January and February are underrated months on the college football calendar.
While most fans are catching their breath from the previous season, their favorite team is dealing with changing faces in the locker room and the coaches’ offices. The complexion of many schools changes after the coaching silly season is complete as head coaches are replaced and one team’s offensive coordinator becomes another’s head coach.
The roster also is in flux. Seniors are replaced on Signing Day on the first Wednesday in February, and January also features the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft. So, let’s take a look at how each SEC team looks with spring practice not far down the road.
In honor of the tried-and-true (and a little tired) coaching axiom that you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, we’ve classified teams as either Stock Rising or Stock Falling. There’s no room for just treading water in the SEC.
We’ll measure the SEC West on Tuesday.
FLORIDA – RISING
The Gators limped home, narrowly avoiding an upset at the hands of Louisiana-Lafayette and then getting whipped by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but very few people saw 11 wins coming in Gainesville last year. The Gators had to replace defensive coordinator Dan Quinn after Quinn was plucked away by the Seattle Seahawks. They promoted linebackers coach D.J. Durkin (and hired away South Carolina’s Brad Lawing to fill their open position). Durkin will be working with a defense that lost its backbone, safety Matt Elam, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and defensive tackle Shariff Floyd to the NFL. Still, the offense should be better with a more experienced Jeff Driskel, and the SEC East is up for grabs.
GEORGIA – FALLING
We’re not suggesting the Bulldogs won’t have a say in the SEC East race. They will, and they may win it for a third season in a row. However, after being one play away from playing for the national title, the Bulldogs probably will take a step back. Mark Richt survived a scare when defensive coordinator Todd Grantham stuck around after being linked to the Philadelphia Eagles top defensive job, but Grantham will be working without many of the players that made up one of the nation’s most formidable defenses from a year ago, including linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and nose tackles John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. Quarterback Aaron Murray will return, but Georgia lost another key assistant in Rodney Garner, long known as one of the South’s top recruiters. Garner took a job at Auburn, his alma mater.
KENTUCKY – FALLING
There’s not much further to fall for the Wildcats football program, but first-year coach Mark Stoops has his work cut out for him. The Kentucky faithful is excited about the staff Stoops has put together, and there’s reason for optimism with Neal Brown, a Kentucky native and former player for Hal Mumme, running the offense, and former Florida State assistant D.J. Eliot serving as defensive coordinator. Now the Wildcats have to find some players. So far, it’s not going great. Kentucky’s current recruiting class is ranked No. 45 in the nation by Scout.com.
MISSOURI – FALLING
As well as Texas A&M’s first year in the SEC went, Missouri’s went just as badly. The Tigers ballyhooed offense was a disaster (ranking No. 96 in the nation in yards) and previously popular offensive coordinator David Yost, who had been at the school since 2001, left for what were described as personal reasons. Once-promising quarterback James Franklin will return but will have to fight for the starting job after a disappointing 2011, but the Tigers best defensive player, and one of the most underrated in the SEC, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.
SOUTH CAROLINA – RISING
The Gamecocks, honestly, could go either way. In fact, it’s a lot easier to go down than up from back-to-back 11-win seasons, but overall, this still is a program on the rise. The early loss of running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Ace Sanders will hurt. In fact, the Gamecocks don’t have a dominant offensive player returning. Instead, they have perhaps unprecedented depth at every spot, including quarterback. South Carolina lost experience and continuity with defensive line coach Brad Lawing left to take a job at Florida. However, new defensive line coach Deke Adams bring a strong reputation and recruiting pedigree, and Lorenzo Ward’s first year at defensive coordinator showed plenty of reasons for optimism.
TENNESSEE – FALLING
Another season, another new coach for the Volunteers. Butch Jones, a Brian Kelly protégé, became the fourth head coach in six seasons in Knoxville when he was hired. He brings with him defensive assistants who are familiar with the league in John Jancek and Willie Martinez, who once worked under Mark Richt, but it’s a big jump from Cincinnati to the SEC. Jones will make the jump without quarterback Tyler Bray, wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and defensive tackle Darrington Sentimore, all of whom bolted early for the NFL. A new coach plus big personnel losses plus a schedule that includes road games against Alabama and Oregon equals ugly for the Vols again.
VANDERBILT – RISING
James Franklin has proven the perfect fit for Vanderbilt. The Commodores head coach’s brash style and aggressive marketing have helped buoy a long dormant program. The progress on the field has been steady (six wins in 2011, nine in 2012 including seven straight to end the season), and the storyline surrounding the team has completely changed. Suddenly, Vanderbilt is no longer seen as a doormat, and recruits are taking notice. The Commodores have the No. 22 class in the country, according to Scout.com, and might have made their biggest recruiting coup of the season by keeping wide receiver Jordan Matthews for one more season. Matthews considered leaving for the NFL.