SEC East spring football outlook

Football in the SEC East in recent years has been like being the backup guitarist at an Eric Clapton concert: no matter how good you are, you’re not the best.

Since the departure of Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow the East has been the kiddy pool of the conference — still a lot of fun, but nowhere close to being the best. Last year, for example, LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas were ranked No.1, No.2, and No.3 late in the regular season while Georgia, Florida and South Carolina fought to win the east and break into the top 10. LSU and Alabama battled for the BCS Championship while the Eastern Divisional Champion Bulldogs blew a huge lead and lost in overtime to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl.

But, just as the buds of spring promise life anew, the opening days of spring football bring a sense of optimism and renewal to programs recently relegated to second-class status. Even in a league still dominated by LSU and Alabama, teams in the East are taking the field with optimism and enthusiasm for the season to come.  

Florida (7-6, 3-5 SEC)

Recap: Will Muschamp struggled in his first year, but Gator fans understood, at least in the short term. The Charlie Weis experiment didn’t pan out, and quarterback problems continued to plague the program in the post-Tebow era. Injuries and a schedule that had them playing LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia in a five-week stretch didn’t help. But with new coordinators and a new backfield, expect more out of the Gators this spring than you saw last fall.  

Key departures: The Gators lose two of the fastest men on the planet in Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. There is no obvious replacement for either of these guys, and no way to replicate the dynamism they brought in the open field. Trey Burton, who played receiver and quarterback at times in his first two seasons, will line up in the backfield this spring, but a lot will depend on the kind of offense new coordinator Brent Pease hopes to run.  

Priorities: Offensive production will be the first order of business in Gainesville. The Gators struggled to move the ball against any decent defenses. And with two capable quarterbacks in Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett vying for the starting job, there will be added pressure on each snap this spring.  

Keep an eye on: Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond, Jr. need to step up and become the receiving core that will put points on the board for the Gators. Their ability to stretch the field will say a lot about Florida’s prospects.  

Georgia: (10-4, 7-1 SEC, SEC East Champions)

Recap: After an 0-2 start, the Dawgs ran the regular season table before falling to LSU in the SEC Championship and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. That quieted many of Coach Mark Richt’s critics, and ultimately led to a contract extension for both Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Now the bar is higher. Georgia fans have grown weary of watching SEC teams win multiple national championships while the Dawgs’ only title is now 32 years old.  

Key Departures: the most exciting man on the field for Georgia in 2011 was Brandon Boykin, the emotional leader of Grantham’s defense, and a two-way threat who could catch, run, and return punts. He was also one of the smartest men on the field, giving Grantham an on-field coach who could get guys in the right spot and who understood the situational strategies of the game.  Also, center Ben Jones and both offensive tackles will be big losses (literally and figuratively) for the Dawgs.  

Priorities: Shoring up the offensive line will be first on Richt’s things-to-do list. He also will have another battle for the tailback spot. Richard Samuel, who distinguished himself as a bruising inside runner before going out with an ankle injury in the Florida game, will be back, as will the relatively unproductive Isaiah Crowell, who was the biggest disappointment last year. Incoming freshmen Keith Mitchell and Todd Gurley will battle for playing time with Crowell, Samuel, Carlton Thomas and Boo Malcome.

Keep an eye on: Malcolm Mitchell was one of the biggest surprising last year, and a go-to receiver for Aaron Murray in close games. But Mark Richt said Mitchell will play the majority of the spring on defense, learning both sides of the ball so that he can be a Champ Bailey-style two-way player.  That is big gamble, especially for a player who had 45 receptions last year. Just how the Mitchell experiment works could say a lot about Georgia’s prospects for a return trip to the SEC Championship game.  

South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC and runner up in the East)

Recap: Injuries and idiocy plagued the Gamecocks in 2011. Marcus Lattimore, the workhorse of the offense, went out with a season-ending ligament tear to the knee, and Stephen Garcia saw his career in Columbia come to an inglorious end after failing another banned-substance test. But even with those hiccups the Gamecocks posted their most wins in school history. A healthy Gamecock squad will, once again, be a favorite in the East.  

Key Departures: No loss is bigger than Alshon Jeffery, the most productive receiver in the SEC and someone who is bound to be an impact player in the NFL. Ace Sanders doesn’t have the instincts or range that Jeffery has, which could leave the go-to receiver spot open for incoming freshman Shaq Roland.  

Priorities: The key is getting guys healthy. Lattimore will miss the spring after surgery, as will cornerback Akeem Auguste, safety D.J. Swearinger and offensive tackles Mike Stadnik and Mike Matulis. Steve Spurrier has to hope that Lattimore makes a full recovery before the fall, and he also needs to shore up his defensive backfield before opening with Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Keep an eye on: the development of Jadeveon Clowney, who grew into one of the premier pass rushers in college football last year, and has gotten nothing but better in the off-season. If he remains healthy and eligible, Clowney could be the best defensive player in the nation by the end of the 2012 season.

Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC)

Recap: They had hoped for better, but expectations could only go so high, especially after the injuries to their starting quarterback and a second-year coach still trying to recover from the mess left in Knoxville. This will be a make-or-break year for the program as Derek Dooley has all the right pieces in place.

Key Departures: Leading rusher Tauren Poole is no longer with the team, but that is about it for departures. The Vols return 19 starters, 10 on offense including the healed Tyler Bray who was having an exceptional season at quarterback before a hand injury knocked him out for the season.

Priorities: The Vols struggled to score all year. Look for that to change as they become more creative now that Bray is back and receivers Da’Rick Rogers, Vincent Dallas and Justin Hunter will be competing to see who can spread the field the farthest.

Keep an eye on: the battle at running back between Raijon Neal, Marlin Lane and freshman Davante Bourque. As goes the running game, so will go the Volunteers in 2012, so this spring matchup will be one to watch.  

Kentucky (5-7, 2-6 SEC)

Recap: No one expected them to contend for the East title, but bowl eligibility was definitely on everyone’s radar. The losing season and all that went with it place Joker Phillips under a magnifying glass going into 2012. How his team responds this spring could set the tone for his future.

Key Depatures: No loss is greater than Danny Trevathan, the leading tackler on the team and the soul of the Kentucky defense. Safeties Winston Guy and Michael Bailey are also gone, leaving big holes in the secondary. Offensive tackle Chandler Burden and receiver Matt Roark will also be sorely missed.  

Priorities: The entire defensive front four is coming back but only two of the seven defensive backs returns, leaving gaping holes and big questions about who is going to step forward to stop the explosive players that Kentucky will face in the East this year.  

Keep an eye on: Maxwell Smith had a great run at quarterback in limited duty last year, and his poise captured the imagination of the Big Blue Nation. Morgan Newton is still recovering from a shoulder injury so the spring spot should belong to Smith. But Newton won’t give it up in the fall without a fight, and freshman Patrick Towles will get plenty of chances under center as well.

This spring begins a critical year for Kentucky football. And Coach Phillips knows it.   

Vanderbilt (6-7, 2-6 SEC)

Recap: It isn’t often that a losing season generates a lot of excitement, but at Vanderbilt, going from two wins to six and becoming bowl eligible was akin to a national championship, especially in Coach James Franklin’s first year. Now comes the tough part: Vandy has to win games seven and eight, which are much, much tougher. And while they should have beaten Arkansas and could have beaten Georgia, the ‘Dores still only managed to pull out conference wins over Kentucky, and the worst team in the SEC, Ole Miss.  

Key Departures: While the Commodores return most of their skill players on offense, they do have to replace right tackle Kyle Fischer. On defense, the losses are a little tougher to fill. Middle linebacker Chris Marve is gone, along with defensive end Tim Fugger, safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward.

Priorities: Plugging the holes in the defense will be the key to Vandy’s success in 2012. With Jordan Rodgers (Aaron Rodgers’ little brother) distinguishing himself at quarterback and tailback Zac Stacy poised to have another great year, the offense looks solid. The Commodores will score. The question will be: can they stop anyone?  

Keep an eye on: Running back Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year, missed all of last year with a knee injury, opening the door for Stacy’s breakout season.  With both backs healthy, they provide a duel threat to Coach Franklin.  

Missouri (8-5, 5-4 in the Big 12: first year in the SEC)

Recap: Mizzou quarterback James Franklin (not to be confused with Vanderbilt’s coach of the same name) is one of the most anticipated debuts in the SEC after he threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. The Tigers scored more than 40 points five times, including a 41-24 thumping of North Carolina in the Independence Bowl. How that high-powered offense will play in the SEC remains to be seen, but Mizzou is looking to at least match last season’s eight wins.  

Key Departures: Receiver Michael Egnew is gone and Henry Josey is injured, but leading catcher T.J. Moe is back for more. Franklin reportedly tweaked his shoulder the first day of spring practice, so it’s questionable who will throw to whom, but offensively the Tigers should be fine. On defense, linemen Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno are both gone, which leave some critical question marks for Mizzou up front.  

Priorities: Plugging the holes on defense is foremost on Gary Pinkel’s things-to-do list. Sheldon Vincent and Lucas Vincent will get a lot of playing time on the defensive line. The good news is the linebacker corps: all returning starters, Mizzou should feel confident about the secondary.

Keep an eye on: the intensity that Pinkel brings to his first year as an SEC coach. No one doubts that Missouri has a fine program. Whether it is fine enough to win in the toughest conference in the nation remains to be seen.