Daily Focus: Why Tennessee has edge over Florida in SEC East

Jeff Dooley takes a look at the Vols' conference title potential, Auburn's defense and Mark Walton’s reinstation.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Daily Focus: Why Tennessee has edge over Florida in SEC East

Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.

Why Tennessee has the edge over Florida: The Gators have won 11 games in a row in their series with the Volunteers, including 2015’s dramatic fourth-quarter two-touchdown comeback. So it’s understandable why Florida’s players, when speaking at SEC Media Days Monday, weren’t ready to concede the SEC East title to Tennessee, which has already been named as the division favorite in several preseason publications.

Earlier this offseason, we wrote up the five reasons why Tennessee could win the SEC, so count us among the believers in the Vols’ potential. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara make up the best returning running back duo in college football, which, when combined with the rushing ability of quarterback Josh Dobbs, gives Tennessee an excellent backfield. The defense is bringing back a lot of talent as well, led by a top-5 player nationally in defensive end Derek Barnett.

Florida isn’t without returning talent of its own, as the Gators’ secondary is loaded, with a pair of stars in cornerback Jalen Tabor and safety Marcus Maye. There are also some potential standouts along the defensive line, including Bryan Cox Jr. and Caleb Brantley, and linebacker Jarrad Davis graded well both as a pass-rusher and in coverage last season.

But the Gators have massive room for improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Players on Monday cited new presumed starting QB Luke Del Rio and an experienced offensive line as reasons for optimism. While we don’t have any performances to go off of with Del Rio, the line graded out as one of the worst units in the country last season (bottom 10 in both run-blocking and pass-blocking grades), so UF fans better hope that another year of experience for those contributors equals a significant jump in performance.

Until that happens, and until Del Rio can improve upon the passing numbers of Treon Harris from last season, it’s understandable to see why Tennessee is considered to have the brighter outlook entering 2016.

Can Auburn’s defense be one of the SEC’s best units in 2016? Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn mentioned on Monday that this might be the best defense he’s had while at Auburn, which inspired some snark on Twitter about how they wouldn’t have to be all that good this year to accomplish that feat.

But just how good can this unit be this season? Auburn actually ranked as one of the better-graded defenses in the country in 2015, and the ceiling is high for this year’s group, particularly if talented defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams play to their immense potential. Lawson has elite talent and played like it in a couple of games in 2015, but injuries kept him from playing at the consistent level required to challenge the likes of Barnett and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett for the title of the SEC’s best pass-rusher.

Adams graded well against the run last season, but just average as a pass-rusher, after being one of the top-graded interior rushers in college football on a per-snap basis in 2014.

If those two players can be bona-fide stars in 2016, the defense could be very formidable. The Tigers also return promising defenders like Devaroe Lawrence and Byron Cowart on the line, Tre’ Williams at linebacker and Carlton Davis at cornerback. This might not be the best defense in the SEC, but it could be an underrated unit entering the season.

What Mark Walton’s return means for Miami (FL) in 2016: The Hurricanes reinstated running back Mark Walton on Monday, after his DUI charges were dropped.

What does this mean for the Miami offense? For starters, it gives the Canes an excellent complement to fellow returning running back Joseph Yearby, as Walton was one of the nation’s top pass-catchers out of the backfield. He ranked fifth among returning RBs in yards per pass route run, and fourth in receiving grade, while Yearby graded better as a runner.

The Canes have to get a lot better along the offensive line, without a single returning contributor who played 100 or more snaps earning a grade that was average or better in 2016. But there are promising signs at the skill positions, with the returns of Yearby, Walton and wide receiver Stacy Coley – a strong trio for returning starting quarterback Brad Kaaya to work with. Read more here about why Kaaya could be a breakout star in 2016.



| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

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