Biggest Remaining Challenge Each SEC Coach Faces This Offseason
Amazingly, SEC Media Days are less than a month away, meaning this is a great time to examine each program’s biggest question marks headed into summer camp.
Coaches around the league are trying to size up their teams at this stage, probing for weaknesses and desperately searching for ways to strengthen or hide them to win as many games as possible.
This year will feature a number of new starting quarterbacks. At least eight programs will turn to new primary signal-callers, yet the sport’s most important position only surfaces as the primary concern for a few programs.
A season of change awaits the SEC.
How well heavily compensated coaches adjust to their new personnel and circumstances will go a long way toward determining which two teams face off in early December for the conference crown.
Here are each coaches’ biggest remaining challenges as the countdown toward college football’s 2014 debut takes center stage.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Going 0-8 in league play signifies a program has myriad problems.
No issue, though, lingers more precariously than the impact of Brandon Allen having a fully healthy throwing shoulder.
When Allen suffered his shoulder injury early last season, it essentially rendered the Razorbacks unable to effectively throw the ball. A lack of viable alternatives meant Allen had to gut through most of the abysmal 2013 campaign, sullying his name and reputation in the process.
Now Allen is healthy and could be the key for a significant turnaround for Arkansas this season.
Though the Razorbacks had only limited success in the passing game, tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins showed they will be stars. Their strong seasons should come as no surprise to those who watched Bret Bielema-coached Wisconsin teams predicated on pounding the ball at opponents.
The difference this year could be the dynamic missing from those Badgers teams—the ability to beat teams over the top in the play-action game.
Bielema’s offense really ran at half-throttle last year considering his offense couldn’t connect on the passes to keep defenses honest.
If Allen stays healthy—and plays at a high level—the Razorbacks could score some tough-to-find wins against a brutal SEC slate.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
In the first two seasons under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has gained visibility in the SEC West landscape.
For the Rebels to take the next step and actually contend for the division, they need to make significant progress in the short-yardage rushing game.
Ole Miss has been dreadful on third- and fourth-and short situations against SEC opponents over the past few years. Those game-defining plays have sometimes sent momentum to the other sideline and allowed the opposition to seize games that seemingly could have gone either way.
The Rebels need to gain substantially more toughness along the offensive line but also need to find more physical running styles to break a tackle or two and pick up the first down.
Tailbacks I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton both function best out of the read-option—not necessarily behind a fullback or H-back.
As a result, the Rebels ranked 12th in the SEC in rushing.
At times last year, Ole Miss actually turned to defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche on short-yardage situations.
This year, Jordan Wilkins—a traditional running back—could help add the physical element missing from the Rebels' program in years past.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
Tennessee will have some talented skill-position players in 2014. Whether those players will have time to do anything with the ball remains to be seen.
The Volunteers replace their entire offensive line and are hurting from a depth perspective.
True freshmen and JUCO transfers alike will get their opportunities to play immediately—primarily tackles Dontavius Blair and Coleman Thomas.
Guard Marcus Jackson is the lone player with significant experience.
Tennessee has yet to name a starting quarterback, which doesn’t help. Even worse, four players appear to remain in the mix—Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
The Volunteers need to trim the pool very quickly so whoever will ultimately start can begin figuring out how to work with a woefully-green offensive line.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Any time a program loses someone with the credentials tailback Tre Mason had at Auburn, replacing him becomes a natural topic of conversation.
Gus Malzahn likely doesn’t know exactly who will get the bulk of the carries or how they will be broken up, but he probably isn’t losing sleep over the situation, either.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber and Corey Grant present viable options, but true freshman Racean Thomas could ultimately unseat them all.
Regardless of which tailback ultimately gets the majority of rushes, replacing Mason isn’t Auburn’s biggest issue.
Rather, finding better play in the secondary should register at the top of the Tigers’ priority list.
They have already taken major strides toward doing so by bringing in JUCO safety Derrick Moncrief to play immediately. Moncrief, a highly touted player coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, could solidify the back line of an Auburn defense that struggled against passing attacks.
Cornerback is really the more pressing concern.
Auburn loses Chris Davis but at least has Jonathon Mincy—who seems capable of emerging as an all-conference candidate.
The other side? That’s a different story.
