Florida remains atop this division until someone steps up to knock them off -- but a few teams will be angling to do just that.
We've already evaluated the loyal employees of the West Division; now we look in the other direction to see how people are performing on the east side of the building.
Florida has won Employee of the Year for what seems like a decade running; there are plenty of folks who'd like to replace them on that plaque, but they're gonna have to bump up their sales numbers if they want to compete. Again, in order of projected finish:
FloridaFlorida is Ryan from "The Office": Once upon a time, he was a drone toiling away in obscurity just like you, but then he signed that account and got a big promotion -- and he's been a straight-up douche about it ever since. It's like he thinks he popped out of the womb and went straight to the second VP's office. His girlfriend did just move to the Philippines to do mission work, though, so maybe that'll distract him and take him down a peg or two. You hope.
2009 evaluation: Another great year -- the departure of offensive coordinator Dan Mullen made for some shaky midseason offensive performances, but they almost always closed the deal. The one time they didn't, of course, was a shellacking in the SEC championship game, but they recovered from that loss (and from Urban Meyer's weird retirement flip-flop) in time to crush Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl and finish 13-1.
Strengths: For all the hype about Tim Tebow's departure, John Brantley might actually be a better pure passer, and he'll have the luxury of a line with 87 career starts between them, not to mention the country's most diabolical backfield (Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, and Emmanuel Moody). On defense, the secondary lost Joe Haden and Major Wright to the NFL draft but should reload nicely with super-recruits Will Hill and Joshua Shaw getting their chances to shine.
Weaknesses: No matter how talented Brantley is, he's not going to be able to fill the void left by Tebow right away, particularly with four of last year's top five receivers gone. And superstar defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, like his offensive counterpart, has left town to take a head-coaching job. That means first-year DC Teryl Austin inherits the task of rebuilding a front seven that returns only three starters from last year.
Key player: QB John Brantley. No surprise, right? Brantley could come close to Tebow's stat numbers in his first year -- replacing Tebow's charisma and leadership, though, is an imposing assignment.
Best chance to make a statement: Oct. 2 at Alabama. The Gators would love to get some payback for last year's dismantling in the Georgia Dome, and it'd be an impressive signal that this program isn't going to crawl into a hole just because Tebow's gone.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 30 vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville). Florida has owned UGA for the past two decades, but if ever there was a year for the Gators to get caught off guard, it's this one. Georgia has nothing to lose in this matchup, and their power rushing attack won't give Florida's regrouping defensive front any rest.
Goals for 2010: A third SEC championship in five years. Winning another crystal football might be a bit much to ask from this program in Year One A.T., but nobody in this conference is invincible this year. And the rest of the SEC should know better than to underestimate Urban Meyer by now.
GeorgiaGeorgia is Peter Gibbons from "Office Space" -- the nice guy who just can't catch a break. Great dude, fun to have beers with after work, beautiful family, hot wife (can you tell she's a former Miss Lake Lanier? and an aerobics instructor?), clutch hitter on the office softball team. Yet every time he has a chance to break through to the next level, he does something dumb like leave a bunch of slides out of the PowerPoint or make an off-color comment in front of the guys from the Jacksonville office. Talented guy, but he needs to learn to pull it together in pressure situations.
2009 evaluation: It was a rough year. Not one without its bright spots, either (strong wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech), but turnover-induced meltdowns against Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky dropped them to a 7-5 regular-season finish, their worst under Mark Richt; the Dawgs had to content themselves with an Independence Bowl invite and a win over Texas A&M.
Strengths: Outside of the QB position, this offense is stocked -- all five starters back on the offensive line (and that's not even counting talented but oft-injured left tackle Trinton Sturdivant), excellent running game behind Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, the nation's best wide receiver in A.J. Green and a host of talented up-and-comers behind him. There are a lot of new faces on defense, but a rejuvenated attitude and renewed focus on fundamentals by new secondary coach Scott Lakatos should pay dividends for a pass defense that's been torched repeatedly over the last few seasons. The Bulldogs will also field the best punter (Drew Butler) and kicker (Blair Walsh) in the conference, if not the country.
