Will Muschamp begins every team meeting with a simple drill for his team. Muschamp first asks “Years?” asking his team how many years Florida has been playing football (107). The head coach follows up with “Championships?” Reminding his team about the expectations that come with playing football at Florida (11). He saves the most important reminder for last. Muschamp says, “beat?” to which the team responds “the East and Florida State.”
Continuing our “Know Your Foe” series, today we take a look at the Eastern division. Not the whole East, but the top three teams that we deem as “contenders” in 2013.
Every year, Florida enters the season with one goal in mind. Sure, everyone wants to win National Championships and that could be in the back of the coaches and players minds but the real goal is to win the East and play for a conference championship. And in the recent landscape of college football, winning an SEC Championship might even guarantee you a spot in the BCS National Championship.
In order for the Gators to get back to a game where the winner gets to hoist a crystal ball, they first need to get back to Atlanta and play for a league championship. To get there they’re going to have to beat the east.
Let’s take a look at what each team in the East has coming back and how Florida stacks up with the rest of the teams in their division.
The emergence of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall last season was enough to get Bulldog fans excited for 2013. When you add the return of senior quarterback Aaron Murray and the entire starting offensive line, Dawg fans are down right giddy now.
This is the most complete offense that Murray will lead in his four seasons in Athens. While Murray has struggled statistically against Florida during his time as the starting quarterback, he does have a 2-1 record against the Gators, can Peyton Manning say that?
Georgia will have a very balanced attack on offense. Both Gurley and Marshall could run for 1,000-yards a piece with ease. Having two talented backs should allow Georgia to rotate both players throughout a game and wear down opposing defenses late in games.
Murray lost his favorite target in Tavarres King but has a talented replacement in Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell caught 40 passes a year ago for 572 yards and four scores. Chris Conley should also assume a bigger role in the offense. As a sophomore last season, Conley caught 20 passes for 342 yards and six scores. 30% of your receptions are touchdowns? That’s not a bad ratio at all.
Murray also has his tight end back for his senior season in Arthur Lynch. Lynch, used mainly as a blocking option his first two seasons, has developed into a more well rounded player and gives Murray a big-target and a security blanket when pass protection breaks down.
The offensive line struggled in pass protection a year ago but all five starters will return for this season. You would think that having your entire line return for a second straight year together would help with their chemistry and make the line a more cohesive unit. If they can give Murray a clean pocket to work with, he has the ability to pick defenses apart.
The two-time reining and defending SEC East Division champion Georgia Bulldogs will look decidedly different on the defensive side of the ball in 2013. Gone are the big names like Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, Cornelius Washington and Baccari Rambo. In total, Georgia is replacing 12 players on defense who were either starters or key contributors last season.
In their place Georgia will send out a bunch of young faces that they hope pan out. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has his hands full but having seven early enrollees on defense will help the transition and a lot of those freshmen will have to play early.
Players like Tray Matthews (S), Chris Mayes (DT), John Atkins (DT), Ryne Rankin (ILB),Reginald Carter (ILB) and Reggie Wilkerson (ATH) will be asked to not only fill out the depth chart but also contribute as freshmen.
Georgia returns both their kicker (Marshall Morgan) and punter (Collin Barber) who were both freshmen a season ago.
Marshall was 8-of-14 on the season and 63-of-67 on extra point attempts. Barber averaged 41.47 yards per punt last season, 10th best in the conference.
Georgia had the worst punt coverage team in the SEC in 2013, giving up 11.14 yards per return and one touchdown. Barber only had 14 punts returned the entire season but when he doesn’t force a fair catch or down the ball out of bounds, Georgia needs to be better.
What to watch
The key storyline for the Dawgs will be how Grantham and the defense bounce back from losing 12 key contributors from 2012. If the defense takes a big step back in 2013, is the offense good enough to carry the team and lead Georgia back to Atlanta?
How do they stack up against Florida?
Georgia’s strength (offense) is going to play right into Florida’s strength (defense). Aaron Murray has struggled against the Gators, posting his lowest quarterback rating, completion percentage and more interceptions than touchdowns against Florida.
The key to the game will be stopping Georgia’s two talented running backs. If Florida can stop – or at least slow down – Georgia’s running back duo, they’ll be singing the alma mater with orange helmets raised in the air. If they can’t, it will mean more “why can’t you beat Georgia?” questions for Will Muschamp. He hates those questions.
It’s been two seasons since the Gamecocks made their first ever trip to the SEC Championship game.
While they lose Marcus Lattimore this season, the loss should be made easier due to the fact that Lattimore missed the majority of the past two seasons with knee injuries. South Carolina also loses Kenny Miles who took the bulk of the carries when Lattimore went down.
South Carolina replaces them with two backs that have had a history of injuries in Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson. Wilds missed all of 2012 with a knee injury and Carson is coming off of a knee injury of his own. However, it’s the third option that would be my pick to take over the starting job. Mike Davis, a player who was committed to Florida at one point, has all the talent to become a big time playmaker for Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier also returns two quarterbacks, and we all know how the ‘Ole Ball Coach like to rotate his quarterbacks, in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. While Shaw and Thompson are still competing for the starting spot, does it really matter who the starter is? Spurrier is going to play both quarterbacks throughout the season and go with whoever has a hot hand at the moment.
