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SEC East Preview

Thor Nystrom

Bittersweet day! Today, with the publishing of the SEC East preview, the Rotoworld CFB team’s summer college football preview series is officially complete. But boy oh boy – that means that college football is mere days away! And that means that tomorrow (Thursday) I’ll be publishing my first ATS column of the 2019 season covering Saturday’s games between Florida-Miami and Arizona-Hawaii.

 

The CFF fantasy projections for the SEC below are courtesy of my colleague Hayden Winks. Check the end of this column for links to every conference preview Mark Lindquist, Chris Crawford, Connor Allen, Mr. Winks and myself wrote this summer. Each is chalk full of analysis, stat projections, projected records, over/under win total predictions, and NFL Draft prospects for every FBS team.

Fantasy Projections 

Quarterbacks PaYD PaTD RuYD FPPG
Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama, JR) 3716 36 214 27
Kellen Mond (Texas A&M, JR) 3143 24 497 25
Kelly Bryant (Missouri, SR) 3193 21 482 23
Feleipe' Franks (Florida, JR) 2591 24 341 22
Joe Burrow (LSU, SR) 2911 19 374 21
Matt Corral (Mississippi, rFR) 3061 22 272 22
Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State, JR) 2559 21 350 20
Riley Neal (Vanderbilt, SR) 2346 20 277 20
Jake Fromm (Georgia, JR) 2797 27 33 18
Jake Bentley (South Carolina, SR) 3000 23 90 18
Terry Wilson (Kentucky, JR) 2031 12 459 15
Jarrett Guarantano (Tennessee, JR) 2372 17 43 14
Bo Nix (Auburn, FR) 1751 15 201 18
Ben Hicks (Arkansas, SR) 1892 13 53 14

 

Running Backs RuYD RuTD ReYD FPPG
D'Andre Swift (Georgia, JR) 1069 11 238 21
Kylin Hill (Mississippi State, JR) 1050 8 248 21
Jashaun Corbin (Texas A&M, SO) 905 8 300 19
Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt, SR) 1079 11 118 19
Najee Harris (Alabama, JR) 1099 11 134 19
Larry Rountree III (Missouri, JR) 1173 11 66 18
Scottie Phillips (Mississippi, SR) 973 11 173 18
JaTarvious Whitlow (Auburn, SO) 958 7 156 16
Ty Chandler (Tennessee, JR) 694 6 219 15
Lamical Perine (Florida, SR) 831 7 147 14
AJ Rose (Kentucky, JR) 823 9 74 14
John Emery (LSU, FR) 696 7 147 13
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU, JR) 731 8 110 13
Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas, JR) 758 3 160 12
Tavien Feaster (South Carolina, SR) 535 8 86 11
Tyler Badie (Missouri, SO) 591 5 114 10
Jerrion Ealy (Mississippi, FR) 521 6 99 10
Tim Jordan (Tennessee, SR) 510 3 111 8
Brian Robinson Jr. (Alabama, JR) 562 4 40 8
Rico Dowdle (South Carolina, SR) 405 2 115 8
Brian Herrien (Georgia, SR) 379 4 63 8
Devwah Whaley (Arkansas, SR) 482 3 85 7
Dameon Pierce (Florida, SO) 499 3 22 7
Zamir White (Georgia, rFR) 471 4 18 7
Cordarrian Richardson (Texas A&M, SO) 423 4 23 6
Malik Davis (Florida, SO) 409 4 36 6
Kavosiey Smoke (Kentucky, rFR) 412 4 16 6
Kam Martin (Auburn, SR) 304 3 58 6
Chris Rodriguez (Kentucky, rFR) 370 3 16 6
Chase Hayden (Arkansas, JR) 283 1 78 5
Jamauri Wakefield (Vanderbilt, JR) 347 2 45 5
Shaun Shivers (Auburn, SO) 334 3 9 5

 

