Now is the time for answers. Less than a week of preseason camp remains, then a week of game-week prep and – boom! – the 2016 college football season is upon us. So what’s the one big question each SEC team needs to answer between now and the opener?
With a little help from writers across the region, including many of our own SEC Country scribes and a few outside experts, a look at the most important unknown for all 14 programs:
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Can this new-starting-QB thing go off without a hitch again? Barring a surprise in the next two weeks, junior Cooper Bateman will likely be the Week 1 starter against Southern California. He’s the only quarterback on the roster who has attempted a pass – 52 of them last season, actually, completing 37 – for the Crimson Tide. But 4-star freshmen Jalen Hurts (true) and Blake Barnett (redshirt) look like better prospects. Hurts, a dual threat, might be the most talented of the bunch, but Nick Saban isn’t quick to take a chance on a rookie. What’s more, Barnett’s ability is being overshadowed by turnovers in scrimmages. Yes, Alabama has won multiple national titles now with a new guy under center, but isn’t this pattern beginning to tempt fate?
What if Austin Allen goes down? The Razorbacks feel good about replacing Brandon Allen with his younger brother, Austin, a three-year understudy who is ready for a leading role. But there is enormous uncertainty behind him. Bret Bielema and his staff, who feel like they’ve addressed losses at running back and offensive line, have a week to find who they trust in the event of an injury to Allen. Incredibly, former blue-chip recruit and Southern California transfer Ricky Town appears to be out of that mix, as does sophomore Rafe Peavey. So it’s down to redshirt freshman Ty Storey and 6-fooft-7 true freshman Cole Kelley, a camp surprise.
Is this John Franklin III’s team or not? After senior Jeremy Johnson and sophomore Sean White struggled through last season (11 TD, 11 INT combined), it seemed certain Franklin would be the guy in 2016. The former Florida State quarterback and JUCO transfer with speed to burn conjured memories of Nick Marshall. But maybe there’s a reason he didn’t start for his junior-college team of “Last Chance U” fame/infamy. All three Auburn quarterbacks have gotten work with the first team and Gus Malzahn seems no closer to settling on one. Might this competition drag into the season? Could the Tigers go with a two-QB rotation? Is that a terrible idea with No. 2 Clemson coming to town Week 1? Probably, yes, to the last one.
Which receiver(s) not named Antonio Callaway will emerge as threats? Callaway (19.4 yards per catch, 2 punt-return TDs as a freshman) is the closest thing to Percy Harvin at Florida since the do-everything playmaker left Gainesville after the 2008 season. But he can’t be the only offensive weapon. Slot receivers Dre Massey, a JUCO transfer, and Brandon Powell, healthy after two years of foot problems, could become that No. 2 option. If not, a trio of 4-star true freshmen – Tyrie Cleveland, Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain – is eager to take a crack at it.
To freshman or not to freshman? That is the question for new coach Kirby Smart. Senior Greyson Lambert was a solid quarterback last fall: 63.3 percent completions, 12 touchdowns, 2 interceptions. But his 163.3 yards passing per game hardly struck fear into the hearts of SEC defenses. He’s the safe choice. However, junior Brice Ramsey (582 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT in two seasons) and true freshman Jacob Eason have higher ceilings and more unknowns. Eason, the nation’s No. 1 quarterback prospect in the Class of 2016, is the future. Smart just has to decide whether that future could be damaged by playing the kid too soon.
Where’s the pass rush coming from? The Wildcats ranked last in the conference and 109th nationally last season in sacks and lost a starting defensive lineman three days into camp. Sophomore outside linebacker Denzil Ware showed flashes in 2015 and Mark Stoops hopes former JUCO ends Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell are ready to make an impact in their second season at Kentucky. Still, there’s not a player on the roster with more than 3 career sacks. This is where the dismissals of former 4-star recruits Lloyd Tubman and Jason Hatcher could really begin to sting.
Will Leonard Fournette get some help from the passing game? LSU has arguably the best running back in college football, in Fournette, a Heisman favorite, but he can only do so much. To contend for the SEC West title and a spot in the College Football Playoff, junior quarterback Brandon Harris has to finally put it all together this fall. With two NFL-caliber wide receivers at his disposal, former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig helping mentor him, and a new offense that should emphasize the short-passing game, Harris is set up to succeed. With three preseason camps and a wealth of game experience under his belt, it’s time for Harris to make the leap.
