Following is our two-part SEC preview, provided by Chief Analyst Gary Olshan. First up, the East half of the loop, followed by the West in our next installment. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2013 straight-up and pointspread rrecords included. Also, please check out our feature on the new SEC Network, found on our home page... --Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

SOUTH CAROLINA (SUR 11-2; PSR 7-6)...It figures to be a hot four-team race in the SEC East (Georgia, Missouri and Florida). But we give the nod to loaded, opportunistic South Carolina (+13 TO margin LY), which has finished 11-2 over the last three years, setting a school record for wins in that period and notching three straight bowl victories for the first time in school history. And despite losing its QB, top WR and premier defensive player from 2013, the Gamecocks have a very good shot at being in the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. “All of us in the SEC, if we can win our division, win the game in Atlanta, we probably be in that final four,” HC Steve Spurrier said. “That’s the only thing we need to try to concern ourselves with.” Spurrier, who has brought in a slew of highly-ranked recruiting classes, received a $700,000 raise in January.

The experienced attack (8 starters back; 34.1 ppg) doesn’t figure to miss a beat behind jr. QB Dylan Thompson (3-0 as a starter), who has mostly played the role of the super sub, filling in admirably for Connor Shaw (27-5 as a starter) over the last two campaigns. Punishing RB Mike Davis (1,183 YR, 5.8 ypc, 11 TDs LY) believes he can work his way into Heisman Trophy consideration this year, aided by a huge, well-synchronzied OL (four starters back) considered to be Spurrier’s best group of “uglies.” Versatile soph WR Pharoh Cooper (he’ll start in the slot and be a regular in the Wildcat QB position) could be a major difference-maker, while big-time WR Shaq Roland (25 grabs at 18.2 yds. per catch despite missing three games due to suspension) and blazing 5-9 sr. wide-out Damiere Byrd (33 receptions, 4 TDs) will pick up the slack for departed star Bruce Ellington.

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Six starters are back on the stop unit (20.3 ppg), which obviously some BIG holes to fill on the defensive line following the departure of the No. 1 NFL draft pick DE Jadeveon Clowney and All-American DT Kelcy Quarles (9.5 sacks LY). To help bolster the pass rush, expect clever d.c. Lorenzo Ward to incorporate more blitz packages (by using a 3-4 scheme more often) from a swift and deep LB corps, spearheaded by “instinctive” soph Skai Moore (team-leading 56 tackles; 4 interceptions). CB is the most inexperienced position on the defense, with only soph Rico McWilliams having ever taken a snap. The coaches expect to start one freshman at CB this fall, and they signed five to increase their chances of finding the right one. Sr. SS Brison Williams, who is the standout of the secondary, might be asked to play some at CB, where he spent a portion of time in the spring. Soph PK Elliott Fry, a former walk-on, has the look of a four-year starter after nailing 15 of 18 FGs in his frosh campaign, but punting was subpar after finishing dead last in the SEC a year ago.

GEORGIA (SUR 8-5; PSR 4-9)...With 17 starters back and a slew of highly-ranked recruiting classes, UGA figures to be in the hunt once again for a chance at the SEC title game in the loaded East Division. It must be noted that more than two dozen Bulldogs were injured at some point, which was a major factor UGA finishing with an 8-5 record, disappointing by the usual standards in Athens. And 4 of the 5 Bulldog setbacks came by a combined 17 points! After a disappointing performance by a poor-tackling defense, HC Mark Richt has overhauled the entire defensive staff. And with a little better injury luck, we would expect the resilient Bulldogs to improve on their poor TO margin (minus 7, ranked 102nd nationally).

Six starters return to an offense (36.7 ppg) directed by patient sr. QB Hutson Mason, who served as record-setting Aaron Murray’s top backup the past few years. With Murray suffering a late-season injury last year, Mason (67 of 110, 5 TDs & 3 ints.) had a chance to play for nearly the final three games, including the Gator Bowl vs. Nnebraska, which should help in his preparation for 2014. The sensational TB tandem of Todd Gurley (989 YR, 10 TDs, 6 ypc) & Keith Marshall (246 YR) was never at full strength last season. Gurley missed three games due to a sprained ankle and Marshall’s season ended after only five contests with an ACL tear. If both can stay healthy, they could surpass their rushing total of 2,144 in 2012. Talent also abounds at wide-out, with the return of sr. WRs Chris Conley & Michael Bennett, who combined for 86 catches and 1,189 yards LY. And the coaches are optimistic that game-breaking WR Malcolm Mitchell (tore ACL in the first offensive series of last season!) will be ready to go for fall camp after missing spring due to another leg injury. The biggest offensive issue is rebuilding an OL returning only two starters.

