Now that we’re less than 60 days from the start of fall camp, it’s time to look at the big question for the Florida Gators and every other team in the Southeastern Conference. It’s fairly obvious that the college football experts nationwide are rather skeptical that Jim McElwain can repeat last year’s 10 wins and SEC East championship. Only Athlon has the Gators in their preseason top 25 which should tell us the experts see nearly as many questions as there are answers.
The biggest question for Florida has to do with the offensive line. Whether it’s Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby, the Gators should be improved at QB from the final eight games when UF went 5-3 and in the tank offensively. Recruiting has added some weapons to complement Antonio Callaway on the outside and there is home run capability in the running game with Mark Thompson as the #1 RB.
So that leaves the O-line as Florida’s biggest question. The Gators return players with 43 starts, which is 33 more than last year, which UF ranked #125 nationally in O-line experience. Being a year older doesn’t necessarily make you a year better, but the history of McElwain offenses is strong improvement from year one to year two and that almost always entails better play on the O-line. So the pressure is on offensive line coach Mike Summers, whose unit gave up only 16 sacks while helping the running game average 4.36 per carry in 2014 but allowed 45 in 2015 with the running game dipping to 3.48 per carry. Improvement even to the 2014 levels would certainly bode well for the offense.
So the big question for the Gators in June is can Mike Summers get the job done in 2016?
BIG JUNE QUESTION FOR EVERY OTHER SEC TEAM
Alabama: The last thing you have to worry about is quarterback. Lane Kiffin has proven in his two years on the job that he will take someone with little or no experience and make them functional. The big problem – and it will be Kiffin’s problem as the OC – is who’s going to play the tackles? Even if Cam Robinson is back with a reduced sentence and pretrial intervention that lets him back in school, there will be immense pressure to suspend him for multiple games. The combination of drugs and possession of a stolen gun will do that for you. That’s LT. Over at RT, juco transfer Charles Baldwin has been shown the door. A true freshman could start.
Arkansas: Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins probably would have stayed in school if they had figured they would fall so far in the NFL Draft. Kody Walker is coming off spring surgery and Rawleigh Williams III had neck surgery last fall and didn’t practice in the spring. Will Bret Bielema have to go with true freshman Devwah Whaley? And if Walker and Rawleigh Williams can’t go who will back up Whaley?
Auburn: Go back to the Orange Bowl after the 2011 season when West Virginia beat Clemson, 70-33. The defensive coordinator for Clemson was Kevin Steele. LSU allowed 24.3 points per game last year. That’s the most it’s allowed since 1999. The defensive coordinator at LSU last year was Kevin Steele. The DC at Auburn this year is none other than Kevin Steele. Can he get the job done? Be worried, Auburn. Be very, very worried.
Georgia: There are too many Baptists in Georgia for Bulldog fans to call freshman QB Jacob Eason “The Second Coming” so rather than risk being struck by lightning they simply call him “The Next Big Thing.” It must be noted that no true freshman QB in the SEC has had an impactful first year since Chris Leak did it in 2003. More important, who’s going to catch the football? Georgia is hoping it can disguise weaknesses in pass protection (the LT is 6-2, 278 which makes him the shortest and lightest in the league) by running the ball so effectively that its very average receivers can get open against a lot of single coverage.
Kentucky: The only stats that really matter in football are PF and PA as in points for and points against. If you have more PA than you have PF, then you lose a lot. In each of Mark Stoops’ three years on the job at Kentucky, the Wildcats have had less PF and more PA. The Wildcats have one of the most experienced O-lines in the SEC and some very good skill people so they should do okay in the PF department this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is only three starters return from a defense that gave up 27.4 points per game last year. The big question is can Kentucky have more PF and less PA this season?
LSU: Leonard Fournette got the football an average of 25 times a game last year. Everybody knew he was going to get the football and he still gained 1,953 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in 12 games. There is nothing wrong with Fournette getting the ball 25 times a game this year, either, but if Les Miles is intends to (a) get more mileage out of the college game’s best runner and (b) ensure that he’s gainfully employed in Baton Rouge in 2017, then he needs to let Cam Cameron integrate more passing into offense. Last year, the Tigers threw the ball 22 times a game, not enough to back defenses out of their 8-in-the-box alignments. Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural will stretch defenses on Sundays in 2017, but in 2016 they have to see the ball more often than they did last year. So the big question is can Les Miles take his thumb off the offense and open things up.
