Things are pretty much the same in Columbia as they are in Nashville. The Gamecocks have a new head coach in Shane Beamer, the son of Virginia Tech coaching legend Frank Beamer. South Carolina was 2-8 a year ago in the COVID season and, while Coach Beamer faces an uphill struggle, the talent level isn't as bad as it is in Nashville. The 'Cocks have some decent running backs returning, but the defense gave up 36 points per game last season. Beamer used the transfer portal to bring in some bodies but winning more than 4-5 games will be a tough chore.

5. Tennessee-  I have never picked the Volunteers to finish this low in the SEC East. Coach Josh Heupel is also faced with a massive challenge in his first year but there is enough talent to fit his high octane system and, like Coach Beamer, Heupel has used the transfer portal to get some players in place. The Vols have some nice talent at quarterback with four-star Harrison Bailey being my pick to come out on top of the competition. Michigan transfer Joe Milton offers some depth and could even wind up as the starter when the smoke clears. The Big Orange could be atrocious on the defensive side of the football, which means we could see a few 55-48 scores this year. I'm still skeptical about the Vols' future but I feel much better now that Jeremy Pruitt is no longer there. Tennessee fans, be patient. Better days are ahead.

4. Kentucky- Year in and year out Mark Stoops has done a really good job as head coach of the Wildcats. I've always said that you're only going to win just so many games at Kentucky, with the high water mark of 10 wins the 'Cats won in 2018.   A 5-5 Kentucky team a year ago beat Tennessee 34-7 in Knoxville. It was not necessarily an indication of how good Kentucky was but rather a key that the Volunteers were really bad. Still, the Wildcats are a good bet for seven wins and a decent bowl trip in 2021. They return only 10 starters on both sides of the ball but Stoops has recruited well and the talent level is actually pretty good.

3. Missouri-  The Tigers, like Kentucky, were winners of five games last year but they started slow. They lost their first two games of the season and won five of their next six games. Second year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz had a strong recruiting class and even overhauled his coaching staff after his initial season and, while it's unlikely Mizzou can compete for an Eastern Division title, they have a shot at winning at least eight games and going on a good bowl trip. One plus for Missouri is that sophomore quarterback Connor Bazelak returns. Bazelak passed for 401 yards in the Tigers' win over LSU last fall and he's one of the top returning quarterbacks in the SEC. The key for Mizzou is to get off to a better start than their 0-2 beginning a year ago.

2. Florida- The Gators have some work to do to compete with Georgia for an SEC East title. The biggest chore for Coach Dan Mullen is to replace the "Kyles." Quarterback Kyle Trask and receiver Kyle Pitts helped the Gators lead the nation in passing and an average of 40 points per game. But the Gator defense was really bad, especially for Florida standards. The Gators averaged giving up more than six yards per play last year, the highest in school history. On offense, Emory Jones is expected to get the nod from Mullen, who is considered to be the "quarterback whisperer" of the SEC. If Mullen can solidify the defense and rebuild the offense, the Gators can challenge Georgia. Nine wins is certainly doable for Florida, but there is little margin for error in catching the Bulldogs.

1. Georgia- In five seasons as head coach of the Bulldogs, Kirby Smart has a record of 52-14. That includes a total of 13 wins in 2017 when the Dawgs lost to Alabama in the National Championship Game. This could be Smart's best team since that season and maybe even his best ever. He has a solid quarterback returning in J.T. Daniels who started just four games last year, but averaged more than 300 yards passing in each game, which were all Georgia wins. The Bulldogs' defense should be really good again, with the only question mark being the secondary where all four starters are new. They will be tested big-time in the season opener against national power Clemson. A win over the Tigers on September 4th in Charlotte could send Georgia on the road to the national championship.that the Bulldog nation is clamoring for. 

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Randy Smith can be reached at rsmithsports@epbfi.com

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