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SEC Conference Football Preview (East Division)

   by Matt Fargo - 09/05/2009

The SEC has long been considered the toughest conference in football and rightfully so. It has produced the last three National Champions, Florida twice with LSU sandwiched in-between. The SEC leads all conferences in all-time titles with 17 and there will be teams looking to add to that this season and with legitimate shots in doing so. The leader of the pack is defending champion Florida who is favored once again to win the SEC East. The Gators may not even get challenged as the rest of the division is weaker and in a down year for some teams that are looking up at Florida. Nothing is guaranteed but the Gators have arguably the best shot at winning their division as any other team in the country.

Florida Gators 13-1 SU, 11-2 ATS, 8-5 O/U

Summary: It is a pretty safe bet to put Florida here. The Gators have won the National Championship two of the last three years, bring back their entire defense, bring back seven players on offense including Heisman winner Tim Tebow and face a schedule that is one of the easiest around. Florida had only one hiccup last season and that came at home against Mississippi by just a point despite outgaining the Rebels by 118 total yards. Florida lost at the right time as it was able to move up in the rankings as the season wore on and eventually beat then undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship. The loss of Percy Harvin and his 1,304 combined rushing and receiving yards will hurt but this team is too stacked to not repeat in the weak SEC East.

Schedule: Florida has a cakewalk for the most part. Three of the Gators non-conference games are against Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International. That is ridiculous. Rival Florida St. is the fourth. As far as SEC action, three of the four road games are easy wins with LSU being the lone challenge as well as possibly Georgia in Jacksonville.

Bottom Line: The Gators were two votes shy of being the unanimous number one team in the AP Preseason poll. They will likely sit atop the poll the entire season if they can get past LSU and another BCS Championship game is quite likely. Strange things happen in college football so as mentioned, another title is far from a guarantee although Florida has no excuses for not repeating.

Betting Forecast: Florida is a very public team but still managed to go 11-2 ATS last season. The numbers can only get bigger and that ATS winning percentage will drop.

Georgia Bulldogs 10-3 SU, 4-7-1 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: Georgia was a pretty big disappointment last season as it went from preseason number one to a 9-3 regular season record. This season, they come in ranked 13th by the AP so the underachieving label from last season can be switched to an overachieving label this season. The Bulldogs are loaded with talent but expectations are low because of the loss of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno. There is experience replacing both of those positions and Georgia returns eight offensive linemen that have started at least one game. The defense in 2008 was the worse in points allowed (24.5 ppg) since 1999 (25.8 ppg). Seven starters are back on the defense and this unit should improve in scoring allowed considering it was a solid 22nd in total defense with 312.0 ypg.

Schedule: Besides playing Tennessee Tech in early November, the Bulldogs schedule is loaded. They start the season with a battle against Oklahoma St. in Stillwater and then it is right into SEC action with games against South Carolina at home and Arkansas on the road. The other two non-conference games are against Arizona St. and at Georgia Tech. Georgia only has six home games on the slate.

Bottom Line: Georgia could surprise some folks as it always seems to play its best when expectations are low. Can the Bulldogs challenge Florida for the top spot in the division? I definitely think so but the defense needs to play more consistent and not allow 38 or more points like it did five times last season. If the quarterback situation doesn’t take a big dip, the meeting with Florida on Halloween could be something special.

Betting Forecast: After going 8-4 ATS last season, the Bulldogs dipped to 4-7-1 ATS. Look for another turnaround this season as people will be down on Georgia again.

Tennessee Volunteers 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 1-10-1 O/U

Summary: Tennessee missed the postseason for the second time in four seasons last year and that should be unacceptable in this program. So unacceptable, that longtime head coach Philip Fulmer was shown the door after 17 seasons. The Volunteers hired Lane Kiffin as head coach and his opening season has certainly had its share of distractions before any games have even been played. There is already talk about violations and he had 11 players leave the team. Nonetheless, Tennessee must move on and there should be some major improvements this season following a tough 2008. The defense was outstanding, finishing 3rd overall but the offense was a different story as it ranked 115th overall and 110th in scoring. Seven starters return on offense and Kiffin brought in former Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to help matters. Heading back to the postseason is a likely possibility for Tennessee.

Schedule: All four of Tennessee’s non-conference games are at home as it hosts Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio and Memphis. Thus, there are only four games on the road on the entire schedule but three of those are at Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and those are three likely losses. The other comes in the season finale at rival Kentucky. All four SEC home games are winnable with Georgia being the toughest.

Bottom Line: Tennessee has been added to the list of perennially strong programs that have taken a fall in a short amount of time. Recruiting has a lot to do with that but Kiffin should help alleviate those issues long with Ed Orgeron who was hired to run the defensive line and is one of the best recruiters around. Tennessee will move back into the top of the SEC but it may take a few classes for it to happen.

