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2022 Preview: SEC East

 

1. Georgia Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0)

It’s Georgia’s turn to ride the rebuilding cycle, but the are far from being void of talent heading into 2022. There are still questions about the dynamic capabilities of the offense, and the defense has several question marks that will only be answered during a trial by fire. And finally, Kirby Smart has to deal with managing the mental aspect of coming off a championship.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

Outside of the tight end spot, where Georgia is unquestionably at the top of college football in regard to unit strength, the offense is probably not going to excel at anything, but is going to be competent at everything. That will allow Georgia to run a balanced, pro-style attack the way Kirby Smart likes it. Stetson Bennett returns for his senior year at quarterback, and that’s a mixed bag. He’s mostly asked to do nothing to lose games and simply manage affairs, but he can get careless with the ball at times. However, he can win games with his scrambling ability, something most “game managers” can’t do. The right side of the offensive line returns intact, and will give the new running back tandem an excellent chance at success. The main strength of the offense, though is a three-headed tight end group that combines excellent ball-catching ability with solid blocking. Smart’s best recruiting pitch of the offseason was the one used to keep Darnell Washington out of the transfer portal.

Offense: What could go wrong

The left side of the offensive line will be new, but the bigger issue is the receiving corps. With the tight ends taken out of the equation, Georgia doesn’t really have an A+ receiver ready to go. The transfer portal was brutal to Georgia, and the loss of Jermaine Burton was doubly hard given he went to rival Alabama. Then, Arian Smith was lost for what may be all of the season with an ankle injury. Given that Bennett’s QB game has no intersection with explosiveness, Georgia will be in trouble if it gets into a shootout.

Defense: What could go right

You kind of have to trust that Georgia’s string of highly-rated signing classes will be able to reload, because only three starters return from 2022. Fortunately, both edge rushers (Nolan Smith, Robert Beal) are back, but in Georgia’s preferred defensive alignment, they don’t share the field very often. Jalen Carter isn’t technically a returning starter at tackle, but he played enough to be considered as one, and he has all-conference ability. The safety group should be in good hands, and Kelee Ringo is one of the SEC’s brightest young players at cornerback. Special teams could be a real weapon so long as Georgia finds a decent punter to replace the departed Jake Camarda.

Defense: What could go wrong

Depth on the interior defensive line is not what Georgia has been accustomed to in recent years, so if anything happens to Carter or Tramel Walthour, it’s going to set off a scramble. As good as the situation at outside linebacker is, inside linebacker could potentially be the polar opposite. Georgia also saw heavy transfers out of the secondary, and cornerback is now basically Ringo surrounded by a cast of rookies.

One-sentence summary: By far, still the class of the SEC East, but repeating as champs would be a surprise.

Georgia’s schedule will allow it easy access to Atlanta again – its rotational opponents from the SEC West are our sixth and seventh teams – but the real question is whether the can progress from there. It’s not exactly a young team, but it is an inexperienced one in a lot of key spots, and Bennett still doesn’t have a lot of buyers as a quarterback.


2. Florida Gators (9-3, 6-2 [Utah, UT, UGA])

Florida heads into Billy Napier’s first year at the helm hoping to make a pair of statements: One, that last year’s 6-7 record was an anomaly; two, that the are going places, because Napier will need to improve recruiting substantially over what was a fairly red-chip-heavy effort in 2021-2022.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Vg
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Fr

Offense: What could go right

Forget the quarterback controversy of 20221, because Anthony Richardson is the guy now. Although Florida added Ohio State’s Jack Miller from the transfer portal, Miller will begin the 2022 season injured, so Richardson’s immense physical gifts – he’s 6’5”, 240 and has a big arm – will be on display, for better or worse. Richardson needs to clean up his mechanics, and he’s going to throw interceptions, but he’s also going to run over a lot of defenses all by himself. The offensive line is the greatest strength of the offense, top to bottom, but right tackle could be an issue if Michael Tarquin can’t lock it down. Wide receiver and running back both have some top athletes and could become strengths if Napier can develop them better than Dan Mullen did.