Receivers Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Jerry Jeudy (Alabama, JR) 61 1048 10 19
Kalija Lipscomb (Vanderbilt, SR) 83 867 7 18
Bryan Edwards (South Carolina, SR) 58 865 7 15
Seth Williams (Auburn, SO) 54 952 5 15
Henry Ruggs III (Alabama, JR) 49 765 8 15
Elijah Moore (Mississippi, SO) 67 732 5 14
Jaylen Waddle (Alabama, SO) 49 787 7 14
Lynn Bowden Jr. (Kentucky, JR) 63 722 4 13
Justin Jefferson (LSU, SR) 53 754 4 13
Braylon Sanders (Mississippi, JR) 48 769 5 13
Jhamon Ausbon (Texas A&M, JR) 53 698 5 13
Devonta Smith (Alabama, JR) 42 641 6 12
Quartney Davis (Texas A&M, JR) 47 609 5 12
Ja'Marr Chase (LSU, SO) 49 664 4 12
Anthony Schwartz (Auburn, SO) 40 588 3 14
Johnathon Johnson (Missouri, SR) 50 604 3 11
Jalen Knox (Missouri, SO) 41 615 4 11
Trey Knox (Arkansas, FR) 48 561 4 11
Marquez Callaway (Tennessee, SR) 41 608 4 10
Van Jefferson (Florida, SR) 38 551 5 10
Demetris Robertson (Georgia, JR) 39 524 5 10
Trevon Grimes (Florida, JR) 39 550 4 10
Jauan Jennings (Tennessee, SR) 41 560 3 10
Shi Smith (South Carolina, JR) 39 555 4 10
Jonathan Nance (Missouri, JR) 39 516 3 9
Dontario Drummond (Mississippi, JR) 38 472 4 9
Isaiah Zuber (Mississippi State, SR) 40 441 3 8
Kendrick Rogers (Texas A&M, JR) 35 435 3 8
C.J. Bolar (Vanderbilt, SO) 36 424 3 8
Miles Battle (Mississippi, rFR) 33 409 3 8
Osirus Mitchell (Mississippi State, JR) 32 441 3 8
Josh Palmer (Tennessee, JR) 28 450 2 8
Terrace Marshall (LSU, SO) 32 428 3 8
Kadarius Toney (Florida, JR) 25 263 2 7
Lawrence Cager (Georgia, SR) 24 405 4 7
OrTre Smith (South Carolina, JR) 28 397 3 7
Camron Buckley (Texas A&M, JR) 33 381 2 7
Dominick Blaylock (Georgia, FR) 27 388 3 7
George Pickens (Georgia, FR) 27 380 3 7
Deon Stewart (Arkansas, SR) 37 297 3 7
Michael Woods (Arkansas, SO) 31 340 3 7
Josh Hammond (Florida, SR) 29 341 2 7
Tyler Simmons (Georgia, SR) 20 314 3 7
Stephen Guidry (Mississippi State, SR) 19 382 2 6
Freddie Swain (Florida, SR) 24 322 2 6
Josh Ali (Kentucky, JR) 26 328 2 6
Deddrick Thomas (Mississippi State, SR) 23 346 2 6
Kam Scott (Missouri, SO) 24 322 2 6
Justice Shelton-Mosley (Vanderbilt, SR) 25 253 2 5
Josh Vann (South Carolina, SO) 24 226 3 5
Eli Stove (Auburn, SR) 21 273 2 5

 

Tight Ends Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt, SR) 47 599 7 12
Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri, JR) 42 466 5 10
Cheyenne O'Grady (Arkansas, SR) 38 488 4 9
Glenn Beal (Texas A&M, rFR) 31 320 3 7
Stephen Sullivan (LSU, SR) 25 378 2 6
Dominick Wood-Anderson (Tennessee, SR) 26 263 2 6
Charlie Woerner (Georgia, SR) 21 250 3 5
Farrod Green (Mississippi State, SR) 24 274 2 5
Kyle Pitts (Florida, SO) 21 241 2 5
Cameron Latu (Alabama, rFR) 17 225 2 4
Kiel Pollard (South Carolina, SR) 14 157 1 3
Justin Rigg (Kentucky, SR) 15 141 1 3

