6. UNC Tar Heels
North Carolina finished a respectable 8-4 in Larry Fedora's first year. However, the Tar Heels only ranked 51st in Football Outsiders's FEI rating, reflecting the fact that their best wins came over pedestrian Miami and N.C. State squads. They lost to very average Duke and Georgia Tech teams in a season in which they skirted playing Clemson and Florida St. Needless to say, they'll need to significantly shore up defensive concerns next season if they're to take the next step (they gave up 68 to GT), which won't be easy considering that they lose several starters. They'll also need to replace talented RB Giovani Bernard, who is leaving early for the NFL. The one thing that concerns me about this game is that it's (1) the first game of the season, when Carolina (otherwise known as USC) often struggles, and (2) it comes before the Georgia game, which will undoubtedly be foremost in the minds of the coaches and players. Still, we should win this one. At worst, it happens in mild shootout fashion.
5. at Missouri Tigers
MIzzou returns a fair bit of talent from a young 2012 squad, although it will probably lose DT Sheldon Richardson to early defection. The Tigers should return to bowl eligibility in 2013. Still, this team feels, at best, like 2012 Vandy. Depth-wise, they're not ready for compete at the highest level in the SEC, and they'll likely be bruised and battered by the time we get to them. This isn't going to be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, but it's one that we should win.
4. at Tennessee Volunteers
This game is a bit of a question mark. If Tyler Bray and Cordarelle Patterson return (Justin Hunter is already gone), this could be a decent team in Butch Jones's first year. However, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Patterson will join Hunter, and Bray, regardless of his projection, might want to get out while the getting is good if his two targets leave. FWIW, Bray has all the physical tools to be an NFL quarterback, but mentally, there are questions. The thing is, though, that none of that may matter in a shallow QB class. The Vols also lose some linemen that were a big part of their offensive success this past season. Defensive prospects look much better, and the Vols should be improved in that regard. However, if Justin Worley is under center behind an inexperienced offensive line, Carolina should make if four straight against UT.
Despite the talk from Dabo Swinney and the Tigers faithful about how young this year's team was, the Tigers actually lose a fair bit of talent this off-season. On offense, the casualties include Andre Ellington, Brandon Ford, Jaron Brown, and Dalton Freeman, while on defense CU loses Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Willard, Rashard Hall, and a few other DBs. The Tigers will also probably lose Nuk Hopkins to early defection, and there's a slight possibility they'll lose Tajh Boyd, too, although it sounds like Boyd is coming back. The Tigers also got the best news they could hope for when Chad Morris wasn't tabbed for the Texas Tech job. If Boyd indeed returns, I think this team will be about what it was this year. It will win a lot of games and have a prolific offense statistically, but it will still struggle at times against better defenses, as depth will remain a concern on the offensive line. I could see the Tigers being a bit better on defense, because the one place they really are young and talented is on the DL, which they've recruited fairly well recently. However, the losses in the secondary may counterbalance improvement up front. One other thing to note is that next year, Clemson will play The Citadel the week prior, which may help them in contrast to having played N.C. State the past two years while we've played cupcakes, which we still do next year. Still, this is a game we should win at home.
Depending on how things play out with early defections, the Gators may be the best team we play next year. The Sugar Bowl participant has a surprisingly young roster. However, there are a ton of juniors on this team who are going to think long and hard about the NFL, and if the predominance of them leaves, the Gators will find themselves with a very new look on defense. Of course, Florida has recruited well and is getting further and further away from the roster troubles it had in Urban Meyer's final year, so it should be able to find some able bodies to fill its holes. The other good news is that if Jeff Driskell and the offensive line continue to develop, the offense could take a huge step forward in year two under Brent Pease. I thought about ranking Florida number one, but, in addition to Florida's question marks, we have a bye the week before. Also, this one is at home, whereas Georgia is away.
1. at Georgia Bulldogs
Needless to say, this is one of the biggest games of the year. Despite losing to Carolina both years, the Bulldogs are two-time reigning SEC East champs, and they could have easily ended up playing in the national title game this year. What will the Dawgs look like next year? Worse on defense and better on offense. UGA loses massive NFL-caliber talent on defense, particularly if Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree make the likely choice to forego their final year of eligibility. Even with the way they're recruited lately, there's no way they make a smooth transition from losing nearly all of what was one of the country's best groups of linebackers and defensive backs, including the versatile, dominant Jones, a candidate for defensive POY in 2012. On offense, they lose Tavarres King for sure. The other player they might lose is Aaron Murray, who may leave for the NFL on the basis of a second- or third-round projection. If they lose Murray, we'll be taking on a green QB but still a very good overall offense in this game. If they have Murray, this will be one of the nation's premier offenses, a star-studded unit led by a dominant running game and a seasoned QB. One other thing to note about the game is that while we play UNC to open, the Dawgs play Clemson. I don't see Clemson winning that game, but it'll probably take more energy and scheming on Georgia's part than our game against UNC will take for us. In any event, this will be a tough game. I think we have good chances, but it looks like a toss-up right now. One thing to note is that this looks like a shootout rather than the usual defensive slugfest we often have with these guys.