Offense: What could go wrong

The existing running back group never lived up to expectations, to the point that Napier brought Montrell Johnson with him from Louisiana – and Johnson immediately cracked the top playing rotation alongside Nay’Quan Wright. Florida needs Xzavier Henderson to claim the X spot, because Justin Shorter is overworked. There isn’t a proven solution at tight end, and the second- OL is decidedly behind the starters in terms of quality. With Miller hurt, if anything happens to Richardson early in the season, Florida could be in serious trouble.

Defense: What could go right

This is a veteran unit, especially the back eight. Potential stars abound in the form of LB Brenton Cox Jr., LB Ventrell Miller and S Trey Dean. The pass defense ranked 25th nationally last year despite being staffed largely by freshmen, and all those players are back for another go-round. Steady improvement is expected from the defensive line, with Gervon Dextor a potential breakout star at tackle.

Defense: What could go wrong

Depth is an issue all over, with no unit being particularly well-insulated against injury. Florida’s cornerback group goes basically one player deep at both spots, but the interior DL is an even greater concern. The will be breaking in a new kicker, and the return game is suspect, as two key members of the return group both elected to transfer out over the summer.

One-sentence summary: The starters are competitive with the division’s best, but injuries could be devastating.

Florida appears to be on the right track with Napier, but a lot of people thought they’d be on the right track with Mullen, too. Florida was a lot better on paper than its 6-7 record indicated last year, but that’s no guarantee of a one-year rebound. There will be enough changes in the offensive system that Florida will be vulnerable to mental mistakes, especially early in the season, but by the end of the year – provided injuries are held to a minimum – Florida will be the kind of opponents don’t want to have to play.


3. Wildcats (8-4, 4-4 [MSU, OM, UF, UGA])

made a big splash in 2021, winning 10 games, but a lot of the offensive firepower the utilized then won’t be available now. The damage could be even greater depending on what happens to RB Chris Rodriguez following multiple off-field issues. The deck is stacked against football anyway, in regards to being consistent contenders, but this year will be crucial to building long-term momentum.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Fr
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Fr
Linebackers: Vg
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Av

Offense: What could go right

QB Will Levis is an intriguing mix of size, power and speed, and some NFL Draft observers believe he could go ahead of Alabama’s Bryce Young with a strong 2022 season. He needs to cut down on the interception rate, but his big-play ability in clutch situations has won him a lot of fans. The offensive line is mid-pack right now but the new projected starters come with big prep reputations. There is good depth at running back, and tight end could be in very good shape if Keaton Upshaw can bounce back from an injury that stole the 2021 season from him.

Offense: What could go wrong

Rodriguez is facing a suspension for at least a third of the season after an arrest in a DUI case, combined with another off-field incident that has not been publicized. It would be a huge blow to this if he doesn’t come back, given that he rushed for 1,379 yards in 2021. While depth behind him is good, there isn’t a proven home-run hitter yet. The far bigger concern is receiver, where Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson absolutely must be everything he’s advertised to be, lest Levis be left to fend for himself. The leading returning receiver, DeMarcus Harris, caught 12 passes in 2021. was hoping transfer Javon Baker would help fill the gaps, but he aborted his transfer and chose Central Florida instead. Backup QB Beau Allen transferred out over the summer, leaving the job up in the air.

Defense: What could go right

The starting linebacker trio matches up with just about anyone, and Kentucky has good depth behind the starters on top of that. The safeties should be a strength of the defense. The are big on potential, especially up front where recruits the level Kentucky is not accustomed to having are getting set to step into starting roles.

Defense: What could go wrong

Unfortunately, quite a bit. Cornerback is a huge question mark, and that’s a position where, in modern football, teams cannot afford weakness. While the defensive line is long on potential, it is short on proven ability, and the rotation wasn’t yet settled coming out of spring. Kentucky then suffered a big loss at the end of spring when star NB Vito Tisdale was lost for the year with a knee injury. That makes it imperative that Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith step in immediately at corner, which would allow Kentucky to shift Andru Phillips into Tisdale’s old role. If Smith isn’t up to the task, the will be vulnerable to any decent passing team.

One-sentence summary: It is easier to become great, than to stay great.

