By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Coach: Dan Mullen
First season at Florida; 69-46 overall
2017 record: 4-7
Mullen left Mississippi State after nine seasons, and he’s returning to Gainesville after several succession seasons as the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. Florida fired Jim McElwain halfway through last season, and the Gators suffered one of the worst seasons in the last three decades. Mullen is tasked with rebuilding Florida into a national championship contender. Despite the abysmal 2017 campaign, the Gators still have plenty of talent. A whopping 19 starters return, the most in the conference. Martez Ivey headlines a very talented offensive line, while Cece Jefferson will anchor a defense featuring nine returning starters.
Florida eases into the season at home against Charleston, Kentucky and Colorado State. The remaining home games include LSU, Missouri, South Carolina and Idaho. The Gators have road games at Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Florida State and a neutral site game against Georgia.
The Gators won’t be expected to win the SEC East this season. However, Mullen will be expected to guide Florida to Atlanta and beyond pretty quickly into his tenure.
Coach: Kirby Smart; third season, 21-7 overall
2017 record: 13-2
Georgia was moments away from winning the national title a season ago before Alabama snatched the victory away. The Bulldogs won the SEC in Smart’s second season, and Smart has excelled in recruiting the last two offseason.
While the defense carried Georgia for most of last season, the offense might have to carry that burden for the first few games of 2018. Eight starters return on offense, and quarterback Jake Fromm returns after an impressive freshman season. Replacing running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be challenging, but the Bulldogs still have plenty of weapons on offense. Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Isaac Nauta are all very talented targets for Fromm.
Defensively, Georgia only has five starters returning. Roquan Smith will be difficult to replace, and Smart will need several young players to step up this fall. After an easy game to start the season against Austin Peay, the Bulldogs have a tough road game week two at South Carolina.
The Bulldogs have remaining home games against Middle Tennessee, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech. Road and neutral site games include Missouri, LSU and Kentucky.
Georgia is favored to win the East Division again, and the expectation is that the SEC title game will be a rematch of last year’s national championship against Alabama. Anything short of an SEC East title will be viewed as a disappointing season for the Bulldogs.
Coach: Mark Stoops, sixth season; 26-36 overall
2017 record: 7-6
The 2017 season started with such promise for the Wildcats. They were 3-0 and had every opportunity to beat Florida for the first time in over 30 years. Ultimately, the Gators won, 28-27, and Kentucky missed out on what could have been a 6-0 start.
Stoops is back for his sixth season and has 15 returning starters to work with this fall. Running back Benny Snell is the leading returning rusher in the SEC with 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore.
The Wildcats should be improved defensively as eight starters return, including defensive back Mike Edwards. Stoops has a veteran team but the schedule is very difficult in conference play. Kentucky travels to Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri and Tennessee and host Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia.The non-conference schedule isn’t too strenuous, so Stoops should be able to get Kentucky back into a bowl game for the third straight season. The Wildcats won’t compete for the SEC East championship but should be in the middle of the pack in the division.
Coach: Barry Odom, third season; 11-14 overall
2017 Record: 7-6
After a 1-5 start to the 2017 season, Odom’s job was on the line in only his second season. With their backs against the wall, the Tigers responded and won six straight games to finish the regular season.
The winning streak saved Odom’s job, but there is still work to be done. Quarterback Drew Lock is one of nine starters returning on offense. Lock had a fantastic junior season in throwing for 44 touchdowns, and he is regarded as a potential first round draft pick for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Defensive lineman Terry Beckner anchors a defensive group that returns seven starters. With 16 starters returning overall, Missouri will be one of the most veteran teams in the SEC.
The Tigers took advantage of a soft schedule down the stretch in 2017, and the 2018 schedule isn’t particularly difficult either. Missouri hosts UT-Martin, Wyoming, Georgia, Memphis, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The Tigers travel to Purdue, South Ca-rolina, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Based on the talent returning and the schedule, the Tigers should be back in a bowl game this fall.
Coach: Will Muschamp, Tthird season; 15-11 at South Carolina, 43-32 overall
2017 Record: 9-4
Muschamp has done a terrific job rebuilding South Carolina in only two seasons. The Gamecocks are now expected to be one of the top three teams in the SEC East following impressive 9-4 season in 2017.
Muschamp’s teams struggled offensively before last season, but this should be the best offense he’s ever coached. Jake Bentley returns at quarterback for his third season, and he has one of the best receivers in the league in Deebo Samuel. Eight starters return on that side of the ball, and it should be a much more productive unit since Samuel is healthy.
Six starters return on defense, including linebackers D.J. Wonnum and T.J. Brunson. Muschamp gets the most out of his defenses, and the Gamecocks will be tough on that side of the ball.
Any schedule that involves Clemson and Georgia is demanding, but South Carolina does get to play the Bulldogs in Columbia. Other home games include Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Missouri, Texas A&M, Te-nnessee and Chattanooga. The Gamecocks face Florida, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Kentucky on the road.
After last season, just making a bowl game won’t be enough for the Gamecocks this fall. The expectations are higher, and South Carolina should be in contention for the SEC East late in the season.
Coach: Jeremy Pruitt First season)
2017 Record: 4-8
Tennessee parted ways with Butch Jones after five seasons, and the Volunteers chose Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as head coach. Pruitt does not have any head coaching experience, and he’s facing a rebuild in Knoxville.
A total of 12 starters return – six on each side of the ball – and the offensive in particular is very young. Lineman Tre Smith is one of the best in the league but the entire offensive line is full of underclassmen. That might bode well for the 2019 season, but the Volunteers could endure some growing pains this fall.
There is talent on the roster. Despite his shortcomings as a coach, Butch Jones did recruit well. The lack of depth will be problematic, however, and the schedule does not do Tennessee any favors. The Vols will be underdogs in the season opener in Charlotte against West Virginia, and their SEC schedule includes road games at Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. While the home schedule is a bit more manageable, UT still hosts Florida and Alabama.
If Pruitt can navigate Te-nnessee to a bowl game this fall, it would be an impressive accomplishment. This team could be improved towards the end of the year but might be in for a rough start during the first eight weeks.
Coach: Derek Mason Fifth season
2017 Record: 5-7
The Commodores just missed out on making a bowl game in 2017 despite a 3-0 start to the season. Vanderbilt started 0-7 in conference play, though the Commodores dominated Tennessee in the season finale.
Derek Mason’s team returns 12 starters, including quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Seven starters return on offense, including five offensive linemen. It should be a productive offense but Vandy will be challenged early in the season.
After starting the season at home against Middle Tennessee and Nevada, the Commodores travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame. The conference schedule includes road games at Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Mi-ssouri. Vandy welcomes Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee to Nashville.
Reaching six wins will be challenging, given the difficulty of the schedule. Van-derbilt should be competitive in the East, but most likely will wind up in the bottom of the division once again.