by Gary Olshan, Senior Analyst


SOUTH CAROLINA (2012 SUR: 11-2; PSR 8-5)...In what figures to be a hot three-team race in the SEC East (along with Georgia & Florida), we give the nod to a loaded South Carolina contingent, which has a realistic shot at its first conference crown since joining the loop in 1992. After all, the Gamecocks managed to compile back-to-back 11-2 campaigns in 2011 & 2012, despite ranking only 82nd & 74th nationally in ypg, respectively. Plus, the schedule is more manageable than last year (Gamecocks are hosting Florida and there is no LSU on slate), and HC Steve Spurrier has demonstrated he knows how to best utilize a two-QB system. And, of course, game-changing DE Jadeveon Clowney is back to terrorize opposing QBs before becoming a probable No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

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The offense (six starters back; 31.5 ppg) will be directed by mobile QB Connor Shaw (67.5%; 17 TDP, 435 YR; 3 rush TDs), who can do damage with arm and legs, and/or Dylan Thompson (threw for more than 300 yds. in his two starts LY), who is more of prototypical passer, reminiscent of some of Steve Spurrier’s former Florida QBs. Even with the early departure of superstar RB Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks (rushed ball 60.5% of the time over the last two seasons; only 3.7 ypc LY) will still heavily rely on its infantry provided by RBs Mike Davis (275 YR) & Brandon Wilds (made splash as a frosh in 2011), who sat out last season with a high ankle sprain. After WR Ace Sanders left early for the NFL draft, coaches looking for another wide-out to alleviated some of the burden from nifty Bruce Ellington (40 grabs, 7 TDs), who’ll step into the role of the No. 1 wide-out. Four starters return to the OL

Five starters are back on a fast, sure-tackling defense (18.2 ppg, 2.9 ypc; 11th nationally in total yds.), spearheaded by aforementioned DE Clowney (21 career sacks & 35.5 TFL) benefiting from help on the other side from sr. DE Chaz Sutton (7 TFL, 5 sacks), who had a breakthrough jr. campaign. The biggest challenge for wily d.c. Lorenzo Ward is replacing the top four tacklers from the 2012 LB corps. Ward will again try to forces offenses into long third-down passing situations so he can unleash his fast “rabbit” package of four DEs on the line. The secondary returns three starters, including CB Jimmy Legree (3 ints.), SS Brison Williams (2 ints.). But jr. Kadetrix Marcus has the daunting task of supplanting All-SEC FS D.J. Swearinger. Special teams somewhat unsettled, with unproven soph Landon Ard taking over for departed PK Adam Yates (11 of 17 LY), while CB Victor Hampton likely replaces punt returner Ace Sanders, who broke the school record for return yards in a season LY. South Carolina has early SEC East showdown at rival Georgia, but the major revenge game on Nov. 16 in Columbia against Florida could possibly crown the division champ. Give the nod to the Ol’ Ball Coach. Spurrier’s bunch is a notable 11-4 vs. spread last 15 vs. TGS-rated opponents.

GEORGIA (SUR: 12-2; PSR 8-6) ...After nearly springing a major upset in the taut 32-28 setback vs. Bama in LY’s SEC championship game in Atlanta, Georgia has sufficient returning talent to take it to the next level and make a run for the national title in 2013. The veteran, explosive offense should come out humming, but the reloading defense needs to grow up el pronto facing a front-loaded schedule, with land mines vs. Clemson (in “Death Valley”), South Carolina & LSU (both in Athens) before the month of October.

Nine starters return to a record-setting offense (school mark of 37.8 ppg & 467.7 ypg) directed by marvelous Heisman Trophy candidate sr. QB Aaron Murray (64.5%, 36 TDs, 10 ints.), who is already the all-time leader in TD passes in Athens. The scintillating TB tandem of Todd Gurley & Keith Marshall (combined for 2,144 YR & 25 TDs) is as potent as any duo in America, and small but cat-quick frosh J.J. Green, an early enrollee in January, made a big impression in the spring. Productive WR Malcolm Mitchell (40 catches, 4 TDs), who is expected a full recovery following orthoscopic knee surgery April 5, & 6-3 jr. Chris Conley (20 grabs, 6 TDs) headline a deep corps of pass catchers. Richt is imploring stronger pass protection from an intact OL that unit gave up 27 sacks LY.