Betting Forecast: After a stretch of going 10-26 ATS as a home chalk from 2001-2006, Tennessee is 7-3-1 the last two years. I see that solid run continuing.

South Carolina Gamecocks 7-6 SU, 5-6-1 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U

Summary: When Steve Spurrier came to Columbia in 2005, expectations flew through the roof. In his first four seasons with the Gamecocks, they are 28-22. In Lou Holtz’ last four seasons, they went 25-22 so there has not been a huge difference. Spurrier has taken them to three bowl games but the highest ranking at the end of a season was, well, they have not been ranked. Supporters are getting antsy and justifiably so. South Carolina finished 97th in total offense last season and that is the one area his teams used to thrive in. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is just a sophomore but does show a lot of upside. The defense was rock solid, finishing 13th overall but there may be a slight decline as depth is a concern heading into 2009. Going back to a bowl should happen but it will be another “who cares” type of bowl.

Schedule: The Gamecocks enter 2009 with two tough road games at NC State on Thursday and then at Georgia the following week. It is then four straight home games with the only tough one being against Mississippi so it looks like a 3-3 start heading into the meat of the schedule. None of the final three road games are easy while two of the final three home games are against Florida and Clemson.

Bottom Line: Time is running out on Spurrier but he may call it quits before the university decides to do it for him. He did bring in the 12th ranked recruiting class in the nation but it was just 6th in the SEC so it is hard to compete with that type of competition. The Gamecocks could pull some surprises this season but it looks like it will be another middle of the conference finish.

Betting Forecast: Under Spurrier, South Carolina is 12-6-1ATS in road games so it has been competitive. Look for this trend to continue as long as the defense stays strong.

Vanderbilt Commodores 7-6 SU, 8-5 ATS, 4-8-1 O/U

Summary: Vanderbilt made it to its first bowl game since 1982 last season and actually walked away with its first bowl win since the 1955 Gator Bowl. The fact that the Commodores actually made it to a bowl game with the nation’s 117th ranked offense is beyond me. They started the season 5-0 before dropping four straight and limping to a 1-6 finish. The defense played strong early on but caved a little near the end of the season and that defense will be asked to carry the team once again. The only issue is that Vanderbilt lost two players from the secondary to the NFL so opposing teams know where the weakness will be this season. The offense returns eight players so the unit should improve behind sophomore quarterback Larry Smith who led the Commodores to that bowl victory in his only start of last season.

Schedule: Vanderbilt has a shot at jumping out to another quick start but nothing like going 5-0 and most likely somewhere in the likelihood of 4-2 as it has winnable games against Western Carolina and Mississippi St. at home and Rice and Army on the road. The last non-conference game is later in the season against Georgia Tech. In SEC play, the Commodores travel to LSU, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Bottom Line: Making it to consecutive bowl games has never happened at Vanderbilt but there is a possibility this year. If it can in fact open at 4-2, it will need only one upset in the second half of the year since it hosts Kentucky and I will count that as a win. Many of the same pieces are in place for head coach Bobby Johnson who despite leading the team to just one bowl game, has completely turned the program around.

Betting Forecast: The Commodores are 16-5 ATS as road underdogs the last five years but don’t expect that to continue. They no longer will have teams looking past them.

Kentucky Wildcats 7-6 SU, 6-6 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U

Summary: Kentucky has made it three straight bowl games which is a big accomplishment for a program not known for its football prowess. After three straight losing seasons, head coach Rich Brooks has turned this team into a winner and that is proven by all three of those bowl games resulting in victories. It will be a challenge to make it to four straight however as the schedule has gotten tough and no teams will be looking past the Wildcats like they did for years. The defense was a solid 40th in the country last season and it will be above average again. The offense needs to show some big improvements however as the Wildcats finished 106th in total offense and topped 27 points only three times. Overall, only 12 starters are back so new players will have to step in right away to avoid a slow start and help to give them a chance at a late season bowl run.

Schedule: Kentucky opens the season in a neutral game against Miami, Ohio and then hosts rival Louisville who is in a down year. The schedule toughens up after that with back-to-back home games against Florida and Alabama and then back-to-back road games at South Carolina and Auburn. Following that rough stretch are four straight winnable games before closing the season against Georgia and Tennessee.

Bottom Line: Six wins are a possibility for Kentucky meaning another bowl game is in store. The problem is that some of those winnable games could easily go the other way if the offense cannot produce. The Wildcats were held to 17 or fewer points five times last season and to no surprise, they went 1-4 in those games. Quarterback Mike Hartline will play a big role and he will have to limit his mistakes.

Betting Forecast: Kentucky is 6-2 ATS he last two years in non-conference games and it will be favored in all three this year (EKU not included). Look for more wins.

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