Hope springs eternal with the arrival of spring practice for college football programs across the country. Players have opportunities to replace departed leaders and coaches get their first chance to look at the type of team they’ll be tasked with coaching for the 2013 season. Once again, the SEC figures to boast several impressive teams in 2013.
Let’s take a look at each of the teams in the Eastern division of arguably the toughest conference in all of college football. Each team will feature one key returning player from both the offensive side and defensive side of the ball, as well as an overall outlook for the 2013 season.
Key Offensive Returner: Jeff Driskel. While statistically unspectacular in 2012, Driskel still managed to record wins against Texas A&M on the road, against LSU and South Carolina in his first full season as the Gators’ starter. You can argue the Gators’ defense and power running game was primarily responsible for those wins, and maybe they were, but that was last year. This year, look for Driskel to play a larger roll in the Gator offense and try to erase the memories of a poor showing in the Sugar Bowl.
Key Defensive Returner: With Sharrif Floyd leaving the Gator D-Line for the NFL, look for Dominique Easley to emerge as the next athletic specimen out of Gainesville. Easley has 23 career starts and had five tackles in the Gators’ Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville.
Outlook: The Gators are coming off a royally disappointing end to their 2012 season at the hands of Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals. Florida was humbled in the Sugar Bowl against the Big East underdog and saw the key departures of backup quarterback Jacoby Brisset due to transfer, leading rusher Michael Gillislee to graduation and Sharrif Floyd to the allure of the draft. The Gators head to Miami to face the Hurricanes in their second game of the season and travel to LSU, Missouri and South Carolina as well. Not the easiest of schedules and with an offense looking to gain traction in Jeff Driskel’s second year as a starter, the Gators may very well finish with a 9-3 regular season record.
Key Offensive Returner: It seems like Aaron Murray has been at Georgia forever. The Georgia quarterback enters his final season with the Bulldogs having started the past three seasons for March Richt. Last year Murray threw for 36 touchdowns and came within a few frantic seconds of taking out Alabama in the SEC championship game. Murray’s arguably the best quarterback in the conference this year and as long as he’s running the show in Athens, the Bulldogs are a potent offensive team.
Key Defensive Returner: Rising sophomore Jordan Jenkins registered five sacks in his debut season with the Bulldogs last year. He’ll be counted on to produce even more this year with the loss of All-Everything linebacker Jarvis Jones departing for the NFL.
Outlook: The Bulldogs will be facing a slew of experienced quarterbacks this year, so replacing the pressure Jones consistently brought will go a long way to determining Georgia’s defensive success. The Bulldogs get Clemson in the “other” Death Valley to start the season, so right away they’ll find out what kind of team they have. Tajh Boyd is a serious offensive force, and the Tigers constantly overflow with offensive skill talent. Games against South Carolina, LSU and Florida all figure to pose considerable challenges for Murray and the Dawgs, but luckily for Georgia fans, Murray is as experienced as any SEC starting quarterback could be. In his final year, Murray takes the Dawgs to an 11-1 regular season (they’ll get caught at least once this year) and back to Atlanta.
Key Offensive Returner: Jalen Whitlow threw for 801 yards and ran for another 312 in his debut season for the Wildcats. The rising sophomore is listed as a quarterback/athlete on Kentucky’s roster and his athleticism and versatility is reminiscent of former UK standout Randall Cobb. It is unclear who will start for the Wildcats this year under center, but Whitlow’s skills should find him making a difference somewhere on the field.
Key Defensive Returner: Alvin Dupree is an impressive physical specimen at linebacker, standing at 6-foot-4, 249 pounds. Dupree tallied 91 total tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2012 and looks to be a featured part of UK’s 2013 defensive unit. Dupree is physically gifted and produces results and could become one of the more notable defensive players to come through Lexington in quite a while.
Outlook: Kentucky looks like it will continue to provide the flooring that the rest of the SEC teams walk on in 2013. To add insult to injury, in-state rival Louisville suddenly boasts a top-flight quarterback and a prolific offense. Want to rub it in? Kentucky has to play Alabama this year. They don’t know who they’ll play at quarterback yet and things could get interesting in Mark Stoops’ first season as head coach. The Wildcats have pulled surprise upsets before and should be counted on to mimic Stoops’ fiery personality, but they shouldn’t do any better than 4-8 in 2013.
Key Offensive Returner:
It has to be James Franklin. The Tigers’ starter coming into the 2012 season, Franklin looked to lead an offense that could potentially make waves in their first season against SEC defenses. Unfortunately, Franklin battled health problems last year and at times during games looked like he was only playing at half-speed. He’ll have another crack at the job this year, but Corbin Berkstresser will give him a run for the job this spring and on into fall after starting a handful of games for the Tigers in Franklin’s absences last year.