Sure, graduation and early departures hit the Bulldog defense (19.6 ppg) hard. But thanks to a string of strong recruiting classes, it’s understandable that there is lots of optimism surrounding the young stop unit, especially when you consider that LY’s front seven was surprisingly soft vs. the run, allowing 182.1 ypg (only 77th nationally) & 4.0 ypc. New DL coach Chris Wilson, who has the difficult task of replacing run-stuff NTs John Jenkins & Kwame Geathers, prefers to rotate players, so there could be eight players getting meaningful snaps at the three line positions. Super-soph OLB John Jenkins (5 sacks LY) & ILB Amarlo Herrera (70 stops) solidify the middle line of the defense, while the secondary features emerging jr. CB Damian Swann (2 ints. in the Capital One Bowl) & gifted early enrollee FS Tray Matthews, who could become the first freshman to start the opener since d.c. Todd Grantham was hired in 2010. Soph PK Marshall Morgan should be steadier with a year under his belt after connecting on only 8 of 14 FGs in his frosh campaign. Maybe the third year could be a charm for Richt’s crew, which has suffered consecutive losses in the SEC title game in the couple seasons. No doubt QB Murray is chomping at the bit for the early rematch vs. South Carolina “tween the hedges” after completing a nightmarish 11 of 31 for only 101 yds. & 1 int. in that painful 35-7 crushing in Columbia.

FLORIDA (SUR: 11-2; PSR 7-6)...The opportunistic Gators (+15 TO margin LY) appear ready to contend for an SEC title after improving their win total by four in HC Will Muschamp’s second campaign. Sure, Florida’s anemic passing game was ranked 114th nationally (137.2 ypg passing), but Muschamp isn’t concerned about having the aerial attack suddenly resembling the Fun ‘N’ Gun offense of the ‘90s. “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to win football games.” Muschamp says. “If it means we’re going to run it 25 times at the end of the game (like Florida did) to beat LSU, then that’s what we’re going to. That’s kind of who we are.”

In any case, we do look for LY’s physical, grinding offense to display a more proficient passing component behind fleet-footed 6-4, 236-pound jr. QB Jeff Driskel (12 TDP, 5 picks; 413 YR), who has reportedly improved his field vision and ability to ready defenses. To provide Driskel with more downfield options to complement proven WR Quinton Dunbar (36 grabs, 4 TDs), the coaches plan on using versatile, athletic CB Loucheiz Purifoy (top returning tackler had two blocked punts LY) as a two-way player at wide-out . Big cleats to fill after the graduation of RB workhorse Mike Gillislee (1,152 YR, 110 TDs), but the coaches are forecasting a breakout season for 6-2, 226-pound soph RB Matt Jones (275 YR), who dazzled in the spring. And watch out for frosh phenom RB Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee is son of former NFL & Gators star Fred Taylor), who broke Emmitt Smith’s state career rushing record as junior. The deep, talented OL has been upgraded with the addition of big-time transfers—6-4, 307-pound LG Max Garcia (Maryland) & Tyler Moore (Nebraska).

