Southeastern Conference Football Media Days begin a four-day run at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover (Ala.) on Monday. Here is one question concerning each team.
FLORIDA: When will the offense come back in Gainesville?
Florida won the SEC East championship in each of Jim McElwain’s first two seasons as coach. But, the Gators lost twice in the SEC title game to Alabama by a combined score of 83-31. In addition, Florida scored a total of 15 points in dropping two games to Florida State. Those four games showed how far the Gators are from being a legitimate threat for another national championship. The issue has been no good quarterback play. Malik Zaire, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, will get his opportunity to run the show. But, Zaire has had limited time as a starter with the Fighting Irish. Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will be in the competition for the starting quarterback job. This season seems to be another one in which Florida must rely upon its defense to win a divisional crown.
GEORGIA: Can Jacob Eason be a championship quarterback this year?
Eason was the Georgia starter for all but one game as a freshman last season. Like most first-year players, Eason experienced an up-and-down year. He completed a below-average 55 percent of his passes. He did finish with twice as many scoring passes as interceptions – 16-to-8. With Eason under center, the Bulldogs finished with a 4-4 SEC mark – their first non-winning conference record since 2010. There will be some pressure on coach Kirby Smart, who will be in his second year. The Bulldogs have the league’s best one-two combo at running back with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Ten starters return from a defense which allowed a less-than-impressive 24 points per game. However, Georgia needs an improved year from Eason to overtake Florida in the SEC East.
KENTUCKY: Is a winning conference record a possibility?
A three-game midseason winning streak against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri put Kentucky in position to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Credit must be given to coach Mark Stoops, who capped off a seven-win regular season by upsetting Louisville. The season ended on a disappointing note when the Wildcats lost to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Kentucky won four SEC games in 2016 – the same number it had won in the previous four seasons combined. Things are in place for the Wildcats to move up the ladder in a mediocre Eastern Division. First, Kentucky returns 17 starters. Second, the Wildcats’ two SEC West opponents are Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Junior college transfer Stephen Johnson had a solid season at quarterback – 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air. Benny Snell, who had a 1,000-yard season on the ground, is back. Stoops, a defensive specialist, must get his team to improve on that side of the ball for Kentucky to have a winning SEC record.
MISSOURI: Does the SEC East’s best offense reside in Columbia (Mo.)?
Missouri averaged 31 points and 501 yards per game last year under new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. The Tigers did have its problems moving the ball against SEC defenses. Missouri eclipsed the 30-point mark just once in eight league games – 37 against Tennessee. Ten starters return on offense – led by quarterback Drew Lock. In his first year as a full-time starter, Lock completed 54 percent of his passes for just shy of 3,400 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Missouri returns its top two backs – Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter, who combined for more than 1,800 rushing yards. The Tigers also return their top two receivers – J’Mon Moore and Dimetrios Mason, who combined for almost 1,600 yards on 109 catches. Missouri should score points, but it will be hard-pressed to better its 4-8 record unless coach Barry Odom improves the defense.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Is Will Muschamp anything more than .500 head coach?
The upcoming season will be Muschamp’s sixth as a head coach in the SEC – four at Florida and two at South Carolina. In his first five years, only once has Muschamp had a team with a winning conference record and more than seven overall victories. Muschamp’s first Gamecocks team won six games to achieve bowl eligibility. But, South Carolina’s year ended with a 56-7 rout at the hands of Clemson and 46-39 setback to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. The Gamecocks have not had a winning SEC record in four years. Expectations are higher this season since South Carolina returns 16 starters, including quarterback Jake Bentley, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and safety DJ Smith. This season will be an interesting test for Muschamp to see if he can get South Carolina at least back to .500 in the conference.
TENNESSEE: What must coach Butch Jones accomplish to win back the fan base?
Tennessee opened the 2016 season with five straight victories – including wins against Florida and Georgia. Still, the Volunteers were unable to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game. In fact, Tennessee lost four league games. What stung the most was a 45-34 defeat at Vanderbilt with a Sugar Bowl berth on the line. Even with three-year starter Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and school sack-leader Derek Barnett at defensive end, the Vols were unable to reach Atlanta in early December. Tennessee fans were quite upset with the results of 2016. A two-touchdown victory against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl did not soothe their feelings. The Volunteers return 14 starters, but finding a replacement for Dobbs will not be easy. Tennessee could possibly finish no higher than third in the Eastern Division which will not make the Big Orange fan base satisfied at all.
VANDERBILT: Will there be a positive carryover from the end of the 2016 regular season?
It appeared in mid-November that coach Derek Mason was going to go a third consecutive year without a bowl appearance. Remember that former coach James Franklin took Vanderbilt to bowl games the previous three seasons. The Commodores needed home victories against Ole Miss and Tennessee to become bowl eligible. Vanderbilt checked off both – beating both the Rebels and the Vols by double digits. The Commodores, who lost the Independence Bowl to North Carolina State, return 16 starters from that team. Mason’s past two teams played well defensively. Ralph Webb is the school’s all-time rushing leader as he heads into his senior year. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur certainly must improve his numbers – 54 percent completion, nine touchdowns and ten interceptions. Oren Burks is expected to fill the big shoes of Zach Cunningham as Vanderbilt’s playmaker at linebacker.
