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Vince’s Vibe: The 2nd biggest question for each SEC team

We’ve heard and read a lot about the biggest question that each of the 12 SEC football teams have going into the start of the 2011 season this week.

So, what’s the second biggest question each team needs to find an answer to quickly once the games begin? What’s the likely outcome of that second question? What else should we look for from each team?

Here are the questions and some answers in SEC football.

SEC East

Florida Gators

1st Question We Know About: Can Charlie Weis make John Brantley a good quarterback?

Question #2: How good is this defense, which has talent that hasn’t lived up to potential yet?

The Answer: I think the results will be mixed. Will Muschamp spends a lot of time working with the defense. You expect him to get more out of the players than last year. The difficult thing is you often don’t see big results from a new staff and new schemes until year two. There will be some good moments and some shaky moments.

Other Things To Watch: New pieces in the offensive line; can a WR consistently catch a football; finding ways to use Demps/Rainey/Burton/Reed

Georgia Bulldogs

1st Question We Know About: Is Isaiah Crowell the next stud freshman RB to make an impact in the SEC, which Georgia needs so badly for him to be?

Question #2: Will any WRs emerge to give Aaron Murray the multiple weapons in the passing game?

The Answer: No one guy is likely to replace A.J. Green. I think three guys to watch that will give them a chance are Marlon Brown, Tavarres King and talented true freshman Malcolm Mitchell. The feedback about those guys in camp has been promising. It wouldn’t surprise me to see big plays from Mitchell before too long.

Other Things To Watch: Todd Grantham’s 2nd year with the 3-4 defense; an offensive line that’s suffered some injuries; the nation’s best special teams

Kentucky Wildcats

1st Question We Know About: How do they replace Randall Cobb?

Question #2: How good is QB Morgan Newton?

The Answer: Joker Phillips has had plenty of compliments for Newton in camp. I’m not as optimistic. He’ll likely flash at times and be inconsistent throwing the football.

Other Things To Watch: The needed defensive improvement under first year DC Rick Minter; offensive line gelling to make a strong unit; who are the impact freshmen

South Carolina Gamecocks

1st Question We Know About: Will Stephen Garcia seize his alleged last chance as SC’s QB?

Question #2: Can the pass defense be better?

The Answer: It should. The pass rush of the terrific trio of defensive ends will help. Scheme will help as well. You’ll see the Gamecocks in a 4-2-5 alignment quite a bit. I expect CB Stephon Gilmore to have his best, most consistent year.

Other Things To Watch: Jadaveon Clowney; the most team speed maybe ever at South Carolina, how good are the linebackers; how will Connor Shaw play if he gets a chance

Tennessee Volunteers

1st Question We Know About: Is quarterback Tyler Bray legit?

Question #2: Will the defense be better in year-two under DC Justin Wilcox?

The Answer: A little, but not much. The addition of true freshmen linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson into the starting line-up gives the defense a few SEC-caliber physical specimens. The problem is they need more. Big JUCO transfer NT Maurice Couch didn’t beat out converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood for the starting spot for game one. Talented and troubled safety Janzen Jackson was dismissed from the team. That makes an already young defense (6 starters are either freshmen or sophomores) even younger. The good news is, with much better numbers in the secondary, they’ll at least be able to play a lot of nickel coverages which they couldn’t do a year ago. That was a handicap last year and should help them improve some.

Other Things To Watch: An offensive line that has a chance to be a Top 4 unit in the SEC; freshmen impact players on offense RB-Marlin Lane/WR-Vincent Dallas/WR-DeAnthony Arnett/TE-Cam Clear; better kickoff distance; someone to field a punt cleanly and give them a chance for some punt return yards this year

Vanderbilt Commodores

1st Question We Know About: Will VU be any different with James Franklin as HC?

Question #2: Will Larry Smith stay as the starting quarterback or will Aaron Rodgers’ little brother Jordan Rodgers get a chance?

