The Southeastern Conference East Division is home to three incoming football coaches, a new offensive system at Kentucky, new defensive scheme at Missouri and one heavy favorite expected to finish miles ahead of the pack.
ESPN’s Football Power Index simulation projections give Georgia a 69.2% chance to win the East this fall, followed by defending division champion Florida (17.2%) and distant contenders Missouri (5.7), Kentucky (5.2), Tennessee (2.3), South Carolina (0.4) and Vanderbilt (0.0).
Projections aside, here’s what we learned about all seven SEC East teams this spring, in alphabetical order:
Florida: New QB, same defense
Florida is the defending SEC East champion — no team but Florida and Georgia has won the East the last six years — but the Gators lost their final three games last season, including a 35-point thrashing by Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Coach Dan Mullen has to replace quarterback Kyle Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and tight end Kyle Pitts, a likely top-10 NFL draft pick Thursday night. More surprising to some, Mullen didn’t replace embattled defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after the Gators allowed 30.8 points and 428 yards per game, both single-season high averages for Florida in its modern era.
Otherwise, any changes that unfold in Gainesville won’t be seen until the season kicks off. The Gators ended their spring sessions with a closed scrimmage rather than their annual Blue and Orange Game, citing the coronavirus pandemic concerns. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium also serves as a COVID testing and vaccination site.
By the fall — Florida opens Sept. 4 against Florida Atlantic — fans should get their first look at Emory Jones as a starting quarterback. The fourth-year career backup isn’t known as a polished pocket passer, leading some to wonder if he’s fit for Mullen’s system.
“He’s got a cannon for an arm, so I don’t know who would say that,” Mullen told reporters this spring. “Maybe there’s somebody out at practice, watching practice that has more expertise at quarterback than me that’s letting you know those things. But I’m pretty confident in what he can do.”
When it comes to QB development, Mullen’s track record is among the game’s best: Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, Trask.
On defense, though, Mullen is known for a quick trigger finger when it comes to firing coordinators. He kept Grantham around this offseason despite last fall’s late-season collapse and some obvious tension between the two along the sideline.
“I've always had a lot of confidence in Todd,” Mullen said in March. “Todd's a great football coach.”
We’ll see if that’s true come November, but one thing is not up for debate: Gators newcomer Desmond Watson will be impossible to miss. The freshman defensive tackle checks in at 6-5 and 432 pounds.
“He’s gotta lose, you know, probably about a 12- or 13-year-old right now,” Mullen said this spring.
Georgia: Bombs away in Athens
If you’re a Georgia fan and still struggling with the decision to go with Jake Fromm over Justin Fields at quarterback, it’s time to move on and appreciate J.T. Daniels. The Bulldogs went undefeated last fall once the Southern California transfer moved into the starting lineup and he’s back to lead the SEC East favorites again in 2021. In a pass-heavy spring game, Daniels made his case to be the SEC preseason first-team quarterback ahead of Mississippi’s Matt Corral, throwing for 324 yards and three touchdowns.
The top Georgia story this spring wasn’t Daniels but the emergence of what looks to be the program’s best collection of passing game playmakers in years. Yes, standout George Pickens is out because of a torn ACL, but newcomer Adonia Mitchell, a 6-4 freshman, was the biggest star of the G-Day Game, catching seven balls for 105 yards and a touchdown.
The other big target — and we mean BIG — was 6-foot-7 junior tight end Darnell Washington, who lined up all over the field and grabbed four passes for 84 yards and a score.
Three of Georgia’s top wideouts from last year are recovering from injuries, but against a remade secondary, the passing attack commanded the most attention in the spring game, somewhat by default. All those passing yards underscored UGA’s urgency to develop young starters on defense — with Week 1 opponent Clemson looming.
“I would probably argue that every G-Day you come out of you feel good about the wideouts because you throw the ball so much in the G-Day game,” Smart said. “G-Day I can never remember coming out of saying 'Oh man we don't have any wideouts.’ I've never felt any negative way towards the defensive backs coming out of spring game They've given up yards and passing because this game is built around that.”
Kentucky: Rebooting the offense
Like Florida, Kentucky didn’t hold a public spring game as Kroger Field served as a COVID vaccination site in Lexington. Had there been an open scrimmage, the quarterback competition would have been prime viewing.
Former starter Terry Wilson transferred to New Mexico, leaving Mark Stoops with Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood and sophomore Beau Allen as his top contenders — at least until Penn State transfer Will Levis arrives this summer. Levis has the most game experience, throwing three touchdowns across 15 games for the Nittany Lions.
After a 5-6 season, Stoops shook up his offensive staff this offseason and handed the offense to 35-year-old Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Cohen, who’s never worked at the Power 5 level but comes from coach Sean McVay’s creative pro system.
Stoops is counting on Cohen’s NFL scheme to revive an offense that averaged an SEC-worst 318 yards per game.
“Bringing people from the NFL has worked for me before and I really liked how detailed he was,” Stoops told reporters this spring. “Obviously (he) had a great handle. The biggest areas that need the most improvement are quarterbacks and receivers and he has expertise in both of those areas and worked with both groups in the NFL. That was very attractive to me.”
Another newcomer should figure prominently in the offense: Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson, an electric playmaker who ranked 12th in all-purpose yards in the Big Ten last season.
