SEC: 2011-sec-hope-concern

Hope and concern: Alabama

May, 16, 2011
Taking a closer look at why it could be a memorable 2011 season in Tuscaloosa and why it might not be so memorable:

Biggest reason for hope: Talent and experience on defense.

Even with the loss of Marcell Dareus early to the NFL draft, Alabama returns as much talent on defense as any team in the league. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, along with safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester and cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick, all have a chance to be first- or second-round draft picks. In other words, the Crimson Tide won’t lack for talent on defense. Even more importantly, they will be much more experienced on defense, particularly in the secondary. Mental errors and botched assignments took their toll on Alabama in key situations a year ago, and lot of that was inexperience. Everybody is back in the secondary next season, though, and don’t be surprised if Menzie and Kirkpatrick end up forming one of the best cornerback combos in the league. Barron and Lester will be one of the best safety tandems, and there will be others such as Dee Milliner pushing for playing time. Alabama won’t be limited the way it was in the secondary last season, which will open up more things across the board defensively for the Crimson Tide.

Biggest reason for concern: Uncertainty at quarterback.

Alabama ended the spring with sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims in a dead heat for the starting quarterback job. It’s close enough that coach Nick Saban is talking about playing them both and letting them sort it out during the games. Neither McCarron nor Sims has ever started a game in college. In fact, Sims didn’t play at all last season, and McCarron played primarily in mop-up roles. So this will be their first look at SEC defenses when it counts, meaning there’s bound to be some mistakes as they feel their way around the league. And until somebody separates himself, it’s going to be an adjustment for everybody else on offense to get used to two quarterbacks. The good news is that both players instilled confidence in their teammates this spring. Now comes the real test -- instilling that same confidence once the games begin.

Hope and concern: Arkansas

May, 11, 2011
For the second straight year, hope springs eternal in the Arkansas camp, but there’s also reason for concern.

Biggest reason for hope: A defense with all the right pieces

To win championships in this league, you have to play championship-caliber defense. Everybody knows the Hogs have the firepower on offense to score points in bunches. Now, they have that same kind of firepower on defense to create turnovers, come up with key stops and keep teams out of the end zone. The defensive front should be one of the deepest in the league, and the addition of junior college tackle Robert Thomas (6-3, 325 pounds) this spring only added to the Hogs’ athleticism and size. Senior linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson are back after finishing No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in tackles last season, while senior Tramain Thomas returns as one of the best all-around safeties in the league. It’s easily the most speed the Hogs have had on defense since Bobby Petrino has been in Fayetteville, and it’s also an experienced defense. Arkansas was able to lean on its defense in spots a year ago. This coming season, it may be that the Hogs set the tone defensively in just about every game.

Biggest reason for concern: Youth in the offensive line

The Hogs were a veteran offensive line last season, particularly at tackle, and that was a big reason for their offensive success. It will flip the other way in 2011 when Arkansas is expected to field one of the youngest offensive lines in the league. True freshman Brey Cook worked much of the spring as one of the starting tackles after enrolling early. He’s mature beyond his years and already one of the strongest players on the team, but it’s always a thrill a minute in this league when a true freshman is starting at offensive tackle. Sophomore Anthony Oden could be the starter at the other tackle spot after redshirting last season. Oden was suspended for the opener and was then forced to withdraw from school in the fall because of complications from mononucleosis. The Hogs will be equally young inside, although talented. Sophomore center Travis Swanson and sophomore guard Alvin Bailey both started as freshmen last season.

Hope and concern: Auburn

May, 10, 2011
A closer look at why there’s hope in the camp of the defending national champion Tigers and why there’s concern:

Biggest reason for hope: Talented sophomore class

With so many of the key players from last season’s national championship team gone (Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Lee Ziemba, Darvin Adams, Josh Bynes, etc.), the Tigers are going to need reinforcements fast. The good news is they have a ton of talent waiting in the wings, and some of that talent has already been on display. Running back Mike Dyer, receiver Trovon Reed, offensive guard Ed Christian, defensive end Corey Lemonier, defensive end Craig Sanders, defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, defensive tackle Kenneth Carter and middle linebacker Jake Holland are all part of that star-studded 2010 signing class and will play increased roles this fall. With a little experience, it’s the kind of nucleus the Tigers can start building around toward another championship run.

