New coaches give hope to the SEC East

Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio (Jack’s son) points out defenders during the Orange and Blue Debut Spring Game earlier this month.
Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio (Jack’s son) points out defenders during the Orange and Blue Debut Spring Game earlier this month. The Associated Press

If the East Division of the Southeastern Conference begins to make a move on the West, which has won seven straight conference championship games, the 2015 and 2016 seasons might be the pivot point.

Each of the East teams that have won divisions since 2010 has changed coaches and begins a new era. One program, Florida, has changed coaches twice.

The Gators surprised many by winning the division in Jim McElwain’s first year. Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina look for the same lightning strike this season.

Kirby Smart takes over the Bulldogs, replacing Mark Richt, who won at least 10 games in his 15 years at Athens. But there was only one SEC title. Smart was the defensive coordinator for four national championship teams at Alabama.

At Missouri, Barry Odom replaces Gary Pinkel, who stepped down for health reasons last year after 15 seasons in Columbia. Odom was part of several of those Pinkel staffs and came to Mizzou from Memphis, where he coached from 2012-14

Also no stranger to the conference is Steve Spurrier’s replacement at South Carolina, Will Muschamp. As Florida’s head coach from 2011-14, he went 28-21 in four seasons at Gainesville and 17-15 in league play. The Gamecocks, who fell to the bottom of the East last season, can contend for the division, Muschamp recently told a booster group.

“I don’t look at long-term goals,” he said. “If we can stay healthy and key positions and get some breaks we have good enough players to win the (division).”

Of course, all programs can say the same thing. Here’s a rundown of the teams as spring practice winds down, presented in projected order of finish.

SEC East

▪ Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd may have been the best running back you didn’t hear much about last season. In a league that produced Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, an early favorite, Hurd was terrific. He rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns and was the MVP of the Outback Bowl.

▪ McElwain got it done in first year at Florida, leading the Gators to the division title. Is Luke Del Rio — Jack’s son — the quarterback? Del Rio started his career at Alabama, transferred to Oregon State a now leads the pack of Gators candidates.

▪ Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs should be in good shape on the defensive side. Safety Dominick Sanders shared the league lead with six interceptions last year. No word yet on the timetable of running back Nick Chubb as he recovers from a knee injury.

▪ Some of Missouri’s defensive stars, such as end Charles Harris, didn’t play in the spring game, but the defense won the day anyway. Defense should lead the way early, and the Tigers have a returning starter in quarterback Drew Lock, but the program has to develop more playmakers.

▪ Will Muschamp has his work cut out for him at South Carolina. Defensive should be ahead of an offense that could start dual-threat and true freshman Brandon McIlwain at quarterback.

▪ Kentucky might have to get to a bowl game for Mark Stoops to keep his job. He’ll begin his fourth season in the fall and has missed the postseason by one game in each of the last two years. Drew Barker, who went 12 of 18 in the spring game, won the quarterback battle.

▪ Running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for 1,152 yards last season, is the centerpiece of Vanderbilt’s offense. The Commodores stepped out of the SEC basement last season. Coach Derek Mason will need more from Vandy’s passing game if the upward mobility is to continue.

SEC West

▪ At LSU, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron declared of Brandon Harris, “He’s ready to be the quarterback.” The return of head coach Les Miles surprised some, but there’s no escaping the pressure. LSU might wind up preseason No. 1 with much of its defensive starters returning. LSU plays host to Mizzou on Oct. 1.

▪ It’s reflex to advance Alabama to the top of the polls or at least top four, which would put the Crimison Tide in the College Football Playoff, no matter who is returning. The quarterback competition between Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell was disrupted by outside linebacker Tim Williams, who dominated the spring game.

▪ Mississippi, who defeated the Tigers and Crimson Tide last season, look to challenge for the division this year behind quarterback Chad Kelly, perhaps the league’s top returning quarterback. Still, the Rebels lost plenty of high-profile talent in offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.

▪ Texas A&M may have the SEC’s top defender in junior end Myles Garrett. He led the SEC with 12  1/2 sacks — he has 24 in two seasons — and 19 tackles for loss. Plus he forced five fumbles and collected an interception last season. Former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight takes over as the Aggies’ starter.

▪ The Allen era of Arkansas quarterbacks continues. Brandon Allen, who wrapped up three years as a starter last season, has passed he torch to younger brother Austin. Coach Bret Bielema made the announcement earlier this week, essentially confirming what had been expected. Still, Austin played well in spring workouts, which wrapped up Saturday, including a 15-for-18 performance in one scrimmage. The Razorbacks travel to Missouri on Nov. 26

▪ Injuries have slowed Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson throughout his career, and that has slowed the Tigers defense. But Lawson, entering his fourth year, is healthy and ready for a big season.

▪ Mississippi State is replacing the top quarterback in school history, Dak Prescott, and some good wide receivers. But getting better play from the offensive line is paramount. Prescott was a mobile quarterback and still was sacked 30 times.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff