SEC football finally has a pulse again with Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina already kicking off spring practice. All 14 teams open up in the few weeks, and six teams will start their quest of chasing another national championship for the conference’s eighth in a row. But first, there are several burning questions that must be answered.
Florida: Who will replace Mike Gillislee? Florida finished as the SEC’s 12th best offense in 2012, but the running game was a surprising third best and the base for the little offensive success. There were several reasons for the marked improvement, but none of them are greater than Mike Gillislee. Gillislee carried an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns. But who will replace him and his production? Returners Matt Jones and Mack Brown will get the first crack, along with freshman early enrollee Kelvin Taylor. Jones rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while Brown rushed for just 102 yards. The Gators are starting to wonder whether Brown will ever break out. Jones should develop into the starter, but watch out for the ultra-talented freshman Taylor.
Georgia: Can Georgia’s defense replace nine starters and make another championship run? The big three in the SEC entering ‘13 are Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia. The Bulldogs have the offense returning to win a championship, but can the defense play up to par? Georgia loses their top four defensive linemen, three linebackers and three defensive backs, including Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and two All-SEC safeties in Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. That’s a mess of talent lost, but the Bulldogs’ depth charts are stacked with underdeveloped and hungry youngsters. Garrison Smith, Jordan Jenkins and Damian Swann must develop into leaders, while Ray Drew, Josh Harvey-Clemons and others must live up to potential. Georgia’s run at a championship starts now, not in August. Count me in the minority as thinking UGA’s defense will be better than it was in 2012.
Kentucky: Can Mark Stoops get to a bowl game in year one? Mark Stoops is tasked with doing what James Franklin and Hugh Freeze have both done – turn two-win teams into bowl teams. Franklin and Freeze both inherited sub-par rosters and ultimately made bowl games in their first seasons on the job. However, in Stoops’ defense, his two-win team likely isn’t as talented as either Vandy’s or Ole Miss’, but that’s certainly his benchmark. There’s life; there’s energy in Kentucky football. And it’s March.
Missouri: Is it now or never for Gary Pinkel? No other SEC coach enters ’13 on a hotter seat than Gary Pinkel. It certainly wasn’t the type of first impression any Mizzou member wanted to make winning just two games in their inaugural season. To make matters worse, his quarterback guru and offensive coordinator David Yost bailed on him after the forgetful performance. It wasn’t just the transition into the SEC that led to a weak year, as injuries ate up the offensive roster. But the Tigers must get healthy and repair the offense if Pinkel wants to return in 2014.
South Carolina: Will the Gamecocks take another step forward and win a championship? Ho-hum. South Carolina has posted back-to-back 11-win seasons like they’ve been doing it for 20 years. But when are they going to take the next step and win a championship? The offense is potent, returning Connor Shaw, Dylan Thompson and Bruce Ellington, and the defense returns the best player in America in Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks continue to have Georgia’s number and host the Gators next season. This could be Steve Spurrier’s best chance yet, and I have them in the #2 slot in the East entering 2013.
Tennessee: Will the defense have a pulse? Tennessee’s defense flat-lined under Derek Dooley’s leadership and Sal Sunseri’s less-than-robust 3-4 defense. In fact, it was the worst defense in Tennessee history, and to have just a pulse would be an improvement. John Jancek is bringing the 4-3 back to the Hill, and that bodes well for player personnel improvement. The Vols’ first string is underrated, but little depth is worrisome. Butch Jones and Jancek have six months to figure out what makes this group tick.
Vanderbilt: Can Vanderbilt knock off a signature opponent in 2013? Vanderbilt has made history in the last two years and first two seasons of James Franklin’s tenure. The Dores finished the season ranked for the first time since ‘38, and notched back-to-back bowl game appearances for the first time in school history. And Franklin stayed at Vandy amidst other schools flirting with him to take over their program. But the knock on the present program will always be there until Franklin’s Commodores beat a ranked team. The Commodores are 0-6 against top 25 teams in the last two years. Will next season finally be the year? It may have to be if the program wants to continue to take steps forward.
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