Nine defensive starters will be back on a defense (29 ppg) undergoing a “culture change” under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (served as the d.c. on BCS national champs Florida State last year), who vowed to substitute more and asked players to drop weight, in order to form a lighter and quicker unit. The strength of the defense will be the LB corps featuring ILBs Ramik Wilson & Amarlo Herrera, who finished first and third, respectively, in the SEC in tackles LY. Coaches are also raving about 6-4 soph OLB Leonard Floyd, who led the team with 6.5 sacks LY. And we would anticipate increased aggressive play from a defensive line tutored by new, fiery DL coach Tracy Rocker, who spent the past three years with the Tennessee Titans. The biggest ? is in the secondary, which finished ninth in the SEC in both pass defense and third-down allowance LY. But there is a bunch of former four-star recruits ready to step in, even with the dismissal of talented but troubled SS Josh Harvey-Clemons before the spring. There is also no better placekicker in the SEC than jr. Marshall Morgan, who converted 22 of 24 FGs LY, with a long one of 56.

FLORIDA (SUR 4-8; PSR 3-9)...After an alarming 4-8 record last season (first losing campaign since 1979!) and a tepid 22-16 mark in three years at Gainesville, beleaguered HC Will Muschamp is on the proverbial “hot seat” in 2014. Florida has been able to rely on its sticky defense through Muschamp’s three seasons, but last year’s consistent offensive woes spilled over to the defensive side of the ball. The Gators finished 12th or worse in the SEC’s four major categories (total offense, scoring offense, passing & rushing yards). To possibly save his job, Muschamp sent offensive coordinator Brent Pease packing and hired Kurt Roper (longtime assistant to David Cutcliffe at Duke & Ole Miss), who has replaced the Gators’ stodgy pro-style attack with a trendy no-huddle, spread offense.

QB Jeff Driskel (12-3 as a starter), who broke his leg on Sept. 21 vs. Tennessee, displayed in the spring he is a good fit for the new spread attack, which returns six starters. Roper praised Driskel’s command of the offense and his ability to “read” a defense. There is solid RB depth, with Mack Brown (543 YR), Kelvin Taylor (508 YR) and Matt Jones, who was projected to be a breakout player last season before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the final six games. The WR corps, which has struggled for several seasons, needs retooling after losing two of the top three targets from a year ago. WR Quinton Dunbar (40 catches) is a reliable weapon, while sophs Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson & Chris Thompson will be counted on to take a big step forward. Also worth watching is oft-injured WR/kick returner Andre Debose, who successfully petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Starting OL is experienced (combined 67 career starts), but quality depth must be developed.

Despite being an overworked unit due to the offensive ineptness, the swift, ornery Gator sop unit (8 starters back; 21.1 ppg) finished first in passing, second in total, and third in scoring defense in the SEC a year ago. The DL returns intact, featuring heat-seeking bookend DEs Dante Fowler Jr. (10.5 TFL) & Jonathan Bullard. Coaches are looking for more consistency at LB after veterans Antonio Morrison & Michael Taylor had lackluster campaigns in 2013. The secondary, which lost two CBs early to the NFL draft, is led by soph All-American CB Vernon Hargreaves III, while top prospect frosh CB Jalen Tabor could work his way into the starting rotation sooner than later. Florida must fix an atrocious kicking game after converting a dismal 12 of 22 FG attempts, and finishing 10th in net punting in the SEC.

MISSOURI (SUR 12-2; PSR 11-3)... After floundering in its inaugural SEC season in 2102 with a 5-7 mark, the Tigers roared back with a vengeance by going 12-2 and capturing the SEC East in 2013. And while it’s unwise to underestimate savvy, 14th-year HC Gary Pinkel (he became the No. 1 winningest coach in school history LY), it will be a tall task for target-wearing Mizzou to return to Atlanta after losing several hard-to-replace stars, including WR Dorial Green-Beckham (team-high 59 catches LY), who was dismissed in April. But the Tigers favorable early allows them to build some steam with a probable 4-0 start before a major showdown at South Carolina on September 27.

On a retooling offense (only four starters back; 39.1 ppg LY), Mizzou must replace its leading passer, rusher and the top three receivers from LY’s team that averaged a school-record 490.7 ypg. But we have faith precocious 6-0 soph QB Maty Mauk (68 of 133 for 1,071 yds., 11 TDs, 2 ints; 3-1 as a starter) continues to maintain the high standard of QB play in Columbia over the previous decade. At TB, 1000-yard rusher Henry Josey is gone, but the highly-capable tandem of Russell Hansbrough & Marcus Murphy, who combined for 1,286 YR & 13 TDs, are back to split the load. The WR corps took a huge hit with the dismissal of Mr. Green-Beckham, since no returning player caught more than one TD pass in 2013. But proven WRs Bud Sasser & Jimmie Hunt (combined 69 catches & 6 TDs L2Ys) are joined by some tall, eager prospects, including 6-3 RS frosh J’Mon Moore (shined in spring), who could become a real deep threat, & blue-chip 6-3 true frosh Nate Brown.

