Even the nation’s best programs enter the season knowing facets of the game must break right for them to live up to potential. This is our look at what the SEC East teams need to do to meet or exceed expectations in 2013.
- Get more production from the QB position: Jeff Driskel didn’t make Florida fans forget Tim Tebow. Heck, he didn’t even help them forget John Brantley. Coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease trusted Driskel so much that they let him… hand the ball off and put the game in the hands of the run game, defense and special teams. Pease built a reputation on high-octane offenses. Nobody expects Driskel to become Kellen Moore, who played for Pease at Boise State, but the Gators need more reason to trust him in order to replicate last season’s success.
- Reload on defense: Replacing DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, LB Jelani Jenkins, LB Jon Bostic and S Josh Evans will be no easy feat for the Gators. However, Florida returns a couple very good CBs, including Loucheiz Purifoy. Unless Driskel takes a major step forward in 2013, the defense must continue the dominance it displayed a year ago in order to keep the Gators from regressing in Year 3 under Muschamp.
- Find continued success in the run game: Last year’s top rusher and workhorse, Mike Gillislee, is gone. Florida doesn’t seem concerned. That’s because the Gators boast one of the best offensive lines in the SEC – a mantle that carries some weight nationally. They also seem loaded at the tailback position. Matt Jones showed what he’s capable of during the fourth quarter of Florida’s win over Florida State. Some believe true freshman Kelvin Taylor, son of former Florida RB Fred Taylor, can also come in and contribute in a big way from the tailback position. Don’t forget about Trey Burton, who is more of a receiver but who lines up everywhere on the field and is dangerous regardless of position.
- Get big production from LB Jordan Jenkins: There’s no overstating the impact of now-departed LB Jarvis Jones. The Bulldogs star, who was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, terrorized opposing quarterbacks on his way to SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors a year ago. Replacing Jones won’t be easy and Jenkins seems to be Georgia’s best shot. The rising sophomore had five sacks last year in limited action. If Jenkins can be the game-changing presence Georgia thinks he can be, the Bulldogs will have one more way to win close games.
- Trust the run: Having a quarterback like Aaron Murray makes it easy to get in a habit of calling pass after pass. Doing so would neglect RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The duo combined to rush for 2,144 yards and 25 TDs as freshmen a year ago. Murray will have breakout candidate WR Malcolm Mitchell to throw to, but there is a lot of inexperience in the receiving corps for Georgia this season. Allowing Gurley and Marshall to take the pressure off early can give Murray’s younger options time to develop.
- Win at home: The Bulldogs’ three biggest games are either at home or on a neutral field. League games against South Carolina and LSU will be played between the hedges. Winning those two games before the neutral-field game against Florida would give the Bulldogs a great chance of winning the SEC East.
- Make a QB decision – and stick with it: Kentucky has a solid offensive line. It has RB Raymond Sanders to help relieve pressure off the passing game. Now Mark Stoops’ first critical decision as head coach will be selecting his QB1. And in order to best give his team a chance to develop, he needs to resist the urge to make a change at the position if/when his triggerman struggles. Jalen Whitlow apparently has the upperhand after spring practice, but Maxwell Smith played well in limited action a year ago. The idea that the race is so close seemingly means offensive coordinator Neal Brown has talent at the position.
- Dominate against the run; pressure opposing QBs: Along the defensive line, there aren’t any real concerns for the Wildcats. Everywhere else on defense… not so much. For Kentucky to dramatically improve its defensive efforts it will likely need to do so by getting strong play out of the big boys up front. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to develop competent players at linebacker and in the secondary and some young talent should emerge.
- Win the opener: Normally, when an SEC team sees Western Kentucky on the schedule, the threat level doesn’t run especially high. However, the Hilltoppers knocked off Kentucky in overtime a year ago and they have since hired coach Bobby Petrino. The season opener will also be Petrino’s first game – and his first shot at redemption against a league that largely ignored him. Mark Stoops would love to guide the Wildcats to a bowl game in his first season. A difficult schedule that includes non-conference games against WKU and Louisville could mean they have to go .500 in league play unless they beat the Hilltoppers.
- Help James Franklin find his 2011 form: Whether it was Franklin’s shoulder, back or any other various injuries he suffered last year, the Missouri quarterback was never right during his first season in the SEC. With Franklin mired in a season-long, injury-plagued funk, the Tigers had no identity offensively. Coach Gary Pinkel’s offenses have long been spread-based and predicated on the quarterback and passing game setting up a finesse run game. When there is no threat of a quarterback, the offense doesn’t work and the Tigers don’t win.
