Vanderbilt

17 For '17: Key SEC Questions

17 Offseason Questions For ’17: No. 12


The big key SEC offseason questions


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– Rankings, Analysis & Lookaheads: Teams No. 1 to 130

17 for ’17 Offseason Questions 
17. Sleeper Conference Title Contenders
16. The Big Disappointments Will Be …
15. Key Group of Five & Independent Questions
14. Key Big 12 Questions
13. Key ACC Questions

No. 12: Key SEC Questions

Alabama Crimson Tide

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Is there a quarterback competition?

All Jalen Hurts did was lead Alabama on what should’ve been a national championship-winning drive on a brilliant touchdown run, but after completing just 20-of-45 passes in the two College Football Playoff games – with only the one touchdown pass to O.J. Howard – it might be easy to think his job is in jeopardy.

Not really.

Tua Tagovailoa has special skills and Mac Jones can push the ball down the field, but it’ll have to take a major miracle for No. 2 to not be the main man for new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

It’s easy to forget just how good Hurts was as a runner, a leader – and as a freshman, too – and yeah, as a passer. Lost in the finish to last year was how Hurts hit 63% of his throws for almost 2,800 yards with 23 touchdowns and just nine picks, while running for 954 yards and 13 scores.

Arkansas Razorbacks

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Will there be a running game again?

The whole idea behind hiring Bret Bielema was that he’d bring the thunder, with a power ground game that could be a differentiating factor in the nasty SEC West.

The Hogs ran for 200 yards or more on a regular basis over the first few seasons under Bielema, and they came close two years ago averaging 197 per game, even though the passing game rocked. Last year? 164 yards per game on the ground in a down year for the SEC West.

Rawleigh Williams is a terrific back in a backfield full of talent, and four starters return up front to try paving the way. And that’s the key – the O line has to be better. Arkansas allowed 35 sacks after giving up just 14 two years ago.

It’s a Bret Bielema team. Yes, it’s going to be better at running.

Auburn Tigers

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Is Jarrett Stidham really ready to take over?

The former Baylor starting quarterback had better be, or he made a horrible transfer choice.

The Tigers are going to run no matter what – and they’ll be fantastic again – but the downfield passing game has to be better and more dangerous. That’s where Stidham comes in, adding far more of a vertical threat than Sean White, or any of last year’s Auburn quarterbacks.

Malik Willis and Woody Barrett might be getting a shot in spring ball – with Willis, someday, the guy who might be the right fit for what the Gus Malzahn attack likes to do – but it’s Stidham’s gig to lose.

White hasn’t been healthy enough to turn it loose after suffering a broken arm, but considering the hype and the hope, Stidham might just take the offense to another level.

Florida Gators

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Wasn’t Florida supposed to be able to run?

It’s been one of the stranger issues so far under Jim McElwain. The Gators got to two SEC title games with a ground attack that’s beyond miserable.

The idea was to move on past the Will Muschamp era, but Florida averaged 188 yards on the ground in 2014 and has been 60 yards per game worse in each of McElwain’s first two seasons.

There was supposed to be power, speed, and versatility among the Florida backs, but instead there hasn’t been any consistency whatsoever. After hitting the 200-yard mark in three of the first six games, the Gators struggled just to get to 100 yards over the second half.

They failed to run for a touchdown in the final six games.

Granted, playing LSU, Florida State, Alabama and Iowa in that run mattered, but not running proved costly against Arkansas and almost cost them against Vanderbilt.

Now, ith four starters returning, along with all the backs who matter, the Gators have to grind.

Georgia Bulldogs

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Is the offensive line going to come together right away?

It’s the missing piece.

Franchise quarterback? Check. Running back, veteran D, decent receivers, kicking game? Check all the boxes.

Get the O line settled, and QB Jacob Eason and backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should blow up an offense that averaged just 385 yards per game. With three starters gone off the O line, though, it’s experimentation time.

