Posted 05/17/2012 at 04:48 PM
The SEC has won five six straight BCS titles but it has been the SEC West that has won the last three and last year LSU was a nearly two touchdown favorite in the SEC championship game as there has been a growing divide between the two divisions. Not much figures to change this season as LSU and Alabama are by far the two favorites to win the conference this season as well as national contenders. With the expansion to 14 teams and only two interdivision match-ups on the schedule for each team, there will be a different dynamic to college football’s premier conference this season. Here is a look at the SEC East teams with attention to the schedule and returning players for the 2012 season. The early odds to win the conference as a whole are listed with each team.
Georgia (+500): The Bulldogs won the SEC East last season and Georgia actually gave LSU a bit of scare early in the SEC title game last season before eventually falling 42-10, avoiding BCS chaos scenarios. Georgia went 7-1 in SEC regular season games last season but they benefited from not having to play LSU, Alabama, or Arkansas in the regular season, a dramatic advantage over the rest of the division. Georgia’s only conference loss came early in the year against South Carolina as the Bulldogs opened the season 0-2 before rattling off ten straight wins and then losing in the SEC title game and its bowl game against Michigan State. Georgia returns 15 starters this season and they have a favorable draw from the West again with Auburn and Mississippi. The Bulldogs will only play three conference home games however and they play South Carolina and Missouri on the road. Georgia deserves to be considered the favorites in this division but perhaps not as overwhelming favorites as these odds suggest. QB Aaron Murray is back in action and the defense should be one of the best units in the conference with ten returning starters.
South Carolina (+900): At 11-2 it is hard to argue with the 2011 season being a success for South Carolina, especially with a nice bowl win over Nebraska. Both losses came in SEC play, falling against Auburn as double-digit underdogs early in the season and then also losing to Arkansas. South Carolina also lucked out not facing Alabama and LSU in the regular season last year and this year they are not so fortunate. An Arkansas team that is expected to be quite good is back on the slate as is LSU, who could be the preseason #1. Compared with the rest of the possibilities South Carolina likely is facing the toughest draw of any of the East teams with regards to the two games against the West. There is some benefit in the schedule however as most of the tougher East games are at home with the exception of the Florida game. South Carolina returns 14 starters but this is not likely a division championship team given the slate, although there is some serious talent on the roster with several future NFL players on defense. The offensive line is a bit of question mark and while Connor Shaw has shown promise at QB he can be erratic and Marcus Lattimore’s health is obviously a concern.
Florida (+1500): Florida is the only team in the East division without a returning starting QB but the Gators have a lot of talent back in action and 18 starters overall. The Florida defense should be especially strong with great experience and depth. Florida was just 3-5 last season in SEC play and 7-6 overall but they ended the season with a nice bowl win over Ohio State. The Gators opened the year 4-0 and showing some promise but then fell to 4-4 after a brutal midseason stretch of games. The Gators had to play Alabama, LSU, and Auburn from the West last season and again the Gators have a difficult draw. Florida is one of two East teams that have to play LSU but the one advantage is the game is at home and it is preceded by a bye week. Newcomer Texas A&M will be the other West team on the schedule and that will be early in the year on the road, with the Gators playing in College Station for the first ever SEC game for the Aggies. The following week a critical game is at Tennessee as the Gators will know where they stand in the first half of the season with three of the first five games being huge games. Florida hosts South Carolina and Missouri in the second half and while the Gators have a tough schedule overall they do benefit with just three SEC road games as the annual game with Georgia is a neutral site affair.
Missouri (+2600): Coming from the defense deficient Big XII the expectations are modest for the Tigers in the first year in the SEC. Missouri might have a better chance than the other Big XII defector Texas A&M as the East division certainly looks more advantageous. Missouri will play the Aggies in one of the interdivision games and also draws defending national champion Alabama for a fairly tough set of games. Missouri also was dealt a tough in-division slate with the hardest games coming on the road with the exception of the SEC opener against Georgia. Three of the final four games of the season with tough conference road games for a difficult November slate and Missouri is also playing a much more difficult non-conference schedule than most teams with two BCS conference teams as well as a road games at Central Florida. Missouri was 8-5 last season in a good season for the Big XII, a similar record would be commendable in the first season in the SEC as the schedule is much tougher than last season and Missouri has the fewest returning starters in the division with just eleven. Missouri did bring in a glowing recruiting class however and the offense could be one of the best in this division with a great receiving corps behind emerging QB James Franklin.
Tennessee (+3300): The Volunteers might be worth a look as a long shot to win this division although winning the SEC outright is probably too far of a reach. The Volunteers were just 5-7 last season and missed out on a bowl game but this team also had to play the three toughest West teams, Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas in an absolutely brutal schedule. This team should have 20 returning starters including almost all of the key players from last year’s team including QB Tyler Bray who could emerge as a serious NFL prospect. In the new alignment of the conference the Volunteers still draw Alabama but it will be a home game and a second straight road game for the Tide. Tennessee also draws Mississippi State which certainly will not be an easy out on the road but the Volunteers have a bye week before that game and it is certainly preferable compared with Arkansas or LSU. Tennessee does have to play at Georgia and at South Carolina so there will need to be a few upsets to make a run at the division title but the schedule looks like it will provide an improved season and a bowl berth and with the final four games of the season looking favorable Tennessee could have some late season momentum.
Vanderbilt (+5000): The Commodores were a great surprise team last season, finishing up just 6-7 but that meant going to a bowl game. Vanderbilt only won two SEC games last season as a 4-0 mark against a light non-conference schedule got the Commodores to the postseason but it is certainly something to build on with a veteran team returning in 2012. Vanderbilt has arguable the best schedule in the entire SEC as they draw Ole Miss and Auburn from the West division and games with South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida will all be at home. They do play at Georgia and at Missouri and no SEC schedule is easy but all things considered it is not a bad path. Vanderbilt will be playing two FCS teams this season so 6-6 so won’t be good enough for a bowl pass this year and in the SEC it will be very tough for Vanderbilt to return to the postseason even with a favorable schedule. Vanderbilt is one of only two teams in the SEC that will play six road games this season and to reach the postseason Vanderbilt might need to win at least four of those games as there are some tough home games on the schedule. Jordan Rodgers will start to get some attention with a solid offensive line and a decent group of receivers on the schedule.
Kentucky (+13500): The Wildcats struggled last season but actually finished up 5-7 after beating Tennessee in the finale. The offense had virtually no success in the SEC last year but this will be a more veteran unit that should improve its scoring numbers. While there are not a lot of starters back on defense the front four should be formidable and capable of providing some pressure on opposing QBs. Kentucky must play Arkansas and Mississippi State from the West draw so it is not an overly favorable slate though it could be worse. All four SEC road games are very difficult games but Kentucky does have an opportunity to win a few games at home. Matching a 5-7 record will take a few upsets but Kentucky could certainly be an improved team, although certainly the favorite to end up at the bottom of this division, and a similar record is the most likely scenario. Kentucky deserves to be the steepest long shot on the board but there is enough to work within this slate that it could be a respectable season.