The Answer: I don’t think Vandy can win with Larry Smith. In order for this team to have a fighting chance, it has to be able to throw the football. Rodgers fits the pro-style formations they’d like to do but won’t with Smith running the show. Smith will get pulled eventually, if Rodgers is ready for SEC play.

Other Things To Watch: How bad is the offensive line; can the ‘Dores be better on the D-line; the health of the excellent RB tandem of Zac Stacy and Warren Norman

SEC West

Alabama Crimson Tide

1st Question We Know About: Who will win the McCarron/Sims QB competition?

Question #2: How will the WR position shake-out post-Julio Jones?

The Answer: Two players to watch are speedy redshirt freshman DeAndrew White and JUCO transfer Duron Carter, son of NFL great Cris Carter. I don’t think Marquis Maze will be a true number one receiver, but he doesn’t need to be. Darius Hanks will be very productive when he returns in game three. There are a host of other highly-recruited and talented guys that will get some opportunities to break-out.

Other Things To Watch: Where will All-American Barrett Jones play on the offensive line; need better pass rush; more consistency from the kickers; nation’s best defense

Arkansas Razorbacks

1st Question We Know About: Can the hogs overcome the loss of RB Knile Davis?

Question #2: How much better, if at all, will the defense be?

The Answer: A little better which is good enough. The Razorbacks have an All-SEC caliber player on every level of the defense. This unit doesn’t need to be great for Arkansas to be great as a team.

Other Things To Watch: Tyler Wilson; the two new offensive tackles; more reliable kicking game; the nation’s best group of wide receivers

Auburn Tigers

1st Question We Know About: Can Gus Malzahn still get productivity from the offense with no Cammie Cam and four starters gone on the offensive line?

Question #2: Is Barrett Trotter good enough to run this offense effectively?

The Answer: I don’t think so. The offense will make some plays but it will drop off dramatically because of the quarterback play and the young offensive line. Auburn taking part in the Russell Wilson sweepstakes should have been a clear indicator to everyone of what they thought of their older QBs. Kiehl Frazier is the QB of the future but isn’t ready yet.

Other Things To Watch: Needed improvement from the secondary; how much drop-off in the defensive line with Fairley gone; who are the impact freshmen

LSU Tigers

1st Question We Know About: How do the Tigers handle all of the distractions and suspensions?

Question #2: Will LSU be better off without Jordan Jefferson at quarterback?

The Answer: It’s amazing to me that so many people criticize Jefferson to no end and then when he’s suspended, they think the team will fall apart without him. Which is it? I think Jarrett Lee is steady and deserves the opportunity. I even think Zach Mettenberger can give LSU a different dynamic from the quarterback position that could open things up for the offense. I don’t think LSU totally falls apart.

Other Things To Watch: Perhaps the nation’s best secondary; replacing injured starting OG Josh Dworaczyk; the impressive stable of young running backs

Mississippi State Bulldogs

1st Question We Know About: Is QB Chris Relf really better?

Question #2: Will James Carmon or Blaine Clausell be SEC-level at LT?

The Answer: I give Carmon, a converted DT, the edge to get to that level. He’s still raw but has the size and the aggressive mindset to develop. There will be some growing pains at this spot though. MSU fans have to hope Chris Relf doesn’t get hurt before a LT develops.

Other Things To Watch: Talented but inconsistent wide receivers; will there be a drop-off in the pass rush; the shaky, at best, kicking game that has been brutal in camp

Ole Miss Rebels

1st Question We Know About: How good is transfer QB Barry Brunetti?

Question #2: Does Houston Nutt have more low-expectation tricks up his sleeve?

The Answer: Of course. That’s how he rolls. He’ll have true freshmen play well that no one outside of Oxford knows about. He’ll gamble with crazy play-calls that produce big plays. He’ll beat one or two really good teams that he’s not supposed to. Don’t sleep on the Rebs. These are the types of years where Houston Nutt teams succeed, when nothing is expected of them.

Other Things To Watch: Can they find dominant defensive linemen like years past; a big and experienced offensive line; big plays in special teams.

