14 Burning Questions for 2012: #1 – LSU

This is our last one.  Fourteen teams in the SEC and a burning question for each.  Today, we question LSU.

#1 – Is Zach Mettenberger LSU’s answer at quarterback?

Last year, the LSU Tigers finished 13-1, won the SEC championship and finished as the runner-up for the BCS title (as their team rings clearly indicate).

Along the way, LSU quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson passed for over 2,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The duo also completed over 61% of their passes.  You have to admit, those aren’t bad numbers.

Yet Tigers fans were happy to bid both farewell and are excited about trusting their future to Georgia transfer, Zach Mettenberger. Fans and pundits both agree that Mettenberger has better passing skills and a better upside than either Lee or Jefferson, but does it make sense for Mettenberger to fare better or have better numbers than Lee and Jefferson?  Are Tiger fans nuts for expecting a title with a guy like Mettenberger at the helm?

It really doesn’t make sense, then I remind myself that the last three BCS champs each used a first-year starter at quarterback: Greg McElroy, 2009 Alabama; Cam Newton, 2010 Auburn; and AJ McCarron, 2011 Alabama.

Given the talent LSU has returning, it is certainly possible for the Tigers to make a title run with Mettenberger. LSU returns seven starters on offense and six on defense, and maybe more importantly, returns five offensive linemen who have been full-time starters.

The Tigers return their four top rushers (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard) and two of their top three receivers (Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard).

I want to sleep tonight, so I won’t mention what their defense returns.

To me, the game plan sounds pretty easy. I find it hard to believe that Mettenberger’s stats will equal Lee and Jefferson’s numbers, so pound the rock and tell Mettenberger not to turn the ball over. All he needs to do is channel his inner McElroy.

The risk, though, is that this makes the Tigers one dimensional, and when November rolls around and the Tide comes to town, they’ll have to rely on Mettenberger to make some plays. And as we know, the Tide certainly loves a one dimensional opponent.

Last year, In the preseason, I picked LSU to beat Bama on the road and the primary reason was the Tide’s inexperience at quarterback. At this point, I’m tempted to use the same reasoning for 2012.

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14 Burning Questions for 2012: #2 – South Carolina

We’re almost finished.  14 SEC teams and a burning question for each.  Today we answer a question related to South Carolina.

#2 – Can South Carolina survive their schedule?

Last year should have been the Gamecocks’ year.  The returned Heisman trophy contender Marcus Lattimore at running back, a seasoned quarterback in Stephen Garcia, Alshon Jeffery at receiver and a defense that included Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney.  They also had a very, very favorable schedule.  Georgia in week two and Arkansas and Florida in November should have been their only three tests.

Things looked good on paper, but pretty much crumbled from the start.

Lattimore was lost early in the season to a knee injury.  Garcia acted like an immature clown and Jeffery looked to be out of shape.  The offense went on to average 30.1 points per game, good for fifth in the conference, but that average is somewhat misleading.  Take away 56 points against East Carolina and 45 against Georgia, 54 points against helpless Kentucky and 41 against The Citadel and you’ve got an offense that scored about 22 points per game – good for 10th in the league.

Carolina’s worst performance offensively, by far, came against Auburn in a 16-13 loss.  These same Tigers were pounded without mercy by Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.  Heck, even Samford scored 16 against Auburn.  This Auburn defense gave up an average of 408 yards per game, but somehow held Carolina to 289 yards – the second lowest total they allowed all year.

The offensive performance by Carolina was mystifying.  And it cost the Gamecocks their second consecutive SEC East title.  Carolina also lost to Arkansas, but the Auburn game was winnable and they gave it away.

A season later, the Gamecocks still have a good team, but the conditions are much different.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is gone along with Ingram and Gilmore.  Garcia left in mid-season last year and Jeffery departed for the NFL.  And Lattimore plans to return from a major knee injury.

The schedule is also one of the toughest in the conference.  It’s not exactly Alabama circa 2010, but it does include Georgia (h), LSU (a) and Florida (a) back-to-back-to-back and it includes Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson.

So why do I like the Gamecocks so much this year?

Well, first, I think Steve Spurrier is once again the best coach in the East.  It’s taken him a while, but he finally has this program where few thought he could take it – consistently at the top of the East.  He has some talent in Columbia and he also loves to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Second, he finally has a player at quarterback.  Connor Shaw took over for Garcia last year and played admirably.  He played in all but three games in 2011 and became the starter in the Kentucky game.  Overall, he completed 65.4% of his passes for 1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns and only six interceptions.  Those numbers don’t compare favorably to Spurrier’s Florida offenses from the 1990s, but these are different times.  Shaw also rushed for 525 yards and eight touchdowns.  He’s truly a double threat at quarterback and with a 65% completion mark and a good TD-to-Int ratio, he’s just what the Gamecocks need.

