10 burning SEC questions for Week 1

Ole Miss defense by Chris Graythem Getty Images 2014 DRC_3204

Start packing up all those countdown clocks.

In less than 12 hours, SEC football will grace our TVs, airwaves and stadiums, kicking off what ESPN is calling the sport’s best opening week “ever.”

Whether you actually agree with that or not, there’s no arguing the Week 1 slate is full of juicy matchups. That conveniently brings us to the first of 10 questions on everyone’s mind as another season gets underway.

1. Which games do I have to watch?

A) No. 5 LSU at Wisconsin (Green Bay): Leonard Fournette is already a legend. The Tigers are College Football Playoff contenders. New, handsomely-paid defensive coordinator Dave Aranda spent the last three seasons coaching the Badgers. And we get to watch it all unfold at historic Lambeau Field. There’s a reason College GameDay is bound for Green Bay this week. Just don’t expect any LSU Lambeau leaps.

B) No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California (Arlington): This huge clash pits college football’s active dynasty against a former one. The Trojans return a wealth of talent on offense, as does Alabama on defense, and Lane Kiffin gets a crack at the last school to fire him. Don’t be surprised if the Tide tries to run up the score.

C) No. 11 Ole Miss at No. 4 Florida State (Orlando): Get ready for Monday night college football, which mercifully does not include the Jon Gruden one-liners. The Rebels are fresh off their first Sugar Bowl victory in decades and feature a flashy finesse spread offense led by top SEC passer Chad Kelly. Laden with returning starters, the Seminoles are gunning for big things this fall, and excluding dangerous matchups against Clemson and Louisville, Ole Miss is its toughest test. Who survives the first big hurdle?

2. What happens when the SEC’s best running back meets the Big Ten’s best rushing defense?

Fournette’s power running vs. Wisconsin’s front seven might not be the flashiest matchup of Week 1, but it probably holds the most combined talent.

Scrutinized quarterback Brandon Harris will need to make his share of throws, but the meat of this game will be decided by Fournette and his blockers. Wisconsin held opponents to 3.13 yards per rush last season and returns all of its starting defensive linemen, plus noted sack artist Vince Biegel (8 sacks, 14 TFLs).

Wisconsin will be without injured linebacker T.J. Edwards, last year’s leading tackler, but there are enough pieces to make this a brutal butting of heads. The Badgers’ brand is built around stopping the run, and Fournette is hungry for a Heisman. Pride is on the line for both sides.

3. What does Alabama’s rushing attack look like?

Alabama fans have questions about the quarterbacks, because they will always have questions about the quarterbacks. That’s fine because the meat-and-potatoes of what has always made the Crimson Tide tick under Nick Saban are stifling defense and a punishing ground game.

Alabama returns so many known quantities on defense that there shouldn’t be any drop-off, even with a new defensive coordinator. Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Eddie Jackson were and will remain stars no matter who calls the plays.

The offensive half of Saban’s success formula looks much different this season. The O-line projects to field three first-time starters (Lester Cotton, Bradley Bozeman and early enrollee Jonah Williams), while the top four running backs have a combined 64 college carries to their name. Both B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs are true freshmen.

Alabama is still the safest bet out there when it comes to fielding a great football team. No one is questioning the talent. But it’ll be interesting to see if there are any early hiccups.

4. Can Tennessee [insert cliche here]?

Finally break through. Handle high expectations. Stay mentally tough. Finish the Big Games.

Combine any sports jargon you know and it probably applies to Tennessee. The Vols, hyped as up-and-comers for the past few seasons, have been good but not great. The 2016 crop might be the most talented of the Butch Jones era. Couple that with a manageable schedule and playoff aspirations, and the recipe that results is something I’ll call “SEC East or bust.”

Nine wins and a division title seems like the minimum fans anticipate out of Tennessee this season. The most optimistic are thinking national champions.

For a program that hasn’t been anything close to the latter since Phil Fulmer’s heyday, the pressure could crack a weaker team. A four-game gauntlet in the first half featuring Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama should tell us plenty about the 2016 squad’s internal makeup.