Biggest reason for concern: Unsettled quarterback situation

There wasn’t enough separation between Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley for the Tigers to name a starting quarterback coming out of the spring, and coach Gene Chizik made it clear that he wants to see more consistency at the position -- period. In fairness to both Trotter and Moseley, when you’re replacing an offensive machine like Newton, everything looks a little inconsistent. Trotter probably has a little bit of an edge because he’s been in the system longer, although Moseley made enough strides in the spring to make it a battle. The wild card will be incoming freshman Kiehl Frazier, who’s a run-pass threat in the mold of Newton and was rated among the top prep quarterbacks in the country last year. The chances of Frazier winning the job in August probably aren’t real high, but he’s talented enough to play his way into a starting role at some point during the season once he gets comfortable with the playbook. Either way, it looks like offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will earn that $1.3 million salary next season, but he’s proven in the past that his offenses can put up big numbers even when there are certain limitations at quarterback.

Hope and concern: Florida

May, 9, 2011
Will Muschamp and his new band of coaches look to turn things around in Gainesville after a tumultuous 2010:

Biggest reason for hope: More aggressive, faster front seven

Although Florida will not have All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins, the Gators will still be extremely fast in the box. Starting up front, Florida will have sophomore Ronald Powell rushing off the edge at the new defensive end/linebacker position known as the buck. Powell was the nation's top recruit a year ago. Linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic both have great closing speed and have really taken a liking to the new multiple defense that has some 3-4 schemes thrown in there. Cal linebacker/defensive end transfer Chris Martin will also be on the field. Those around Florida's program last year thought he might be the most talented defender the Gators had. Also, expect the Gators to get more out of its pass rush this season. Along with Powell, defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley showed a lot of promise this spring. They'll help upperclassmen Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard in the middle, while senior William Green provides some nice athleticism at end.

Biggest reason for concern: Unknown offensive ability

There's no question that Florida has the talent to compete for an SEC title, but no one outside of the confines of Florida's practice fields knows what to expect from the offense this fall. A year ago, the offense held the Gators back all season. Now, with Charlie Weis running a more pro-style offense, the Gators are looking to rebound -- especially quarterback John Brantley, who wasn't suited to run the spread at all. In a more comfortable offense, Brantley could be a star, but his poor spring game performance did little to ease the minds of Gators fans. However, that was the first we saw of this offense and Muschamp said both the offense and defense would be very vanilla. Still, we haven't seen anything yet that says this offense can truly rebound from last season. Florida still must find the right running back to generate a power running game and a wide receiver who can be a reliable go-to target for Brantley.

Hope and concern: Kentucky

May, 5, 2011
Today we look at what could power the Wildcats and what could hold them back this fall:

Biggest reason for hope: Veteran offensive line

The Wildcats are breaking in a new quarterback and running back this fall. What better way to boost their confidence than having the strength of the team be the big uglies up front? Kentucky returns four starters from a year ago and they aren't just experienced, they're big. The returning starters -- Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines, Matt Smith and Larry Warford -- average nearly 310 pounds across the line. Another good thing going for the Wildcats' line is that Jake Lanefski can play each position. He's listed as a center, but can play guard and tackle as well. Kentucky's offense lost a bit of its firepower from last year, so it will have to heavily lean on this line to keep it going this fall.

Biggest reason for concern: Unproven wide receivers

While Kentucky's coaching staff feels like starting quarterback Morgan Newton has the talent to be a star for the Wildcats, there isn't a ton of trust in the receivers he'll be throwing to. Losing Randall Cobb was a major blow to Kentucky's offense, and besides La'Rod King -- the only wide receiver with any real experience -- no one really stood out this spring at the receiver position. Making matters worse was that there were about 10 drops by Newton's receivers during the spring game. It didn't help that junior Gene McCaskill missed all of spring. There were improvements made by Brian Adams and Matt Roark, but Adams spent time playing baseball as well this spring. There aren't a lot of catches in Kentucky's receiver stable and that is worrisome around Lexington.

Hope and concern: LSU

May, 4, 2011
The Tigers enter the 2011 season with some of the best defensive talent in the country:

Biggest reason for hope: Talented defense and The Hat

LSU's defense might be a bit young, but it could be the most athletic in the country. Cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu showed that they each have the ability to make big plays in the secondary now that Patrick Peterson is gone. Senior safety Brandon Taylor should be a force in the defensive backfield as well. Linebackers Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois look like they'll be be even better this fall. On the defensive line, Sam Montgomery is coming back from injury at defensive end and if he's totally healthy, he'll be chore for opposing tackles to handle. Newcomer Anthony Johnson had a really solid spring at defensive tackle and should contribute this fall. But more than anything, Les Miles has Lady Luck on his side. Toss in some mighty tasty grass, and Miles is in hog Heaven (or Tiger Heaven). The way he defied logic to win games last season amazed everyone and I'm not sure his luck has run out.

