SEC Football: 10 Biggest Storylines for 2013
We're less than a week away from the college football season kicking off, and the SEC storylines are as juicy as ever.
There's a star quarterback who may not even get to play. There are four new head coaches looking to turn around their program. There's also an improbable Heisman candidate who's looking to make history.
Oh, and the conference is also looking to continue its reign of dominance over the rest of college football.
Are you excited for SEC football?
You should be.
The Rise of James Franklin
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There were a lot of reasons Missouri fell just short of qualifying for a bowl game last season. One of the biggest reasons was the health of quarterback James Franklin. He was constantly being removed from games due to a shoulder injury and was also forced to missed three contests due to the injury.
Franklin was a beast in 2011, throwing for 2,865 yards, completing 63.3 percent of his passes and rushing for 981 yards. He also scored 36 total touchdowns. He's a productive dual-threat quarterback who can lead his team to victories and make the SEC East race interesting.
The senior is a game changer who could also make Missouri relevant in the SEC and also compete for individual accolades this season.
It's exciting to see Franklin back on the field healthy for the first time in what feels like forever.
Gus Malzahn and Auburn
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Auburn's 3-9 season was ugly. The defense couldn't defend, the offense couldn't score and former head coach Gene Chizik was a deer caught in the headlights.
New head coach Gus Malzahn brings a new attitude to Auburn. Known as an offensive guru, Malzahn was the offensive coordinator for Auburn in 2010 when the school won the national championship. He also led Arkansas State to a solid 10-3 record last season in his first year as a head coach.
Malzahn is a coach on the rise at just 47 years old and could turn around this program sooner rather than later. An SEC title won't come this season, but the competition will be fierce, especially with a truckload of young talent coming to help.
Auburn will be a fun team to watch.
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Florida's lack of offense has been picked on more times than the smelly kid in class. How can a national championship contender average just 146 passing yards a game?
That number must improve if the Gators want to reach the SEC Championship Game this season.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel has the ability to become something special. He has a cannon for an arm and the athleticism to make plays with his legs. He's a headache for defenses once he finds his rhythm. He'll also have a new weapon in 5-star running back Kelvin Taylor, who is the son of former Gator great Fred Taylor.
Still, wide receiver remains a question mark, especially with Andre Debose out for the year with an ACL injury.
Florida must make strides offensively otherwise they'll be in serious trouble this season.
Make-or-Break Season for Mississippi State
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Since 2010, Mississippi State is a combined 1-12 against ranked opponents.
Head coach Dan Mullen is entering his fifth season with the program and has to begin knocking off some of these better teams in order to keep the fans happy. The Bulldogs lost five of their final six games last season, which only adds to the pressure this season.
Mississippi State will be minus some major defensive talent from last season's squad but does return a decent quarterback in Tyler Russell and one of the most underrated running backs in the conference in LaDarius Perkins. Russell's offensive line, which only allowed him to be sacked 18 times last season, also returns four starters.
This is a crucial season that will determine the future of the program, and it starts Aug. 31 against No. 13 Oklahoma State.
Can Vanderbilt Take Another Step?
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What's the ceiling for Vanderbilt?
Once a school known for producing high SAT scores and getting destroyed on the gridiron, Vanderbilt is now earning respect from its football peers. Head coach James Franklin has led the program to two straight bowl games and a finish in the AP Poll for the first time since 1948.
What's next? Maybe an SEC East title?
Don't laugh. Nobody in their right mind thought the Commodores could have won nine games last season. They nearly upset South Carolina (17-13) on opening weekend, which would have given them sole possession of third place in the SEC East.
Vanderbilt returns one of the conference's top receivers in Jordan Matthews and six starters from a defense ranked fifth in the SEC.
The Vanderbilt journey is mighty intriguing.
Hugh Freeze's Second Season
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After one 7-6 season and a spectacular recruiting 2013 class for head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss is finally being taken seriously. Last year, the Rebels nearly upset Texas A&M (30-27) and went toe-to-toe with Vanderbilt (27-26) and LSU (41-35).
Ole Miss returns 18 starters, including a solid quarterback in Bo Wallace and nine returnees on a defense that produced 38 sacks. Mississippi also has young talent to keep an eye on, including 5-star players Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, Tony Conner and Lavon Hooks.
This team is young, athletic and could soon start competing with powerhouse programs in the conference like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and LSU.
The Rebels will be entertaining and could play a key role in who reaches the SEC Championship Game.
Will LSU Remain LSU?
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Hey, remember LSU?
The program that won a national title in 2007, played in the big game in 2011 and won at least 10 games in six of the last eight years?
LSU has taken a backseat to Alabama and Texas A&M this offseason. It has been a quiet few months for a team that has been a national powerhouse over the last decade. A lot of it has to do with the fact the defense only returns five starters. There's also concerns with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, as some aren't sure what to expect.
There's no question the Tigers are talented, but are they capable of being the same team they've been over the years? Is this really going to be a down season under head coach Les Miles?
LSU is a team to watch closely early on in the season.
Jadeveon Clowney's Heisman Run
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South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is looking to become the first player who primarily plays on the defensive side of the ball to win the Heisman. Yes, Michigan's Charles Woodson did win the award in 1997 as a cornerback, but he also contributed on special teams and offense. In fact, it was those contributions that helped put him over the top to win the award.
Clowney only plays defense and destroys ball carriers.
Some don't see Clowney as a legitimate Heisman prospect due to the fact he's competing against quarterbacks and running backs. Offensive players get most of the credit and have more chances to produce eye-popping numbers. There's a reason a quarterback has won the award six times in the last seven years.
Others claim Clowney is the most intimidating player in recent memory and has the necessary hype behind him that could lead to him winning the award.
Whether you're a believer or not, it will be interesting to watch his season play out.
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What happens if Johnny Manziel can't play this season?
He's being investigated by the NCAA for allegedly signing autographs for a flat fee, according to Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar of ESPN. There's a chance he could miss playing time, if not the entire season if the allegations prove to be true.
Would Texas A&M fail to qualify for a bowl game without its reigning Heisman winner? Would college football be less interesting without its biggest star?
Then again, even if Manziel remains eligible to play, he'll still be one of the most popular stories in the country. With or without Manziel on the field, get used to hearing his name and seeing his face plastered on your television.
He isn't going anywhere.
The Chase for an Eighth Straight Title
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While the SEC winning seven straight national championships isn't as impressive as Cal Ripken Jr. playing in 2,632 consecutive games or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
Now everybody is wondering if the conference can make it eight straight crystal footballs.
Alabama is the obvious favorite to win its third straight and fourth in five seasons, but other programs such as Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and LSU have a chance. Some folks claim whoever wins the SEC Championship Game is guaranteed a spot in the national championship, while others will continue to root for the other conferences' representative.
The battle remains between the SEC and the rest of college football until another conference can steal the throne.
Will the streak continue?