Thrill of Victory

Seven storylines to watch in the SEC East

By this time next week, fall football practices in the Southeastern Conference will have started, and from there, it’s less than a month until Vanderbilt and South Carolina kick off the 2012 season on Thursday, August 30. To get you in the spirit, Sports and Entertainment Nashville gives you a list of key questions to watch for each team.

1. Florida: Can new offensive coordinator Brent Pease improve the offense?
Last year’s offensive coordinator Charlie Weis liked to fashion himself as an offensive genius, but there were probably a few Gator fans that could have coached the offense to more than the 329 yards a game that UF averaged. Take out the 468 against Florida Atlantic, the 512 vs. UAB, and the 453 vs. Furman, and that average drops to 259. How does that happen with the talent that former coach Urban Meyer recruited?

Coach Will Muschamp was likely relieved when Weis left to become the head coach at Kansas. Now, the keys to the offense will be turned over to former Boise State assistant Brent Pease, who guided the Broncos to 481 yards a game in his lone season as coordinator. Nobody’s expecting a return to the high-powered offenses of Meyer and Steve Spurrier immediately, but surely things can’t get worse.

2. Georgia: Can the Bulldogs survive early-season suspensions and compete for a national title?
Nobody questions that Georgia has Top 10 talent. On offense, quarterback Aaron Murray might be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell form one of the league’s better pass-catching duo. On defense, UGA has All-American candidates on its line (John Jenkins), at linebacker (Jarvis Jones) and in the secondary (Baccari Rambo), and defensive end Arby Jones and linebacker Alec Ogletree are All-SEC candidates.

Ah, but there’s a problem. The Bulldogs got into a bit of trouble in the off-season. Actually, a lot of trouble: Ogletree and Rambo are suspended to start the season, as are starting cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith. Suspensions for each range from one game to four, and coach Mark Richt also kicked two more defensive backs off the team, plus reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell, his starting running back. The secondary is especially problematic; there are so few bodies that Mitchell has to move to corner to start the season.

Georgia may be the team everybody least wants to face at season’s end, but it might find itself out of the championship hunt if it can’t find the right answers early. A road trip to Missouri in Week 2 could be particularly problematic.

3. Kentucky: Can Joker Phillips survive the season?
The Wildcats had a nice run from 2006 to 2009, winning seven or eight games and participating in a bowl in each of those seasons. They also got to a bowl in 2010. Most of those seasons, they had respectable offenses, and last year fell off a cliff: UK went from averaging 428 yards a game in ’10 to 260 last year.

Kentucky still managed a 5-7 record, but that was because UK had scheduled some easy wins. When the Wildcats took on tougher foes, it generally wasn’t pretty.

Phillips’ last recruiting class also ranked dead-last in the SEC according to the recruiting experts at Rivals.com. In Samford, Kent State and Western Kentucky, Phillips has three games he should win on this year’s schedule, but it’ll likely take more than that to get asked back for a third year of coaching in Lexington. That could be a tough task considering the talent on hand, but Phillips can take some encouragement in beating Tennessee in the season finale, and playing Georgia close the week before.

4. Missouri: Does Missouri have what it takes along the lines of scrimmage?
I am really looking forward to seeing the Tigers play in the SEC. Coach Gary Pinkel always has great offenses, and quarterback James Franklin nearly pulled off the rare feat of passing for 3,000 yards and running for 1,000 in the same season. With the return of receiver T.J. Moe and the addition of America’s top recruit, receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, they should be fun to watch.

But elite SEC teams are almost always elite along both lines of scrimmage, too. Mizzou doesn’t pass the “look test” there at the moment. It lost a couple key starters from last year’s offensive line and doesn’t have a lot of experienced depth there. The defensive line is probably the team’s biggest question, with just one starter returning there.

Missouri was used to competing for divisional titles in the Big 12, but it had better find answers here fast if it wants to do the same in the SEC this season.

5. South Carolina: Will Marcus Lattimore be back at full-strength?
Running back Marcus Lattimore was a solid Heisman Trophy candidate early last year until Week 7, when he blew out his knee. The 6-foot, 218-pounder has all the talent to be a first-round pick one day, but will be coming off knee surgery. Coach Steve Spurrier remarked recently that Lattimore looks as if he’s returned to form. But Lattimore hasn’t gone up against any meaningful contact yet, either. If Spurrier is right, the Gamecocks could be the Top-10 team some have predicted, but if not, USC can probably kiss its BCS bowl hopes goodbye.

6. Tennessee: Can Tyler Bray lead?
If you’d like a visual of the kind of things that give defensive coordinators nightmares, the one of UT quarterback Tyler Bray throwing to receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers would be an adequate example. But coach Derek Dooley didn’t have the luxury of that a season ago, with Hunter and Bray missing substantial portions of the season with injury.When Bray returned at the end of last season, it gave the Vols just enough to beat Vanderbilt.

Facing an already-bad Kentucky team the next week that was now starting a receiver at quarterback, all UT needed to do to get bowl-eligible was show up – but somehow, the Vols lost, 10-7. Rumors surfaced that Bray didn’t play hard that day because he didn’t want to go to a minor bowl, and given his 15-for-38, two-interception day against a poor defense, you have to wonder.

At SEC media days two weeks ago, Dooley made a big deal about Bray’s maturity in the off-season. Then last week, multiple reports had Bray and his roommate throwing golf balls and beer bottles from their apartment balcony at a parked car.

Bray hasn’t been charged with anything, but that’s not really the point I was trying to make. It’s that the Vols need Bray’s head to be screwed on properly if they’re to reach their massive offensive potential. If that happens, UT could win nine or 10 games.

7. Vanderbilt: Can Jordan Rodgers improve his accuracy?
The Commodores looked destined for another miserable offensive season, and then backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers came off the bench against Georgia and everything changed from there. After 77- and 190-yard performances against South Carolina and Alabama the two previous weeks, Rodgers led VU to 348 against an outstanding Bulldog defense that night. He went on to start the next seven games, and Vandy’s offense gained at least 377 yards in five of those seven contests.

Rodgers engineered a ton of big plays last year. What was missing, though, was accuracy: he hit exactly 50 percent of his 216 throws. That normally won’t cut it in the SEC.

Rodgers told me last week that his goal was to hit 70 percent of his passes. If he can just hit 60 percent, it’ll be difficult to keep the Commodores out of a bowl again.