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Every SEC Team's Biggest Question Mark Headed into 2016

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2016

Every SEC Team's Biggest Question Mark Headed into 2016

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    Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson
    Auburn QB Jeremy JohnsonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    National signing day just wrapped up, but before you know it, spring football will be here.

    SEC teams will open camps when the calendar turns to March, which will signal the start to offseason position battles that must be answered for several teams looking to contend for the College Football Playoff.

    What is every team's biggest offseason question mark?

    Our picks based on lack of production, roster attrition and change in scheme are in this slideshow.

Alabama Crimson Tide: Offensive Line

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    Alabama OT Cam Robinson
    Alabama OT Cam RobinsonJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Alabama topped Clemson to claim the 2015 national title in January. But the Crimson Tide's offensive line play in that game was suboptimal.

    Quarterback Jake Coker was sacked five times, players were stopped behind the line of scrimmage nine times and the Tiger offensive line made Alabama's front five look like they were on skates at times—especially in the first half.

    "We didn't always play pretty in this game," head coach Nick Saban said after the game, according to quotes released by the College Football Playoff. "It probably wasn't one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution."

    Alabama will get left tackle Cam Robinson back, but it will lose center Ryan Kelly—who was a vital piece of the puzzle, making sure everybody was on the same page—as well as right tackle Dominick Jackson. What's more, guards Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor need to be more consistent.

    The Crimson Tide will break in a new quarterback, as well as a new fullback, and replace a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback—Derrick Henry—in 2016. The last thing it needs is more of the same up-front as it saw in Glendale.

Arkansas Razorbacks: Quarterback

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    Arkansas QB Austin Allen
    Arkansas QB Austin AllenWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Former Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen went from liability to superstar during his four years in Fayetteville, and now head coach Bret Bielema needs to find a reliable option in place of Allen to take the reins.

    "Brandon Allen had seen a lot of things," Bielema told Bleacher Report Radio earlier this month. "It finally just became crystal clear.

    Younger brother Austin Allen is the most experienced of the group vying for the top spot, but he only had three attempts a year ago. Ty Storey, Rafe Peavey, USC transfer Ricky Town and incoming freshman Cole Kelley will all try to replace the elder Allen, who threw 30 touchdown passes as a senior.

    The Hogs have to replace two stud offensive linemen, tight end Hunter Henry and running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. They don't need a Tom Brady clone taking the snaps, just somebody who can give off the impression he's one at times. 

    "A huge part is going to be on our quarterback development," Bielema said.

Auburn Tigers: Quarterback

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    Auburn QB Sean White
    Auburn QB Sean WhiteButch Dill/Associated Press

    Auburn went from playoff contender to fighting for bowl eligibility quickly in 2015, and the biggest reason why was less-than-stellar quarterback play.

    Both of last year's starters—senior Jeremy Johnson and redshirt sophomore Sean White—are back and joined by junior-college transfer John Franklin III and true freshman Woody Barrett. The two veterans are more suited to run the pro-style passing system that failed last year, while the two newcomers signal a return to the dynamic, multidimensional running game head coach Gus Malzahn was successful with in 2013 when the Tigers won the SEC title with Nick Marshall taking the snaps.

    Regardless of who wins the job, or what style Malzahn uses, somebody has to step up and become a reliable quarterback who can move the chains and not make game-changing mistakes—which were far too common in 2015.

Florida Gators: Quarterback

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    Florida QB Austin Appleby
    Florida QB Austin ApplebyMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    For the second straight season, Florida head coach Jim McElwain has an offseason quarterback battle to navigate. 

    This time, though, the path is a little more crowded.

    Former Alabama and Oregon State quarterback Luke Del Rio is eligible in Gainesville now after sitting out his transfer year. The former Elite 11 quarterback and son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio has the most experience with the system and will likely be considered the front-runner heading into spring.

    Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby is the most experienced of the group in terms of game snaps. Appleby threw 19 touchdowns and 19 picks in three years for the Boilermakers, and he provides McElwain with another quality option.

    The newcomer to the mix, early enrollee Feleipe Franks, is the "quarterback of the future," but he will have an uphill battle to earn starting snaps—especially early in the 2016 season.

Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback

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    Georgia QB Jacob Eason
    Georgia QB Jacob EasonDarren Abate/Associated Press

    Greyson Lambert was far from a difference-maker as the Georgia Bulldogs' starting quarterback in 2015, and backup Brice Ramsey—while highly touted coming out of high school—served as the team's punter down the stretch.

    Jacob Eason, a 5-star pro-style passer from Lake Stevens, Washington, was brought in this January to be the future of the program, and the future is now.

    But what does the immediate future look like? Eason enrolled at a time in which Georgia is undergoing the transition to new head coach Kirby Smart, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and essentially a brand-new staff. 

    Not only will he have to clear the typical freshman hurdles, but his supporting cast will have to navigate the transition process. Lowering those hurdles is Smart and Eason's goal this offseason, so they can compete for the SEC East title this fall.

Kentucky Wildcats: Wide Receiver

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    Kentucky WR Garrett Johnson
    Kentucky WR Garrett JohnsonDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Kentucky is making the switch from former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson to Eddie Gran this offseason, and Gran needs to find a difference-maker at wide receiver to help his quarterbacks out.

    Garrett Johnson led the Wildcats with 694 yards and two receiving touchdowns a year ago, which was solid—but not enough to take the pressure off the running game. Dorian Baker, Jeff Badet and Blake Bone all return alongside Johnson, and a little bit of a deep threat will go a long way in 2016.

    The Wildcats will have a quarterback battle this offseason, with Drew Barker likely earning the job he ascended to late last season. Plus, running backs Stanley "Boom" Williams and Jojo Kemp are both solid running backs who would start virtually anywhere. 

    If the Wildcats are one-dimensional, though, it could be a long season in Lexington.

LSU Tigers: Quarterback

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    LSU QB Brandon Harris
    LSU QB Brandon HarrisScott Halleran/Getty Images

    LSU has the best player in the country in junior running back Leonard Fournette toting the rock, a defense that's great on its best days and simply "good" on its bad days and talent on the roster to compete with any team in the country.

    But, oh, that quarterback spot—the void that rarely has been filled over the last decade in Baton Rouge.

    Junior Brandon Harris will have a full year as the starter to build off, but he still lacked the playmaking ability deep, struggled with accuracy on short and intermediate throws and didn't take enough pressure off Fournette for LSU to legitimately contend for the SEC West in 2015.

    He has to take the next step, become a threat to opposing secondaries and prevent defenses from loading the box to stop Fournette and the running game. If he does, LSU will be in the mix.

    After nearly a decade of struggles at the position, save for Zach Mettenberger's senior season in 2013, that's a lot to ask.

Mississippi State Bulldogs: Running Game

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    Mississippi State RB Brandon Holloway
    Mississippi State RB Brandon HollowayWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    You might think replacing quarterback Dak Prescott is the biggest challenge for Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen this year, but the running backs' success will go a long way toward stabilizing the offense.

    Essentially everybody returns at running back for Mullen, including Brandon Holloway (413 yards), Ashton Shumpert (228 yards), Aeris Williams (206 yards) and Dontavian Lee (137 yards). Whether it's one of those four or somebody else, it would be quite helpful to the Bulldog offense and whoever wins the quarterback job (likely Nick Fitzgerald) if one of these running backs becomes a true No. 1.

    We're not talking about 1,500 yards on the ground or anything like that. If it's Fitzgerald taking the snaps, the offense will look very similar to the one Prescott was successful with, and the quarterback will have plenty of ground-game responsibility. 

    A solid 800 on the ground from a running back will keep Mississippi State's offense lethal.

Missouri Tigers: Running Back

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    Missouri RB Ish Witter
    Missouri RB Ish WitterEd Zurga/Getty Images

    Russell Hansbrough was banged-up last year—his final year in Missouri—which really hampered the Tiger offense, especially when Drew Lock replaced quarterback Maty Mauk. 

    Ish Witter, a 5'10", 190-pounder, wound up leading the Tigers in rushing with 518 yards and one touchdown, but he was hardly a difference-maker on the ground and didn't take pressure off either quarterback. For a team, Missouri scored just five rushing touchdowns on the season—the second-worst mark in the country, ahead of only UCF (four).

    That has to change.

    Whether it's Witter, junior-college transfer Nate Strong or somebody else, Missouri has to find someone who can at least be a threat on the ground. If it doesn't, another holiday season without a bowl game could be in its future.

