With summer upon us and fall moving quickly — too quickly — toward us, we’re starting to get plenty of “fall preview” questions when we appear on radio talkshows across the Southeast. Having answered the question, “What intrigues you about School X” umpteen times already, we thought it might be a good time to put all of the topics that most interest us together in one or two posts.
Yesterday, we shared with you our thoughts on the SEC East. Today, you’ll find our look at the SEC West and the seven questions — one per team — that we look forward to having answered in the fall. They’re listed in alphabetical order according to the school below…
Can Nick Saban coax the same chemistry and drive from this year’s team? After Alabama won the BCS championship in 2009, Saban spent his offseason trying to convince his 2010 team that — despite the return of many important players — the new squad wasn’t defending anything. The 2009 bunch won the title, not the 2010 team. But that message didn’t get through. The Tide stumbled to a 9-3 finish. Since then, Saban has led his 2011 and his 2012 squads to national crowns. Obviously, the coach knows what it takes to win and what it takes to repeat. But will this particular group of players heed his warnings of “you ain’t won nothing yet?”
How will Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney co-exist? At Wisconsin, Bielema’s teams almost always finished in the bottom-quarter of the Big Ten in pass attempts. Chaney is known for having an itchy trigger finger when it comes to the passing game. At Purdue, Drew Brees and Kyle Orton winged it for him. At Tennessee, Tyler Bray was the gunslinger. Now the run-first head coach and the pass-first coordinator are teaming up with a first-year starting quarterback and a roster made up of recruits signed to play Bobby Petrino’s pass-heavy style. This might be the most fascinating mixture to watch in the SEC in 2013.
Was Auburn’s 2010 BCS title more a product of Gus Malzahn’s offense or Cam Newton’s amazing talents? Malzahn — hired to replace old boss Gene Chizik this offseason — has tested his up-tempo offense three times in the SEC. (And no, we’re not counting the year that he was given little power as Houston Nutt’s offensive coordinator at Arkansas.) In his season on the Plains with Newton at quarterback, Malzahn’s offense led the league in scoring (40.2 points per game versus SEC foes in 2010). In the other two seasons without Newton, the Tigers finished fifth (25.0 points per game in 2009) and eighth (20.0 points per game in 2011) in the SEC. That’s quite a difference. Now Malzahn returns to AU without a sure-thing at quarterback and a need to focus on both the offense and the defense. It’s time to for Malzahn to earn the big bucks.
Can the Tigers’ offense carry the defense for a change? Defensive coordinator John Chavis will return just three starters, so it seems there’s little chance that even a man of his reputation can steer LSU to yet another top three finish in SEC total defense. That means the pressure is on new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and returning quarterback Zach Mettenberger to set off a few more fireworks on their side of the ball. If LSU is truly ready to air it out a bit more — and the Mettenberger from last year’s Alabama game shows up to do it — the Tigers might avoid a slip even with all those departures on D.
Has Dan Mullen maxed out in Starkville or do the Bulldogs have a higher ceiling? Mullen became the most popular man in the Magnolia State when he led MSU to a 9-4 record and blowout bowl win over Michigan in 2010. Since then the Dogs have been to two more bowl games, but their overall record has been just 15-11 including a 2012 swoon that saw State fall from 7-0 to 8-5. Ole Miss snapped a three-game MSU win streak in the Egg Bowl to make matters worse. Is there still an ace to be pulled or has Mullen already played his best hand?
How patient will Ole Miss fans be in 2013? Hugh Freeze got off to a remarkably hot start as an SEC head coach. A team picked to finish last in the SEC West actually managed to reach a bowl game, win seven games, and beat its arch-rival at year’s end. Then in February Ole Miss snared a top 10 recruiting haul. That’s the stuff of which high expectations are made. But it’s going to take time for all those snazzy new freshman to settle into life in a college program. Do Rebel fans understand that or will they expect the same kind of second-year jump that Mullen had at MSU and that James Franklin recorded at Vanderbilt? Those coaches had a few more veterans than Freeze will have this fall.
Will Johnny Manziel continue to be the straw that stirs the drink at Texas A&M? No one has had a more exciting, fun-filled offseason than A&M’s Heisman-winning quarterback. And there’s still more than a month of it left. With Manziel making so many headlines off the field — throwing out a first pitch here, saying he wants out of College Station there — any decline in production could lead to some backlash from disappointed Aggie fans. And as great as Manziel was in 2012, Florida and LSU might have given everyone a blueprint for dealing with the fleet-footed star last season. You can bet a lot of teams on A&M’s schedule are considering a “mush rush” that clogs up the middle of the line without flushing Manziel out of the pocket where he’s at his most dangerous.