The East Division of the Southeastern Conference figures to be loaded again this fall with defending SEC and national champion Florida the team that everyone wants to knock off. Figure the East will be a tough battle until the last week of the season. Here’s what I’m hearing from the East Division now that spring has wrapped up.
TENNESSEE: Lindy’s magazine has selected the Vols to win the East and there are probably two reasons why. First, they return quarterback Eric Ainge, who had a nice year under David Cutcliffe in 2006. Ainge was injured in the spring and from what I have heard, struggled with the no huddle offense in the spring. If you are a rising senior and the no-huddle is still not at your disposal then I am not sold on the Vols’ QB. The second and more realistic reason to pick the Vols is the schedule . Yes, I know they come to Gainesville, which is probably a loss, but look at the rest of the schedule. There is NO game with LSU, so that’s a plus. The other SEC roadies are Alabama, Miss State and Kentucky, so that’s a very do-able schedule if you’re trying to win a championship. Even with an early loss to Florida it will take someone else winning in Knox-Vegas to eliminate the Vols. One other key to spring was upgrade the running game which was 96th in the country and not much of a threat in ’06.
GEORGIA: While many are excited about Mathew Stafford returning at quarterback, I still think UF has a better QB situation. The thing I like about the Dogs is Mark Richt turning the offense over to Mike Bobo. Richt, who tends to get conservative in close games, should let Bobo open things up and then he can pull back the reigns. I have heard Knowshon Moreno is legit and may be the feature back as the season unfolds. Once again the Dogs, like the Vols, need to improve the run game and become more consistent. I also think Georgia lost too much up front on defense to win the SEC but Richt will always have his team in the hunt. Like Tennessee, the Dogs are also looking for receivers to emerge as weapons.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Before you call me a “Spurrier Homer” let me say that I am. I did play for the guy and still think he is the best gameday coach in college football. He has also done a nice job recruiting at South Carolina and I think it could pay off this year. South Carolina is a “jinxed” program that always seems to come close but can’t quite take it too the next level. The schedule is tough but Blake Mitchell is now ready to take the offense to another level. He did have a bad spring game but Mitchell grew up last year watching Syvelle Newton run the offense. Spurrier will feature Kenny McKinley as the go-to receiver and this will be a team that can run the ball well. USC under Spurrier averaged more yards rushing per game than perennial powers Tennessee and Georgia. What does that tell you about Spurrier? He does whatever it takes to win and my moles tell me despite a difficult road schedule he is very confident about this season.
KENTUCKY: Are you telling me Rich Brooks is still the coach at ‘tucky? If you don’t think it’s not mostly about Jimmy’s and Joe’s ask Brooks who with Andre Woodson, Rafael Little and Keenan Burton they won eight games and a bowl game. The spring was spent on adding wrinkles to the offensive run game and working with a new coordinator on defense. The Wildcats were a bend but don’t break unit that only relinquished 26 points to the Gators but they tied for the most given up by any SEC East team against them. They must focus on causing turnovers on defense and being creative on special teams to get to a bowl game again this season. They will benefit greatly from the new rules that now make teams kick the ball off from the 30.
VANDERBILT: This experienced unit had a solid and productive spring. The one thing you cannot change is the mindset of losing inside the program. They played most teams tought but cannot get over the hump. The Commodores do a great job of featuring Earl Bennett the outstanding receiver and worked on ways to get him the ball more in the spring. Nickson needs to be more consistent on passing situations early in the down sequence and getting Stamper back tackle is a big coup for the offense. The positive is this may be the most experienced team in the SEC and the negative is they have experienced losing way too much. Bobby Johnson will benefit from eight home games this season and week two versus Alabama will dictate if this is going to be the year the Commodes become the bowl busting Commodores.
THIS AND THAT IN THE SEC EAST:
Check out these quarterbacks and compare them to the West:
Erik Ainge, Tennessee
Tim Tebow, Florida
Andre Woodson, Kentucky
Blake Mitchell, South Carolina
Mathew Stafford, Georgia
Chris Nickson, Vanderbilt
All these guys are returning starters with the exception of Tebow who did produce enough touchdowns to be on many pre-season Heisman lists. This is why the East is better than the West.
Five Defenders to watch in the East:
Xavier Mitchell, DE, Tennessee
Derrick Harvey, DE, Florida
Jeff Owens, DT. Georgia
Casper Brinkley, LB. South Carolina
Wesley Woodyard, LB, Kentucky
Post Spring Predicted Order of Finish
1. Florida: Offensive firepower and big home field advantage.
2. South Carolina: Spurrier’s teams at USC better on road.
3. Tennessee: Can Ainge be an SEC winner or just another nice arm?
4 .Georgia: Tough spot for Richt with no playmakers on offense.
5. Kentucky: Would not surprise me if they miss a bowl this season
6. Vanderbilt: Could be this year’s Kentucky by surprising and making a bowl.
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