I’m going to hold back on my game-by-game preview for now (my target date for publishing is my birthday, March 7), but I have such an incurable case of football fever that I’m going to preview the divisions and the final standings in order.
So, without further ado, here’s the SEC East.
Breakdown: We as Gator fans all know what’s going to happen: more offense. But the Gators really don’t lose anybody all that valuable aside from Ahmad Black on defense. The stars are aligned for a quick turnaround in Will Muschamp’s first season, much like Oregon with Chip Kelly. Expect very few negatives this year with the Gators. The schedule is murder, but the roster is loaded with the type of talent that can turn 8-5 into 14-0 and a BCS Championship within two years.
Key loss: safety Ahmad Black: the anchor of the Gator secondary since 2008 is gone.
Key returner: receiver Chris Rainey, one of the more explosive players in the nation.
Key game: vs.Georgia (Jacksonville): Beware the Dawgs. They strike when you least expect it. As big a game as Alabama is, it has almost nothing to do with how Florida finishes in the East, and before the Gators can worry about Carolina, they must first dispatch UGA.
Prediction: 11-3 (6-2 SEC) Florida has all the pieces in place for another appearance in Atlanta, and though they will lose there, they will win the Capital One Bowl and be ready to contend for the 2012 BCS Title.
Breakdown: Dream Team aside, Georgia has plenty of talent. QB Aaron Murray has lots of talent, and while he won’t be juking or powering his way for 55 yard runs, he still can win plays with his feet. AJ Green is a big loss on offense, but tight end Orson Charles should see a lot of passes coming his way in Green’s absence. This is the year for Georgia to win the East, for if they don’t at least contend for it, Mark Richt is most likely finished.
Key loss: WR AJ Green: One of the best receivers in the nation.
Key returner: QB Aaron Murray: He’s only a sophomore and has great potential.
Key game: vs. South Carolina: Last year, Georgia’s SEC East dreams took an early and nearly fatal hit. This year, they get their shot at revenge the second week of the season in Athens.
Prediction: 9-4 (5-3 SEC) Georgia has a relatively easy schedule, and so watch out for a good rebuilding season. They’ll still be cursed in Jacksonville, but they’ll do well enough to keep Richt’s job for one more year.
Breakdown: Now, they’re not youngsters. They’re talented veterans of SEC wars, and it should show. QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffrey and RB Marcus Lattimore have all played an SEC season so they know what it’s about. The addition of Jadeveon Clowney won’t hurt, either. But until they prove that the Chicken Curse is really dead and last year wasn’t a fluke, I can’t move them up from here.
Key loss: FB Patrick DiMarco: A deadly blocker and dependable receiver in the flat.
Key returner: WR Alshon Jeffrey: A dynamic junior receiver that will be counted on heavily in 2011.
Prediction: 8-5 (4-4 SEC) The Chicken Curse was put to bed for a year, but it’s been on for so many years before that I refuse to believe it’s really gone. The Gamecocks will collapse once again and will lose to Florida at home, sealing their fate as the third place East team.
Breakdown: The Cats lose Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Mike Hartline. But they’re in fourth place because after Carolina the talent level in the East drops off like a continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. Almost by default, really. Watch for QB Morgan Newton (no relation to Cam) to win the starting job and turn some heads early in the year.
Key loss: WR Randall Cobb: One of the most versatile players in the game.
Key returner: QB Morgan Newton: The best bet for the 2011 QB.
Key game: vs. Florida: If UK wants any chance at all to win the East, they cannot start out 0-1 with a loss to one of the real contenders.
Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 SEC) The Cats simply lost too much to be considered a legitimate threat to do damage in the East, and they might stay here for quite some time.
Breakdown: The Vols are in shambles. Losing defensive backs Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer combined is a big hit. QB Tyler Bray showed some flashes last year, but the Vols also lose Gerald Jones and Luke Stocker, and therefore Bray has nobody to throw to but Justin Hunter, who also has shown flashes as a freshman.
Key loss: WR Gerald Jones: A top target for UT QB’s since 2007.
Key returner: QB Tyler Bray: He’s only going to get better and better, he’s a sophomore in 2011.
Key game: vs. LSU: UT really won that game last year, and if they can win this one on the scoreboard, they will turn lots of heads.
Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 SEC) This will not be a good year for UT. They’ll even lose to Kentucky for the first time in two and a half decades. Barring injuries to major players on all four teams ahead of them, they have no shot at winnng the East.
Breakdown: The ‘Dores will be better than peole think. They gain JUCO QB Jordan Rodgers, little brother of Aaron. They also return top running back Warren Norman. But the defense is a mess. They’ll need help from God if they want to stay in half their games.
Key loss: Coach Robbie Caldwell: I know, he wasn’t all that great, but swapping coaches at a school at a level below the elite is not easy.
Key returner: RB Warren Norman: One of the only real threats on offense.
Key game: @Florida: Just to prove their worth. If they can hang around, it might be interesting to watch them against Tennessee and Kentucky.
Prediction: 2-10 (1-7 SEC): Until the defense improves, the ‘Dores will struggle. Chris Marve couldn’t do it all by himself last year and Brian Urlacher couldn’t do it all by himself this year. Vanderbilt is on the way up, though- watch out for them two years down the road.