The second corner position is wide open. Jonathan Jones or Kamryn Melton seem to be the first in line to get looks during camp, but the position is open enough that a freshman could come in and steal playing time.
Auburn faces a brutal slate in 2014. To have a chance to repeat as SEC West champ, it needs to stabilize the secondary.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
For first-year coach Derek Mason, the biggest challenge will be finding a way to maintain the success Vanderbilt enjoyed under James Franklin.
Considering that Franklin’s three-year run of bowl appearances made him hands-down the most successful coach in recent program history illustrates just how far he brought the program.
It also shows how difficult Mason’s job in replacing Franklin will likely be.
On the field, the Commodores return a number of stellar defensive performers. Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann both move from end to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme.
Who takes over at quarterback remains to be seen and could have significant bearing on Vanderbilt’s ability to consistently move the ball against SEC foes.
Everything for Mason, though, comes down to replicating—or potentially exceeding—Franklin’s triumphs for normally hapless Vandy.
Les Miles, LSU
Spoken or not, the hope amongst the LSU coaching staff heading into spring camp had to have been that Anthony Jennings would quickly secure the starting quarterback position.
He did just the opposite.
Jennings’ inconsistency led to a far more open competition than initially expected, resulting in true freshman Brandon Harris stealing the spotlight.
Now Harris has the momentum heading into fall camp and is gaining confidence.
Those two traits, of course, are giant positives for Les Miles and company.
It’s a tad troubling, though, to think of an LSU program that has championship aspirations every season entering a year with a true freshman quarterback.
Of course, the Tigers always seem to have a stable of tailbacks ready to burst onto the scene, thus taking significant pressure off whoever takes the snaps at quarterback.
This year, 5-star recruit Leonard Fournette—who 247Sports declared the top-ranked prospect in the nation—arrives on campus prepared to make immediate waves.
The passing game in general is a concern, though.
LSU will have talented players at every position, but they will also be woefully inexperienced. There won’t be lessons learned on the scout team for players like Harris or incoming potential star receiver Malachi Dupre.
Instead, they will have to mature in front of packed stadiums against SEC defenses.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mississippi State is an intriguing team this season because it has talent and could pose problems for the SEC West powers.
How far the Bulldogs go could ultimately hinge on the shoulders of quarterback Dak Prescott, who needs to show better consistency and ability to read a defense.
While Prescott’s development as a passer will go a long way toward determining State’s ultimate success, it will be more important to keep him on the field. Prescott is a tough, physical runner, which makes him effective between the tackles. It also means he takes a beating throughout the SEC season.
Injuries kept Prescott off the field at times in 2013, leaving the Bulldogs to find new offensive identities.
For Dan Mullen to keep Prescott upright this season, he needs to find other ways to effectively move the ball on the ground between the tackles.
Tailback Josh Robinson could get the first chance to see additional carries.
There’s also the matter of State controlling the line of scrimmage. All-conference guard Gabe Jackson is now gone, leaving the Bulldogs searching for power in the trenches.
Will Muschamp, Florida
The bottom fell out on Florida’s 2013 season, but even as the program slumped toward its first losing season since 1979 the defense proved tough.
Defensive grit has only scarcely been something lacking when Will Muschamp has roamed a team’s sideline.
For Muschamp to climb off the hot seat, though, the Gators must make enough offensive strides to compete for the SEC East crown.
Getting quarterback Jeff Driskel back should help. The senior missed most of 2013 after suffering an ugly leg injury during the first quarter of the season’s third game. Driskel hardly seemed destined for an all-America season, but he could have stabilized an offense that lacked any semblance of a passing game at times.
Muschamp perhaps showed a willingness to open up the Gators attack as well, turning to David Cutcliffe mentee Kurt Roper to run the offense.
Roper comes well-credentialed after leading Duke to the ACC Championship Game last season.
Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones give Florida strong run game options.
To win the division, though, Muschamp will likely need the team of Driskel and Roper to produce better passing results.
Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Cornerback E.J. Gaines represented perhaps the most indispensable player on Missouri’s 2013 team.
That could sound strange considering defensive end Michael Sam earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
There’s no question that Sam and the rest of the defensive line made a huge impact on the Tigers’ run to the SEC East crown. Still, the team features enough depth that it can feel comfortable with Markus Golden and Shane Ray stepping into extended roles.
