Is Florida ready to challenge the Bulldogs for supremacy in the SEC East this fall?
Georgia is the reigning SEC East champion and the undisputed preseason favorite entering the 2018 season. Even though the Bulldogs are replacing x starters, the cupboard is far from bare in Athens, one of the reasons why Kirby Smart’s team could make a return to the College Football Playoff.
To get there, Georgia will have to first defend its division title and possibly repeat as SEC champion as well. But the rest of the SEC East isn’t going to simply roll over and let the Bulldogs waltz their way to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
However, even though Georgia won the SEC East by two games with a 7-1 conference record, the gap was much wider. The Bulldogs swept their division opponents, winning all six games by an average margin of nearly 30 points per contest.
So if Georgia is the consensus pick for top billing in the SEC East, which team is the second best and potentially the biggest threat to the Bulldogs’ postseason aspirations? Athlon editors and contributors size up the SEC East pecking order.
Which Team is Georgia's Biggest Competition in the SEC East?
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Florida made the right move in bringing Dan Mullen back to Gainesville. Not only is he familiar with the expectations that come with being a part of the Gators’ program, Mullen’s also no stranger when it comes to winning in the SEC. Considering what he accomplished at Mississippi State, I fully expect Mullen to have Florida back in the national spotlight sooner rather than later. While there’s plenty to like about South Carolina, which has more overall stability from both a coaching and personnel standpoint and a manageable schedule, I’ll take Mullen and the Gators as the team out of the SEC East that will push Georgia the most this fall.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Well if we're looking long term, I'll unhesitatingly say that it's Florida given the resources at the school and what Dan Mullen's track record has been. Looking just to 2018 though, I think it will be South Carolina given who comes back to Columbia this season. That starts with quarterback Jake Bentley making strides in his third season and the return of wide receiver Deebo Samuel for what is hopefully an entire slate of games. Even with all the new faces for the Bulldogs, I'm still not 100 percent sure that the Gamecocks can truly make a run at the division title against their SEC East brethren but they'd be my pick for coming closest at the minimum.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
There’s a significant gap between Georgia and the rest of the SEC East this season, but I’ll take Florida as the biggest competition. Needless to say, a lot has changed since last year. The Gators hit a home run with the hire of Dan Mullen, as the former Mississippi State head coach should provide an instant boost for an offense that has struggled mightily in recent years. Mullen isn’t going to fix all of the problems in his first season, but modest improvement on offense is a reasonable expectation, especially with the talent returning at running back and receiver. The defense should be among the SEC’s best under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The schedule also works in Florida’s favor. The Gators play just four true road games, with two of those coming against Tennessee and Vanderbilt – potentially the two teams at the bottom of the East. Florida also hosts South Carolina in a key swing game for second in the division. Despite last year's losing mark, the Gators still have good players in the program. An upgrade in coaching should help this program get back on track in 2018.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Last season, the South Carolina Gamecocks finished with a quiet nine wins, including their 26-19 Outback Bowl victory over the Michigan Wolverines. With Florida and Tennessee in a bit of transition, the Gamecocks are the biggest challenger to Georgia for the SEC East crown.
With new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon as well as quarterback Jake Bentley and wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel returning, South Carolina's offense should improve next season.
The Gamecocks’ defense will return six starters, including linebacker T.J. Brunson, who is the quarterback of the unit. Georgia will travel to Columbia to play South Carolina on Sept.8, and that could very well determine the winner of the SEC East.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
The SEC East was a total dumpster fire not long ago – 2015 and ‘16, in fact – but Georgia's quick turnaround under Kirby Smart suddenly built a glass ceiling. The Bulldogs' path to an SEC championship and very nearly a national title included a two-game win in the division, but the margin felt considerably wider.
However, one of college football's biggest surprises of the 2017 season, South Carolina, could be primed for even more shocks in Year 2 under Will Muschamp (above, right). In Muschamp's second season at Florida, the Gators reached a BCS bowl game; a New Year's Six bowl in his second season at South Carolina isn't out of the question, with the Gamecocks returning almost all of its starting lineup on offense from a surprising nine-win squad. As far as contending with Georgia, South Carolina draws the Bulldogs at home in Week 2, which might be the perfect place in the schedule to score an upset.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
I believe South Carolina could make some noise in the SEC East this season. South Carolina was the only team in the division that was even remotely competitive against Georgia last season. And I like what the Gamecocks have coming back for 2018, particularly on offense. Jake Bentley has the potential to flourish under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner. The healthy return of wide receiver Deebo Samuel will be huge as well. Samuel was a one-man wrecking crew on offense and special teams before getting injured last season. Defensively, there are some question marks. However, head coach Will Muschamp always seems to come up with answers on that side of the ball.