Kentucky wasn’t going to challenge Georgia for SEC East supremacy even before the permanent loss of Tisdale and the temporary loss of Rodriguez, but Rodriguez is now expected to miss a key matchup with Florida, which could put the behind the 8-ball early in the year. Mark Stoops has been a good fit for this program, but he’s still trying to figure out the right mix of gameday aggressiveness and conservatism when it comes to managing his team’s weak spots.


4. South Carolina Gamecocks (6-6, 3-5 [Ark, TAM, UF, UGA, UK, Clem])

Shane Beamer hit the transfer portal jackpot when he picked up Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler. It was a coup for a that managed to bat back a lot of adversity in 2021 and still finish with a winning record. There is decent talent on offense – provided the offensive line can come around – but the defense is questionable. One thing is for certain: The Gamecocks won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Fr
Defensive Line: Fr
Linebackers: Fr
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Av

Offense: What could go right

If Spencer Rattler is everything he was thought to be when he arrived in Norman, the Gamecocks could be an absolute terror when they have the ball. South Carolina is also in good shape for a backup, as Luke Doty got plenty of work as a starter in 2021. There’s a good one-two punch in the receiving game with SE Josh Vann and TE Jaheim Bell. Running back ought to be in decent shape if MarShawn Lloyd can take the next step forward in his development. There is no lack of experience on the offensive line, but that group needs to take a collective jump, not just a step, forward. If the OL responds, the offense could be special.

Offense: What could go wrong

Neither Lloyd nor JuJu McDowell scared anyone last year as runners when they were in the game. South Carolina got Wake Forest’s Christian Beal-Smith in the transfer portal, but he has been slow to break into the rotation. The wide receiver group is in bad need of a second option to Vann; Dakereon Joyner averaged less than 10 yards per catch last season, and no one else was really on the radar. Pass protection was deplorable in 2021, but the far greater concern for the line was that it had trouble mounting a decent running game even with Kevin Harris in the backfield.

Defense: What could go right

The secondary led the conference in pass defense and was 7th overall, and four of the five starters return for 2022. The projected fifth starter is an experienced senior out of the transfer portal: Central Michigan’s Devonni Reed. There is good depth there and at linebacker, a position group that boasts a veteran presence. If punter Kai Kroeger can rebound from an offseason foot injury, special teams ought to be at least decent.

Defense: What could go wrong

The defensive front had a poor 2021, to be kind, and things got worse heading into 2022 when DT Rick Sandidge was forced to medically retire. There really isn’t anything to hang a hat on in South Carolina’s front six, other than plain experience. The pass rush will suffer with the loss of Kingsley Enagbare to the NFL, and it’s well past time for LB Sherrod Greene to fully recover from his injuries and help the defense return to form. If Kroeger can’t rebound quickly from his foot injury, the special teams are in danger of being a lot less than average.

One-sentence summary: A of try-hards that needs to stay on task long enough for younger talent to emerge.

Teams that are weak on both lines of scrimmage rarely finish well in the SEC; our predicted finish of 4th place is basically the upper end of hopes, and is reachable only if Rattler can win games by himself. South Carolina will have to get comfortable with the idea of winning shootouts in 2022, because the secondary can’t be expected to turn in miraculous results two years in a row given what is playing in front of them. What Beamer mostly needs is time.


5. Tennessee Volunteers (7-5, 3-5 [UA, LSU, UGA, UK, USC])

The Volunteers are the trendy pick to knock off Georgia in the SEC East this year, but Tennessee suffers from the same ailments as South Carolina: good-to-great skill position talent, question marks up front where it really counts. Tennessee will be high-powered and exciting, but could also be a sieve defensively.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Fr
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

Once Tennessee figured out what it had in Virginia Tech transfer QB Hendon Hooker, the Vols became exceptionally dangerous on offense due to Hooker’s mobility and big-play prowess. If Hooker can be as adept at avoiding interceptions as he did in 2021 (only 3), Josh Heupel can continue to be aggressive with his playcalling. Having Joe Milton III as a backup is an added bonus. Tennessee boasts a dangerous option at wide receiver (Cedric Tillman), two good tight ends and an underrated starting running back. Few opponents will match the Volunteers’ talent in the skill positions.

