ATLANTA—Where did the time go?
It just doesn’t seem that long ago that we were at Mercedes-Benz Stadium watching Tua Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith for the touchdown that gave Alabama the CFP national championship.
On Monday, some six months after that dramatic evening in Atlanta, the 2018 season will begin where the 2017 season ended as SEC Media Days, for the first time ever, will be held in some place other than Birmingham. The College Football Hall of Fame will serve as host for this four-day event (July 16-19) which will bring over 1,000 media members to the city looking for answers and to feed the appetite for the best sport in the world.
Today we’ll start previewing the event with our Most Burning Question for each member of the SEC East. On Friday we’ll do the same for each member of the SEC West.
Here we go:
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FLORIDA: Can Dan Mullen work his quarterback magic with Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask or Emory Jones?
Josh Harris, Omar Jacobs, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Chris Leak, Tyler Russell, Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald. All were/are excellent college quarterbacks developed by Mullen, who takes over at Florida after nine successful seasons at Mississippi State.
Franks started eight games last season. He is athletic. He also needs to be more consistent. Trask didn’t play last season due to a foot injury but he’s smart and has a good arm. Jones is talented but raw. He’s not ready.
Florida’s quarterback play will be better than last season because of Mullen. Will it be good enough to make the Gators a contender in the SEC East? Not sure about that.
GEORGIA: The Bulldogs will be good but will they be College Football Playoff good?
Let’s put it this way. If the 2017 Georgia team played the 2018 Georgia team today I’d pick the 2017 team by 7-10 points. That was a special team featuring the No. 2 (Nick Chubb), and No 3 (Sony Michel) rushers in the history of the school with some generational players (like LB Roquan Smith) on defense. IMO it was one of the top five teams in Georgia history.
But here’s the deal. Kirby Smart and his staff have recruited well. There is a lot of young talent waiting for a chance. So if you are going to get Georgia, you better get them early. That’s why the Sept. 8 trip to South Carolina looks dangerous. Still, I think the Bulldogs will be in Atlanta on Dec. 1 with a shot at the playoffs.
KENTUCKY: Will Benny Snell get some help at running back?
Snell, a rising junior, is only the third running back in SEC history to have at least 2,424 yards and at least 31 career rushing touchdowns going into his junior season (Herschel Walker and Leonard Fournette are the other two). But last season, because “Boom” Williams gave up his final year of college to enter the NFL Draft, Snell had 262 carries. That’s too many. Siheim King (79 carries) and A.J. Rose need to step up if Kentucky is going to go to its third straight bowl game.
MISSOURI: Quarterback Drew Lock led the nation with 44 touchdowns passes last season but did not enter the NFL Draft. His former OC (Josh Heupel) is now the head coach at UCF and his current OC (Derek Dooley) will be a play caller for the first time. Is Lock going to be happy he came back?
Prior to becoming the head coach at Louisiana Tech (2007-2009) and Tennessee (2010-2012) Dooley spent seven years with Nick Saban. He has spent the past five seasons as the receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He inherits an elite arm in Lock, who returned to school because he wants to learn some NFL concepts from Dooley. It should be interesting. The keys: The offensive line returns intact and Damarea Crockett, who ran for 1,000 yards in 2016, is back and hopefully stays healthy.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Is the Gamecocks’ new up-tempo offense going to work?
It’s hard to overstate how big a change coach Will Muschamp made to his offense in the off-season. Bryan McLenden was elevated to OC after Kurt Roper was let go. Veteran offensive coach Dan Werner (Miami, Ole Miss) was brought in to help install an up-tempo offense which Muschamp is convinced is necessary for his team to challenge for an SEC East championship. Muschamp also believes the offense will benefit junior quarterback Jake Bentley. Don’t expect the Gamecocks to show a lot in the first game with Coastal Carolina on Sept. 1 because Georgia comes to Columbia on Sept. 8. It is a gamble by Muschamp, whose team won nine games last season.
TENNESSEE: Who starts at quarterback in the first game vs. West Virginia?
Keller Chryst, who was 11-2 as a starting quarterback at Stanford, arrived at Tennessee on June 1 as a graduate transfer. But he’ll have to show something in Fall camp if he’s going to beat out Jarrett Guarantano, who has the support of the locker room after his MVP performance in the Volunteers’ Spring Game (15 of 27, 226 yards, 2 TD). It will be interesting to see how new head coach Jeremy Pruitt handles the quarterbacks when the Vols go to Charlotte to face the Mountaineers, who may have the best offense in the Big 12. The bigger concern is probably the offensive line which, to put it bluntly, hasn’t been good at Tennessee in a long time.
VANDERBILT: After going 5-7 last season with a second straight win over Tennessee, can the Commodores get back to a bowl in 2018?
Some things have to fall into place. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who needs 2,963 yards to become Vanderbilt’s all-time passer, needs a big senior season. Despite the loss of Ralph Webb, the school’s all-time leading rusher, the Commodores’ deepest position will still be running back. Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn will make an impact.
But the biggest thing that has to happen for Vanderbilt is that the Commodores must become more opportunistic on defense after forcing only nine turnovers (126th nationally) last season. New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who has spent 13 of the past 14 seasons in the NFL, promises to fix that.