Early 2014 SEC East power rankings: South Carolina, Georgia the favorites

Kevin C. Cox

The SEC East looks like one of the country's most interesting 2014 division races. Even though we still have to finish coaching season, the recruiting cycle, and spring ball, let's talk about how each stacks up early on. Connor Tapp ranks his personal seven, with yours below.

For the last three years, the winner of South Carolina-Georgia was expected to win the SEC East. That has yet to pan out. But could this be the year? The Gamecocks host the Bulldogs on Sept. 13.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks

2013 finish: 11-2, second in SEC East, No. 4 in AP, Coaches Poll

Returning starters: 15

Connor Shaw finished his career as the winningest quarterback in South Carolina history, so replacing him will be no easy task. Still, Steve Spurrier has tremendous confidence in rising senior Dylan Thompson, who delivered a pair of big wins at Clemson and against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl when Shaw was injured. Thompson isn't anywhere close to the running threat that Shaw was, but he's a better downfield passer and will be aided by a talented and experienced supporting cast.

The Gamecocks will return eight of 11 offensive starters, including four offensive linemen and running back Mike Davis, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

It's the defensive side of the ball where things might get messy. Most notably, there is the glaring 6'7, 275-pound hole where Jadeveon Clowney once stood, and South Carolina doesn't appear to have an obvious replacement at the ready.

Meanwhile, Carolina returns just one player who saw the field at cornerback in 2013 and will have to finish strong on the recruiting trail to avoid having walk-on Sidney Rhodes log significant snaps in the backfield.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

2013 finish: 8-5, third in the SEC East, unranked

Returning starters: 16

Mark Richt is accustomed to reloading his two-deep with blue-chip talent, but the 2014 Bulldogs will have some fresh and talented faces on their coaching staff as well.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left for a raise at Louisville after a second straight season of decline (and extenuating circumstances galore), but the ensuing jokes about Richt having lost control were short-lived. The well-mannered Georgia head coach quickly hired FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who just finished calling the shots for the best defense in the country on a national championship team. For his first campaign in Athens, Pruitt inherits 10 returning starters from a young Bulldog defense. Even the loss of senior nose tackle Garrison Smith is abated by the addition of four-star freshman Lamont Gaillard.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs must go about the difficult business of replacing Aaron Murray, perhaps the most prolific passer in SEC history. Though a torn ACL was a horrible and unfair way for Murray to go out, the silver lining is that it gave backup and projected 2014 starter Hutson Mason some experience against a pair of decent defenses in Nebraska and Georgia Tech.

UGA will have to replace three of its five starters along the offensive line, but it returns a wealth of talent at the offensive skill positions. That includes star running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, the latter two of whom were injured for most of 2013. The Bulldogs have also picked up commitments from five-star running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, so it will take a lot to slow down Mike Bobo's offense.

3. Missouri Tigers

2013 finish: 12-2, first in SEC East, No. 5 in AP, Coaches Polls

Returning starters: 10

Missouri loses 12 starters in 2014, which will make it incredibly difficult to defend its 2013 SEC East crown.

There's enough talent at the offensive skill positions, however, to think that Mizzou's offense could continue to hum right along. Maty Mauk got plenty of meaningful reps (133 passing attempts for a 143.1 rating) at quarterback during James Franklin's final year in Columbia and will have the privilege of throwing to Dorial Green-Beckham and handing off to Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, who combined for 1,286 yards in 2013 and more than six yards per carry.

Defensively, the Tigers lose five of their back seven, plus standout defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Shane Ray and Markus Golden should be able to step in along the line without missing too much of a beat, but the losses in the secondary could end up doing the Tigers in.

4. Florida Gators

2013 finish: 4-8, fifth in SEC East, unranked

Returning starters: 16

The recent ineptitude of the Florida Gators' offense is one of modern college football's greatest mysteries. Despite having their chances at the nation's best talent and the resources to attract the best football minds in the country, the Gators haven't been able to find the right combination of players and scheme to yield an effective offense.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will get his chance at reviving Florida's point-scoring endeavors after steering Duke's offense to an unlikely appearance in the ACC Championship Game and a near-upset of Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Jeff Driskel will be back under center after missing most of 2013 with a broken fibula, but Tyler Murphy's decision to transfer to Boston College means that the Gators will once again find themselves just one snap away from Skyler Mornhinweg.