 

Projected Standings

Team Record SEC
Georgia 11-1 7-1
Florida 9-3 6-2
Missouri 8-4 4-4
Tennessee 7-5 3-5
South Carolina 6-6 3-5
Kentucky 5-7 2-6
Vanderbilt 5-7 2-6

1. Georgia Bulldogs

2018 record: 11-3 (7-1)

Best NFL Draft prospect: OT Andrew Thomas is my preseason OT1 in the 2020 NFL Draft. A well-built banger with easy athleticism and plenty of brute strength, Thomas’ game blends supreme flexibility and explosion with ferocious power. The consensus 2018 All-American needs to clean up his footwork and hand usage, however, in order to develop into an NFL All-Pro. He could also stand to play with more goal-oriented purpose and less bloodlust.

The case for: Georgia has one of the two best offensive lines in the nation (along with Oregon) and R1 NFL Draft prospects at QB/RB in Jake Fromm/D’Andre Swift. The receiving corps is a question mark, but Fromm’s efficiency paired with one of the nation’s best RB groups and OL units ensures that Georgia will be able to move the ball and control the clock against most defenses even if no true WR1 emerges.

The defense returns six starters and ranks No. 36 in the nation in production returning. As with the offense, the defense’s floor is very high. Georgia allowed less than 20 points per game last season and will do so again if it can improve in two areas: Against the run, and getting after the quarterback. The front seven is experienced and packed with beef (the three projected DL starters are all over 300 pounds). Georgia will likely be tougher to run on than they were last year.

Georgia needs to find a few immediate difference-makers from its collection of inexperienced, blue-chip edge rushers. If they can, a playoff run is feasible. The schedule isn’t breezy (No. 13 S&P+), but it’s manageable. The Bulldogs will likely be favored in all 12 games. They have preseason S&P+ win expectancies of at least 66% in every game except for the November 16 tilt at Auburn (51%). Outside of that, UGA hosts Notre Dame and Florida and will likely be double-digit favs in the other nine games. Georgia ducks Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State in the regular season.

 

The case against: The returning talent is tremendous, but the Bulldogs will have to overcome key offseason losses to get back to the playoffs. I don’t care that the other three starters are back in the secondary – no secondary improves after losing a Jim Thorpe winner (first-round CB Deandre Baker). Baker defanged a procession of WR1s the past few seasons, resulting in more stalled drives and less explosive plays against.

Georgia has a lot returning on defense, so this isn’t Mission Impossible, but the defensive strategy is going to be different this time around against the Jerry Jeudy’s and Bryan Edwards' and Kalija Lipscomb’s of the world. And with sack leader D’Andre Walker off to the NFL, the pass-rushing issue isn’t as easy to project improve in as the run defense, which could put even more pressure on the Baker-less secondary.

But the DB room isn’t what’s keeping Georgia fans up at night. That’d be the WR/TE room. The Bulldogs lost Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Isaac Nauta to the NFL Draft, and then kicked leading-returning receiver Jeremiah Holloman off the team earlier this summer. I see Fromm as more of a high-end facilitator than a singular playmaker. He hits open receivers, and he can throw good ones open.

But what if Demetris Robertson no-shows again? What if Lawrence Cager is exactly what he was at Miami? What if George Pickens is too green to contribute heavily right away? Is Fromm capable of elevating a mediocre receiving corps? And what if Fromm gets injured? This team has some margin for error – but a key injury along with the cratering of the receiving corps and a regression of the secondary would light what could be a dream season aflame.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 11

Prediction: PUSH

2. Florida Gators

2018 record: 10-3 (5-3)

Best NFL Draft prospect: CB CJ Henderson (6’0/191) is frighteningly fast and very sticky in coverage. On 36 targets last year, Henderson allowed only 50% completions and less than 7.0 YPA while picking off two balls. He posted an 81.8 PFF coverage grade. He has more utility than that, though. Henderson has shown to be extremely disruptive on the blitz. His PFF pressure grade of 94.1 in 2018 was out-of-this-world, with three sacks and five TFL. The No. 34 Freak on Bruce Feldman’s list this summer, Henderson boasts a 40.5-inch vertical and 10-4 broad jump. Despite only carrying around 4.3 percent body fat, Henderson squats 545 pounds and can do 16 reps of 225 on the bench.

