SEC East football preview: Burning questions, favorite players and projectionsESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
Throughout the SEC East in 2022, there is plenty of familiarity.
Florida is starting over yet again: Billy Napier will be the Gators' fourth head coach in nine seasons, their seventh including interims. We could soon be playing another rousing rendition of everyone's favorite game, Tennessee Versus Big Expectations. Missouri looks destined for a fourth straight year of .500-ish ball, Vanderbilt looks destined for a fourth straight year at .250 or lower, and we all appear destined to spend another fall raving about Mark Stoops' performance at Kentucky. Sure, South Carolina is a little tricky to figure out at the moment, but this all feels pretty safe, pretty normal.
The biggest storyline in the division, however, is completely unfamiliar.
From 1981 to 2020, Georgia finished in the AP top 10 16 times, finished ranked 26 times and won or shared five SEC titles. The Bulldogs were one of the most consistently strong programs in the country over an extended period of time. But after winning the 1980 national title, they could never quite secure another one. They came close on many occasions -- 1981, 1982, 2002, 2007, 2012, 2017 -- but never quite got it done.
They got it done last season. Kirby Smart's Bulldogs began the 2021 season 12-0 before falling to Alabama in the SEC championship game. But they still reached the College Football Playoff, where they pummeled Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal, then scored 20 points in the last eight minutes of the national title game to take down Alabama, 33-18. It was Georgia's first title in 41 years, it was Smart's first win over former mentor Nick Saban ... it was as cathartic a win as you'll see in this sport.
Now what? Of all the ways Saban has redefined college football, his ability to avoid hangovers is at the top of the list. Of the past 10 national champions that weren't coached by Saban, only half have finished in the AP top five the following year. Three finished unranked (all SEC teams), and the teams' cumulative win percentage fell from 0.958 (13.7 wins per year) to 0.788 (10.4).
Saban's Crimson Tide, on the other hand, have just continued to roll after title runs. They racked up a win percentage of 0.952 in his six title seasons in Tuscaloosa, and in the next season their win percentage fell only a bit, to 0.882 with six top-10 (and four top-two) finishes.
Smart spent 11 seasons as a Saban assistant and is as close to Saban 2.0 as college football has seen. If that remains true, then Georgia will reload defensively, play at a top-three level and plow through the SEC East once again. If the Dawgs suffer a hangover ... well, they might still plow through the East, but they could lose two or three times and open up a CFP spot.
Regardless, this is unfamiliar territory. Let's preview the SEC East!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.
Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (Nos. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big 12 (Nos. 6-10) | Big 12 (Nos. 5-1) | Big Ten West | Big Ten East
2021 recapIndeed, Georgia made short work of the East in 2021, winning six division games by an average score of 42-9. Kentucky battled a midyear losing streak but still won 10 games for the second time in four years. The rest of the division was ... messy.
Florida was 3-1 and fourth in SP+ early in the season, but the Gators lost six of their last nine and fired Dan Mullen. Tennessee alternated between ragged and brilliant in Josh Heupel's first season, going 7-6 and seducing SP+ in the process. Missouri and South Carolina went 0-10 against teams in the SP+ top 25 (average score: 38-15) and 12-2 against everyone else, not including each other. Meanwhile, Clark Lea's first season at Vanderbilt was as tough as expected. The Commodores went 2-10, fell to East Tennessee State and lost eight conference games by an average score of 40-14.
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With a schedule that features six projected top-25 teams (four away from home), Georgia certainly has plenty of opportunities to falter in the national title race. But it would take quite a stumble to fall to a level that Tennessee, Florida or Kentucky can reach, even with SP+ being utterly enamored with the Vols. (We'll get to that below.)
Burning questionsHow does Georgia handle the hangover? On paper, three teams stand out dramatically from the rest of the FBS field in 2022. In my summer SP+ projections, Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia all ended up with ratings between 27.3 and 29.9 (meaning they are 27 to 30 points better than the average college football team), while fourth-place Michigan was at 20.6, closer to the No. 23 team than No. 3. The season always packs upsets and surprises -- here's your reminder that Oklahoma and Clemson began last season in the top three in both the AP poll and SP+ -- but barring a spectacular run of injuries, there's no real reason Smart's Dawgs couldn't repeat as champs.
