Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks.
The SEC's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
1. Is Zach Mettenberger the missing piece at LSU?
National championship caliber defense? Check. Punishing running game and offensive line? Check. Quarterback? Wait and see. The biggest issue for the Tigers in recent years has been quarterback play. Although LSU made the national title game last year, having a difference maker under center could make the Tigers the most complete team in college football. Mettenberger played sparingly last season, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards in mop-up duty against Northwestern State. The Tigers won’t ask Mettenberger to win many games on his own, but his emergence will allow the offense to open up more in 2012 and finally give the team a chance to stretch the field. The junior will have his share of ups and downs in his first season, but it looks like LSU finally has a quarterback that it can lean on to win games through the air.
2. How could early season suspensions hamper Georgia?
Mark Richt hasn’t revealed any suspensions other than two games for starting cornerback Sanders Commings, but a handful of other starters on the Bulldogs’ defense could miss a crucial game at Missouri in the second week of the season. Safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alex Ogletree are possibilities to miss the Tigers’ SEC debut. Rambo’s suspension could stretch into four games, which would include a home date with upstart Vanderbilt. The Commodores came within five points of upsetting the Bulldogs last season. Richt’s silence on the matter may be gamesmanship for the Missouri game, but even if Georgia’s only missing a couple of key players on defense, coordinator Todd Grantham may need to prepare his secondary to take some lumps.
3. How quickly can Alabama’s defense find replacements?
Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow for the offense, but the Crimson Tide has capable replacements waiting in the wings with Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. The biggest obstacle to a repeat national title will be the loss of several key players on defense, including All-SEC selections Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick. Alabama has recruited well, so the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kirby Smart and coach Nick Saban. The secondary will have three new starters, but juniors Dee Milliner and John Fulton have experience at cornerback. Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri will likely start at strong safety. Additionally, junior college recruits Travell Dixon and Deion Belue had a solid spring and will push for time in the fall. The biggest questions on defense could be in the front seven. Jesse Williams will move from end to nose guard, while the starting linebacking corps could be composed of three sophomores. Repeating last season’s No. 1 rank in total, scoring, rush and pass defense is probably too much to ask of a rebuilt defense. However, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to suffer much of a drop in production, especially as some of the younger players get comfortable with more playing time.
4. How is Florida’s offense shaking out?
Florida fans won’t have Charlie Weis to kick around anymore, but what does the addition of Brent Pease as offensive coordinator mean for the Gators’ murky quarterback situation? Sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett remain neck and neck for the starting job, but the Gators may need answers quickly. Customarily, the Gators’ first major test of the season isn’t until Week Three against Tennessee, but a Sept. 8 trip to Texas A&M probably speeds up the timetable. Driskel and Brissett have 73 pass attempts between them, but coach Will Muschamp is at least comforted they have 73 more attempts than they did a year ago. Both struggled to pass downfield, so the quarterback who’s able to stretch the field beyond 10 yards might get the early edge.
5. Is Marcus Lattimore fully healthy?
Reports from South Carolina indicate the Gamecocks star running back is ready to go for the season, but we won’t know for certain until we see Lattimore take the field for the first time since his Oct. 15 knee injury against Mississippi State. Steve Spurrier says the Gamecocks are protecting Lattimore in practice, so his first true game action may be the opener at Vanderbilt. Lattimore’s injury last season enabled Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles to gain experience. South Carolina could be in better shape in the backfield than it was at the start of last season, but Lattimore’s knee may be the difference between winning the SEC East or not.
6. Is Missouri quarterback James Franklin healthy?
Moving from the Big 12 to the SEC will be a challenge for Missouri, but the task is even more difficult with Franklin returning from a shoulder injury. In his first season as a starter, Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 981 yards and 15 scores. Franklin missed most of spring practice due to an injury to his throwing shoulder but is on track to return by the season opener. Although the junior is expected to be ready to go by kickoff, the Tigers will have to be cautious. Franklin probably won’t handle 217 carries again, which makes the play of running backs Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy even more important. Franklin will have a nice tune-up against SE Louisiana to test his arm, and it will be important to build some confidence with Georgia coming to Columbia in Week 2. Quarterbacks returning from a shoulder injury are always a concern, especially if there are any issues with lost arm strength or timing with receivers. However, all signs point to a full recovery from Franklin.
7. What happens when Tyler Bray hands the ball to a running back?
Tennessee’s rushing numbers have dropped in each of the last three seasons, bottoming out at 90.1 yards per game (116th nationally), 2.8 yards per carry (last in the SEC) and 11 rushing touchdowns. Bray and his receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers will need to be the foundation of the offense, but the Volunteers’ run game needs to provide something. Rajion Neal may have the most potential in the Vols’ backfield after averaging nearly 5 yards per carry last season, but he’s a converted wide receiver who had trouble with fumbles. A committee approach might be the solution.
8. Quarterback Battles at Auburn and Texas A&M
LSU, Alabama and Arkansas seem set as the top three teams in the SEC West. However, the rest of the division is up for grabs, as Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State could all make a case to be picked fourth. The Tigers are hoping sophomore Kiehl Frazier can emerge as the team’s No. 1 quarterback, and he left spring practice with a lead over junior Clint Moseley. New coordinator Scot Loeffler has implemented a pro-style attack, but Frazier – recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s spread – didn’t have much trouble picking up the offense in the spring. Not only is Texas A&M joining the SEC and breaking in a new coaching staff, but the Aggies must replace Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Texas A&M hopes to implement a spread attack but there will be growing pains with little experience returning under center. Sophomore Jameill Showers left spring practice with an edge over Johnny Manziel and would be a surprise if that spot changed hands in the fall. Whichever team (Auburn or Texas A&M) settles its quarterback situation first could have a chance to put some pressure on Arkansas for third place in the SEC West.
9. What will we see from John L. Smith?
The motorcycle fiasco that eventually cost Bobby Petrino his job seems like ancient history. John L. Smith appears to have rallied the players, and then he enjoyed a charm offensive with reporters at SEC Media Days. All of that is great for the summer, but he’ll be back under the microscope on game days. Arkansas still has some questions on offense, including the line, the health of Knile Davis and depth in the receiving corps. The Hogs have early cakewalks against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to iron out those issues before facing Alabama in Week Three.
10. Is Mississippi State ready to take the next step?
Outside of Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the toughest job in the SEC is at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs play in a brutal division and had only three winning seasons from 2000-2010. Dan Mullen has done a good job of getting the program pointed in the right direction, leading the Bulldogs to a 21-17 record in his first three years. However, it’s time for the program to take the next step. Mullen has yet to beat a team in the SEC West outside of Ole Miss. Despite the departure of quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, Mississippi State should be able to challenge for fourth place in the SEC West this season. LSU, Alabama and Arkansas are largely considered the top teams in the division, but Auburn and Texas A&M aren’t too far ahead of the Bulldogs. Even if Mississippi State doesn’t finish fourth in the SEC West, beating Tennessee on Oct. 13 or Arkansas on Nov. 17 would be another boost to the program. The Bulldogs have the schedule to make their third consecutive bowl appearance, but climbing higher in the SEC standings is one of the top goals for Mullen this season.
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