Third, if Lattimore is healthy, he’s the best back in the conference, if not the country.  I have my doubts as to whether he can return 100% one season after surgery.  For his sake, I truly hope so, but that’s a lot to ask.  If, and that’s a big if, he can come back, the East will have a hard time stopping Carolina.

Fourth, though the overall schedule is harder, the East is somewhat down.  I just don’t see Florida jumping back to the top of the East in year two of Will Muschamp and I’m not sure Georgia has the discipline to compete for an entire season (especially in the head-to-head with South Carolina).

Fifth, I think their defense will be good enough.  The biggest loss was Gilmore, and the secondary won’t be as good as 2011, but the defensive line and linebacking corp are still both very good.

Yes, the environment has changed quite a bit for the Gamecocks compared to 2011, but they should have enough talent and coaching skill to fare very well, even with a tougher schedule.

14 Burning Questions for 2012: #3 – Alabama

14 SEC teams and 14 burning questions. One for each. Today we take a look at our favorite team, Alabama.

# 3 – Will Alabama fare better in 2012 than they did in 2010?

As a Tide fan, the 2010 season is one that can stick in your craw. For a lot of reasons.

The Tide entered that season as the defending national champions, ranked No. 1 again and riding a 14 game win streak. On top of that, the offense returned eight starters and many thought the unit could wind up being the best in school history. Among others, the unit returned Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson (although not a starter) and Greg McElroy. The offense was stacked.

The defense, on the other hand, returned only two starters, but most folks thought Nick Saban could work his magic and the D would be fine. (Only two starters returned, but we did have a lot of experienced players returning.)

Well, you know how 2010 turned out. Bama rode the No. 1 ranking for five weeks, but was ambushed by South Carolina in 35-21 thumping. The LSU game slipped through our fingers and then there was the Auburn game. We shall not discuss that one here.

The autopsy on the 2010 season revealed the following:
* Injuries hurt a bunch. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Marcel Dareus, DJ Fluker and Barrett Jones each battled through injuries, and though none weeper season-ending, when these guys were out they were missed and when they were less than 100%, you could tell it.
* It was tough to replace all of those All-Americans. Terrence Cody, Javier Arenas, Rolando McClain, Mike Johnson, Leigh Tiffin. When guys like these walk out the door, you don’t just replace them. You may have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country arriving, but you don’t replace a 22 year old man with an 18 year old freshman.
* The schedule was insane. Remember all those open weeks?
* Saban wasn’t happy with the leadership or effort of this bunch. You can’t overcome the items above without top shelf leadership and apparently Saban didn’t think it was there.

So what does this tell us about 2012? Well, let’s take a look at the above related to this season.

* Injuries. Obviously, we don’t know yet how this will play out this season, but heading into the off-season the Tide was pretty healthy. Running back is one area of concern with Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart coming off injuries. Cyrus Kouandjio is returning from a season ending knee injury as well, but should be 100%. CJ Mosley returns from an ugly hip injury suffered in the BCS title game, but should also be back to full speed.
* Replacing All-Americans. Richardson, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick. All those guys are gone and that’s going to hurt. Like with the 2010 season, you can’t lose that many quality players and expect to replace them straight up. We have talent back at all of these spots, but that doesn’t mean the transition won’t be interesting.
* Schedule. Unlike 2010, this schedule is somewhat manageable. Opening with Michigan should be interesting, especially as we break in new talent, but games with Arkansas and LSU will carry the same importance as last year. Thankfully, there won’t be a matchup with Georgia or South Carolina unless it’s in Atlanta at the SEC Championship game.
* Leadership. This also remains to be seen, but it doesn’t hurt to have folks like Barrett Jones, AJ McCarron, Robert Lester and Nico Johnson returning.

If the 2012 squad finishes with a 10-3 record we will no doubt be just as disappointed as we were following the 2010 season. But as you can see, it’s very, very difficult to repeat as a champion. One thing not mentioned above is this: The Tide continues to be circled on everyone’s calendar and that certainly won’t change this year.

14 Burning Questions for 2012: #4 – Georgia

14 SEC teams in 2012 and 14 burning questions.  Today we look at Georgia.

#4 – Will Mark Richt slide back onto the hot seat in 2012?

Last year I was on the money concerning Georgia.  I picked the Bulldogs to go 10-2 in the regular season – losing the first two and then winning 10 straight.  And it happened.  A called shot.

Dawg fans – and the press – were howling after the 0-2 start and the seat was pretty hot.  But 10 wins later, Richt earned himself a contract extension.

So it sounds ludicrous, to even mention it, but I will.  I think the biggest question concerning the Bulldogs this year is whether or not 2011 was an aberration, and if it was, Richt’s seat could get warm.

