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SEC East 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings

Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

Georgia is the early favorite in the SEC East for 2015, but the Bulldogs will be pushed by Florida, Missouri and Tennessee. The Volunteers are a team on the rise under coach Butch Jones, while the Gators have the talent to rebound in coach Jim McElwain’s first year. The Tigers have key personnel losses to address, but coach Gary Pinkel’s team always seems to find the right answers to reload the roster.

What are the key questions and storylines shaping each SEC East’s roster and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the seven teams and the priority list for each coach. 

SEC East Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

1. Georgia

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Brian Schottenheimer (offensive coordinator)

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Rob Sale (OL coach)
Thomas Brown (RB coach)

Georgia's Spring Priorities

1. Quarterback Battle
New play-caller Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t need to overhaul the offense with Nick Chubb leading the way at running back, but the Bulldogs have question marks in the passing game. Who will replace Hutson Mason at quarterback? Will it be Brice Ramsey (24 of 39 for 333 yards last year)? Or will Faton Bauta or Jacob Park push for the job this spring?

2. Who Emerges at WR?
The Bulldogs are losing their top two receivers (Chris Conley and Michael Bennett) from last year. If Malcolm Mitchell can stay healthy, he could be one of the top receivers in the SEC. While Mitchell and tight end Jeb Blazevich are solid targets, Georgia needs a few more playmakers to emerge this spring.

3. Development of the Secondary
Georgia’s secondary entered last season with plenty of question marks but allowed only 10 touchdown passes in SEC contests. This unit loses only two key players from the 2014 depth chart and the overall experience and snaps in coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense should help the secondary improve in 2015. How will this unit replace cornerback Damian Swann after he earned second-team All-SEC honors last year?

2. Missouri

2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense - 6, Defense - 6

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Key Coaching Changes:

Barry Odom (defensive coordinator)

Ryan Walters (Safeties coach)

Missouri’s Spring Priorities

1. The Next Standouts at DE?
Missouri consistently produces standouts at end under line coach Craig Kuligowski. Will that trend continue in 2015? The odds are in the Tigers’ favor, but this is a big spring for Marcus Loud, Charles Harris and Rocel McWilliams. Junior college recruit Marcell Frazier will arrive this summer.

2. New Targets for QB Maty Mauk
In his first season as a starter, Maty Mauk had his share of ups and downs. Mauk completed only 48.9 percent of his throws in SEC games but also limited his interceptions to just four over the final seven contests. How much will Mauk improve this offseason? It’s critical for the junior to take the next step for Missouri to contend in the East.

3. New Receivers
Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White all depart, leaving Nate Brown (five receptions) and Wesley Leftwich (three receptions) as the top returning wide receivers. Mauk’s development could be tied to how quickly Missouri can reload in the receiving corps.

3. Tennessee

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 8

Key Coaching Changes:

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Mike DeBord (offensive coordinator)

Tennessee’s Spring Priorities

1. Improving the OL
Tennessee allowed 43 sacks in 13 games last season. But there’s reason for optimism in 2015 with the return of four starters and improved depth. How much will this group progress? This spring will provide the first glimpse for coach Butch Jones.

2. Development of QB Joshua Dobbs
New coordinator Mike DeBord is tasked with getting quarterback Joshua Dobbs to the next level in his development. Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 469 yards and eight scores over the final six games. If the junior takes another step forward this offseason, he should be in the mix for All-SEC honors in 2015.

3. Next Step on Defense
After allowing 6.1 yards per play in SEC-only contests in 2013, the Volunteers lowered that number to 5.4 in 2014. With eight starters back, it’s possible Tennessee takes another noticeable jump in defensive production. End Derek Barnett is one of the nation’s rising stars at defensive end, and the addition of tackle Kahlil McKenzie is another example of how the team’s talent level has improved under coach Butch Jones.  

4. Florida

2014 Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:

Jim McElwain (head coach)
Doug Nussmeier (offensive coordinator)
Geoff Collins (defensive coordinator)
Randy Shannon (co-defensive coordinator, LB coach)

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Florida's Spring Priorities

1. Quarterback Battle
Treon Harris started the last six games as a true freshman last season and passed for 1,140 yards, nine scores and 10 picks. Can he build on his freshman campaign or will he be pushed for time by redshirt freshman Will Grier?

