The SEC East is one of the toughest divisions to sort out this preseason. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri each have a compelling case to be picked at No. 1 in the division.
Georgia finished 8-5 in 2013, largely due to injuries and bad luck. The Bulldogs lost quarterback Aaron Murray late in the year to a torn ACL, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against Clemson. The injuries weren’t limited to just Murray and Mitchell, as Todd Gurley was slowed all season by an ankle injury, and Keith Marshall suffered a torn ACL against Tennessee.
South Carolina has won 11 games in each of the last three seasons and finished No. 4 nationally in the final Associated Press poll. The Gamecocks return 13 starters for 2014 but must replace defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, tackle Kelcy Quarles and quarterback Connor Shaw.
Although the upcoming season is still months away, it’s never too early to start thinking about 2014 and projections. Athlon Sports is counting down the top 25 teams for 2014, and the debate among the staff was Georgia and South Carolina for the No. 1 spot in the East.
Will Georgia reclaim the top spot in the East? Or Will South Carolina win 11 games once again? Or could Florida or Missouri end up as the No. 1 team in the East?
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Georgia or South Carolina: Who Wins the SEC East in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Close call, but I like Georgia over South Carolina. The Bulldogs had a lot of bad luck go their way in 2013, which included an awful turnover margin (-7) and injuries to several key players. After a year of bad luck, perhaps the ball will bounce more in Georgia’s favor in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason should be a solid replacement for Aaron Murray, and the senior has plenty of talent to work with. Running back Todd Gurley is healthy, and backfield mate Keith Marshall should be able to contribute in 2014 after tearing an ACL last year. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation with Malcolm Mitchell returning to full strength. After allowing 31.8 points a game in SEC action last year, Georgia’s defense should easily improve behind new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs have the personnel to run Pruitt’s scheme, especially at linebacker with Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson. The biggest concerns for Mark Richt’s team have to be in the secondary and on the offensive line. Georgia’s schedule is tough, but an early road trip to Columbia to take on South Carolina could work in the Bulldogs favor, especially with the Gamecocks reloading on the defensive line and in the secondary. Both teams should rank among the top 5-10 nationally at the end of the year. However, give me the Bulldogs to represent the East in Atlanta in early December.
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina rolling, but Mark Richt is certainly no stranger to success in his own right. Georgia will have to begin the post-Aaron Murray era at quarterback, but the same can be said for South Carolina with defensive stud Jadeveon Clowney, not to mention underrated quarterback Connor Shaw and several other key players, off to the NFL. The Ol Ball Coach has the Gamecocks in pretty good shape for another strong showing, but Richt has new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt ready to apply his magic touch to a Bulldogs defense that welcomes back 10 starters. There's no substitute for experience, especially in a conference like the SEC. Georgia's offense may be more of a question mark with Hutson Mason taking over the reins, but this also is a unit that was wrecked by injuries last season and boasts one of the more talented and explosive backfields in the nation with Todd Gurley leading the way. South Carolina running back Mike Davis is certainly no slouch himself, but it remains to be seen if quarterback Dylan Thompson can provide the type of consistent, steady production that Shaw did, or even the leadership for that matter. South Carolina will host Georgia in the third week of the season and this game figures to loom large in determining who wins the SEC East in 2014, along with the crossover date each has with defending champion Auburn. Even though the Gamecocks are tough at home and Spurrier's team appears to have the momentum, I like Richt's squad to capitalize on its experience on defense and enjoy better health on offense on its way to picking up another "home" game — one that takes place on Dec. 6 in the Georgia Dome.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
I’m going with Georgia. That road game at South Carolina on Sept. 13 won’t be easy for Georgia. The Bulldogs could certainly lose, but I’ll take them to win on the road and start SEC play with a comfortable lead in the SEC East.
Georgia looks like a serious SEC championship contender with all its talent. Replacing Aaron Murray at quarterback will be difficult, but senior Hutson Mason will have plenty of guys who can help him, especially in the backfield. That will help ease the transition.
Georgia’s defense should be better this season thanks to so much experience returning and the arrival of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs ranked No. 10 in the SEC in scoring defense last season. That will surely improve. South Carolina, which ranked second in the league in the same category, will likely have a difficult time maintaining that level of play with the loss of several key defenders, including linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. I’ll give Georgia the advantage over South Carolina in what should be a very competitive battle in the SEC East.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
After struggling for the better part of five years at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier finally broke through with the 2010 team that went to the SEC Championship Game. Since that time, the Gamecocks have been amazingly consistent as every year they have gone 11-2 overall and 6-2 in the conference. It will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks stabilize with losing their big name talent on defense (Clowney) and their heart and soul on offense (Connor Shaw). They still have a lot of talent but the loss of Shaw in particular could be bigger than some think.
Recently, Georgia has been more up and down than it's rival from Columbia. Since 2010, Georgia has posted conference records of 3-5, 7-1, 7-1 and 5-3. While Georgia has not been as consistent as South Carolina, they have also shown that they have the a bit of a higher ceiling (with the two 7-1 seasons versus South Carolina's peak of 6-2).
I like the direction both of these teams are headed and I would not be surprised if either is representing the East in the SEC Championship Game. If I had to choose one, I pick Georgia because despite being more inconsistent in the recent past they have also shown the capability of rising higher. That and Todd Gurley.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The nod goes to Georgia, though I expect this to be a heated four-team race. That means the race at some point will include Florida and Missouri in addition to South Carolina. And it probably means the East champions could win with two losses. I pick Georgia for a few reasons. First, no team in the East has better skill position talent on offense. True, Hutson Mason is unproven as a starting quarterback, save for a comeback against Georgia Tech. But Todd Gurley is the best back in the SEC, and the group of receivers, now healthy, could be the top receiving corps in the league. Mason needs only to be capable, and Mark Richt rarely has subpar quarterback play. The defense hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC in yards per play since at least 2007, and while I doubt the Bulldogs will end that streak this season, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is a major addition to the staff. All these teams in the East have their flaws, but Georgia has enough going for it where the Bulldogs should be able to cover them up.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
They both have senior quarterbacks who have waited their turn to start. They both have an elite tailback ready to carry the load. They both play Clemson in the non-conference and Auburn from the West Division. Georgia has nine starters back on defense led by new star coordinator Jeremy Pruit and should be much healthier on offense. South Carolina has arguably the best one-game coach in the nation, five offensive lineman back and the benefit of an important home SEC schedule. I will split hairs and take the Gamecocks - despite a rebuilt defensive line - due in large part because of the schedule. Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M are critical games should all be wins at home. So a road split between Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Auburn will likely give the 'Ol Ball Coach his second East Division title at South Carolina.