Why this question and why now?  Well, you see, the day before I wrote this piece, UGA sophomore running back Isaiah Crowell was kicked off of the team after being arrested.  Yes, I know the Dawgs have a few running backs besides Crowell, including all-world recruit Keith Marshall.

I know, I know.  Boys will be boys and with that comes the occasional arrest after being stopped at a check point at 3:00 a.m. in the morning.  But despite Richt being one of my favorite coaches, I get the feeling that things aren’t all right in Athens.  When teams are this close to a national title, you expect a little more intensity from the program.  You expect the players to tow the line.  You expect some self-policing.

Instead, with the Dawgs, you need a program to keep up with the suspensions.  Bulldog defenders Baccari Rambo, Alec Ogletree and Branden Smith are each facing suspensions to start the 2012 season.

So while we could be discussing Aaron Murray and whether or not he’s the best quarterback in the league (he’ll be a third year starter and he’s only a junior!) or if the Bulldog defense could possibly be the best unit n the league, instead we’re left to scratch our heads and wonder when we’ll hear about the next stupid Bulldog trick.

This team’s only real weakness is an inexperienced offensive line and the schedule is very manageable.  This could be a very special season for the Bulldogs, but I’m wondering if they have the leadership and character to pull it off.

14 Burning Questions for 2012: #5 – Arkansas

Fourteen teams and 14 questions.  We’re up to question #5 today and it relates to the Arkansas Razorbacks.

#5 – How much will the Razorbacks miss Bobby Petrino?

This may be the biggest question in the SEC this year, if not all of college football.

Bobby Petrino finally had the deck stacked in his favor this year.  Returning all star caliber quarterback?  Check.  One of the top running backs in the league?  Check.  A new defensive coordinator and renewed hope for the defense?  Check.  Your two toughest opponents at home this season?  Check.

And then Petrino threw it all away.

So how will the 2012 Hogs respond?  I think there’s two major possibilities.

First, obviously, losing their coach as they did could prove to be a rallying point for this team.  You know the deal, us versus the world.  The coaching staff remained in place and veteran John L. Smith was hired to guide the Hogs through this season.  There’s still a Petrino calling the plays, Bobby’s brother Paul.  So there’s a good chance 2012 will go just the same without Petrino as it would have with him.

On the other hand, if it was that easy everybody would be doing it.  There’s a reason Bobby Petrino was the head coach and not Paul Petrino.  There’s bound to be a difference in how the team responds with no Bobby Petrino on the sideline.

For most of the schedule, though, that difference probably won’t matter.  Jacksonville State, Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers and Tulsa.  Yawn.  Kentucky and Ole Miss?  More yawn.  Texas A&M (a), Auburn (a) and Mississippi State (a) are very winnable games, but the Hogs should be favored in each.  The Petrino “difference,” however, will be on display in the other three games: Alabama (h), South Carolina (a) and LSU (h).  With Alabama lined up third on the schedule, it won’t take long for us to see how this team responds with Smith and not Petrino at the helm.

When you take a look at what Arkansas returns this year, it underscores (again) how stupid Petrino was professionally (not to mention personally).  Of course there’s Tyler Wilson, who probably is the best quarterback in the conference.  He threw for over 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.  And you’ve heard that running back Knile Davis will be returning after missing all last year with an injury.  But the Hogs also bring back their top two rushers from last season, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo.  Yes, Arkansas lost a ton of talent at wide out, but, overall, they return four players that caught at least 20 passes last season.

Defensively, the Hogs should be better under new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes who comes to Fayetteville from Ohio State.  The defensive line returns six of their top eight players from last year (according to Phil Steele), the secondary is experienced, but the linebackers may be a step behind last year’s bunch.

Bobby Petrino left behind a talented, national title hunting team.  Perhaps John L. Smith will be able to finish what Petrino started.

14 Burning Questions for 2012: #6 – Florida

We’re looking at 14 SEC teams and 14 burning questions. Today we’re up to Florida.

#6 – How much of a year two bump will Florida experience under Will Muschamp?

Florida was a major disappointment in 2011. There’s no doubt about that. Despite having one of the more talented rosters in the conference, the Gators stumbled to a 7-6 mark, their lowest win total since Ron Zook’s final year in 2004.

Maybe a 7-6 mark could be expected in the first year of a new coaching staff. Heck, I even picked the Gators to have a 7-5 regular season mark.

But it was the way the Gators went about their business that was so disturbing.

After John Brantley was hurt against Alabama, the Gators went into the tank. Following the 38-10 loss to Bama, they received a 41-11 hammering by LSU, staggered through a 17-6 loss at Auburn, lost 24-20 to their bitter rival Georgia, narrowly averted a loss to Vandy and fell short against South Carolina, 17-12. That’s five losses in six games and maybe that was expected after Brantley’s injury, but the Gator coaching staff appeared completely uninspired and outmanned as they tried to deal with this adversity.

