Florida has won the SEC East each of the past two seasons, but is another team ready to knock the Gators from their perch? Jim McElwain and company figure to be in the hunt once again, but Florida lost several key pieces of their defense to the NFL draft and the quarterback position remains unsettled.
Georgia and Tennessee figure to be the primary challengers to the Gators, but both of these teams finished two games behind Florida last season and each has their own share of question marks. So if this is a three-way race, which team has the edge at this point?
The 2017 season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to analyze the upcoming year. Athlon’s editors and writers will debate some of college football’s top offseason questions until the release of its top 25 in May.
Florida, Georgia or Tennessee: Which Team Wins the East Division in 2017?
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley), AthlonSports.com contributor
For Florida, can the offense improve enough to get back to Atlanta? The Gators lost eight defensive starters from a unit that finished fifth in the country. Also, have the Gators finally found a quarterback in Feleipe Franks? If Florida's offense struggles again, it will be hard to get back to the SEC title game.
Much like Florida, Tennessee also has questions at the quarterback position as junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano are competing to be Joshua Dobbs’ replacement. Tennessee also needs to replace several standouts on defense, including defensive end Derek Barnett. The Volunteers’ schedule is demanding with road trips to Florida and Alabama on tap, but they do host Georgia, LSU and South Carolina, so that will help.
Georgia is the likely favorite to win the East mainly because sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to take the next step in his maturation. The Bulldogs will, however, need to replace three starters on the offensive line. Another reason Georgia is likely the favorite in the East is because its defense finished 16th in the nation a year ago and returns just about every starter. That is not the case for neither Florida nor Tennessee.
My money is on Georgia at the moment.
I like the Gators to win the East for the third consecutive season. Whether it's Feleipe Franks or Luke Del Rio that ultimately wins the starting quarterback role in Gainesville, Florida's offense will be loaded with experience and talent at every other position on the field. While it's accurate to say the defense has lost several key contributors, many of those same defenders missed significant action last season, and the unit did not suffer a significant drop-off without them in the lineup - speaking to the depth and coaching of the program. The schedule lines up in Florida's favor as well, the Gators face only three true road games in conference play (Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina) and get Tennessee in Gainesville.
Tennessee certainly has the talent to make some noise in the East, but with so much uncertainty following the offseason staff shakeup, it's hard to predict how the Vols will respond. Mixing a first-time play-caller with a starting quarterback without any meaningful college experience should be a huge concern for UT. Georgia will have all the summer hype, but several offensive issues remain unresolved in Athens. The Bulldogs need to find answers at receiver and offensive line to help the team's quarterback live up to his massive recruiting hype. UGA doesn't have the luxury of facing any of the three best league teams on its schedule in Athens this season (Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn).
Cody McClure (@CodyMcClureCFB), AthlonSports.com contributor
Georgia should be the favorite to win the SEC East in 2017. The Bulldogs are loaded on offense with the return of the SEC's top running back duo in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as one of the conference's top quarterbacks in Jacob Eason. The 'Dawgs addressed their biggest need in the offseason by bulking up on the offensive line with the 2017 recruiting class. Georgia also brings back the majority of a nasty Kirby Smart-led defense that got progressively better week-to-week last season and ended up ranking No. 4 in the SEC in total defense.
Florida has won the division the past two seasons, and teams like Tennessee and South Carolina could also be in the mix. But Georgia has the most talent in the East. While 'Dawgs fans have seen that before – only to end up disappointed – it's important to remember that Georgia has a new coach now. Smart hasn't shown any signs of underachievement yet, so it's best to give him the benefit of the doubt. Georgia fans should be cautiously optimistic.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS), AthlonSports.com contributor
Georgia returns arguably the best running back tandem in the country, along with most of the starters from a solid defense. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason should be much improved in year two as well. The only real question mark is the offensive line.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
It’s tough to pick against Florida after back-to-back East titles, but I’m leaning Georgia as the East champ in 2017. The Bulldogs return 11 starters on a defense poised to rank among the SEC’s best after limiting opponents to 24 points per game last year. The offense is still a work in progress. However, the running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb is among the nation’s best – if not No. 1 – and quarterback Jacob Eason will take a step forward in his second season as the starter. The biggest question marks about this unit still rest with the playmakers on the outside and on the offensive line.
While Georgia is my early pick, I don’t think there is much separation between the Bulldogs and Florida. The Gators will remain stout on defense even with some significant personnel losses. And the offense is poised to take a step forward with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks under center. Florida also has a favorable path. LSU, Texas A&M and Tennessee come to Gainesville, and the annual matchup with Georgia is in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs have to play Auburn and Mississippi State in crossover play, while taking on Tennessee in Knoxville. The Volunteers aren't far behind Florida and Georgia, but I think coach Butch Jones' team ends up No. 3 in the division in 2017.