The same can’t be said at the cornerback position for Missouri.
Not only is All-SEC selection Gaines gone, so, too, is Randy Ponder.
Gary Pinkel’s options at the position became more limited when Ernest Payton left the program. Missouri will likely rely heavily on its pass rush to alleviate pressure off the inexperienced cornerbacks.
David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune wrote this week that Payton’s dismissal could open the door for true freshmen to see playing time right away.
Mark Richt, Georgia
Mark Richt couldn’t have thought safety would be a position he needed to address before the 2014 season began.
How urgent is the depth issue?
Georgia moved tailback J.J. Green, who had 68 rushing attempts in 2013, to safety. Green ended the spring working as a safety with the first-team defense.
There are no easy answers at the safety position right now.
Instead, the Bulldogs will likely shuffle in a number of candidates to fill the now-vacant spots, hoping to find the right combination before they open with Clemson’s potent offense.
Nick Saban, Alabama
Considering the customary stability within the Alabama program, this year stands out in that Nick Saban still faces at least one huge decision and challenge.
The biggest question is obvious: Who will be named the starting quarterback?
Many consider Jacob Coker, who couldn’t transfer in from Florida State in time for spring practice, the front-runner.
Don’t count Saban among them, as AL.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky points out.
Saban’s absurd assertion that he has “never seen (Coker) throw a ball” aside, Coker has never practiced with the Crimson Tide.
Of course, that didn’t stop Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall from leading the Tigers to the BCS National Championship Game.
Senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman seem to be the leading contenders for the spot presumed destined to go to Coker.
Saban has avoided starting multiple quarterbacks since arriving in Tuscaloosa. This year could end that streak unless someone seizes control of the position.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
In normal circumstances, replacing a program’s all-time winningest quarterback would rank as a huge concern.
However, Dylan Thompson filled in for said quarterback—Connor Shaw—on more than a couple occasions and played relatively well in the process.
Plus, Thompson will have some valuable weapons at his disposal—such as tailback Mike Davis and do-it-all threat Pharoh Cooper.
No, quarterback won’t be Steve Spurrier’s biggest concern heading into the 2014 campaign.
Rather, replacing three-quarters of the defensive line marks the most interesting storyline.
Trying to make up for the loss of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who went No. 1 in the NFL draft, would be hard enough. Add in the losses of fellow end Chaz Sutton and all-conference tackle Kelcy Quarles and the task becomes downright daunting.
Tackle J.T. Surratt is the lone returning starter. He will be called upon to anchor the line while potential new starters such as half-brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon grow comfortable in their new roles.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
At times last year, Kentucky looked to have an adequate defense.
That’s where the old adage about the best defense being a great offense came in and shattered what the Wildcats tried to accomplish with some talented players.
Mark Stoops’ biggest nightmare is easy to pinpoint: Moving the ball the way his team did in 2013—which is to say “not moving the ball.”
Kentucky averaged a league-low 14.8 points per conference game. Against the same SEC opponents, the Wildcats ranked last in rushing offense, 13th in passing offense and dead last in total offense.
The Wildcats gained 275.5 yards of total offense per SEC game. Every other conference team gained at least 37 yards per game more.
The quarterback—though yet unnamed—will likely be different. Parts around the rest of the offense could change.
Second-year offensive coordinator Neal Brown has succeeded at every stop in his young career. His offense must establish an identity, or at least a pulse, for Kentucky to have any chance at improving in 2014.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Those who think Kevin Sumlin’s biggest issue heading into fall camp is replacing Johnny Manziel are missing the bigger picture.
Sumlin has talent at the quarterback position.
Sure, there will be growing pains whether he ultimately goes with the slightly more experienced Kenny Hill or true freshman Kyle Allen. But Sumlin can also lean heavily on a running game that should be capable of keeping opposing defenses off balance.
The bigger issue revolves around fixing a sieve-like defense that just dismissed two starters after they were arrested for aggravated robbery.
The two dismissed players—linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden—both made the all-SEC freshman team.
Now the Aggies must find even more answers for a defense that, in SEC games, ranked last in the conference in total defense and 13th in scoring defense.
That, and not quarterback play, should leave Sumlin concerned heading into fall camp.