For starters, the offense is dramatically more experienced. Leading receivers Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell were freshmen last year, after all, and three of the top six linemen were either freshmen or sophomores.
The Dawgs do have a couple of excellent running backs to replace (Zamir White and James Cook), along with two solid linemen. But the group of running backs remains loaded with potential breakout stars (Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton, incoming blue-chipper Branson Robinson), and the line should at least be equal to last year's. Quarterback Stetson Bennett responded to all doubters by going 4-for-4 for 83 yards and two touchdowns over the final 10 minutes of the national title game. He might have an even deeper receiving corps if he gets production from former blue-chippers such as tight ends Arik Gilbert and Darnell Washington or receivers Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint or Dominick Blaylock.
Part of the reason Georgia is projected third overall and not higher is that the defense suffered a ton of losses: Of the 15 players who saw at least 300 snaps in 2021, only six return, and five went in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. The Dawgs are therefore projected to fall to seventh on defense.
One problem with that: They have ranked first for three straight years, each year taking on a solid amount of turnover. Their floor might be much higher than seventh. They still return stars in nose tackle Jalen Carter, linebackers Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr., cornerback (and title game hero) Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith. And it probably goes without saying that the next generation of blue-chippers-turned-stars is on the way.
Georgia is loaded, in other words. Maybe the Dawgs take their eye off the ball and lose a game or two they shouldn't. It happens. But they start out 2022 as far ahead of the East field as they were a year ago.
Is SP+ deluded to love Tennessee this much? The past eight times Tennessee began the season ranked in the AP poll, the Volunteers have finished with an outright losing record as many times (four) as they have come close to expectations. Alarm bells generally begin ringing when hype begins, and it seems likely that the Vols will be ranked in the preseason polls.
There are numbers to back up the sentiment. I'm not going to try to justify a top-10 SP+ ranking to you; even though SP+ is adjusted for tempo, the ability of Josh Heupel's offense to not just outplay lesser defenses but utterly destroy them seems to almost rig SP+ in its favor. With Hendon Hooker at quarterback, the Vols averaged 53 points per game and 7.6 yards per play against teams outside of the SP+ top 40 last season. They averaged 29 points and 6.2 yards per play against everyone else, which was certainly not terrible but perhaps wasn't worthy of a No. 7 ranking in offensive SP+.
Regardless, the offense will be even better this year. Hooker finished 16th in Total QBR and teamed with backs Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright to form one of the most efficient ground games in the country. All but one member of last year's O-line two-deep returns, as does leading receiver Cedric Tillman, who averaged 131 receiving yards per game at 19.2 per catch over his last six games. The receiving corps is otherwise relatively unproven, but players like Jalin Hyatt, USC transfer Bru McCoy and Jimmy Calloway have obvious potential. The relentless tempo of a Heupel offense is built to maximize whatever advantages it finds, and it could find a lot.
The Vols' ceiling will likely be defined by their defense. They allowed just 22.9 points per game and 4.9 yards per play over the first seven games last year but slipped to 39.3 and 6.0, respectively, from there. Secondary injuries added up (pure fatigue might have as well), and the Vols finished just 47th in defensive SP+. But of the 17 players who saw 250-plus snaps, 12 return, including linebackers Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley and edge rushers Byron Young and Tyler Baron. Depth has seemingly improved, and if the Vols can play at a top-30 level on D, that would likely make them a clear No. 2 in the East.
How long will it take Billy Napier in Gainesville? In 2018, Napier took over a Louisiana team that had fallen since enjoying four straight nine-win seasons to start the decade. The Ragin' Cajuns were 118th in SP+ the preceding year and lost three of the first four games of the Napier era but rebounded to win six of the next eight and take the Sun Belt West title. They improved 23 spots to 95th in SP+, then surged into the top 40 the next season.