On the defensive side of the ball, Florida will lose some important pieces to the NFL Draft but should have no difficulty reloading with talent already on hand and incoming, especially with lots of injured players coming back. Despite early departures from junior cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, the Gators return Freshman All-American Vernon Hargreaves III and have secured a commitment from five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor.

5. Vanderbilt Commodores

2013 finish: 9-4, third in SEC East, No. 23 AP, No. 24 Coaches Poll

Returning starters: 12

You probably had no idea that Vanderbilt finished second in the SEC behind Alabama in yards-per-play defense (5.07), but it's true. While veteran defenders Walker May and Andre Hal will be difficult to replace, James Franklin built a solid talent base during his three years in Nashville.

It shouldn't be a surprise if the Commodores' defense remains around the top half of the league, while the offensive losses include receiver Jordan Matthews and tackle Wesley Johnson, two of the best players in school history.

Ultimately, it will be hard to have a solid idea of what to expect from Vanderbilt until James Franklin's replacement has been named. The fiery head coach was the identity of the football program for the past three seasons, and the manner in which the 'Dores 2014 recruiting class has deteriorated (it's fallen 23 spots in the 247 Composite to No. 53 overall since he left for Penn State) is a troubling sign that all that renewed vitality might have left with Franklin.

6. Kentucky Wildcats

2013 finish: 2-10, seventh in SEC East, unranked

Returning starters: 16

Kentucky finished winless in the SEC for the second consecutive season, but the Wildcats' 0-8 conference record in 2013 was filled with much more hope than it was in 2012. Commonwealth Stadium was packed to the gills for Kentucky's spring game -- an event that occurs right at the end of basketball season, mind you -- and first-year head coach Mark Stoops got off to a hot start on the recruiting trail.

Once the actual football season started, the Wildcats still had a few things to be excited about, but you had to look a lot harder to find them. They lost at South Carolina and Mississippi State by a combined 13 points, and -- uh, actually, that's about it.

The good news is that Kentucky returns 16 of 22 starters in 2014 and, aside from the departures of massive defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, the few losses it will suffer are pretty evenly spread out. Combine that with Kentucky's uncharacteristically strong recruiting class, currently No. 26 according to the Composite, and you have a formula for a team that could experience another year of incremental improvement and maybe even break its 16-game SEC losing streak.

7. Tennessee Volunteers

2013 finish: 5-7, fourth in SEC East, unranked

Returning starters: 11

Butch Jones is an excellent football coach and an excellent recruiter. He should eventually turn Tennessee back into a perennial winner.

But the Volunteers' personnel losses from year one to year two will be too difficult to overcome. UT is losing its entire offensive line (including potential first-rounder Antonio Richardson), its entire defensive line, and two of three linebackers.

Tennessee secured a massive victory when ball-hawking linebacker A.J. Johnson decided to return for his senior season, and running back Marlin Lane, along with young receivers Pig Howard and Marquez North, should continue to explode on offense. But there's little else on Tennessee's current roster to be excited about.

If UT has any hope of fashioning 2014 into a winning season, it's because of Jones' first full recruiting class. The Vols currently have a top-six class consisting of 33 prospects and 14 early enrollees, with 16 four-star prospects. As impressive as that is, the 2013 Ole Miss Rebels provided a cautionary tale on the dangers of getting too excited about a great recruiting class. Tennessee will emerge from the SEC's cellar, but not quite yet.

More from SB Nation college football:

The Florida State process: How Jimbo Fisher built a new champion

Ten teams that could break out in 2014

What to know about James Franklin at Penn State

Predicting where the top 25 uncommitted recruits will land

College football news | Georgia steals champion FSU’s defensive coordinator

Long CFB reads | The death of a college football player

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