A week to kickoff, 1 lingering concern for every SEC team
Wait a minute. I read every offseason headline. I looked at scouting reports. I saw the projections.
I thought every team was going to be perfect in 2017. You mean to tell me they won’t be? I stand corrected.
Here’s one lingering concern (every team actually has way more) for every SEC squad, starting with the East Division:
Antonio Callaway’s status
The troubled wide receiver should already be off the team, in my opinion. After his third off-the-field incident, Jim McElwain suspended Florida’s best offensive player for one game. At least. It could be more. And what’s to say it’s his last incident? His situation is already a possible distraction for Florida. There are no signs of that changing anytime soon, which isn’t good news for such an uncertain passing game.
Who will take the top off the defense?
Jacob Eason can have the best arm in the world, but if he doesn’t have a guy who can stretch the field, it won’t matter. The Bulldogs’ returning receivers had a combined three catches of 40-plus yards last year. Can Terry Godwin or Javon Wims be that guy? What about promising sophomore Riley Ridley? Promising tight end Isaac Nauta is going to have a bigger role in this offense, but he can’t be asked to burn DBs consistently. For the sake of Georgia’s running game, this needs to be addressed in a hurry.
Impact of Cole Mosier’s season-ending injury
Kentucky suffered a brutal pre-camp loss when Mosier went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Losing the guy expected to be the starting left tackle so close to the start of the season obviously isn’t ideal. Landon Young, the former U.S. Army All-American, is expected to get the nod in Mosier’s place. Kentucky’s offensive line depth will be tested even more now. Could Kyle Meadows be forced to move to the left side at times? Will true freshmen be forced to play? Kentucky was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award last year, given to the best offensive line in the country, but losing a consistent cog could be felt in the first part of the season.
Finding answers to stop the run
Dominant defensive line play used to be a given at Missouri. Last year, the only given was that the opposing tailback would go off. The Tigers finished 112th among FBS teams against the run. Gone is first-round pick Charles Harris, as well as Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley and Donavin Newsom.
That’s a lot of experience to replace, albeit from a unit that struggled mightily last year. A healthy Terry Beckner Jr. will look to lead a young group on a defense that needs to improve in order for Mizzou’s explosive offense to truly take flight.
Can they block?
We know about the South Carolina skill players. Jake Bentley, Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurst and Rico Dowdle should be fun to watch in 2017. The question is if the Gamecocks have the offensive line to allow those guys to make plays. Besides center Alan Knott and right guard Cory Helms, there are plenty of uncertainties. Bentley was sacked 24 times in seven games last year. This offense will be that much more entertaining if it can get steady offensive line play.
The Vols won’t be champions of anything that matters if they don’t figure out their quarterback situation. Butch Jones suggested that both Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano could see the field against Georgia Tech. I’m a believer that it’s a bit concerning if two unproven quarterbacks are still battling it out for playing time in the season opener. Dormady was expected to be the guy, but if he is, he should have been able to separate himself from a redshirt freshman. Until we see otherwise on the field, Tennessee’s offense is a huge question mark.
Yes, Ralph Webb is Vanderbilt’s offense. But the Commodores need to find ways to prevent eight-man fronts — Kyle Shurmur needs to be able to stretch the field. The good news is that Vanderbilt returns its three leading receivers, all of whom are seniors. The bad news is that they combined for one touchdown last year. Yikes. Can Trent Sherifield look like his sophomore self? Can Caleb Scott become a consistent downfield target? Some of this is, of course, dependent on what Shurmur can do to improve. Defenses are going to try to force Vanderbilt to beat them through the air all year.
Life without Lane Kiffin
Say what you want about the former Alabama offensive coordinator, but Kiffin could draw up an offense. There’s a reason that Brian Daboll was asked to keep Kiffin’s system in place. It’s interesting to think about where Alabama’s offense would’ve been without Kiffin the last three years.
He doesn’t get enough credit for modernizing the offense and helping the Tide earn three consecutive College Football Playoff berths. Will Daboll still be able to keep quality defenses off-balance like Kiffin did so well? Time will tell. You can bet Kiffin will be as interested as anyone to see Alabama’s offense in 2017.
Protecting Austin Allen
Look at any poor offensive line in college football, and there seems to be an assumption that they’ll automatically improve the following season. The same is true with Arkansas, which surrendered 34 sacks last year. The Hogs have to give Allen more time or he won’t make it through 2017 in one piece. All signs out of camp have been positive surrounding the offensive line, which didn’t lose as much as it might’ve looked like. But until we actually see that pass protection improve, it’s still a huge area of concern.
For all the talk about the offensive pieces returning, it’s easy to forget that the Tigers have a pretty big question to answer on the other side of the ball. How will they rush the passer without Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams? Derrick Brown, Jeff Holland and Marlon Davidson are expected to fill that void, but they combined for just three hurries and zero sacks last year. Auburn finished seventh in the FBS in scoring defense last year. Unless the Tigers can develop some pass-rushers up front in a hurry, that number could slide a bit.
Offensive line depth
The Tigers lost five offensive linemen via transfer this offseason. They also have to replace first-team All-America center Ethan Pocic. This unit was already facing major questions. The fact that there were several occasions in fall camp in which LSU’s offensive line was loaded with first-team freshmen because of injuries is cause for concern, too. It’s never good when a coach says the quarterbacks were sacked “at least” three times in a scrimmage. So much of what LSU wants to do offensively — run the ball with Derrius Guice and not get Danny Etling killed — depends on that offensive line. The margin for error could be awfully slim with that group.
Too much pressure on Nick Fitzgerald
Sorry if I sound like a broken record. Yes, Fitzgerald is a tough, physical dual-threat quarterback who should have the ball in his hands the majority of the time. But what happens if he can’t hold up for the entire season? Can the Bulldogs expect a true freshman backup to come in and pick up where Fitzgerald left off? And what about a running game that essentially has one back with any substantial experience?
Fitzgerald’s workload is going to increase this year, much like the QB job expanded for Dak Prescott and Tim Tebow in Year 2 under Dan Mullen. That’s understandable given the success he had last year. But Bulldogs fans will hold their breath any time Fitzgerald is slow to get up.
Looming NCAA sanctions
It’s going to take a while for Ole Miss to feel like it’s out of the woods with the NCAA. That ain’t happening in 2017. A self-imposed one-year bowl ban and a 15 percent reduction in scholarships might be a slap on the wrist compared to the punishment the NCAA hands down for Ole Miss’s 15 level-1 violations. The infractions hearing is set for Sept. 11, but the ruling isn’t expected until November. Couple that with the fact that Ole Miss doesn’t have a head coach under contract beyond 2017, and recruiting should be all but impossible for the Rebels.
Kevin Sumlin’s seat has a high temperature
Yeah, it’s pretty hot. It’s a problem for the Aggies because it will dominate the national conversation heading into every big game they play this year. Get ready for the “Is this a make-or-break game for Kevin Sumlin?” headlines. Shoot, the topic will come up on social media every time the Aggies fall behind by double digits in a game. That’s not ideal for recruiting. Unless Sumlin starts off 6-0 and stuns Alabama, that conversation isn’t going away anytime soon.