Lamont Gallard will likely move from right guard to the open center gig. Isaiah Wynn is going from guard to left tackle, with Dyshon Sims rotating at right guard to Wynn’s left guard spot. There might be more tinkering, but with Gallard, Wynn and Sims likely set, it’ll likely be a battle over the rest of the offseason for the other two spots.

Kentucky Wildcats

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Uhhhhh, the run defense?

Yes, Kentucky got to a bowl game, and yes, the stats are going to be skewed when you have to go against the Georgia Tech offense, Lamar Jackson, and several decent SEC ground games. But the Wildcats had a nightmare of a time trying to stop anyone’s ground game.

How bad did things get? The Wildcats allowed 200 yards or more on the ground in seven of the last eight games, and almost 1,400 yards and 11 scores in the last five games.

Nine starters return on defense including enough to expect a strong rotation on the defensive front, and best of all, there are three games to prepare for the Florida power game. Georgia and Louisville don’t come until the final two games, and with this schedule, there’s no excuse to allow close to 3,000 rushing yards again.

LSU Tigers

The Matt Canada offense will be … ?

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Versatile.

The new LSU offensive coordinator isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel under Ed Orgeron. The Tigers lost four of their top five receivers, they don’t have Leonard Fournette anymore, and QB Danny Etling – while functional – won’t be the next Tom Brady. So what’s Canada going to do?

In a perfect world, LSU will pound the ball with a power game using RB Derrius Guice to take over games, but that’s the base – and then all bets are off.

More than creating a style and an identity, Canada’s offenses usually adjust more than most coordinators and head coaches might like. He’ll get quirky, he’ll get gimmicky, and he might not have the same gameplan twice, but if the running game is working, the Tigers aren’t going to mess with it.

Sound confusing? That’s sort of the idea. This might turn out to be among the SEC’s most creative attacks on a weekly basis.

Ole Miss Rebels

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Will the run defense return?

Blowing off all the other issues, on the field, not being eligible for bowl game won’t be much of a problem if the defense can’t stop the run.

How bad did things get? Ole Miss allowed over 200 rushing yards in six of the last seven games and nine times on the year. It got hit for over 300 four times, bottoming out in the Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State, giving up 457.

New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff is changing things around to a 4-3 front to get more bulk on the field, but adding an extra linebacker won’t matter too much – it’s all about getting more from the front four.

Having Marquis Haynes back on the end helps, but the defense needs the tackles to rock. The spotlight is on Benito Jones and Breeland Speaks to be sensational – eventually. With South Alabama, UT Martin, and Cal up first, there’s time to prepare for the SEC opener against Alabama.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Can the secondary stop anyone?

It’s not like the SEC was loaded with high-powered passing games, but everyone got fat on the Bulldog pass D that gave up over 200 yards to everyone but BYU.

Top safety Kivon Coman is gone, along with corner Cedric Jiles, but this should be a deeper and more talented secondary, helped by a few JUCO types to battle for spots along with the return of Tolando Cleveland from a knee injury.

The biggest plus, though, should be the hiring of new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. His defenses are great at producing ball-hawking secondaries – at least that’s the hope this year. With Louisiana Tech coming up early, and Georgia to deal with a few weeks later, the secondary will be stress-tested right away.

Missouri Tigers

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

What happened to the pass rush?

Defense wasn’t supposed to be the issue in any way under new head coach Barry Odom, but instead, it fell off the map finishing 118th in the nation. With just 27 sacks in each of the last two seasons – after coming up with 83 combined in 2013 and 2014 – getting in the backfield more is where the D has to start.

Top sacker Charles Harris is gone, but the concerns at tackle are being eased so far this spring by the JUCO transfers, led by Rashad Brandon. That’ll help the overall cause, but the Tigers need pressure from all spots on the front four.

