The SEC East race between Georgia and Florida was one of the toughest preseason debates going into the 2020 season and is once again a focus for the upcoming year. The Gators unseated the Bulldogs atop the division, but early preseason polls and rankings would suggest coach Kirby Smart’s team is poised for a return to No. 1 in the East. Florida has holes to fill on offense, but coach Dan Mullen should keep this unit performing at a high level. The Gators also have to find some answers after a sluggish year on defense. The pieces seem to be in place for Georgia’s offense to take a big step forward, while the defense is once again one of the best in the SEC.
Is there really a debate at the top of the SEC East for 2021? Is Georgia the clear favorite? Or is Florida poised for a repeat? Who should be the early favorite in the SEC East for 2021? That was the question posed to Athlon editors.
Georgia or Florida: Which Team Will Win the SEC East in 2021?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Florida ended Georgia’s three-year run atop the SEC East last season, but I think the Bulldogs reclaim division supremacy in 2021. Despite losing tight end Kyle Pitts, quarterback Kyle Trask and a couple of key receivers, coach Dan Mullen should find enough ways for the Gators to put up plenty of points on offense. However, Florida’s defense remains a concern after giving up 30.8 points a game in ’20. Additionally, the Gators have a tougher crossover this season with a home date against Alabama and a road trip to LSU on tap. Georgia plays a rebuilding Auburn and Arkansas in matchups versus the West Division. However, the schedule isn’t the biggest reason to like the Bulldogs in ’21. The development of the offense behind quarterback JT Daniels at the end of last season provides optimism this group is poised to take a significant step forward this fall to go with one of the top defenses in college football. Georgia needs to solidify its offensive line and secondary, but if the offense improves as expected, and the defense reloads on the back end, Smart has all of the pieces in place to push the program to another run at the national title.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Florida's 44-28 victory over Georgia last season was basically what gave the Gators the SEC East title. In that game, Kyle Trask threw for 474 yards and four touchdowns. Trask is now in the NFL, getting the opportunity to learn from the GOAT, Tom Brady. Meanwhile, JT Daniels is still in Athens and while he didn't play in that lopsided loss to Florida, he did start the Bulldogs' last four games. Georgia was a completely different team on offense when Daniels was at the controls and he has most of his skill position supporting cast back for 2021 (as well as a talented defense to bail him out). The Gators' Emory Jones is a talented dual-threat quarterback in his own right, but he's unproven and not considered the same caliber of passer compared to Trask. Jones also won't have Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney or Trevon Grimes to throw to. Florida is still a really good team but the Bulldogs are deeper, seem to be better equipped at the quarterback position, and hungry after what happened last season in Jacksonville. The East could very well come down to this game again. In a potential dogfight, how can I not take Georgia?
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Emory Jones is one of the most qualified new starters for the 2021 season, but Georgia has a massive edge at the quarterback position because it returns JT Daniels. Not only that, but the Bulldogs also return all of their key skill position players (although wideout George Pickens may miss the entire season with a torn ACL). Meanwhile, the Gators lost their top three pass catchers and have a lot of work cut out for them on defense. The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party should be exciting once again, but Georgia has the clear edge heading into the 2021 season.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
It's pretty clear to me that Georgia is the team to beat in the SEC East this year. There are legitimate questions about the Bulldogs, specifically the overhaul in the secondary and a very small sample size of JT Daniels at quarterback, but defense has often been a strength for Kirby Smart's squad and Daniels is very talented and really flashed in his four starts. His 10.3 yards per pass attempt would have tied North Carolina's Sam Howell for No. 6 nationally.
That's what separates the two, in my opinion: defense and talent. The Dawgs ranked in the top 40 in FBS last season in each of the five defensive metrics I look at closest: yards per play (10th), points per drive (26th), success rate (33rd), expected points added per play (34th), and yards per pass attempt (39th). The Gators ranked no better than 62nd (points per drive), and as low as No. 102 (EPA/play). Georgia also ranks No. 2 nationally in average 247Sports rating on its current roster (.9355, including transfers and other departures), and ranks in the top six nationally in every position group, including No. 1 at running back (.9548) and linebacker (.9645). In CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength, which adjusts 247Sports' raw talent projections for experience and career production, Georgia has the No. 1 offense, No. 2 defense and No. 1 overall roster. Florida is very talented as well, but the Gators rank No. 8 in average 247Sports rating (.9120), and the gap between Florida and the Bulldogs is larger than the distance between the Gators and No. 19 North Carolina (.8921). Florida ranks 15th at quarterback (.9384) and offensive line (.8872), and 16th among defensive back units (.8937). Weighted for experience and production, Florida ranks No. 12 in Roster Strength with the No. 15 offense and No. 6 defense - very good, but not elite.
The Bulldogs have elite talent to work with, and with a better track record on defense, should be the favorite to win the East in 2021.