Beware of the improving SEC East in 2015
By Braden Gall
The SEC West is the best division in college football. That was the case last year and again in 2015.
The Pac-12 South is probably a close second with the Big Ten East quickly gaining momentum.
But where does the SEC East rank? After multiple seasons of questionable on-field performance, it might be time to start looking at the SEC East differently.
College football is cyclical. The East dominated the SEC for the better part of the 90s and until LSU, Alabama and Auburn won BCS titles from the West.
Due in large part to elite coaching hires at schools like Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss as well as the addition of sleeping giant Texas A&M, the West has been the dominant division in college football.
Other than Tim Tebow’s Gators (2006, ‘08), no East Division team has won an SEC championship since 2005.
The East bottomed out in 2013. Florida and Tennessee, the two teams that dominated the league in the 90s, combined for 15 losses. Georgia lost five times and Kentucky won only twice. Missouri was a surprise division winner and both South Carolina and Vanderbilt had arguably their best seasons in history — which still involved six combined losses.
But using the same blueprint as the West — hiring great new head and assistant coaches — the East is beginning to show signs of life.
With Jeremy Pruitt leading the defense for the second year, Georgia is once again a Top 10 preseason team. It would be ranked even higher than No. 10 in the preseason rankings if not for the brutal schedule. The Dawgs face two projected playoff teams from the West in Auburn and Alabama and get ACC Coastal Division frontrunner and defending champ Georgia Tech in non-conference play.
Tennessee is surging into Butch Jones' third season loaded with more young talent than almost any team in the nation. Should Joshua Dobbs develop into the star many think he’s capable of becoming, the Vols could easily outperform their No. 22 preseason ranking. This is a hot program that is clearly trending in the right direction.
In Gainesville, just add Jim McElwain and stir. The offensive guru should be able to fix many of Florida’s offensive woes and the defense under new coordinator Geoff Collins should be stifling once again. Keep in mind, the Gators had a win over Idaho cancelled last year and were one game away from winning the East. The cupboard isn’t bare in The Swamp.
The only known commodity about Missouri is that they will most certainly be better than where they are ranked in the preseason — which is still pretty respectable at No. 27. The hiring of Barry Odom once again proves Gary Pinkel is a wizard when it comes to assembling a coaching staff. Having Maty Mauk back for his second season under center is critical too.
The bottom of the division still has some work to do but there are even positive signs down there too.
South Carolina’s defense was atrocious last year but mostly because of inexperience. Of the Gamecocks top 25 tacklers last year, 18 were freshmen or sophomores and only four were seniors. There’s plenty there to work with for new defensive leader and old Steve Spurrier confidant Jon Hoke.
Mark Stoops quickly reenergized Kentucky on the recruiting trail, but most importantly, more than doubled his win total from Year 1 to Year 2. It’s well within reason to expect the Wildcats to continue getting better and make a bowl game this fall.
Vanderbilt only has one direction to go after an abysmal first season under Derek Mason. His defense should be much improved and that should allow him to improve his team’s win total in Year 2 as well.
Vandy isn’t a good team, Kentucky and South Carolina have work to do and Florida is a long way from getting back to being Florida. But every team in this division could be better than it was last season with the possible exception of Mizzou — the one team that is perennially underrated.
It’s not the SEC West or even the Pac-12 South but the SEC East is returning to form quickly and the rest of college football could find that out the hard way in 2015.
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