- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Can you hear that?
It’s the sound of jerseys being carefully hung and neatly placed in lockers. It’s the sound of last-minute helmet shines and play card lamination.
More importantly, it’s the sound of the return to college football. Maybe, just maybe, these silly shenanigans that have taken our minds off the actually game will cease for a while.
That sound is now transforming into the horns blaring and snares chopping. Soon, these sounds will be overwhelmed by that sticky, sweet smell of game day barbecue with a hint of fine fried snacks.
Let’s get to what you should watch for in the SEC this week before I drool on my keyboard:
1. LSU’s passing game: Jordan Jefferson's suspension for his involvement in a bar fight and Russell Shepard being ruled ineligible for discussing an NCAA inquiry with a teammate have the Tigers in a bit of an offensive bind to start the season. Veteran Jarrett Lee takes over for Jefferson, and while coach Les Miles believes Lee has what it takes to lead the Tigers against No. 3 Oregon, Lee has had a very rocky five years at LSU. Expect junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger, who has all the skill to be a special player, to get snaps as well. As far as receivers go, Rueben Randle will be the primary target and DeAngelo Peterson is a playmaking tight end. Miles said this week that freshman Odell Beckham could start, so expect the Tigers to use plenty of options.
2. McCarron vs. Sims: This is one of the most exciting quarterback battles to keep an eye on this season. AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims are young and neither has separated himself from the other. However, teammates have said they wouldn’t mind either one starting and trust both to lead the offense. But this isn’t just any offense; it’s the offense of a team that is a true national championship contender. Taking the reigns of this machine is a big deal, and the winner should be prepared for a load of pressure dumped into his lap. This is the first step toward someone pushing past the other, but this battle could bleed deeper into the season.
3. Fresh new faces: There are two new head coaches making their SEC debuts this weekend. Will Muschamp takes over at Florida, after leaving Texas as its defensive coordinator, and James Franklin is in charge at Vanderbilt after being Maryland’s offensive coordinator. Fortunately for both, their teams are favored this weekend, with Florida taking on Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt squaring off against Elon. Muschamp has the tough task of replacing two-time national champion Urban Meyer, while Franklin has brought some much-needed excitement and confidence to a slumping program. Both programs are in need of some early excitement and both should provide plenty of that this weekend.
4. Marquee QB battle: When Georgia and Boise State square off inside the Georgia Dome; they’ll do so with two highly touted quarterbacks. Boise’s veteran Kellen Moore, who has a thirst for big games, will look to keep his team in the national championship picture. Moore enters 2011 as the nation’s active career leader in passing efficiency (166.74) and wins (38). He ranks second on the active career list in completion percentage (68.17), passing yards (10,867), passing touchdowns (99) and completions (831). Last season, Murray passed for a Georgia freshman record 3,049 yards (second in SEC history by a freshman) and 24 touchdowns. His 3,216 total offensive yards ranks him first in Georgia freshman history and second in SEC history. He also tied for first in school history for touchdown responsibility in a season with 28. Watching these two compete will be a lot of fun.
5. Wild runners: The SEC brings back a stable of running back talent as five of the top 10 rushers from the 2010 season return. It would have been six, but Arkansas’ Knile Davis suffered a season-ending ankle injury before the season. The SEC is loaded at running back, with South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Alabama’s Trent Richardson making early Heisman Trophy lists. The scary thing is that Lattimore is only a sophomore and Richardson was a backup for two years. Auburn brings back the best rushing combo in Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who both have the potential to reach 1,000 yards. Ole Miss’ Brandon Bolden is very underrated and should finally eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, while Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is one of the toughest runners around and is looking to pass his touchdown mark of 19 a season ago. Tennessee’s Tauren Poole is another unheralded rusher, but he surpassed 1,000 yards in 2010. Expect others, like LSU’s Spencer Ware and Kentucky’s Raymond Sanders, to step up as well.
6. QBs getting their first shot to be the man: The first week of football will feature a handful of new quarterbacks looking to prove they can lead their respective teams. McCarron and Sims will be battling it out against Kent State, while Barrett Trotter is taking over for Heisman winner Cam Newton at Auburn. Barry Brunetti makes his SEC debut at Ole Miss. Heck, Lee will have to prove he can be a solid short-term option for LSU, as well. There will be some growing pains and struggles around the league with these players, but they’ll all be eager to get out there and show what they can do.
7. Houston Nutt as the underdog: If history is an indicator, Houston Nutt does well when his team is counted out. Look at the 2006 Arkansas Razorbacks, who made it to the SEC championship game and in 2008, Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels won their last six games, including the Cotton Bowl. Well, Nutt and his Rebels are being overlooked yet again and Ole Miss starts the season against a tough BYU team. Ole Miss isn’t favored and it’s fielding a slew of youngsters, including a new quarterback in Brunetti. A win would generate some valuable momentum for this team.
8. John Brantley’s confidence: The spread offense is gone in Gainesville and quarterback John Brantley couldn’t be happier. He never fit in the spread, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis have rescued Brantley with a pro-style offense. Brantley set all sorts of records in high school -- some even held by former Florida star Tim Tebow -- but he was never able to play with much confidence in 2010. Now, Brantley has a chance to reinvent himself. Word out of Gainesville is that Brantley has more command in the pocket and has won his teammates over again. Saturday won’t be a major test for Brantley, but it is a chance for him to play with confidence and maybe even some moxie, which should benefit him the rest of the season.
9. Kentucky’s run defense: Kentucky coach Joker Phillips made it perfectly clear that stopping the run is of the utmost importance when the Wildcats face Western Kentucky. When these two got together last season, the Wildcats’ rush defense received what Phillips described as a “slap in the face” from Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey, who ran for 184 yards and two touchdowns. For the rest of the season, Kentucky’s rush defense struggled immensely, surrendering 177.1 yards per game and allowing a league-high 30 rushing touchdowns. For the Wildcats to develop some defensive confidence they’ll have to shut down the Hilltoppers’ running game.
10. Black bear sightings!: Those of you who live in Oxford, Miss., or are traveling there for the weekend should be on the look out for black bears in the vicinity. Whether they’re harmful or not is yet to be seen. Ole Miss is breaking in a new mascot in the “Rebel Black Bear” seven years after the university got rid of “Colonel Reb.” The new mascot has received mixed reactions and expect Colonel Reb supporters to be out in full force for the bear’s first home game. A loss to BYU could send this cuddly creature back into hibernation.