SEC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#16 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#16

SEC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Kirby Smart, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mel Tucker

It’s a new era for Georgia’s football program, as Mark Richt’s 15-year stint in Athens ended after the regular season, and former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart was hired to lead his alma mater to SEC titles. Smart inherits plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs also feature question marks on both sides of the ball. On offense, there’s uncertainty under center with true freshman Jacob Eason and Greyson Lambert battling for the starting job. Additionally, running back Nick Chubb is recovering from a serious knee injury. Georgia boasts one of the SEC’s top defensive backfields, but the front seven has to be retooled.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense 
 

For an offensive-minded coach known for developing quarterbacks, Mark Richt’s downfall at Georgia came down to those two things. When Mike Bobo left after 2014, Richt didn’t make the right hire to replace him, and Georgia’s passing-challenged offense sputtered to a ranking of 83rd nationally in 2015.

Enter Kirby Smart, a defensive-minded coach who had long had his eye on a couple assistant coaches to fill his staff. So he closed in on offensive coordinator and QB guru Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman, the latter of whom required a three-year contract at $650,000 per season to pry him away from Arkansas.

So how quickly will things be turned around? Potentially pretty quickly. The quarterback spot already looks better, whether it’s fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert (who started all but one game last year after parachuting in from Virginia) having a full offseason in Georgia, or five-star freshman Jacob Eason living up to his potential. And don’t rule out junior Brice Ramsey and his strong arm.

All eyes will be on how soon Nick Chubb will get back on the field, and how close to his old form he’ll be after significant knee surgery. Either way, junior Sony Michel — who rushed for more than 1,000 yards despite starting only six games last year — is back. Receivers Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie offer dynamic options, and tight end is very deep.

Ultimately, the course of this offense may come down to quarterback and offensive line — which loses two starters — the two spots that plagued Richt’s final Georgia team.

Previewing Georgia’s Defense
 

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Smart inherits a pretty good group on defense. Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Smart in his old job as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, did a solid job recruiting on his side of the ball in two years at Georgia. The strength should be the secondary, which returns almost everybody from the nation’s top-ranked pass defense. That’s a tad deceiving, as Georgia faced two triple-option teams, and its schedule wasn’t that strong — Alabama, for instance, picked apart the Bulldogs secondary. But safety Dominick Sanders was first-team All-SEC and anchors a very talented group.

The front seven is inexperienced but offers plenty of upside. Defensive tackle Trent Thompson, considered by many to be  the nation’s best overall recruit last year, showed flashes. He’s joined by a deep class of sophomores and freshmen. The only question is how quickly this unit can harness all that talent.

The big question is at linebacker, where Georgia lost team MVP Jake Ganus, an inside linebacker, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. Outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter are two talented juniors who could disrupt opposing passing games. Reggie Carter, who missed most of last year with a shoulder problem, is healthy again to play inside linebacker, and sophomores Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith have high upside.

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists
 

McKenzie, in just two years, has already tied Georgia’s school record for return touchdowns and punt return touchdowns. His only issue will be staying healthy. The kicking spots are a concern. Marshall Long was signed to be the punter. The placekicking job will be occupied by a walk-on. There could be some very tense moments when Georgia is attempting field goals this year.

Final Analysis
 

Smart’s first season sets up a lot like Richt’s final few: A chance for a 10-win season, but maybe not quite enough to win it all. For it all to come together, quarterback play and blocking will have to be much better, the inexperienced front seven will have to play well immediately, and the kicking game will have to be unexpectedly good. That’s a lot to ask. But the pieces are still there to contend in the mediocre SEC East. 

The Debate

Is Jacob Eason already one of the SEC's top quarterbacks?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#20 Florida Gators

NATIONAL FORECAST

#20

SEC East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, 10-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

Florida was one of college football’s biggest surprises last season. The Gators finished 10-4 and claimed the SEC East title under first-year coach Jim McElwain. While McElwain’s first season was a success, there’s plenty of work ahead for this team in 2016. The offense struggled after the suspension of quarterback Will Grier in the second half of last year. Transfer Luke Del Rio is slated to replace Treon Harris under center, but question marks remain on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Despite losing a couple of key pieces, the defense should remain one of the best in the SEC. Winning the East Division once again will be a challenge, but an improved offense should allow Florida to stay within striking distance of Tennessee and Georgia in 2016. 

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Previewing Florida’s Offense 
 

In four seasons under Will Muschamp, the Florida Gators had five different starting quarterbacks, three offensive coordinators and some of the nation’s least-productive attacks. Florida hired Jim McElwain to breathe some life into the side of the ball the Gators were known for under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.

Florida showed promise early on, highlighted by a 38-point outburst against Ole Miss. But after the NCAA suspended quarterback Will Grier for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the Gators went into a tailspin with Treon Harris at the helm.

McElwain now turns to transfer Luke Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, or Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby. The winner of the quarterback race will become Florida’s ninth starting quarterback since Tim Tebow’s final season, in 2009.

Last season, the Gators’ lack of depth and experience up front were hard to overcome. At times UF started three true freshmen and ended the season surrendering a nation-leading 45 sacks. Left tackle David Sharpe is the veteran of the group, while sophomore Martez Ivey looks to live up to his billing as the nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit in 2015.

McElwain values a physical run game, the backbone of his offenses during four seasons at Alabama (2008-11). Sophomore Jordan Scarlett hopes to emerge from the shadow of 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor and lead Florida’s trio of tailbacks. Keep an eye on juco transfer Mark Thompson.

Receiver Antonio Callaway is a gamebreaker who averaged 17.6 yards and scored six touchdowns on 69 touches. But the Gators still need more from their receiving corps. 

Previewing Florida’s Defense
 

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Muschamp left behind the ingredients for a top defense, and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins did not squander the opportunity. The Gators ranked fourth in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense in 2015. But the physical and mental fatigue of propping up a moribund offense took its toll, and Florida yielded 503 yards to Michigan during a 41–7 Citrus Bowl beat-down.

The Gators look to bounce back despite losing some key pieces, including two All-Americans (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and tackle Jon Bullard) and a tone-setting safety (Keanu Neal). Many quality players remain, beginning with All-SEC cornerback Jalen Tabor and one of the SEC’s best linebackers, senior Jarrad Davis. Junior cornerback Quincy Wilson and senior safety Marcus Maye are established SEC talents, giving Florida a top secondary once again.

The Gators’ defensive line is loaded, beginning with tackle Caleb Brantley and end Cece Jefferson. Senior end Bryan Cox Jr. is equally effective against the run and pass, while two young ends — Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga — have bright futures. Quality depth abounds, too.

Previewing Florida’s Specialists

Placekicker Austin Hardin has moved on after making just 16-of-36 field goals at Florida, opening the door for Eddy Pineiro, a former Alabama commit best known for kicking a 77-yard field goal on YouTube. Punter Johnny Townsend is among the nation’s best and averaged 45.4 yards per kick in 2015. Callaway scored twice as a punt returner.

Final Analysis
 

McElwain led Florida to a 6–0 start and its first top-10 ranking in three seasons en route to the Gators’ first outright SEC East title since 2009. But a season-ending three-game skid exposed Florida’s deficiencies on offense, and teams outscored the Gators 97–24 during that stretch. Despite the ugly finish, McElwain brought a new vibe to the program, selling out The Swamp four times and overseeing facility upgrades. But to take the next step on the field, McElwain must develop a long-term answer at quarterback.

The Debate

Was Jim McElwain the Best New Coach Hire of 2015?

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