By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Georgia (11-1, 7-1); over/under 10.5
Projected wins: Austin Peay, South Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Missouri, Te-nnessee, Vanderbilt, LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, UMass, Georgia Tech
Projected losses: Florida
The Bulldogs were seconds away from winning a national championship a season ago and return a very talented team this fall. While the defense carried the team last year, Georgia will rely on offense through most of the 2018 season. An early-season road game at South Carolina will have major SEC East implications. If Georgia can win that game, the Bulldogs will set themselves up nicely in the division. The remainder of the schedule isn’t very challenging with the exception of a neutral site game versus Florida and a home game against Auburn. Kirby Smart and Co. should be able to get back to Atlanta with a chance to defend its SEC title from last year. In Atlanta, the Bulldogs could potentially face Alabama in a rematch of last year’s national championship game.
Florida (10-2, 6-2); over/under 8
Projected wins: Charleston Southern, Kentucky, Colorado State, Tennessee, LSU, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Missouri, Idaho, Florida State
Projected losses: Tennessee, Mississippi State
Dan Mullen inherits a talented roster that underachieved last year. The Gators don’t have a championship caliber team right now but Mullen will be expected to build a contender in the next few seasons. For now, Florida is flying under the radar. Georgia stole the headlines this offseason after another impressive re-cruiting class, and South Ca-rolina is being mentioned as the Bulldogs’ top challenger in the East. However, the Gators are more than capable of beating any team in the division. A three-game stretch in the middle of the year that includes road games at Tennessee and Mississippi State and at home for LSU will be very difficult. But by the time Florida takes on Georgia in Jacksonville in late October, Mullen should have his team playing at a high level.
South Carolina (8-4, 5-3); over/under 7.5
Projected wins: Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Florida, Chattanooga
Projected losses: Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Clemson
Will Muschamp led the Gamecocks to nine wins last year and guided South Carolina to bowl games in each of his two seasons in Columbia. He now is expected to field a team that can compete for the SEC East title. The combination of quarterback Jake Bentley and receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the best in the conference and in the country. Offensively, South Carolina should have no problem scoring. Muschamp’s specialty is defense, but that side of the ball could struggle early on in the season. The early-season showdown against Georgia will be pivotal, and the schedule overall is difficult. South Carolina travels to Florida and Texas A&M and host Clemson at the end of the year. The Gamecocks will be a factor in the SEC East but the schedule might prove to be too challenging.
Tennessee (6-6, 3-5); over/under 5.5
Projected wins: East Tennessee State, UTEP, Florida, Charlotte, Missouri, Vanderbilt
Projected losses: West Virginia, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky
Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC East in over a decade, and it’s up to new head coach Jeremy Pruitt to turn the program around in Knoxville. Butch Jones left behind some talent but this roster is not ready to compete for the division title. Still, the Volunteers should be an improved team under Pruitt. Their ceiling is probably seven wins but it would be an accomplishment if Pruitt guided them to a bowl game. Early season games against West Virginia and Florida will be tough, but a win in either of those will likely send this team bowling. The last four games against Charlotte, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt are all winnable, and the Vols might only have to win three of those four to reach a bowl game. As long as UT shows progress throughout the year, it will be a successful season for Pruitt and the program overall.
Missouri (7-5, 3-5); over/under 7
Projected wins: UT-Martin, Wyoming, Purdue, Memphis, Kentucky, Van-derbilt, Arkansas
Projected losses: Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee
The Tigers ended the 2017 regular season on a five-game winning streak and had one of the most prolific offenses in college football. Quarterback Drew Lock is a projected first round NFL draft pick, and Missouri will need him to be even better if the Tigers wish to contend in the SEC East. For Missouri to improve on last year’s seven-win sea-son, the Tigers must navigate a very difficult schedule. They draw Alabama from the West Division and must make the trip to Tuscaloosa. A non-conference road game at Purdue won’t be easy, and the Boilermakers dominated Missouri last year. Barry Odom isn’t expected to lead Missouri to the SEC title game but he needs to have another winning season to earn another year at his alma mater. The Tigers certainly aren’t a lock for seven wins but are ta-lented enough to play with almost anyone in the league.
Kentucky (5-7, 2-6); over/under 5.5
Projected wins: Central Michigan, Murray State, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee
Projected losses: Florida, Mississippi State, South Ca-rolina, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia, Louisville
The last two seasons have been steps in the right direction for the Kentucky program with Mark Stoops guiding the Wildcats to consecutive seven-win seasons, though they lost in each of their bowl games. Now, the question is whether Stoops and the Wildcats can take the program a step further and become a contender in the East. While there is still some talent on the roster, Kentucky faces a brutal conference schedule. In addition to the regular SEC East slate, the Wildcats take on both Mississippi State and Texas A&M. That’s surely better than playing Alabama or Auburn, but Kentucky will be underdogs in both of those games. It wouldn’t be surprising if Kentucky made it back to another bowl game. With such a difficult conference slate plus a road game at Louisville at the end of the season, however, it’s possible the Wildcats will take a step backwards and miss the postseason this fall.
Vanderbilt (3-9, 0-8); over/under 4.5
Projected wins: Middle Tennessee, Nevada, Tennessee State
Projected losses: Notre Dame, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Winning at Vanderbilt is the most demanding job in the SEC. Coaches aren’t expected to have a conten-der built in Nashville, but they are expected to have a solid team every few seasons. Derek Mason led Vanderbilt to a bowl game in 2016, and the Commodores were 5-7 a year ago. Perhaps Mason can get the program back into a bowl this year, but six wins is likely the ceiling for this team. Vanderbilt might be better overall than last year but the schedule is daunting. Middle Tennessee is not a pushover, and the ‘Dores travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in non-conference play. Three of the more winnable conference games – Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri – are all on the road. Vanderbilt also travels to Georgia. Drawing Arkansas and Ole Miss from the West Division is the best thing about the Commodores schedule, since those are likely the two weakest teams from that division. Nevertheless, there isn’t much reason for optimism for Vandy this year.