2. Rebuilding the OL
While the quarterback position will garner most of the offseason storylines, the offensive line could be a bigger problem spot for Florida in 2015. Only one starter (Trip Thurman) is back, as this unit must replace center Max Garcia, left tackle D.J. Humphries, guard Tyler Moore and tackle Chaz Green. How will this unit jell in the spring?

3. Replacing Dante Fowler
With seven starters back, the defense should once again be the strength of this team. But the Gators have one critical void to address, as end Dante Fowler left early for the NFL. Fowler led the team with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss in 2013.  

5. South Carolina

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

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Jon Hoke (Co-defensive coordinator)

South Carolina’s Spring Priorities

1. QB Battle
Dylan Thompson departs after guiding South Carolina to a 7-6 record in his only full season as the starter. Sophomore Connor Mitch (2 of 6 in 2014) holds the inside track to replace Thompson, but the battle in Columbia is far from finished. Can Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia or incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez unseat Mitch this offseason?

2. Restock the OL
South Carolina has significant personnel losses at each offensive unit. But the offensive line might have the biggest shoes to fill with the departure of standouts Corey Robinson (LT) and A.J. Cann (guard). Could Brandon Shell flip from right tackle to the left side?

3. Finding Answers on Defense
South Carolina’s defense ranked 12th in the SEC by allowing 30.4 points per game in 2014. Coach Steve Spurrier is turning to a familiar face in Jon Hoke to find some answers this spring. Six starters are back from last season, and a handful of young players should benefit from another spring to develop. Improving the pass rush and secondary will be two areas of specific focus for Hoke.

6. Kentucky

2014 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

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Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Shannon Dawson (offensive coordinator)
Andy Buh (OLB coach)

Kentucky’s Spring Priorities

1. Replacements at Defensive End
Mark Stoops and coordinator D.J. Eliot have some major renovations ahead at end this spring. Gone are Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree, two standout performers who recorded 12 of Kentucky’s 27 sacks last season. Junior college recruit Alvonte Bell could help, but he won’t arrive until this summer. Expect junior Jason Hatcher to play a key role in replacing Dupree and Smith.

2. Patrick Towles
In his first full season as the starter, Towles threw for 2,718 yards and 14 scores and added 303 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Can he take the next step in his development this spring? Redshirt freshman Drew Barker was a touted prospect from the 2014 signing class and will have a chance to push for the job this offseason.

3. Improvement on the OL
Only one team (Tennessee) allowed more sacks in SEC games than Kentucky last season. The Wildcats gave up 27 sacks in eight games and must replace left tackle Darrian Miller this spring. This is a big spring for returning starters Zach West, Jon Toth, Ramsey Meyers and Jordan Swindle to build chemistry for 2015.

7. Vanderbilt

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2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 9

Vanderbilt’s Spring Priorities

1. Find a Quarterback
New coordinator Andy Ludwig inherits an offense that managed only 12.8 points per game in SEC contests. Improving the offense starts with finding a quarterback. The Commodores aren’t hurting for options under center, as three players have started a game and Shawn Stankavage is ready to push for time after a redshirt year. Can Ludwig settle on a clear No. 1 passer?

2. Development at WR
New receivers coach Cortez Hankton opened spring practice looking for more playmakers. With inconsistency at quarterback, evaluating the Vanderbilt receiving corps isn’t easy, but only two receivers – C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford – caught more than 20 passes in 2014. Can young players like Caleb Scott, Ronald Monroe, Rashad Canty and Trent Sherfield emerge as threats to help Duncan and Rayford in 2015?

3. Derek Mason’s Defense
In addition to his duties as the head coach, Derek Mason is now Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator. That’s a lot on Mason’s plate, but as his tenure at Stanford showed, he’s one of the nation’s top defensive signal-callers. With Mason having a full spring to work with a unit that returns nine starters, how much can the Commodores’ defense improve in 2015?