Today, we take a look at the new coordinators in the conference in the Eastern Division.
Jim Chaney (Georgia-Offense)
Kirby Smart has a big job to do. He's replacing a relatively well-liked and tenured head coach in Mark Richt and he's doing it at a time when his old boss is begrudgingly accepting that offensive and defensive philosophies must shift in the modern era.
Still, as Smart alluded to during his first press conference in Athens, he has every intention on his offense being balanced and this is where well-traveled coordinator Jim Chaney comes in.
Chaney has done good things in many places. He tried his best to make Derek Dooley look competent in Dooley's three years as Tennessee's head coach. In his one year under Lane Kiffin at Tennessee in 2009, Chaney helped turn oft-maligned QB Jonathan Crompton into a terrific system manager.
From 2013-2015, he made serviceable quarterbacks like Brandon Allen at Arkansas and Nathan Peterman at Pitt into very good quarterbacks who, once again, operated well within the system.
Now, as UGA's new OC in 2016, Chaney probably has never worked with the level of pure offensive talent he has currently. Smart's in a very good position because Chaney could either turn Greyson Lambert into a Crompton or Allen or Peterman OR he could make 17-star freshman QB Jacob Eason into a next-level Bulldog legend.
Last season, UGA's offense stalled under Brian Schottenheimer who replaced longtime OC Mike Bobo. Averaging a paltry 375 yards per game compared to 2014's 458, Chaney should be able to at the very least meet expectations. His secret weapon for success may very well be offensive line coach Sam Pittman who, from 2013-2015, coached a slew of large road graders at Arkansas, two of those years with Chaney as the OC.
Continuity is always key and with the UGA offense already tailor-made for pro-style, Chaney's sharp eye and steady hand will give UGA's offense a nice shot in the arm.
2016 Prediction: Better
Mel Tucker (Georgia-Defense)
Mel Tucker is a well-traveled, much-experienced coach with an eye for the type of defense that Kirby Smart would like to run and this will be Smart's biggest challenge as a first-time head coach: ceding the on-field playcalling to another coach.
Luckily for Smart, Tucker coached the Alabama secondary in 2015 (meaning he watched Nick Saban coach the Alabama secondary) and the transition may be more seamless than expected. Tucker's experience as a coordinator in the NFL should, also, give Smart the kind of options he's used to having.
While UGA's offense sputtered throughout last season, Jeremy Pruitt's defense was very sound. They were tops in the country in Pass Efficiency Defense and top ten in, both, Total and Scoring Defense. Several of the key cogs in that that defense are now in the NFL, giving Tucker and Smart different, but still talented options.
Personnel-wise, they have at least one player at every level who has the potential to flip the field. Defensive tackle Trenton Thompson hopes to make good on an up-and-down freshman year, OLB Lorenzo Carter will ably fill the void left by first-rounder Leonard Floyd and Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders provide a solid tandem at the safety positions.
The last time we saw Tucker as a coordinator he was leading the Chicago Bears defense to one of the worst statistical seasons ever in the NFL. With a humble season as a position coach under his belt, he hopes to make his next stop worthy of his talents.
Still, it's hard to imagine this UGA squad not taking a slight step backwards even though it will be coached under similar principles as its predecessor. Smart likes to be multiple with his formations and this will be a learning season for the defense. Tucker should have them humming by 2017, though.
2016 Prediction: Worse
Eddie Gran (Kentucky-Offense)
The Kentucky faithful just need to repeat this very mantra: This can work.
Mark Stoops desperately needed to do something. His team seemed to expend all their talent and resources on the first half of the season, then they just stalled. 2015 was like that. So was 2014. While no one will confuse Kentucky football for anything close to legendary, the natives are definitely getting restless as season four of the Stoops Experiment is approaching.
Kentucky's offense finished 11th in the SEC with 372 yards per game and under 25 points per game. The Wildcats are not going to compete for an SEC title. They'll be hard-pressed to compete for an SEC East title. What they can do, what is acceptable to the fans, is to be as competitive as they were when Rich Brooks was coach. That's acceptable.