The case for: Dan Mullen can coach his butt off, can’t he? After years of overachieving at Mississippi State, Mullen returned to Gainesville and immediately cleaned up Jim McElwain’s mess (4-7 in 2017) en route to a 10-3 finish. The triumphant campaign concluded with methodically dominant wins over Florida State (41-14) and Michigan (41-15). The defense was stout, allowing 20.0 ppg.

With eight starters back – including mega-studs EDGE Jabari Zuniga and CB CJ Henderson – it could be even better in 2019. And one of the “new” starters is CB Marco Wilson, a standout himself who was knocked out for the season in Week 2 last year. He’s a legit NFL talent. Florida additionally poached disruptive DT Adam Shuler from West Virginia as a grad transfer. The defense is going to be awesome.

Only five starters return on offense. But over the years we’ve learned that it’s not in your best interest to doubt Mullen’s ability to manufacture a strong offense out of spare parts, castoffs, and three-star recruits. I’m supposed to project an offensive drop-off in Year 2 of his system at Florida? Please. After watching Mullen turn accuracy-allergic QBs Nick Fitzgerald and Feleipe' Franks into above-average SEC starters, I'm starting to think this guy could have reached a bowl game with Art Sitkowski behind center last year.

Franks’ accuracy issues persist, but Mullen was able to coax him up to 58.4% completions with a 24/6 TD/INT ratio one year after Franks completed 55% for a 9/8 ratio (his passing efficiency jumped in kind from 113.3 in 2017 to 143.4 last year). Just as impressive, Mullen was somehow able to turn the enormous pocket passer into a Fitzgerald-lite presence on the ground. Taking out sack yardage, Franks ran for 452 yards and seven TD on almost five yards per carry. If Franks can manage 60% completions -- I'm telling you, don't put this past Mullen -- and the rebuilt offensive line comes together, Florida is going to be wickedly efficient again on offense. If they are, this team is going to threaten double-digit wins again. The defense will see to that.

 

The case against: An earthquake of defections wiped out Florida’s infrastructure positions over the winter. Four starting offensive linemen – including powerhouse RT Jawaan Taylor and four-year starter Martez Ivey – are gone. Havoc-wreaking sack artist Jachai Polite is gone. Leading tackler Vosean Joseph is gone. I’m most concerned about the offensive line, as it opened the gaping holes for Franks and Lamical Perine that the offense was built upon. If Franks’ accuracy doesn’t improve, and the running game regresses a bit as the OL is overhauled, will the offense take a step backwards despite Mullen’s best efforts?

If it does, the Gators could have a difficult time reaching their Vegas win total of 9. Florida will likely be underdogs in the (vs.) Georgia and (at) LSU games, and they also might be when they host Auburn. Lose those three games, and the only chance of recouping cash for an OVER 9 ticket would be going 9-0 over the rest of the slate and getting your money back. If you’re as concerned about a limited quarterback like Franks playing behind an OL with this many question marks as I am, the schedule doesn’t provide a ton of hope that Florida will finish over that total. The bet here is UNDER or pass.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 9

Prediction: PUSH

3. Missouri Tigers

2018 record: 8-5 (4-4)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Albert Okwuegbunam (6'5/255) is long, thick and fluid — and hell to deal with down the seam. He’s got long arms on that 6’5 frame, and his basketball background is apparent when he goes airborne to high-point rebounds. Okwuegbunam has been a red zone killer in the SEC. In only 18 career games, he’s caught 17 TD (along with 72 catches and 881 yards).

But he’s a poor route runner. Okwuegbunam telegraphs where he’s going because athletic limitations force him to round off routes instead of snapping. Because of that, he isn’t able to create a ton of separation. And indeed he’s had several career TD catches in which he was wide-open when the ball arrived because of coverage breakdowns. Okwuegbunam a straight-line athlete in the Alizé Mack mold. He gives more effort as a blocker but will top out at average in that area.

