The SEC’s Biggest Question Marks
By Matt Smith
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With just over 10 weeks until kickoff, here are the 10 biggest concerns around college football's strongest conference.
In any sport, whether college or professional, it’s nearly impossible to be without a weakness. Whether it’s defections to the pro leagues in college sports or salary caps in professional sports, there are inherent limitations that make sustained dominance difficult.
A year ago, LSU had as impressive of a regular season as we’ve seen, but a deficiency at quarterback was their eventual downfall in the BCS Championship Game. Heading into this fall, there’s no doubting such units as the Alabama defensive line, the Georgia linebackers and the LSU secondary.
However, even the best SEC teams are flawed in at least one area. With just over 10 weeks until kickoff, here are the 10 biggest concerns around college football's strongest conference.
Alabama Wide Receivers
The Crimson Tide has yet to truly replace Julio Jones, who left for the NFL after the 2010 season. Quarterback A.J. McCarron did a good job, particularly in the BCS Championship Game, of spreading the ball around to his various receivers and tight ends, but Alabama is still searching for that game-changing receiver it lacked last season. Running back Trent Richardson and tight end Michael Williams made the majority of the team’s big plays.
Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell are both solid players, but the Tide would like one of the younger guys, perhaps sophomore DeAndrew White or early-enrolling freshmen Amari Cooper and Chris Black, to become a home-run threat. This will still be a run-first offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, but the loss of Richardson will, at times, put a greater emphasis on the passing game.
Georgia Offensive Line
Hopes are sky-high for the Bulldogs in 2012 after winning their final 10 regular season games last year, as well as a schedule that is tailor-made for a second consecutive division title. The defense is finally back to where it was when Brian VanGorder was calling the signals almost adecade ago, and Aaron Murray is one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
The biggest concern for Georgia is up front, where anchors Cordy Glenn (left tackle) and Ben Jones (center) both must be replaced. Kenarious Gates slides over from guard to replace Glenn, with Kolton Houston hoping to finally become eligible and take over at right tackle. Jones’ replacement is still uncertain, with last year’s right guard Chris Burnette or sophomore David Andrews stepping in to fill the void.
The Charlie Weis experiment in Gainesville did not go as planned, but all the blame can’t be placed on the man once dubbed an offensive genius. John Brantley missed most of October with an ankle injury, while freshman Jacoby Brissett was forced to make his first start against No. 1 LSU in Tiger Stadium. The Gators finished with just 13 touchdown passes, and had the same number of interceptions.
Brantley departs, with the battle now between Brissett and fellow sophomore Jeff Driskel. Both struggled last year, combining for two touchdowns and six interceptions, albeit against elite competition in the SEC. Brissett has a stronger arm and had a better spring, but there wasn’t nearly enough separation for head coach Will Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease to name a starter. If neither takes the next step, Pease’s offense will fare little better than Weis’ did.
Tennessee Running Backs
The ship has finally steadied in Knoxville, but that only increases the pressure on third-year head coach Derek Dooley. With 19 starters back and a much lighter schedule, the Volunteers have few excuses not to at least get to eight wins for the first time since 2007. The most notable loss comes in the backfield, in the form of two-year starting running back Tauren Poole.
Poole ran for over 1,700 yards in his two seasons as the starter, and the burden now falls on a combination of junior Rajion Neal and sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young. As the only one of three on the Orange team during the team’s spring game, Lane got an opportunity to shine, doing just that with 106 yards and two touchdowns. All three can catch passes as well, but there’s no workhorse tailback in the bunch.
On the 2011 LSU defense, everyone knew Sam Montgomery and Michael Brockers up front, and Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu on the backend. However, despite a 13-0 start, the linebacker unit was a relatively no-name group. It will be even more so this year, with Stefan Francois departing from the strong side and Ryan Baker from the weak side.
Kevin Minter is back in the middle, but he’ll be flanked by inexperience on both sides. Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones, the leading candidates to replace Baker and Francois respectively, have only three career starts between them. Keep an eye on freshman Kwon Alexander, a National Singing Day catch over both Alabama and Auburn. With the lack of depth here, Alexander could have an instant impact.
