We're hitting the 30-day mark for football's return (!!!!!!! - shhhh only say that in parenthesis or it'll take longer), with a number of teams starting Fall camp this week, including LSU on Wednesday.
And you can bet that of course we'll always have as much camp coverage from the LSU angle, but how about some of the other teams in the league? Here's one of the biggest questions each team team in the league will be facing this August, whether it's about personnel, coaching or otherwise.
Alabama...What is the second option? Option one for the Crimson Tide offense will most certainly be pounding Eddie Lacy. And behind an excellent offensive line, you can almost certainly pencil the hard-running Lacy in for more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. But what's next? A.J McCarron will likely be fine at quarterback, but is there the type of playmaker on this team that will make passing that much more attractive? The single most underrated part of Trent Richardson's game in 2011 was his value on every down. His receiving abilities allowed Bama to line him up at a couple of different positions last year, much like Brad Smelley (whom will also be missed). True freshman T.J. Yeldon, a former four-star all-purpose back, seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for the understudy role. There's no question that there's talent ready to step on to the field in Tuscaloosa, the question right now is proving it.
Arkansas...What's in front? Bobby Petrino or no Bobby Petrino, Arkansas' biggest personnel question this offseason remains -- how will the Razorbacks stack up along the line of scrimmage? On defense, there's some good returning beef in the middle, but who's ready to replace Jake Bequette, who was the lone playmaker in last year's front four. Meanwhile, the absence of Knile Davis is no excuse for what Arkansas got in offensive line play in 2011. And when they weren't failing to open holes, they usually had Tyler Wilson running for his life. These two spots, as much as anything, were going to be what determined Arkansas' fate, regardless of Petrino's driving habits. Without him, they become that much more important.
Auburn & Florida...Where do we start? I'm going to lump these two schools together, because frankly, on offense, they're in very similar boats. Both teams return experience on defense, and while Auburn's D was pretty bad last season, there's enough rising talent that you have to figure a coordinator like Brian Van Gorder will at least bring about some improvement. On offense...eesh. Young quarterbacks that struggled last season, offensive lines that struggled and just not a lot of experienced playmakers. As a fan of a team that has spent the better part of the last two seasons trying to minimize its passing game, I would suggest that Auburn and Florida fans get ready for more of the same. Look for both teams to try and lean heavily on their rushing attacks. The problem there is, both teams are mostly stocked with smaller, faster backs recruited for past spread offenses. Watch for some newcomers, Mike Blakely at Auburn and Mack Brown for Florida, to present options more built to absorb the workhorse carries that will be needed.
Georgia...Is there enough? There are a couple of things to like about the Bulldogs. Aaron Murray is one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC, and he returns an experienced group of wideouts. The defense has one of the league's best front sevens, led by arguably its best overall player in Jarvis Jones. But, as the Dawg fan base is painfully aware, there are holes. For starters, a shocking lack of depth -- just 70 scholarship players on the roster. And that's before a handful of suspensions that could keep some very good players, including All-SEC safety Bacarri Rambo, on the shelf for a couple of games. Then there's the matter of a rebuilding offensive line, something that has been a sticking point in the past during the Mark Richt tenure. And of course, there's a running game that really struggled when Isaiah Crowell missed time, which will be happening quite a bit with him, you know, being off the team in 2012. Will the high points cover for those low points?
Kentucky & Texas A&M...Who are you? Two teams kind of searching for an identity. Now, if you're a Kentucky fan, that's a pretty discouraging thought in the third year under Joker Phillips. But for the Aggies, they're transitioning from Mike Sherman's pro-style attack to the Kevin Sumlin Air-Raid. As we've discussed before, it's a fairly user-friendly attack that A&M will likely take to well. But with a pretty talented offensive line and collection of running backs on hand, it might serve Sumlin well to lean on the run a bit early on while the new quarterbacks settle in. In Lexington, Kentucky just needs to find something they can hang their hat on as a football team. If you can't do a lot of things well, just try to find one, and maybe that can help the Wildcats back to a bowl game.