Only four starters are back on a defense (23.1 ppg) that lost four All-SEC performers, including ferocious pass-rushers DEs Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. But the drop-off could be less than expected with the return of backup DEs Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 11 sacks and 22 TFL a year ago. The defense is breaking in two new starters at LB and CB, but astute d.c. Dave Steckel has a stockpile of young LBs to complement steady Kentrell Brothers (70 stops LY), who’ll move over from OLB to MLB. And while replacing ball-snatching CB E.J. Gaines (5 interceptions LY) leaves big shoes to fill, athletic, well-seasoned soph CBs Aarion Penton & John Gibson appear ready to be full-time starters. The safety spot is rock-solid, with jr. FS Ian Simon and sr. SS Braylon Webb, who provides vocal leadership. The Tigers return two strong specialists in jr. PK Andrew Baggett (18 of 25 FGs) & sr. punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yd. avg.).

TENNESSEE (SUR 5-7; PSR 5-7)...Second-year HC Butch Jones is winning battles on the recruiting trail (his 2014 class is consensus top 10, with 14 newcomers arriving in January as early enrollees), but Tennessee still faces a long climb back to SEC East contention. Despite four straight losing campaigns, including a 5-7 mark in Jones’ debut a year ago, nearly 70,000 fans flocked to Neyland Stadium for the spring game. But patience never lasts long in the SEC. Just ask former HC Derek Dooley, who was fired after only three seasons. The Vols did spring a 23-21 home upset win over South Carolina (ending their 19-game losing streak to ranked teams!) and fell only 34-31 in OT to Georgia in October home games. But UT was drubbed by a combined 131-36 margin in lopsided setbacks to Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. Ouch! If the passing game demonstrates more punch, and the talented underclassmen quickly perform at an SEC-level, UT might have a shot at a winning campaign for the first time since 2009.

Four starters are back on an offense (23.8 ppg) that started three different QBs a year ago, and would have played a fourth if Riley Ferguson had been healthy. All four are back in 2014, but look for sr. triggerman Justin Worley (1,977 YP, 10 TDs, 8 ints.) to be the man for the opener, the leash, however, will be short. Sr. RB Marlin Lane (534 YR LY) will split the load with decorated 6-3, 221-pound frosh RB Jalen Hurd, a physical speciman, who has been compared to an “Alabama running back.” The Vols lacked SEC speed, size and numbers at WR a year ago, restricting the play-calling options. But lanky soph wide-outs Marquez North (38 grabs) & Jason Croom (19) emerged from the dismal season, and look for five-star, 6-3 frosh Josh Malone to make an impact right away. All five starters must be replaced on the OL.

Five starters return to a defense (29 ppg) that lost all four DL starters. Sr. DE Jordan Williams worked some at DT in the spring to shore up a weak position, while gifted soph DE Corey Vereen needs to lead a more forceful pass rush that generated only 18 sacks a year ago. Sr. MLB A.J. Johnson (106 tackles), who decided to forego the NFL draft, is the mainstay of the stop unit, while jr. SS Brian Randolph (75 tackles, 4 interceptions) anchors a secondary that lacked the required speed to cope with most quality SEC offenses a year ago. So, fleet-footed true frosh CB Emmanuel Moseley could win a starting job in the fall. The defense is immediately fortified with the healthy return of hybrid LB Curt Maggitt (he missed last season following ACL surgery), who is called the “heart and soul” of the stop unit, according to Butch Jones. The Vols must replace last year’s MVP, Michael Palardy, who was the punter and placekicker.

VANDERBILT (SUR 9-4; PSR 7-6)... Vandy has made three straight bowl games and are coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time in school history! But the transitioning Commodores will have to continue their upward trajectory under new HC Derek Mason, who replaces James Franklin, who abruptly left to take over at Penn State. Highly-respected Derek Mason, who served as the Stanford defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, has a simple but bold goal: “We want to go from good to great.” We still must pick Vandy near the bottom of the rough-and-tumble East Division, though the Commodores have a real shot at a fourth consecutive bowl, facing the SEC’s softest nonconference slate (Temple, Charleston Southern, Old Dominion & UMass). Hence, only two wins in conference play should do the trick.

