Spring practices are starting all over the country. Teams and fans are starting the new season with a clean slate. Everybody is undefeated. Previously on CFBZ we took a look at the SEC West, now let's take a look at the the biggest question marks across the Eastern Division of the SEC Conference as teams hope to answer these questions and stay undefeated once the season starts.
Fixing The Offense- After finishing 1st in the SEC in 2009 in Total Offense, Florida completely fell off the map in 2010 finishing in 10th place. They dropped from 2nd to 10th in passing offense, from 2nd to 6th in rushing offense and from 2nd to 8th in scoring offense. They also turned the ball over 11 more times in 2010 than they did in 2009. That is not a recipe for success. This season they have brought in Charlie Weis to fix the offense. Weis struggled mightily at Notre Dame as a Head Coach but his offenses were not the problem. The question is if he can take the personnel Florida has and mold it into something he can use on the field or if he will have to wait and recruit guys to fit his system.
One thing is clear and it's that Florida has a lot of athletes so Weis has some weapons at his disposal. The biggest question mark for Florida is who wins the QB job. John Brantley's first year as a starter can be viewed as nothing but a failure. He finished the season with more INTs than TDs and averaged the least amount of yards passing per attempt in the conference (other than Larry Smith at Vandy). If Brantley can't adapt to the new offense then Rivals #1 QB Jeff Driskel will be waiting in the wings to lead the Florida attack.
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Building A Tougher Bulldog- The biggest question marks at Georgia won't be answered until Georgia suits up and stairs eye to eye with the competition. The biggest issue Georgia had last year was that they were not tough enough, and strong enough on the lines of scrimmage. Georgia lost four games last year simply because they were out-muscled and/or out-efforted on the OL and DL. Georgia has made the change in their Strength and Conditioning Program and have added a Nutrition program to try and re-gain an advantage. Initial reports are very favorable in Athens in terms of guys adding on weight and feeling like they have more endurance but the ultimate test will be when they line up against Boise State and South Carolina in the opening games of the 2011 season.
Replacing Offensive Production- The only team that lost more offensive firepower in the SEC from last year is Auburn. Kentucky returns only 7% of their passing yardage (11th in the SEC), 36% of their rushing yardage (last in the SEC) and only 38% of their receptions (10th in the SEC). Maybe more importantly are the names of the guys that they will be missing: Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Mike Hartline. Locke missed 3 games last year and in 2 of those games (Georgia and South Carolina) Kentucky had their two smallest rushing outputs of the year. Mike Hartline missed the bowl game against Pitt and in that game Kentucky had it's least amount of passing yardage for the year. It should also be noted that they lost all three of those games. The most important loss for Kentucky is their doing everything guy Randall Cobb. Last year Cobb had 16 TDs (7 receiving, 5 rushing, 3 passinng and 1 on a punt return). He was one of the most special players ever seen at Kentucky. How will Kentucky replace him and their other two offensive stars? That's the story of Kentucky's spring and the key to their success this year.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Can They Maintain Last Years Success?- Last year South Carolina went to their first SEC Championship game in a down year for the SEC East. The teams that usually dominante the East (Florida, Georgia and Tennessee) fell on hard times. Odds are that one or two of those teams will be significantly better this year. Is South Carolina up to the task of defending their crown? On the offensive side of the football the Gamecocks look like they are in good shape with Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey as their two primary weapons of mass destruction. Despite having the best RB/WR tandem in the conference the season might come down to how Stephen Garcia performs in the clutch. He improved last year but also threw 14 INTs with 5 coming in the last two games of the year. When South Carolina needs critical plays this year can Garcia deliver for them?
Other questions surround the South Carolina defense. They have returning talent from the front seven but they also lost a lot of production from those positions. Out of their four leading tacklers from the LB position they return only one and on the DL they need to replace Cliff Matthews and Ladi Ajiboye. They aren't starting from scratch but it's an area of the team to watch. South Carolina finished last year 3rd in rushing defense but was 10th in passing defense despite being number one in the conference in sacks. Usually with getting that much pressure on the opposing QB will aid your pass defense numbers but it wasn't so at South Carolina last year. South Carolina returns pretty much everybody in the secondary (outside of Chris Culliver) so it will be interesting to see if they can improve on the 23 TD they gave up through the air last year.
Building On Last Year- Tennesse came on strong last year winning 4 of their last 5 games. The question this year is if they can build on that strong finish and if that strong finish was because Tennessee improved or their competition decreased (their four wins down the stretch came against opponents with a combined record of just 13-36). Tennessee has question marks on both lines of scrimmage. On the offense side they don't return any seniors on the line and are very young. They also finished 12th in the SEC in rushing offense and last in yards per carry. They have to get stronger up front. Leading rusher Tauren Poole returns but he will need some help.
One of the biggest questions for Tennesse is the quality of their depth. Lane Kiffin left the cupboard bare and his star recruiting class has dwindled to just about zero. The defense is still a work in progress as they finished 10th in the conference in total defense last year. And the best player from that defense, Janzen Jackson, isn't currently in school and would need a waiver from the NCAA to return if he comes back from his personal problems to join the team. Don't expect this to be the year Tennessee returns to glory but they could be a lot better than last year it will all depend on how quickly their young players grow up and how deep their talent pool is.
A New Regime- Let's be honest, Vanderbilt isn't going to win the SEC East anytime soon. The most interesting thing about Vanderbilt this year will be James Franklin. How will he improve a defense that finished dead last in the SEC in total defense and gave up over 30 points per game last year. How does he improve an offense that scored the least amount of points in the SEC last year, gained the least amount of yardage and gained the least amount of yardage per play? There are too many questions about the Commodores to answer here.