The case for: Missouri’s schedule is a cakewalk. Missouri has an S&P+ win probability of at least 72% in each of its first eight games. Say they hold serve in all of them, okay? On November 9, the 8-0 Tigers would head into Athens to play the vaunted Georgia Bulldogs. The next week brings a coin-flip home game against Florida, and Missouri finishes the season with two games (Tennessee and Arkansas) it’ll be favored to win.

That makes 10-2 easily in play. Missouri may not even have to spring an upset to get there. I’m not the biggest Kelly Bryant fan, and I wonder how Missouri is going to rejigger its offense to compensate for the enormous drop-off in arm talent behind center. But if there is an occasion for a Kelly Bryant offense, it’s against this schedule. Bryant’s ground-centric, zone-read heavy game is a good fit with Larry Rountree III, one of the conference’s best backs. And Missouri retains a strong receiving corps and one of the best TEs in the nation in Okwuegbunam for when the defense cheats up.

If the offense skews more ground-heavy and conservative as I expect, Missouri should be able to cook up an efficient, clock-controlling, turnover-averse offense centered around Bryant, Rountree, and play-action passes to Albert O, Johnathon Johnson and Jonathan Nance. That would play right into the hands of Missouri’s defense, which should be rock solid again. It won’t look like your older brother’s Missouri Tigers, but this outfit could easily ground-and-pound its way to double-digit wins. In the regular season. (See below).

 

The case against: The Tigers are playing under a one-year bowl ban for self-reporting violations. Right now, the program is painting the NCAA’s draconian penalty as a motivator – without a bowl game or championship to play for, Missouri will attack the regular season even harder. But what if Kelly Bryant’s popgun arm neuters Missouri’s aerial attack and the Tigers get ambushed a few times, like in the opener against Wyoming? What if Missouri is 4-4 on November 9 heading to Georgia instead of 8-0? Would the coaching staff elect for a youth movement at that point, knowing that they aren’t going to get the extra bowl practices used in part to hasten the development of the next crop of starters?

The Tigers ranked No. 86 in S&P+ offensive explosion last fall… with Drew Lock, Damarea Crockett and Emanuel Hall. Bryant’s game is completely devoid of an explosive element, which became all the more painfully clear after Trevor Lawrence replaced him last year and Clemson’s offense immediately became high-octane (with Tee Higgins instantaneously turning into the player he was billed as after 1.5 years of pedestrian play shackled to Bryant). Without the ability to stress defenses deep, Bryant is going to notice more and more defenders sneaking up to try to clog things up for he and Rountree in the zone-read game. If Missouri’s offense starts sputtering, all bets are off, even with the breezy schedule.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: PUSH

4. Tennessee Volunteers

2018 record: 5-7 (2-6)

Best NFL Draft prospect: OT Trey Smith (6'5/337) – but with a billboard-sized caveat. A top-five overall recruit, Smith is as flexible and fluid as water and comes equipped with long arms. Smith was a difference-maker immediately as a true freshman with the Volunteers. But blood clots in his lungs delayed the start of his sophomore season, hindered his play after coming back, and have now once again flared up to put his future in doubt. Smith and the Vols remain publicly hopefully he’ll play this year. We’ll see. If he’s right, he’s a potential Round 1 talent. If not, football may not be in Smith’s future.

The case for: Tennessee returns almost everyone from last year’s team that finished No. 48 S&P+ (despite a 5-7 finish in HC Jeremy Pruitt’s first season). Among the returning cast of characters: starting QB Jarrett Guarantano, Ty Chandler and his top-two backups at RB, Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Palmer and their top-two backups at WR, starting TE Dominick Wood-Anderson, seven offensive linemen with starting experience, 4/6 of the LB two-deep and 6/8 of the DB two-deep.

