SEC Media Days are here and fans are starting to ponder questions that will likely determine which two teams are going to top the SEC East and West Divisions. Tony Barnhart with GrinIronNow is asking the tough questions before the seasons kicks off.
Greetings, gentle readers. After taking the month of June to complete an extended “Honey Do” list for Mrs. College Football, it is fun to be back.
Since Monday, your friends from Gridironnow.com have been in Hoover, Ala., with more than 1,000 of their closest friends to bring you wall-to-wall coverage of 2016 SEC Media Days. We have reporters in all of the news conferences and out in halls to bring you the most complete look at the Granddaddy of all media days.
1. WILL CAM ROBINSON START AT LEFT TACKLE IN ALABAMA’S OPENER AGAINST USC?
Forget that charges of marijuana possession and possession of a stolen firearm against Robinson and teammate Hootie Jones were dropped. We all know that Nick Saban is the ultimate judge in such matters.
Robinson is going through drug testing, drug counseling and gun-safety training. But will Saban hand down some kind of public punishment to prove his point to Robinson and the rest of the team? The players showed poor judgment. Does that poor judgment result in lost playing time, which is really the only punishment that gets the players’ attention?
Saban is unlikely to answer the question – but he will be asked.
2. IS TENNESSEE FINALLY READY FOR PRIME TIME – OR ARE THE VOLS OVERHYPED?
Nobody questions Tennessee’s talent, which is considerable after four consecutive good recruiting classes. The question is whether the Volunteers under Butch Jones are mentally tough enough to close out games.
Last season, Tennessee was in position to beat Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama in the fourth quarter – but lost them all. The Vols just weren’t ready. Are they ready now?
On paper Tennessee clearly is the most talented team in the SEC East and will be picked to win the division in the media vote. But a lot of people think the Vols are overhyped. We’ll find out a lot on September 24, when Tennessee tries to break an 11-game losing streak to Florida in Knoxville.
3. IS WR ANTONIO CALLAWAY GOING TO PLAY FOR FLORIDA IN 2016?
Florida’s leading returning receiver from a year ago hasn’t been with the team since January because of a violation of the student code of conduct. Coach Jim McElwain will only say that nothing has changed with Callaway, who is in school but not with the team.
McElwain will get asked about it in Hoover and probably won’t give us an answer. But the Gators sure need him – and anybody else who can make a play – as the offenses continues its rebuild. Callaway led the league in yards per catch (19.37) last season (minimum 20 receptions). That the situation has lingered cannot be a good sign.
4. WILL NICK CHUBB PLAY IN GEORGIA’S OPENER AGAINST NORTH CAROLINA?
Coach Kirby Smart will say only that Chubb’s rehab is ahead of schedule. Orthopedic guys I’ve talked to said it would take a full year (he was hurt the first Saturday in October at Tennessee) to completely heal from that kind of knee injury.
But it is this simple: If he comes back anything close to 100 percent, Georgia can win the SEC East. Without him, I don’t think the Bulldogs can win the division.
This question was complicated even further this week when Chubb’s backup, Sony Michel, broke his arm in an ATV accident and will be out for up to eight weeks. Michel ran for 1,161 yards last season as a replacement for Chubb.
5. CAN JOHN FRANKLIN III BE THE NEXT NICK MARSHALL?
Auburn lost its offensive identity last season with Jeremy Johnson at quarterback. Gus Malzahn simply was wrong about what Johnson could do – and so was 90 percent of the media (including me). It happens.
Malzahn’s offense is at its splendid best when the quarterback is a threat to run the ball, as Nick Marshall for Auburn did in 2013 and ’14. Franklin, a junior college transfer who began his career at Florida State, has the same type of talent as Marshall, but he doesn’t have the body. Marshall was 6 feet 1 and 210 pound, and thick. Franklin is 6-1, 175. Can he take the pounding? And if he can’t, does Malzahn go back to Johnson or sophomore Sean White? Does true freshman Woody Barrett get a shot?
This is a big season for Malzahn, whose team opens at home against Clemson on September 3.
6. AFTER LAST YEAR’S FAILED PALACE COUP, WILL KING LES MILES HAVE THE COURAGE TO FINALLY TURN HIS OFFENSE LOOSE?
Leonard Fournette is great and so is his backup, Derrius Guice. But the LSU running backs can’t do it all by themselves. They’ve got to get some help from the passing game, and that falls to Miles. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can’t do any more than Miles will let him.
When I went to Baton Rouge in May, Miles told me quarterback Brandon Harris made significant improvement in the spring, completing about 67 percent of his passes over several scrimmages. But Miles has to turn him loose to make plays. This is a talented team that probably can win 10 games even without a passing attack. But the Tigers won’t beat Alabama or Ole Miss without throwing the ball.
Last season, LSU’s lack of offensive diversity almost cost Miles his job. He could be back on the hot seat in November if things don’t change.
7. IS CHAD KELLY ENOUGH TO MAKE OLE MISS A REAL CONTENDER IN THE SEC WEST?
Ole Miss returns 10 starters, the lowest total in the SEC. But one of them is Kelly, the best quarterback in the conference. Can the Rebels contend?
I’m not sure what to make of Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze has to replace three first-round draft choices and the entire offensive line that started in the Sugar Bowl. When the Rebels open against Florida State on September 5 in Orlando, they probably will have a true freshman (Greg Little) starting at left tackle. Florida State is a top five team with great athletes on both sides of the ball.
Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in September. Right now, I have the Rebels third in the SEC West.
8. IS TRUE FRESHMAN DEVWAH WHALEY GOING TO BE THE NEXT BIG THING AT RUNNING BACK FOR ARKANSAS?
The Hogs will be without tailbacks Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who combined for more than 6,000 career yards. Whaley, from Beaumont, Texas, originally committed to Georgia but changed his mind after Mark Richt was dismissed as coach.
If he is the real deal, that allows new quarterback Austin Allen (brother of Brandon) a chance to grow into the position. Arkansas would have good depth if Rawleigh Williams III recovers fully from a neck injury and Kody Walker bounces back from a broken foot suffered in April.
9. OF THE THREE FIRST-YEAR COACHES IN THE SEC EAST (KIRBY SMART, WILL MUSCHAMP, BARRY ODOM), WHO IS GOING TO STRUGGLE THE MOST IN 2016?
This is a close call, but right now I’m going with Odom as that program transitions from Gary Pinkel. The Tigers have a stud defensive line but are putting in a new offense under coordinator Josh Heupel.
Mizzou opens at West Virginia and also plays Georgia and LSU in its first five games.
South Carolina will be close behind after losing its best playmaker on offense (Pharoh Cooper, to the NFL) and best overall player on defense (linebacker Skai Moore, to a season-ending injury).
10. WHICH COACH IS FEELING THE MOST PRESSURE AS MEDIA DAYS BEGIN?
It has to be Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Yes, he’s won 36 games over the past four seasons (11-2, 9-4, 8-5, 8-5). Nobody has won that many in a four-season stretch at A&M since R.C. Slocum won 41 games from 1992-95. Sumlin has overseen the Aggies’ transition from the Big 12 to the rugged SEC West, where he is 17-15 in league play. Not great but not horrible.
But the intangibles make this a very important year for Sumlin. He makes $5 million per season, second only to Nick Saban among SEC coaches. Texas A&M and its supporters have invested more than $450 million in Kyle Field. Texas is struggling, so the time is now for the Aggies.
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)