Kentucky players will convene tomorrow to begin fall practice and prepare for their September 1 date with the Mighty Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky University. Fall camp marks the true beginning of the countdown to college football. Once camp begins, I'll start looking at the Cats' season prospects in earnest, break down the season, and come up with a few bold predictions. This being the day before practice starts; let's look at the rest of the SEC East to see what is what. I'll go in order of predicted finish, 1-5, leaving the Cats out of the mix for now.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks . Everyone's de reguer pick to win the SEC East is my pick by default. Steve Spurrier has the two best skill position players of his tenure in WR Alshon Jeffery and RB Marcus Lattimore, who may be the best in the country at their respective positions. The Gamecocks return seven starters on a defense, but are suspect in the front seven. As always, the biggest question mark for USCJr is QB Stephen Garcia, who is coming off of suspension for the sixth time in his career. I could write a whole column on the Garcia mess, but suffice to say this: can you name an athlete who has gotten more chances, let alone one who regularly kills his team with so many soul crushing mistakes?
The second biggest question in Colombia will (again, as always) be whether the Gamecocks can avoid their almost annual late season swoon. They are expecting big things this year, including improvement on last season's nine regular season wins. Their schedule once again has some skid potential, and there is no telling whether Garcia can finish the year unscathed. Upset alert: The Cocks would do well to not look past East Carolina on a neutral field in Charlotte on September 3.
2. Georgia Bulldogs. Again, this turns out to be a default pick. The Bulldogs have the most horses returning in the rest of the league. I cannot help but think that Mark Richt is going to right the ship in Athens. He is too good a coach not to. The truth is, though, Georgia came within a touchdown of not being bowl eligible and then laid an egg in the Liberty Bowl to finish 6-7. They have problems at running back, with Waushan Ealey (811 yards in 2010) transferring to Jacksonville State and Caleb KIng (430) having been declared ineligible. Luckily for UGA they have the SEC's best returning signal caller in Aaron Murray and a sweetheart of an SEC schedule. The Bulldogs have only three true road games, all against schools they should be able to handle (Vandy, Ole Miss, Tennessee). Mississippi State, UK, South Carolina and Auburn all have to come to Athens. With that in mind, Georgia has no excuse not to get to at least 5-3 in conference. As always, they play the toughest non-conference slate in the league. If things do break bad for them in the SEC, games against Boise State (September 3) and Georgia Tech (November 26) may determine which side of the bowl bubble they end up on.
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Richt cannot put up another 6-7 year, and 5-7 certainly cost him his job. Key game: The World's Largest Game That Cannot Be Named is going to go a long way to determining who will be in the hunt for the SEC title and who might be bowling in Tennessee come Christmastime.
3. Florida Gators . I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I have no idea what to expect out of Florida this year. Here is what I think: Will Muschamp is going to be a good head coach, but he is going to require some adjustment and ramp up time. Adding Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator is a good move on paper, but his ego may be harder to fit into Gainesville than his gut. Weis is a sledgehammer guy, who has been given the task of protecting an egg. The egg is John Brantley, who was billed last fall as the best dropback quarterback since Dan Marino, and instead suffered through a disastrous first year as a starter. Will the insertion of a pro-style offense solve Brantley's woes, or will Weiss’ Brady Quinn fantasies remain unfulfilled?
One thing is for sure, the Gators will have what they always do, ridiculous talent and team speed. Enough to overwhelm the remaining teams in the SEC East and, with a break or two, put them in a position to battle for the league title. Upset Alert: While some may see this as pandering, when I look at Florida's schedule I see Kentucky on September 24 as a potential trap.
4. Tennessee Volunteers . As much as it pains me to admit it, I actually like Volunteers Coach Derek Dooley. He seems forthright, humorous and self effacing. He is also in way over his head as Head Coach of a program of this caliber. That isn't to say that he cannot be successful. The truth is, he has a lot of built-in advantages. UT fans know the program is a mess and they'll have to be patient. Yet UT still has great facilities, a big tradition, a true national recruiting base and plays in the best conference in America. Still, this year will again be tough for the Vols. Tyler Bray looked like the answer in leading UT to a 4-0 record in November last year, but he beat up some weak defenses doing so and didn't fare as well against the top half of the league. The Vols will start as many as four sophomores on the O-line and depth at most positions is still thin.
Still, Tennessee will return thousand yard rusher Tauren Poole and it may be time for celebrated sophomore WR Da'Rick Rodgers to break out of the police blotter and on the field. The secondary is also loaded. Key Game: UT should be 3-1 when Georgia comes to town October 8. They face a tough stretch of games thereafter, and could really use a W that day on Rocky Top. Of course, it has another pretty important game later in the season.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores . After the 2008 season, I thought Vandy had finally gotten over the hump and that Bobby Johnson would have them competing in the SEC for years to come. It kept me up nights thinking about not having that SEC win I counted on each year. Needless to say, none of that came to pass. Despite managing a win on the road at Ole MIss (something our beloved Wildcats failed to do) Vandy was abysmal last year. Typical was the 38-20 defeat the 'Dores suffered at Commonwealth despite UK basically sleepwalking through the whole first half. Vandy has improved recruiting, with a top 30 class so far for 2012. But that won't help them in 2011. About half of a very middling group of starters return, including All-SEC LB Chris Marve. Larry Smith will start the season at QB for the third year in a row, but I doubt many teams in the country are less enthusiastic about such an experienced guy under center. There is no reason to think this won't be a very similar team to last year's squad. Vandy wisely opens the season with Elon on September 3. It could get ugly from there.
Simply put, Vandy is going to be a must win game for every SEC East team. Key Game: Ole Miss comes to Nashville September 17th. The loser figures to have a very, very long year.
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