On the revamped offense (six starters back; 30.1 ppg), Mason is eventually looking for big tailbacks to pound the ball between the tackles, but he is pleased with the diminutive but productive returning 5-8 RB duo of Jerron Seymour (716 YR, 14 TDs) & Brian Kimbrow (341 YR, 3 TDs). Though RS soph QB Patton Robinette (4 TDs, 5 ints.) had heroic plays in wins over Georgia, Florida (first victory in Gainesville since 1945!) and Tennessee, he is far from a lock in 2014. Robinette faces stiff competition from RS frosh Johnny McCrary (ranked as nation’s No. 1 dual threat in the 2013 class!) and LSU transfer Stephen Rivers (younger brother of Charger QB Philip Rivers), who has used only two years of eligibility after taking a redshirt year in Baton Rouge. First-year o.c. Karl Dorrell needs to find some go-to WRs on a super-green group to fill the HUGE cleats of departed Jordan Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions & receiving yards, and underrated Jonathan Krause. To help fill the void, the staff will incorporate TEs (think Stanford) and RBs into the passing game. The OL is deep & experienced, with four starters back and can go 10-deep without much dropoff.

Four starters return to a unit (24.6 ppg) switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, with playmaking sr. Kyle Woestmann (40 tackles, 6 sacks) & Caleb Azibole (9.5 TFL despite missing final three games with injury) sliding from DEs to OLBs. The front seven should be rock-solid, spearheaded by run-stuffing 6-2, 310-pound NT Vince Taylor & sturdy ILB Darreon Herring (84 stops). But four senior starters in the secondary who combined to start 110 games over the last four seasons. There is, however, a decent amount of experience returning due to injuries LY, with sophs Parish Head & Torren McGaster slated to start at CB spots. Coaches praised the spring play of RS frosh Taurean Ferguson & Tre Bell, while blue-chip, 6-2 true frosh Emmanuel Smith could push for playing time. RS frosh PK Tommy Openshaw is handed the major responsibility of taking over for reliable three-year starter Carey Spear, who nailed 15 of 19 FGs LY.

KENTUCKY (SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8)...Though UK should make some incremental progress in Year 2 under Mark Stoops (he recently received a contract extension through 2018), the Wildcats will still have a monumental job escaping the dungeon of the uncompromising East division. Stoops has attracted the best back-to-back recruiting classes in school history! And UK was more competitive last year in the SEC after being destroyed by an average of 25.3 points in league play in 2012. “You feel much better. You know, I really tried not to throw everybody under the bus,” Stoop says, “but we just weren’t very good. We’re better. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re better.” Wildcat Nation apparently believes a brighter future is right around the corner after a record 50,000 turned out for the 2013 spring game. Remember, UK hasn’t won an SEC game in two years!

Six starters are back on an offense (meager 20.5 ppg & 341.2 ypg) that never fully settled on a QB last season, and didn’t by the end of spring. Even though none of the competing QBs have ever started a game, the coaches firmly believe there will be an upgrade in Neal Brown’s up-tempo “Air Raid” offense (finished 98th in passsing LY), whether it’s piloted by soph Patrick Towles (40 career attempts), RS frosh Reese Phillips or freshman early-enrollee Drew Barker, who was a four-star dual threat recruit considered the No. 1prospect in Kentucky. Moreover, the Cats have four former four-star recruits in the backfield, plus resurgent jr. Josh Clemons, a powerful RB who has improbably returned from two major injuries and was the leading rusher in the spring. And JoJo Kemp (482 YR) & now-eligible Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (462 YR in two seasons in Lincoln) are both home-run threats. After a dire situation at depth-depleted WR last year, UK can’t help but be much stronger at wide-out, with the top five WRs returning along with five true freshmen eager to work into the rotation. Four starters are back on the OL.

Eight starters return to defense (31.2 ppg) that has lacked the physicality to hold up against bruising SEC arsenals for a number of years. But with the help of several newcomers, the Cats could show more bite under Mark Stoops who has built a reputation on his ability to fix struggling defenses. The hulking sr. DE duo of 6-6, 264-pound Za’Darius Smith and 6-4, 257-pound Bud Dupree (combined 13 sacks) provide a solid pass rush. Either athletic jr. Josh Forrest, a former WR & DB, or juco Ryan Flanigan, are needed to competently eplace graduated All-SEC MLB Avery Williamson (102 tackles LY), who was the vocal leader. But the most important area of improvement is in the secondary after it recorded only one interception LY. But Stoops, who is a secondary specialist, is working with greater size & athleticism, with the return of CB J.D. Harmon (top interceptor in 2012; sat out LY due to academics) & touted juco transfer A.J. Stamps. RS frosh PK Austin MacGinnis must replace accurate Joe Mansour (12 of 14 FGs LY). Cats are a poor 10-23 vs. the spread the last 30 on the board.


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