Arkansas Defensive Line
The Razorbacks went 21-5 over the past two seasons, but never could quite get over the hump. They were blasted by Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year, and followed that up two months later by seeing a 14-0 lead at LSU turn into a humbling 41-17 defeat. The offense was the best in the league, but the inability to match the elite defensive fronts of the Tide and Tigers is what held Arkansas back.
The trenches are once again an area of concern for the 2012 Hogs. All-SEC defensive end Jake Bequette is gone, and Tenarius Wright has been shifted to linebacker to take over for three-year starter Jerry Franklin in the middle. Byran Jones returns at nose guard and part-time starter at tackle Robert Thomas also is back. Sophomore Trey Flowers showed great potential while filling in for the injured Bequette, but this unit still is lacking the elite pass rushing ability that SEC teams have ridden to six straight national titles.
Many SEC fans overlooked the brilliance of Danny Trevathan the past three seasons in Lexington, as the Wildcats have gone just 18-20 since 2009. Trevathan led the SEC in tackles in both 2010 and 2011. Kentucky’s talent level pales in comparison to the elite teams in the league, but with Trevathan, Ronnie Sneed and hybrid linebacker/safety Winston Guy, the ‘Cats linebacker unit was one of the best in the conference.
That won’t be the case in 2012, as all three depart, leaving head coach Joker Phillips and defensive coordinator Rick Minter with some major holes in the second line of their defense. The front four and the secondary should be fine, but this isn’t basketball, where John Calipari can simply reload his arsenal after losing his top six players. Now that Trevathan is gone, it might be finally the time at which everyone recognizes his greatness.
Texas A&M Defensive Backs
If there was a good time for the Aggies to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, this might be the year. While they bid farewell to three starters in the secondary, they also avoid the likes of Landry Jones, Geno Smith and Seth Doege picking apart their young defensive backs. While their new league might not be quite as aerial as the Big 12, the back end of the defense is still a pressing issue for the Aggies and new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.
Coryell Judie and Terrence Frederick weren’t an elite pair of cornerbacks, but were battle-tested and would have fared well in the SEC. However, both Judie and Frederick, along with free safety Trent Hunter, depart. Strong safety Steven Campbell is the lone returning starter, but he has been injury-plagued. Tyler Wilson and Arkansas roll into College Station in late September. If the secondary situation isn’t settled by then, it will likely be a fourth straight defeat at the hands of the Razorbacks.
When Auburn signed Cam Newton out of Blinn Junior College, the Tigers expected he would be a two-year starter on the Plains. Of course, no one could have envisioned how the 2010 season turned out for the Tigers, and Newton spent 2011 becoming the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier all shared the quarterback duties last season, with none having any consistent success.
Trotter elected not to return, and Frazier appears to have a slight edge heading into the fall in new coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense. Frazier played in every game as a freshman, but was used primarily as a runner (76 carries, 12 pass attempts). That won’t be the case in Loeffler’s pro-style attack, but Frazier’s mobility has given him the upper hand over the slow-footed Moseley.
South Carolina Defensive Backs
If it’s possible for a Steve Spurrier team to fly under the radar, the 2012 Gamecocks might be doing so. Much of the attention in the SEC East is focused on the national title chances og Georgia, the rebuilding projects at Florida and Tennessee, and the potential fate of league newcomer Missouri. South Carolina is again loaded, however, provided running back Marcus Lattimore is close to 100% after an October ACL injury.
One concern is in the secondary. Stephon Gilmore, the No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft, is gone, along with fellow cornerback C.C. Whitlock. Strong safety DeVonte Holloman returns, but will play the team’s SPUR position, a hybrid linebacker/safety role. The return of Akeem Auguste to his 2010 form after a foot injury cost him most of last season would be a major help. The only returning starter, free safety D.J. Swearinger, also is dealing with a foot injury that kept him out of spring practice. The pieces are there. The challenge now is for new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to properly fit them together.