Examining the key storylines in the SEC going into the 2018 season
The SEC is once again loaded with intrigue. Alabama and Georgia closed out the 2017 season battling for the national championship, and both teams are expected to be in the mix to win it all again in 2018. In addition to the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, Auburn remains a threat to reach the CFB Playoff, and the league's depth should improve thanks to Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M this fall. The SEC welcomes a handful of new coaches into the league for 2018, including Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. The conference is deep at quarterback but also features a couple of high-profile programs - Florida and LSU - looking to take a step forward on offense this season.
What are the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for 2018? Matt Hinton examines Alabama’s quest for another title, QB play in the SEC, Missouri's Drew Lock and more:
SEC's Top Storylines to Watch in 2018
YEAR OF THE QUARTERBACK (FOR REAL THIS TIME)
Last season wasn't exactly a renaissance year for SEC quarterbacks, but it may have set the stage for one: All but two of the league's 14 teams return a familiar face behind center, a handful of whom could be on the cusp of legitimate national stardom. As a group, they shape up as the SEC's deepest, most promising cast of signal callers in years.
Statistically, the cream of the returning crop is Missouri's Drew Lock, who finished as the SEC leader in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and efficiency en route to a first-team all-conference nod from league coaches; as a senior, he's arguably the most NFL-ready passer in the entire country. If any other QB deserves to share that distinction, it's Auburn's Jarrett Stidham, a blue-chip journeyman who was brought on last winter to revive the Tigers' dormant downfield passing game and largely lived up to the hype. And by the end of the season, it's entirely possible that the title will belong to Georgia's sophomore phenom, Jake Fromm, owner of an 12-2 record as a starter. Fromm's debut ranked among the best ever by a true freshman quarterback, and whatever doubts existed about his potential against elite competition were answered by his high-stakes postseason performances in the SEC Championship Game, Rose Bowl and National Championship Game. His stock is soaring.
So, too, of course, is the stock of the league's other sophomore phenom, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, whose triumphant turn opposite Fromm in the national title game will go down as one of the most dramatic moments in the sport's history -- partly because of the implications for Bama's incumbent starter, Jalen Hurts, whose poise in the face of his abrupt demotion was overshadowed by the obvious doubts it raised about his role going forward. Whichever one of them emerges atop the depth chart, the "game manager" stereotype that usually defines Crimson Tide QBs is null and void.
Beyond the headliners, there's also proven production behind center at Mississippi State, where senior Nick Fitzgerald is expected to be back at full speed following an ugly ankle injury in last year's Egg Bowl; at South Carolina, where future pro Jake Bentley boasts far more impressive physical tools than his mediocre sophomore numbers indicated; at Ole Miss, where former junior college transfer Jordan Ta'amu ended the season on a tear in place of the since-departed Shea Patterson; and at Vanderbilt, where senior Kyle Shurmur accounted for a higher share of his team's total offense last year (66.6 percent) than any other player in the conference. Texas A&M saw flashes of potential from freshmen Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, who'll continue to battle for the job as sophomores. Even Tennessee, which hit rock bottom in 2017, has reason for optimism after landing one of the most sought-after graduate transfers on the offseason market, Keller Chryst, a former blue-chip recruit who logged 13 career starts at Stanford. Chryst will compete with the incumbent, sophomore Jarrett Guarantano, under the implicit guarantee that there's nowhere to go but up. LSU added Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow to push Myles Brennan and Justin McMillan.
Related: SEC Football 2018 Predictions
TUA TAKES THE REINS
Try to imagine another set of circumstances, short of injury, in which Alabama's looming quarterback controversy even makes sense. On paper, the rÃ©sumÃ©s are about as lopsided as they can be: One candidate is a proven, decorated veteran with a 26-2 record as a starter over two years, both of which culminated in a trip to the national title game; the other, a true sophomore with zero career starts and virtually no relevant experience prior to coming off the bench at halftime of the finale. Heck, for that matter, try to imagine another set of circumstances in which the second guy even gets on the field in that situation to begin with.
Still, by the time the confetti began to fall after Bama's wild, come-from-behind victory over Georgia, it seemed clear that the future belonged to the second guy, Tagovailoa -- so clear, in fact, that the big question entering spring practice wasn't so much whether Jalen Hurts could wrest the starting job back from the Hawaiian upstart as it was whether the offense could somehow accommodate them both. Nick Saban himself assured reporters that a time-share situation was "not out of the question," and Hurts' team-first response to watching his understudy carry the Tide across the finish line indicated that he might be open to a reduced role. With the season on the line, though, it was Tagovailoa who validated Saban's trust on the biggest stage, and his arm strength immediately added a downfield dimension to the offense that had been sorely missing. If Hurts is intent on remaining a starter, he'll likely have to pursue that opportunity somewhere else.