Weaknesses: No matter how well-coached they are, this defense isn't going to perfect the switch to a 3-4 front overnight. The presumptive starter at nose tackle is a converted offensive lineman; the depth situation at outside linebacker is dicey. And on offense, of course, they're breaking in a new quarterback. Aaron Murray was one of the nation's top QB recruits, and with the RB and tight end corps being as good as they are, he won't be asked to do too much in the early going. But he's still got to be careful to avoid the temptation to go for the home-run ball on every play and heave it into double or triple coverage.
Key player: NT Justin Anderson. He's the O-lineman who's been brought over to anchor the Dawgs' new three-man line, and while line coach Rodney Garner says he's been impressed with Anderson's progress so far, the learning curve remains steep.
Best chance to make a statement: Oct. 30 vs. Florida (Jacksonville). The Dawgs have a chance to catch their longtime nemesis in a down year, and nothing would validate Mark Richt's rebuilding efforts like a victory over the Gators.
Best chance to get tripped up: Sept. 11 at South Carolina. Steve Spurrier always has this game circled on his calendar, and he'll be putting up one of the most experienced teams in the conference against the Dawgs. Georgia, meanwhile, will be subjecting Aaron Murray to just his second career start.
Goals for 2010: Nine wins and a trip to a January bowl. For all their struggles, the Dawgs weren't that far off that mark in 2009; if the defense and QB can hold it together (and improve last year's miserable -16 turnover margin), they'll be headed back in the right direction this year.
South CarolinaSouth Carolina is Tom from "Parks and Recreation," the not-entirely-grown-up kid who still isn't done reliving his college years. Perfectly good guy, but flaky as all-get-out. Whatever aspirations he has for advancing to an upper-level position, he's never going to get there if he can't stop going clubbing until 4 a.m. the night before the big meeting.
2009 evaluation: Once again, South Carolina was one of those "big picture" guys who dropped the ball on the details -- got off to a great start (6-2, with wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky) but petered out to yet another lousy finish (1-4, ending with an embarrassing bowl loss to Connecticut).
Strengths: Few teams bring more experience into 2010 than the Gamecocks. On defense, they bring back three of last year's starters in the secondary, including CB Stephon Gilmore and free safety Akeem Auguste, meaning the team could match last year's spectacular pass-defense stats (ranked eighth in Division I-A). Up front, Ladi Ajiboye and Cliff Matthews are back to anchor the front seven. On offense, tight end Weslye Saunders's status is up in the air after his suspension for rules violations, but every other unit returns solid experience -- including the backfield, where the presence of Kenny Miles and super-recruit Marcus Lattimore could propel the Gamecocks to the best rushing numbers they've enjoyed in years.
Weaknesses: For three years running, South Carolina has allowed more than 30 sacks and finished last in the conference in rushing -- two dubious stats that should temper a lot of the excitement about all that returning talent. This offensive line is long overdue for a respectable performance, but they've been beset by injuries over the summer, and the loss of backups Ryan Broadhead and Quintin Richardson has turned depth into an issue. Even quarterback Stephen Garcia, who's had plenty of time under Steve Spurrier's tutelage to morph into a superstar, may be treading on thin ice, depending on your interepretation of Spurrier's comments about making sure backup Connor Shaw gets plenty of playing time.
Key player: QB Stephen Garcia. It's pretty simple: If Garcia can improve his leadership and decision-making ability, this team has a chance for a breakthrough year. But if he doesn't, they're going to struggle to find a rhythm as Spurrier spins the wheel o' quarterbacks for three solid months.
Best chance to make a statement: Nov. 6 vs. Arkansas. The Gamecocks got pantsed in Fayetteville last year; a revenge win against one of the SEC's trendy teams would go a long way toward staving off the late-season collapses that have become an unfortunate tradition of the Spurrier regime.
Best chance to get tripped up: Nov. 27 at Clemson. Spurrier is just 2-3 against the Tigers, who've won 10 of the last 13 in this acid-infused rivalry. A loss here would leave a bad taste in fans' mouths no matter how successful the rest of the season was.
