Despite not having won the division since 2007, Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite in the SEC East in 2016.
By one survey, 13 of 14 publications picked the Vols. Tennessee got 225 of the 331 first-place votes from the SEC media members – not that those predictions have a good track record. The Vols return a bevy of starters from a team that was a close win or two against excellent teams from an elite season in 2015. Looking at the hard data, the computers agree the Vols will be a top-10 team in 2016.
Whenever there is near-universal consensus about a team winning a division or conference, our skeptical impulses should be triggered. This is true with powers like Alabama and Ohio State, let alone a team emerging from the wilderness like Tennessee. It's even more true when those same computers that really like the Vols have them in a dead heat with Georgia to win the East.
Here's a case, then, for a Georgia as the East favorite. Why Georgia, the team with a first-year head coach in Kirby Smart? A few reasons.
1. The Georgia passing game should be better.
These are stat lines for a pair of quarterbacks in 2015.
The top line is Josh Dobbs in 2015, and the bottom line, with the better general numbers, is Greyson Lambert.
Dobbs is a cemented senior starter and supposed to be one of the reasons why Tennessee wins the East this year; Lambert very well could be replaced by five-star true freshman Jacob Eason. And yet Lambert's passing performance in 2016 was better than Dobbs' in the aggregate.
Statistics, of course, can be misleading, and this isn't a perfect comparison. Dobbs added 671 yards rushing, whereas Lambert is a statue. Dobbs' running is helpful by itself and also creates space for Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Also, Dobbs played one more game, because Lambert was benched for the Florida game, an indication that Georgia's coaches were not wild about what they are getting from their quarterback.
That said, the Florida game also illustrates why Lambert could be better this year. Not only did he have better passing stats in 2015, but now he's shifting offensive coordinators from Brian Schottenheimer to Jim Chaney. Chaney has a track record of producing quality offenses in a variety of situations. Schottenheimer has a dreadful track record in both the NFL and college and is very much the reason why Mark Richt is in Coral Gables instead of Athens.
Last year, Schottenheimer's plan against Florida was one of the worst game plans in recent college football history, as he started a third-string quarterback with greater mobility than Lambert and then didn't call plays to take advantage of those wheels. That game illustrates the point that Lambert got little help from his play caller last year.
Few players will get to experience a bigger coaching upgrade than Lambert going from Schottenheimer to Chaney. And if Eason beats him out on merit? Seems even better for Georgia fans.
Bill C.'s big previews
Bill C.'s big previews
2. Tennessee could have some of the same problems.
Tennessee was bad in close games last year, and losing close games isn't necessarily predictive of how future close games will play out. If Tennessee can win more of them, this could work out. But there's an endemic factor that will likely cause Tennessee to continue to struggle in close games: offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.
Michigan fans were mostly perplexed when Butch Jones hired the former Wolverines coordinator before last season. For one thing, DeBord had no experience deploying the run-based spread scheme that would be ideal with Dobbs. For another, DeBord had spent his time after his second stint as Michigan's offensive coordinator as a position coach in the NFL and then an administrator for Michigan's Olympic sports.
In other words, based on the jobs he was forced to accept after 2007, the market reflected a lack of confidence in DeBord's skills as an offensive coordinator, until Jones plucked him out of middle management.
One look at DeBord's tenure as an offensive coordinator explains his descent into oblivion. When Michigan had great defenses (1997 and 2006), DeBord was passable. When Michigan needed anything substantial out of its offense, DeBord struggled. Some notable highlights:
- With a starting lineup including three future NFL starters on the offensive line, an NFL starter at wide receiver, a future top-10 pick at another receiver spot, an NFL offensive rookie of the year at running back and Tom Brady at quarterback, DeBord coached an entire month in which the offense produced 12, 12, 15 and 21 points against teams that combined to go 15-30.
- In 1999, Michigan missed a shot at the national title when DeBord wouldn't trust the aforementioned Brady to throw the ball, and thus Michigan blew a 20-point lead at home to Illinois. (Sound familiar, Vol fans?)
- In 2006, Michigan had uncomfortably close calls against Penn State and Ball State, when the Wolverine offense couldn't be relied upon to put opponents out of sight.
- DeBord was reputedly Lloyd Carr's preferred replacement and took a greater role in August preparations for the 2007 season. That season started with Michigan losing to Appalachian State.
In other words, DeBord came to Tennessee with a track record of being a conservative, not especially effective offensive coordinator. So when the Vols blew leads on a repeated basis in 2015, they were losing games in exactly the fashion that DeBord's track record would have suggested. If DeBord would not trust Tom Brady to throw the ball with a lead (except in obvious passing situations), then what makes us think that he'll be bolder with Dobbs? (Here's a case for DeBord to put more trust in his current quarterback.)
3. Georgia gets to play Tennessee in Athens.
Cutting-edge analysis, I know.
It matters, because the teams are relatively evenly matched. Given that Tennessee also plays Alabama (a likely loss), the Vols will need Georgia to go 5-3 or worse for Tennessee to win the East if they can't beat the Dawgs at Sanford Stadium. The last time Tennessee won a game in Athens? 2006.
If Georgia rides a head-to-head win over the Vols to the SEC title game in Atlanta, it would be karmic payback for two instances in which Phil Fulmer did the reverse to Mark Richt. In 2004, Georgia was a point better than Tennessee, according to SRS, but lost the East because of a five-point loss to the Vols. In 2007, it was basically the same story.
In both years, Fulmer's teams drove Georgia fans crazy by barely eking past both Kentucky and Vandy, getting hopes up of an upset and then surviving by narrow margins. While Tennessee feels generally due to win the East, Georgia is due for a very specific occurrence: riding a head-to-head win to Atlanta, even over a team with better overall numbers.
4. Florida probably doesn't have the offense.
The Gators quarterback, Luke Del Rio, is on his third school and has thrown a whopping 18 passes at those first two stops. The running backs are new. There are already receiver suspensions. Two starters are gone from an offensive line that struggled in pass protection. Florida's offense is probably a year away, which means the defense would have to carry the Gators to Atlanta. It's not impossible (hey, happened last year), but it's unlikely.
So, Georgia? Yes, Georgia.
The Dawgs have the best player in the division (Nick Chubb), the biggest coaching upgrade at offensive coordinator and no road games against top contenders Tennessee and Florida.
Smart may not prove to be an upgrade over Richt, but his first season in Athens sets up nicely.
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