1) South Carolina's QB Situation
There is nothing new with Steve Spurrier and quarterback shuffling but this year seems to be particularly interesting with so much expected from the Gamecocks. Without a doubt this is Spurrier's best team during his five years in Columbia and the key to that success is largely Stephen Garcia. The Head Ball Coach had some pretty direct words about Garcia's work ethic earlier this year in hopes of motivating his starter and true freshmen Connor Shaw has impressed since arriving on campus in January.
It says a lot about a young man (Shaw) who can come in as a pretty unheralded recruit and give his coach enough ammunition with his play to attempt to motivate a starter who is in his fourth year on campus. For South Carolina's sake it better be more about Shaw's work ethic than Garcia's lacking one. South Carolina fans know this and the offensive line will be the key to threatening Florida for the Eastern Division. Connor Shaw is not ready to win a division or SEC title right now and Spurrier is going to play the QB that he feels gives South Carolina the best chance to win. The competition in August should be exciting to watch and it will have a lot to say about how the SEC East shakes out.
2) Turnover on the Alabama Defense
There is a lot to like about the Alabama team this year but if there is one question that needs to be answered early it is the Crimson Tide defense. Gone are first round draft picks Kareem Jackson and Rolando McLain. In all Alabama six players from last years championship team drafted and that is never easy to replace. Talent is not the question, coaching is not the question…the question is the lack of experience in the new players.
The Tide get a pretty big boost in leadership with Dont'a Hightower returning from a knee injury a year ago but it is always hard to rely on players coming back from serious injuries. While he works his way back into playing form there are other talented youngsters at linebacker who should fill in very well. Jerrell Harris, Nico Johnson and Courtney Upshaw are supremely talented but they are a little young. They aren't freshmen but they haven't made the plays that last years group did. The secondary starts three sophomores who will be first time starters and not much experience is behind them. With early season challenges against Penn State, Arkansas and Florida it will be interesting to see how far the staff is able to coach up the young guys.
3) How Much Pressure is on Derek Dooley?
Derek Dooley is in an almost impossible situation at Tennessee right now, he has a number of trouble-makers recruited by the previous staff, he has zero quarterback experience even though there is some talent and he has a schedule that includes five road games plus a visit from likely top ten Oregon. Derek Dooley can do a good job at Tennessee if he is given the time to do so, the question becomes will he be given the time and what are the expectations for Tennessee in year one?
Making a bowl game with a 6-6 record this year would be a massive achievement for Tennessee, a winning record might put him in the discussion for some postseason coaching awards. There has been too much turnover, too many suspensions and too many tough games for Tennessee to expect the same results from a year ago. Because of all things changes Dooley should be given a free pass on this season and fans should focus on minor victories like continuing to recruit well, building depth and gaining experience at the quarterback position. Year two should be the first litmus test for Dooley, give him the chance to heal the wounds of being the third coach in three seasons.
4) Les Miles and the LSU Offense
No Hot Seat information listed here, so if you came to read the amount of wins Miles needs to stay in Baton Rouge please move on. This is all about the LSU offense and how much Les allows Gary Crowton to open it up this season. It is odd how much LSU's play calling has stalled under Jarrett Lee in 2008 and Jordan Jefferson in 2009. Sure both players were in their first seasons as starters and very young but creative play calling can help young players. The less predictable and offense can become the more time a quarterback has to make plays.
Gary Crowton wants to be creative, he wants to run a lot of formations and misdirection but it looks as though Les Miles has told him to pump the brakes and keep it simple. This has hurt their offense and hurt the quarterback development. If Miles allows Crowton to give Jefferson the gas this year he can be a dynamic quarterback in the SEC. Jefferson is too physical and too athletic not to be great and the weapons around him are equally skilled. There are no excuses for a poor offensive season again for LSU, the best defense they play in the first five games is the opener against North Carolina. They should be able to get some solid momentum in week two if a good Tarheel defense slows them down.
