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December 13, 2010

Interesting Look for 2011 SEC East

An expected tumble from grace in the SEC East this season has already begun the shakeup. Urban Meyer is out and Will Muschamp is in at Florida, and at least one report says that Gus Malzahn is heading from Auburn to Vanderbilt to replace the resigned Robbie Caldwell.

In a rough year in the division, a 5-3 record was good enough to win the East championship. Five of the six teams will either be starting or continuing a rebuilding project next year. Four teams will either have rookie coaches or second-year coaches, while Georgia standby Mark Richt will continue his division-longest tenure.

The sixth team, reigning East champ South Carolina, seems content to sit back and let it all play out. The Gamecocks stand to return the most talent of the Eastern teams and have an entrenched coach, which should make them heavy favorites to repeat in 2011.

"Like I said, all this year, I don't think this is the best team we're going to field," coach Steve Spurrier said after giving his customary "four, five years" response to how long he would continue to coach. "I think we can field a stronger team in the future."

The Gamecocks will try to end this season on a strong note, something that has eluded them for the past three seasons, but regardless of what happens at the Chick-fil-A Bowl, they stand to return a strong team in 2011. The three main pieces of the offense -- quarterback Stephen Garcia, tailback Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery -- come back and there should be several returning stars on defense (while end Devin Taylor is draft-eligible, it appears he is a definite to return).

They will attempt to build on this year's stirring performance, and right the wrongs of this year in their next try. That includes ending Kentucky's one-game winning streak in the series and trying to make it two straight over Florida, a game that could again likely determine the Eastern champion.

The Gamecocks' competition in 2011:

FLORIDA will try to regroup under former Texas coach-in-waiting Muschamp, but it will be an interesting ride. Muschamp is a defensive coach, a complete departure from what Meyer (and Spurrier) were before him. Those kinds of offenses are how the Gators made their reputation, and it remains to be seen if Muschamp and his offensive coordinator (rumored, but not confirmed, to be Texas' Major Applewhite) can oversee a return to glory. Muschamp at least has experience being around drop-back passers like he will have if John Brantley returns, but he should stick to fixing the defense while his OC tries to repair the offense. The Gators have talent, but were often running around confused last year as Meyer tried to pigeonhole a quarterback not used to his system into the system. Still, it's Florida. The talent pool is there. What Muschamp has to do is immediately identify which players on the current roster can help his plans and which can't, then see if removing the ones that can't will still leave him with a competitive team. One thing's for sure -- the Gators will at least reflect their new coach's intensity next year, because there's no other way to play for the man.

GEORGIA, much like Florida, has a lot of talent to build around but it losing its most explosive player (probably). Receiver A.J. Green should be declaring for the NFL Draft now, since it's rather obvious he will be a first-round pick and honestly, he appears to be too good for college ball. The Bulldogs heavily missed Green during their first four games and took off when he returned, although it was too late to salvage anything but a bowl game. Richt will attempt to build around two returning offensive stars, quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Washaun Ealey, and hope his defense drastically improves. Like Florida, Georgia has a wide group of talented players to choose from on the recruiting trail, and can sell a rare point this year -- immediate playing time. It's not like a true freshman could do much worse than some of the Bulldogs did this year.

KENTUCKY is going to play in its fifth straight bowl game, which is testament enough to where the Wildcats are, and will get a rare chance for a preview for next year. Expected to start Mike Hartline at quarterback in the bowl game, coach Joker Phillips will instead go with sophomore Morgan Newton after Hartline's arrest and subsequent suspension. Newton could go ahead and entrench himself as the starter next year with a strong performance. That could give Phillips at least one answer as he wonders if he will get another. Do-everything athlete Randall Cobb could return, but he may be tempted to try the NFL. He comes back, Kentucky has a go-to receiver and perhaps quarterback; he leaves, the Wildcats won't be able to replace him with one player. A lot of UK's defense is coming back, but it was a defense that finished sixth in the league and gave up over 350 yards per game. Phillips has made several in-roads on the recruiting trail, though, and has the Wildcats in a good place. While there may be several who complain the program is at a standstill, it's much better than not going to a bowl. It's Kentucky, after all -- the motto is "Wait till basketball."

TENNESSEE is feeling good after winning its last four games to finish 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game. It was rough going on Rocky Top this year, injuries and the ensuing fallout from the Lane Kiffin fiasco continuing to bite Derek Dooley as he attempted to repair the damage. The Volunteers were in most games until their thin numbers sapped their strength, so if they can just stay healthy next year, they should be OK. It may take another middling year before Dooley can really be judged, since his team is almost frighteningly young, but with quarterback Tyler Bray returning and really coming into his own since midseason, he'll have something to rely on. Plus, like Georgia, Dooley can promise and deliver immediate playing time.

VANDERBILT, if it does land Malzahn, should at least be credited for making the effort for a high-profile coach. Problem is, that won't be nearly enough. Vandy simply doesn't care about football to the point where it can at least be competitive, playing in the same shoddy facilities and trying to simply fill the days until their best teams -- the Olympic sports -- can being their seasons. It's a tough sell to recruit there and tougher still to promote a winning atmosphere, especially when kids just know they're going to be losing nine times out of 10. Bobby Johnson had seemed to turn a corner with a bowl win in 2008, but took a step back in 2009 and quit before 2010. Caldwell charmed writers and fans, but ultimately wasn't the man for the gig and resigned after the Commodores' second straight 2-10 mark. Vandy has some very talented players -- Warren Norman, Chris Marve, Casey Hayward -- and the team plays hard, but it's overwhelmed. A new coach with a fiery offensive mind might make some rumbles, but he would still have to find players -- at Vanderbilt, the best years are always light-years away.



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