Every coach you talk to will tell you it's a total team effort. If one part fails, the whole show goes down.
But on most teams you can pinpoint a single position that will make or break the season. Last year it was Alabama's defensive line that led the charge to a national championship while Florida's lack of a strong quarterback limited how far the Gators could go.
Today, we'll look at those make-or-break positions in the East. Tomorrow morning we'll examine the West.
Florida Gators: There’s no sense in going off script now. Ever since Tim Tebow moved on Florida has been missing a quarterback. The list of failed passers is long, stretching from John Brantley to Treon Harris. And while this year seems to hold more promise with Luke Del Rio stepping up this spring, are we really sure he’s the answer? Del Rio doesn’t necessarily have the size (6-foot-1) or the pedigree (a walk-on, two-time transfer) to say he’ll be special, but frankly he doesn’t have to be. As long as he’s serviceable and takes care of the football, he could lead the team to another East title. If he somehow gives Doug Nussmeier more than Harris did a season ago, Florida will be in excellent shape.
Georgia Bulldogs: It’s easy to get caught up in the quarterback battle of Greyson Lambert and Jacob Eason. But go back to last year and ask yourself whether you ever saw a receiver running open. If you did, chances are it was Malcolm Mitchell, who is gone after having more receptions than the next three receivers combined. Terry Godwin has the chance to be a playmaker, but coach Kirby Smart needs to find more targets, whether that’s Michael Chigbu, who looked promising this spring, or Demetris Robertson, a talented potential addition who could find himself in the mix should he sign with Georgia. We know that the running game will be in good shape with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If the receivers step up, it will go a long way in helping whoever settles in at quarterback.
Kentucky Wildcats: For once, it wasn’t the offense that let the Wildcats down last year. Look at the numbers on defense: 12th in the SEC in yards per game, nearly 200 rushing yards per game and the fewest sacks of any team in the conference (17). For Mark Stoops’ squad to finally reach a bowl game, it will be the defensive line’s job to get them there. It’s time for top prospects like Matt Elam and Denzel Ware to step up, fill the running lanes and get after the quarterback. If they set the tone and can control the line of scrimmage, the ripple effect on defense should be noticeable. There’s enough talent on the back end of the defense to do the rest and a solid enough nucleus on offense with Drew Barker, Boom Williams and Dorian Baker to score the points necessary to win games.
Missouri Tigers: Like Georgia, it’s easy to put everything at the feet of the quarterback. Drew Lock was awful last season. And as a true freshman playing way ahead of schedule, who expected him not to struggle? Likewise, who doesn’t think he’ll improve with some time to learn the offense and get comfortable in the starting role? Rather, look to who he’s throwing the ball to. The Tigers didn’t have a single player with more than 30 catches or 400 yards receiving last season. J’Mon Moore told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believes he’s the team’s No. 1 receiver, but that’s a guess at this point without a clear go-to guy on the roster. The addition of former Alabama transfer Chris Black could pay dividends, but whether it’s him or Nate Brown or Emanuel Hall, Lock needs receivers who can help him.
South Carolina Gamecocks: Where to start with the Gamecocks? Watching their spring game, it was abundantly clear that Steve Spurrier didn’t leave Will Muschamp much to work with on either side of the ball. With that said, you have to believe the defense will improve under that staff. The offense, meanwhile, is another matter. If Brandon McIlwain somehow becomes the starter as a true freshman, he’ll need a running game to lean on. And judging by the spring game, that’s a scary proposition. A.J. Turner and David Williams could become a good one-two punch in time, but they have to show more than they did closing out the spring by combining for less than 20 yards on the ground.
Tennessee Volunteers: Offensively there’s a lot to like, but for Tennessee to truly break through this year, it’s going to be a result of playing quality defense. The defensive line, in particular, could be what makes the biggest difference. If Derek Barnett becomes the type of All-America defensive end we know he’s capable of and Kahlil McKenzie makes the Year 2 jump many expect at tackle, then there’s no reason Tennessee’s line couldn’t be among the best in the SEC. Corey Vereen and Kendal Vickers are solid starters and Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips make for quality depth. Alabama rode its D-line all the way to a championship. There’s no reason the Vols can’t follow the same path and win games by winning the battle up front on defense.
Vanderbilt Commodores: Derek Mason needs something -- anything -- from the passing game. His defense is too good to continue to lose football games. And Ralph Webb is too good a running back to have no supporting cast. So it’s up to the quarterbacks, specifically Kyle Shurmur. Of course Shurmur hasn’t officially been named the starter, but all signs point that way. He struggled as a freshman last year, but starting five games gave him valuable experience. In limited time during the spring game, he showed a better command of the offense, completing 7 of 9 passes. He doesn’t need to be a star to get Vanderbilt over the hump and competing for bowl bids again, but Shurmur needs to take a significant step forward as a sophomore to get the Commodores there this year.