The national champion Gators brought the most glory to the SEC East, but they weren't the only school to make a dent in the postseason scene last year. Four others from the division played a bowl game last winter and the East went a combined 4-1 straight up (SU) and against the spread (ATS).
Bettors can expect more of the same this year as far as bowl-bound schools are concerned, but can the Gators count on another national championship game appearance? They’ll be hard-pressed to make the conference championship game with this kind of competition.
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Florida’s dominance in the BCS Championship game nailed home the point that the SEC is now the top conference in the country. That’s a source of pride for whoever survives the conference, but that top-to-bottom competitiveness is hell through November. That’s troublesome for the Gators in 2007, considering the talent they lost from last year’s championship squad.
Gainesville residents would have us believe that the Gators recruit well enough that they can send out a defense as dangerous as last year’s, but with nine new starters, patrons at the Swamp are bound to see more slipped tackles and blown coverages in September than they did in all of 2006.
The big loss on offense was quarterback Chris Leak. Last year’s fill-in Tim Tebow was the nation’s highest-profile backup and won’t catch anyone off guard and it remains to be seen how often he’ll find his rich array of targets. For all the negativity, however, the Gators have great talent taught to do the little things on both sides of the ball and head coach Urban Meyer is blessed with an easier schedule than last year.
Predicted record: 10-2
It was a tale of three seasons in Athens last year. The Dawg ‘D’ was the talk of the land as Georgia won its first five games, then the focus shifted to the anemic offense as the Bulldogs lost four of its subsequent five games. Then-freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford gave hope for 2007, however, when he led Georgia to a trio of season-ending wins against some of the toughest defenses in the nation.
The optimism should be tempered a little by an early schedule that has the Dawgs visiting ‘Bama and the Vols (as well as hosting South Carolina and Oklahoma State) through October’s first weekend.
Stafford has the arm to be a star and it could happen as soon as this season if his receivers hang onto the ball better than they did last season. The O-line has some young starters but it should be a team strength while opening holes for a variety of backs. That all adds up to improved offensive production, but the sheer volume of new starters on defense should keep Georgia away from a 10-win regular season again.
Predicted record: 9-3
Steve Spurrier went 7-5 SU and 6-6 ATS in his first year in Columbia, then 8-5 SU and 9-3 ATS record in his second. South Carolina’s placement in the mighty East lets Spurrier’s boys slip under the radar as much as you can in the SEC, meaning the Gamecocks will likely have some early-season value and could improve even further this year.
The Cocks return 15 of their leading 16 tacklers from 2006, which bodes well for early visits to Georgia and LSU when they’ll get plenty of points from oddsmakers. Whether the offense can score enough to steal a SU win or two is the question of the season. Quarterback Blake Mitchell improved through 2006, but isn’t a game-breaker. The backs are strong as a group, but that doesn’t mean much if the line doesn’t improve.
South Carolina played five road games last year, four SEC games and a visit to Clemson. The Gamecocks went 4-1 SU, 5-0 ATS and came within a blocked field goal at the Swamp of making it a perfect record. Spurrier’s team shows up for big games, a good sign in this conference.
Predicted record: 8-4
The Vols start the season off on a rotten note, visiting Cal on Sept. 1 to face a Bears team looking for revenge after last year’s thumping on Rocky Top, then dropping by the Swamp two weeks later to visit the defending champs. Things are reasonably manageable after that, with home games against Georgia and South Carolina and a trip to Tuscaloosa the biggest problems.
Tennessee has some holes to fill if the school wants to win double-digit games and have a shot at the conference title. The passing game, its major offensive strength last season, will rely on an entirely new corps of targets, and quarterback Erik Ainge no longer has the SEC’s top left tackle protecting him. The losses on defense are also a concern, especially at tackle and in the secondary.
The Volunteers were 8-4 ATS in the regular season last year, obscuring the fact that they maintained their miserable ways as a home favorite. They were 1-3 ATS when laying points at Neyland Stadium in 2006, dropping them to 3-14 ATS since 2004 and 10-26 ATS since 2001 as a home favorite.
Predicted record: 7-5
The Rich Brooks era finally delivered in Lexington last year as the Wildcats not only played .500 football in the country’s toughest conference, but upset Clemson in the Music City Bowl. Kentucky flaunted an offense that (barely) managed to score more points than its porous defense regularly conceded.
Quarterback Andre Woodson returns with all his top targets and top runners, so what’s not to love about the Cats in ’07 with eight home games on their schedule? Quite a bit, actually. Last year’s schedule had Kentucky visiting most of its toughest rivals, resulting in four games where the Wildcats were +20 or more. This time they’re getting most of the same teams at home, meaning unfriendly lines for bettors.
The defense was too reliant on turnovers last year and managed to get away with its risky approach. But Kentucky allowed its opponents over 450 yards of offense per game, an abominable number the team can’t get away with again. The Wildcats’ success in 2006 also makes them a target in 2007, whereas they’d slipped under the SEC radar in previous seasons.
Predicted record: 6-6
It was a step back for the Commodores in 2006, who went 1-7 SU and 4-4 ATS in conference play after going 3-5 SU and 5-3 ATS in the SEC the year before. Last year still produced a memorable win, however, as they beat Georgia as 14-point road underdogs for the school’s first win over a ranked team in their opponent's home stadium.
Vandy has only four road games this season, but all four are against tough SEC opponents, so the upset opportunities are there. The fact that 18 starters (10 on offense) return for 2007 has optimists in Nashville thinking that a .500 season and the school’s first bowl appearance since 1982 are not only possible, but likely.
Those optimists should lower their expectations. Returning a huge volume of starters is nice, but recruiting classes that annually rank at or near the bottom of the SEC means Vanderbilt’s starters are nowhere near the talent level of its conference rivals. Receiver Earl Bennett is a star and quarterback Chris Nickson is exciting, but the Dores have too many opponents with national title hopes to count on a bowl game.
Predicted record: 5-7