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Yeah, it's only January and the crystal football hasn't even been in Auburn's possession for a month, but that doesn't mean we can't look ahead. With so much talent departing the SEC via graduation and the NFL Draft, 2011 is already shaping up to be one of the most intriguing seasons in recent memory. Here's a ridiculously early look at how I see the 2011 SEC East shaking out, starting at the bottom. These rankings are subject to (and surely will) change between now and September.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
The Robbie Caldwell era came to an unceremonious end after just one season, when the Commodores dismissed the turkey inseminator in December in favor of former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin? Who??? Don't worry, nobody knows. The Commodores almost lured Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to Nashville, but Malzahn chose to stay put after receiving a well-deserved raise on the Plains. The Commodores have a lot of returning talent including a veteran offensive line, which typically is a recipe for success. But it's Vanderbilt, so it won't be this time.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Gone are running back Derrick Locke, wide receiver Randall Cobb and quarterback Mike Hartline off of an offense that ranked fourth in the SEC last season, averaging 428 yards per game. That's a lot to replace. Junior Morgan Newton will get the first shot to replace Hartline, but rising sophomore Ryan Mossakowski and freshman Maxwell Smith will also get looks. The Wildcats have to travel to LSU and South Carolina, two teams that likely will be favored to meet in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game. But the rest of the schedule is pretty weak, so expect the Wildcats to get back to a bowl.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
This is a make or break year for Georgia head coach Mark Richt, after he left a sour taste in the mouths of Bulldog Nation with an embarrassing 10-6 loss to UCF in the Liberty Bowl to close out the 2010 season. Georgia's going to have to get better in a hurry, and that's not going to be easy. The Bulldogs lose their two best players, wide receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Justin Houston. But quarterback Aaron Murray is back, along with leading rusher Washaun Ealey and a veteran offensive line. So theoretically, Georgia's offense should be fine. But I've been fooled by Georgia's offensive line too many times, and until it proves that it can get the job done, I refuse to believe in it. The Bulldogs open with Boise State and South Carolina, so an 0-2 start is very possible. That's not good for a team that became comfortable with losing in 2010.
3. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee evolved from a second half pushover to a four quarter fighter during the 2010 season. Despite the heartbreaking bowl loss to North Carolina, there are a lot of positives for head coach Derek Dooley to build on during the offseason. Rising sophomore Tyler Bray grabbed hold of the starting quarterback spot in early November and there's no sign of him letting it go. Running back Tauren Poole will return after a 1,000-yard season, and the receiving corps will be led by talented sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A potent offense coupled with a solid defense led by safety Janzen Jackson should vault the Vols into SEC East contention in 2011.
2. Florida Gators
Another offseason, another coaching change in Gainesville. Oh wait, there wasn't one last season, although Urban Meyer certainly appeared to be mentally checked out at times during his final season with the Gators. New head coach Will Muschamp hopes that the hiring of offensive guru Charlie Weis will fix the offensive problems that plagued the Gators last season, but instituting a pro-style offense with players that were largely recruited to run the spread can take some time. There's no shortage of talent in Gainesville, but quarterback John Brantley is going to have to show that he can handle SEC defenses before he gets the benefit of the doubt again. I am not totally sold on Will Muschamp as a head coach, but he's recruiting well and surrounding himself with a solid staff – two of the most important responsibilities that head coaches have. Florida will be back in Atlanta soon, but with road games at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina, it won't be in 2011.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks
No, that's not a typo. South Carolina got the monkey off its back in 2010, winning the SEC East for the first time in school history. In 2011, they'll be back for more. The Gamecock offense should be solid again, with running back Marcus Lattimore, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and quarterback Stephen Garcia all returning. Defensively, the Gamecocks got by last season with an underachieving secondary, but the talent is there. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety DeVonte Holloman lead a secondary that has a ton of talent and experience, but was overworked and out-of-sync all of last season. With the exception of a trip to Arkansas, most of South Carolina's tough games are at home, so expect the Gamecocks to make a return trip to the Georgia Dome in early December.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
2010/2011 Off-Season Column Archive:
Ridiculously Early SEC East Rankings – January 19, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cam Turns Pro – January 14, 2011
BCS National Championship Review – January 11, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cotton Bowl – January 8, 2011
Five Thoughts On Why Auburn Wins – January 7, 2011
Five Thoughts On Dan Quinn – January 5, 2011
Tuesday Question: Should Rich Rod Be Fired – January 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Charlie Weis – January 4, 2011
CFN Analysis: Charlie Weis as the Florida OC – January 3, 2011
CFN Analysis: Outback Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Gator Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Capital One Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Liberty Bowl – December 31, 2010
CFN Analysis: Music City Bowl – December 30, 2010
End Of The Season Accountability – December 27, 2010
Pryor Can't Be Compared To Newton – December 23, 2010
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam's Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Click here for the 2010 regular season archive
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive