Projecting how the SEC is going to finish right after spring practice is a pretty foolish exercise.
But you know what? It never stopped us before.
Yes, a lot can go wrong between now and the start of training camp in August. Guys can get hurt. They can get in trouble. They can inexplicably dive into the transfer portal.
In short, the snapshot of your favorite team could be completely different in three months.
But you know what? This time last year we didn’t know if we were going to even HAVE a college football season. And we certainly didn’t know that the SEC would play a 10-game conference-only schedule. That decision was not announced until July 30.
Now we are cautiously optimistic that things are getting better and that the 2021 season, if not all the way back to normal, will be more open than 2020.
My point is this: We’ve all earned the right to debate and argue and poke fun at each other about the sport that we love.
Even if it’s ridiculously early.
So here is our projected order of finish for the SEC East in 2021 and the burning question (s) we still have about each team as the calendar turns to May. We’ll do the SEC West next week.
And don’t just tell me I’m wrong. That’s easy. Tell me WHY I am wrong.
And also remember. This is supposed to be fun.
Away we go.
**--Last season: 8-2; beat Cincinnati 24-21 in Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
**--Coach: Kirby Smart, sixth season at Georgia.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Clemson (Charlotte)
**--Burning questions: Is it now or never for Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs? Not only no but hell no. The narrative that the window of opportunity to win a national championship in Athens is closing is silly. As long as you recruit great players in sufficient numbers every year you have a chance. Having said that, does Georgia have a roster that puts them in the national championship discussion? Yep. Georgia has a franchise quarterback in JT Daniels. And if wide receiver George Pickens (ACL) gets back on the field some time this season it could get interesting. Even if Pickens doesn’t return there is a lot of talent (Kearis Jackson) in that receivers room. Georgia’s good. But can the Bulldogs win the East and beat Alabama? We’ll learn a lot about Georgia when it opens the season against Clemson.
**--Last season: 8-4 (Won SEC East); lost to Alabama 52-46 in SEC championship game; lost to Oklahoma 55-20 in Cotton Bowl.
**--Coach: Dan Mullen, fourth year at Florida.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Florida Atlantic.
Burning questions: Lots of them. Quarterback Emory Jones has played in 24 games for the Gators and it is FINALLY his time. Will he be ready? Will we also see his backup, Anthony Richardson? Some serious offensive weapons—Kyle Pitts, Kadarious Toney, Trevon Grimes—are gone. Is there enough talent on this roster to give Jones a chance? And when SEC defenses force him to throw, can he make enough throws to win? And what about the defense and Todd Grantham? The Gators gave up 30.8 points per game last season and were ranked 100th in pass defense. This group has to get better. You might see some really young players in the secondary for Florida. This is going to be an interesting season in Gainesville.
**--Last season: 5-6; beat N.C. State 23-21 in the Gator Bowl.
**--Coach: Mark Stoops, ninth season at Kentucky.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana-Monroe.
**--Burning questions: Mark Stoops stepped out of his comfort zone to hire 35-year-old Liam Coen from the Rams to install a 21st century offense in Lexington. So how’s that going to look? It depends who ultimately wins the quarterback job—Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, who threw only 35 passes last season, or Beau Allen. Kentucky did not have a spring game, but the opinions coming out of practice on this battle were mixed. And it could be that Penn State transfer Will Levis will become a factor when he arrives this summer. Kentucky has some real skill in running back Chris Rodriguez, Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson and senior Josh Ali at wide receiver. Can Kentucky successfully replace five starters from the SEC’s No. 4 defense last season? Just a warning: Don’t sleep on Kentucky.
**--Last season: 5-5; game with Iowa in Music City Bowl was cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus.
**--Coach: Eli Drinkwitz, second year at Missouri.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Central Michigan.
**--Burning Questions: Is Connor Bazelak ready to be a big-time quarterback? Yep. With running back Larry Rountree gone, expect the sophomore, who was the SEC Freshman of the year in 2020, to step up and have a very good season. Bazelak didn’t put up gaudy numbers last season but completed 67.3 percent of his passes and had only six interceptions in 324 attempts. Will Steve Wilks make a difference in the Missouri defense? Missouri was ninth in the SEC in scoring defense (32.3 ppg) last season. Enter Wilks, the former Arizona Cardinals head coach for only one season (2018). He was the Cleveland Browns DC in 2019 and was out of the game in 2020. Here is why I may have Mizzou rated too low. A total of 31 players were on the field for 200 or more plays last season. Twenty-four of them return.
**--Last season: 3-7.
**--Coach: Josh Heupel, first season at Tennessee.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Bowling Green.
**--Burning questions: Can any of the quarterbacks at Tennessee play at the pace that Heupel wants? We certainly didn’t get that question answered during Spring ball. Hendon Hooker, the transfer from Virginia Tech, has the most experience (15 starts for the Hokies) and athleticism. Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer have started games for Tennessee. Another quarterback, Joe Milton, is transferring to Tennessee from Michigan. Yet another quarterback, Kaidon Salter, returns from suspension. But we do know that Tennessee football will be different. Here is a great stat from David Ubben of The Athletic. In the Tennessee spring game the Vols threw 47 passes and had five completions of 29 yards or longer. Last season the Vols threw 285 passes and had only 13 completions of that length. Can the Vols find a running back to replace the production of Eric Gray (transferred to Oklahoma) and Ty Chandler (transferred to North Carolina)?
**--Last season: 2-8. Withdrew from Gasparilla Bowl (vs. UAB) due to COVID-19 virus.
**--Coach: Shane Beamer, first season at South Carolina.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. Eastern Illinois.
**--Burning questions: Looks like Luke Doty is going to be the guy at quarterback. Will he have enough talent around him to give the Gamecocks a chance to compete? In age when coaches don’t name their starting quarterback because the backup will surely head to the transfer portal, Beamer made it clear after spring practice that Doty, who played in eight games and made two starts last season, will be his starter. The good news for Doty is that Kevin Harris, the SEC’s leading rusher in yards per game (113.8 ypg) last season, returns behind a veteran offensive line. Also returning at running back is sophomore MarShawn Lloyd, who tore an ACL on the second day of Fall camp in 2020 and was lost for the season. Marcus Satterfield, who was the assistant offensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers last season, will be the OC.
**--Last season: 0-9.
**--Coach: Clark Lea, first season at Vanderbilt.
**--First game: Sept. 4 vs. East Tennessee State.
**-- Burning questions: Quarterback Ken Seals had a good freshman season. But is he going to get pushed for the starting job by Mike Wright? Seals, the former Texas high school player of the year, completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 1,928 yards (a school freshman record) last season. Wright had a 67-yard touchdown run in the Vanderbilt spring game. There will be a competition for the job this summer, said Lea. He told The Tennessean newspaper that he didn’t want quarterback to be a shared position. In nine games last season Seals hit 64 percent of his passes six times. Can Lea, a former Vanderbilt player and Notre Dame defensive coordinator, improve that side of the ball? Vanderbilt’s opponents completed 73.4 percent of their passes last season, highest in the FBS.