By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
East Division Preview
Head coach: Jim McElwain, third season (19-8 at Florida, 41-24 overall)
2016 record: first in East (9-4, 6-2)
Key losses: cornerback Teez Tabor, linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive back Marcus Maye
Key returning players: receiver Antonio Callaway, offensive lineman Martez Ivey, defensive end CeCe Jefferson
McElwain led the Gators to back-to-back East division titles in his first two seasons in Gainesville, and Florida will have a great chance to make it three straight trips this year. Florida’s defense has been the team’s strength over the last two years, and while it should be a solid unit again, the Gators lost several key players to the NFL. The offensive line should be very good, but there are concerns at quarterback. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is the favorite to win the QB battle. If he does, he has the difficult task of facing Michigan during the first week of the season.
Head coach: Kirby Smart, second season (8-5)
2016 record: third in East (8-5, 4-4)
Key losses: receiver Isaiah McKenzie, defensive back Maurice Smith, offensive lineman Greg Pyke
Key returning players: running back Nick Chubb, quarterback Jacob Eason, linebacker Lorenzo Carter
After an 8-5 season in Smart’s first season, the Bulldogs now are the favorites to win the SEC East. Georgia has a starting quarterback returning in Eason, and the Bulldogs have two great running backs in Chubb and Sony Michel. The defense should be stout, especially the front seven, but the schedule is difficult. The Bulldogs play Notre Dame, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt away from home and only have six true home games. Georgia probably is more talented than Florida and it’s understandable why the Bulldogs are favored in the East, but they will have a tough time navigating that sche-dule.
Head coach: Mark Stoops, fifth season (19-30)
2016 record: fourth in East (7-6, 4-4)
Key losses: offensive lineman Jon Toth, running back Boom Williams, receiver Jeff Badet
Key returning players: running back Benny Snell, safety Mike Edwards, linebacker Jordan Jones
The Wildcats finally turned the corner in Stoops’ fourth season in making it to a bowl game and defeating in-state rival Louisville, and will look to continue that success in 2017. No one expects Kentucky to win the East, but a top three finish isn’t out of the question. The offensive line will be a strength despite losing Toth, and quarterback Stephen Johnson improved as the season progressed last year. Defensively, the secondary will be among the best in the league thanks to safety Edwards, and is among the best linebackers in the conference. The schedule is favorable as they avoid powerhouse teams from the West and get Florida and Tennessee at home. The Wildcats should take another step forward this season.
Head coach: Barry Odom, second season (4-8)
2016 record: seventh in East (4-8, 2-6)
Key losses: linebacker Charles Harris, cornerback Aairon Penton, cornerback John Gibson
Key returning players: receiver J’Mon Moore, offensive lineman Paul Adams, defensive lineman Marcell Frazier
Missouri finished 4-8 in Odom’s first season, but the Tigers have reason to be optimistic entering this year. They won’t contend for the SEC East but they do have the offensive firepower to cause opposing defenses plenty of trouble. The offense returns 10 starters – including Moore and quarterback Drew Lock – from a unit that averaged over 31 points per game last season. The problem for Missouri last season that could continue this year is the defense. The young front seven was young in 2016, and this year the secondary will be inexperienced. The schedule is manageable, however, and Odom can get six or seven wins if the defense improves enough to support the dynamic offense.
Head coach: Will Muschamp, second season (6-7 at South Carolina, 34-28 overall)
2016 record: fifth in East (6-7, 3-5)
Key losses: defensive end Darius English, kicker Elliott Fry, offensive lineman Mason Zandi
Key returning players: quarterback Jake Bentley, linebacker Skai Moore, tight end Hayden Hurst
The Gamecocks were a pleasant surprise in 2016 in Will Muschamp’s first season as they doubled their win total from the previous season and made a bowl game. Bentley started over half the season after skipping his senior year of high school and made a drastic impact on the production of the offense. Depth is still a concern on both sides of the ball, however, and the schedule is very difficult right from the start as they play a solid North Carolina State team. South Carolina could be a better team in 2017, but that improvement might not be reflected in the win column.
Head coach: Butch Jones, fifth season (30-21 at Tennessee, 80-48 overall)
2016 record: second in East (9-4, 4-4)
Key losses: defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara, quarterback Josh Dobbs
Key returning players: receiver Jauan Jennings, offensive lineman Jashon Robertson, linebacker Da-rrin Kirkland
Tennessee was picked to win the East Division last in 2016, but injuries and upset losses led to a second straight 9-4 record. The Volunteers still have talent, but it’s inexperienced talent. They might actually be under the radar entering this year. Replacing Dobbs at quarterback will be difficult, and UT also has limited experience at running back and receiver. The defense is replacing one of the best players in school history in Barnett, but overall it has the potential to be a solid unit. Road games at Alabama and Florida will be extremely difficult, and the Vols also must play LSU from the SEC West. There are whispers of Butch Jones being on the hot seat, but it’s unclear how many wins he will need to appease new athletic director John Currie.
Head coach: Derek Mason, fourth season (13-24)
2016 record: sixth in East (6-7, 3-5)
Key losses: linebacker Zach Cunningham, offensive lineman Will Holden, defensive lineman Adam Butler
Key returning players: running back Ralph Webb, linebacker Oren Burks, defensive lineman Nifae Le-alao
Mason and the Commodores broke through and made it to a bowl game last season, and they have the talent and potential to do so again this year. Vandy will look to build off of last season’s impressive wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee, and Webb will be the catalyst for the Commodores’ offense.Quarterback Kyle Shurmur improved throughout the course of the season and he should have a solid offensive line protecting him. The defense has the difficult task of replacing Cunningham, an All-SEC linebacker, but it still should be a solid unit. The schedule is very difficult, however, which could prevent Vandy from reaching another bowl game. But the program is on the right path under Mason, and the Nashville squad has the potential to pull off an upset this year.