10 burning questions in SEC as 2016 preseason camps kick off
With the calendar finally flipping to August on Monday, we’re that much closer to SEC football being here.
In the West, Alabama is the reigning national champ and the media’s choice once again to win the division. As for the East, while Florida made it to Atlanta in 2015, Tennessee appears to be the pick of the litter.
With fall camp arriving in just a matter of days for all 14 SEC programs, there are questions that have to be answered up and down the league. From offense — quarterback, particularly — to defense and special teams to coaching, contenders and pretenders alike only have a few weeks before toe meets leather in September.
Half the conference is still yet to name a starting QB. NFL teams chose 51 SEC players in the draft this past April, so they need to be replaced. There are three first-year coaches in the watered-down East.
We may have to wait until Week 1 to discover the answers, but these are the 10 questions we’re asking now.
1. Does it really matter who plays quarterback at Alabama?
The Crimson Tide are the only ones to make it all the way to the College Football Playoff in Year 1 and 2.
In 2014, Blake Sims got the job at the game’s most important position ahead of Florida State transfer Jake Coker. Then last season, Coker finally had his chance. Sims was beaten in the semifinal. Coker (below) won it all.
His lone year as a starter, Sims set the program’s record for passing yards in a single season — thank you, Amari Cooper — with 3,487. But a few months later at the Scouting Combine, he had one of the worst passing performances in recent memory. He recently signed with the Wollongong Devils in Australia.
As for Coker, like Sims, he failed to hear his name called in the draft. He inked a deal with the Arizona Cardinals, although he’s a long shot to make the team behind Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley.
Tide coach Nick Saban has a few options to choose from at QB. The decision might not be all that important.
2. Can Tennessee live up to the never-ending hype this season?
With 17 returning starters and most playing key positions, the Volunteers are favored in the East.
On the heels of the Lane Kiffin catastrophe and Derek Dooley disaster, fourth-year coach Butch Jones has done everything right so far — except win big games, of course. But this is supposed to be his year.
The three-headed rushing attack of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara is sensational. Defensively, there are All-SEC players at every level. Even the kick- and punt-return units are among the nation’s best. There’s never been a better time to break an 11-game losing streak to Florida.
Jones has done all the right things. He’s said all the right things. Time for his record to reflect that.
3. Is Fournette really an all-timer like Herschel and Bo?
Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy last year, but Leonard Fournette was the SEC’s premier back.
Even though Fournette lost their head-to-head matchup in November, nobody was comparing Henry to Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. That rarefied air was reserved for Fournette, who averaged more yards per game — doing so on fewer attempts per game, too — than the incredibly decorated Henry. He’s one special Tiger.
Fournette seems to love collegiate life. A Jadeveon Clowney-like disappearing act as a junior is unlikely.
4. How long will we have to wait for the Eason era?
Greyson Lambert is a fine passer, but he’s not a difference maker for a true contender. Jacob Eason, conversely, has all of the tools necessary to be an elite quarterback.
If first-year coach Kirby Smart rolls with the veteran Lambert in Week 1 and loses a neutral-site game to North Carolina, he’ll never hear the end of it. Better to live and die by the five-star phenom right away.
5. What single-season passing records are in play for Kelly?
Chad Kelly already threw for 4,042 yards last season at Ole Miss, so Tim Couch’s all-time mark of 4,275 is certainly in play. As for TDs, could Kelly jump from 31 to 40? Andre Woodson is the only QB in conference history to hit that number. Couch’s 400 completions, however, seem out of reach. Kelly (below) had 298 a year ago.
6. Does Pineiro solve the kicking woes in Gainesville?
Florida missed five extra points in 2015. The other 13 teams in the SEC combined for five failed PATs. The Gators also converted just 7-of-17 field goal attempts, which was far and away the worst percentage (41.2) in the league. YouTube sensation Eddy Pineiro, he of the 77-yard leg, is a newcomer to watch this season.
7. Can any offensive line consistently block Garrett?
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett led the conference in sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (19.5) in 2015, and he was only a sophomore. Offensive coordinators were specifically scheming against him, too.
A physical specimen when it comes to combining size and speed, Garrett gives the impression that he simply can’t be blocked off the edge. If the Aggies get more early leads this year, his stated goal of 20 sacks isn’t out of reach.
8. Which sophomore QB in the East can break through?
Kentucky’s Drew Barker, Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmer and Missouri’s Drew Lock were all battered as freshmen.
However, all three young quarterbacks have the potential to elevate passing offenses that ranked 6th, 13th and 14th in the league a year ago, respectively. Patrick Towles is no longer a Wildcat. Johnny McCrary is no longer a Commodore. Maty Mauk is no longer a Tiger. Understudies are now in starring roles.
One of them will upset a Florida, a Georgia or a Tennessee. We’ll just have to wait and see who it is.
9. Are Allen and Prescott legitimately irreplaceable?
Armed with senior QBs, Arkansas and Mississippi State had two of the best offenses in the SEC last season.
Brandon Allen, the most experienced quarterback in the conference, posted an efficiency rating of 166.5 — even better than the 155.9 assembled by Kelly. His younger brother, Austin Allen (below), is the new Hogs starter.
As for Prescott, he did things that had never been done in Starkville. In the span of a few short weeks in 2014, he took the Bulldogs from unranked to No. 1 in the polls for the first time. In 2015, his TD-to-INT ratio of 29-to-5 was incredible. Nick Fitzgerald, the presumed heir, is replacing a legend.
Neither Arkansas nor Mississippi State may be able to stay relevant out West with such green trigger men.
10. Just how big of a rebuilding job is South Carolina?
Steve Spurrier got a pass for quitting on South Carolina midseason. He had earned the right to walk away.
While the Head Ball Coach is making the turn on a golf course somewhere, new coach Will Muschamp must put back together a Gamecocks program that looks to be in shambles. There is a deficiency of talent.
The battle at quarterback is down to former walk-on Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain. While Orth showed guts in 2015 after Connor Mitch and Lorenzo Nunez struggled before him, he’s short on measurables — that’s why he walked on. McIlwain is gifted, but he wasn’t a five-star stud in high school like Eason.
No matter who wins that job, Brandon Wilds is gone at running back. Pharoh Cooper is no more at receiver. Very little production returns to Columbia. And then defensively, Skai Moore is out for 2016 due to injury.
It’s more than likely a humbling Year 1 for Muschamp. There will be plenty of hilarious GIF opportunities.