Will Georgia-Tennessee decide the SEC East in 2015?

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"Defense makes a stand during Georgia's game with Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 in Athens, Ga. (Photo by John Kelley)"
"Defense makes a stand during Georgia's game with Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 in Athens, Ga. (Photo by John Kelley)"

“Defense makes a stand during Georgia’s game with Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 in Athens, Ga.
(Photo by John Kelley)”

I was talking this week with an SEC football-Tennessee Vols fan I know, and I asked him what his expectations were for the coming season.

Amid all the media hype surrounding the Vols’ past couple of recruiting classes, I expected him to see UT well on the road to a “comeback,” but his bold optimism caught me a bit by surprise.

“I think we’ll be first or second” in the SEC East, he said.

He said he thinks “we’ve finally got a real quarterback” in Joshua Dobbs, and he likes the prospects of the Vols’ running game with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. He also thinks the defense will be pretty good.

Asked what sort of record he saw for Tennessee, he said, “I don’t think we’ll beat Alabama and maybe we’ll lose one more in the conference.” He also worries about Oklahoma on the nonconference schedule.

But when it comes to the SEC East, he doesn’t expect much of South Carolina and thinks Florida still has quite a way to go, so “I think it will come down to Georgia and Tennessee.”

I reminded him not to forget about Missouri, which has a way of just hanging around until the other division favorites knock each other off, and then taking the East’s spot in Atlanta.

I’m not sure I’m completely sold on this idea that Butch Jones has the Volunteers ready to contend again this year. I tend to agree with those college football analysts who think Big Orange is still a year away from truly being back, though I acknowledge that the road trip a week after hosting Bama could be Georgia’s biggest challenge of the season.

So, yes, the Georgia-Tennessee game Oct. 10 in Knoxville may well decide the SEC East for 2015.

I’m always interested in hearing how fans of rival programs view their team’s prospects as well as how the more detached media observers see the coming season.

In that regard, the rather dramatic rise of Auburn in an updating of the ESPN Way-Too-Early Top 25 assembled by Mark Schlabach is a bit surprising. Back in January, Schlabach had the Tigers pegged at 14th, but in his new post-spring practice ranking this week they’d jumped all the way to No. 4.

He’s not alone in viewing Auburn that optimistically, either. Apparently, Jeremy Johnson nailing down the starting QB spot this spring has these folks convinced Gus Malzahn’s offense will be back at juggernaut status, despite Johnson not being quite as much of a two-way threat as predecessor Nick Marshall. And I guess the return of Coach Boom to the Plains must mean they see Auburn’s defense getting back on track, too.

Again, I’m not convinced.

Elsewhere in Schlabach’s new ranking, Alabama rose from 10th to 7th, even though they haven’t yet settled on a starting quarterback. Meanwhile, Georgia dropped a notch, going from 8th in January to 9th after spring. I guess that’s what an unresolved quarterback battle will get you if you’re not named Alabama. (This time last year, Schlabach had Georgia at No. 8.)

Nick Chubb is the main basis of most optimistic projections for the 2015 Dawgs. (Associated Press)

Nick Chubb is the main basis of most optimistic projections for the 2015 Dawgs. (Associated Press)

Says Schlabach of Georgia: “The Bulldogs have to get more out of their passing game so they’re not completely one-dimensional. Tailback Nick Chubb is going to carry a heavy load after running for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns as a freshman. Georgia’s defense improved dramatically under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in 2014, and linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter might punish opposing quarterbacks this coming season.”

By the way, Schlabach has Tennessee at No. 20, noting that the Vols “have been taking baby steps to relevancy under coach Butch Jones, going 12-13 in his first two seasons. Now, it’s time for Tennessee’s recruiting success and potential to start translating into victories.”

In a related exercise in offseason prognostication, ESPN had Schlabach and Brett McMurphy go ahead and pick the 2015 bowl pairings. The Cotton and Orange bowls are the College Football Playoff semifinal games this year, and Schlabach has TCU and Oregon in the former with Ohio State and Auburn in the latter, while McMurphy has TCU and USC in the Cotton with Ohio State and Auburn in the Orange. Schlabach sees Ohio State and TCU playing in the national championship, while McMurphy has Auburn vs. TCU.

Schlabach has Georgia representing the SEC against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl while McMurphy has the Dawgs meeting Clemson in the Peach Bowl.

Also issuing a post-spring practice ranking is ace numbers cruncher Phil Steele, who tries to project what the Associated Press preseason poll will look like when it’s released in August. From the SEC, that listing has Alabama at No. 3, Auburn at 9, Georgia at 10, Ole Miss at 12, LSU at 14, Mizzou at 19, Arkansas at 20, Mississippi State at 21 and Tennessee at 24.

It should be an interesting season. Where do you see the Dawgs opening in the rankings? More importantly, where do you see them finishing?

I’ll be on vacation next week, but the Blawg will return the week after, so if there’s something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics or you a question you’d like me to tackle, email junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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