Despite the return of only four starters, we don’t foresee much of a decline on a salty defense (14.5 ppg; 287.4 ypg; allowed a mere 7 plays of 30 yds. or longer; fewest in SEC) significantly bolstered by the healthy return of OLB/DE Ronald Powell (team high 6 sacks in 2011), who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in the spring game. Hard-charging sr. Dominique Easley (4 sacks) can play at both DE and DT. Soph MLB Antonio Morrison should be a real force after an impressive frosh term, while d.c. D.J. Durkin is thrilled with his quality depth at cornerback, which has enabled the move of CBs Cody Riggs & Jaylen Watkins (3 ints.) to the safety positions. Gators gladly welcome back All-SEC punter Kyle Christy (school mark of 45.8 yd. per attempt), but a big ? exists at kicker with the graduation of record-setting specialist Caleb Sturgis, who nailed 24 of 28 LY. UF showed to be a strong-finishing, well-conditioned bunch, outscoring foes by a jaw-dropping 128-32 margin in the fourth quarter! Keep in mind, Gators on a major vendetta to avoid their first 3-game losing skein vs. Georgia since 1987-89. Note, UF was 3-0 SU and vs. the spread as an underdog, but only 1-5 as DD chalk LY.

VANDERBILT (SUR: 9-4 PSR 9-4)...Plenty of “good vibes” emanating from Nashville after Vandy finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the SEC in 2012. The Commodores’ nine wins was their most since 1915, the winning league mark was their first since 1982, and it was their first season-ending AP ranking (23) since 1948. Wow! And there was nothing fluky about Vandy’s breakthrough season, with the coming Commodores going on a 7-game winning skein, culminating in an impressive 38-24 victory over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. With a rather soft non-conference slate, Vandy surely has a realistic shot at its third straight bowl game, but becoming a real factor in the SEC East will be a tall task, especially with road games at South Carolina and Florida. But don’t ever underestimate confident and savvy mentor James Franklin, who has significantly upgraded the recruiting in his three years.

Seven starters return to an offense (30.0 ppg) that will have a new pilot at the helm in Austyn Carta-Samuels, a two-year starter at Wyoming and the 2009 MWC Freshman of the Year. Like his predecessor Jordan Rodgers, Carta-Samuels (one start last year vs. Presbyterian) is a dual threat who threw for 3,655 yards and rushed for 758 in his two seasons in Laramie. The school’s all-time leading rusher Zac Stacy is gone, but the ground attack should continue to shine behind a potent three-man committee—sr. Wesley Tate (376 YR, 8 TDs) and sophs Brian Kimbrow (413 YR, 3 TDs) & Jerron Seymour, the No. 2 back in 2011, who redshirted last year due in part to the depth at that position.

And Carta-Samuels is blessed with one the SEC’s premier pair of WRs in first-team All-SEC Jordan Matthews (league-best 94 grabs; 8 TDs) & Chris Boyd (50 catches, 5 TDs), and a stout, veteran OL (4 starters back), anchored by standout LT Wesley Johnson.

Six starters are back on a swarming defense (18.7 ppg), which was overpowered in only one game last season, the 48-3 smashing at Georgia. Recall, the Commodores trailed just 24-17 vs. Florida before Gator QB Jeff Driskel went on a 70-yd. TD run with only 2:20 left on the clock. With the coaches plugging in some capable performers along the rebuilt DL (lost 3 starters), the defense should continue to play at a high SEC-level. Bookend DEs Walker May (10.5 TFL) & Caleb Azubuike (set school frosh record with 4 sacks) bring some heat from the edges. The seasoned back seven is a real strength, thanks to vocal leader sr. MLB Chase Garnham (8½ sacks), sr. OLB Karl Butler (11.5 TFL), and a tight-covering secondary (only 7 TD passes allowed), spearheaded by second-team All-SEC sr. CB Andre Hall & sr. FS Kenny Ladler, who had a team-leading 90 tackles. Special teams are a big plus, with PK Carey Spear converting a school-record 20 of 24 FGs in 2012. The undervalued Commodores are a sterling 18-9 (67%) vs. the spread the last two campaigns.

