With the annual Southeastern Conference Media Days scheduled to start in eight days, it’s time to get back into college football mode.
The SEC had its national championship streak broken by Florida State, but in a league that features some of the best coaches and players in all of college football, the storylines are endless. In no particular order, here are 10 of the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC.
1. New quarterbacks: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, LSU Zach Mettenberger, Missouri’s James Franklin and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw have moved on, leaving some of the league’s perennial powers searching for answers at the quarterback spot.
Guys such as Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace are a few of the top returners. Don’t be surprised if the league’s passing numbers take a huge dip with teams being more conservative.
2. Will Jacob Coker meet expectations? It’s been a long time since a player with so little game experience has garnered so much attention and praise. Whether it’s analysts saying he’ll be the best quarterback of the Nick Saban era or fans making national championship plans, Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker has a lot of expectations to live up to.
Coker may turn out to be a mixture of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers with Joe Flacco’s arm strength and Michael Vick’s speed. Maybe he’ll have a Cam Newton-type season and become the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. But it’s way too early to tell. Also, Alabama’s last two quarterbacks led the Crimson Tide to national championships. No pressure, kid.
3. How will Auburn handle the pressure? Not many predicted Auburn’s quick return to glory that occurred in Gus Malzahn’s first year at the helm. Now, the Tigers go from being the hunter to the hunted.
Earlier this offseason, Malzahn said the Tigers won’t be able to sneak up on anyone. There’s a different feeling when every team on your schedule circles you as the game they won’t to play their best in. With an extra year of game tape of Malzahn’s offense, defenses should be more prepared for what’s coming. Defensive coordinators will be out to slow Auburn’s high powered rushing attack. But if Malzahn’s second act is as good as his first, watch out league.
4. What will the Iron Bowl do for an encore? After two blowouts in 2011 and 2012, the Iron Bowl produced one of the most memorable finishes in all of sports. And with both teams expected to be highly ranked this season, college football’s best rivalry could once again be a winner-take-all for the SEC West.
Alabama’s Nick Saban wants nothing more than to prove he can stop the no-huddle, spread-offense attacks.
Malzahn wants to show the college football world that last season wasn’t a fluke. Get your popcorn ready.
5. Who will emerge as the league’s biggest star? With Manziel, McCarron, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and other big names gone, the SEC lacks the big-name star power it has had in recent years.
Most of the focus this season will likely switch back to coaching battles. But like everyone season, there’s likely a star or two no one is talking about who’ll become a household name by season’s end.
6. Will the SEC get more than one team in the playoffs? Two teams playing for the national championship in 2011 (Alabama, LSU) is arguably the biggest reason there is a four-team playoff system now.
Many believe having a playoff committee eliminates this possibility, but there’s still a chance the SEC could end with multiple teams this year’s playoff field. If that happens, expect a jump to eight teams sooner rather than later.
7. Which five-star freshman makes the biggest splash this season? While turning out a lot of NFL players, SEC teams always restock with elite talent in recruiting.
According to 247Sports Composite rankings, seven of the top 10 prospects in the 2014 recruiting cycle went to SEC schools.
While there are many blue chip prospects to choose from, LSU running back Leonard Fournette will likely have the best season. With Jeremy Hill moving on, LSU needs a workhorse back and Fournette definitely fits that mold. He was the nation’s No. 2 player according to 247Sport Composite rankings. At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, Fournette is as skilled as they come. Look for him to make a big splash.
8. Will Florida rebound? After the year Florida had in 2013, things can’t get much worse. The Gators finished 4-8, including 3-5 in the SEC, with losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern sprinkled in. Injuries and other bad luck to led the Gators to one of its worst seasons in school history. Will Muschamp is likely coaching for his job and needs a big year. The schedule is tough once again, but that won’t be an excuse for Florida fans who are hungry to win.
9. Heisman candidates: Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon are three who jump out.
Marshall will likely improve as a passer with another year in Malzahn’s system. Gurley is widely regarded as the best running back in the nation, with Yeldon not being too far behind. The question for Gurley is whether he can stay healthy enough. For Yeldon, many believe he could lose a few carries with Alabama being so loaded at running back.
There are also darkhorse candidates such as Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. Remember, no one was talking about Auburn’s Tre Mason this team last year as a Heisman candidate. All it takes is a hot streak at the right time to earn an invite to New York.
10. Lane Kiffin: The former Southern California head coach makes for an interesting storyline simply because he’s Lane Kiffin.
But more importantly, Kiffin joining Nick Saban’s staff gives Alabama two of the most polarizing coaches in college football. How will Kiffin handle Saban’s in-game demeanor?
Who much will Saban allow Kiffin to change the offense? Also, if things don’t go well for Alabama’s offense, how quickly will the fanbase turn on Kiffin?
So many questions. The season can’t get here fast enough.
Sports Writer Marq Burnett: On Twitter @Marq_Burnett.