What to watch in the SEC East

August, 17, 2010
8/17/10
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The last time somebody other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee won the Eastern Division was ... never.

Is this the year that changes? The folks in Columbia, S.C., sure hope so.

Here are five things to watch this season in the SEC East:

[+] EnlargeBrantley
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJohn Brantley is being counted on to help keep the Gators among the SEC elite.
1. Florida’s fresh faces: The Gators won so frequently with the likes of Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, Carlos Dunlap and Aaron Hernandez that you almost took it for granted. They reeled off 22 straight wins before losing to Alabama last season in the SEC championship game. Now it’s up to a new nucleus of players to see to it that Florida continues its stranglehold in the East. The Gators haven’t lost a game to an Eastern Division opponent since falling to Georgia 42-30 during the 2007 season. That’s a lofty standard to uphold. We’ll see if the likes of John Brantley, Jelani Jenkins, Will Hill, Omar Hunter, Andre Debose and Justin Trattou are up to the challenge.

2. Quarterback quandary: If you’re looking for a surplus of experience at the quarterback position, don’t go hunting it in the East. The veteran of the group is South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, and his head coach spent the offseason telling everybody who would listen that he might sit Garcia and play a true freshman. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline has 14 career starts, but is locked into a battle this preseason for the starting job along with sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski. Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith is back for his junior season after struggling as a sophomore a year ago. Tennessee looks like it will go with newcomer Matt Simms, who started his career at Louisville before making a stopover at junior college. Georgia redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has yet to take his first college snap, while Brantley has been one of those guys everybody has raved about at Florida, but is still looking for his first meaningful snap against an SEC defense.

3. Quick strikes: The East boasts an impressive array of big-play performers, led by Georgia receiver A.J. Green. If he gets off to the kind of start he did last season and then stays healthy, look out. The two guys at Kentucky aren’t shabby, either. The Derrick Locke-Randall Cobb combo is enough to give any defensive coordinator nightmares. With Tebow gone at Florida, running back Jeff Demps is going to get even more chances to showcase his 9.96 speed in the 100-meter dash. South Carolina sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery’s not a burner, but he finds his way into the end zone. Tennessee likes its entire collection of pass-catchers, including a pair of true freshmen -- Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers -- who’ve already shown their big-play ability in camp. And don’t forget about special teams, either. Between them, Georgia’s Brandon Boykin and Vanderbilt’s Warren Norman returned six kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

4. Hold that line: Who has the best offensive line in the East? Georgia has all five starters and eight lettermen returning from a unit that allowed an SEC-low 12 sacks last season. Florida returns four starters, including senior Mike Pouncey, who’s moving from guard to center and is one of the top offensive linemen in the country. After the Bulldogs and Gators, it drops off considerably up front in the East. Kentucky has to replace four starters. Vanderbilt is already battling injuries on its offensive line, and Tennessee will put five new starters on the field. That leaves South Carolina, which is on its third different offensive line coach in as many years -- Shawn Elliott. If the Gamecocks are going to make a run this season in the East, they will have to play significantly better in their offensive line than they have at any point over the past couple of seasons. In other words, that needs to be the most improved unit on the team.

5. Coaching debuts: Vanderbilt’s Robbie Caldwell, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Kentucky’s Joker Phillips will all make their SEC head coaching debuts this season. Caldwell found out he would be leading the Commodores about three weeks prior to the start of preseason practice when Bobby Johnson abruptly retired. Dooley takes his shot at rebuilding Tennessee’s program now that Lane Kiffin is no longer stirring it up in the SEC. For 31 seasons, the Vols had a total of two head coaches, but Dooley is now their third in the past three seasons. Phillips was named the Wildcats’ coach in waiting a couple of years ago. But with Rich Brooks retiring following last season, Phillips steps into the big office and will try to extend Kentucky’s bowl streak to five straight seasons. Only four other SEC teams have been to bowl games each of the past four years -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

Chris Low | email

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