Pick-6: SEC's biggest storylines I'll be following today in Week 1
Cupcakes to contenders, Week 1 has a little bit of everything.
I’ll largely skip dessert and focus on the 6 storylines I am most interested in watching today in Week 1.
1. How long is Jake Bentley’s leash?
I put South Carolina on upset alert months ago (though I think Tavien Feaster changes the dynamic today in Charlotte). Lots of reasons for the way-too-early prognostication, the primary one being Mack Brown is a significant upgrade over Larry Fedora. Yes, UNC is starting a true freshman QB. Six years ago, that would have been pause for concern, but this is a new era. Freshman QBs arrive ready.
Which leads directly to the other sideline, where 3-year starter Jake Bentley has a hotshot gun-slinger waiting his turn.
If Bentley struggles today, or South Carolina loses, the clock ticks faster on the start of the Ryan Hilinski era. On some level, Bentley has to know that. He once was the freshman ready to go.
Will Muschamp can’t ride Bentley to a 7-5 or 6-6 season. We’ve discussed the Gamecocks’ schedule ad nauseam. A weekend in the county lockup might be more enjoyable than their first 7 games. At some point, if South Carolina is 2-4, 2-5 like most expect, in order to save his job, Muschamp will have to sell the promise of the future. That’s Hilinski.
If Bentley throws for 300 and 3 TDs today in a convincing win, it’ll be a bit easier to accept the expected drubbings to Alabama and Georgia, perhaps Mizzou and Florida, too. If it’s more of the same — 2 interceptions, even a narrow win — we’re one step closer to the inevitable.
Today’s game will set the tone in how this storyline plays out.
2. It’s Bo time
Practices are closed and I’m not there, but based on what we heard, read and saw in the spring game, I thought Joey Gatewood looked every bit like a starting quarterback on a contending team.
Either he’s not as good as I thought, or Bo Nix is simply better.
Gus Malzahn clearly thinks it’s the latter. I have zero issue with starting a true freshman — after Alabama’s spring camp ended in 2016, I wrote Jalen Hurts should get the job. Last year I wrote Trevor Lawrence should be Clemson’s opening day starter. Etc., etc.
Maybe I haven’t paid enough attention to Nix. Maybe he is the SEC’s next big thing. I can’t wait to find out tonight against No. 11 Oregon. Will this be one of those games where we look back in 8 years, when both guys are NFL standouts, and remember the time a pair of 1st-round quarterbacks squared off in college?
3. Will LSU throw it 36 times?
The Tigers won’t need to against Georgia Southern, but that’s not the point.
LSU never attempted more than 35 passes (in regulation) in a game last season.
There’s a fine line between not giving Week 2 foe Texas anything to see and, you know, working on things you’ll need to beat Week 2 foe Texas.
Alabama didn’t hold anything back last year. They lined up 4 wide from the jump and just said “deal with it.” How many opening-play, opening-drive TD throws did Tua Tagovailoa have? (Hint: a lot.)
I get that the best secondary Joe Burrow will face all year is the one he stares across at in practice every day. But we’re not talking about practice. We’re talking about the game. Game execution breeds a different level of confidence and swagger.
Ideally, Burrow comes out throwing and has a huge day. He doesn’t need to go Drew Lock and throw for 500 yards and 7 TDs, but a 16-for-25 performance isn’t going to tell us much about Joe Brady’s impact, either.
4. How good is George Pickens?
We saw the 1-handed grab. We’ve read the recruiting hype. As excited as I am about freshman QBs, these young receivers like Pickens are arriving ready to make an impact, too.
We’ve seen it in the SEC. Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk dominated as freshmen in 2015. Nationally, I think Justyn Ross just caught another TD pass against Alabama and Rondale Moore just scored again against Ohio State. Nobody stopped those 2 last year.
Pickens’ teammates already are comparing him to A.J. Green and other NFL standouts.
Georgia needs an outside threat. Jake Fromm needs somebody who can beat safety coverage over the top and win 2-on-1s.
If Pickens is that guy, Georgia very well could be the team to beat in the SEC.
5. Hello, again, Jarrett Guarantano
The more things change, the more Guarantano remains the same.
Head coaches, offensive coordinators, on-campus protests and collapsed pockets, few college quarterbacks have endured more the past 4 years than Tennessee’s starting quarterback.
The thing is: We have film and stats, quotes and notes, but we still have no idea how good he is.
His career resembles a children’s ride at an amusement park ride … a lot of thrills off in the distance, but this one is kinda bland. Hopefully that changes, starting today against overmatched Georgia State.
Guarantano threw 12 TD passes last year. He averaged just 20.5 attempts per game. Those totals were 12th and 14th among full-time SEC starters.
How refreshing would it be to see Guarantano enjoy his second career 300-yard game, his first 4-TD game?
Unleash him, Vols.
6. Tua, Take II
All offseason, I’ve written about Alabama’s forthcoming course correction.
The return of the run, pass on the pass, blah, blah, blah.
On cue, half of Alabama’s running back room decides it would rather do just about anything other than play against Duke.
So let them sit and watch Tua throw for 300 yards and 5 TDs in the first half. Frankly, I find that a lot more entertaining, anyway. Any time Jaylen Waddle or Jerry Jeudy catch a pass, I’m already adding numbers in my head.