2022 NCAA Football preview - SEC East
Normally I start off with the SEC West, but seeing as how the 2021 National Champion resides in the East (though not the 2021 SEC Champion) we’ll kick it off here where you’ve got the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Florida Vs. Georgia in Jacksonville Oct 29), a basketball school picked to finish 2nd, and where you can’t spell “Citrus” without “UT”.
While the top might be set with Georgia (seriously, is ANYONE else getting picked to win the East?), there’s no solid consensus for spots 2 thru 5 and anyone could make a run (at second place) in the East.
Florida Gators (6-7)
Head Coach – Billy Napier (First season)
Top Recruit – Kamari Wilson – S – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Will HC Napier’s small changes, things like better parking for student-athletes and instilling structure that was lacking under the previous regime, yield big results this year?
If things go right. . . the Gators exit September unblemished at 4-0, that won’t be easy with Utah and Kentucky visiting The Swamp and a trip to @Tennessee. If they can do that the schedule gets easier (sort of) in October and they’ll have a solid chance to be 7-0 going into the Georgia game. November brings a trip to @Texas A&M but also a string of three winnable games to polish off the season.
If things go wrong. . . The Gators are 2-2 going into October and while they’re on the right side of .500, no one gives them a chance against the freight train that is Georgia. They go 7-5 but don’t look good doing it.
Likely outcome for the season. . . 8-4 with them picking up an unexpected win over someone (@Tennessee? Vs. LSU?) and 9-3 a possibility. New schemes on both offense and defense could certainly cost them a winnable game early too.
Georgia Bulldogs (14-1)
Head Coach – Kirby Smart (66-15 in six seasons, 8 bowl games, 1 National Championship)
Top Recruit – Mykel Williams – DL – 5 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – The Bulldogs lost a LOT of production in the off-season, including NFL #1 overall Travon Walker and four other defensive starters; can they replace them and play at a level even close to last season’s historic defense?
If things go right. . . The ‘Dawgs are in the College Football Playoff for the third time in HC Smart’s tenure.
If things go wrong. . . I don’t know, they lose a game unexpectedly? Seriously, they don’t play Alabama or Texas A&M (until the SEC CG, that it) and while they have rivalry games against Auburn and Florida I don’t see any games they shouldn’t be favored in by at least 4 or 5 points. They’ll still be in Atlanta come early December.
Likely outcome for the season. . . another East division title, another trip to Atlanta, and another berth in the CFP. *Yawn*
Kentucky Wildcats (10-3)
Head Coach – Mark Stoops (57-53 in 9 seasons, 6 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Kiyaunta Goodwin – OT – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – is this the year that a “down-on-their-luck” traditional power decides that Mark Stoops is the answer to their problems, or does Stoops view Kentucky as his first and last stop as a head coach?
If things go right. . . the Wildcats could be looking at an 11-1 season (lose Vs. Georgia), that is absolutely best case scenario. There are plenty of games (@Florida, @Ole Miss, @Tennessee) where they could be tripped up before the Bulldogs come calling, but I can honestly say that if Kentucky won all three that it would not shock me.
If things go wrong. . . they drop all three of those games, South Carolina wins in Lexington, and/or Mizzou wins in Columbia, and Georgia comes in, smokes them, and the hangover carries over to Louisville who wins for the first time since 2017. That leaves them at 6-6, which feels like a “wheels falling off”-type scenario.
Likely outcome for the season. . . 9-3/10-2 feels like the floor for the Wildcats. Will Levis (QB-SR) is an NFL-caliber quarterback and the defense is led by a core group of seniors, throw in a coaching staff that doesn’t beat itself and they should be looking for win #10 come bowl season.
Missouri Tigers (6-7)
Head Coach – Eliah Drinkwitz (11-12 in two seasons, 2 bowls)
Top Recruit – Luther Burden – WR – 5 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – With three recruiting cycles under his belt, including the best class Mizzou has ever signed in 2022 (at least since the advent of recruiting services), is this the year we see the talent start to take hold, or is it another year of waiting?