Biggest reason for concern: Quarterback and middle linebacker

Jordan Jefferson might have directed the offense more smoothly and improved his passing mechanics, but we need to see how he does against players not wearing purple and gold. Jefferson was one of the worst statistical passers in the SEC a season ago, but somehow managed 11 wins. This season, a slip up by Jefferson will leave Miles contemplating benching his senior for transfer Zach Mettenberger, who is probably the best pure passing option the Tigers have. However, Mettenberger doesn't have the experience Jefferson does. The Tigers also have a gaping hole at middle linebacker now that Kelvin Sheppard is gone. Safety Karnell Hatcher and Kevin Minter, who was Sheppard's backup last year, got reps at middle linebacker this spring, but the spot has yet to be solidified, which has LSU's coaching staff a little worried heading into summer.
Today we look at Mississippi State's hopes and concerns as the Bulldogs look to ride their late-season momentum from last fall into the 2011 season:

Biggest reason for hope: The offense could be even better

The Bulldogs ranked fifth in the SEC in total offense a year ago, averaging 401.3 yards per game, but with their main parts returning in 2011, the offense figures to be much improved. Quarterback Chris Relf showed during the latter parts of the 2010 season that he's not only a talented runner, but he can be quite dangerous with his arm. He continued to make strides in the passing game this spring, but was heavily pushed by backups Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre. Both showed they're capable of leading this offense, which is a good thing. Whoever directs the offense will have the luxury of solid depth at wide receiver. Mississippi State returns star Chad Bumphis, but the coaches are convinced Arceto Clark, Chris Smith and Ricco Sanders can be just as reliable. The Bulldogs also return running back Vick Ballard, who nearly had 1,000 yards rushing and had 19 touchdowns.

Biggest reason for concern: Uncertainty at linebacker and no element of surprise

Mississippi State set out to replace three starting linebackers this spring. While the defense performed well in practices under new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson, no one is quite sure how the unit will fare against real opponents this fall. Last year, the Bulldogs ranked fourth in the league in stopping the run (119.1 yards per game), but that was with experience at linebacker. For now, Cameron Lawrence, the most experienced linebacker, will have the job of directing the group. Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes combined for 30 total tackles last season, but are still a bit unproven. Then there's the issue of everyone knowing what the Bulldogs are capable of. Last year, Mississippi State crept up on a few teams (see Florida on Homecoming) before blowing out Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Teams will be taking the Bulldogs very seriously this fall.

Hope and concern: Ole Miss

May, 2, 2011
With a lot of questions on both sides of the ball, the Rebels are being heavily overlooked in the SEC West, but they're hoping their young talent surprises this fall:

Biggest reason for hope: Veteran offensive line and strong running game.

The player who wins the Ole Miss quarterback battle will have a solid offensive line protecting him. And that sure is a good thing, considering West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti is the only one of the three quarterbacks competing for the job with any Football Bowl Subdivision game experience. The Rebels will field a line consisting of All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, and return seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line last year. The running game should also take some pressure off the quarterback. The Rebels' runners are led by senior Brandon Bolden, who rushed for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010. He'll be backed up by home run-hitting threat Jeff Scott and the improved Enrique Davis, who combined to rush for more than 700 yards on the ground last season.

Biggest reason for concern: Uncertainty at cornerback and at receiver.

Ole Miss' pass defensive ranked 103rd nationally in 2010. The Rebels surrendered 246.3 passing yards per game and 24 touchdowns through the air. The Rebels entered the spring with only three cornerbacks having any experience, and senior Marcus Temple missed all of spring after hernia surgery. Strides were made by junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton and sophomore Charles Sawyer, who started four games in 2010. Underclassmen Cliff Coleman and Frank Crawford also impressed, but are unproven. The same can be said for the Rebels' receiving corps. Offensive coordinator David Lee said inconsistency was about the only thing his receivers were consistent at for most of spring, but saw some reasons for optimism during the latter days of practice and the spring game. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders will be heavily relied upon this fall to take some focus away from junior Melvin Harris on offense. Harris has the most experience after playing in 11 games last season.

