Can Florida handle the hype and the expectations that come from being the defending national champions AND preseason No. 1? Can Georgia regain its edge on defense and enjoy life after Stafford and Moreno? Tennessee has a new attitude, but does that translate into more wins under first-year coach Lane Kiffin? Is Kentucky headed to a fourth straight bowl for the first time in school history? Can Stephen Garcia finally give South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier a real threat at quarterback? In 2008 Vanderbilt went to a bowl game in a rebuilding year. Can the Commodores go to two straight bowls for the first time in school history?
Those are just a few things we still don’t know about the SEC East as we head into the summer. Here is a breakdown of each team. The SEC West comes on Thursday.
Last season: 13-1, 7-1 SEC; beat Alabama 31-21 in SEC championship; beat Oklahoma 24-14 in BCS championship game.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 11, kickers 2.
Coach: Urban Meyer, 83-17 overall, 44-9 in four seasons at Florida.
What we still don’t know: Who is going to back up Aaron Hernandez? Hernandez is probably the best tight end in the country but Florida is going to have some power-I sets this season and at times may use two tight ends. Freshman Desmond Parks, an early enrollee, suffered a leg injury during the spring which could keep him out of action this season. Can the Florida defense, which returns 11 starters, get even better? DC Charlie Strong says yes and the Gators can prove it by being more of a dominating unit. “We have talked to our guys about being more aggressive and working to get the opposing offense off the field as fast as possible,” Strong said. Are Frankie Hammond, Jr., and Deonte Thompson going to be the big-play wide receivers? Florida has a lot of guys who can run but a lot of emphasis this spring was put on getting separation from the defensive back in man-to-man coverage. The big question at Florida is not talent, which the Gators have plenty of. The question is whether or not the Gators can handle the expectations that come with being the defending national champions and preseason No. 1.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Charleston Southern.
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 SEC; beat Michigan State 24-12 in Capital One Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 6, kicker 1.
Coach: Mark Richt, 82-22 in eight seasons at Georgia.
What we still don’t know: Is somebody going to step up at tailback? With a veteran offensive line and a new quarterback in Joe Cox, Georgia will certainly need to establish the running game. The only question is whether or not there will be a featured back or if the job will be handled by committee. The Georgia coaches have been waiting on sophomore Caleb King to step up and show why he was one of the most highly-recruited players in the nation two years ago. King is good but he’s yet to prove that he should get 20-25 carries a game. Richard Samuel (wrist) did not take part in spring practice. Redshirt freshmen Carlton Thomas and Dontavius Jackson have some ability. It remains to be seen if incoming freshman Washaun Ealy will be a factor. How big a setback is Justin Houston’s suspension? Houston emerged as the best defensive end candidate in the spring but will miss the first two games for violating team rules. Georgia was counting on Houston to step up and help get this defense turned around. Who’s going to help A.J. Green? If somebody doesn’t step up Green won’t see single coverage all season. Michael Moore and Tavarres King will get a chance or it could be a true freshman like Marlon Brown or Rontavious Wooten.
First game: Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State.
Last season: 7-6, 2-6 SEC; beat East Carolina 25-19 in Liberty Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 5, kicker 1.
Coach: Rich Brooks, 123-150-1 overall, 32-41 in six seasons at Kentucky.
What we still don’t know: Can Mike Hartline get it done consistently at quarterback? Hartline, a junior, is coming off one of his best performances when he was named the most outstanding offensive player in the win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. He is the No. 1 quarterback coming out of spring practice but Brooks said he will take a long look at incoming freshman Morgan Newton of Carmel, Ind. Newton (6-4, 220) had 1,938 yards passing and 1,664 yards rushing last season and led his high school to three state championship games. Brooks said he would use sophomore WR Randall Cobb in the “Wildcat” formation to take advantage of his athleticism. Can Kentucky rebuild a defense that returns only five starters? Yes, because CB Trevard Lindley, DE Jeremy Jarmon, and MLB Micah Johnson all decided to come back instead of turning pro. “Those three guys took what would have been a difficult transition and made it a lot easier because they decided to come back,” Brooks said. “Defensively we will be an improved team.” Last season Kentucky was 11th in the SEC in total defense (332.4 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (21.5 ppg)
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati.
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 SEC; lost to Iowa 31-10 in Outback Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 5, defense 6, kicker 1.
Coach: Steve Spurrier, 170-62-2 overall, 28-22 in four seasons at South Carolina.
What we still don’t know: Can Stephen Garcia hold it together this summer? For the first time since coming to campus in January of 2007, the sophomore quarterback from Tampa made it through a spring practice and will be (hopefully) working with his receivers this summer. Spurrier believes that Garcia has the physical tools to play quarterback at this level. If Garcia will focus on football this summer, Spurrier might finally have the consistent quarterback he has lacked in four seasons as South Carolina’s head coach. Will the offensive line finally jell and become a respectable unit? Spurrier has not had an SEC-caliber offensive line since he got to Columbia. This group is still a work in progress under new OL coach Eric Wolford. The offensive line has to play better or Garcia will be running for his life all season. Who is the big-play WR now that Kenny McKinley is gone? Looks like it will be Moe Brown, who was named the offensive player of the spring. How good is Stephon Gilmore? Very. He enrolled in January and won a starting position at cornerback in the spring. Spurrier is also thinking about using him at quarterback in the shotgun formation.
First game: Sept. 3 at N.C. State.
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 SEC.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 5, kicker 1.
Coach: Lane Kiffin, first year as college head coach.
What we still don’t know: Can QB Jonathan Crompton get Tennessee through an entire season? Crompton, a senior who threw for 889 yards in eight games last season, emerged as No. 1 after the spring game. B.J. Coleman, the guy some people thought was a little more talented, has transferred to Chattanooga. That leaves junior Nick Stephens as the only other experienced quarterback on campus. How big an impact will the freshmen have at running back? Montario Hardesty looks like the starting tailback but Tennessee fans can’t wait to see true freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku, two highly recruited players. Who will play the other safety opposite Eric Berry? Berry, who needs just 14 yards in interception returns to become the NCAA’s all time leader, lost his running mate in Demetrice Morley, who was kicked off the team. His replacement could be Dennis Rogan, who started 10 games at cornerback and two at free safety last season.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Western Kentucky.
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 SEC; beat Boston College 16-14 in Music City Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 9, defense 9, kicker 1.
Coach: Bobby Johnson, 87-92 overall, 27-56 in seven years at Vanderbilt.
What we still don’t know: Could Vanderbilt go to its second straight bowl game? It sure looks like it. The Commodores return 18 starters from Vanderbilt’s first bowl team since 1982. “We didn’t have to pull guys out of the locker room at spring practice because they are thinking we can do this again,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “We’ve got some momentum and we hope to build on it.” Who is going to start at quarterback? Vanderbilt has two quality quarterbacks in senior Mackenzie Adams, the returning starter, and rising sophomore Larry Smith, who led Vanderbilt to its first bowl victory since 1955. Johnson did not name a 2009 starter after spring practice. Who replaces the versatile D.J. Moore? Moore was a very successful two-way player for the Commodores last season and that role will probably be filled by sophomore Jamie Graham. Graham had 17 catches as a wide receiver last season but was moved to cornerback in the spring and will probably see action on both sides of the ball. Myron Lewis, who played opposite Moore last season at cornerback, could also see some snaps on offense.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Western Carolina.