Offense: What could go wrong

Calling the Tennessee offensive line “average” is being kind; most of Tennessee’s offensive output came via scheme and Hooker’s big-play potential. Even though four starters return from last year’s unit, the tackle positions are subpar at best. Florida transfer Gerald Mincey may have to step in even though he’s not considered ready to do so yet. Injuries have hit the running back group; Len’Neth Whitehead is out for the year with an injury and Jaylen Wright will begin the season sidelined.

Defense: What could go right

The Vols have a good situation at safety, where Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCullough return and Brandon Turnage is expected to give the a boost at Star safety. Juwan Mitchell returns to bolster the linebacker group, and UT has an emerging star in LB/DE Tyler Baron. Special teams should be a strength even with the loss of KR Velus Jones Jr. to the NFL. There is decent depth emerging at both linebacker and in the secondary.

Defense: What could go wrong

The defensive line underachieved in 2021 and returns only one starter. Depth in the interior needs help, and it’s past time for LaTrell Bumphus and Omari Thomas to step forward at defensive tackle. The biggest issue, though, is cornerback; Warren Burrell was a liability at times in 2021 and the other position is wide open. Tennessee’s major problem last year wasn’t scoring points, it was keeping opponents from doing the same. Tennessee finished 90th overall, 12th in the conference in scoring, and we’re not sure whether the defense will be improved overall.

One-sentence summary: Tennessee is explosive, but explosives can backfire.

Tennessee finished 7-6 last year despite putting up offensive numbers commensurate with those of a title contender. Heupel has proven he can design an offense, but this isn’t the of his playing days. The Vols need development along both lines of scrimmage, and Heupel may need to dial back the offensive chicanery in order to keep his defense better-rested on the sidelines. Still, this is one of the few down-the-list teams in either division capable of knocking off a division leader.


6. Missouri Tigers (5-7, 1-7 [Ark, AU, UF, UGA, UK, USC, UT])

On the other side of the spectrum from Tennessee, Missouri will try to climb the SEC East ladder the old-fashioned way: strength in the trenches, and an improving defense. The Tigers have to find a replacement for RB Tyler Badie, but the primary concern is the quarterback position.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Fr
Running Backs: Fr
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Av
Defensive Backs: Vg
Special Teams: Ex

Offense: What could go right

The offensive line will be the thing Missouri leans on as it begins the 2022 season. Five players with starting experience return, but the Tigers will probably shuffle a bit at center and guard to accommodate new players. Tauskie Dove has potential to break out at receiver; he didn’t score in 2021, but he averaged 15.2 yards per reception and was hard to guard at times. The big name to watch at receiver is Luther Burden, arguably the nation’s top WR recruit, who will be an instant starter.

Offense: What could go wrong

If Burden can’t get quickly acclimated to SEC competition, there’s going to be an issue. Missouri suffered with a lack of production from its slot receiver candidates in 2021, and it’s mostly the same faces there this time around. The running back battle will likely come down to transfers, notably Stanford’s Nathaniel Peat and Truman State’s Cody Schrader. Of the holdover backs, Michael Cox and Elijah Young have modest experience, but Young is too small to be a featured back and Cox may be too big for this offensive set. But all those battles pale in comparison to the QB job: Brady Cook is accurate, but lacks a downfield passing game. Sam Horn, a true freshman, may start sooner rather than later. Missouri wanted a better option from the transfer portal but had to settle for Southern Miss’ Jack Abraham, a decent option as a backup but nothing more.

Defense: What could go right

The edges of the defensive front figure to be as good as anyone’s. Both Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat are Edge prospects at the pro level, and both can be disruptive. Missouri will get CB Ennis Rakestraw Jr. back from ACL rehab, and big things are expected from the secondary as a whole. The biggest improvement may be on the sidelines, where Blake Baker has to be an upgrade over Steve Wilks, who looked to be over his head in the coordinator role last year. Linebacker depth and experience is good, as well. Special teams may be the best in the league.