Goals for 2010: Breaking the eight-win barrier even if it kills them, and finishing ahead of Georgia and Tennessee in the process. The East is in a bit of a transitional period at the moment; the Gamecocks may never have a better chance to make their move than right now.
TennesseeTennessee is Tom Smykowski from "Office Space" -- a bitter, long-suffering office drone who can't take much more of the abuse. His career started out with such promise, but then he got passed over for one promotion after another, and that combined with recent personal issues (d'ja hear about his recent divorce? It was ugly) mean he might not be too far from snapping.
2009 evaluation: A better year than it probably should've been, actually. The Vols earned seven wins in Lane Kiffin's first (and only) season, and came really close to knocking off Florida, Auburn, and Alabama. But it all ended on kind of a down note when Virginia Tech showed the Vols their "O" face in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and, well, you probably remember what happened after that.
Strengths: The Vol defense powered through a rash of injuries last season and managed to keep the team afloat for lengthy stretches; they may have to do the same this year. Depth is an uncomfortable issue across the board, but the front seven should hold its own behind the leadership of middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, and the secondary will be anchored by free safety Janzen Jackson, who many have suggested might be even better than top-five draft pick Eric Berry (including Berry himself). With the defense being complemented by a talented, versatile running back in Taurne Poole, this team will have a refreshingly old-school attitude indeed.
Weaknesses: Outside of Poole and some talented receivers, this offense is a wasteland. The brand-new offensive line could start as many as three underclassmen; behind them, describing QB prospects Matt Simms and Tyler Bray as "rough" would be kind. Even at tailback, depth could be a problem now that super-recruit Bryce Brown has finally gotten off the pot and transferred to Kansas State. Basically, this is a team for whom every last point will be precious.
Key player: QB Matt Simms. He appears to have the edge in the QB race as summer practice winds to a close, but he's still got to improve his accuracy and decision-making (and he may have to do so while running for his life from opposing linebackers).
Best chance to make a statement: Oct. 9 at Georgia. You don't have to look to far to find someone predicting a 2-6 start for the Vols this year, but an upset against the Dawgs -- whom the Vols crushed 45-19 last season -- would be a nice way to prevent that.
Best chance to get tripped up: Nov. 27 vs. Kentucky. The Vols may need a win here just to make a bowl game, and while their 25-year winning streak over UK is the longest active streak between any two opponents in the country, they're anything but a lock for #26 -- they trailed Kentucky for most of last year's game and had to pull out the win in overtime.
Goals for 2010: A winning record, period. The opportunities for six or seven wins are there, but the Vols' personnel situation is dire enough that they'll have to make every last one of them count to earn a bowl bid.
KentuckyKentucky is Leslie Knope from "Parks and Recreation" -- a hard-working, relentlessly sunny individual who fights near-impossible odds on a daily basis to get the job done. She isn't nearly as resentful about being an office drone as she probably should be; maybe "having a life outside of work" is what sustains her. That, or she beats the crap out of her kids when she gets home.
2009 evaluation: Bounced back from an early-season three-game skid to upset Auburn and Georgia on the road; came within an eyelash of beating Tennessee for the first time since Reagan's first term. Earned what was for Kentucky an unprecedented fourth straight postseason bid, losing to Clemson in the Music City Bowl, 21-13. Following that game, Rich Brooks retired and handed the reins to his "coach-in-waiting," offensive coordinator Joker Phillips.
Strengths: Offense has not been a particular strength of the Wildcats since, well, since Andre Woodson graduated. But the 'Cats will wield two of the trickier skill-position players in the SEC -- versatile wideout Randall Cobb (who's also played QB and RB at Kentucky, and even returned a few kicks) and tailback Derrick Locke, a dark-horse candidate for finishing the season as the SEC's leading rusher. On defense, Kentucky is experienced up front and in the secondary; the linebacking corps is doing some rebuilding, but junior Danny Trevathan is a tenacious tackler, and the coaches have been bullish on the progress made by redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie at the MLB spot.
