HOOVER – Defending Eastern Division champion Florida led the group into SEC Football Media Days Tuesday. The Gators were joined on the agenda by Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
Florida has been the best in the East the last two seasons under coach Jim McElwain. The Gators hope to keep the success going, but will see a furious challenge from their neighbors from Georgia.
Vanderbilt got themselves a winning record and bowl bid last season with Mississippi State enjoying a bowl invitation, despite not having a .500 record in the regular schedule.
Can Florida three-peat in SEC East?
Plenty of experience is back for the Gators in year three of the McElwain era.
But the concern is no experience at quarterback. Red-shirt freshman Feleipe Franks stood out in spring practice and goes into the fall as the projected starter. Another freshman, Kyle Trask, will challenge.
Once the Gators can solve the QB issue, they are blessed with the return of RB Jordan Scarlett, WRs Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell, and TE DeAndre Goolsby to spread the ball around.
Guards Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson, tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor provide experience up front. The only non-starting position is center, with T.J. McCoy at the top of the depth chart.
While the offense looks good, starters on defense are very few. Three come back with Jordan Sherit at defensive end, and Duke Dawson and Marcell Harris in the secondary.
"This is a whole new year," McElwain said. "We have a bunch of new guys. You can make it three division titles in a row if you sweat through the small details. The guys understand the reason why. I am excited about where we are at.
"The base principles and foundation have not changed. They have to be regenerated. We've got a long way to go."
McElwain pointed out the strength of the Gators going into 2017 is the offensive line. "It's time to go," he said.
Quarterback competition will be a battle, according to McElwain, now that former Notre Dame signal-caller Malik Zaire is in the mix. "Malik didn't come to Florida to hold a clipboard."
McElwain stated he knows who will be the starting quarterback for the Michigan game. The fans and the media may have to wait until Sept. 2.
Sept. 2 – Michigan (Arlington), Sept. 9 – Northern Colorado, Sept. 16 – Tennessee, Sept. 23 – at Kentucky, Sept. 30 – Vanderbilt, Oct. 7 – LSU, Oct. 14 – Texas A&M, Oct. 28 – Georgia (Jacksonville), Nov. 4 – at Missouri, Nov. 11 – at South Carolina, Nov. 18 – UAB, Nov. 25 – Florida State.
Is Georgia ready to overtake Florida for the East title?
With a full unit of defensive starters back between the hedges, the second year of the Kirby Smart era has plenty of promise. A good group of defenders is anchored by outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, safety Dominick Sanders, inside linebacker Roquan Smith and nose tackle John Atkins.
The Bulldogs have Jacob Eason back as the QB, with Nick Chubb leading the way in the backfield. Backup Sony Michel creates problems with his speed and athleticism. Two starters come back from the line, with new starters to be inserted at the wide outs.
"We understand the expectations," Smart said. "The expectations are now more understood here after season one. The expectation is to win championships here at Georgia.
"Appalachian State is 28-5 the last three years. It says a lot of who they are.
"When you play quarterback in the SEC, there is no security blanket. We have to run the ball better to open up the passing game. Quarterbacks are like coaches, they are defined by wins and losses."
Smart reported Eason is wanting and needing to up his completion percentage for the Bulldogs to be balanced, taking pressure off from the running game of Chubb and Michel, who are currently healthy.
Something he treasures is the depth of the defense. Georgia played a good percentage of freshmen on the defensive line last season. "When you have guys that weigh 300 pounds and can run, that's a bonus. We have some big bodies on the front. We need to fly to the football."
Sept. 2 – Appalachian State, Sept. 9 – at Notre Dame, Sept. 16 – Samford, Sept. 23 – Mississippi State, Sept. 30 – at Tennessee, Oct. 7 – at Vanderbilt, Oct. 14 – Missouri, Oct. 28 – Florida (Jacksonville), Nov. 4 – South Carolina, Nov. 11 – at Auburn, Nov. 18 – Kentucky, Nov. 25 – at Georgia Tech.