Key Offensive Returner: OK, so this isn’t a defensive player, but let’s just say Missouri needs to fill the hole left by Sheldon Richardson on the defensive line, among other positions. Otherwise, the return of sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham overshadows what’s happening on the Missouri defense. One of the most talented players ever to sign with Missouri, Green-Beckham largely underperformed in his first year for the Tigers, registering only one start and catching 28 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns. Not bad for your average freshman, but DGB was supposed to be the next A.J. Green. He’ll have to play a larger part for Mizzou this year if the Tigers want to make any noise in the SEC.
Outlook: The Tigers got a lesson in “Grown Man Football” this year in the SEC. At times, Missouri looked overmatched physically. It’s always been known that SEC teams succeed by dominating the line of scrimmage and Missouri has to continue to adjust. The Tigers sport a new full-time starter at quarterback this year, and they should check in at about 6-6 this season, but mostly thanks to a soft non-conference schedule.
Key Offensive Returner: Anyone could list Connor Shaw or Dylan Thompson, the two talented quarterbacks in Columbia, as the keys to the Gamecocks’ upcoming season. But a greater question remains how does Carolina go about replacing Marcus Lattimore? Interestingly enough, it looks like the answer is, “With the sibling of a sworn enemy.” Mike Davis, brother of former Clemson workhorse James Davis, filled in admirably when Lattimore went down last year with a gruesome knee injury. This year, he’s looking to start in his sophomore season and give Steve Spurrier a counter to whoever’s slinging the ball for the Head Ball Coach.
Key Defensive Returner: Everybody’s favorite Julius Peppers comparison, Jadeveon Clowney. The man is an absolute freak of nature coming off the edge for the Gamecocks and at times seemed to channel his inner NBA player and take over games last year. The only challenges this year for Clowney? Stay healthy and embrace consistency. There were times last year where the man-child disappeared on the field. Better effort over a longer period of time for Clowney could result in a 2013 season that is rarely ever seen.
Outlook: South Carolina is coming off back-to-back 11 win seasons, returns arguably the nation’s best player in Jadeveon Clowney and has two experienced quarterbacks for Steve Spurrier to experiment with. The Gamecocks get Georgia early in the season to find out just how good they are, but what they may find is that they Lattimore more than they realize. Expect a 10-2 finish.
Key Offensive Returner: Replacing Tyler Bray won’t be an easy task, but the Volunteers return running back Marlin Lane, who ran for over 600 yards in 2012. It’s always nice for a new quarterback to have a reliable guy in the backfield to hand off to, and Lane provides just that.
Key Defensive Returner: Curt Maggitt is returning from an ACL injury suffered in 2012, but the linebacker figures to see a lot of time on the field for the Volunteers this fall. Maggitt defends the pass and run equally well and will be a valuable member of a defensive unit tasked with stopping the likes of Aaron Murray, Marcus Mariotta and AJ McCarron.
Outlook: The Vols face an uphill battle this year in their journey to return to prominence under first-year coach Butch Jones. They’ll face Oregon in Autzen Stadium this September and travel to play Florida and Alabama as well. After struggling to win with a solid quarterback in Bray last season, it doesn’t seem that the Vols will experience any greater improvement this year, and look to go 7-5. this season. But don’t be surprised if they ruin someone’s Saturday at least once this year.
Key Offensive Returner: Chris Boyd quietly put together a remarkable season in 2012. The 6-4 receiver posted over 700 yards receiving and scored five touchdowns. He will be looked to by whoever replaces Jordan Rodgers at quarterback for the Commodores this year. In the world of little known facts, Boyd is also an Eagle Scout.
Key Defensive Returner: Chase Garnham lead the Commodores with 12.5 tackles for loss this past year, and paced the team with seven sacks. The linebacker will look to anchor the defense once again for Vanderbilt and lead a surprising team into 2013. Garnham’s Twitter account is also very enjoyable.
Outlook: The Commodores always play better than their record indicates and last year, they finally started seeing success on the scoreboard. After a nine-win season that saw the team post wins against Auburn and Tennessee and snag a bowl victory over North Carolina State, the Commodores enter this season with a rare element: Expectations. Coach James Franklin is getting results in Nashville, but the loss of Jordan Rodgers at quarterback may hurt. The Commodores will go 7-5 this year and break a contender’s heart with their feisty play.
Feature Photo By Charles Atkeison