Weaknesses: Woodson was the last Wildcat to provide any kind of production at the QB spot, and Kentucky fans shouldn't get their hopes up about that changing anytime soon -- their best option at QB is apparently Mike Hartline, who has a career QB rating of 107.3 and a TD/INT ratio of 15/16. At least he's fairly experienced, though, which is more than one can say for the line in front of him -- the O-line has to replace four of five starters and may start two sophomores inside. Losing the program's all-time leading scorer, clutch placekicker Lones Seiber, will also hurt in close games.
Key player: LT Chandler Burden. Mike Hartline is about as mobile as Commonwealth Stadium, so his blind-side protection becomes that much more important. That job has fallen to Burden, a junior who's been converted from defensive end.
Best chance to make a statement: Nov. 27 at Tennessee. It's been 25 years since the 'Cats last tasted victory against their arch-rivals, but the Vols are vulnerable this year. If Kentucky is still searching for a sixth win on the last weekend of the season, this'd be a hell of a way to get it.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 30 at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, too, are thinking "bowl game" this season, and they probably need a win here to get one. This series is almost always close, and State has taken two of the last three.
Goals for 2010: A fifth straight bowl game. Kentucky sports fans don't really start getting ornery until basketball season; as long as Joker can grab that sixth win and keep the bowl streak alive, they'll be happy.
VanderbiltVandy is Milton from "Office Space": He is perennial downtroddenness personified. He serves some purpose, but darned if you can figure out what it is. He's been stuck in the same dead-end position for decades, and barring a miracle, it doesn't look like he'll ever advance out of it.
2009 evaluation: Hey, remember that bowl game in 2008?!? Yeah, nobody else does either, not after Vandy followed it up with a 2-10 campaign and went winless in SEC play. Their lone DI-AA win came over Rice, who coincidentally also went 2-10. Perhaps sensing the hopelessness of the situation, Bobby Johnson retired abruptly in July; his replacement was O-line coach, one-time turkey breeder and immediate SEC Media Days celebrity Robbie Caldwell.
Strengths: For all their struggles last season, Vandy actually fielded a top-10 pass defense, and should continue to play at a high level with Casey Heyward and Sean Richardson returning. The receiving corps is also quite experienced, and Ryan Fowler had a solid year at placekicker, earning Freshman All-SEC honors. The big question mark is running back Warren Norman, who notched 802 rushing yards as well as three kickoff returns for TDs last year; he underwent an MRI just a week and a half before the season opener to determine the seriousness of a swollen knee he sustained at some point during practice.
Weaknesses: If Norman misses substantial amounts of playing time, this team is in big trouble, as he was the one bright spot in the Commodore's 110th-ranked offense. QB Larry Smith finished the season with easily the worst QB rating of any starter in the conference, and even his supposed mobility didn't pan out that well (he finished with 380 yards on the season at a rate of 2.5 per carry). And as if Smith didn't already have enough of the deck stacked against him, he'll be seeing four new faces on the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, last year's run defense was as bad as the pass defense was good, giving up nearly 200 yards per game (no doubt to teams who'd already built up a big lead and were going run-heavy to grind out the clock).
Key player: MLB Chris Marve. Something tells me the defense is going to be carrying this team again, and the leadership burden will likely fall to Marve, last year's leading tackler and arguably the defense's most experienced player.
Best chance to make a statement: Sept. 4 vs. Northwestern. Football-wise, Northwestern isn't exactly the "Vanderbilt of the Big Ten" anymore, but starting the Caldwell Era off with a win would be a tremendous boost for the 'Dores.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 9 vs. Eastern Michigan. This is the one game all season in which the Commodores are likely to be favored, but if they can lose to Army -- which they did last October -- they can lose to the Eagles.
Goals for 2010: Three wins, and it sure would be nice if one of them were against an SEC team. Nobody in Nashville has any illusions about the tall task ahead of Robbie Caldwell, so let's face it, any wins at all will be hard-fought (and gratefully earned) in 2010.