ALABAMA: Is it possible the returning SEC Offensive Player of the Year loses his starting job?
Jalen Hurts was chosen the SEC’s best offensive player as a true freshman. Hurts accounted for more than 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns. Hurts completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also gained a net of 954 yards on the ground. However, the Crimson Tide passing game was ineffective in postseason games against Florida, Washington and Clemson. In those three games, Alabama completed only 32 of 66 passes for 350 yards. Highly-rated recruit Tua Tagovailoa was an early-enrollee and was impressive during practice. Coach Nick Saban is not bringing Hurts to SEC Media Days. So, there will be a storyline as to whether or not Hurts remains the No. 1 quarterback.
ARKANSAS: Is Bret Bielema’s leash getting short?
There is no doubt that Bielema inherited a mess at Arkansas following the firing of coach Bobby Petrino and the lost season under coach John L. Smith. Moreover, Bielema totally changed the attitude and playing style of the Hogs. Things improved in Bielema’s first three years as the Razorbacks went from no SEC wins to two SEC wins to five SEC wins. But, with a rebuilding offense in 2016, Arkansas won only three conference games. Four of the five SEC defeats came by at least 19 points. Then, the regular season ended with as a come-from-ahead loss at Missouri. The Hogs have 12 returning starters this season – the most important being quarterback Austin Allen. Bielema will probably get one more season to crack the first division of the SEC. But, Bielema could be out the door if the Razorbacks win fewer than three league games.
AUBURN: Is Jarrett Stidham the answer at quarterback?
When Auburn received excellent quarterback play, it won a national title (Cam Newton) and lost in the national championship game (Nick Marshall). But, Auburn has had mediocre performances at quarterback the last three seasons – resulting in a mediocre 11-13 SEC record. Stidham arrived on the scene to help coach Gus Malzahn break out of this average stretch. As a freshman two years ago at Baylor, Stidham completed 69 percent of his passes for more than 1,250 yards and 12 touchdowns in only five games. Stidham didn’t play football last year while attending junior college. In all probability, Stidham will beat out returning starter Sean White. Auburn returns two backs – Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who combined for more than 2,100 rushing yards last season. Malzahn’s defense has experience with seven returning starters. So, it may all come down to Stidham.
LSU: Can coach Ed Orgeron escape the rut in his first year?
It has been the same old story for LSU football the past four seasons – good teams, but far from being an elite squad. The Tigers have lost at least three SEC games in each of those years. In the preceding three seasons, LSU suffered a total of five conference defeats. A close victory against Mississippi State and a loss at Auburn cost coach Les Miles his job before the end of September. With Orgeron in charge, the Tigers went 6-2. However, LSU was beaten by the two best teams in that stretch – Alabama and Florida. The honeymoon will be short for Orgeron, who was not the LSU administration’s top choice. There are just 11 returning starters, so another three-loss conference season would not be a surprise.
OLE MISS: Can Shea Patterson make the thoughts of NCAA probation and sanctions go away?
There will be no bowl for Ole Miss in 2017 due to a self-imposed ban. The NCAA investigation into the Rebels’ violations is continuing. Undoubtedly, the penalties on Ole Miss will be somewhat severe. Coach Hugh Freeze could lose his job. For right now, the 2017 Rebels team must try to keep its fans’ minds off what is to come. That responsibility will fall upon the multi-talented Patterson, who showed flashes in his three starts at the end of last season when Chad Kelly was injured. Patterson completed only 55 percent of his passes for 880 yards and six touchdowns. More importantly, Ole Miss lost two of his starts to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State by a combined score of 93-37. The Rebels’ defense was a mess last season. There will be no .500 season if Ole Miss is unable to control opposing offenses.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Can coach Dan Mullen keep the bowl streak alive?
In essence, Mississippi State’s bowl streak would have come to an end last year were it not for its high APR score. There were not enough eligible teams to fill out all of the bowls. So, the Bulldogs got a spot in the St. Petersburg Bowl because of the team’s academic record. Mississippi State beat Miami (Ohio) in the bowl, but had its first losing record since Mullen’s first year in 2009. The results were expected to take a dip after the departure of quarterback Dak Prescott. But, Mullen did find another top-flight quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald. In his first season as a starter, Fitzgerald accounted for almost 3,800 yards and 37 touchdowns – almost identical numbers to Alabama’s Hurts. But, Fitzgerald does not have the same type of cast surrounding him as Hurts. Fitzgerald must continue to perform at a Prescott level if the Bulldogs are going to reach the postseason on their own in 2017.
TEXAS A&M: Will Kevin Sumlin still be coach in mid-October?
The heat is on Sumlin, who has no winning SEC records since 2012. In the last four years, Texas A&M is 15-17 – 1-11 against Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss. The Aggies went 8-5 in each of the last three seasons. In the first seven games, Texas A&M will face UCLA, Arkansas, Alabama and Florida. Losses to those four opponents could mean that Sumlin is replaced the week of the open date following the Oct. 14 game at Florida. The Aggies have just five returning starters on offense. No one knows the identity of the No. 1 quarterback – redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, true freshman Kellen Mond or senior Jake Hubenak. The Aggies do have their share of talented players – running back Trayveon Williams, wide receiver Christian Kirk and safety Armani Watts. But, those individuals may not have enough to prevent Sumlin from being this year’s Les Miles.