By Cole Frederick/Staff Correspondent
Coach: Dan Mullen
Fourth season at Florida
2020 record: 8-4
Mullen led the Gators to the SEC title game in his third year in Gainesville, and they were one of the best teams in college football. Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney are all playing in the NFL, but Mullen is a proven offensive mastermind and his revamped offense should be explosive yet again. Statistically, the 2020 Florida defense was one of the worst in school history, so there’s only room for improvement. Only nine starters return overall, including four on the defense, but there’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball. The Gators have a difficult schedule as they play Alabama and LSU from the West Division, but Mullen should have Florida in contention for the East title once again.
Coach: Kirby Smart
2020 record: 8-2
Once J.T. Daniels took over for Stetson Bennett at quarterback, the Bulldogs started to look like a contender. Georgia lost to Alabama and Florida and missed out on the SEC championship game, but Smart will have the best team in the East in 2021. Furthermore, the Bulldogs are expected to be a national title contender this season. Twelve starters return overall and eight are back on offense. The receiving corps has question marks, but Daniels is the most talented quarterback Georgia has had since Aaron Murray. Smart’s defenses have always been elite, and this group should be no different despite returning only four starters on that side of the ball. The Bulldogs play Clemson to start the year, but the schedule is manageable after that Week 1 showdown.
Coach: Mark Stoops
2018 record: 5-6
Quarterback issues plagued the Wildcats a season ago, Mark Stoops has done an impressive job buil-ding the Kentucky program. Prior to 2020, the Wildcats had four consecutive winning seasons, and Stoops should get them back on track in 2021. Kentucky will have one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, and regardless of the quarterback play, this should be one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Seven starters return on offense, while four are back on defense. The nonconference schedule is relatively easy, and the conference schedule is favorable as the ‘Cats host Missouri, LSU, Florida and Tennessee.
Coach: Eliah Drinkwitz Second season
2020 record: 5-5
Most pundits were not expecting much from Drinkwitz during his first season in Missouri, but the Tigers put together an impressive season given the circumstances. Missouri fi-nished third in the East despite being picked sixth and beat Kentucky and LSU in October for their two best wins of the season. Expectations are now a little higher for Drinkwitz, and his Tigers won’t fly under radar with 13 starters returning. Quarterback Connor Bazelak had a productive freshman campaign and leads an offense returning seven starters. The nonconference schedule is easy aside from a road game at Boston College, and the Tigers take on Texas A&M and Arkansas from the SEC West.
Coach: Shane Beamer First season
2020 record: 2-8
Will Muschamp’s tenure in Columbia came to an end last season, and the Gamecocks replaced him with first-year coach Shane Beamer. Beamer’s father, Frank, built the Virginia Tech program into a national power, and Shane is looking to do the same at South Carolina. Beamer has 14 starters returning – seven on each side of the ball – but the overall talent level on the roster is not where it needs to be to compete at the highest level in the conference. The Gamecocks cross with Texas A&M and Auburn from the West and finish with Clemson. It will be an uphill battle for Bea-mer in Year One.
Coach: Josh Heupel
First season 28-8 overall
2020 record: 3-7
It’s been over a decade since Tennessee has contended in the SEC East, and the Volunteers hired their fifth head coach since Phil Fulmer retired in 2008. Heupel replaces Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired last season after Tennessee struggled throughout the year while undergoing off-the-field scandals and recruiting allegations. Heupel has his work cut out for him as the transfer portal ravaged the Vols in the offseason. Tennessee returns only seven starters total, including two on offense. A home game with Pitt is the toughest nonconference game, but even that’s not a guaranteed win. Tennessee plays Ole Miss and Alabama from the West and has challenging road games at Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.
Coach: Clark Lea;
First season overall
2020 record: 0-9
Lea returns to his alma mater for his first head coa-ching role after three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, and he inherits the toughest job in the SEC and perhaps the entire country. Vanderbilt usually ends up in the bottom of the conference each year, and aside from a pair of nine-win seasons under James Franklin a decade ago, the Commodores have been the cellar dwellers of the conference. Vanderbilt does return 16 starters, including nine on offense. The schedule is more favorable this year, however, and there are realistically four or five winnable games. However, Vandy fans will need to be patient with Lea as he attempts to rebuild the program into at least a team that can reach a bowl game consistently.