Might Napier find a similar trajectory at Florida? The cupboard in Gainesville isn't exactly bare. Offensive coordinator Rob Sale, reunited with Napier after a year of coaching in the pros, inherits a line that is much more experienced than last year and adds All-Sun Belt Louisiana transfer O'Cyrus Torrence. The skill corps is thin but still has receivers Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson, both former top-100 recruits, and brings in running back Montrell Johnson (Louisiana) and receiver Ricky Pearsall (Arizona State). And the Gators still have the tantalizing Anthony Richardson at quarterback. Inconsistent but incredibly explosive, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Richardson averaged 13.9 yards per completion and 8.8 yards per (non-sack) carry. Harness his talent, and points will appear on the scoreboard.
The defense was painfully young last season, and it showed. Twelve players return after recording at least 150 snaps, and eight of them were freshmen. Veteran linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. is still around, and the Gators could benefit from getting both linebacker Ventrell Miller and corner Jaydon Hill back from injury. But if Florida sees defensive improvement, it will likely come from a sophomore class led by nose tackle Gervon Dexter (313 pounds but fifth on the team in tackles), linebackers Derek Wingo and Antwuan Powell-Ryland Jr., corner Jason Marshall Jr. and safety Rashad Torrence II. The Gators could indeed be positioned to make a leap next year. This year? Hard to say.
Does Kentucky have receivers? For all of the justifiable plaudits Michigan State's Mel Tucker received for his incredible work in the transfer portal, a case could be made that Kentucky's Mark Stoops did even better. His Wildcats slipped to 5-6 in 2020, thanks primarily to an offense that ranked 80th in offensive SP+, so he made some upgrades, hiring former Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and bringing in Penn State quarterback Will Levis, Nebraska receiver Wan'Dale Robinson and LSU left tackle Dare Rosenthal.
Levis threw for 2,826 yards and 24 touchdowns and began showing up high on 2023 NFL draft lists, Robinson caught 104 balls for 1,334 yards and Rosenthal played at a borderline all-conference level. Throw in a brilliant year from running back and yards-after-contact machine Chris Rodriguez Jr., and the Wildcats surged to 21st in offensive SP+ and doubled their win total.
The thing about leaning on the transfer portal, though, is that you have to keep doing it. Robinson and Rosenthal are gone already, and while Levis and Rodriguez will again combine to form one of the most physically intimidating backfields in the country -- and FCS All-American transfer Ramon Jefferson makes it even scarier -- Kentucky is replacing four of last year's top six linemen, and the leading returning receiver, junior Izayah Cummings, had just 14 catches.
Hoping Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson matches the last Robinson's production seems like a tall ask. Levis will likely need at least one young receiver -- blue-chip freshman Barion Brown, perhaps -- to step up immediately.
Even if the offense slips a bit, the Wildcats will have a strong defense to lean on. Last year's top three linemen are gone, but injuries forced coordinator Brad White to deploy a heavy rotation up front. There's no guarantee they'll replace star end Josh Paschal's production, but the linebackers blitz well (especially DeAndre Square and J.J. Weaver), and they have quality beef in the tackle trio of Josaih Hayes, Justin Rogers and Octavious Oxendine. Cornerbacks Carrington Valentine and Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith could be solid too.
Offensive uncertainty could make another 10-win season tricky, but the schedule features only one likely loss (Georgia) and about six relative tossups. If the Cats get production from their receivers, they'll have a shot at second in the East again.
Can South Carolina pull a Kentucky? At first glance, Shane Beamer's first season at South Carolina was fine. Solid, even. His Gamecocks went 7-6 -- right at the 7.1 wins they averaged over the previous decade -- suffering the aforementioned losses to good teams but beating most of the others, and they finished the year by drenching their coach in mayonnaise.