Only the defensive line got gutted – but that unit stunk anyway. LB Darrell Taylor is the star of the defense, and the cast of characters around him this fall will be more experienced and (assuredly) less injured than they were last year. With 16 starters returning, Tennessee ranks No. 15 on Phil Steele’s experience chart.

And with 10 of those returning starters playing offense, Tennessee’s attack could be significantly better. With those pieces in place, the Vols went to work this offseason rejiggering the play-calling braintrust. Pruitt hired Georgia OC Jim Chaney (who returns to Tennessee after a previous OC run from 2009-2012) to the same post. Sure, Chaney is no Lincoln Riley, but he’s a reliable veteran coach with a track record of engineering efficient attacks.

Pruitt also added former USC OC Tee Martin as the passing game coordinator (and assistant head coach). UGA didn’t fight to keep Chaney, and Martin was unceremoniously canned by the Trojans in December during Purge 4, Electric Bugaloo: Clay Helton’s Job-Saving Massacre. But both were astute buy-low opportunities.

Especially Martin as a sort of right-hand man to both Pruitt and Chaney. The legendary former Vols quarterback – Martin led the program to the 1998 title – was considered one of CFB’s biggest up-and-coming HC prospects and a high-level recruiter only a few years ago before Clay Helton went to work de-mystifying the USC program and halting Martin’s trajectory up the coaching ladder.

It’s not hard to see Chaney and Martin figuring out how to ramp up Tennessee’s offense. If the offense and defense are both improved – and they should be – the Vols are going to be in a position to surprise folks in Pruitt’s second year. Tennessee has a cakewalk of a non-conference schedule and could be double-digit favorites in all four games. If they win them all, Tennessee only has to go 3-5 in SEC play to go over the Vegas total.

 

The case against: The non-con schedule is cake, but the SEC slate isn’t as forgiving. That dance card includes Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida, South Carolina and Missouri. To reach seven wins to go over, Tennessee not only has to beat both UAB and BYU to go 4-0 in the non-con, but they’ll have to win their two easiest SEC games (Kentucky and Vanderbilt) AND THEN have to pull an upset against at least one of the seven teams on the dance card above. And have I mentioned that Tennessee has to play four games against teams off a bye?

And sure, Tennessee returns a boatload of contributors. For instance at OL, where seven guys with starting experience are back. But some of those players have never been difference makers, despite the experience. Here’s what Pruitt said recently when asked about the OL: “Those guys have played a lot of ball, but it’s not been the type of ball that we need to play. We’ve got to improve there, obviously.”

I could absolutely see the Vols winning eight games – dropping the Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Florida games and winning the rest. But that best-case scenario will require developmental advancements by the 16 returning starters and a quick transition process for the new coaches (DC Derrick Ansley is also new, and former DC Kevin Sherrer is now the ST coordinator). This is a high-variance team with more upside than meets the eye -- but also a path to abject disaster that would put Pruitt on the hot seat.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER

South Carolina Gamecocks

2018 record: 7-6 (4-4)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DL Javon Kinlaw (6’5/302) quietly had a Jerry Tillery-lite season last year as a junior. He’s very disruptive, with a gift for getting after the passer from the interior. Kinlaw is very long. Coupled with his first-step explosion and stun guns hands, he’s on top of you and dictating the interaction in a blink. Kinlaw needs to play with a little more discipline and improve his play balance. If he can, he’s going in Round 1 in April. He’s a legit talent who’s being slept on.

 

The case for: Last year, South Carolina was very good in several key areas that lead to wins, and the Gamecocks figure to remain strong in those areas in 2019: Passing offense, passing defense, creating explosive plays, and limiting explosive plays. The Gamecocks return 14 starters, seven on each side of the ball. 

Heading into Will Muschamp’s fourth year, enough pieces are in place to potentially top last year’s seven wins. The early part of the schedule should facilitate a 2-0 start, and the rest might be on how far Jake Bentley has come. If his play locks him into an NFL Draft slot in the spring, South Carolina’s offense will have kept right on chugging without Deebo Samuel. No guarantee of that happening, but Bentley’s got the skillset to play better than he has.

