The SEC East will be a two-team race in 2017. At least, that’s what the media gathered at SEC Media Days said with their voting this year.
According to the results from the voting at SEC Media Days, Georgia will be the winner of the SEC East in 2017. That itself isn’t a surprise, but the predicted order of finish behind them and the margins between the positions are a bit surprising.
Florida finished a very close second to the Bulldogs. Georgia earned 138 of a possible 242 first place votes, and the Gators earned 96 of the remaining 104 first place votes. The Gators finished just 46 points behind Georgia for first place in the East.
The gap between first and second place may be narrow, but there’s a large gulf between second and third place. And that’s where the Vols sit.
Tennessee was voted to finish third in the East this year, but their vote count put them much closer to fourth than second. By a large margin. South Carolina, who was voted to in finish fourth place, finished just 101 points behind Tennessee. The Vols finished a whole 528 points behind the Gators for second place.
What the media is saying by their voting is they believe the Vols are closer to Kentucky and South Carolina’s level than Florida and Georgia’s.
Not only that, but Tennessee only had four players selected to the preseason All-SEC teams, and none of them were selected to the first-team. Tennessee didn’t have a single defensive player get voted as an All-SEC player either.
The Vols had nine total players make the All-SEC teams last year, and three of them were first-team selections. All three of Tennessee’s first-team players last year were defenders.
For comparison this year, Alabama had an absurd 16 total players selected to the preseason All-SEC teams, including a record 10 first-team selections. Florida had 10 players voted to the All-SEC teams, and Georgia had eight players chosen. In fact, Tennessee only had one more player selected than both South Carolina and Kentucky. The Gamecocks and Wildcats both had three players chosen to the All-SEC teams.
Tennessee went from the favorites to win the East and having players littered throughout the All-SEC teams a year ago to barely being picked to finish third and having their total amount of players on the all-conference teams more than halved this year.
Does that mean the Vols were disrespected at SEC Media Days?
Tennessee lost to South Carolina last year, and the Gamecocks have several promising young players returning to their roster for 2017. While the Vols didn’t lose to Kentucky, the Wildcats also return a handful of promising players from what was an exciting offensive team last year. And the Wildcats have one of the easier overall schedules in the SEC this year. So the hype around those teams does make sense. But Tennessee still has much more overall talent than those two teams. In fact, the Vols do still have the most talented roster in the SEC East this year according to data compiled from Rivals.com ratings. And all that despite Tennessee losing six players to the NFL Draft and a handful of others to undrafted free agent contracts.
The notion that the Vols are closer to South Carolina and Kentucky than Florida and Georgia is a sobering one if true. But does it hold up when looking at recruiting and performance over the last few years?
Over the last three years (2014-16), Tennessee has a 25-14 overall record, and their recruiting classes from 2015-17 have averaged a 5th-place finish in the SEC according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Florida has a 26-13 record, two SEC East titles, and an average recruiting ranking of seventh in the conference during that same span. Georgia has accumulated a 28-11 record and an average finish of 3rd in the SEC in recruiting during that stretch. South Carolina, meanwhile, has just a 16-22 record and an average recruiting ranking in the SEC of ninth during that time. Kentucky has gone 17-19 and has averaged a 12th-place finish in the conference in recruiting in that span.
Based on those numbers alone, the Vols are much closer to Florida and Georgia than they are South Carolina and Kentucky. Especially given the recruiting numbers. The Vols still have much more talent (albeit, unproven) than the Gamecocks and Wildcats. Coaching does come into effect here, but even that shouldn’t be enough to pull the Vols down as far as they are according to the media.
And when it comes to the All-SEC teams, players like senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. and junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. are puzzling snubs from the defensive selections. Yes, the SEC is fairly loaded at both safety and linebacker for this upcoming season, and Kirkland missing a significant chunk of his sophomore year with injury didn’t help his cause. But the Vols, in my opinion, deserve more than just four players on the All-SEC teams.
Tennessee shouldn’t be the favorites to win the SEC East this year. Picking them to finish third is a reasonable prediction. But the Vols are closer to second place than fourth place, and they still have talent even if that talent isn’t as well known as it was last year.
The media is sleeping on the Vols this year. That doesn’t mean Tennessee will make it to Atlanta, but I do think it means they will be better than what the national media is giving them credit for right now.