published Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Greeson: Crucial answers will appear later

When the Southeastern Conference football media days begin this week, there are two things that are certain.

There will be questions — thousands of them — and some of them will be pertinent.

There will also be answers, and some of those may even be honest.

There will be questions about projected starters and about the growing number of programs that have run afoul of authorities — both the legal and the NCAA varieties now that Florida and South Carolina are being investigated by college athletics’ governing body.

There will be talk of pressure on players — hello, John Brantley — and coaches since Bobby Johnson left Vanderbilt seven weeks before the seasons and Urban Meyer left Florida for about 72 hours last December to spend more time with his family.

The questions that truly matter, though, have no answer in July. No, the questions that really matter will linger over programs through the festivities at Hoover, Ala., this week, beyond preseason practice and likely beyond the season openers. The questions that matter will be answered before sold-out stadiums, and the answers will be obvious.

Here is this week’s SEC list. Let’s cover some questions that can’t be answered this week no matter how hard any coaches or players work, how much video they watch or how much they get after it on the practice field:

Alabama: Will the front seven dominate? If Nick Saban is asked, ‘Can the front seven dominate?’ the answer is a definite yes. They are supremely talented. Whether they will control teams like last year’s national champions did remains to be seen. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower will take Rolando McClain’s spot, and a group of noseguards will try to fill the void left by Terrence Cody, but replacing the production will be difficult.

Arkansas: Will the defense stop anybody? The Razorbacks have the league’s top quarterback in Ryan Mallett and welcome back a big chunk of an offense that averaged more than 37 points per game last year. Still, that meant just an 8-5 recordr in 2009, and unless the defense is better the record won’t be, regardless of the numbers produced by Mallett and Co.

Auburn: While the same defensive questions that face Arkansas face the Tigers, let’s go another direction. Is freshman running back Michael Dyer ready to be the man now? Mario Fannin will start the season as the No. 1 back, but he’s had problems with fumbles, injuries and consistency in his career. Onterio McCalebb is super fast, but he’s also 170 pounds, and there are not a lot of starting SEC running backs under 180. Well, not a lot that make it past Columbus Day, anyway. That leaves Dyer, the nation’s top-ranked running back recruit by several services.

Florida: While the curiosity about Brantley taking over for Tim Tebow is understandable, who is going to take over for Aaron Hernandez as the Gators’ go-to receiver? Brantley could be all-world, but if the talented Gators receivers don’t deliver, it won’t matter.

Georgia: Will Aaron Murray be the man? It’s difficult to picture one player in the league carrying more of his team’s hopes than Murray, the redshirt freshman quarterback who sits atop the Bulldogs’ razor-thin depth chart at the game’s most critical position. If Murray is good, the Georgia offense, which returns the other 10 starters, could be great. If Murray is bad, well, the whole league knows how difficult it is to win with bad quarterback play.

Kentucky: Will Randall Cobb be this year’s Dexter McCluster? Like the undersized McCluster, the former Ole Miss receiver/running back who was the league’s breakout last year, Cobb can do everything well. He scored 14 touchdowns on 133 offensive touches last year — and that was with mediocre-at-best quarterback play.

LSU: Paging Russell Shepard: Are you ready? The nation’s top recruit two years ago, Shepard has made the switch to receiver from quarterback, and he’s being counted on by a team hungry for young playmakers.

Mississippi: Will the offense generate enough points? The expectations are way down this year for the Rebels, and that may be a good thing. The talent on the offensive side is also down, though, and that’s never a good thing. Expect to see a lot of power back Brandond Bolden.

Mississippi State: Who will be the leaders on the field? Coach Dan Mullen has taken impressive steps in changing the culture in Starkville, and the talent looks to be better. But the leaders on each of the ball — running back Anthony Dixon and top tackler Jamar Chaney — are gone, and filling those roles will determine whether year two for Mullen is a success.

South Carolina: Is Stephen Garcia finally ready to blend promise with production? Yet again, the Gamecocks’ hopes are pegged to Garcia, the talented quarterback who has been both good and terrible — and often each in the same game and occasionally in the same possession. In an unpredictable SEC East, a good Garcia could lead South Carolina to a place it has never been.

Tennessee: There are so many questions — on the field and off — facing the Volunteers that must be addressed before the season starts, it’s hard to settle on just one. How about this one: Can Matt Simms be an SEC quarterback? He was less than good in spring practice, but he has received glowing reviews from summer workouts. If he’s not ready, then this becomes freshman Tyler Bray’s team and qualifying for a bowl game becomes difficult.

Vanderbilt: Will Robbie Caldwell be able to remove interim from his coaching title? Caldwell got the call when Johnson retired earlier this month. To keep it long-term, Caldwell’s Commodores will have to be better than Johnson’s 2-10 team that was 0-8 in the SEC last year. The schedule offers no favors — or patsies — as VU plays 11 teams that played in bowl games last season.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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