By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Coach: Dan Mullen, second season at Florida, 79-47 overall
2018 record: 10-3
There aren’t many coaches in college football better than Dan Mullen at maximizing talent and exceeding expectations. Mullen consistently overachieved at Mississippi State, and his first Florida team won 10 games when it was projected to win seven. The Gators now are expected to contend in the SEC and will be in the foreseeable future alongside Georgia. Florida has 13 starters returning this season, including eight defensively led by defensive back C.J. Henderson. On offense, Feleipe Franks returns at quarterback after a solid season a year ago. The Gators open the season with a tough neutral site game against Miami and play Florida State to end the year. In the SEC, the schedule does not get any easier as the Gators draw LSU in Baton Rouge and Auburn from the West Division. The East might be decided by Florida’s late October matchup with Georgia.
Coach: Kirby Smart, fourth season, 32-10 overall
2018 record: 11-3
Kirby Smart has quickly turned Georgia into an annual contender, as the Bulldogs have qualified for the SEC title game in each of the last two seasons. Playoff buzz surrounds the Bulldogs yet again despite returning only 12 starters, but Smart has recruited extremely well during his tenure. Quarterback Jake Fromm anchors the Georgia offense for the third straight year and has plenty of weapons surrounding him. D’Andre Swift is one of the top running backs in the country, and the Dawgs return four starters along the offensive line. Georgia’s schedule is tough but manageable. A September home game against Notre Dame should reveal plenty about both teams, and the Bulldogs also draw Auburn and Texas A&M from the West as the last two conference games on the schedule. Anything less than at least an appearance in the SEC championship game will be a disappointing season for this group.
Coach: Mark Stoops, seventh season, 36-39 overall
2018 record: 10-3
Kentucky’s patience in Mark Stoops paid dividends last year, as he guided the Wildcats to their best record in over 40 years. The season culminated with a 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl and included Kentucky’s first win over Florida in over 30 years. While last season was great, 2019 figures to be a rebuilding year for Stoops. Ken-tucky returns only eight starters, which is tied with a handful of other teams for fewest in the country. Losing running back Benny Snell will hurt the most, and there are only four starters returning on each side of the ball. The Wildcats cross with Arkansas and Mississippi State from the West, so the schedule gives them an opportunity to potentially reach a bowl game for the fourth straight season.
Coach: Barry Odom, fourth season, 19-19
2018 record: 8-5
Barry Odom was close to losing his job during his second season at his alma mater when the 2017 Tigers started the year 1-5. However, Missouri rebounded and won six straight, and followed up with an 8-5 campaign a year ago. Odom now has job security and a talented team that is expected to win eight or nine games this season. Thirteen starters return overall and former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant joins seven other returning starters on offense. Bryant led Clemson to the playoffs two seasons ago before losing the job to freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence, but Bryant was still effective during his career at Clemson. Missouri has a very solid offensive line and should yet again have a high-powered offense. The Tigers cross with Ole Miss and Arkansas from the West, and it would not be surprising if Missouri ended the season with 10 wins.
Coach: Will Muschamp, fourth season at South Carolina, 50-38 overall
2018 record: 7-6
No one expected South Carolina to contend for a national title last year, but a 7-6 campaign was a tad disappointing for a team with a good bit of returning talent. Last year’s underwhelming season might have the Gamecocks under the radar for the 2019 season. Fourteen starters return, including quarterback Jake Bentley, wide receiver Bryan Edwards and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Will Muschamp is probably thrilled he has a veteran team returning, but no Gamecock coach, player or fan will be thrilled when they look at the schedule. It’s arguably the toughest in all of college football considering they play perhaps the three best teams. The Gamecocks host Alabama and Clemson and travel to Georgia. There is also a road game at Texas A&M and a neutral site matchup with North Carolina. Muschamp and Company might be thrilled with another 7-6 campaign this year.
Coach: Jeremy Pruitt, second season
2018 record: 5-7
UT might have only won five games in Jeremy Pru-itt’s first season, but now might be time to buy stock in the Volunteers’ future. Despite missing a bowl game, Tennessee looked much tougher and more disciplined under Pruitt. The Vols stunned Auburn in an upset in October, and Pruitt has 16 starters returning this fall. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano made strides over the course of the season and linebacker Darrell Taylor is one of the best in the conference. There certainly is an opportunity for the Vols to take a step forward this season. Despite traveling to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama and hosting Mississippi State from the West, the schedule is relatively manageable. Tennessee should go 4-0 in non-conference play, meaning that they only need two wins in the SEC to reach a bowl game. Don’t be surprised if the Volunteers lock up a bowl bid in early November.
Coach: Derek Mason, sixth season, 24-38 overall
2018 record: 6-7
A 24-38 overall record might not seem impressive, but Derek Mason has done a solid job during his five seasons in Nashville. The Commodores played in bowl games in two of the past three seasons, though it will be challenging for them to make it back to the postseason in 2019, as only 12 starters return. Receiver Kalija Lipscomb and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn are two of the best skill position players in the league, but the ‘Dores are thin on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The path to a bowl game will be extremely difficult, especially considering the first three games on the schedule with Georgia at home, at Purdue and at home against LSU. Anything other than an 0-3 start would be a success for Mason’s crew.