5) Jeremiah Masoli in the SEC
No one saw this one coming after Masoli left Oregon, but here he is in the SEC with an excellent opportunity to take over the Rebel offense that just lost Raymond Cotton and has two QB's (Randall Mackey and Nathan Stanley) competing for the starting job. Leave out all the issues you may or may not have with Masoli, he was a Heisman candidate for Oregon back in January and he should win the starting job at Ole Miss. The Rebels did lose their most elusive player from a year ago (Dexter McCluster) and Masoli could fill that role as quick on his feet runner who can make plays with his arm and his legs. The Ole Miss offense does not have enough weapons to be a serious threat to the West this year, but their offense got a whole lot more interesting with Masoli on campus.
6) New Faces Under Center (Or in the Shotgun)
Masoli is a topic all to himself but there are quite a few new gunslingers that will be taking over this year that deserve some attention. John Brantley will start for Florida, Aaron Murray at Georgia, Cameron Newton at Auburn and either Chris Relf or Tyler Russell will be the opening day starter for Mississippi State. That is quite a bit of turnover at the most important position in the sport and that doesn't even include the not so solid spots held by South Carolina's Stephen Garcia, Kentucky's Mike Hartline, LSU'S Jordan Jefferson and Vanderbilt's Larry Smith.
There are two solid returning starters in the league this year, Ryan Mallett and Greg McElroy…everyone else is new or easily replaceable. The good thing for all these new starters is that the SEC has probably more depth at wide receiver than it has any time in the past. There are elite players on nearly every team and a go to receiver should be a new quarterback's best friend…that and a good offensive line. It should be interesting to see which players succeed, which players fail and which players are benched.
7) Heisman Race in the SEC
There are two obvious SEC players that will be in the Heisman discussion this year, last year's winner Mark Ingram and Ryan Mallett. These two could be at the award show come December but there are two important factors for each player. For Ingram it will come down to how many carries Trent Richardson takes away from him and for Mallett it will depend on how many games Arkansas wins.
Richardson could have another big year with an even bigger load on his back if Alabama wants to keep Ingram healthy all year. Ingram is a physical back and he can more than handle the SEC pounding each week, but it makes sense to let the back up give him a break especially if that player is as talented as Richardson. Mallett is a different story because his numbers will be similar if not better than last year but a 7-5 or 8-4 Arkansas will not put him in the Heisman race. Arkansas has to have a big year for him to have an opportunity to show his talents on a national spotlight.
8) SEC…Top Heavy or Deep League
Has any pre-season publication picked a different division champ than Alabama in the west and Florida in the East? Will it be necessary to play the games this fall or just wait for the SEC Championship game for the third straight match up between the Gators and the Tide? These kinds of questions bring up the idea that the SEC has become top heavy with two consistently elite teams and then a bunch of good ones after the two heavy hitters. That is not the case this year, with questions on both 2009 division champs that could open up the door for a new winner to make the trip to the Georgia Dome.
As mentioned above, Alabama and Florida have some major turnover…enough to make us think twice about assuming it will be 12-0 Alabama vs. 12-0 Florida meeting in Atlanta. Nine new defensive starters at Alabama and a young but talented quarterback replacing Tim Tebow makes it very likely that last years division winners may not make it through the regular season with an unblemished record. Last year the league was definitely top heavy, this year it looks much more balanced. Both Alabama and Florida have difficult road games against some big rivals and the rest of the SEC is not far behind them. As many as seven teams could win their respective divisions this year and that means the Alabama/Florida rematch may only open once this year in Tuscaloosa.
9) Is One Loss Good Enough
This is going to be a key topic all season long if the SEC finishes the way it has nearly every year since the BCS began…with all its members losing at least one game. Of the last five SEC BCS Champs only one team has finished undefeated (2009 Alabama), so is one loss good enough to get into a BCS title game this year. That answer could very well be no. Actually there is a very good chance that a one-loss SEC team could be left out of the biggest game this year because of the little guys. The media has been clamoring for a little guy to get an opportunity since Utah went unbeaten back in 2004 and Boise State is their option this year.
If a BCS program outside of the SEC and BSU go unbeaten and all the SEC teams have one loss, expect the SEC to get left out. Because of the BCS bowl games stunt last year playing Boise and TCU in the Fiesta bowl we didn't get to see how those teams would have done against a BCS Conference Champion. Don't be shocked if given the opportunity the pollsters make a push to put the little guy in the big game and if the SEC Champion isn't unbeaten they may get left out.
Which storylines do you think should be on this list and which ones should I take off mine? E-mail me Brian Harbach
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