With the level of talent across the conference, the margin for error in the SEC is razor thin. It is difficult to win conference games consistently without a complete roster.
Because of all the turnover on SEC rosters, there are question marks on every team. Here is the key position group on each SEC team heading into 2016 and some of the ways these questions can be answered.
Nick Saban’s team is a machine at this point. There are losses all over the field, but few are expected to matter with the depth on the roster. Alabama has four quarterbacks with a combined 17 recruiting stars competing for the position. In the end, Saban likely will go with whoever makes the least mistakes. Quarterbacks don’t have to take over games at Alabama – there’s plenty of other talent on the roster to do so.
Arkansas: Offensive line
It’s somewhat surprising to see Arkansas have questions on the offensive line, considering this is Bret Bielema’s signature position group. For that reason, the talent isn’t in too much question. The key will be developing the young group. Arkansas lost QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins and three offensive linemen. The line is the key group to make Bielema’s power-run offense work, and the unit will need to step up quickly.
Many thought Jeremy Johnson was set to be the next great Auburn quarterback. But as Johnson struggled to lead the Tigers past Jacksonville State, it became clear he might not be the answer. It still remains unclear who will start for Auburn this season. Junior college transfer John Franklin III would seem to be the best fit for Gus Malzahn’s system, but returner Sean White could hold onto his job. Regardless, the offense must be more dynamic than last year.
If there was any question how important quality quarterback play is to Jim McElwain’s offense, just look at the scoring output from last season. With QB Will Grier at the helm, the Gators went 6-0 and averaged 32.2 points per game. After Grier was suspended, the numbers plummeted to 16.5 points per game. Florida went 4-4 during that stretch. With Grier gone to West Virginia, former walk-on Luke Del Rio is expected to take over. He will need to move the ball if Florida is to contend for the SEC East.
Georgia: Defensive line
The Bulldogs have a complete defensive line overhaul in Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens, Ga. Luckily, building the front seven happens to be Smart’s specialty. Georgia has the ability to get elite talent on the defensive line, but it lacks experience. Trent Thompson and John Atkins combined for nine starts last year, but Georgia will need to find a way to create depth as the season goes on.
Mark Stoops has done an excellent job attracting talent to Lexington, Ky., but the defense still struggles. The defense ranked No. 59 nationally last season, and six of the top seven tacklers from last season’s team have departed. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love will be tasked with instantly becoming the leader of the defense in his first season of eligibility at UK. Kentucky desperately needs improvement on defense.
He may have just been named Preseason All-SEC Third Team, but QB Brandon Harris will face questions all season. With RB Leonard Fournette in the fold, the LSU offense is in good hands. Unfortunately, the offense goes only as far as Harris can. LSU needs Harris to be a threat passing the ball to open rushing lanes for Fournette.
Mississippi State: Quarterback
The Bulldogs lost program-changing QB Dak Prescott to the NFL. Prescott was responsible for more than 73 percent of the Bulldogs offense last season and nearly 12,000 total yards during his career. Mississippi State has little clarity about how it plans to replace him, both in the running and passing game. A stacked group of wide receivers should help, but whoever starts at quarterback will need to play at a high level for the Bulldogs to maintain success.
Missouri: Wide receivers
The Missouri offense was an absolute catastrophe last season, ranking No. 124 in total offense (280.9 yards per game) and No. 126 in scoring offense (13.6 points per game). In the eight games after Maty Mauk was dismissed, that went down to 10 points per game. Mizzou has confidence in QB Drew Lock, but he needs targets. Alabama transfer WR Chris Black, a former top-50 prospect, could be an X-factor. The leading receiver on last year’s squad, J’Mon Moore, accumulated 350 receiving yards.
Ole Miss: Offensive line
QB Chad Kelly is one of the best at his position, but there are questions across the rest of the offense. The Rebels need to protect Kelly, who is undoubtedly the most important piece on their offense. The Ole Miss offensive line is young heading into this season, even if there is talent throughout. With an opening-week game against Florida State, there is little time to waste.
South Carolina: Wide receivers
South Carolina’s offense struggled mightily after Steve Spurrier unexpectedly retired midseason. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp is tasked with fixing the offense. WR Pharoh Cooper is gone to the NFL, so major questions persist about skill-position players. Three quarterbacks are in contention for the starting job, but none will be able to compete without improvement at receiver.
Tennessee: Wide receivers
This is the year Tennessee has real expectations and has the roster to match. There is experience all over the field in Knoxville, Tenn., especially in the trenches. QB Joshua Dobbs is unspectacular, but he has proven his ability as a game manager during the past two seasons. In that stretch, only one receiver has produced 500 yards receiving. Tennessee needs a player to step up and turn into a reliable target for Dobbs to balance Jalen Hurd in the run game.
Texas A&M: Offensive line
In the first years under Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M produced impressive offensive lines. Unfortunately, as the linemen Mike Sherman recruited have graduated, the offensive line has deteriorated. Multiple underclassmen could start right away, which does not bode well for the Aggies. The offense fell apart last season after a mediocre performance by the line. That will not be enough for Sumlin to stick around College Station beyond next season.
Vanderbilt: Offensive line
For the first time under Derek Mason, there is reason for optimism at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have an outstanding defense and a standout running back in Ralph Webb. Vanderbilt even has confidence in new QB Kyle Shurmur. The biggest step to take is getting its line play up to an SEC level. Finding quality offensive linemen to compete with Florida, Tennessee and Georgia can be difficult. The rotation’s youth last season was a major detriment.