Ole Miss Rebels: Running Between the Tackles

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    Ole Miss RB Akeem Judd
    Ole Miss RB Akeem JuddStacy Revere/Getty Images

    Jaylen Walton led Ole Miss in rushing in each of the last two seasons, but he was much more of an edge threat than a bruiser between the tackles. A host of running backs shared the ground-game responsibilities inside over that time span, as well as quarterbacks Bo Wallace and current starter Chad Kelly.

    Does head coach Hugh Freeze really want his quarterback taking those hits if there are other reliable options? Of course not.

    Akeem Judd rushed for 425 yards and three touchdowns a year ago, and Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley are also potential contributors. The Rebels should also get redshirt freshman Eric Swinney to help out after a stress fracture in his leg forced him to take a redshirt in 2015.

    If Ole Miss can run between the tackles with a running back, the offense will be tough to stop.

South Carolina Gamecocks: Quarterback

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    South Carolina QB Perry Orth
    South Carolina QB Perry OrthStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    South Carolina's offense is going through a massive overhaul from the previous staff to the new one led by head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, and job No. 1 is to find a reliable quarterback.

    The Gamecocks finished last season 11th in the SEC in quarterback efficiency with a rating of 123.15—worse than Auburn, LSU and Florida. Connor Mitch won the job out of camp, but injuries forced Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez into action. That battle will continue this offseason, with backup Michael Scarnecchia and early enrollee Brandon McIlwain also in the mix.

    Somebody has to prove he can consistently move the chains, stretch the field and provide just a little bit of a spark if the Gamecocks are going to contend for a bowl game in 2016.

Tennessee Volunteers: Wide Receiver

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    Tennessee WR Josh Malone (3)
    Tennessee WR Josh Malone (3)Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Tennessee is loaded at every roster position and should contend for not only the SEC East, but also the College Football Playoff in 2016.

    Well, every position except wide receiver.

    Quarterback Joshua Dobbs shoulders the majority of the public criticism for the Volunteers' less-than-stellar passing game, but he doesn't exactly get a ton of help from his wide receivers. Josh Malone has all the physical tools to be a star, Preston Williams is inexperienced but talented, Jauan Jennings looked decent at times last year after moving from quarterback and Josh Smith is reliable, but he's not a difference-maker.

    Finding one guy—anybody—who can get off the line of scrimmage and stretch the field deep will be what determines whether Tennessee can actually make that leap or fall short yet again.

Texas A&M Aggies: Quarterback

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    Texas A&M QB Jake Hubenak
    Texas A&M QB Jake HubenakJim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Texas A&M lured former Oklahoma signal-caller Trevor Knight to College Station to contend with Jake Hubenak for the starting quarterback job, after Hubenak threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns in the Music City Bowl loss to Louisville.

    Whoever wins the job, the eventual starter has to become more consistent in the passing game than Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray were last year. The former quarterbacks' highs were high, but lows were way too low, including Allen's pick-six palooza against Alabama at Kyle Field.

    Knight lost his job with the Sooners to Baker Mayfield, and the sample size is far too small to accurately determine what Hubenak can really do, so this mystery won't be solved until the fall. 

    It needs to be solved, though. Otherwise head coach Kevin Sumlin will be looking for work next winter.

Vanderbilt Commodores: Wide Receiver

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    Vanderbilt WR Trent Sherfield
    Vanderbilt WR Trent SherfieldKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Vanderbilt wide receiver Trent Sherfield led the Commodores with 659 receiving yards last year, which, on paper, looks like a rather solid season for the sophomore.

    It was solid, but 240 of those yards came when he reeled in 16 passes against Austin Peay in Week 3.

    Vanderbilt has a highly underrated running back in Ralph Webb, a quarterback with potential in Kyle Shurmur and a defense that keeps it in games for as long as possible. If it had a deep threat to take some pressure off, bowl games wouldn't be the exception; they'd be the rule.

    Sherfield is back, as is Caleb Scott—who caught 24 passes for 339 yards a year ago. If one of them can become more reliable, Vandy's fourth-place finish in the SEC East will become the floor rather than the ceiling, and head coach Derek Mason will inch closer to reaching the level former head coach James Franklin had the program at when he left following the 2013 season.

     

    Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

    Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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