Last week we took a look at the SEC West. This week we are diving into the SEC East. Georgia exceeded expectations and stood alone on top of the division in 2017, finishing 6-0 against division opponents. The Bulldogs won every SEC East showdown by an average of 29 points. Their closest contest came at home against South Carolina, the same week that they made their debut as the #1 team in the country. Georgia won 24-10, and the victory secured them a spot in the SEC Championship game. It was the first time since 1982 that Georgia began a season winning their first nine games.
In 2018, Georgia will look to duplicate the same success they saw in 2017, and hope to find themselves back in the CFB Playoff conversation. An early week 2 showdown between Georgia and South Carolina could set the tone for the SEC East race. This time, South Carolina will get a shot at revenge on their home turf. Here are my initial season win total leans for every team in the SEC East.
Georgia season win total: 10.5
Kirby Smart has done a phenomenal job with the Bulldogs after taking over for Mark Richt in 2016. Georgia followed up an 8-5 campaign in 2016, with a 13-2 record in 2017. This included an SEC Conference championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. Not many expected this program to make such a big leap in Smart’s second season, but a top 5 defense (allowing 13.2 ppg) and the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield, elevated the team to new heights.
Georgia will be without Chubb and Michel in 2018, but D’Andre Swift and Elihjah Holyfield are not a bad replacement. Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm will look to build on his success from 2017. From completed 63.0% of his passes in 2017 and threw for 21 touchdowns, highlighted by an SEC title and a thrilling 54-48 double overtime victory over Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, in the Rose Bowl. Georgia goes on the road at South Carolina in week 2 and at Missouri in week 4. In October they play at LSU, but have a bye week the week following before taking on what could be their biggest challenge against Florida at home.
South Carolina season win total: 7
Will Muschamp enters his 3rd season as the Gamecocks head coach. He took over a program that struggled to find 3 wins in 2015, but managed to improve steadily in Muschamp’s first two seasons. In 2017, they capped off a 9 win season with a 26-19 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Jake Bentley will also enter his 3rd season, looking to build off of his success from last season. Bentley threw for nearly 250 yards and couple touchdowns against a Michigan defense that ranked top-3 in the nation in 2017.
The Gamecocks finished 2nd in the SEC East last season, right behind National Champion runner-up, Georgia. They will get an early shot at Georgia in week 2, this time at home. Besides Georgia, the first half of their schedule is manageable, and I expect them to have a solid start going 3-3 at worst. The second half of the schedule is where things get hairy. South Carolina will finish the season with three road games in the month of November (at Ole Miss, Florida, and Clemson). With the way they finished off last season and the upward trajectory of the program under Muschamp, I’ll take my chances on the over here.
Florida season win total: 7
Florida had one of the more disappointing seasons in college football in 2017. They finished the season with a 4-7 and didn’t even come close to a bowl game. This year they hope to get the program back on track and rise into the national spotlight with the addition of new head coach, Dan Mullen. Mullen spent nine seasons with Mississippi State, coaches the likes of current Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Dak Prescott. However, he was never able to lead the Bulldogs to an SEC title during that time. The closest he came was in 2014 when they had a shot at the #1 overall ranking for the first time in program history. Florida ranks 21st in returning production in 2018, and will rely on a veteran defense that was top-20 in total yards allowed last season.
The Gators SEC schedule will begin on the road at Tennessee and then at Mississippi State. They will get LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina at home. On November 24th, they will look for revenge against in-state rival Florida State. This time it’ll be the Gators turn to spoil the party in Tallahassee. I believe this team will take a major step forward and it would be disappointing to see anything less than 7 wins. Leaning over on this one.
Missouri season win total: 6.5
If you don’t know who Drew Lock is, I promise you will find out this year. The Junior quarterback from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, threw for 3,700 yards, 43 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions in 2017. The Tiger’s offense ranked top-10 in total offense and scored nearly 40 points per game. 2017 was a season of adversity for Missouri, as they began the season 1-5, then proceeded to rattle off 6 straight wins. The winning streak made the Tiger’s bowl eligible in Barry Odom’s second season as head coach. During the streak, their offense put up no less than 45 points per game and won by every game by an average of 30 points. The 2017 season did not end on a high note, as they fell to Texas in their bowl game, 16-33.