Defense: What could go wrong

Statistically, Missouri was flat-out awful up front last year, particularly in the middle of the defense, and now is completely rebuilding its kit there. How much of that was due to Wilks is uncertain. The secondary held its own in the face of several injuries, so there is hope there, but a rushing defense that finished 14th in the SEC and 124th in the nation needs dramatic improvement, and fast. To that end, Missouri raided the transfer portal for Ian Matthews (Auburn), Kristian Williams (Oregon), Jayden Jernigan (Oklahoma State), Tyrone Hopper (North Carolina), D.J. Coleman (Jacksonville State) and Josh Landry (Baylor), adopting a throw-scholarships-at-it solution in hopes of fixing the problem. Linebacker needs a minor going-over as well.

One-sentence summary: Eliah Drinkwitz is trying to build from the inside out, but the skill groups must produce.

Missouri compares favorably, unit-to-unit, against other teams in the league, but something just feels amiss. Whether it was the underachieving defense in 2021, or the instability at quarterback, or whether Drinkwitz’s offensive philosophy simply doesn’t work in the SEC, the Tigers need to make a big step forward to restore confidence. It all really comes down to improvement in the middle defense, and finding a quarterback the can count on.


7. Vanderbilt Commodores (1-11, 0-8 [Haw, UA, OM, UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT, WF, NIU])

Simply put, this is one of the worst SEC teams on paper in many years. Things have hit rock bottom in Nashville, as Vanderbilt has returned to complete doormat status. Any win in 2022 should be celebrated.

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Pr
Running Backs: Fr
Wide Receivers: Fr
Offensive Line: Pr
Defensive Line: Fr
Linebackers: Fr
Defensive Backs: Fr
Special Teams: Vg

Offense: What could go right

Is “nothing” a proper response? Vandy quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year, but if the Commodores can figure a way to feature TE Ben Bresnahan and WR Will Sheppard, it can keep some heat off the running game. Ra’Mahn Davis returns at running back, and depth is good there, but Vandy needs more explosive plays. The offensive line lost LT Tyler Steen to Alabama, but at least brings back three starters; however, improvement is needed across the board. Vanderbilt has developed some decent depth at quarterback and receiver, but time will tell if it’s the right kind of depth.

Offense: What could go wrong

Even though this is the internet, this response is limited by available space. There is a lot of pressure on QB Mike Wright to somehow break out. His dual-threat capabilities made him the team’s second-leading rusher in 2021 and a far better option than the more traditional Ken Seals, but he barely completed more than half his pass attempts. The left side of the line is a potential disaster area now that Steen has left, and while there are a lot of bodies at receiver, no one outside of Sheppard has proven able to get open downfield against SEC corners. There is a lack of size among the running backs, which won’t help if Vanderbilt is serious about developing an interior running game.

Defense: What could go right

The defensive line is in a position to get better, as Malik Langham and Daevion Davis have shown flashes in the past. They are joined by Cal Poly transfer Myles Cecil, who displayed a knack for getting penetration at his previous stop and was a third- all-conference performer there. Clemson transfer Kane Patterson could help stabilize the linebacker unit, starting alongside Anfernee Orji, who is getting some all-star consideration. Vanderbilt got former UConn CB Jeremy Lucien in the transfer portal, which adds to a secondary that was already senior-heavy. The Commodores added Florida Atlantic P Matt Hayball to go with former transfer Joseph Bulovas at PK; the kickers are solid, but the Commodores need more athleticism on coverage and returns.

Defense: What could go wrong

Unless the pass rush improves, the Commodores will be left fighting uphill every game. The secondary can hold its own with better help, but it’s telling that the most sacks any recorded in 2021 was 2. What’s scary is, this will be the best defense Vanderbilt fields for several years. Nine of the projected 11 starters are seniors, along with both kickers. Depth will always be a problem in Nashville, and that’s no different in 2022.

One-sentence summary: Forget being an SEC contender, the Commodores would have their hands full in the Sun Belt.

We’re not sure how to put a good face on this situation, really. NIL is going to create new winners and losers all over college football, and it’s hard to see how Vanderbilt is going to avoid falling further behind. Clark Lea was the typical Vanderbilt hire two years ago: decent enough resume, desperate enough to take the job. Last year was a poor debut even by Vanderbilt standards, and if the Commodores go 1-11 this year, Lea’s tenure may be – should be, for that matter – over. The Commodores have no hope to win any game played after Northern Illinois on Sept. 17 unless Lea truly hit the transfer jackpot over last offseason.

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