MISSOURI (SUR: 5-7; PSR 5-6-1)... The team from the Show-Me State didn’t show well in its SEC debut in 2012, suffering its first losing campaign since 2004, including drubbings by 3 TDs or more vs. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama & Texas A&M. Needless to say, a proud Missouri aggregrate is eager to prove it can successfully play a more physical brand of football in Year 2. Demanding 13th-year HC Gary Pinkel, who hasn’t suffered back-to-back losing seasons in Columbia since his first two seasons, promoted OL coach Josh Henson to o.c. after his long-time assistant David Yost abruptly resigned in the offseason. On the positive side, the Tigers have a good chance to quickly regain some lost confidence and swagger with a probable 4-0 start, thanks to a relatively soft early slate—home games vs. Murray State, Toledo (Pinkel’s former employer) & Arkansas State, and bye week prior to road tilt at Indiana.

There is plenty of upside potential on an experienced offense (8 starters back; 25.8 ppg, 356.4 ypg) that was hit hard by injuries on the OL, and was missing star RB Henry Josey (1,168 YR in 2011), who sat out LY after suffering a knee injury in the 10th game of 2011. Moreover, mobile sr. QB James Franklin suffered through an injury-plagued campaign, prompting Pinkel to open up the competition in the spring. Franklin is likely to getting starting nod for the August 31st opener, but Pinkel won’t hesitate to insert decorated RS frosh Maty Mauk (two-time Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year), who had a good grasp of the offense in the spring. Expect a breakout year from soph WR Dorial Green-Beckham (5 TDC; hailed as the nation’s No. 1 recruit as a frosh), who’ll team up with sr. WRs Marcus Lucas (46 catches) & L’Damian Washington. With a new plan to employ the TE in a variety of ways, look for 6-6 RS frosh target Sean Culkin to become a valuable weapon. Four starters return on the OL.

Six starters are back on a defense (28.4 ppg, 390.7 ypg) seeking redemption after giving up an SEC- worst 26 rushing TDs, accumulating only 21 sacks & a meager 7 picks. Returning DT Lucas Vincent & DE Kony Ealy (10 TFL) should help pick up the slack for the early NFL departure of DT Sheldon Richardson. Blanket-covering sr. CB E.J. Gaines (27 passes broken up last two years), who is the best one-on-one defender Pinkel has coached at the position while at Mizzou, headlines a secondary in desperate need of more playmakers after allowing a whopping 44 pass plays of 20 yards-or-more in 2012. Shifty 5-9 RB Marcus Murphy had a school-record four return TDs LY. A healthier offense should take a big step forward vs. SEC foes TY. But we still have ongoing concerns about an undersized defense that needs to be better at trading punches beginning with a murderous October (at Vandy & Georgia; host Florida & South Carolina!), considering the only SEC win LY came in the wild 51-48 OT victory at Tennessee.

TENNESSEE (SUR: 5-7; PSR 4-8)...The Tennessee program has seemingly remained in perpetual turmoil since the Vols fired highly-successful HC Phil Fulmer after the 2008 season. Enter Butch Jones, who spent three years as the head man at Central Michigan , then three years at Cincinnati, both times following in the footsteps of current Notre Dame mentor Brian Kelly. Now he takes over a program that is on its fourth head coach since ‘08, and has endured three straight losing campaigns (only 2 SEC wins last couple years).

Five starters return to a new-look offense (36.2 ppg) under Jones, who is installing his no-huddle, fast-paced attack. No decision has been made at QB between pocket-passing jr. Justin Worley (three starts) when Kansas City free agent signee Tyler Bray was injured) or more mobile RS frosh Nathan Peterman, who was recruited to Cincinnati by Jones. The bad new is that jr. QB Tyler Bray (free agent signee with the Kansas City Chiefs) left early and the top four WRs have graduated, so the coaches will try out a group of a dozen scholarship players who have a combined one start at the position. Good bet that four-star prospect 6-4 WR MarQuez North (considered No. 2 WR nationally out of high school) quickly works into the rotation. The ground game has a much better chance of making some hay in the early going with the return of RBs Rajon Neal (708 YR) & Marlin Lane (658 YR; currently suspended), who’ll operate behind a well-synchronized OL (four starters back), which could be one of the strongest blocking units in the SEC.