Considering what was supposed to happen last year, however, the season goes from fine to great. The Gamecocks had collapsed to 2-8 and 84th in SP+ in 2020 and didn't return much star power. They were projected 89th in 2021 but finished 66th. The defense rebounded nicely -- and now returns eight of 14 players with 300-plus snaps, including ace tackle Zacch Pickens and an exciting cornerback trio (Darius Rush, Marcellas Dial, Cam Smith) -- and the special-teams unit was downright great. (That shouldn't be a surprise coming from the son of Frank Beamer.)
The offense was still a mess, though. South Carolina ranked 86th in offensive SP+ and 97th in points per drive, numbers that were propped up by a 38-point bowl performance that featured slot receiver Dakereon Joyner as a semipermanent Wildcat quarterback.
Joyner will be back at receiver, but the cast around him could look awfully different. Beamer pulled a Stoops, attempting significant offensive improvement through the portal. He potentially upgraded the talent at quarterback (Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler), running back (Wake Forest's Christian Beal-Smith and Georgia's Lovasea Carroll) and receiver (Arkansas State's Corey Rucker and James Madison's Antwane Wells Jr., who combined for 2,066 yards and 24 TDs last year).
The Gamecocks are projected to improve to 54th in offensive SP+, but transfers make the ceiling much higher. Rattler battled a sophomore slump at Oklahoma but still has one of the most electric arms you'll ever see, and the receiving corps also boasts Josh Vann and tight end Jaheim Bell (combined: 1,176 yards, 10.1 per target). South Carolina cleared an extremely low bar last year, but offensive potential could prompt the Gamecocks to clear a higher one in 2022.
When might Eliah Drinkwitz find his quarterback? Nail your defensive coordinator hire and find your quarterback. For a young, offensive-minded coach like Drinkwitz, those are the prime items on the to-do list. Two seasons into his Missouri tenure, Drinkwitz is 12-13 and still trying to check those boxes. Incumbent DC Ryan Walters left for Illinois after one year, and in former NFL head coach Steve Wilks' debut, Mizzou improved quite a bit late in the year but still finished 97th in defensive SP+ because of a disastrous start. Wilks left for the pros again, so coordinator No. 3, Blake Baker, takes over.
At quarterback, Drinkwitz began his first season with TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, but he was quickly supplanted by Connor Bazelak and moved to defense. Bazelak started most of the next two seasons, but his limitations prompted a late-2021 demotion. Brady Cook looked solid in the Texas Bowl, Bazelak transferred to Indiana, and Drinkwitz took big offseason swings at transfer quarterbacks before settling on Mississippi State-via-Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham. Whoever wins the job -- Cook, Abraham, redshirt freshman Tyler Macon or, if he bypasses professional baseball, four-star freshman Sam Horn -- will be the third different quarterback to start the season in three years.
Drinkwitz signed an incredible recruiting class, maybe the most highly ranked in Mizzou history, and leaned heavily on the transfer portal, especially for defensive upgrades. But Missouri is staring another six(ish)-win season in the face unless Baker and [insert QB here] thrive.
There's plenty to like. Veteran Tauskie Dove and exciting youngsters like five-star freshman Luther Burden and four-star sophomores Dominic Lovett and Mookie Cooper could form the most dynamic Mizzou receiving corps in years, and the run game should be solid with four returning line starters blocking for junior Elijah Young and Stanford transfer Nathaniel Peat.
Defensively, six transfers join a line that features strong ends (Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat) and almost no tackle experience. The Tigers are loaded with high-end safeties -- Martez Manuel, Jaylon Carlies, Kris Abrams-Draine, Clemson transfer Joseph Charleston -- but we'll see what they have at corner. Baker is a Manny Diaz protégé, which means he wants to be as aggressive as possible; he should have good attackers, but Mizzou (as with anyone else) is going to get burned a lot if the tackles and corners don't fulfill their end of the bargain.
When might Vanderbilt show a pulse again? Clark Lea knew what he was getting into. After eight years of nearly unprecedented (in modern times) program success -- the Commodores averaged six wins and bowled five times -- Vandy had gone just 3-18 in 2019 and 2020 before Lea, a former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, took over. Predictably, Vanderbilt was good at very little in 2021.
