Atlanta—SEC Media Days start here on Monday at the College Football Hall of Fame. Over 1,000 media members will be there with questions—lots and lots of questions.
Some will be predictable (like the quarterback situation at Alabama). Some will not. Some will be smart and insightful. Some will not. Some will provide thorough, insightful answers. Some (like the quarterback situation at Alabama) will not.
But it will be fun. Hey! We get to spend four days talking about SEC football. Who has it better than us?
On Tuesday we gave you our Burning Questions for every team in the SEC East. Today we will do the same for the SEC West. On Monday we launch daily coverage.
Enjoy and have a good weekend:
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ALABAMA: The whole world wonders what is going to happen at quarterback between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. You know what? It doesn’t matter.
Then what does matter?
**--A completely revamped coaching staff with first-year people at offensive coordinator (Mike Locksley) and defensive coordinator (Tosh Lupoi). In all Nick Saban will have six new faces on a staff that has gotten considerably younger. What does that mean, if anything, as long as Saban is pulling the levers? We’ll find out.
**--A defense that returns only three starters and none of them are in the secondary. Technically Deionte Thompson got a start at safety in the playoffs because of injury (to Hootie Jones) and he’s back. The guy who coaches the secondary (Saban) has some work to do.
Both of those things, IMHO, are more important than who plays quarterback.
ARKANSAS: Can John Chavis fix the Arkansas defense? If not, can “The Chief” at least make it not awful?
Everybody’s talking about Chad Morris, the new Arkansas head coach, and the hurry up offense he’s installed in Fayetteville. And they should. It’s a fun story.
But if Arkansas is going to be respectable in Morris’s first season it has to improve on a defense that gave up 7.11 yards per play (that’s right, PER PLAY) in conference games last season. To put that into perspective: only three schools at the FBS level (Tulsa, Louisiana-Monroe, East Carolina) gave up more yards per play than the Hogs. Arkansas was also dead last in the SEC in sacks (19) and tackles for loss (48).
Enter Chavis, who has spent the past 23 years as a defensive coordinator in the SEC (Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M). He has some pieces to work with but a long way to go.
AUBURN: Which Auburn coach has the biggest challenge in front of him for this season?
It’s not head coach Gus Malzahn. It’s not OC Chip Lindsey. It’s not DC Kevin Steele. It’s offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who returns to Auburn for his second tour of duty. Look, Auburn has a franchise quarterback in Jarrett Stidham (3,158 yards, 18 touchdowns last season) who will be given more freedom in 2018. But Stidham and the passing game were good last season in large part because of the threat of the run.
Auburn has had a 1,000-yard back for an SEC-record nine straight seasons and the Tigers will find another one to replace Kerryon Johnson IF Grimes can get the offensive line squared away. Four seniors are gone and only three players return who have started games up front. But there is talent
Washington, Auburn’s first opponent, returns nine starters from a defense that finished fourth nationally in stopping the run (100.85 ypg) last season. For Grimes and his troops there is work to do.
LSU: Everybody’s focusing on the quarterbacks but I want to know who’s going to step up to replace Derrius Guice as the featured running back at LSU?
While LSU’s offense has been painful to watch for quite a while now, the thing you could always count on was that the Tigers would have a stud—or multiple studs—at running back.
But consider this stat: This season, for the first time since 1974, LSU does not return a running back who scored a touchdown in the previous season. That’s 44 years!
There is some decent talent in Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. A true freshman like Chris Curry could be a factor. The offensive line returns three starters.
I don’t believe that any of the quarterbacks, including Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow, is good enough to carry the team. One of those running backs has to step up.
It is going to be a very interesting season at LSU.
OLE MISS: We know the Rebels are going to be really, really good on offense. But will they be able to slow anybody down on defense just to give their team a chance?
When I met with head coach Matt Luke this spring he was very candid: If his defense doesn’t get better at stopping the run it is going to be a tough season. Consider this: Ole Miss was dead last in the SEC against the run, giving up a ridiculous 270.5-yard average in eight conference games. The problem is a lack of war daddies on the interior line. Ole Miss will probably have to load the box and put more pressure on what is a pretty respectable secondary.
Ole Miss averaged scoring 29.5 points in eight conference games last season. That number will have to be north of 30 for the Rebels to qualify for a bowl.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Can Nick Fitzgerald make all the throws he’ll be asked to make in Joe Moorhead’s new offense?
Fitzgerald, a rising senior, needs only 461 yards to pass Tim Tebow as the No. 1 rushing quarterback in the SEC history.
But in a recent visit with new coach Joe Moorhead he indicated that Fitzgerald might not get as many carries (162) as last season, which ended with a serious ankle injury vs. Ole Miss.
Moorhead’s offense, most recently employed at Penn State, will call on Fitzgerald to make more and varied throws. When I saw Fitzgerald this spring I asked if he was ready to do that.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Look for Fitzgerald and backup QB Keytaon Thompson to take a few more shots down the field this season. Mississippi State has upgraded the wide receiver position in recruiting and now has the talent to stretch the defense.
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies are going to be a better overall team in the first year under Jimbo Fisher. But how in the world do they handle that schedule? It’s ridiculous.
First of all, nobody plays a tougher SEC ROAD schedule than Texas A&M which goes to Alabama (Sept. 22), South Carolina (Oct. 13), Mississippi State (Oct. 27) and Auburn (Nov. 3).
Now, just for fun, throw in a non-conference game with Clemson on Sept. 8 in College Station.
The quarterbacks (Kellen Mond, Nick Starkel) will play better because Fisher is coaching them. The defense, which returns seven starters, is bound to be better as Mike Elko comes from Notre Dame as DC. But life on the road in the SEC can be cruel.
Bottom line: 7-5 would be a good year. 8-4 would be a really good year.