How good is the east?
The path could not be more clear for the Florida Gators: to start winning, Florida must find a quarterback. The transition from Grier to Harris meant a drop from a 145 QB rating to 118, and a drop in completion percentage from 65% to 50%. Split out, that's the difference between 4th (just ahead of Alabama) and 12th (just ahead of Kentucky) in the conference. With Grier gone forever, McElwain is undoubtedly hopeful for some sort of steady production out of Del Rio.
The transition from Grier to Harris meant a drop from a 145 QB rating to 118
This is a team that, much like Georgia, is about a year away from re-emergence. The defense returns a lot of starters, but suffers from losing their top tacklers on every level (Bullard, Morrison, and Neal). Those three players alone combined for over a quarter of Florida's tackles in 2015, so, while the team will adjust, there are likely to be growing pains.
But the defense wasn't the issue last year; the team can't win if it can't score. And if it can't move the ball at all, as happened in the bowl, things can get ugly fast. Given the loss of the top receiver and top two rushers (Treon Harris was actually the second leading rusher by a wide margin) off a not-so-stellar unit, it's hard to see where production will come from. The talent is there, but, frankly, I am not enamored with Nussmeier's ability to produce, dating back to his days at Alabama. He tends to overemphasize one-on-one matchups to such an extent that he absolutely struggles to generate production when his offense is off-sync (as last year seemingly validates). There are a lot of unknowns, and things could turn out well, but it's far more likely that Florida becomes a real contender in 2017 when possibly every offensive starter will return.
Butch Jones, you're on the clock. My prediction for last year was that Tennessee would improve substantially, but a very difficult schedule meant that they would still start the season at 4-4. This proved true, dropping four games by a combined 17 points (and only 10 in regulation).
The issue, in my opinion, is that Tennessee wasn't overly good at any one thing. Dobbs is a good quarterback, but probably not a great one. When combined with a receiving corps that lacks any true threats, the Vols were only 10th in the conference in yards/attempt. The line was competent, but struggled to get push against the better teams. Still, they finished a respectable 5th in yards/rush. But, given that all of the SEC rushing offenses (save LSU) were equal, and the almost-shockingly poor per/play average of the pass game, Tennessee was only 9th in the SEC in yards/play average.
Thus, it isn't enough for Tennessee to match last year's production. To win a title, and quite possibly even just to make the title game, this team must improve. Being 8th in defensive yards/play and 9th in offensive yards/play won't cut it. Things are made substantially worse by a tough scheduling draw, including a murderer's row of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. While getting Florida and Georgia early is certainly a benefit, it is entirely possible that Tennessee wins both games only to lose the division due to losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. It's worth noting that this is the exact opposite of last year, when Tennessee caught Alabama at the end of a similar run of 4 conference games, making ending the Alabama's 9-game winning streak in the historic rivalry radically more difficult.
To win a title, and quite possibly even just to make the title game, this team must improve
With Georgia and Florida slated to return to form in 2017, this is Jones's clear opportunity to capture the division crown. If he fails to achieve the improvement necessary to do so, he may find himself on the hot seat very quickly.
Mark Richt needed to go. Georgia had a 10-win season in 7/11 years, but lost 14/16 top-10 matchups (that's a 12.5% win rate) and 11/34 top-25 matchups (32% win rate). Those really are not good numbers.
The reason for the disparity is that a 10-win season became far more attainable after the addition of a 12th game in 2005. The 11th game wasn't even standardized until 1970. What that means is that most teams have had a far higher percentage of 10-win seasons in recent years. To be consistent, a better comparison would be to ask how many of these coaches had 2-loss seasons. A 2-loss season (counting the bowl) is what you needed for 10 wins in most of college football history. For example, since 1935 LSU has managed 2 or fewer losses 20 times. (Adding 6 two-loss seasons that didn't hit 10 wins). Les Miles has 5, and Nick Saban only had 1. However, Miles's first 3 were all following Saban's tenure. In his past 7 years (since the 2007 season), he has averaged 3.5 losses/season. He will finish with at least 3 this season.
Richt doesn't fare overly well in this metric. Though he has 8 ten-win seasons, he only has 4 two-loss seasons. And to make matters far worse, he has only 1 two-loss season (2012) in the past 8 years. Combined with the stats above, Richt has merely managed to have a good record against a historically bad SEC East (with UF and UT both in major slumps), perhaps due in large part by a lack of turnover. He has not, however, really ever excelled, and only made two SEC championship appearances in the past ten years.
Georgia had a 10-win season in 7/11 years, but lost 14/16 top-10 matchups
With all that said, I truly believe that Georgia is a sleeping giant that has been held back only by its administration's acceptance of mediocrity. Georgia is a talent-rich state, and the school is actually tied with Alabama in 4th place for most players on an NFL roster (as of the 2015 season). Given the issues at quarterback (where they will likely have to break in a new starter due to the ineffective play of the incumbents), general lack of talent at receiver, new starting tackles, and loss of 6 of 7 leading tacklers, this is probably a year too early. However, the talent is there to challenge Tennessee, and the future is likely very bright in Athens.
I can't help but feel that Mason is in over his head. An excellent defensive coordinator, his presence was definitely felt by his increased involvement last season. However, none of that matters when you don't have a quarterback. Vanderbilt has to hope for Schumer to play up to his 4-star billing. If he does, there is just enough talent at receiver to open up the run game for Webb.
