SEC Media Days - The Big Questions
Mizzou's James Franklin & Texas A&M's Sean Porter
Before the fun kicks off, what are the big questions for each SEC team?
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Will Alabama win its third national title in four seasons? Years of superior recruiting have kept the shelves stocked with next-level talent and terrific fill-ins for some key losses, but there isn't another Heisman-caliber running back like Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram ready to take over on offense, while the defensive back seven loses its heart-and-soul leaders with safety Mark Barron and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw off to the NFL. The passing game should be stronger and the defense will still be phenomenal thanks to a brick wall of a line, but the schedule might be too tough to get through unscathed. The Tide will be better than just about everyone on the slate, but with road games at Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and LSU to go along with nasty dates against Michigan, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn, just winning the SEC title will be hard enough. Of course, as the team proved last season, winning a conference championship, or even the division title, doesn't necessarily matter.
Has Arkansas really been able to move on after the Bobby Petrino drama? Considering there's enough talent returning to make a run at the conference title and possible the BCS championship, losing an elite college football coach would normally cause a near-riot at an SEC school, or at least a major panic. But in the post-Penn State days with no program wanting to look like it's out of control, there wasn't much of a peep from a manic fan base ready to see its team take the next step forward. John L. Smith is a veteran coach who knows how to get an offense moving, and he shouldn't have any problems getting big numbers out of an attack with possible first-round NFL draft pick Tyler Wilson at quarterback and bruising running back Knile Davis back from a broken ankle. Getting Alabama and LSU at home could make all the difference, but the four road games – Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State – are all going to be tough to get through.
Was 2010 a fluke, or is Auburn close to being back at a national championship level? It's a little of both. Cam Newton was a transcendent, once-in-a-program talent who'll never be replaced. However, 2011 was supposed to be a rebuilding season both sides of the ball, and now the payoff should come on defense with pass rushing terror Corey Lemonier leading a loaded front four and with five good starters returning to the back seven. The concern once again will be the quarterback situation with last year's star recruit Kiehl Frazier battling with veteran Clint Moseley for the job, but the receiving corps is solid and tight end Philip Lutzinkirchen appears ready to break out. The running game, despite the loss of 2011 BCS championship star Michael Dyer to Arkansas State, should be fine behind a very talented, but very young, line. The Tigers will be better in 2012, but they should be fantastic in 2013.
Did Urban Meyer leave a sinking ship two years ago, or was Will Muschamp that lousy in his first year as the head man? Meyer's 2010 recruiting class was considered to be among the most talented in decades, so the prospects, athletes and players were in place last year to be far better than 105th in the nation in total offense on the way to a 7-6 record. The nation's No. 8 defense was outstanding, and it's about to be better with ten returning starters not including the best player on the lot, end Ronald Powell who suffered a torn ACL in the spring. Muschamp made his name as a defensive coach, but can the offense start to move the ball? 2011 super-recruit Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are locked in a tough quarterback derby with the near-future of the franchise resting on which one is named the starter. At least 100 other head coaches would love to have the four-and-five star talents Florida will boast coming into the season, but now Muschamp and his staff have to show they can produce.
After going 10-4 and winning the SEC East, is Georgia any closer to winning a national championship? It seemed like everything was in place this year for the Dawgs to finally get over the hump. Star linebacker Jarvis Jones put off the NFL for an extra year to lead a deep and talented defense, while Aaron Murray appears to be ready to step up and become a special quarterback who can take the program to another level. Throw in a second straight year of missing LSU, Arkansas and Alabama in the regular season, and there was plenty of excitement until team couldn't stop making headlines for the wrong reasons. Top running back Isaiah Crowell was kicked off the team after being arrested on felony weapons charges, and three of the top defensive backs will be suspended for part of the season for a variety of off-the-field issues. The Bulldogs are good enough and the schedule works out well enough to win the East again, but they're not in the national championship class of Alabama and LSU.
Is there any hope of Kentucky becoming a factor in the SEC East race any time soon? The glass is half empty: the Wildcats finished 118th in the nation in total offense and 117th in scoring. The glass is half full: even though the offense did absolutely nothing for long stretches, the team still finished 5-7 and was close to getting to six wins and a bowl game. And that's where the bar is set for a Kentucky football program that's now more in the shadow of the basketball team than ever. It was a young offense last season that returns loaded with veterans, but the experience has to start translating into production. There are athletes across the board, but it's not a deep team and it's going to have to catch a few teams napping to get to a bowl.
Is there a more important player in college football this season than Zach Mettenberger? The Tigers didn't need a high-powered passing game to win the SEC title and get to the BCS championship, but it needed something extra in the loss to Alabama. The offense might have only come up with a pedestrian 355 yards per game, but take out the two games against the Tide and the team averaged 41 points per game. The Tiger running game didn't work when Alabama defense loaded up to stop it, and now it's up to Mettenberger to be the type of quarterback who can make defenses pay and to add more balance to the attack. Everything else is in place to be the No. 1 team in America with a dominant offensive line, an NFL-caliber defensive front, arguably the best special teams in college football and speed, speed, speed all across the board. Unlike last year's quarterback pair of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, Mettenberger is a pro-style passer with next-level size and a big-time arm, and while he doesn't have to bomb away for the Tigers to be great, he has to be solid against Alabama on November 3rd and consistent the rest of the time to win the 14th game this time around.
