It’s been more than seven months since Alabama captured the national championship. That’s a long time to wait for the return of college football.
On Thursday, that wait ends for South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Tennessee. By the time Labor Day is over, the wait will be over for the rest of the SEC as well.
Here is the major storyline for each SEC school heading into Week 1:
Another year, another QB battle — Alabama opens its season at AT&T Stadium against Southern California (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC). And, for the third time in as many seasons, there isn’t a clear starting quarterback.
Nick Saban has narrowed the field down to two for the opener, as Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett will both see action against the Trojans. Freshman Jalen Hurts, who has been impressive at times during the spring and summer, can’t be ruled out in the weeks ahead, either.
At most schools, this would be a bigger deal. But the Crimson Tide have experience with this sort of thing.
The last two starters, Jake Coker and Blake Sims, both emerged from crowded fields and went on to finish near the top of the SEC in both yards and passer rating. There’s no reason to believe that it can’t happen again in 2o16.
Following big brother — Austin Allen will take the reins at quarterback for Arkansas when it hosts Louisiana Tech Saturday (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network). It’s a job that his coaches believe he’s prepared to handle.
He has a hard act to follow, since his brother, Brandon, tossed 30 touchdown passes and led the league in passer rating last fall. With his familiarity with the system and his skill set, however, the younger Allen seems to be in prime position to succeed.
How the offensive line will shape up in front of him might actually be a bigger concern.
How will Auburn fare against Clemson? — We could talk about the quarterback battle, won by Sean White, or the running back attrition during the offseason. But the real question for Auburn this week is more basic than that.
How will it look against the nation’s second-ranked team on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)?
Auburn is a 7.5-point underdog on its home field. It must find a way to slow down Deshaun Watson and the high-powered Clemson offense.
Should Auburn succeed on that side of the ball, it still needs to see more production from White to stay in what figures to be a shootout.
A loss is never OK, but if the game is competitive, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for Auburn. But if Gus Malzahn’s team doesn’t play well, and comes out on the wrong end of a lopsided score, it will set a worrying tone for the season ahead.
What can Jim McElwain do for an encore? — A SEC East title was a fine way to begin the McElwain era in Gainesville. But the novelty faded a bit towards the end of last season when the Gators bottomed out with a 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan.
The coach is hoping that Luke Del Rio brings some stability to the quarterback position and that UMass (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) provides a nice, comfortable start to this year’s schedule.
The Minutemen will play hard, but shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the Gators. Fans want to see Del Rio play well and the new faces in the defensive front seven gain some confidence ahead of next week’s SEC opener against Kentucky.
Who’s getting the start at QB? — Kirby Smart isn’t in any hurry to tell us who’s going to be starting under center when his Bulldogs meet North Carolina (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the Georgia Dome.
It seems likely that both Greyson Lambert and Jacob Eason will play in the opener. Perhaps Smart is planning to emulate the Alabama approach and let the battle play out into the regular season.
Nick Chubb will be behind one of them at the running back position and serves as an excellent security blanket. His running mate, Sony Michel, is a game time decision.
A strong rushing game would certainly take the pressure off that quarterback battle.
Is this the year? — After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Kentucky fans are ready to return to a bowl game. The first step in that process is a visit from Southern Miss (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
With some challenging games on the schedule, the race to six wins and postseason eligibility starts this week.
“I think it’s certainly important,” Stoops said. “There’s no denying that. There’s a lot of people sitting in this room and a lot of people sitting in those stands that want to see what this team’s all about.”
Living up to the hype — The Tigers are getting some preseason love with some suggesting that they could win the SEC and work their way into the playoff.
A loss to Wisconsin Saturday at Lambeau Field (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) wouldn’t be an ideal start to those grand schemes.
Running back Leonard Fournette will be looking to get his Heisman Trophy campaign off to a fast start against the Badgers. Fans will be looking more at quarterback Brandon Harris and hoping to see improvement.
Life without Dak — Dak Prescott left Starkville as the most decorated quarterback in school history. The Bulldogs start the new season without him Saturday at home against South Alabama (Noon ET, SECN).
Damian Williams and Nick Fitzgerald are the leading contenders to replace Prescott, but coach Dan Mullen hasn’t named a starter yet.
Mullen would never admit it, but carrying out those auditions against the Jaguars is an ideal situation for his team.
Turning the page — Gary Pinkel retired, Maty Mauk transferred, and it’s been a few months since the social unrest on Missouri’s campus.
New coach Barry Odom’s squad will look to put the focus back on the field when it visits West Virginia Saturday (Noon ET, FS1).
How will new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense look in a hostile environment? Will the retooled offensive line be better? Who’s running the ball?
Those are just a few of the questions that fans hope to have answered in the opener.
Contender or pretender? — With 12 starters gone from last year’s team, including a trio of NFL first-round picks, Ole Miss isn’t a popular pick to win the SEC West this year.
Outside of Oxford, anyway.
The Rebels still have the SEC’s best quarterback, Chad Kelly, and enough talent to make a run. They’ll be tested on Labor Day night when they travel to Orlando to play Florida State (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Ole Miss is a slight underdog in this one, but a win over the Seminoles would have everyone rethinking those preseason projections.
Here comes the “Boom” — Will Muschamp begins his second chance as a head coach for a SEC school when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
He hasn’t put a foot wrong since arriving in Columbia. He hired quality assistants and pulled in a solid first recruiting class. He’s restored some excitement to a program that had grown a bit stale.
All that’s great, but now it’s time to see how that translates to the field.
Life as the hunted — Tennessee is everyone’s pick to win the SEC East. A few pundits have taken it even farther, suggesting that the Volunteers could win the league and wind up in the playoff.
How the program deals with that is one thing, but how opponents react to it is another. The first test arrives in the form of Appalachian State on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, SECN).
The Mountaineers, nearly a three-touchdown underdog, will be playing without pressure. Dealing with that will be an issue all year for the Volunteers. Might as well start getting used to it.
Making a statement — Since the end of last season, most of the news out of College Station has been bad. Transfers, changes in the athletic department and coaches running afoul of expectations have put a cloud over the program.
The sun can shine again with a win over UCLA on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
It won’t be easy, because the Bruins have Josh Rosen, one of the nation’s better quarterbacks. However, the Aggies can pick up a ton of confidence with a win, setting them up for a bounce-back season.
Ring the bell — Coach Derek Mason is talking about bowl games, sparring with USA Today over his team’s ranking and writing letters to fans asking for support for the opener against South Carolina.
He’s fighting for his program, and that’s admirable. But as a home favorite against a SEC foe coming off a 3-9 season, this is a game he needs to win.
If he and the Commodores want to prove they’re worthy of better press, they need to beat South Carolina and take the early lead in the SEC East race.