10 big questions I have as fall camps are set to open in the SEC
Don’t take this the wrong way, but does anyone else feel like the 2021 season has been a bit lost in the shuffle lately?
Between the SEC’s expansion, the 12-team Playoff and the start of the Name, Image and Likeness era, it feels a bit like actual football has been put on the back burner. Now is the time when we’re supposed to be spending too much time talking about preseason watch lists and predictions.
Don’t get it twisted. Talking about Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC outweighs breaking down Arkansas’ front-7 depth, but I’m sure plenty of people would like to get back into that football-focused mindset.
Well, lucky for you, you’ve come to the right place.
Fall camp is set to kick off this week throughout the SEC. We could probably do 10 questions on quarterback battles alone.
For now, though, let’s just do 10 big questions I have for fall camp:
1. What devastating fall camp injury will a contender inevitably suffer?
I hate to predict an injury. But history tells us it’s likely. Whether it’s Dylan Moses, Zamir White, Trey Sanders, Kelee Ringo or Baylor Cupp, we’ve seen an all-too-familiar trend with brutal injuries in fall camp in the SEC. If you see the words “non-contact” injury, you know that’s not a good sign.
It’d be cool if the injury bug could chill for a bit. After the last year and a half, maybe, just maybe, the football gods will be kind and take a year off sidelining a key player with a season-ending injury.
2. Will any teams exit fall camp without an established starting quarterback?
Man, I hope not. And to be fair, there’s a major difference between declaring a starter publicly and declaring one to the team. The latter is more important to be able to get those reps with the first-teamers, though I’d argue that seeing how a quarterback handles that public announcement is an important piece of the puzzle.
The majority of SEC teams will enter fall camp without an established starter. Ten of 14 SEC teams will have a new starting quarterback or a new offensive coordinator. That’s not even including MSU, which could theoretically start Will Rogers, but whether he beats out Southern Miss grad transfer Jack Abraham is a mystery. I highly doubt we’ll see Mike Leach enter the season without a quarterback established.
But I could see Vandy, Tennessee and Kentucky all doing a bit of experimenting with multiple signal-callers in Week 1.
Speaking of quarterback battles …
3. Myles Brennan or Max Johnson?
LSU’s QB battle is the most intriguing in the SEC. Johnson might have a slight advantage after his strong finish to last season, but Brennan’s pre-injury sample size was plenty impressive, too. This offseason, Johnson received praise for being the “first one in, last one out” stereotype while Brennan looks like a dude on a mission, as well.
It’s a nice situation for LSU because both quarterbacks feel like capable options. Johnson might be a more natural system fit with the RPOs because of his mobility, but Brennan is the veteran in the room who showed he has All-SEC upside.
Will that decision determine if LSU can deliver on some early buzz? It’ll certainly have a massive say in it. The last time Ed Orgeron had a true quarterback battle was when he hand-picked Joe Burrow in 2018. It fueled a bounce-back year in what turned out to be LSU’s first New Year’s 6 bowl victory of the Playoff era.
Perhaps a similar ending is in store in 2021.
4. Will the new era of the transfer portal yield a stunning August departure?
It’s easy to forget that before NIL, the 12-team Playoff and realignment dominated the college football world, the new transfer rules were put in place. Undergraduates get a 1-time exception for immediate eligibility. You can now transfer within the SEC without penalty, too.
That means we could see players start fall camp on 1 SEC team and finish on another. Could a quarterback really pull that off? Or would a lineman be a more likely option to pursue that path?
As much as I’m still holding on to my Brennan stock, he’s the most likely player to take advantage of this. Why? He’s a veteran with experience running a modern spread attack, and he could start for the majority of SEC programs. There wouldn’t be any shame in losing the starting gig to Max Johnson, who played extremely well in a limited sample size to close the season. The thinking is that the second-year southpaw is the slight favorite to win the battle. Could that mean Brennan bolts for a program with an immediate quarterback need like MSU (he’s a Mississippi native)?
That’s obviously a hypothetical. In a perfect world for LSU or any SEC team, no key player transfers in August, especially not within the league.
5. Will the COVID vaccination numbers improve? Or will any team deal with an outbreak?
I know. You don’t want to talk about COVID. But yes, this is a story if teams face the potential of repeating 2020-like outbreaks.
Greg Sankey said at SEC Media Days that 6 of 14 SEC programs are at least 80% vaccinated. He said that number needed to improve, and he said that we could see teams forfeit games if they cannot field a team. There’s no room in the schedule for makeup games this year.
We know that teams like Alabama, Georgia and LSU are above the threshold while teams like Auburn, A&M and Florida are below it. Once at 85%, teams can end surveillance testing for all individuals in the program. The 85% mark is also what it’ll take for an entire team to be able to stop masking in facilities, regardless of vaccination status.
That’s significant because teams that have to test more are also more likely to have positive cases that sideline individuals. You can be fully vaccinated and still test positive. Unvaccinated players, coaches and staff members on teams who do not meet the 85% threshold have to undergo daily surveillance testing. There’s a clear incentive in place, and teams who get above that 85% threshold will get a competitive advantage coming out of fall camp.
6. Will Arik Gilbert be eligible?
Kirby Smart said at SEC Media Days that the LSU transfer is in position to be academically eligible for the start of the season. There were questions about that following his brief commitment and then decommitment to Florida. The former 5-star tight end recruit enrolled at Georgia over the summer on the heels of an eventful first year in the SEC.