Momentum to build on for Mississippi State
Mississippi State went through a roller-coaster 2016 season, losing three straight in early October, winning two in a row in early November, hitting the skids with two losses, but coming back to trounce Ole Miss in the rival Egg Bowl and get invited to the St. Petersburg Bowl with five wins against seven losses.
The NCAA has a rule in regard to quality academics to allow teams that finish 5-7 a chance to go to the bowl season, when bowls need to fill vacancies.
Mississippi State squeezed out a 17-16 victory against Miami of Ohio inside the ball park of the Tampa Bay Rays. Now the Bulldogs look to move forward behind experience with junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald the leader of the offense.
State is in the process of replacing starters at running back, wide receivers and two offensive linemen. Center Martinas Rankin and guard Deion Calhoun are returnees in the line.
The entire defensive front will have new starters and three of the four positions at linebacker. Lashard Barr and Brandon Bryant are back in the secondary with sophomore Leo Lewis at linebacker, who was on the all-freshman team in 2016.
"We're striving to get better every day," Mullen was quoted Tuesday. "There is a lot more ahead of us. We have goals we want to achieve as a program. The players take a lot of pride in what they have done. They want to continue to take us to a higher level.
"We have a different personality with Todd Grantham now running the defense. I like the attitude of this team. This team has a good work ethic, even though we are young team. We are excited about what the season is going to hold."
Mullen said Fitzgerald is working hard to improve on his passing percentage. Fitzgerald connected on only 54 percent of his throws last year. "It's all about the next play." Mullen said about Fitzgerald getting consistent. "To improve his passing percentage, he is going to have to make non-spectacular plays. Take what the defense gives you. Nick has got to not force the ball downfield in trying to make plays.
"For Nick, it's the development of being a quarterback. He has great size, great build to be a quarterback in this league. The development of a quarterback is a skill he can work on. The more he develops, the more he will be successful."
Sept. 2 – Charleston Southern, Sept. 9 – at Louisiana Tech, Sept. 16 – LSU, Sept. 23 – at Georgia, Sept. 30 – at Auburn, Oct. 14 – BYU, Oct. 21 – Kentucky, Oct. 28 – at Texas A&M, Nov. 4 – U'Mass, Nov. 11 – Alabama, Nov. 18 – at Arkansas, Nov. 23 – Ole Miss.
Fifteen starters give Vanderbilt a chance to get better
With 70 percent of its starters returning, Vanderbilt is optimistic that winning will continue in Nashville after the Commodores went 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC and qualified for the Independence Bowl last season.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur anchors the ship for the Commodores, along with RB Ralph Webb, WRs Trent Sherfield, Kalija Lipscomb, TE Nathan Marcus, LG Ean Pfeifer, RG Bruno Reagan and LT Justin Skule joining him as returning starters.
Seven come back to the defensive side, led by linebacker Oren Burks, defensive tackle Nifae Lealao, strong safety Ryan White and defensive end Jonathan Wynn.
"Vanderbilt football is on the rise," coach Derek Mason stated. "We took several steps forward last year. We finished 4-2 and got to a bowl game. We are not satisfied. We are starting to close the talent gap. We are in a daily process of working hard to achieve.
"Kyle Shurmur is going to lead this unit. We have skilled players around him. When your team grows up, you've got a chance. Our future is now. All three phases (offense, defense, special teams) are better. We have depth. When you have depth, we have a chance to be something special. These guys are primed. This is great for Vanderbilt football.
"Kyle has grown up. The chemistry is strong. It just has not been overnight. We played a lot of young players four years ago. We have grown up. It's about learning, that's what we have been doing. They have understood what we are going through in this program. They care about winning on Saturday. Everybody is on the grind right now."
Sept. 2 – at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 9 – Alabama A&M, Sept. 16 – Kansas State, Sept. 23 – Alabama, Sept. 30 – at Florida, Oct. 7 – Georgia, Oct. 14- at Ole Miss, Oct. 28 – at South Carolina, Nov. 4 – Western Kentucky, Nov. 11 – Kentucky, Nov. 18 – Missouri, Nov. 25 – at Tennessee.
At Media Days Wednesday
Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M
Image courtesy of WBRC.
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