Last season, the SEC East wasn’t decided until the final play of the Florida Gators last regular-season conference game in Week 12. The Gators are one of four teams in the division – joined by Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina – that schedules an in-state ACC rival to end the regular season. If the division depends on a conference win or loss involving Tennessee, Vanderbilt or Missouri, it could be decided on the final weekend. This may be one of the more exciting seasons to date for the SEC East. Let’s take a quick look at each team for the 2017 football preview.
Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel return, which should help quarterback Jacob Eason progress as a sophomore. Georgia’s recruiting class ranks third nationally according to 247Sports, and second-year coach Kirby Smart has a team coming off a bowl win to start the 2017 season. Georgia’s biggest games in 2017 are all on the road: At Notre Dame on Sept. 9, at Tennessee on Sept. 30, the annual neutral site game against Florida on Oct. 28, at Auburn on Nov. 11 and at Georgia Tech on No. 25.
Florida has a solid core of receivers, headlined by Antonio Calloway. If the Gators can get their quarterback situation handled, they’ll have plenty of receivers ready to take pressure off the signal-caller. The Gators have as many as six defensive players who could be drafted in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, including cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor. That’s a lot of talent to replace on a squad that ranked sixth in total defense in 2016.
The Wildcats (7-6) are coming off their first winning season of the Mark Stoops era, and their first since going 7-6 in 2009. Kentucky’s 2017 recruiting class also ranks 23rd nationally. Has Stoops finally turned the corner in Lexington? Kentucky ranked outside the top 50 in both total defense (86th) and total offense (60th). Running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, arguably Kentucky’s best player in 2016 (1,170 rushing yards, seven touchdowns), also declared for the draft early.
Missouri returns quarterback Drew Lock, 1,000-yard rusher Damarea Crockett, 1,000-yard receiver J’Mon Moore and its top three rushers and receivers from 2016. That’s good news, especially considering the Tigers averaged 501 yards per game last season. The Tigers have followed up their 11-3 outing in 2014 with back-to-back losing seasons, including a 4-8 year in Barry Odom’s first season as coach. Another sub-.500 year could cast a cloud of doubt over Columbia.
Will Muschamp jumped ahead of schedule with a .500 regular season in 2016 — much better than the Gamecocks’ 3-9 season in 2015. South Carolina could have a top-20 signing class make its way to Columbia, a good sign for Gamecocks faithful. The Gamecocks may have their quarterback of the future in Jake Bentley, but the offense still needs a massive improvement from last season, when South Carolina ranked 115th nationally averaging 348 yards per game.
The offensive line returns four of five starters from 2016 — leaving just enough room for five-star offensive tackle Trey Smith, the No. 4 tackle in the Class of 2017 per 247Sports. The early enrollee is part of the Volunteers’ 13th-ranked recruiting class. The 2016 season was supposed to be the Volunteers’ breakthrough year: Now they’ll have to follow up their 9-4 season without the likes of Derek Barnett, Joshua Dobbs or running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd.
Running backs Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame return to a Vanderbilt offense that desperately needs them in 2017. Webb rushed for 1,283 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Blasingame rushed for 13 touchdowns. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur will be a junior in 2017, but he comes off a sophomore campaign where he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). Losing All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham early to the draft is a huge blow to the Commodores’ defense.