Vince Ferrara has more than 10 years experience in sports broadcasting, in numerous SEC and Big 12 markets, working in sports radio, play-by-play and television. You can hear him host the “News Sentinel Sports Page” weekdays 10am-12pm ET on WNML - “The Sports Animal” in Knoxville and read more of his work at Examiner.com. 

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Report: Pearl Insubordination Played A Role In Firing

A radio report in Knoxville has shined a bit more light on the final weeks of the Bruce Pearl era today.  Jimmy Hyams of WNML-AM/FM reports that — as suspected — Tennessee center Brian Williams missed two late-season games due to a drug issue.  But it was Pearl’s handling of that issue that cost him some favor with his bosses.

Williams allegedly refused to take a drug test.  As a result he was held out of Tennessee’s last two regular season games against South Carolina and Kentucky.  According to a WNML source, Pearl was told to provide the old “violation of team rules” explanation for why Williams would miss two games.  Instead, he said that his senior had a back issue. 

“Backs are funny things,” Pearl told The Knoxville News Sentinel at the time.

The fact that Pearl — apparently — disobeyed the wishes of his boss AD Mike Hamilton “caused a rift between Pearl, Hamilton and UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek,” according to Hyams.

Some will no doubt say that that kind of cover-up goes on everywhere.  Maybe it does.  And some will likely say that the player was still punished… missing two games.  True enough.

But if you’ve gotten yourself, your program, your school and your boss in hot water by committing earlier NCAA violations and attempting to cover them up, it’s probably best to follow the instructions your employer gives you.

At the very least, this report — if accurate — shows that while the Tennessee administration erred in its handling of Pearl’s ouster, the coach himself asked for said ouster by not following simple, standard directions like many other “good soldier” coaches across the country.  How many times do you hear “violation of team rules” on a daily basis?  Answer: a bunch.

After sticking their necks (and their reputations) out for Pearl by keeping him, Hamilton and Cheek had a right to be angry if the man they stood behind refused to follow orders.

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Pearl Didn’t Tell UT About Bump Rule Violation; School’s Support Wavering

Apparently Tennessee officials had a good reason for not self-reporting a bump rule violation that took place last September, just four days after a press conference announcing self-imposed penalties against Bruce Pearl… Pearl didn’t tell the school about the violation.

In an interview scheduled to run this afternoon on WNML-AM/FM in Knoxville, UT athletic director Mike Hamilton tells radio host Jimmy Hyams that the school found out about Pearl’s accidental bump with a recruit at Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy when the NCAA informed them of it in November.

At the time, Hamilton continued to say that Tennessee wanted to keep Pearl as its head coach even if the NCAA handed him a one-year suspension.  But that support seems to be wavering.

“We don’t know the answer today,” the AD said when asked if Pearl will return.  “We’ve done a lot of soul searching about the direction of our program and we’ll continue to do that and we’ll decide after we’re out of the NCAA Tournament what direction it is that we’re going to go next.”

“We’re not going to finish our evaluation until after the season is over.”

It’s possible that the media backlash against Pearl’s post-presser bump violation — as well as UT’s disappointing season — have eroded some of the coach’s base.  He is still working without a contract at this time.  Asked if Pearl is bothered by that fact, Hamilton said: “I’m sure he is.  Absolutely.  But he had a chance to have had a contract back in November and December and we just never got to the finish line.  Now we’ve got to the point where we don’t feel like we can do that.”

As we said at the time, Pearl should have signed whatever contract UT placed before him.  He was lucky to have a job.  And after Tennessee and Hamilton took a beating in the national press for standing by him, it’s certainly understandable that they would be upset that he did not inform them of the bump rule violation… whether he viewed it to be a serious infraction or not.

The interview with Hamilton will run in the Knoxville market at 3pm ET.  Our thanks to WNML for the heads-up.  We’ll have more on MrSEC.com after the interview airs.

Here’s a link to the audio of the interview and a full story by Hyams.

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