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August 5, 2014

SEC East Rivals roundtable

Another SEC season kicks off in a little more than three weeks. Fall camp is getting underway at schools across the league. We polled our experts from sites that cover every school in the SEC East on a number of topics. See what our insiders think about the division and how things will play out here.

Here are the contributors who voted in the poll: InsidetheGators.com's Bryan Holt, UGASports.com's Anthony Dasher, CatsIllustrated.com's Brett Dawson, PowerMizzou.com's Gabe DeArmond, GamecockCentral.com's Chris Clark, Volquest.com's Paul Fortenberry and VandySports.com's Chris Lee.

What is your predicted order of finish in the SEC East?
The Results: (Seven points for first, one point for last, first place votes in parentheses)
South Carolina 47 (5)
Georgia 43 (2)
Missouri 31
Florida 29
Tennessee 18
Vanderbilt 16
Kentucky 10

The Explanation: I think there are just so many unknowns in the East this year with so many veteran, star players from both sides of the ball now gone from so many teams. This year, more than any other I can remember, it feels like the top three or four teams all have a legitimate shot at winning the East and there's no clear-cut, dominant team in this group.

Which team has the best offense in the East?
The Results: Georgia 5
South Carolina 2

The Explanation: "It's tough to vote against what Georgia has in its backfield paired with a strong receiving corps. The Bulldogs are being drawn up as the Todd Gurley show this year and rightfully so, but don't overlook the Bulldogs' pass-catching options if Hutson Mason is able to get them the ball. "

The opposing view: "The Gamecocks are breaking in a "new" quarterback (if a fifth year senior that has a few starts under his belt qualifies as such) and won't have Connor Shaw around or the playmaking ability of Bruce Ellington. Despite that, there is a lot of of experience returning up front with an experienced offensive line, a receiving corp that has some diversity and talent, a couple of excellent tight ends and one of the country's best backs in Mike Davis plus others that are capable behind him. Georgia gave me pause here because the Dawgs have some similarities to USC offensively in terms of what returns, but I would give South Carolina the close nod."

Which team has the best defense in the SEC East?
The Results: Florida 4
Georgia 2
South Carolina 1

The Explanation: "Coach Will Muschamp has talent and knows how to coach it. It's been six years since the Gators gave up even 22 points per game."

The opposing view: "Another offseason of troubling headlines and departures will raise questions, but Georgia should still be the most consistent and capable defense in the East. Look for a big-time season from Jordan Jenkins out of a hybrid position. The Bulldogs have veteran presence throughout their defense, something that will be severely lacking for other division teams in 2014. "

Which team is a wild card to win the division?
The Results: Missouri 4
Florida 3

The Explanation: "Yes, it seems strange to say this about the defending division champ, but a lot of folks it seems are discounting the Tigers. That's probably a big mistake."

The opposing view: "Last season was a perfect storm of misfortune for Florida. Given injuries, a sputtering offense and some bad breaks in close games -- four losses by less than a touchdown -- the Gators probably were better than their 4-8 record. Florida might not be a division winner, but it figures to be significantly improved."

Which team do you see as the most likely to fall short of the expectations?
The Results: Florida 3
South Carolina 2
Georgia 2

The Explanation: "That depends on what the expectation is. If one were to have picked Florida to win the East, then it's the Gators by a mile. Even though Florida's offense should be better just by default, there are several games on the schedule that could go either way for Muschamp's squad."

The opposing view: "Mike Davis is good, but it's going to be difficult for South Carolina to live up to the expectations it has now routinely built for itself through recent success. Too much was lost on defense, and the Gamecocks simply are not loaded enough around Dylan Thompson to help a quarterback who hasn't made the most of his opportunities to this point. "

Who is the player of the year in the division?
The Results: Todd Gurley, UGA 5.5
Mike Davis, USC 1.5

The Explanation: "Gurley is the best player on a team that should be in the mix to win the division. On an offense that is loaded with playmakers, he is clearly the leading actor. Gurley may be the best running back in America. If the Bulldogs' season lives up to expectations, he'll not only be the SEC player of the year on offense, but also a contender for the Heisman."

The opposing view: "While Todd Gurley will get most of the pub heading into the season Mike Davis will be running behind an experienced offensive line and will be option No. 1, No. 2 and option No. 3 for the Gamecocks while Gurley is in the backfield with several other very talented players. I think we'll see Davis, if healthy, end up with more yards on the better team come the end of the year."

For the team you cover, what is the game of the year and what will be considered a successful season?
South Carolina: Even though there are questions on defense, the offense is expected to be able to carry the team at times this season. Year in and year out, the game against Georgia is called a key yet it hasn't been really the deciding factor lately. When the division is tight, every game counts the same really. Honestly, one could say that South Carolina can't afford to say, drop a game to Kentucky on the road (think Tennessee on the road last year). I think at Auburn is the toughest game on the schedule but USC could get by with dropping that game at the end of the day. I'll go with Florida on the road as being the key swing game. For USC, the expectation is to make it to Atlanta. Anything short of that could honestly be considered a disappointment this season.

Florida: The general consensus throughout Gainesville is Florida needs to beat Georgia for the heat underneath Will Muschamp's posterior to not turn up another level. Moving to 0-4 against his alma mater would not be pleasant, but beating the Bulldogs will be as difficult as it has been since he arrived at UF. Nothing shy of 10 wins is considered a good year at Florida, even coming off a gut-punch 4-8 season. Gators fans might be able to live with nine wins if their team is at least competitive in all of its marquee matchups, but anything less would mean the Gators won one or zero of their five marquee games. That would spell trouble for Muschamp and further the growing discontent around town.

Kentucky: Vanderbilt. The Wildcats get a week off after a trip to Florida and host Vanderbilt on Sept. 27 with a chance to break what by then likely will be a 17-game SEC losing streak. Kentucky is looking to take a step forward in Mark Stoops' second year, and that's too good an opportunity to let slip. For Kentucky, four wins would match the program's win total for the past two seasons combined. That number probably is the baseline for success. But with three probable wins in the nonconference against UT Martin, Ohio and Louisiana Monroe, it might take five wins to qualify as a major leap.

Vanderbilt: When Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for the second-straight season--the first time since the 1920s that had happened--it finally established the game as a legitimate rivalry after roughly 80 years of Tennessee domination in the series. For the first time in decades, the two teams legitimately compete against each other in recruiting, and the loser could be hard-pressed to make a bowl. It should help VU that the game is in Nashville. Coach Derek Mason will bring lots of changes in his first year, not the least of which is the switch to a 4-3 defense. However, there's still plenty of talent around on defense, and out-of-conference schedule is beyond weak, so a 7-win season isn't out of the question. Anything less than that would probably be considered a disappointment to Commodore fans.

Georgia: For Georgia, it's easy. The SEC opener at South Carolina. This game always sets the tone for both programs, although it obviously doesn't always guarantee a division crown, whichever team wins will be feeling pretty good about their chances moving forward.

Missouri: This is a tough one. Missouri's first three SEC games are at South Carolina, home for Georgia and at Florida. You could make a case for any of them as the game of the year. But if I have to pick one, I'll go with the home game vs UGA. The Tigers are getting Georgia early in the year and getting them at home. After this game, we'll know exactly where Missouri stands in the pecking order and what the goals should be for the rest of the season. Come out of here 2-0, you're the favorite to repeat as division champs. At 1-1, you're still alive but can't really stumble again. Lose them both and you're just setting your sights on the best bowl game you can get because the division is out the window.

Tennessee: The key game for Tennessee this season will be the Florida game at home. The Vols' stated goal this season is to get back to the post-season and if they hope to do that it means beating an SEC East team not named Vanderbilt or Kentucky. The Vols get the Gators at home and it will be later in the season than when the two teams usually play and Tennessee is already eying it as their biggest game of the first half of the season. If the Vols go 6-6 it will be viewed as a successful season. They are playing against one of the top five toughest schedules in the country, which includes a trip to Oklahoma along with its regular SEC commitments, and making it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 would be looked at as an accomplishment for Butch Jones and his program as they continue to try and rebuild.

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