Across the South: Who Finishes Second in SEC East?

Welcome to a new series on the WNSP website! You’ll be able to find Across the South right here every Wednesday where we will get into a different topic on the SEC, break down the biggest matchups of the previous week, preview the coming week’s slate, talk about where things stand in the best conference in the land, and much more! For the first edition of this column, let’s switch gears from Alabama and Auburn and talk about the SEC East:

It’s no secret that the Georgia Bulldogs run things in the east right now. The two-time defending national champs are attempting to do something this season that has not been accomplished in nearly a century by winning a third straight title. Sure, anything can happen, but as -380 favorites in the SEC East, it feels logical to discuss the race as a battle for second behind Smart’s squad.

So assuming the probable happens and the Bulldogs are once again in Atlanta for the SEC Championship, who is their biggest threat and who is most likely to finish second?

The conversation has to start with the Tennessee Volunteers. In fact, if there was a case to be made for someone to topple the Dawgs in the regular season, it’s probably the Vols. Tennessee will have the opportunity to host Georgia this season in a game that will likely decide the division. While Josh Heupel is having to replace star quarterback Hendon Hooker along with Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman at receiver as well as top-10 pick Darnell Wright at tackle, I’m inclined to think the offense will be just fine.

For one, senior QB Joe Milton III has the strongest arm in college football and it showed in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. They also return Bru McCoy and Squirrel White at wide receiver in addition their entire rushing attack from last season. Josh Heupel has proven to be one of the most elite offensive minds in college football and with the chess pieces in place, the Vols should have a potent offense once again.

Tennessee’s ceiling will be determined by their defense. The pass defense was dreadful in 2022, ranking outside the top 100 in the nation and giving up nearly 300 yards per game through the air. If the Vols want to have any shot at dethroning Georgia, they simply must be better at guarding the pass this season.

After Tennessee, I think an under the radar team who could make some noise that not enough people are talking about is Kentucky. All Mark Stoops does is churn out good seasons, and as hard is it may be to believe after Will Levis, he very well may have his best quarterback yet this year in NC State transfer Devin Leary. Another key addition is the return of offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who went to the NFL to run the Rams offense after the Wildcats’ 10-win season in 2021.

JJ Weaver is one of the best linebackers in the SEC and will lead a Kentucky defense that should be very good in 2023. The Cats also have the advantage of hosting Tennessee this year after the moment was too big for Will Levis and the offense in a drubbing at Neyland Stadium last year.

If there is one team outside of Tennessee and Kentucky that could make a case for second place, it has to be South Carolina. Year three of the Shane Beamer era coincides with year two of Spencer Rattler in Columbia. The Gamecocks got to 8 wins in 2022 by way of a late season surge that saw them defeat Tennessee and Clemson in back to back weeks at the end of the season before a thrilling Gator Bowl defeat to Notre Dame. If they can build on this momentum, South Carolina could compete in 2023.

I don’t think there is an argument to be made for Florida, who has possibly the worst quarterback situation in the entire conference. After Florida will be Vanderbilt and Missouri in whichever order you prefer. Neither will compete for second place in the east.

With the season less than three weeks away, there seem to be questions about everyone but Georgia, as the Dawgs have rightfully earned every benefit of the doubt. But someone will have to finish second, and it won’t be long before the picture becomes a whole lot more clear.