Southeastern Conference football is now two weeks away, and with that, Chris Lee takes a look at key storylines for each team heading into the fall.
Florida: How far can Will Grier take the Gators?
It’s not a certainty that Will Grier will win the quarterback job in Gainesville, but the writing’s seemingly been on the wall for a while. He was thought to fit new coach Jim McIlwain’s system more so than did Treon Harris, and nothing’s happened during August drills to indicate otherwise.
Grier is talented. Two years ago, Rivals rated him the second-best quarterback in that signing class. Observers say he makes quick decisions, is accurate, and seems to have the brains to play the position. If the Gators have what they think they have, they might be looking at a four-year starter who leads UF back to glory.
But how much difference will it make in year one? Grier’s still a freshman playing in front of a patchwork offensive line and without a lot of talent or depth at the skill positions around him. If Florida gets to a bowl, it’s likely because Grier stayed healthy, performed well and avoided too many drive-killing mistakes.
Georgia: Do the Bulldogs have a quarterback?
The old maxim is that if you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have any. So what’s it mean when you have three? As of today, that appears to be the situation in Athens, where coach Mark Richt is splitting reps between Brice Ramsey, Greyson Lambert and Faton Bauta in an attempt to find his starter.
Maybe the most surprising thing is Bauta’s inclusion. Though he’s big (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), he’s considered the most mobile of the three and though Georgia doesn’t run an offense where the quarterback runs much, it’s likely not hurting his case. Lambert (10 interceptions, 11 touchdowns in 2014) was underwhelming enough at Virginia that he lost the starting job there in spring practice, which prompted the transfer to Georgia.
Ramsey’s been lauded as the heir apparent for a while. Is the fact that he’s not asserted himself as the starter to this point a troubling thing for the Bulldogs? I guess we’ll see.
Kentucky: Can Mark Stoops make an impact on his defense?
When UK hired Stoops as coach three years ago, some in the Bluegrass State were excited because, for the first time in a while, Kentucky hired a defense-first guy. So far, though, we’ve seen no improvement: the Wildcats gave up 31.0 points per game the year before Stoops arrived, 31.2 in 2013 and 31.3 a year ago.
Stoops had a young team and has recruited well since. One would figure that at some point, this shows up on the field. But UK lost first-round pick Bud Dupree and fourth-rounder Za’Darius Smith to the NFL and when the folks at SEC Media Days tabbed their first three All-SEC teams, nary a single ‘Cat was among them.
Sometimes it takes a while to build a program, and at a place like Kentucky, good players often fly under the radar. Between the talent and his mind, could this be the year that things fall into place on that side of the ball
Missouri: Is Mizzou still “Defensive Line U?”
You may not think of Missouri as historically producing outstanding defensive linemen, but the last two years, nobody can touch the four ends—they’re Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Shane Ray—that the Tigers trotted out there over the last two years. One should rarely underestimate coach Gary Pinkel, but I’ll go out on what’s not a big limb here and say that Missouri won’t be as good along the line this year, especially with preseason All-SEC candidate Harold Brantley injured and done for the season.
So while it’s up to sophomores Marcus Lous and Charles Harris to pick up where those others left off, maybe the better question is whether teammates can pick up the slack. Linebackers Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers are good ones; play-making has to come from somewhere and those two will have to be even better should their teammates up front not demand double-teams from opponents.
South Carolina: Can the Gamecocks develop defensive playmakers?
Fans often pine for their program’s glory days and for Gamecock rooters, that came just a couple of years ago. From 2011 to 2013, Carolina went 11-2 each year and a lot of that was due to defenses that yielded 18.4, 18.2 and 20.3 points per game each season. A key in that was a defense that produced 31, 43 and 25 sacks those years. Last year, that number fell to 14.
Look around the roster; there’s definitely no Melvin Ingram or Jadeveon Clowney here on the line to force pressure. The Gamecocks also had a nice run with defensive backs, guys like Stephon Gilmore or D.J Swearinger that wasn’t matched with equal talent. Last year’s effort (30.4 points, 433 yards per game) was brutal and because of that, coach Steve Spurrier brought in Jon Hoke to coordinate that side of the ball.
As with Kentucky, it’s tough to look down the roster and see obvious answers, outside of middle linebacker Skai Moore. It’ll be up to Hoke to improve the talent on hand and hope that Carolina can force more of the action this year.
Tennessee: How good is Mike DeBord?
It seems that coach Butch Jones has the program headed in a better direction, and I think the eight-win projections that you’re hearing a lot of places are probably close to being on the money. On offense, the Vols have a good quarterback in Josh Dobbs, a supremely-talented duo of running backs in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and a gaggle of athletic wideouts. The offensive line is questionable but still, there are plenty of parts around to put points on the board in Knoxville.
When Jones had an offensive coordinator vacancy, he did a curious thing in hiring DeBord to take it. DeBord’s a 59-year-old who hasn’t coached in college since 2007, and supervised an Michigan offense that ranked 64th of the 120 teams in scoring offense.
I get that Jones has a comfort level back to his days when they were both at Central Michigan, and certainly it is important that a coach and his coordinator are on the same page. But in a conference that routinely makes slam-dunk hires with coordinators, this missed the mark from a PR standpoint.
Either Jones looks like a genius for making a pick that most wouldn’t, or he’ll take lot of heat if things backfire.
Vanderbilt: Can the defense will Vanderbilt to victory?
The Commodore offense was going to struggle anyway, and then not two weeks into August, VU is down its best offensive lineman (left tackle Andrew Jelks) and its best receiver (C.J. Duncan) with season-ending injuries. The Commodores had the worst offense in the league last year and now subtract from that what may be two of their top three players on that side of the ball… well… you get the picture.
Any significant success that Vanderbilt achieves this fall is likely going to come out of its defense. Forget for a moment that it’s the same bunch that gave up 33.3 points and 402 yards per game; the leadership and organization a year under defensive coordinator David Kotulski was beyond awful, and now head coach Derek Mason, who knows a thing about coaching defense, is taking over. That alone helps tremendously.
Okay, but what about the talent? Take a look at the team
s that offered scholarships to most of the players on VU’s two-deep defensive depth chart and you’ll realize that it’s a talented group. Throw in the facts that Mason will be better about using his personnel than was Kotulski, that he’ll be more aggressive in creating sacks and turnovers and that it’s the team’s second year learning the 3-4 and you can easily see how things will be better on this side of the ball.
The question is, will it be good enough to overcome what happens, or maybe more appropriately, what doesn’t happen, when the offense is on the field.