Can the offensive line hold up? Following massive attrition, the Tigers have just one lineman left who has started any games for them (three by guard Aelc Abeln). Memphis graduate transfer Michael Stannard (nine starts there) was a welcome addition, as was massive JUCO transfer Tyler Howell. But there’s virtually no depth, meaning a single injury could be catastrophic. The glass-half-full outlook: It can’t get much worse than 2015, when Missouri ranked 10th in the SEC in sacks allowed and dead last in rushing. Still, an unproven and perilously thin line is no way to comfort quarterback Drew Lock, a former top recruit who is trying to shake off a confidence-clobbering freshman season.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
How many QBs does it take to replace Dak Prescott? It probably won’t be one. It might be as many as three. Fourth-year junior Damian Williams (425 yards passing, 175 rushing, 4 total TD in his career) is the only option who has actually started a game or faced an SEC defense, but he sat out last season. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald has the biggest arm and most prototypical size (6-5, 230). He served as Prescott’s backup last season (11 of 14 for 235 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT), but struggled some this spring. Then there’s the pup, redshirt freshman Nick Tiano, who has thrust himself into the competition this fall. Tiano reminds many of Prescott with his innate leadership qualities, but he’s never played in a game. Each brings something to the table, but none is ready to replace an MSU legend.
OLE MISS REBELS
Who fills Laremy Tunsil’s shoes at left tackle? Well, no one. Quarterback Chad Kelly is likely to feel less comfortable this fall without the first-round NFL draft pick protecting his blind side. Somebody’s going to have to man that post, but it remains unclear who’ll win the job. Junior Rod Taylor (6-3, 329), a former 5-star recruit, is the most-experienced option, having started two games in each of the last two seasons — but at right guard. He’s also coming back from shoulder surgery and trying to work his way out of coach Hugh Freeze’s doghouse for disciplinary issues. Redshirt freshman Alex Givens and true freshman Greg Little (who fans hope is the next Tunsil) are the other choices. Both likely have higher ceilings than Taylor, but neither has played in a college game.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Who’s the quarterback? (Or how many?) Will it be incumbent starter Perry Orth (1,929 yards, 12 TD, 9 INT in 2015) or one of the freshmen — Brandon McIlwain or Jake Bentley? Or a combination of two? All three even? Each has had his moments in camp. Will Muschamp is going to put off naming a starter as long as he possibly can – like, maybe moments before the opening game. At this point, it seems more likely than not that he’ll use multiple quarterbacks Week 1 at Vanderbilt. Muschamp swears he’s not worried about that position as the Gamecokcs have good options. Still, the situation creates uncertainity for all involved.
Is there championship depth on the offensive line? Tennessee has a standout quarterback, loaded backfield, star-studded defense and elite special teams. It also has a solid starting offensive line, but depth is a real question up front – especially now, with right tackle Chance Hall out for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. Losing him highlighted how thin the Vols are at tackle and has resulted in some musical chairs during camp to make sure they’re covered if anyone else goes down. The SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league. If anything can unravel the most promising season for Tennessee in almost a decade, it might be the big uglies. That group needs to prove itself seven- or eight-deep to make a run at the league title (and beyond).
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Does Jim Turner have enough to work with? A&M was thrilled to get Turner, the architect of a 2012 offensive line that produced five NFL players, back. The Aggies are less thrilled to return just two starters: left tackle Avery Gennesy and right guard Keaton Sutherland, who played left guard last season. With a veteran quarterback (Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight) and maybe the best wide receiver corps in the SEC, all the Aggies need is a little time to throw and catch. There are several former blue-chip recruits stepping into larger roles up front, but none have established they can play at this level. With little in the way of depth, an injury or two could wreck this group.
Are the quarterback and receivers in sync? The Commodores have settled on sophomore Kyle Shurmur as their best option under center. After all, he went 2-2 in SEC play in 2015 while the rest of the quarterbacks were 0-12 in league games over the last two years. However, Shurmur’s 42.7 percent completion rate is alarming. Throw-and-catch chemistry must improve to ignite an offense that ranked 117th nationally in yards per game. Vandy should get a boost from the return of C.J. Duncan, the team’s top wideout in 2014 who missed last season with a torn Achilles. On the other hand, Shurmur has never thrown a pass to Duncan in a game.
NOTE: Thanks to SEC Country’s Marq Burnett (Alabama), Seth Emerson (Georgia), Hale McGranahan (South Carolina), Zach Abolverdi (Florida), Jason Kersey (Arkansas), Mike Griffith (Tennessee), Lauren Shute (Auburn) and Sam Spiegelman (LSU), as well as Ben Baby (Dallas Morning News), Tod Palmer (Kansas City Star), Michael Bonner (Clarion-Ledger), Daniel Paulling (Clarion-Ledger) and Adam Sparks (Tennessean) for their input. Click their names and follow them on Twitter.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.