Obviously that’d be huge for a Georgia offense who will be without George Pickens for the first part of the season. Gilbert transferred to Georgia with the intention of playing receiver. These next few weeks are vital for Gilbert to develop a rapport with JT Daniels, as well as developing his skill set to play on the outside. While Gilbert got plenty of experience running routes as a true freshman at LSU in 2020, he only played 6.5% of his offensive snaps lined up on the outside, which was where Pickens played 92% of his snaps (PFF).
But if Gilbert can be cleared for the start of the season, Georgia will gladly take on whatever schematic hurdle awaits.
7. Is NIL about to be put on the back burner?
I think for the most part, yes. It’ll be quiet on that front. You won’t see the social media boom that the beginning of the NIL era produced. That’s the vibe I got from players at SEC Media Days.
Now is football time. It’s time to get playbooks and technique down. It’s time to develop chemistry within the locker room. It’s time to mentally prepare for the grind of the next 3-4 months.
But nobody, and I mean nobody, should criticize any college athlete who has a sponsored Raising Cane’s post:
— Isaiah Spiller (@isaiah_spiller) July 5, 2021
My man is even abiding by the “no slaw” rule.
8. Will any true freshmen quarterbacks be named outright starters?
My guess is no. Being named an outright starter as a true freshman is much more rare than starting a game as a true freshman at some point during the season. The latter usually happens because of injury (2017 Jake Fromm). Last year, Ken Seals earned that right for a Vandy team with major depth issues, and the year before, Nix was named Auburn’s first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in 73 years. Jalen Hurts didn’t even start in Week 1 in 2016 (though it only took 3 series for him to take over).
There aren’t really a ton of places where that could happen. Georgia’s Brock Vandagriff is the 5-star early enrollee, but he appeared to be QB3 at best coming out of spring. Garrett Nussmeier got rave reviews already at LSU, but he’s also behind both Brennan and Johnson. The same is true for Alabama true freshman Jalen Milroe, who isn’t about to beat out the million-dollar man, Bryce Young.
Vandy didn’t even sign a quarterback, so that’s out of the question, and at MSU, is summer enrollee Sawyer Robertson really going to best Will Rogers and Jack Abraham? I highly doubt it.
My guess is that it would take multiple things happening — injuries, positive COVID test, transfers, arrests, etc. — for a true freshman quarterback to win an SEC starting job for the opener.
9. Will all of A&M’s elite pass-catchers be ready to roll for Week 1?
No, not Ainias Smith. Though he is elite.
I’m talking about Jalen Wydermyer, AKA the best returning tight end in America, and Caleb Chapman, AKA the guy who led the Aggies in receiving before his season-ending knee injury in 2020. Wydermyer missed spring camp after he suffered what Jimbo Fisher called a “freak off-the-field accident.” He had surgery on a tendon, and Fisher said he couldn’t take any hits on it. I assume that, barring a setback, he’ll be ready to go for Week 1. Still, it’s a finger injury for a guy who has proven to be elite at catching balls in traffic.
Chapman is also on a path to make a return for the start of the season, according to Fisher. At SEC Media Days, Fisher offered up some words of encouragement.
“Right now, excellent right on track, ready to be back, ready to play,” Fisher said according to 247Sports. “You know running routes, he’ll be full go and very excited. That’s the one that everybody doesn’t talk about. You’re talking about a guy that is 6-foot-5, over 200 pounds and runs a 4.41 or 4.42. I mean can run.
“He had 3 great games. I mean he was hurt in Alabama game actually a little bit. First game very good game and a great game in the Florida game and playmaker with size, speed, athleticism, very excited about getting him back and the potential of what he can do for our football team. He should be full go, ready to go.”
With a first-time starting quarterback and 4 new starters on the offensive line, big-bodied targets like Chapman and Wydermyer need those valuable reps that they didn’t get in the spring. With the goals A&M has this year to get over the Alabama hump on Oct. 9, those 2 need to be in midseason form — and on the same page as their quarterback — from the jump.
10. Will any SEC recruits follow the potential Quinn Ewers path and skip senior year?
In case you missed it, the No. 1 overall player in the 2022 class, Quinn Ewers, told Yahoo Sports that he’s leaning toward skipping his senior season at Southlake Carroll (Texas) and cashing in early at Ohio State:
Yahoo Exclusive: No. 1 overall recruit Quinn Ewers tells @yahoosports he’s “leaning” toward skipping senior HS year and attending Ohio State. Ewers could then sign NIL deals worth nearly seven figures, which aren’t allowed in Texas for high school players. https://t.co/KFcXyafcQs
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) July 28, 2021
What a wild time to be alive. Ewers is the highest-rated quarterback recruit since Trevor Lawrence in 2018. He can, and will, have no shortage of opportunities come his way well before he starts a game (see Young, Bryce). He cannot profit off his NIL while in high school in the state of Texas.
Could we see some SEC verbal pledges bolt 4 months early and show up on campus sooner than expected?
Five-star 2022 quarterback and LSU commit Walker Howard can’t make money off his NIL as a high school player in Louisiana. Could he or 5-star A&M quarterback pledge Conner Weigman follow in Ewers’ footsteps and join crowded quarterback rooms early? If these last few months have taught us anything, I’d never say never.
And in case you forgot, Arch Manning still has 2 years of high school left.