Mississippi State...Are we ready for the next step? Dan Mullen has done what no other Mississippi State coach has ever done -- make the Bulldogs consistent (in a good way). In each of his first three seasons, the Bulldogs have run the ball, played tough defense and had sound special teams. They're fairly consistently competitive with teams they can't beat, and generally beat the teams they're supposed to. There's real excitement around the program, and a plan for the program taking those next steps off of the field. But on the field, this is a program that hasn't won a divisional game outside of the state of Mississippi in three years, and that's going to have to change at some point. In most ways, this State team will resemble the last three, but with the difference being that the offense plans to lead with the pass. Tyler Russell is a pass-first guy, and the receiving corps has a lot of experience (and watch for redshirt freshman Joe Morrow). The schedule sets up well for a 7-0 start. If State can't do it now, can they ever?
Missouri...Can we stay healthy? I've mentioned it in other forums, but I'm somewhat bullish on the new Tigers' chances in the SEC East. But that's entirely dependent on the team's injury situation. James Franklin immediately becomes of the SEC's best quarterbacks, but he's also coming off shoulder surgery. Henry Josey was outstanding last season, but destroyed his knee near the end of the season may not be back in 2012. With a 100-percent-healthy Franklin, Mizzou will have a puncher's chance against almost anybody on their schedule (this is the value of a playmaking quarterback), and if a secondary running threat emerges, the division title suddenly isn't so out of reach (nobody else could be considered a runaway favorite in the East).
Ole Miss...How do we start over? The Rebels are still a bad football team. Likely the worst in the conference. Hiring Hugh Freeze doesn't change that -- no coach is going to overnight. To his credit, Freeze seems aware of his situation, and has discussed exactly what he expects out of his team in 2012. Simply play better. Don't worry about the wins and losses. Focus on the big picture of being more competitive, while Freeze and his staff do what they can to raise the talent level. Ole Miss isn't likely to win any more games than they did in 2011, but they can certainly do better by not allowing 30 or more points to teams like Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Auburn or Mississippi State. That's not much, but it's a start.
South Carolina...What does all of this talent translate to? South Carolina has the talent to compete with anybody in this league. Marcus Lattimore blows his knee out, and the team still had four 200-plus yard rushing games without him. They're one of the only teams that can compete with LSU in the pass-rush department with Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor on the defensive line. And much like the Tigers, there's a question of how far the passing game can take them. Connor Shaw has had some good moments as QB but has been inconsistent. He's an athletic guy that can make some plays with his feet, and if a viable receiving threat emerges, the passing game may come along. But it might have to come from some of the freshmen, like four-star recruit Shaq Roland.
Tennessee...What else is there? This much we know about Derek Dooley's squad. They should be able to throw the ball. Tyler Bray can sling it (assuming he restricts himself to on-field slinging), and he has a fantastic group of receivers, led by the league's best deep threat in Justin Hunter and one of its best (if somewhat mercurial) all-around targets in Da'Rick Rogers. Plus, they just added the nation's top junior college target, Cordarrelle Patterson. And five starters return on the offensive line, so they should be somewhat solid in that department as well. But what else? No rushing threat that really scares anybody and few major defensive playmakers (though with nine starters back, it's reasonable to expect improvement there). What's that translate to? That may depend on the breaks of the game, especially against the better teams on the schedule. But it's no secret that Dooley's job is on the line, so if things start out slow (/eyes N.C. State opener), you always have to wonder if the players may tune him out.
Vanderbilt...Now what? Year one of James Franklin, it could be argued, showed the value of confidence for a program. The guy has never deterred from his message -- we're here to win at Vanderbilt, and if you're not on board you can GTFO. And by and large, we saw that reflected on the field. Close games against Georgia and Arkansas, blowouts versus Ole Miss and Wake Forest -- the Commodores believed they could win those games. That being said, talent and execution will win you more games, and if the program wants to take another step forward, it begins in those areas. Jordan Rodgers is a solid enough quarterback, and Zac Stacy would play for a lot of other teams in this league. If they can find a way to steal another game or two in a ridiculously crowded SEC East, suddenly Vandy's at least in the spoiler role, if not a potential divisional contender.