Missouri: Back to the basics
Leave it to coach Eli Drinkwitz to take the unconventional approach to spring football. After COVID wiped out all but three spring practices in 2020, the second-year coach wrapped up spring sessions sooner than any of his peers, culminating with a modified Black and Gold game on March 20.
The scrimmage featured several periods of individual and position group drills and only a limited number of 11-on-11 sessions. Starters didn’t take part in the live tackling periods.
Mizzou’s emphasis throughout the spring was individual player development. Drinkwitz followed the scrimmage with a warning for fans who watched in person or at home on TV.
“Don’t worry about the outcome or the result right now,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re really process-oriented in what we’re trying to do. We appreciate all the fans being there, but this was not a scrimmage designed to try to make everybody feel good. This was the best versus the best the entire time without being live to try to protect and make sure that we took care of guys. I think we’ve got 13 players coming back who have over 1,000 reps in college football, so we're trying to be really smart about it. So I wouldn't worry about any of the conclusions.”
Those will come in the fall. Until then, Drinkwitz knows Mizzou needs to sharpen its passing offense and identify some young playmakers. Receivers Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett were instant hits, while second-year running back Elijah Young supplied a burst from the backfield. The Tigers installed an entirely new defense under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks and his rebuilt staff, featuring a four-down defensive line structure and more zone coverage concepts.
South Carolina: New regime takes over
Shane Beamer is no stranger to the SEC, but his team might be the SEC’s most mysterious in 2021. Though the first-year Gamecocks coach with the famous last name never has been a head coach, he’s spent 12 years on SEC staffs — at Tennessee, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia. The 44-year-old son of legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer (now retired) inherits a team that’s had just one season over .500 in SEC play the last seven years.
But good luck trying to learn much from Sunday’s spring game. Beamer’s team was ravaged by injuries this spring as 23 players who would have been on the field were unavailable, he said. The Gamecocks could only play two 12-minute quarters of live action.
One thing is settled: Luke Doty is the starting quarterback for now.
Still, the Gamecocks will be nothing more than an afterthought in the SEC division race, but Beamer likes the foundation.
“I’ve known all along we’re pretty good up front,” he said Sunday. “If you’re good on the defensive line, offensive line, quarterback and special teams you have a chance. My dad told me that a long time ago and he’s right. I feel really good about our offensive line and defensive line, our quarterback situation and we have a pretty good kicker, punter and snapper coming back.”
Tennessee: Heupel launches makeover
Josh Heupel’s no-huddle spread attack is more commonplace than revolutionary in 2021 compared to the system’s origin days at Oklahoma. But the high-powered attack already is making believers in Knoxville, where Heupel, 43, is Tennessee’s latest choice to try to return the program to national relevance.
The former Mizzou coordinator spent the last three seasons as Central Florida’s head coach, winning 78% of his games but saw his record slip each fall. Nothing short of championships will win over the Tennessee faithful. Players appear invested in the change.
“Man, it was exciting,” wideout Velus Jones Jr. said after the April 17 Orange and White Game. “I know you all were excited to watch it. It’s unbelievable. My teammates and I are so blessed to have this coaching staff and be able to bring that energy in this high scoring-power offense. It’s a dream come true. It feels unreal, to be honest.”
Tennessee’s quarterback situation is wide open — the Vols just landed Michigan transfer Joe Milton — but Heupel’s foot-to-the-floor offensive pace will test his own defense, too, as Mizzou fans surely remember from his Columbia days. He hired Penn State assistant Tim Banks to run the defense, and while his unit was far from capacity in the spring game, the two offenses produced 821 yards and 39 first downs on 99 plays, including 573 yards through the air.
In his first months on the job Heupel has made an effort to strengthen relationships with the Vols’ storied past and make the program a welcoming place for former players, known as VFLs — Vols For Life.
“There were so many that came back and were a part of this weekend with our current players,” he said after the spring game. “The guys having the opportunity to all get together brought a ton of energy to the program. For me … being able to learn from VFLs and what they’ve learned, but also understanding that this is a Tennessee football program that is together always and forever — former players and also current players as well.”
Vanderbilt: Starting from scratch
Vanderbilt’s latest coaching search ended with the school hiring a defensive coordinator with zero head coaching experience from another academic powerhouse. Clark Lea, straight from overseeing Notre Dame’s defense all the way to the College Football Playoff, now is in charge of the Commodores.
The position came open when Vandy fired Derek Mason, who before his seven-year run in Nashville was Stanford’s defensive play-caller and another first-timer in the head coach’s seat.
But the biggest development of the spring should help Lea’s cause: The school launched a $300 million investment project, the Vandy United Fund, that’s designed to get the SEC’s worst facilities closer to SEC standards. The school plans to build a football operations center, an indoor practice facility and make upgrades to Vanderbilt Stadium.
“When you talk about recruiting and wanting to have guys who don’t want to compromise in any fashion as students and as athletes, that’s why you come to Vanderbilt,” said Lea, a Vandy graduate. “Facilities matter in so far as they make available all the resources needed to develop. We have everything we need here to build a competitive team, but these new buildings will signify that sense of we have the resources behind you in your development. That’s meaningful.”