Hope and concern: South Carolina

April, 29, 2011
The good and bad for the Gamecocks as they try to get back to Atlanta for the second year in a row:

Biggest reason for hope: Dynamic playmakers across the board

There’s not a better running back/receiver combo in the league than Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, and there might not be one better in all of college football. Lattimore has bulked up to 230 pounds and has already shown that he can handle as many carries as you want to give him in a game. The 6-4, 230-pound Jeffery is an impossible cover on the outside and is a lot faster than you think. Here’s the other thing: South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Lattimore and Jeffery worked harder than anybody this offseason. On defense, end Devin Taylor is one of the best-kept secrets in the SEC, but not for much longer. As a sophomore, he was second in league games with 7.5 sacks, and the guy right behind him was teammate Melvin Ingram, who had six sacks against SEC competition while playing both end and tackle. They’ll add the nation’s No. 1 high school prospect, end Jadeveon Clowney, to the mix in the fall, while Stephon Gilmore is one of the top returning cornerbacks in the league.

Biggest reason for concern: Unsettled quarterback situation

If fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia does what’s required of him, manages to stay out of trouble and is allowed to rejoin the team, the Gamecocks have a guy returning who’s won for them. At times, Garcia was very good last season. But the question remains: Can you count on him, and what makes anybody think he won’t have another misstep after being suspended five times already? And if Garcia does come back, Connor Shaw is still sitting there after finishing the spring No. 1. He probably feels like it’s his job even though he’s only played sparingly in the SEC. Shaw didn’t have a great spring, but Spurrier likes the sophomore’s approach to the game and the way he works at it. Is he ready to step up and lead the Gamecocks back to the SEC championship game? And is Garcia ready to finally be the kind of leader the Gamecocks need at quarterback for an entire season? There are a lot more questions than answers at this point.

Hope and concern: Tennessee

April, 28, 2011
A look at why Derek Dooley’s second season at Tennessee could be one to remember and why it could be one to forget:

Biggest reason for hope: Budding young stars on offense

Just about everywhere you look on Tennessee’s offense, there are promising second-year players who played a lot of football last season as freshmen, and in most cases, played at a high level. Quarterback Tyler Bray had a brutal spring game, but showed how talented he was a year ago in throwing 16 touchdown passes in his five starts to close the season. The Vols really have a chance to be special up front offensively. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone started as true freshmen last season, and heralded signee Marcus Jackson enrolled early and worked all spring as the starting left guard. The sophomore receiving tandem of Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers also appears poised for a big season. Hunter caught seven touchdown passes as a true freshman, and Rogers was perhaps the Vols’ most dynamic player on the field this spring.

Biggest reason for concern: Too many unknowns and new faces on defense

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox won’t have a true picture of what his defense will look like until August when all the newcomers get on the field. Junior college tackle Maurice Couch and junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier could be immediate starters, and the Vols won’t know until this summer if star safety Janzen Jackson will rejoin the team after withdrawing from school this semester to sort out personal issues. They’re extremely thin at defensive tackle, even though USC transfer Malik Jackson slid inside from end last season and performed very well. Tennessee will also need a freshman or two to help at linebacker where there isn’t much returning in the way of depth. With so many new faces, there’s sure to be some serious growing pains. Plus, it’s always a crapshoot to count on so many junior college players and freshmen. It may be that the Vols are forced to win a lot of shootouts next season where they’re always having to outscore people, and that's a scary proposition in this league.

Hope and concern: Vanderbilt

April, 27, 2011
Spring is over with in the SEC and as we head into what will feel like an endless offseason, we figured we wouldn't waste any time looking toward the upcoming season.

Today we start our "Hope and Concern" series where we look at each team and analyze why that team has reason for hope and why it has reason for concern in 2011.

Pretty self-explanatory stuff, right?

We're changing things up this time going in reverse order so we'll start with Vanderbilt:

Biggest reason for hope: Experience and an energetic new coach

The Commodores return 51 letterwinners, including 21 starters. Making things that much sweeter for Vanderbilt is that 15 of those starters are upperclassmen. One of them is senior linebacker Chris Marve, who was a 2010 All-SEC selection. With a new coaching staff in place, having veteran leadership to help guide this team will be key in the fall. Speaking of coaches, new head coach James Franklin brought some much-needed juice with him from Maryland. The Commodores have been to two bowl games in the past 30 years and were 2-10 last season, but Franklin doesn't seem concerned with that. Franklin, who was one of the top recruiters in the ACC during his time with the Terps, embraces his new challenge and has said he plans to do something special at Vanderbilt.

Biggest reason for concern: Inexperience at linebacker and thin offensive line

Marve might be one of the top linebackers in the SEC, but he can't get the job done alone. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell from last season's team. There are six candidates, but they have one start among them. Coming out of spring, it appears as though juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to play with Marve. Offensively, there's some solid speed at the skill positions, but the offensive line is inexperienced. Vanderbilt was never completely healthy along the line this spring and there were a few position changes along the way. If Vanderbilt wants to get the best use out of its playmakers, the offensive line has to mature quickly.