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Five Questions Facing the SEC in 2011

Memorial Day is coming. For some this means bathing suits, fresh air and social interaction, but for many denizens of this fair bit of Internet space the holiday marks a different passage of time. It’s just three months until football season. Here are five questions facing SEC teams as we head into those long summer days.

Will Florida Have a Decided Schematic Advantage? Stability is optimal in college football. Florida has a new coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new offense, a potential four-way quarterback controversy after the first errant Brantley throw and only one upperclassman returning on the offensive line. Muschamp acted boldly by hiring Charlie Weis. Gator fans will hope Virgil had the right idea.

The hiring makes sense, in theory. Florida can recruit pro-style players. There are few better pro-style coordinators than Weis, who can dangle his Super Bowl rings coquettishly at top recruits. The team should refocus, adjust and progress with a few predictable hiccups. In practice, the fractures are easily apparent.

Muschamp has already spoken of “running the football” and having a “balanced offense,” two things Weis did not do with New England and Notre Dame. Weis is also 16 years older, more accomplished than Muschamp and not known for his modesty. This partnership could get more strained than a pair of Charlie’s game-day khakis. Even if it works, does Weis want this job longterm?

Can Mark Richt Save His Job? Richt has rebuilt his reputation off the field, making kind and charitable gestures, standing publicly against oversigning and, most importantly for Georgia fans, reeling in a “dream team” of instate recruits. His fate, however, will be determined by results on it. With Boise State and South Carolina the first two weekends, the grim reaper could swiftly be lurking in the shadows.

Georgia’s offense could sputter a bit. They have Aaron Murray, but injuries and departures cost them A.J. Green, last year’s leading rusher Washaun Ealey and two offensive line starters. Even if Isaiah Crowell is the next Lattimore/Dyer, he won’t have as seasoned of a force blocking for him up front. The offense could have fits and starts, but the real issue is the defense.

Richt based his SEC Title-caliber teams on smothering, elite defense. The Bulldogs were once a perennial Top 20 unit. Their record has fallen with their defensive stats. Performance improved last year under Todd Grantham. They should be more fluid after a year’s experience in the 3-4. But, Georgia likely needs to jump from good to great next season to keep Richt in town. To do that, they’ll need a consistent pass rush.

Will Stephen Garcia Start For South Carolina? Garcia has had a tempestuous time in Columbia. He has been arrested thrice and suspended five times, the last time indefinitely for “mouthing off during and drinking before” an SEC violence prevention seminar. It’s unclear whether Garcia will be allowed back, but Spurrier will try everything to bring him, because this is the year.

South Carolina has a veteran team. Only three projected starters are underclassmen. One of those youngsters is Marcus Lattimore. The Gamecocks have their stable of enormous, potent receivers such as Alshon Jeffery. An efficient, mistake-free Garcia could lead a balanced, fearsome offense. Given their accommodating schedule – No Alabama or LSU and Auburn, Florida, Clemson at home – that could be enough to make them SEC and even BCS title contenders.

Garcia must clean up his act for this narrative to work, and Spurrier must finally place complete trust in him.

How Does Auburn Replace Cam Newton? Auburn lucked out majorly in 2010. Shadily or not, they stumbled into one of the most dominant forces in college football’s history and rode him to a BCS title. They happened to have an offensive coordinator who specializes in creatively using quarterbacks to maximize output from talent. It’s unclear how that talent will be in 2011.

Newton’s replacement could be ex-N.C. State QB Russell Wilson. It could be someone internal. Regardless of the individual, the obstacles put in front of him will be daunting. Said quarterback will have four new offensive line starters blocking for him, a “BFD” even if freshman Reese Dismukes can start. He’ll also have few experienced hands to throw too. The receiver corps was depleted over the winter, the most painful loss being Darvin Adams, who left early for the NFL Draft and then wasn’t drafted.

Auburn brought in a top-flight recruiting class and the future looks outstanding. But, for next season, they’ll have ramped up 2010-level attention and expectations, with a ceiling closer to the eight-win 2009 team.

Can Anyone Beat Alabama? Oversigning bears its fruit. Bama lost four first-round draft picks in the last draft, but, as Stewart Mandel points out, they remain ridiculously loaded. Right now, they have seven projected first or second round picks in next year’s draft taking the field. Quarterback may be a question, but it’s one that should be mitigated by a healthy Trent Richardson and four returning offensive line starters.

Bama will be unassailable on paper and, even more scarily, they will play and coach with a renewed chip after costing themselves a BCS trip with crucial mistakes last season. They avoid South Carolina and Georgia. The play Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. Their two “tough” away games are Florida and Auburn, but neither of those teams is an assured “tough.” Oklahoma may be en vogue right now, but Alabama sure looks like a juggernaut.

[Photo via Getty]

 

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