The discussion of South Carolina’s defense begins and ends with Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney is an absolute monster. He is the kind of defensive player who is so good that he makes the game easier for the offense. For example, Clowney’s hit, forced fumble and subsequent fumble recovery in the Outback Bowl against Michigan pretty much won the game for his team. Not to mention the great gifs and replays we all got to watch.
Opposite Clowney is Kelcy Quarles. While you can make the argument that anyone can play on the other side of Clowney because you’ll always have one-on-one matchups, Quarles is a very good player. He goes under the radar because of Clowney but Quarles is poised to have a very good season.
Behind them, South Carolina is rebuilding their linebacking unit. While there is a lot of potential, the unit as a whole will struggle to match last season’s production.
It’s hard to imagine South Carolina’s special teams without Ace Sanders. Victor Hampton is set to replace Sanders as the main punt returner. Hampton returned two punts for -2 yards a season ago, a far cry from the 15.32 return average and two touchdowns they got from Sanders. Bruce Ellington will return kicks, averaging a solid 22.56 yards per return last season.
Sophomore Landon Ard will take over kicking duties while Tyler Hull returns as the Gamecock’s punter. Hull was the worst punter in the SEC last season with an average of just 39.48 yards per punt in 2012. As Florida fans know, having a strong punter can change the momentum and outlook of a game. Hull needs to be better for South Carolina.
What to watch
Two things to watch from South Carolina:
- Jadeveon Clowney. Just enjoy watching him play against everyone other than Florida.
- How will the quarterback battle play out and can South Carolina get enough from the position to try and make a return trip to Atlanta.
How do they stack up against Florida?
D.J. Humphries will have 9 games under his belt and will face plenty of good competition in that span but the real test comes against South Carolina. Can Humphries fare better than Xavier Nixon did last season?
Another factor that plays into the Gamecock’s favor is this being a home game. Florida took advantage of turnovers last year in the Swamp but they can’t depend on South Carolina to cough the ball up four times again this year.
Jeff Driskel needs to show up this week. South Carolina will key on the run – like most teams will all season long – and that means Driskel will have to make plays to come out of Columbia with a win.
The biggest issue Vanderbilt will face is replacing Jordan Rogers. Rogers quarterbacked the Commodores the past two seasons and his mobility as well as accurate arm, helped bring Vanderbilt out of the SEC cellar. Replacing Rogers will be Austyn Carta-Samuels, who spent two years as the starter at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt.
Replacing Rogers is paramount but James Franklin and his staff also need to find a replacement for Zac Stacy. Stacy led the team in rushing the past two seasons, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate will take most of the carries and try to fill in for Stacy. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour will provide great depth in addition and give Vandy a nice stable of running backs to lean on.
Vanderbilt has one of the best defensive backs in the conference in Andre Hal. Hal was second to only Dee Milliner with his 16 passes defended. Vanderbilt had the conference’s third best pass defense a year ago allowing just 191.8 yards per game. While Hal returns, Vanderbilt has to find a way to replace Trey Wilson. Wilson led the team with three interceptions – including two that he returned for touchdowns – that is no easy feat.
I would expect another solid defensive season for the Commodores as they continue to be a program on the rise.
What Vanderbilt lacks in athleticism or size on offense and defense they make up for by playing solid special teams. Gator fans saw how valuable special teams play can be firsthand in 2012.
Vanderbilt’s 83.3% field goal conversion rate was tops in the SEC in 2012 (they edged out Florida by 0.5 percentage points). Carey Spear, who connected on 20-of-24 attempts last season, returns and will be a consistent weapon for the Dores.
Vanderbilt had the fourth best yards per punt average (44.57) with all but two of those punts coming off of the leg of Richard Kent. Kent graduated and his replacement, either Taylor Hudson or Colby Cooke, has some very big shoes to fill.
Vanderbilt finished in the middle of the pack in 2012 as far as punt/kick coverage and they will need to improve in 2013 if they are going to improve on last season’s 9-4 (5-3 SEC) finish.
What to watch
It wasn’t long ago that Vandy was the butt of every SEC joke. James Franklin has done an absolutely unbelievable job recruiting, developing players and creating a winning attitude and atmosphere around the football program. You cannot say enough about the job he has done.
Keep an eye on the new starters at quarterback and running back, and keep an eye on two games for Vandy. The season opener on Thursday, August 29 as they host Ole Miss and again on Saturday, September 14 as they travel to Columbia to take on the Gamecocks.
How do they stack up against Florida?
There are too many question marks on Vandy’s offense for me to think they will steal one in Gainesville. Vandy has played Florida close the past two seasons and they’re getting better every year. James Franklin has done an unbelievable job but losing Rogers and Stacy might be too big of a loss for them to take the next step.
GatorCountry.com will continue to break down the rest of the SEC this week