Re-uniting with Eddie Gran is an acceptable option for Stoops. Eddie Gran is a running back's dream and Kentucky has one of the best in the conference in "Boom" Williams. This can work. In the last fifteen years, these are the running backs Gran has coached: Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Ben Tate, Deuce McAlister, John Avery, Montario Hardesty, James Wilder, Jr. and Devonta Freeman. This can work.
Since becoming Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, the Bearcats have climbed steadily to not only the top of the AAC conference rankings but the entire FBS as well. Last year, Gran's squad finished 6th in the FBS in, both, Total Offense with 537 yards per game and Passing Offense with 359 yards per game. This can work.
Yes, Gran is moving up from Group of Five to Power Five, but the idea is the same and his experience with Auburn, Tennessee and Florida State will prove effective enough to warrant a bump in Kentucky's statistical rankings.
This can work. And it will.
2016 Prediction: Better
Josh Heupel (Missouri-Offense)
Worse than Kentucky, hell, worse than Vanderbilt was Missouri's offense in 2015. They were dead last in the conference and 124th in the FBS in Total Offense with 280 yards per game. That means they had to work hard to stay ahead of UCF, Kent State and Boston College last season, all legendarily bad offenses.
Unfortunately, Gary Pinkel's recent health issues rendered him unable to rectify the situation and defensive coordinator Barry Odom was charged with doing so. As the new head coach for the Tigers, Odom decided to go with some Big XII flavor by pulling Josh Heupel away from Utah State.
The hire is curious for a couple of reasons: 1) Heupel was co-offensive coordinator for four seasons at his alma mater Oklahoma and he was fired from that position 2) He coached a Utah State offense that finished just barely inside the Top 100 in Total Offense in 2015. As a matter of fact, his offense was slightly less prolific than the one he took over from the previous year.
Heupel was a terrific college quarterback and he helped Bob Stoops win his one and only national championship at Oklahoma. And the game plan he had for Trevor Knight against Bama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl was spot on for a secondary that couldn't stop anything thrown its way. Yet, there's a sense that Odom could've gone more outside the box than this.
If Heupel can rein in a young and mistake-prone quarterback in Drew Lock and utilize some of the skill position players around him (including 5th year grad transfer Chris Black), Missouri should be significantly improved from last year, meaning they may make it to 103 in the FBS in Total Offense. Technically, that is better.
2016 Prediction: Better
DeMontie Cross (Missouri-Defense)
As the DC for Mizzou last season, Barry Odom did a spectacular job of keeping Missouri in games. This is probably the reason the administration felt so comfortable making him the permanent coach. He coached a helluva defense.
Missouri ranked in the top ten in three out of the four statistical categories, finishing 5th in Scoring and Passing Efficiency Defense and 6th in Total Defense. And as always, Missouri had a terrifying group of defensive linemen haunting the opposing offense's backfield.
Odom roaming the sidelines means the defense will remain solid, which is why DeMontie Cross was a very good choice for him to make as his successor. Cross is a wanderer of sorts and he's done so with great success at both the college and pro levels. Most recently, he was promoted from linebackers coach at TCU under Gary Patterson to co-defensive coordinator in 2015.
While TCU's defense has not been uncharacteristically mediocre the last few seasons, Cross still helped to create chaos with lesser talent. TCU's defense finished about right in the middle of the pack at 63rd in Total Defense last season and that's okay. It was his first full season manning the flight and he had a co-pilot to help him.
Now, he's in the enviable position to go from working under Gary Patterson to the young upstart, Odom. Like Mel Tucker, Cross will not be expected to come in and make things better, because in this case, things were perfectly fine. Cross will be tasked with keeping things status quo and with Terry Beckner, Jr. and Charles Harris on that line, he will be doing exactly that.
2016 Prediction: Push
Kurt Roper (South Carolina-Offense)
Poor Kurt Roper. He continues to heed the call of Coach Boom and we can only assume that there will remain growing pains. Will Muschamp is head coach again and this time it's in Columbia.
