SEC football: Opening statements still leave questions

Teams still have work to do as season looms

dcloninger@thestate.comJuly 21, 2013 

— What we learned from each team at SEC Media Days:

Alabama

Quarterback A.J. McCarron, with three national championship rings (although he gives them to his parents to wear), isn’t worried about losing three offensive line starters and tailback Eddie Lacy. He still has two all-world linemen to lean on, and backup running back T.J. Yeldon galloped for over 1,000 yards last year.

Arkansas

First-year coach Bret Bielema made no bones about following the SEC, even as the coach at Wisconsin, wanting to be part of it. Bielema will, perhaps because of necessity, build from the trenches and play run-oriented power football.

Auburn

Another rookie coach, Gus Malzahn, will have a similar learning process as he attempts to resurrect Auburn. Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator for Auburn’s national championship team, knows exactly how he wants his offense to look, but he’s undecided on who the quarterback will be.

Florida

An 11-2 record at Florida is a great season, so why was everyone so glum? Three reasons — the Gators lost to Georgia, and it cost them a shot at the SEC championship; Florida was popped 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl by Louisville; and Florida’s offense, once so inventive and dominating that it redefined how the game is played, finished 12th in the SEC in total offense. Quarterback Jeff Driskel said he attacked the offseason and has no problems with confidence, but losing Jordan Reed is going to hurt.

Georgia

The Bulldogs were 5 yards short last year, and they have the offense to get those 5 yards and several thousand more this year. Their defense is a question, but with such a dynamic offense, Georgia is feeling like this is the year. If the Bulldogs get past their first four games (Clemson, South Carolina, North Texas, LSU), it might be the year.

Kentucky

First-year coach Mark Stoops has given the Wildcats an immediate boost in football credibility, re-energizing the fan base and signing a top-five recruiting class for next year. But, as Stoops knows, those recruits won’t be in until next year. This year, he has the remnants of a 2-10 team that was dragged through the SEC.

LSU

The Tigers are still going to be good, but can they get over that rather sizable hump ahead of them (Alabama) in the standings? “We know we can,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “We also know it’s going to take a lot of work.” LSU’s success isn’t hinged on whether or not suspended running back Jeremy Hill gets cleared, but he is a large part of it as the Tigers’ leading returning rusher.

Mississippi State

Perhaps because it had a sense of foreboding last year, when a 7-0 start wasn’t too loudly celebrated because Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU all waited on the schedule, Mississippi State kept quiet. This year, with 14 starters returning but the offense pretty much tied to the legs of tailback LaDarius Perkins, the Bulldogs have their lips sewn shut.

Missouri

Gary Pinkel sat down in one of his first small-room interviews and was immediately asked, “Do you feel you’re on the hot seat?” Pinkel didn’t seem taken aback, answering that he never felt the need to worry about such things. If the Tigers lose their SEC opener at Vanderbilt, the wolves could come calling.

Ole Miss

Expected to struggle last year, the Rebels turned in a 7-6 season with a rivalry win and a beatdown of Pitt in a bowl. After pulling in blue-chippers on the recruiting trail, coach Hugh Freeze is ready for his second season with 19 returning starters.

South Carolina

The “next year is this year” tag is back, but with a little more urgency: The Gamecocks know they can win double-digit games, and they also know that if they don’t do it this year, then when will they? The only thing USC is missing is proven talent at linebacker, but it has several lauded youngsters.

Tennessee

New coach Butch Jones didn’t promise great things because he couldn’t. The Vols have had one winning season in five years and have gone through three coaches (four if counting interim coach Jim Chaney). Jones is trying to rebuild the program and a proud face. After the awful publicity fueled by Lane Kiffin and the Derek Dooley disaster, it won’t be easy.

Texas A&M

Johnny Manziel stressed that he’s a 20-year-old college kid and prone to doing 20-year-old-college-kid things. He feels it’s unfair to live his life under such a microscope, but that’s what happens when you win the Heisman Trophy and lead your team to an 11-win season in its first year in the country’s best conference. Perhaps it’s a blessing — with everybody talking Manziel, the rest of the team can focus on winning the SEC championship, something it feels equipped to do.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores are excited — and should be. They won nine games last year for the first time since World War I. Just ask receiver Jordan Matthews, who’s seen the lows and highs: “As a freshman, to be 2-10, bottom of the SEC, to where we are now, and to know that I’m going to have another year with these guys, is crazy and is really exciting.”

Steve Spurrier

Jadeveon Clowney

Connor Shaw

Bruce Ellington

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