- Find a way to fill DT Sheldon Richardson’s shoes: Richardson, a first-round pick in the NFL Draft, earned a spot on the All-SEC team. Then the junior-college transfer left after one season in Columbia. What Richardson provided for the Tigers was a nasty presence right in the middle of their defensive line. Who will fill that void in 2013?
- Don’t slip during the non-conference schedule: Missouri’s non-conference slate is deceptively difficult. Home games against Toledo and Arkansas State leave the program in no-win situations. Win those games and, well, of course the Tigers did. They’re an SEC program competing against poor little teams from the MAC and Sun Belt. Never mind that the Rockets and Red Wolves are actually pretty good. If Missouri loses games in that stretch, it could be a long season. Missouri also plays at Indiana in September – another game that appears to be a gimme until you realize that the Hoosiers made progress last year while the Tigers didn’t.
- Win at Georgia: The way South Carolina’s schedule sets up, the Sept. 7 game at Georgia could well determine the SEC East. The Gamecocks have important games down the road – including an SEC season finale tilt against Florida in Columbia – but this game will set the tone for the season. The winner of the Georgia-South Carolina game essentially takes a two-game lead over the loser. South Carolina benefits from the cross-division matchups this year, drawing Mississippi State and Arkansas while chief competitors Georgia and Florida each drawing LSU.
- Replace Marcus Lattimore: Coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t even have to do so with one person. He has great options, starting with former heralded recruit Mike Davis. Spurrier also should have a healthy Brandon Wilds, who missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury. After Lattimore suffered his first major knee injury in 2011, Wilds, then a freshman, burst on the scene to help the Gamecocks avoid missing a beat. In five games as the featured back, Wilds ran for more than 100 yards three times and scored three TDs.
- Let the beast roam: Nobody in college football will cause more sleepless nights for offensive coordinators – or offensive line coaches – than DE Jadeveon Clowney.
- Rely on a dominant offensive line and experienced RBs early: RBs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane (who might miss games as part of a suspension) will get the rock early and often during Butch Jones’ first season. That’s partly because the Volunteers boast arguably the best offensive line in the SEC – if not the nation. Neal and Lane can also expect increased workloads because the quarterback position remains unsettled. QB Justin Worley is listed atop the depth chart but he won’t elicit memories of Peyton Manning or Tee Martin. Oh, and the Volunteers also lost their two elite pass-catchers to the NFL Draft.
- Protect your home turf: Winning on the road in the SEC can be tough enough. Tennessee also gets to play Oregon in Eugene. Have fun with all that. For the Volunteers to make a bowl game in 2013, it will likely need to sweep its non-conference home games – against Austin Peay, Bobby Petrino-coached Western Kentucky and South Alabama. Defeating visitors Auburn and Vanderbilt would mean Tennessee would only need to pull off an upset over Georgia or South Carolina or win a road game (Missouri? Kentucky?) in order to gain bowl eligibility.
- Don’t fall behind early: As opposed to last year’s team, which could light up defenses through the air, this year’s team will seemingly be more reliant on a power run game. Following Florida’s 2012 blueprint of shortening the game by wearing out front sevens of opponents would be a good idea for Jones. However, like Florida last year, this Tennessee team does not seem to be – on paper, at least – capable of overcoming early deficits.
- Find someone to take advantage of offensive skill weapons: An argument can be made that WRs Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd make up the best duo in the conference. Problem is they can’t throw the ball to themselves or each other. Well, they could. But neither is a quarterback by trade. Jordan Rodgers is gone, leaving questions about the quarterback position. Austyn Carta-Samuels seems to be the frontrunner for the position, but coach James Franklin wasn’t ready to commit to the Wyoming transfer when spring practice ended. Patton Robinette is also still a part of the competition.
- Continue defensive overachievement: Quick. Name a superstar on Vanderbilt’s 2012 defense. How’d that go? It makes the fact that the Commodores held 10 of 13 opponents to 24 points or fewer last year, huh? The biggest concern is on the defensive line, which returns only DE Walker May. Replacing three starters along the line could lend itself to growing pains.
- Steal a win: Vanderbilt won’t be favored to win any more than eight regular-season games when the season starts. It’s entirely likely the Commodores will be underdogs leading into games with Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M. Beating Ole Miss in the season opener is hardly a given, either. So for Vanderbilt to take the next step forward, it must steal a game against an unsuspecting foe. Oh, and it must continue to beat teams such as Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. Among those four teams, only Georgia visits Nashville. If the Bulldogs survive Vandy in that game, can the Commodores trip up Florida in the Swamp?