Roper is a terrific offensive coach, though. Unfortunately, he was placed in charge of an offense that was perpetually stuck in neutral for five years. There was no way he was going to change the culture of the Gators in one season.
On the other hand, he, along with David Cutcliffe, created monsters out of the meek for over a decade. Look at the work he did at, both, Ole Miss AND Duke. DUKE! Duke football played in the ACC Championship against eventual National Champs Florida State. Yes, they got pasted, but they got there. Roper's offense got them there. Also, it cannot be overlooked that Roper was the QB coach for Eli Manning.
There is enough there to be confident that maybe, just maybe, Will Muschamp will allow for the possibility that skill position players on the offensive side of the ball are worth recruiting. Luring legendary cry baby Lance Thompson to Columbia is a great way to get those players.
South Carolina's offense finished 99th in the FBS as the Head Ball Coach decided to head for greener pastures. Or links, for that matter. They were bad. Not Mizzou bad, but close enough. It's going to take a minor miracle for South Carolina to do anything groundbreaking offensively under Will Muschamp, but the hope is that he's learned from his first experience and having Roper around from the beginning will allow him to think a little outside the box.
There's effectively a blank slate for the Gamecocks and Kurt Roper can work with that.
2016 Prediction: Better
Travaris Robinson (South Carolina-Defense)
Muschamp took a couple notable people with him from Auburn this past season and Travaris Robinson is a name that may be hearing over the next few years.
This actually marks Robinson's eighth season with Muschamp who was both a GA and secondary coach under him at both Florida and Auburn. Muschamp obviously trusts him and like Saban did with Muschamp, continued to groom him for this exact position.
Saban's coaching tree kind of works that way. He gives young(er) upstarts an opportunity to flourish in high profile positions, then when their opportunity comes, they pay it forward. Muschamp did something similar by hiring current Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as his DC in 2011.
Robinson and Muschamp have a lot of work to do with a South Carolina defense that finished 94th in the FBS in Total Defense, allowing almost 430 yards per game. Luckily, the uneasiness and lack of continuity in last year's squad will give way to a more stable group of mostly upperclassmen, especially senior safety Chaz Elder.
While most can agree that Muschamp's acumen does not fall under the purview of offense, his defensive skills as a coach are have few peers. Having someone like Robinson by his side for as long as he has ensures that this South Carolina defense will improve vastly from 2015. This is the perfect opportunity for Robinson to learn on the job and all signs point to him doing so successfully.
2016 Prediction: Better
Bob Shoop (Tennessee-Defense)
Outside of Dave Aranda's hiring at LSU, this is the spashiest one in the conference. This is a very good hire for Butch Jones.
Bob Shoop is taking over a Volunteer defense that was not bad by any stretch of the imagination. They finished Top 50 in all major statistical categories, including a Top 20 Scoring Defense. Still, one should only need to look at the defenses Shoop has fielded at his time as James Franklin's DC at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
In both cases, he was working with undermanned squads. Hugely. Stiil, he was able to get hard-nosed defenses constantly making opposing offenses work for every inch they gained. His 2015 Nittany Lion defense finished in the Top 15 in Total Defense giving up a sensible 324 per game, while the Passing Defense alone finished 8th.
Like Aranda, Shoop is used to doing great things with lesser talent. Now, he has the likes of Derek Barnett and Kahlil McKenzie on the line, Jalen Reeves-Mabin at linebacker and Cameron Sutton in the secondary. All perfectly good at making you wish you didn't have the ball in your hands.
The overall storyline for Tennessee this year will be meeting expectations. All that talent that was so very young in 2014 has now grown up and if they're not able to at least win the Eastern Division, then Jones' seat will grow ever hotter.
Shoop is the key behind the Vols' success this year. Yes, Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd are leading a very talented offense, but Jones getting Shoop was strategic and it was purposeful. He knows that with Shoops calling the plays and those athletes making them, the Vols have every chance to not only win the East, but the conference as well.
2016 Prediction: Better