The two-time defending SEC East Champs aren’t getting much respect. Pretty sure Missouri fans have heard that before.
Even though the Florida Gators have won the SEC East each of the past two years, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs will likely be the favorite to win the division in 2017. Florida head coach Jim McElwain will enter his third season as the only coach in SEC history to win his division in his first two years, an impressive feat.
“Going into year three, I'm really excited, not only about our team, but more so about our organization, and our organization understanding … that the small little details and sweating the small stuff is something that's really important,” McElwain said on Tuesday.
While ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Gators a 31 percent chance to win the East and just an eight percent chance to win the SEC, compared to UGA’s 37 percent and 10 percent, respectively, McElwain is confident in his team.
“You know what, that's a pretty darn good team, and I'm excited to see what they do this fall,” McElwain said. Florida ranked fifth in the country in total defense last year, and plenty of offensive weapons, such as wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett, are returning.
There are, however, plenty of questions surrounding the state of McElwain’s quarterback situation. Florida recently landed graduate transfer Malik Zaire from Notre Dame, further complicating the quarterback controversy. It seems unlikely that McElwain and his staff would bring in Zaire simply to let him sit on the bench. When asked about the situation, McElwain playfully responded, “I know we will start a quarterback.”
Other Gators in attendance included defensive backs Duke Dawson and Marcell Harris, along with offensive lineman Martez Ivey. All three attendees had similar opinions on Georgia likely being favored to win the division.
Dawson: “We have to come out and prove to everyone. As you can tell, that is just what we have proved the past few years.” Harris also spoke of the lack of recognition given by the media, “We’re going to prove everyone wrong, once again,” he said. Finally, Ivey had a strong opinion on the topic, stating, “Personally, I don’t really pay attention to it, but as a team we take it as motivation.” He added, “We set our own limits for ourselves, and we don’t let anyone else set them for us.”
Regardless of Florida’s recent achievements, the hype in the SEC East is focused primarily on the Georgia Bulldogs. As a team, Georgia has all the pieces to make a run but suffered a what many would call an inadequate first season under the direction of Kirby Smart. “When you come to the University of Georgia, the expectation is to win championships,” Smart said. “That's what we expect to do at the University of Georgia, and that's the standard we'll be held to.”
When healthy, UGA arguably has one of the deadliest running back duos in the country in senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Smart brought Chubb, Michel, and hard-hitting linebacker Roquan Smith to Hoover.
On his relationship with Michel, Chubb said, “There’s a lot of balance to our relationship. He’s really outgoing, and I’m more of a quiet guy. He speaks for me and I hold it down for the both of us.”
That relationship will be of the utmost importance if Georgia wants to make this a season to remember. “The standard is held high,” Michel said on Tuesday, adding, “This is our chance to try to lead our team and lead them to something great.”
Smith understands that with the surprising return of both senior running backs, expectations are running high. “It means the offense is going to be a lot better with two guys like that coming back,” Smith said. “It gives the guys behind them a chance to get better each and every day.”
Georgia opens the season against an underrated Appalachian State team in Athens and then travels to South Bend to face Notre Dame. The Gators also have a tougher opening week, travling to Arlington, Tex., to play Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines.
The two projected leaders of the SEC East will meet in Jacksonville for the River City Showdown (or as it is more affectionately known, the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party), on October 28 in a game that will undoubtedly influence the race to Atlanta.