The strategy for Vanderbilt is simple: shorten games, and play solid defense. The defense returns 14 of the top 17 tacklers from a strong unit, so it should be good once again. However, the offense just lacks the punch of their conference foes. This becomes a dice game. Imagine that you have a 10-sided dice, and your opponent has a 20-sided dice. You add up every roll, and the highest total wins. It is to your advantage to roll as little as possible; you need the other person to roll less than 10, but the more he rolls the closer his score will get to his average (which is 10, which you can't beat). If you roll only once, you have roughly a 1 in 4 chance of winning. If you roll again, it falls to about a 1 in 10 chance.
The strategy for Vanderbilt is simple: shorten games, and play solid defense.
In football, tempo and aggressive play calls present more opportunities (rolls). If you have a strong defense, you can limit the opposing tempo. Add in a strong run game, and you can reduce the opportunities for both sides. Bielema has taken this approach repeatedly, which is why he often plays superior opponents close. If Vanderbilt can manage to reduce the opportunities in each game, the odds favor them catching a team on an off day and randomly pulling out a win.
There isn't a ton to say here. Kentucky simply doesn't have the players to compete. Recruiting has improved, but, for whatever reason, there isn't much to show for it. Kentucky started last year looking like an improved team, thanks in large part to Towles's natural talent.
However, Towles proved extremely inconsistent, and began to become erratic and turnover-prone down the stretch. Still, the decision to pull him in favor of Barker is somewhat troubling. Towles had a higher completion percentage, higher yards/attempt, higher QB rating, and a higher TD:INT ratio than the freshman. While Barker may well be rapidly improving, this strikes me as something of a desperation move. In truth, watching Kentucky I felt that Towles was a high level talent who was attempting to compensate for an otherwise woeful offense (much like Hackenberg at Penn State). Eventually that takes a toll on a passer, but that certainly doesn't mean that throwing a freshman into the fire will fix the situation. What was needed was to ask less of Towles and stop trying to run a pass-first offense. Instead, Stoops doubled down on the offense and made a change at quarterback. Unfortunately, I fear that decision may backfire in a big way.
On one hand, it's hard to justify picking up a coach that was an almost total failure at his last head coaching gig (and the Florida situation really was that bad). However, the truth is that South Carolina just doesn't have the money, facilities, and resources to generally compete with the big boys in hiring a better name. They got a sweetheart deal with Spurrier, and they've managed to swing a coach that still has tremendous potential, despite the past failures.
But the roster quickly shows why Spurrier had to go. Ignore the quarterback situation. It's not great, but it isn't the real issue. The problem is that the team has developed no returning receivers to speak of, and is gutted on the offensive line. The only returning running back managed only 3.5 yards/ carry. The defense isn't much better. As it turns out, Kenny Hill in 2014 was the byproduct of a staff that found themselves in need of immediate cornerbacks, only to have 3 fail to qualify. The defense took a nose dive, and will trot out a nickel package with four defensive backs weighing under 185 pounds. In the new SEC, that leaves you very vulnerable to receivers in spread offenses (most of whom will outweigh you by at least 20 pounds).
For those wondering why teams fire early, or run off coaches with past success, this is why. Muschamp has to find a way to eek out production from a senior laden defense that has never really produced. Next year, he has to find players from a roster with little depth. Simply put, Spurrier badly mismanaged the roster for the past 2-3 years, and Muschamp will be fighting to right the ship. It will be interesting to see if fans are patient enough to wait the time it will take to fix this, because they are going to struggle at times, and there's nothing Muschamp can really do to prevent it.
A repeated event does not guarantee a pattern. One of the major themes for last year’s Missouri team was “well, they lost their elite pass rush, but they just churn those guys out.” Yes, Missouri had a good run of turning lowly touted recruits into high profile draft selections. However, this can be explained due to a phenomenon known as “clustering.” Put simply, if you have a large (but not too large) scattering of random events, some areas will deviate heavily from the norm. The best examples are in cancer cases; cancer tends to be just infrequent enough where it’s rare, but frequent enough where a random town will unfortunately get hit with multiple cases in a year. Everyone will assume that something caused the occurrences in that city, but it’s often the case that there is a very high probability that at least one city out of the 20,000 in the US will have a random “cluster.” The problem is hindsight; when we predict the occurrences, we may expect a few cities to randomly have multiple cases. However, when we look back at actual cases, we naturally look for an explanation. If you’re curious, this phenomenon is at the heart of the court case in “A Civil Action,” a novel adapted into a 1998 film starring John Travolta.
The draft, with 64 selections out of 128 teams, and with a premium put on pass rushers, has a similar issue. There is actually a decent chance of randomly having a player that develops into an elite pass rusher (star rankings do matter here, as a 5* is far more likely than a 3* to make it, but there are literally hundreds of 3* players for every 5* player). Since each school has a decent chance, the odds are that some school will randomly end up with more than 1. However, it’s just rare enough that this seems unusual.
This is where hindsight comes into play. We see that Missouri has had at least one 1st/2nd round pick on the DL for three years running (Richardson, Ealy, Ray, Golden). But I caution drawing too much from this. While development certainly helps (and is often necessary for it to occur), elite NFL prospects are probably more an inevitable (but unpredictable) result. While many expect Missouri will simply reload by noting that they have the past few years, I wouldn’t be so sure. They have not been recruiting overly highly rated players. And while there may be some genetic issue that means their recruits are more likely to develop into studs, it’s more likely that they have simply been the lucky beneficiary of chance. Despite recent events, their three star recruits are still likely to pan out to be three star starters.