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2010 Outlook: SEC East

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Here's a little scoop on how sportswriters use encoded language in their work. When a conference/division is expected to a close race because a lot of teams look good, it gets labeled as "loaded" or "stacked." That was the case with the SEC West last off season. When it is expected to be a close race because no one is sure how good anyone will actually be, it gets called "wide open."

Well, already I've seen that the SEC East in 2010 is getting the "wide open" label. It's not hard to figure out why.

For the first time in forever, all three of the traditional division kingpins are replacing their quarterbacks. Tim Tebow, Joe Cox, and Jonathan Crompton were all seniors, so none will be back next fall.

We've also seen that coaching turnover is a big story. Florida has lost several assistant coaches, and Urban Meyer is taking an indefinite leave of absence. Georgia fired most of its defensive staff. Tennessee and South Carolina had position coach turnover. Rich Brooks retired from Kentucky for Joker Phillips to take over.

From a talent standpoint, Florida and Georgia open up as the two favorites based on recruiting rankings:

Team R 2007 S 2007 R 2008 S 2008 R 2009 S 2009 Avg.
Georgia 9 17 7 5 6 4 8.00
Florida 1 1 3 12 11 21 8.17
South Carolina 6 7 22 34 12 13 15.67
Tennessee 3 4 35 35 10 8 15.83
Kentucky 54 58 57 53 41 27 48.33
Vanderbilt 67 87 90 74 71 72 76.83

The R is for Rivals and the S is for Scout, natch.

The catch though is that this table doesn't tell the whole story. For one thing, it doesn't include the freshman class of 2010, and there are always a few freshmen that make an impact. For another, this doesn't count in attrition, early draft entrants, and the fact that some players just don't map well to their recruiting rankings for good or bad. Even so, it's not a bad way to start.

There's already been some chatter about South Carolina being a sleeper in the division. Or, at least there was before the Internet Pizza Bowl. However, it's important never to put too much weight on a bowl game since you never know whether a team will show up. South Carolina's post game interviews seem to indicate that they thought that they would win simply because of being an SEC team playing a Big East team, so it's fairly safe to say it's a data point that is not representative of a normal, in-season game.

The talent chart would seem to indicate that South Carolina is a reasonable enough choice as a dark horse. Add to that the returning starter under center and the fact that some of the most important offensive players were quite young in 2009, and there's hope for an improvement on offense. Defense hasn't been that much of an issue under Ellis Johnson so far, so with a jump in offensive production, the Gamecocks could easily make some noise. You also have to wonder if Carolina will ever have a better setup for winning the division than what 2010 initially appears to offer.

So while the issue of whether to bet on South Carolina or not will be a theme, the biggest story of the off season likely will be the drama surrounding Urban Meyer.

It's hard to find anything to compare Meyer's leave of absence to, and the guy minding the shop while he's gone hasn't exactly inspired confidence among the national public. Steve Addazio gets high praise from the staff and got an ovation from the players, but no one outside the program seems to place a lot of faith in him thanks to the underwhelming performance of Florida's 2009 offense relative to expectations.

The leave of absence touches every question you might have about the Gators. How will the offensive overhaul for the John Brantley era go without Meyer there? How good will spring practice and summer workouts go without the real boss around? Will player development take a hit during his absence? How will new defensive coordinator George Edwards integrate into the staff without the head coach present to solidify his connections? And most of all: when exactly will Meyer return? No matter how things continue to go early in this off season, Florida is in uncharted territory here. No one can say for certain what will happen.

It's almost a shame that Georgia will likely end up starting a freshman quarterback, either Aaron Murray or Zach Mettenberger. UGA will have a deep and experienced offensive line, provided that another avalanche of injuries doesn't happen again. The new quarterback will also have a wealth of skill position players around him, between A.J. Green, Washaun Ealey, Caleb King, Marlon Brown, Orson Charles, and Logan Gray. No one else in the division has that much proven talent at the skill positions—not even Florida. The good news is that both Murray and Mettenberger will be redshirt freshmen, so no one will be behind center fresh out of high school.

The new defensive coordinator has some work to do with the exodus of Reshad Jones, Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens, and Rennie Curran. It's not like there's no talent there though, since Mark Richt hauls in top ten recruiting classes year in and year out. There will probably be some kinks early as the new cast of characters get used to the new cast of coaches, but things should get worked out over time.

Tennessee is the great mystery school. On the one hand, the Vols are going into the second year under Lane Kiffin, and schools often get a boost in year two. On the other, UT is losing a ton of great seniors who were major contributors on the team. That bout of personnel loss may be enough to make it so that the second year bump is simply what gets the orange back into the post season again. Sure there's a lot of young talent too, and inexperience is not necessarily a harbinger for sub par play. How far it goes for a team is always a subject of debate.

The quarterback position is perhaps the most interesting battle of all. Nick Stephens apparently never got a shot at starting in 2009 after Crompton beat him out. Does that mean Kiffin was down on him, or just believed in Crompton? Could one of the incoming quarterbacks beat him out if the former was the case? How he handles the whole team is important, but this transition will be the most watched since it's the highest profile spot on a football team. I'm also interested to see if Kiffin has a new angle for this season. He can't really surprise anyone with trash talking anymore, and his favorite target is now off limits due to health problems.

When I think about Kentucky, I wonder just how much will change. The character of the team will probably shift, considering that a team's character tends to take after the head coach's, and Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips are very different people. Beyond that, kind of the whole point of naming a head coach in waiting is to ensure a level of consistency and carry over from one coaching regime to the next. Until and unless recruiting picks up greatly though (take another look at that table above), any changes will largely be cosmetic with UK little better than on the edge of bowl eligibility year in and year out.

As far as Vanderbilt goes, I have a hard time seeing 2010 going as badly as 2009 did. The Commodores had a rash of injuries this past year, and no team in the SEC is as ill-prepared to deal with that than VU. Plus, last year's nice freshman class, led by the sensational Warren Norman, will be a year older and a year better. Vandy flat out is better than a 2-10 program now. How much better is the main question for 2010.

Predicting who will win a division when not everyone's coaching staff is filled out and some players are still deciding on whether to turn pro or not is flagrantly premature. If you pushed me today, I'll agree with the chart that Florida and Georgia are the early favorites, though I'll need to take a close look at South Carolina. In any event, we should not see a rerun of 2009 where one team runs away with it and clinches the division before November.