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What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

There's nothing like a long weekend of SEC football.

It starts Thursday night with South Carolina traveling to North Carolina State. On Saturday, 10 games are on the docket, including a pair of headliners -- Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff and Georgia traveling to Oklahoma State.

If your eyes aren't bulging out by the time LSU and Washington finish up things on the West Coast early Sunday morning, Ole Miss and Memphis will close out the weekend later Sunday afternoon.

For those of us who've been craving college football for the past eight months, the wait is over. It's finally here.

So grab the remote and make sure you have a checklist handy of these 10 things to watch in the SEC as we kick off the 2009 season:

1. Making a statement: Even the most delusional fans will concede that the SEC is the strongest conference in college football, but it's a distinction that's earned on a year-to-year basis. Here's the SEC's chance to really set the tone this first week by winning at such places as Stillwater, Seattle, Raleigh and Atlanta. Winning marquee games in the comfy confines of your own stadium is one thing, but the mark of a dominant league is doing it away from home.

2. Mark Richt's mastery on the road: Take a gander at his career record in opponents' stadiums, and it's a wonder Richt isn't lobbying to travel every weekend. He's 30-4 in true road games and 10-2 against nationally ranked teams on the road. Richt said this week that the trip to Oklahoma State was the toughest opener the Bulldogs have played since he took over the program in 2001. What he didn't say was that he hasn't lost a game on the road against a ranked team since 2004 when Auburn won 24-6 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

3. Freshmen of Influence: Who's the SEC's best true freshman, and more pressing, who's set to have the most impressive debut? The nominees are (in alphabetical order): Auburn safety Daren Bates, Auburn receiver DeAngelo Benton, Tennessee running back Bryce Brown, Georgia tight end Orson Charles, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Tennessee receiver Nu'Keese Richardson, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU quarterback/receiver Russell Shepard.

4. Low Tide or high Tide? Alabama can finally exhale now that Julio Jones and Mark Ingram have been given the green light to play Saturday by the NCAA after making restitution for their much publicized fishing trip. But these last few weeks (and months) have hardly been smooth sailing for Tide. Over and above the Jones and Ingram ordeal that dragged on forever, there's been the announcement of NCAA probation for the textbook scandal, the announcement that Alabama would appeal part of the sanctions, a flu bug spreading through the team, Courtney Upshaw being arrested and Brandon Deaderick being shot by a would-be robber. How all this affects the Crimson Tide on the field remains to be seen.

5. New kids on the block: Auburn's Gene Chizik, Tennessee's Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen are the three new head coaches in the league. They all have openers they should win, but there aren't many guarantees after that. All three teams are coming off losing seasons, which is why Chizik, Kiffin and Mullen are where they are right now. None of the three is what you would call a proven commodity as a head coach. This is Mullen's first head coaching venture, while Chizik and Kiffin are a combined 10-34 in previous stops as head coaches.

6. ACC vs. SEC: For a supposed basketball league, the ACC held its own with the mighty SEC last season. The two leagues finished in a 6-6 deadlock in head-to-head matchups, giving the impression that maybe the SEC hasn't lapped the ACC after all in terms of overall balance. We continue that debate this first week of 2009. South Carolina takes on North Carolina State, and Alabama squares off with Virginia Tech.

7. Quarterback uncertainty: Has there ever been this much unknown about the quarterback position in the SEC heading into a season? Outside of Florida's Tim Tebow and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead, it's anybody's guess how it will all shake out. More than half the starters in this league have made fewer than six starts during their careers. It's not a stretch to suggest that Florida backup John Brantley might be the third-best quarterback in the league. Then again, some of these guys are just now getting their first shot, namely Joe Cox at Georgia and Greg McElroy at Alabama.

8. Breaking out: They may not be household names right now, but they will be by the end of the season. Who are the players most likely to break out this season in the SEC? In no particular order, keep an eye on Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Trahan, Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker, Florida receiver Deonte Thompson, Auburn running back/H-back Mario Fannin, Kentucky safety Winston Guy and Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright.

9. Tebow's targets: If Florida has a weakness, it may be the its corps of receivers. There's some talent there. The Gators just need a few more of those guys to emerge if they're going to run the spread offense the way Urban Meyer would like to. Freshman Andre DeBose's hamstring issues look like they might sideline him for the season, which is a blow. The Gators were hoping he could give them some of the same things Percy Harvin did a year ago from a run/catch standpoint. The guy to watch is Brandon James. He's sparkled in his role as a return specialist the past two years. Now he gets a chance to show what he can do at the "H" position on offense, which is better known as the "Percy" position.

10. Staying grounded: It's no secret that South Carolina's Steve Spurrier likes to pitch it and catch it, as he's fond of saying. But the Gamecocks' meal ticket this season may be running the ball more out of the shotgun formation and using a lot of the zone read principles new running game coordinator Eric Wolford brought with him from Illinois. There's a definite commitment by the Gamecocks to run the ball better and not put so much on quarterback Stephen Garcia's shoulders. That starts Thursday night against the Wolfpack. We find out right away if this new emphasis on the run is the real thing after the Gamecocks finished 112th nationally in rushing offense a year ago.