LOCK GOES OUT IN STYLE
It has never taken a highly trained eye to see that Drew Lock -- a 6-4, 225-pound pocket passer straight from central casting, whose father and grandfather both played football at Mizzou -- was born to throw passes for the Tigers. But it hasn't always been obvious that his enormous potential would eventually be fulfilled. As a freshman, in 2015, Lock was thrown into the fire after the incumbent starter, Maty Mauk, was suspended from the team; the same season, most of the locker room threatened to boycott a game amid broader campus tensions, and the longtime head coach, Gary Pinkel, announced his retirement following a cancer diagnosis. Lock, predictably, finished at the bottom of the conference in almost every statistical category. His progress as a sophomore was spotty, at best, and Mizzou limped to another losing campaign.
Year 3 got off to a similar start: By mid-October, the Tigers were 1-5, patience with coach Barry Odom was beginning to run thin, and Lock was in danger of being written off as an outright bust. But the second half of the season was a revelation. As a team, Missouri reeled off six straight wins to secure a winning record, scoring at least 45 points in all six; individually, Lock finished with multiple touchdown passes in nine consecutive games, a single-season SEC record. He led the nation in TD passes (44) and passes that gained at least 50 yards (19), edging Heisman winner Baker Mayfield in both categories. Scouts noticed.
There's still plenty left for Lock to prove as a senior, especially against the top half of the schedule. Mizzou ended up 0-6 against teams that finished with winning records, averaging just 18.0 points per game in the losses. Lock's leading receiver each of the past three seasons, J'Mon Moore, is gone. Still, Lock will start out at or near the top of 2019 NFL Draft boards, and if everything comes together, he has a good chance of finishing there, too.
MOORHEAD MAKES HIS MOVE?
Five of the league's 14 teams will be under new management in 2018 -- six if you count Ole Miss' Matt Luke, now the full-time boss in Oxford following a season-long audition in an interim role -- and most of the new coaches arrived in their new jobs with a proven track record and an over-the-top salary to match. And yet of all the new hires, the highest expectations in Year 1 may belong to the one who'll be making the least: Mississippi State's Joe Moorhead, whose four-year, $11 million contract pales in comparison to the rest of his West Division peers, but who'll inherit a roster built to pay off immediately.
Part of the optimism in Starkville stems from Moorhead's own track record, first as the head coach at Fordham, where he molded a last-place outfit into a perennial FCS playoff team, and more recently at Penn State, where he helped turn the notoriously stale Nittany Lions offense into a versatile, explosive attack that averaged nearly 40 points per game over the past two seasons. But he'll also benefit enormously from the work of his predecessor, Dan Mullen, who left a vastly more stable and competitive program than the one he took over in 2009.
Much is riding on Fitzgerald, the centerpiece of the offense the past two seasons, and his surgically repaired right ankle. But assuming he's back to his old self, the rest of the offense returns virtually everyone who touched the ball in 2017 (including a 1,000-yard tailback, senior Aeris Williams) as well as four-fifths of the starting O-line -- and even if Fitzgerald isn't his old self, backup QB Keytaon Thompson more than held his own in a pinch. Defensively, MSU brings back a dozen players with at least six career starts to their credit, led by a pair of NFL-ready headliners on the line, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat; both were first-team All-SEC picks last year and have a chance to be first-rounders in the 2019 draft. Except for Sweat and safety Johnathan Abram -- former junior college transfers who began their careers at Michigan State and Georgia, respectively -- every projected starter on both sides of the ball is in at least his third year in the program.
Of course, the Bulldogs' ceiling is limited as always by the fact that they share a division with Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Except for the coaching staff, though, the roster is essentially an older version of the same one that beat LSU early, Louisville late, and pushed Alabama to the brink en route to a 9-4 finish.
FLORIDA RESETS ON OFFENSE (AGAIN)
The last time Florida fielded a truly elite offense, Dan Mullen was the offensive coordinator, Tim Tebow was the quarterback and George W. Bush was the president. The year: 2008, when UF led a defensively driven league in both yards and points per game en route to a national title. In the decade since, the Gators' offensive malaise has seemed to grow deeper, darker and more intractable by the season.
Given his track record, it's a safe bet that Mullen -- whose proteges include Tebow, Dak Prescott and Alex Smith, among others --- will eventually reverse that trend. Eventually. For the time being, though, he's largely stuck with the same cast that averaged a paltry 21 points last year vs. SEC opponents, worst in the conference outside of the shipwreck at Tennessee. More to the point, he's stuck with an incumbent quarterback, Feleipe Franks, who struggled early and often as a redshirt freshman and actually appeared to regress as the season descended into chaos.