That has to start with Marcell Frazier, who finished second on the team in sacks and looks the part of yet another Mizzou star. But he’s going to need help, and it’s going to take the whole offseason to come up with the rotation. Get disruptive again, and the Tiger D will be back to norm.

South Carolina Gamecocks

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Is there going to be an offense around Jake Bentley?

Even with five key losses on the defensive side, the Gamecocks will be fine. It’s a Will Muschamp defense – it’ll be nasty.

But it won’t matter if the offense can’t start running the ball to help out rising star QB Jake Bentley, whose insertion into the starting spot sparked the second half run to a bowl game.

The skill guys have been nicked and bruised throughout spring ball, but backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner should provide a strong 1-2 punch, while everyone who caught a pass last year returns, led by top target Deebo Samuel.

But the season revolves around whether or not Bentley can be fantastic. Sharp early on, he struggled against Florida and Clemson – not a shocker – finishing with 1,420 yards and nine scores in seven games. He’ll make everyone around him better, but he’s still just a true sophomore – it’ll have to work the other way, too.

Tennessee Volunteers

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

The position – besides quarterback – the Vols need to focus on is … ?

No, it’s the quarterback.

Head coach Butch Jones has a program-changing decision to make among his young options. After the way last year went down, he has to nail it.

Tennessee needs help at the skill spots, defensive end, and in the healing department after getting hammered with so many injuries last year. But it all comes down to finding someone who can not only replace Joshua Dobbs, but make all the other new guys better right away.

Getting four starters back up front to protect the new guy is a nice start, but someone has to emerge in a hurry.

Quinten Dormady will be the safe choice after serving as the understudy behind Dobbs, but if this is really a bit of a rebuilding/reloading year – with the coaching staff as well as with several of the skill guys – Jarrett Guarantano is the guy to watch. The redshirt freshman has next-level upside with the size, the mobility, and the raw skills to be special.

Texas A&M Aggies

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Besides quarterback, and replacing Myles Garrett, the Aggies need help at … ?

Offensive tackle.

A little bit unfairly maligned at times, the Aggie O line was just fine, paving the way for 5.7 yards per carry while allowing 21 sacks. But with Avery Gennesy gone at left tackle, and Jermaine Eluemunor done on the right, there’s shuffling to be done.

The interior is more than fine. Three starters will be back and ready by the time the season starts, along with a few good backups to fill in the gaps and test out the combinations. However, the outside is going to be a question mark unless Koda Martin becomes a stud at left tackle after serving as Gennesy’s understudy.

The right side will be a work in progress throughout the offseason, with the final answer coming after figuring out who is healthy and ready to roll in the interior. But no matter how it all shakes out, it has to be a force right away with a trip to UCLA to kick things off.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Will there ever be a passing game?

– Preseason Lookahead & Ranking

Considering the ground attack returning, it might not be necessary.

The line might take a little time to come together, but Ralph Webb should be one of the SEC’s top running backs again. With the rise this spring of Jamauri Wakefield – a 6-1, 220-pound force – the Commodores have a potentially devastating 1-2 punch.

The veteran receivers are in place with the top eight targets returning, and the ground game will take all the pressure off.

Now with two years in the system, QB Kyle Shurmur can’t go another year with just nine touchdown passes and ten picks. He has to be the quarterback who bombed Tennessee for 416 yards in the thrilling win, not the one who struggled to hit anything in the bowl loss to NC State.

However, he got better as last season went on, finding a groove to balance out the attack a bit. If he can throw for 200 yards every time out – like he did over each of the last four regular season games – he’ll be doing his job.

He gave Commodore fans a taste of what life is like with a passing game again. But the passer who showed up in November, and look out.

Schedules: All 130 Teams, Predictions & Scenarios

17 for ’17 Offseason Questions 
17. Sleeper Conference Title Contenders
16. The Big Disappointments Will Be …
15. Key Group of Five & Independent Questions
14. Key Big 12 Questions
13. Key ACC Questions