Take the Auburn game for example.

Against a defense that wound up surrendering an average of 408 yards per game, Florida managed 194 yards. That was by far Auburn’s best effort of the season and was the only time an opponent was held less than 200 yards. Yes, yes, I know Brantley was hurt and they had to play fill-ins. But the game planning and on the field coaching were totally uninspiring. Given the talent advantage held by Florida, this game shouldn’t have been close.

This year, the Gators are again rather loaded. In fact, in an upset, Phil Steele is picking the Gators to win the SEC East.

Two quarterbacks with experience return. The running backs are bigger and stronger and more suited to a pro-style type of attack. Their leading receiver returns. And the offensive line returns four starters.

Defensively, the Gators return 10 starters to a unit that wasn’t all that bad in 2011. Florida gave up 299.5 yards per game last year, good for 5th in the league.

The biggest addition to the team, though, may come in the form of a big subtraction. This year, Brent Pease replaces Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator.

So will all of this result in a big year two bounce for Muschamp and the Gators? Maybe, but the they will have to work for their bounce. The schedule includes LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State, but the other eight games look very winnable. Lose those four and your looking at a very average 8-4 season. Split those four and the Gators could finish 10-2 with a nice little second year bounce.

 

Perhaps it was because of a new coaching staff. Perhaps it was because of the Gators’ merry band of misfit five stars. Perhaps it was because of their offensive coordinator. Perhaps it was injuries. Perhaps it was all of the above. Whatever the reason, no team go so little out of so much like the Florida Gators.

It’s tough to have a brand new coaching staff led by a first-time head coach. That can definitely cause a few growing pains. It’s tough to lose key players to injury. That can always make a season much more difficult. But in 2011, Muschamp and the Gators

 

14 Burning Questions for 2014: #7 – Auburn

We’re’ half finished…14 SEC teams and a burning question for each.  Today we take a look at Auburn.

#7 – What magic will Gene Chizik pull out of his hat this year?

Whether you are an Auburn Tiger fan or not, one has to marvel at the coaching job pulled off by Gene Chizik over the last two year.

Stop that.  Stop the laughing.  I’m not trying to be funny.

Regardless of how he’s done it (and there’s a lot to talk about there), record-wise, Chizik has done an incredible job over the last two years.

First off, to bring home a national championship in 2010 was incredible.  Yes, I know he had Cam Newton, a once in a lifetime player.  But he held that team together during some incredibly different circumstances and he managed to win a title with one horrificly bad defense.  That’s some good coaching, folks.

The Tigers took a step back in the win-loss column in 2011, but for that team to win eight games was incredible.  Think about it.  The Tigers snatched wins away from Utah State and Mississippi State, took advantage of a comatose South Carolina team (and in the process cost the Gamecocks the SEC East title) and managed to beat a Florida team that practically only played with 10 players on offense.  Some might say that Tigers simply flexed their muscles in those four games and took victories that were rightfully theirs.  I just call it great coaching because Auburn should have been 4-8 last year.

A record of 4-8 also seems to fit the 2011 Tigers pretty well when you remember the shellackings they took a the hands of LSU, Georgia and Auburn.

Now, two years removed from Newton and a national title, the Tigers have cleaned out their coordinators and re-stocked their coaching staff.  One-time Georgia assistant Brian Van Gorder comes back to the college game from the NFL to coordinate the defense.  And Chizik hopes he’s hired a rising star in offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler who comes to Auburn from Temple.  The Van Gorder hire should be a sweet move by Chizik.  We’ll have to wait and see about Loeffler.

This year, much to their fan’s relief, the Tigers will begin the move to a pro-style offense.  Their offensive line is still young, but should be improved.  They’d be hard pressed to get much worse.  The running game has some talent, but probably none like the exiled Michael Dyer who ran for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.  They have talent at tight end and return several talented receivers – albeit receivers who have yet to live up to their billing as recruits. The Tigers also need a quarterback that can compete at the SEC level.  It remains to be seen whether that will happen in 2012.

Defensively, Auburn returns nine starters and I guess that’s a good thing.  Unless they are still shell-shocked from the beat downs they received last year.  Van Gorder should make a big difference for the Tigers, but a little more talent on this side of the ball wouldn’t hurt either.  The Tiger D should also benefit from the Tiger’s O switching to a pro-style offense.

The schedule is set up a bit easier this year, but it’s hard to see the Tigers topping last year’s seven win total in the regular season.  Clemson (Atlanta), Mississippi State (a) and LSU (h) make for a tough September.  Arkansas (h), Vandy (a) and Texas A&M (h) could make for an interesting October.  And Georgia (h) and Alabama (a) make for a tough November.

Again, it’s hard to predict Auburn topping seven wins in the regular season, but then again, Chizik may have some magic left.