Can the Bulldogs beat the killer teams in the SEC West? Over the last four years, MSU has gone 1-15 against Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU, with the lone bright spot coming against a mediocre Hog team in 2008. The Bulldogs are usually able to beat the teams they're supposed to, and they're not getting embarrassed on a regular basis in the losses, but for Dan Mullen to make the program something more than a very good also-ran it's going to take more than just coming close. The key is for quarterback Tyler Russell to occasionally be the best player on the field and to hold up well against the biggest of big boys. He has a good receiving corps to work with and the defense should be strong enough to bail the offense out of a few jams, but the offense scored a total of 52 points in losses to LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas and has to prove it can produce against the stronger defenses.
How is Missouri going to succeed in the SEC when it couldn't win the Big 12 title? Mizzou will succeed, but it might not be at a championship level until the lines get a little bigger and a few more playmakers start coming in like the nation's No. 1 recruit, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. It's not like the Tigers haven't been able to play with some of the best teams in the country, but they haven't been consistent. Unfortunately, up-and-down SEC teams end up going to minor bowls. Being in the SEC East instead of the West will be a big help early on, and the attack that was 12th in the nation and averaged 476 yards per game should provide a bit of a jolt to an SEC that's been offensively challenged over the last few years. However, with road games at South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M, and with Georgia and Alabama coming to Columbia, it might be a little bit of a rocky first season in the new league unless the defense – unlike last season - can be better against the stronger quarterbacks and the offense can bring the A effort week-in-and-week-out.
Can Hugh Freeze come up with a big turnaround right away? It seems like a lifetime ago, but the 2008 Rebels handed eventual national champion Florida its only loss – prompting the Tim Tebow "Promise" speech – finishing 9-4 on the way to being one of the hot teams going into 2010. That all went bye-bye with an opening day loss to Jacksonville State and a 6-18 record over the last two seasons, but yes, there has been recent success at Oxford. There's no chance of competing for the SEC West title this season, but there's depth, athleticism and enough skill to be a spoiler and a surprise with a few big breaks. There's no pressure and there's still enough youth on both side of the ball to use this year as a building block with a payoff to come, but first there has to be something positive to get excited about. No one is expecting miracles, but Freeze has to get the team that didn't show up late in the year to try hard and each and every week. One big upset win could be just the catalyst needed to build around for 2013 and beyond.
Really, was 2011 the greatest season in South Carolina football history, and can 2012 be even better? Yes and yes. The school-best 11-win campaign was just the fourth season in over 100 years with more than eight wins, but it was also the second in a row after winning nine games in 2010. Fortunately for long-suffering Gamecock fans who have been among the most loyal in college football through thick and thin, the last two seasons appear to be just the beginning with Steve Spurrier amassing great recruiting class after great recruiting class to put the team on par with any in the SEC. The defense that finished third in the nation behind Alabama and LSU should be every bit as dominant led by Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, the most dangerous defensive end pair in America. With star running back Marcus Lattimore returning from a knee injury, the offense should be just good enough to get by while the defense does most of the work. Unfortunately, even though this is Spurrier's strongest Gamecock team yet, with back-to-back road games against LSU and Florida after a date with Georgia, and with Arkansas to deal with from the West, it will be a fight to improve upon last year's record.
Can a big passing game be enough to surprise in the SEC East? The program has been down over the last few years, but to go 5-7 and blow a chance at a bowl game by losing to Kentucky – and scoring seven points or fewer in five of the final seven games – wasn't okay no matter what the excuses. However, things might quickly change with 19 returning starters including ten on offense. The team started struggling when quarterback Tyler Bray was lost for six games with an injured thumb and star receiver Justin Hunter went down with a torn ACL, but now all the parts are back including leading receiver Da'Rick Rogers for what should be one of the SEC's most dangerous passing games. Big division games against Georgia and South Carolina are on the road, and Alabama is coming to Knoxville, but unlike last season, the Vols should have the firepower to keep up with anyone.
Will the change of scenery be a major positive? Out from the shadow of Texas, A&M can form its own identity in a new league with a fresh start and a different attitude. There might be some key personnel changes with new head coach Kevin Sumlin taking over and with quarterback Ryan Tannehill playing for the Miami Dolphins, but the offense that averaged over 490 yards per game will be every bit as dangerous helped mostly be a terrific line that should hold its own against top SEC defenses. The defense that led the nation in sacks and was third in tackles for loss should be every bit as nasty with pass rushing terror Sean Porter leading a fast and athletic bunch of veterans. Five of last year's six losses came by a touchdown or less, with four of those coming by four points or fewer, and the 2012 team should be stronger. If it can win the close games and can hold up during a brutal midseason stretch of four road games in five dates, this could be a dangerous spoiler in the even-better SEC West.
Could it be possible that Vanderbilt was even better than its somewhat shocking 6-7 record? The Commodores didn't come up with any big wins over any top teams, but it pushed Georgia in a five-point loss, had Arkansas and Florida on the ropes, and lost to Tennessee in overtime. The final five of the seven losses were by a touchdown or less mostly due to a defense that was rock-solid against the pass and an offense that seemed to find its stride over the second half of the year. Jordan Rodgers – brother of Green Bay star, Aaron Rodgers – has to be far more consistent and accurate and the offensive line might not be good enough to protect him against South Carolina's fearsome pass rush in the opener or against Georgia and Florida, but head coach James Franklin doesn't seem to care about any excuses or concerns. He's a full steam ahead, no-nonsense true believer who actually thinks Vanderbilt can become a regular player in the SEC East. With no Alabama, Arkansas or LSU to seal with from the West, and with South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee at home, he might just be right.
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