Road to Atlanta: Vanderbilt’s place in early SEC East race

Coin toss as the Florida Gators defeated Vanderbilt 13-6 October 1, 2016 at Vanderbilt Stadium. Photo by Ziyi Liu

Road to Atlanta is a weekly series covering Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC East. The division champ will face off against the SEC West champion in Atlanta in December, but they will first have to get through a divisional slate full of young teams with the potential to pull an upset. This column will recap each week’s games and assess Vanderbilt’s chances to be the team representing the East in the SEC Championship.

The SEC East is the most wide-open it’s been in years. Traditional powerhouses Florida and Tennessee have to break in new quarterbacks and lose key leaders on defense. Georgia returns their powerhouse duo of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but their young receivers handicap the passing game.

South Carolina and Missouri figure to have explosive offenses led by Jake Bentley and Drew Lock, respectively. Both squads’ defenses were liabilities with South Carolina allowing over 203 rushing yards and Mizzou allowing nearly 489 total yards a game in 2016. Kentucky has an experienced offensive line blocking for running back Benny Snell, but the Wildcats must improve a porous run defense to compete this season.

This brings us to Vanderbilt, the wild card in the East. Vanderbilt’s offense came alive in the last six games of 2016, averaging nine more points than in the previous seven games. Ralph Webb, the record-setting running back for the Commodores, returns behind a young offensive line. Oren Burks fills the role of since-departed Zach Cunningham as the leader of the defense. If Vanderbilt can maintain their late-season momentum on offense and continue to be stingy on defense, this team can realistically compete for the SEC East title.

Week 1 in the East was largely uneventful.

Florida’s offense produced only a field goal, despite its defense that contributed two pick-sixes in a 33-17 loss to Michigan. The Gators’ inept offense was hampered by an offensive line that got blown by all afternoon.

Georgia’s sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason suffered a knee sprain in the Bulldogs’ win against Appalachian State, but freshman Jake Fromm impressed on the first touchdown drive of his career.

Tennessee’s thrilling 42-41 comeback victory in double overtime over Georgia Tech provided the drama for the division in Week 1. After initially being unable to stop Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack, two timely turnover recoveries helped the Vols get back into the game.

South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuels accounted for three touchdowns in a 35-28 victory over North Carolina State, a game in which the Gamecocks’ secondary was torn apart.

Missouri’s defensive woes continued into 2017, but the arm of Drew Lock saved the Tigers in their 72-43 triumph over visiting in-state foe Missouri State.

Kentucky emerged victorious over Southern Miss 24-17, but needed to recover two crucial second-half fumbles to earn the win.

Vanderbilt rolled to a 28-6 win at Middle Tennessee State after quarterback Kyle Shurmur went 13 of 14 to begin the game, jumping to an early 21-0 lead.

Looking ahead to Week 2, Georgia visits Notre Dame in one of the weekend’s marquee matchups. Jake Fromm is the likely starter for Georgia with Jacob Eason’s knee sprain, so look for the Bulldogs to run the ball early and often to keep the touted freshman upright.

South Carolina visits Missouri in the East’s first divisional contest of the season. This contest figures to be a high-scoring showdown, as both teams are still struggling to fix last season’s defensive holes.

Outside of those two games, the rest of the division plays mid-majors and other lower-tier teams. Florida hosts Northern Colorado, Tennessee plays Indiana State, Kentucky faces Eastern Kentucky, and Vanderbilt opens up at home with Alabama A&M.

Until divisional play begins, it will be tough to determine which teams seem to be leading the pack. Tennessee impressed with their astounding comeback, and Georgia’s talented running back duo took the pressure off Jake Fromm. The rest of the division seems to be playing slightly below the levels of the Volunteers and Bulldogs, but who knows what Week 2 could bring.

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