The defense is exciting. DL Javon Kinlaw is one of my favorite 2020 NFL Draft preseason prospects. In a lot of ways, his career and elements of his game remind me of Jerry Tillery. Behind him resides a strong LB corps led by TJ Brunson and Sherrod Greene. Five of USC’s six losses last year came to teams ranked in the top-16 of the AP poll.

Inefficiency and turnovers were what did the Gamecocks in most of those times, with USC finishing minus-six turnovers in SEC play. If Bentley’s accuracy improves and he eliminates the head-slapping turnovers, Muschamp could start to put a scare into the teams in the upper-echelon of the conference.

 

The case against: The Gamecocks’ schedule is a nightmare. Phil Steele think it’s the hardest in the nation. S&P+ ranks it as the third-hardest in the country. The Gamecocks should win their first two games, and they’ll be heavily favored when they host Vandy in November.

In only two of their other nine games does South Carolina have a preseason S&P+ win expectancy of 50% or more (68% when hosting Kentucky in late September, 56% at Tennessee in late October). To make a bowl game, the Gamecocks need to win all five of those games and also beat Appalachian State in November (49%).

The other half of the schedule includes Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson. No ideal. Especially when considering South Carolina’s Achilles heel’s in 2018: Running the ball, stopping the run, and offensive and defensive efficiency.

Losing Deebo Samuel is going to lead to less explosive offensive plays, so if QB Jake Bentley doesn’t improve his efficiency, the offense is going to regress. Perhaps even significantly. South Carolina is desperately hoping for Bentley's "Leap" season to arrive at long last, and for Clemson exile RB Tavien Feaster to fix the rushing attack and make up for a few of the explosive plays that left with Samuel. USC's win total of six seems conservative. In reality, because of the schedule, the play is probably either UNDER or PASS.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: PUSH

Kentucky Wildcats

2018 record: 10-3 (5-3)

Best NFL Draft prospect: OG Logan Stenberg (6'5/322) is a big road-grader. Stenberg was rated above-average in both run blocking and pass-pro by PFF last fall, but he returned to school in hopes of making a run up the board his senior year ala former teammate Josh Allen. Stenberg told reporters that he spent the offseason working on his technique. He could potentially work his way into Day 2 with a strong final season.

The case for: Sure, Kentucky lost two transcendent program talents in RB Benny Snell and EDGE Josh Allen. No Kentucky preview can begin without mentioning those losses at the top. But here’s the thing: RB and LB were two of UK’s deepest positions last year. While those groups won’t be upgraded, they won’t be decimated as is so often the case when a traditional non-power breaks through and then loses two of its best players of all-time. Kentucky can just ask cross-state rival Louisville how it liked replacing Lamar Jackson and Jaire Alexander last year.

Whereas Bobby Petrino’s final Louisville teams were a house of cards being held together by a small collection of singular talents, Kentucky’s ascendance feels simultaneously less-sexy and more sustainable. HC Mark Stoops has labored to build a sustainable model.

Effectively replacing Snell and Allen would go a long way towards showing he’s doing just that. RB Asim Rose could be a star, and keep an eye out for young bowling ball Kavosiey Smoke (5’9/225). Kentucky’s offensive line could be legit, with Sternberg joined be returning former five-star LT Landon Young, who missed last season with an ACL injury.

With only eight returning starters in the always-vicious SEC, Stoops’ work is cut out for him. But if QB Terry Wilson improves through the air in his second year, that’s going to elevate WR Lynn Bowden into the star territory he should perhaps already be occupying. Wilson, Rose and the physical OL should be able to level some rock ‘em, sock ‘em clock-control spread-option punishment on select opponents.

While this Kentucky team doesn’t acquit itself as the kind of squad built to upset higher-ranked teams, it does have the makeup of a squad that’s difficult for inferior opponents to upset. And with five games on the schedule with S&P+ win expectancies of 81% or more, Kentucky will be in range of its Vegas win total if it merely doesn’t suffer a demoralizing upset itself.

