NCAA Football 2017-18 Season
SEC East Preview
It’s a tight battle at the top of the SEC East Division between Georgia and Florida. The Bulldogs get the nod over the Gators thanks to 11 returning starters on defense, and the emergence of quarterback Jacob Eason. However, the addition of quarterback Malik Zaire as a graduate transfer should provide a boost under center for Gators coach Jim McElwain. Outside of the top contenders, South Carolina and Kentucky headline some of the dark horse teams to watch in 2017. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.
Tennessee needs to find a competent quarterback and develop playmakers if it’s to compete for an SEC East Division crown. The schedule is unforgiving, with road trips to Florida and Alabama and a November visit from LSU. The Vols defense and special teams are solid, but ultimately Tennessee will only go as far as their new quarterbacks can take them.
Two trips to Atlanta for the SEC title game are an impressive start to head coach Jim McElwain’s regime. The next step will be more difficult. The 55-year-old coach will get a feel for his Gators quickly. Florida opens 2017 against Michigan in AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys. Tennessee visits on Week 3 to begin a stretch of five SEC games, including visits from LSU and Texas A&M.
McElwain is just 3–7 against ranked opponents. That will have to change, or 2017 could be a step back for his program.
If the defense plays up to its potential, and the offense and special teams improve even a little, Georgia has a very good chance to win its first SEC East title in five years. There’s a chance to go even further, depending on how quickly the young talent develops, and how Kirby Smart improves as a head coach. And there’s also a chance to disappoint, which Georgia has tended to do lately.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Will Muschamp and his coaching staff took over a roster so depleted that some of the struggles of the 2016 season — such as an offense that finished last in the SEC in scoring with 20.8 points per game — can hardly be held against them. It’s a different story in Year 2. The Gamecocks should build on the offensive momentum established with QB Jake Bentley at the helm in the last half of 2016, but Muschamp’s defensive acumen will be tested by this year’s thin group.
The schedule starts out with a toss-up game against NC State that could set the tone, and there are another half-dozen games on the schedule that could go either way. How South Carolina fares in those will determine whether the Gamecocks are able to make a move in the SEC East standings.
Kentucky ended its six-year bowl drought last season with a bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl, and with the bulk of its offense and defense returning the Wildcats seem poised for a special season by the program’s middling historic standards. If quarterback Stephen Johnson can build on the momentum of his outstanding performance in the upset of Louisville in the 2016 regular-season finale, there’s plenty of talent around him for the offense to make up for some of the defense’s deficiencies. If the defense improves as well, the Wildcats could be a dark horse candidate in the SEC East race.
Perhaps no program changed its trajectory in the final two weeks of the 2016 regular season more than Vanderbilt. Double-digit wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee sent the Commodores to a bowl game for the first time under Derek Mason tenure as head coach. Vanderbilt showed tangible signs that the program was headed in the right direction. Sustaining success has always been difficult for them, but Mason has a veteran team — 20 of the projected 22 starters are in at least their third year in the program — that should remain competitive. If the offense continues to progress, Vanderbilt is likely to make another trip to the postseason.
Missouri games were more high-scoring in 2016, and that was only partially good. The Tigers were better statistically but won one fewer game. Finishing the season with two conference wins in three tries gave the fan base a jolt of optimism, but while a seasoned offense seems to have a high ceiling, the defense has far more questions to answer than it did 12 months ago.