The SEC has long been the toast of the college football world. After a seven-year reign of National Champions, they have been locked out of the championship locker room for the past two years. This year they are looking to make it back; let’s look at the Top 10 Burning Questions in the mighty Southeastern Conference.
1. Can Alabama make it to the playoffs without a proven QB?
The depth chart leading into Week 1 has four quarterbacks listed at the #1 spot for the Crimson Tide. Either Jake Coker, Cooper Bateman, or Alec Morris will be leading Bama against the Wisconsin Badgers. Only Alabama and their stellar front seven could not be overly concerned with not declaring a starter with only a few days before kickoff. The defense will be leading the way while offense gains the necessary experience to balance the proficient running game led by Derrick Henry. Coker should be the leading candidate having the most experience, but their have been some whispers of a possible injury. The offensive doesn’t have much time to work out the kinks with the September 19th match up against Ole Miss. The way this team is configured, having an efficient game manager at the helm should allow the Crimson Tide to play in the SEC Championship game at minimum.
2. Will Dak Prescott take the next step for Mississippi State?
The Bulldogs will find it hard pressed to repeat the overall performance of last years history making squad, but Dak Prescott should be poised to succeed. Losing key skill players and having an untested offensive line would have most QBs shaking in their cleats, but Prescott’s mobility will be something that will be used to the offenses advantage. Look for De’Runnya Wilson to reap the benefits and become the go to guy, but the running back core’s receptions will improve given the lack of a proven #2 WR. Don’t look for Dak to surpass the 3,000 yard mark again, but look for him to be more efficient
3. Are the Tennessee Vols poised for a championship run?
Butch Jones is in the magic year in coaching where the trend much show upward and if things play out the right way they may be off the chart. Joshua Dobbs is the key to the season for the Vols. If his production can match his potential he could be one of the best in the conference or the country. The RB tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara will keep defenses honest and allow Marquez North and Pig Howard rack up plenty of yards and TDs. Defensively the Vols are led by DE Derek Barnett and has the makings of being one of the most productive in the country. The Vols could get on a roll that leads to Atlanta at the end of the season and this may be just the tip of the iceberg for this program.
4. Which new coordinator will make the biggest difference?
Every team in the conference, with the exception of Alabama and Ole Miss, made adjustments by switching coordinators. Some of these coordinators have daunting tasks like DC John Chavis at Mississippi State attempting to correct a defense who literally lost the Bulldogs season last year. Brian Schottenheimer has an easier task in sustaining the offensive prowess of Georgia, but has the weapons to make it happen. The perfect storm between supply and demand has to be in Auburn where Will Muschamp will be able to impose his defensive will into the backfield of any team in the conference. The only question with Muschamp is how long will he stay as most believe this is pit stop until another SEC head coaching position opens up in the upper tier.
5. How good is the SEC West?
Six of the seven teams in the West Division are ranked in the Top 25 according the AP Polls. This is not a foreign concept; since 2005 seven of the ten Conference Champions have been from the West. The highly ranked division tends to get the benefit of the doubt due to the toughness of the schedule, but the head-to-head battle clearly separates the cream from warm milk. Only Alabama and LSU have won the Conference Championship game in the time frame and only Arkansas has managed to make it to the title game in 2006. So the West is as good as Alabama and LSU are when the dust settles.
6. Can Jim McElwain lead the Gators to the top of the SEC East?
The hungry Gator fans have to have blind faith in their new leader, but they don’t and won’t have patience in the process. Florida has been able to survive the disappointing Muschamp reign even though he lead them to 29 wins over a four-year period. When the defense was good the offense was lackluster and vice versa. A real unknown in SEC country McElwain will get the same opportunity that the Michigan fans and media gave Brady Hoke after Rich Rod was fired. The offensive background of the new leader of the Gators will keep fans entertained and bode well for recruiting going forward. He has just enough to stay bowl eligible, but a year away from competing in the East and two years for competing for the Conference Championship.
7. Which coach is on the hottest seat?
Looking at the overall results of teams one would assume it would have to be a coach of one of the bottom feeders in the conference. Derek Mason of Vanderbilt should have at least two more years to prove himself and get Vanderbilt to the second tier which is where most expect them to max out. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies really came out of nowhere and held the spotlight on the national stage until a major collapse last year. He is a victim of his own success; peaking too soon raises expectations which isn’t always sustainable. As long as his defense will keep his team in games and not take them out he should be safe. The coach that’s on the hottest seat has to be the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks have had seven 5 or more loss seasons under Spurrier. His team always are competitive, but they always leaving you wanting more. Maxing out at a high of 11-wins for three straight seasons has raised the expectations in Columbia and nothing short of another 2-digit win season will suffice or he may be packing his bags.
8. Who is the best offensive and defensive player in the SEC?
The offensive player of the year should be a two-man race between Mississippi St. QB Dak Prescott and Georgia RB Nick Chubb. Dak is coming off record-breaking years and to expect the same results with less proven options would be asinine, but doing more with less could give him the heads up. Chubb could produce well over 2,000 yards this year being a dual threat out the backfield and as a receiver. I’m sure Brian Schottenheimer will have Chubb lining up all over the field creating matchup nightmares for other teams. In a close race, Nick Chubb edges out Dak Prescott.
The defensive player of the year is always difficult to call in a league laden with numerous defenders leaving for the NFL on droves. Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves is a lock down corner who will only improve his draft stock as the gators depend on him heavily to compete in the division this year. Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche is a disruptive lineman who can play inside and out and set the tone for the aggressive Rebels defense. No one has shown himself to be more explosive than Vols DE Derek Barnett tallying 10 sacks last year and a total of 20.5 tackles for loss. With a revamped defense that will thrive on pressure Derek Barnett will bring home the honors.
9. Which freshman will have the biggest impact?
There are some highly touted freshmen who will see the field early, some by design and some by necessity, but if they make it on the field watch out. The top QBs are Alabama’s Blake Barnett and Texas A&M’s Kyler Murray and they will get a fair shot to be the long-term leader of their teams. Murray will need his defense to step up to take pressure off of him while Barnett will have an experienced run game, a shutdown defense as well as a fellow freshmen who could make him legendary, WR Calvin Ridley. Ridley possibly could fill in where Amari Cooper left off as far as opportunities. The player who will have the greatest impact is Georgia’s DT Trent Thompson, last season’s high school player of the year. Rarely a lineman comes in as prepared physically as Thompson and his presence will be felt by opposing centers, guards and unfortunately quarterbacks.
10. Will there be a repeat SEC Champion for the first time in two decades?
Twenty years in a long time, but during that time Bama has been at the forefront of the conference and always in the mix for the title. Teams will be game-planning for the inexperienced QBs which will be difficult for Saban to counter without becoming a strictly run first offense. The instability at QB will cost the Tide the opportunity to defend their title and fall short of the playoff. Auburn will face Tennessee in the Championship game with the Tigers squeaking out the victory late in the 4th quarter.