The offense avoided sacks pretty well, but mainly through aimless quick passes. The defense was solid both on third downs and in the red zone, but that matters only so much when you aren't forcing third downs and opponents are making twice as many red zone trips.
The good news, as it were, is that Vandy stunk primarily with underclassmen. Nineteen returnees saw at least 300 snaps last year, and only six are seniors. The bad news is that the secondary, the best unit on the team in 2021, lost five of last year's top seven. There's continuity everywhere but in the unit where it might help the most, and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter left for Michigan too. Longtime Bronco Mendenhall assistant Nick Howell takes over, and he's got at least a couple of playmakers in nickelback Jaylen Mahoney and linebacker Anfernee Orji. Lea also signed quite a few low four- and high three-star defenders, but they might not help much in 2022.
The offense went from nightmarish (6.5 points per game and 3.7 yards per play in the Commodores' first four SEC games) to merely poor (20.8 and 4.9, respectively, in their last four) late in the season, after quarterback Mike Wright took over for incumbent Ken Seals. The two continued battling for the job this spring, but Wright's mobility added desperately needed upside to the attack. Receiver Will Sheppard is good for a few big plays, and North Texas transfer Jacob Brammer could help a line that was desperately lacking in both talent and experience. The bar is low here, but if what we saw from Wright was sustainable, this could be a top-80 or so offense, as opposed to the bottom-10 unit we saw in 2021. That would count for progress in what could be another difficult season in Nashville.
My 10 favorite players
QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee. Hooker showed promise in two years at Virginia Tech and fulfilled it last season, completing 68% of his passes with a 31-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio and averaging 6.1 yards per (non-sack) carry.
RB Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky. The dude's just so damn mean, and 224-pounders who are this physical shouldn't also be this explosive -- Rodriguez has averaged 6.6 yards per carry for his career! If he stays healthy, he'll end 2022 as UK's all-time leading rusher.
TE Brock Bowers, Georgia. As a true freshman, Bowers immediately became one of the best tight ends in the country. Guys aren't supposed to be that consistent (74% catch rate) and that explosive (15.8 yards per catch) at the same time.
TE Jaheim Bell, South Carolina. Bell's per-target numbers were actually better than Bowers', albeit with lower visibility. He combined a 73% catch rate with 16.6 yards per catch, and if South Carolina's wide receivers step up in 2022, he could torch distracted defenses.
G O'Cyrus Torrence, Florida. Billy Napier thrived at Louisiana by unearthing and developing physically ridiculous local prospects. The 6-5, 335-pound Torrence transferred from Louisiana to Florida after two All-Sun Belt performances; per Sports Info Solutions, he blew just five blocks in 12 games last season.
DT Jalen Carter, Georgia. On a line that featured three 2022 first-rounders, Carter was maybe the most disruptive of the bunch, taking part in 13 run stuffs, logging three sacks and forcing 11 incompletions. Not bad for a 310-pounder.
LB Jeremy Banks, Tennessee. Equally disruptive against the run and the pass, the senior from Cordova, Tennessee, took part in 16 run stops and recorded 5.5 sacks with an otherworldly 24.6% pressure rate when he got to blitz.
LB Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt. Orji was both a firefighter and playmaker in 2021, leading the team in tackles (one every 8.4 snaps), tackles for loss and run stops. With an experienced front seven around him, he might not have to do quite as much this year.
S Martez Manuel, Missouri. Here's a list of power-conference defensive backs who had at least four sacks and nine TFLs last year: Manuel. That's it. He's solid at normal safety things, too, but a creative defensive coordinator can have a lot of fun with him.
CB Kelee Ringo, Georgia. His pick-six sealed the national title, but he wasn't a one-hit wonder. For the season, he defensed 10 passes (two INTs, eight breakups) and allowed a paltry 23.8 QBR as primary coverage man. As a redshirt freshman.