The Tigers will open the 2018 season with three non-conference matchups before opening their SEC slate at home against Georgia. Their bye week comes the following week before going on the road at South Carolina and then at Alabama in back-to-back weeks. If Lock and the Tigers can pull out a pivotal road victory at South Carolina, I believe they push themselves over the total. Expect Missouri to go bowling for the second season in a row, and Lock to be a dark-horse Heisman candidate in September.
Kentucky season win total: 6
Since Mark Stoops took over as head coach of the Wildcats in 2013, Kentucky hasn’t done been than .500 in conference play and has not won a bowl game (0-2). However, they didn’t get a single conference victory in Stoops’ first season and have improved every season since then. Kentucky led #20 Florida 24-14 at the end of 3 quarters in week 4 of the 2017 season, only to lose a heartbreaker in the final minute of the game, 27-28. Florida has now defeated Kentucky 31 straight times.
The Wildcats will have another shot early in week 2 at Florida (their only road game in September). A veteran group consisting of nine seniors on defense will be their biggest strength this upcoming season (90% of their defense returns from 2017). Still, road games at Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, Tennessee, and finishing the season at Louisville, make it hard for me to expect over 6 wins. Their season finale at Louisville may decide whether or not Kentucky makes another Bowl game this season. This total seems exactly where it should be, but I will lean to the under here with low confidence overall.
Tennessee season win total: 5.5
Tennessee put up an abysmal 19.8 points per game in 2017 (125th in the nation). To make matters worse, they return only 53% of their total offensive and defensive production from the 2017 season. On the bright side, former head coach Butch Jones is long gone, and in comes Alabama’s defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt spent two seasons as Alabama’s DC, replacing Kirby Smart in 2016. His defense finished the 2017 season ranked second in total defense and first in scoring defense. Tennessee’s rushing defense can only go up from here after allowing over 250 yards per game last season. Pruitt will look to help Tennessee return to the success they saw in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It can’t get much worse than 0-8 in conference play in 2017.
On the offensive side of the ball, grad transfer quarterback Keller Chryst (from Stanford) is expected to make his arrival sometime this summer and compete for the starting role this season. Chryst is said to be a great fit for offensive coordinator Tyson Helton’s system. The Vols open the season against West Virginia in the Belk College Kickoff game. Their defense will be tested early against Heisman hopeful, Will Grier and the high octane West Virginia offense. Tennessee has a brutal stretch of schedule from the end of September to the end of October (vs Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, vs Alabama, at South Carolina). Unfortunately, I expect the Vols to be 0-5 in conference play at that point. Their final three conference games will decide whether they get over this 5.5 game hump. They will need to go 3-0 in order to get to 6 wins, and I just do not see this happening. Go under.
Vanderbilt season win total: 5
The Commodores finished 2017 with just one conference victory, which came in the final game of the season at Tennessee. The highlight of their season was defeating #18 Kansas State 14-7 to begin the season 3-0. Vanderbilt went on to drop five straight conference games, and seven of their final nine games overall. Head coach Derek Mason will be entering his 5th season, and will most likely be on the hot seat unless he can get this team to a Bowl game this season. Mason had spent a few seasons with the Stanford Cardinal (one season under Jim Harbaugh, and couple seasons under current head coach David Shaw), before succeeding James Franklin as Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2014. He was a finalist for the Broyles Award (top assistant coach in college football) in 2012. 2018 will be a make or break year for Mason.
A key for the Commodores this season will be improving in the run game, which ranked 122nd in the nation in 2017 (107 yards per game). This will open up opportunities for quarterback Kyle Shurmur in the passing game, who threw for over 2,800 yards and 26 touchdowns (single-season program record) last season. Shurmer is the son of current New York Giants head coach, Pat Shurmur. Vanderbilt will get Notre Dame on the road in week 3 after two non-conference games to start the season. Their week 4 game at home against South Carolina will be key for the Commodores. It’ll be South Carolina’s first road game and also a revenge spot for Vanderbilt. I am going to call the upset here. If Vandy can pull this one out, I believe it propels them to a 6 win season and saves Derek Mason’s job.