Vols selected as SEC's surprise team

In one of the closest races of all our SEC football SportsNation polls, the fans have picked Tennessee to edge Georgia as the league's surprise team in 2011.

With more than 31,000 votes cast, the Vols own 33 percent of the vote and the Bulldogs 32 percent, so it's neck-and-neck. I was surprised that Florida didn't get more votes. The Gators came in third with 15 percent of the vote.

The reality is that if there's going to be a surprise team next season, it probably will come out of the Eastern Division. There's just simply not a dominant team in the East, and even though South Carolina is probably the favorite to repeat, the Gamecocks have their own issues.

The Vols, entering their second season under Derek Dooley, need to take advantage of being at home so much the first half of the season. Five of their first six games are at Neyland Stadium. If they can come out of that stretch no worse than 4-2, they have a decent chance of winning eight games in the regular season, which would be significant progress from a year ago when they finished 6-7 and didn't beat any FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record.

Ultimately, Tennessee is probably still a year away from making a serious run at the East title. The Vols have enough young talent on their team that 2012 could be the season they rejoin the title chase in earnest. Inexperience at key spots is likely to hold them them back this season, as Dooley said 70 percent of their roster will be freshmen and sophomores.

For Georgia, those first two games against Boise State and South Carolina will be critical. The Bulldogs can't afford another slow start.

It could be that the Georgia-Tennessee game in Knoxville on Oct. 8 will decide which team is in the best position to surprise next season.

I still think Florida will go into November with a chance to win the division, especially if the Gators are as good as I think they will be in the front seven on defense.