If things go right. . . the Tigers manage 8 wins, if they get there HC Drinkwitz is the SEC coach of the year and the recruiting momentum goes off the scale for the Tigers.
If things go wrong. . . it’s a 4 win season at the ‘Zou and the fanbase starts to cannibalize itself.
Likely outcome for the season. . . 6-6 and another bowl game. I only see four “will win” games on this schedule, but I see other five winnable games, though the Tigers will likely be underdogs in all five (depending on records at kick-off).
South Carolina Gamecocks (7-6)
Head Coach – Shane Beamer (First Season)
Top Recruit – Tanner Bailey – QB – 4 star
Biggest question for 2022 – Will Spencer Rattler be the QB that everyone expected him to be at Oklahoma, or is he another Jimmy Clausen/John David Booty/etc?
If things go right. . . They manage an upset against Kentucky or Florida and get to 6 wins. If they get to 7, someone sold their soul or some teams fell apart.
If things go wrong. . . Early losses @Arkansas and Vs. Georgia throw them off the rails, games @Kentucky and hosting Texas A&M (separated by a bye week) keep them reeling and the three games to close out the season finish them off (@Florida, Vs. Tennessee, and @Clemson) leaving the Gamecocks at a paltry 5-7
Likely outcome for the season. . . 5-7 feels like where HC Beamer guides South Carolina in his first year. Is it possible they get things like the D-line and uhhh, the O-line figured out to make this team a tough out for opponents? Sure, but I kinda doubt it happens.
Tennessee Volunteers (7-6)
Head Coach – Josh Heupel (7-6 in 1 season, 1 bowl game)
Top Recruit – Addison Nichols – IOL – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Can the defense, especially along the line
where only one starter returns, takes a step forward and allows the offense to open up?
If things go right. . . if the defense can make some strides forward and the Hendon Hooker (QB-SR) to Cedrick Tillman (WR-SR) connection can continue, the Vols could make a run at the division title if they can get through a three-game stretch (Vs. Florida, @LSU, Vs. Alabama) with a pair of wins.
If things go wrong. . .week 2 opponent @Pitt is no pushover and the three-game stretch I mentioned above is brutal, toss in back-to-back games Vs. Kentucky and @Georgia and the season could end up a step back at 6-6.
Likely outcome for the season. . . 7 wins feels like the floor for this team, if they can pull off an upset against Florida or LSU they could push it to 8-4.
Vanderbilt Commodores (2-10)
Head Coach – Clark Lea (2-10 in 1 season)
Top Recruit – Daniel Martin – LB – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – usually the biggest question for a team is along the lines of “Can they take a step forward” or “Is this the year they compete for a division title”, for the Commodores it is simply, can they be competitive? After former HC James Franklin took them to three straight bowl games from 2011-2013, they have only gone to two bowls since, and in 2020 they went 0-9 with an All-SEC schedule. HC Lea has a hard road to go with this job.
If things go right. . . the ‘Dores could take three of their four non-conference games and enter SEC play at 3-1, just in time for a trip to Alabama. Ugh. Still, it’s possible they could steal a win @Missouri or following their bye week Vs. South Carolina.
If things go wrong. . . Things start off badly with a loss out @Hawaii and after a game that they SHOULD win Vs. Elon, they drop the rest of their schedule to go a dismal 1-11.
Likely outcome for the season. . . say what you want about Vandy, but their teams play hard and they usually play pretty disciplined football. It’s just. . . the talent gap. . . it’s big for teams like Stanford or Northwestern, and in the SEC it’s not so much a talent gap as it is a chasm. 2-10 looks like the best they can scratch out this season, but if HC Lea gets time to build he may be able to make the ‘Dores a competitive team.
That's it for the SEC East, the West is up next and Alabama will (as always) have some competition for the division title, but it's coming from an unexpected team this year.