The big question facing Mullen in Year 1 is whether Franks still has enough upside to warrant another year of growing pains in a new system. Franks was a touted prospect, but the same can be said for the top-rated player in the incoming class, Emory Jones, who defected from Ohio State, enrolled early, and projects as a better fit than Franks in Mullen's spread-to-run scheme. Whoever winds up behind center, satisfying the expectations of the notoriously impatient Florida fan base will be an uphill battle.
GEORGIA RESETS ON DEFENSE
The D was the cornerstone of Georgia's 2017 resurgence, a deep, veteran outfit that ranked among the stingiest units in the nation in terms of both yards and points allowed. Inevitably, it was also decimated by attrition: Outgoing regulars from last year's title run include a pair of behemoth anchors on the interior line (John Atkins and Trent Thompson), a pair of bookend pass rushers off the edge (Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy), a trio of versatile, multi-year starters in the secondary (Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders) and -- most important -- the heart of the unit, heat-seeking linebacker Roquan Smith, who wrapped up his career in Athens as the most decorated defensive player in the country. Collectively that group accounted for 249 career starts.
That's nothing new for Kirby Smart, who, as Nick Saban's defensive coordinator, spent most of the past decade managing the annual exodus from Alabama's top-ranked defense. And the cupboard isn't exactly bare -- the Bulldogs will still have a steady veteran presence in the trenches (Jonathan Ledbetter and Tyler Clark), off the edge (D'Andre Walker) and in the secondary (Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed). Even the glaring vacancy at middle linebacker could be in reliable hands if senior Natrez Patrick works his way back into good standing following a string of legal issues that sidelined him for the entire postseason. But for the first time Smart will have to lean heavily on his own recruits to fill the gaps, and with the expectations for this team dialed to eleven, the notion of a learning curve is a luxury they can't afford.
GARNET AND BLACK ON THE ATTACK?
Pound for pound, there wasn't a more explosive player in college football in 2017 than South Carolina's Deebo Samuel: Before he suffered a broken leg in Week 3, Samuel scored six touchdowns -- three receiving, one rushing, two in the return game -- on just 19 touches, all but one of the scores coming from at least 25 yards out. No other Carolina skill player accounted for more than five TDs all season, from any distance, and the offense never fully recovered from his absence.
The silver lining for 2018: Because the injury happened early in the season, Samuel was able to exercise a medical redshirt that will bring him back for a fifth year at full speed. It also allowed the Gamecocks' younger receivers to establish a foothold in the offense that could pay big dividends. The primary target in Samuel's absence, Bryan Edwards, will enter his junior campaign among the active SEC leaders in both receptions (108) and yards (1,383). Between Samuels, Edwards and rising sophomores Shi Smith and OrTre Smith, South Carolina's receiving corps has the talent and experience to rival the blue-chip unit at Ole Miss as the league's best. Throw in the backfield rotation of A.J. Turner, Ty'Son Williams, Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson, and in all Carolina returns 86.6 percent of last year's total offensive production, second in the conference only to Mississippi State.
There are lingering questions about the growth curve of junior QB Jake Bentley, whose production stagnated in 2017 despite his obvious talent. And coach Will Muschamp has never been known for fostering explosive offenses. Still, if the Gamecocks offense continues to linger at the bottom of the league statistically, the supporting cast certainly won't be an excuse.
SABAN SHOOTS FOR SEVEN
The offseason headlines in Alabama revolved around attrition and uncertainty. The immediate concerns for the new year included replacing both the offensive and defensive coordinators from the latest title run as well as more than a dozen outgoing starters -- one of whom, potentially, could turn out to be a star quarterback in the wake of the first true, full-blown QB controversy of the Nick Saban era. For the first time in ages, Bama wasn't in the running for the nation's highest-ranked recruiting class on National Signing Day, or even the SEC's. By the time September arrives, the 2018 edition of the Crimson Tide may look as different from the one that preceded it as any since the earliest days of Saban's tenure.
It will share at least one key similarity, though, in that when the major preseason polls are released in August, Alabama will almost certainly be sitting on top. If so, it will mark the third consecutive year the Tide have opened at No. 1, and the eleventh in a row that they've occupied the top spot at some point in the season. If they finish there, again, Saban will match Bear Bryant's record of six national championships with the same school and move into first place on the all-time list with his seventh title overall. It took the Bear 19 years to reach his mark, including a pair of highly dubious crowns in 1964 and 1973, in the days when they were handed out prior to bowl games. Saban can earn his sixth in just 10 years, none of them disputed, and in the process pass Minnesota's Bernie Bierman (who claimed five titles from 1934-41) for most championships in the span of a single decade.
Already in that span Saban has won it all with six different coordinators and four different starting quarterbacks, not to mention a fifth coming off the bench; already he has more national titles to his credit than the rest of the active FBS head coaching ranks combined. All that's left is to add the one that will put any and all historical comparisons to bed for good, and keep going from there.
Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.