Honorable mention: QB Will Levis (Kentucky), QB Stetson Bennett (Georgia), RB Jabari Small (Tennessee), WR Cedric Tillman (Tennessee), SLOT Ladd McConkey (Georgia), C Cooper Mays (Tennessee), G Kenneth Horsey (Kentucky), DE Isaiah McGuire (Missouri), EDGE Byron Young (Tennessee), OLB Nolan Smith (Georgia), OLB Brenton Cox Jr. (Florida), S Trey Dean III (Florida), CB Cam Smith (South Carolina)
AnniversariesIn 1992, 30 years ago, Phil Fulmer took over for Johnny Majors in Knoxville. Majors' Vols had racked up five top-15 finishes in seven seasons, but he took a leave of absence to undergo heart surgery at the beginning of the 1992 season.
With Phil Fulmer promoted to interim coach (and David Cutcliffe to offensive coordinator), the Vols started 3-0, averaging 34 points per game and upsetting No. 14 Georgia and No. 4 Florida. When Majors returned, they lost three heartbreakers to finish 8-3, and he was forced to resign. Fulmer then took over, something that never sat particularly well with Majors.
In 1997, 25 years ago, Kentucky beat Alabama. Considering it's also the 100th anniversary of the only other time that's happened, that's noteworthy in itself. That it was the first SEC victory (and the first victory over a ranked opponent) for head coach Hal Mumme, offensive coordinator Mike Leach and their new-fangled Air Raid attack made it even bigger. Tim Couch threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns, the last of which went to Craig Yeast in overtime and clinched the epic win.
In 2002, 20 years ago, Georgia ended a 20-year SEC title drought. End David Pollack and linebacker Boss Bailey keyed a top-five defense, and the Dawgs came within seven points -- via a gut-wrenching 20-13 loss to Florida -- of an unbeaten season in Mark Richt's second season in charge. They pounded Arkansas 30-3 in the SEC championship game, then capped a top-three finish with a 13-point win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
Richt would engineer six more top-10 finishes, and one more SEC title, over his 15-year tenure before giving way to Kirby Smart in 2016.
In 2007, 15 years ago, Missouri was No. 1. In the astoundingly strange 2007 season, nothing was stranger (or more exhilarating for this Mizzou grad) than No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Missouri meeting at Arrowhead Stadium over Thanksgiving weekend for the right to move to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. Tigers quarterback Chase Daniel went 40-for-49 with three touchdowns -- clinching Heisman finalist status -- and Mizzou took a 28-7 lead late in the third quarter before Kansas charged back. The game wasn't safe until the Tigers' line dogpiled KU quarterback Todd Reesing in the end zone in the closing seconds for a safety and a 36-28 win.
Missouri moved to No. 1 for the first time in 47 years, and while the stay was short -- Oklahoma pulled away in the second half of the Big 12 championship game the next week -- the Tigers rebounded to thump Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and score the first of two top-five finishes during the tenure of soon-to-be College Football Hall of Famer Gary Pinkel.
Also in 2007: Tim Tebow took over as Florida's starting QB. It worked out pretty well. After playing a role in Florida's 2006 national title run, Tebow won the Heisman in 2007, then led the Gators to another title in 2008. When he was through, he had thrown for 9,285 yards and 88 touchdowns and rushed for 2,947 yards and 57 more scores. He was possibly the best quarterback and short-yardage back in college football for three years. Won a lot of games, too.
In 2012, 10 years ago, Vanderbilt won nine games. After inheriting a program that had gone 4-20 in the previous two years, James Franklin had already pulled off a half-miracle by leading the Commodores to six wins and a Liberty Bowl loss in 2011, his first season in charge. But after a 2-4 start in 2012, Vandy went on an incredible run, knocking off Auburn and Tennessee, among others, and beating NC State in the Music City Bowl to finish ranked for the first time in 64 years and finish with nine wins for the first time in 97 years. And then the Commodores did it again the next year!
The Dores won 18 games in 2012 and '13. They have won 16 games in the past five seasons.
Also in 2012: Jadeveon Clowney made The Hit. Technically, it was on Jan. 1, 2013. I'm celebrating it anyway.