BY MICHAEL LEESE
GEORGIA The first two weeks of the season could determine if Georgia is a national title contender. They open with a huge road game at Clemson, and then return home to play South Carolina. The offense was outstanding last year, and it is loaded, with nine starters back. Quarterback Aaron Murray turned down the NFL, and could be one of the best in the nation at his position this year. The entire offensive line returns as do Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall who combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards. Head coach Mark Richt and his staff will have to reload a defense that loses eight starters, including Jarvis Jones who had a team leading 14 sacks. With the top four tacklers gone, many highly-touted youngsters will be counted on to fill major roles. The Bulldog defense gave up 19.6 PPG last year and that figure will rise. The Dawgs have a shot at going undefeated, but I will call for one loss. They are my pick to win the East Division and face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 7, HOSTING SOUTH CAROLINA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..Johnathon Rumph, NT John Terry, LB Jordan Jenkins
- MY PREDICTION – 7-1 CONFERENCE, 11-1 OVERALL
SOUTH CAROLINA It’s hard to believe that Steve Spurrier is in his ninth season here in Columbia. He has led the Gamecocks to three straight Top 20 finishes, and I expect more of the same. He welcomes back seven starters on offense, led by quarterback Connor Shaw. Despite losing Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, the Gamecocks still have gamebreakers in the skill positions. Look for Running back Mike Davis and Shaq Roland to have breakout seasons. The offensive line features four returning starters. On defense six starters are gone, but gets back Heisman candidate Jadeveon Clowny. He will surely make a huge impact from his defensive end position. All three linebackers are gone, so that is a huge area of concern. The Gamecocks gave up 18.5 PPG last year and, despite the losses, I think they can come close to that again. They travel to Georgia week two and then get both Florida and Clemson at home later in the season.
- KEY GAME…..11/16 HOME VERSUS FLORIDA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Shaq Roland, LB Kaiwan Lewis, LB Jordan Diggs
- MY PREDICTION – 10-2 OVERALL, 7-1 CONFERENCE
FLORIDA Quarterback Jeff Driskel is one of six starters returning to the Gator offense. He had a nice season throwing for 1,645 and 12 touchdowns, but much more will be needed from him this year. The Gators lose three out of the top four receivers, plus running back Mike Gillislee who rushed for over 1,000 yards. The defense only returns four starters but still figures to be the strength of the team. Head coach Will Muschamp has done an outstanding job recruiting on this side of the ball and several highly touted players are waiting for the opportunity to become major contributors. Last year they only allowed only 14.5 PPG. Despite the personnel losses, I believe they can approach those numbers. The schedule is brutal, as the Gators face Miami and Florida State in non-conference play, and travel to both LSU and South Carolina in league play. The Gators are young, so watch out for this team next year!
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 12, AT LSU
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Matt Jones, DE Dante Fowler, LB Ronald Powell
- MY PREDICTION – 6-2 CONFERENCE, 8-4 OVERALL
TENNESSEE Head coach Butch Jones inherits a Tennessee team that could surprise this season. The first orders of business, are to find a starting quarterback and replacements at the receiver position, as the top four have all departed. At QB, he appears to have settled on junior Justin Worley. At running back, The Vols both Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will be back after combining to rush for 1,420 yards last year. On defense, eight starters are back to a unit that allowed 35.7 PPG last season. I expect big improvement on this side of the ball this year. The schedule is tough, as the Vols travel to Oregon, Florida and Alabama. I believe a three game season-ending stretch with Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky will determine if the Vols can get bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
- KEY GAME…..11/9 HOME VERSUS AUBURN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Pig Howard, WR MarQuez North, DB Brian Randolph
- MY PREDICTION – 3-5 CONFERENCE, 6-6 OVERALL
VANDERBILT James Franklin has simply done an outstanding job here, taking the Commodores to two straight bowl games! He must find a replacement at quarterback as Jordan Rodgers has graduated. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, figures to start. He’ll look to throw to Jordan Matthew, a 1st Team All-SEC receiver. I think it might be tough for the Dores to reach last year’s 30 PPG. The Dores get back six starters on the defensive side of the ball, but they suffered heavy losses along the defensive front where three new starters must be found. Last year they only allowed 18.7 PPG, but I think it will be very tough for the Dores to come close to that number. The schedule is favorable early, and they could start 4-2. Late season home games with Wake Forest and Kentucky could determine if the Commodores get to the needed six wins.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSTING MIZZOUI
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Brian Kimbrow, DE Kyle Woestermann, LB Darreon Herring
- MY PREDICTION 2-6 CONFERENCE, 6-6 OVERALL
MISSOURI Last year, Mizzou had a 2-6 record in conference play in its first year in the SEC. The Tigers were plagued by injuries, as the offensive line was at one-point down to playing walk-ons. Quarterback James Franklin also missed several games. He returns and if healthy figures to have a much bigger impact. This offense has a chance to really explode if they can stay healthy and find a solid running back. The defense gets back six starters from a year ago. Last season, the defense was also hit hard by injuries and they should actually improve over last year when they gave up 28.4 PPG.. I think the Tigers could actually start the season at 4-0 before heading into SEC play. Two conference wins should get the Tigers back to a bowl game.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 2 HOSTING TENNESSEE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Marcus Murphy, DT Lucas Vincent, LB Donovin Newsome
- MY PREDICTION 2-6 CONFERENCE, 6-6 OVERALL
KENTUCKY Mark Stoops takes over as the new head coach, after serving as defensive coordinator at Florida State the last three years. He will have his hands full in his first season, as the Wildcats failed to win a conference game last year. Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith returns to lead the Wildcat attack. He did complete 68% of his passes, but threw for only 975 yards. The top four rushers return as do four out of five offensive linemen. The Wildcats should be able to improve over last years 17.9 PPG. Stoops figures to make a big impact on the defense where he has spent his entire career. The Wildcats return seven starters, and should be better than last year. This could be another long season for the Wildcats, but Stoops is a good hire for this program. He will need a couple of good recruiting classes to put Kentucky back on the map.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 30, HOSTING TENNESSEE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Javess Blue, DE Za Darius Smith, DB Glenn Faulkner
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 0-8 CONFERENCE