 

The case against: Kentucky is returning only eight starters. This program doesn’t recruit well enough to take the kind of body shots they took over the winter and not drop to one knee. Per Phil Steele’s experience chart, Kentucky ranks just No. 105. It’s not just Snell and Allen leaving. Also out the door are OG Bunchy Stallings, safeties Mike Edwards and Darius West, and CBs Derrick Baity Jr. and Lonnie Johnson Jr.

The offense should be able to run, but it’s going to have issues passing again. Unless Stoops is somehow able to mitigate the expected enormous regression on defense, Kentucky could devolve from a 10-win team to a one-trick offense playing in front of a defense that can’t stop good offenses.

Playing S&P+’s No. 11 hardest schedule, Kentucky is in trouble if Wilson doesn’t improve significantly as a thrower or a few new stars don’t emerge on defense. The Kentucky “UNDER” is probably the best preseason bet to make in the SEC East. It's hard to find a path to seven wins on this schedule without making a few logical leaps.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: UNDER

Vanderbilt Commodores

2018 record: 6-7 (3-5)

Best NFL Draft prospect: Ke'Shawn Vaughn (5'9/215) is stupidly explosive, and he’s very hard to tackle. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry last year, with 2.62 of those yards coming before contact and 5.28 coming after (not quite David Montgomery territory, but close). Vaughn finished No. 3 in the SEC in forced missed tackles per touch and had seven carries that went for 60 yards or more (only one other SEC back had even five 40-yard runs). Vaughn is an awkward receiver and only average in pass-pro. His stock will spike if he can improve in those two areas. But he’s almost assuredly going Day 2 even if he doesn’t, because explosion and tackle-breaking combinations like this don't grow on trees.

The case for: Between Ball State transfer QB Riley Neal, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb and TE Jared Pinckney, Vanderbilt legitimately boasts four NFL prospects in marquee offensive positions. The latter three easily could all go on Day 2. The skill firepower on this team is top-25 in the nation, giving Vandy at least a puncher’s chance against every non-Georgia team on the schedule.

But there’s more than prospect sizzle going on here. HC Derek Mason, who was on shaky ground not so long ago, is walking on stabilized ground after reaching his second bowl game at Vanderbilt in 2018. The Dores may have lost to Baylor, but the offense put on a show and charged the fanbase up to get the band back together in 2019.

Rather than seeing two bowl games in three years as a flash in the pan (if two 6-7 seasons and one 5-7 season can be considered such), you could argue that Vanderbilt is on the precipice of taking the next competitive leap as a program. Mason’s 17-21 record the past three years is actually the best three-year stretch at Vandy by any non-James Franklin coach since the 1970s. And the recent historical precedent set by Franklin himself suggests there is more ceiling for Mason reach – Franklin went 24-15 in his final three years before leaving for Penn State.

 

The case against: Vanderbilt’s schedule is brutal, its offensive line is decimated, its old reliable starting QB Kyle Shurmur is gone, and Vandy lost six defensive starters, including shutdown CB Joejuan Williams. The Commodores rank only No. 107 on Phil Steele’s experience chart. And S&P+ pegs Vanderbilt’s schedule as the 12th-hardest in the land.

The offensive line is particularly concerning, returning only two starters and losing 97 career starts. All the offensive firepower is great, but it’s hard not to project Vandy getting manhandled in the trenches in September during the brutal Georgia-Purdue-LSU gauntlet to open the season. Even Opponent No. 4, Northern Illinois, is equipped to give Vandy’s line fits.

Neal, Vaughn, Lipscomb and Pinckney will manufacture some offense either way, but it’s hard to see that quartet inflicting fatal damage against an LSU-like defense working with this offensive line. Vandy’s defensive line isn’t much better – by the advanced numbers, it was one of the Power 5’s least effective last year. And since the defense as a whole is likely to regress a bit, you can see why Las Vegas doesn’t like Vandy’s chances of getting to a third bowl in four years. I hate to say it, but I don’t either.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5

Prediction: PUSH

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