5. Does John Chavis finally have the Texas A&M defense in a good place?

Offense has never been Kevin Sumlin’s biggest problem in College Station. His quarterbacks transfer, but the numbers — first, first, fifth and sixth among SEC scoring offenses in four years since arriving — have stayed steady.

Last season, veteran coordinator John Chavis was hired away from LSU to get the Aggies’ defense on a similar track. Even he couldn’t work much magic during Year 1. Texas A&M allowed 213 yards rushing per game (second-worst in the conference) while forcing only 18 turnovers (T-9th, SEC).

Chavis has more of his pieces in place this fall and welcomes back stud pass rushers Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. But is the belly of that defense finally firm? The only thing most fans can remember about the 2015 Aggies is Derrick Henry galloping around Kyle Field untouched.

6. Nick Chubb will be back. But is he really back?

Georgia’s star tailback will not be on a “pitch count” during Saturday’s tilt with North Carolina, according to his head coach.

That sounds mighty promising for the Bulldogs, but even if Chubb looks fine in practice, there’s always doubt when it comes to handling the heat of a game.

Some players come back and immediately feel confident. Others take time to regain their comfort on the field. Chubb isn’t getting some FCS cupcake out of the gate, but a UNC squad that won 11 games last season, and he’ll likely have a freshman quarterback handing off to him.

The return isn’t guaranteed to be a smooth one. Every sign points to Georgia unleashing Chubb without restraint. But until we see him take those hits, you can’t help but wonder.

Auburn quarterback John Franklin III by Hal Yeager 2031
JUCO transfer John Franklin III joined Auburn in hopes of becoming its quarterback. (Hal Yeager/Special to SEC Country)

7. Does John Franklin III have a future at quarterback?

Sean White is the starter. When asked if the speedy John Franklin III might change positions, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee responded “not yet.”

So Auburn’s big quarterback addition is caught in an awkward in-between. How the Tigers utilize him against Clemson — say, in Wildcat and trick-play formations — should provide some clues. And if he doesn’t see the field at all, well, that says just as much.

The bigger point is this: Auburn ended last season with major concerns at quarterback. None of those seem to have alleviated nine months later. Gus Malzahn was heralded as an offensive guru, with Lashlee dubbed his prodigy.

Just how badly have they whiffed here?

8. Which team has the most to gain this week, and which one has the most to lose?

Gain: Without a doubt, it’s Auburn. Not many are picking Gus Malzahn’s squad to upset No. 2 Clemson at home, and that’s with good reason. What if Auburn actually pulls it off? That alone wouldn’t be enough to save Malzahn’s job, but it would dramatically change the aura around Auburn this season.

Lose: As a top-10 team with sky-high expectations, Tennessee gets the nod. Appalachian State won 11 games last season, and the program has knocked off a giant in its own house once before. This game shouldn’t be close — most Vegas lines favor the Vols by 20.5 points — so even a narrow win could hurt Tennessee’s perception here.

9. Which SEC teams start 0-1?

  • South Carolina falls to Vanderbilt during Thursday night’s Music City Zzzzzz-fest
  • Missouri comes up short against West Virginia, keeping the couches of Morgantown safe for at least one more weekend
  • UCLA tailback Soso Jamabo, whose name could also be the next Bond villain’s, cuts through Texas A&M’s front seven and quiets the 12th Man
  • Deshaun Watson destroys worlds and Clemson drops big numbers on Auburn
  • Kelly spends more time evading Florida State pass rushers than his school does evading the NCAA, and Ole Miss loses

10. What if a college player refuses to stand during the national anthem?

A lot of people will get angry on the Internet, and the head coach awkwardly mutters 10 words of PR-speak after the game. And if he plays for South Carolina, reserve a spot for him in Will Muschamp’s doghouse, too.

A professional athlete making millions of dollars is one thing. An idealistic 20-year-old drawing attention to himself? That’s every college kid in the country. If it happens, which is unlikely, it should not be a big deal.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, there are a million issues facing America right now. A football player not standing during the national anthem is way, way down on the list.

It’s not as if people weren’t discussing these broader issues before, either. What Colin Kaepernick has done is akin to shining a flashlight into a brightly-lit room. The method is silly.

The post 10 burning SEC questions for Week 1 appeared first on SEC Country.

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