After the defense (35.7 ppg, 471.3 ypg; only 17 sacks) finished with its worst year in school history in the failed 3-4 experiment under predecessor Sal Suneri, first-year d.c. John Jancek has installed a 4-3 scheme, with an emphasis on eliminating the home run plays the Vols allowed with alarming regularity. Lack of speed and athleticism are still issues on a revamped defense that has six senior linemen with 56 combined starts, including mammoth 360-pound DT Daniel McCullers, who is being pushed into being an every-down player. The LB corps is a strength with omnipresent A.J. Johnson (SEC-leading 138 tackles), but sizable improvement is needed on a leaky secondary that yielded a whopping 282.5ypg (111th) LY. The return of FS Brian Randolph, who was the ringleader of the group until suffering a torn ACL in the third game, should help. Solid kicking game with Michael Palardy (18 of 26 FGs over the past two seasons; 43.1 yd. punt avg.), but Jones says the return game is a huge concern. Energetic Butch Jones has his most challenging reclamation project yet. But with a large senior class eagerly embracing the coaching staff and three anticipated home wins in the preconference, UT might flirt with a six-win campaign if the new starting triggerman can keep critical mistakes to a minimum.

KENTUCKY (SUR; 2-10; PSR (3-8)...New HC Mark Stoops, who served as the Florida State d.c. for the past three seasons, will try to reboot a program that has had three successively worse seasons under his predecessor, Joker Phillips. So far, Stoops has made all the right moves. He’s reinvigorated the fan base (season ticket sales are way up), signed the program’s highest-rated recruiting class in more than a decade, vowed to fix the defense and installed a potentially high-powered offense. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. And with only 10 starters back on a 2-10 squad (only wins vs. Kent State & Samford) and radical changes on both sides of the ball, the renovated Wildcats will be hard-pressed to avoid the East cellar.

After the punchless offense (4 starers back) produced a lowly 17.9 ppg LY, new o.c. Neal Brown (former UK WR) is bringing back the “Air Raid” attack, which he learned from Hal Mumme in the late 1990s and made his own at Texas Tech the last three campaigns. He plans on spreading out the SEC defenses, but he must first decide on one of the competing soph QBs. Maxwell Smith, who completed 68.7% & had 975 YP & 8 TDPs through three games before a season-ending injury LY. Jalen Whitlow (87 of 161 for 3 TDs, 2 ints. LY), who shined brightest in the spring, is a dangerous dual threat who started the final seven games. Patrick Towles is the physical prototype who entered with the most recruiting hype. On a thin WR corps (only 6 scholarship performers after the top three graduated), the main target will be speedy jr. Demarco Robinson (28 grabs), with dynamic frosh Ryan Timmons (recruited by Florida & Ohio State) getting a chance to contribute. Speedy RB Raymond Sanders (669 YR, 5 TDs) and a now-healthy RB Josh Clemons, who sat out LY due to knee injury, will be the primary ball carriers in the no-huddle, NASCAR-paced attack.

Six starters are back on a pliable defense (31 ppg) switching from the 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 under first-year d.c. D.J. Eliot, who served as the DL coach for Mark Stoops in Tallahassee. The run defense (4.0 ypc LY) could be tougher TY, with the return of 300-pound DTs Donte Rumph & Miser Coble. And the revamped pass rush has a chance to be force, with the moving of the most talented veteran, 6-4, 254-pound Bud Dupree back from LB to DE, and adding the nation’s premier juco DE, 6-6, 257-pound Za’Darius Smith. By the end of spring, Stoops saw leaders emerge in relentless sr. MLB Avery Williamson (135 tackles LY; second in SEC ) & hard-hitting jr. FS Ashley Lowery. Injuries decimated the secondary LY, but that allowed valuable playing time for three freshmen who were thrown into the fire, including projected starting CBs Cody Quinn & Fred Tiller. Cats are looking for a FG kicker, but are well-set at punter with soph Landon Foster (42.9 yd. avg.). UK will be a more exciting offensive team and could move up a few notches on the defensive side, but believe Stoops is probably a year away from any bowl contention.


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