Mississippi State: Last week in Destin, Dan Mullen made a profound statement when talking about the SEC West. While pointing out that all seven SEC West teams had a winning record and went to a bowl game last year, Mullen noted, “Somebody has to finish last.” Mullen is 50-28 at Mississippi State since 2010 and he’s taken the Bulldogs to a bowl game every year. There is no danger that he would be fired. Other than Nick Saban his job is probably the safest in all of the SEC. But we have to ask how realistic is it to think that Mullen, a very fine football coach, can ever win the SEC West at Mississippi State? It is, after all, Starkville, not exactly the destination of choice for 99% of the most talented high school football players in the country and, in the immortal words of Ron Zook, “It’s all about the Jesses and Joes.” At what point does Mullen elect to ply his wares somewhere else to see if he can win a national championship?
Missouri: Missouri had no problems stopping people last year and they won’t have a problem this year, either. The defense will be stout. The problem on the other side of the ball is two-fold: no blockers and few skill people. So the question is this: Is there enough smoke and are there enough mirrors for Mizzou to score more than the 13.6 per game they averaged last year?
Ole Miss: When Hugh Freeze says mistakes have been made but he’s no cheater, the first thing that comes to mind is what the definition of is is. Whether it was simple mistakes or cheating, one thing for certain, the men in blue suits from Indianapolis are going to do a colonoscopy on the Ole Miss football program. Without all the scrutiny, Ole Miss got better for four straight years, beat Alabama in consecutive years and landed better recruits than the ones who normally show up in Oxford. The big question is will the scrutiny burst the Ole Miss bubble or are we going to be calling Hugh Freeze “The Teflon Coach” moving forward?
South Carolina: At the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Will Muschamp said there is a simple solution for success at South Carolina – “Score points. Make the scoreboard go up.” It’s Will Muschamp so you have to figure the South Carolina defense will be vastly improved from the one that gave up 27.5 points and 429.8 yards per game last year. All the questions are on offense where the Gamecocks finished the spring with a true freshman at QB and too many questions at wide receiver. Muschamp doesn’t have smash mouth personnel so he has to abandon that philosophy and he has an innovative offensive coordinator in Kurt Roper. The big question is can Will Muschamp concentrate on the defense and let Roper do what he must to make the offense productive?
Tennessee: Tennessee is experienced and riding a 6-game winning streak. Okay, so the Vols only beat one team with a winning record during that stretch. No big deal, right? Of course it’s no big deal. Just ask Vol fans. There are actually two big questions that will have to be answered. Can the Vols beat Florida? If they’re going to be great they’ll have to somehow figure out a way to beat the Gators. That hasn’t been done since 2004 and there have been games since that the Vols should have won but didn’t because every time they think they’re about to beat the Gators bad things happen. Second question might be a tad more of a problem. It’s called Title IX. Eight women have banded together for a Title IX lawsuit that, among other things, claims HBC Butch Jones basically tried to intimidate a witness in a rape case involving two UT players. The witness just happened to be another UT football player. If the heat gets turned up on this case this summer, Butch and AD Spanky Hart could be Baylored.
Texas A&M: You don’t even have to be a math major to figure out the big question with the Aggies this year. The numbers are 11, 9, 8 and 8. What do they tell you? That instead of onward and upward, Kevin Sumlin has the Aggies in a slow reverse and matters are complicated by the fact all these stud QBs keep transferring to St. Somewhere Else and none of them seem to have many kind words for Sumlin. Figure Sumlin better win 9 regular season games at a minimum if he intends to be gainfully employed in Aggieland next year.
Vanderbilt: In his two years as the HBC at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason has pretty much overhauled his entire coaching staff from top to bottom. Only quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski has been on Mason’s staff since day one. You have to wonder why so much change everywhere else and Gdowski is still on the job considering how bad Vandy’s QBs have been. The defense is physical and fierce. The offense is pedestrian and boring. The passing game is all about 2-inch passes. The big question in June is can Vandy (a) protect the passer and (b) allow him to throw the ball down the field? If the offense is more of the same then Vanderbilt will have a brand new coach in 2017.
PUK SHOULD GO #1 OVERALL
If the mock drafts are on the mark, then Florida lefty A.J. Puk will be either the first pick in the first round by the Philadelphia Phillies or the second pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the Major League Baseball Draft, which begins today and will go on through Saturday. There are concerns that Puk has won only two games even though he’s gotten a start every week of the season, but there is no denying that he’s got Major League stuff when he can find the strike zone on a regular basis.
Most of the experts have right hander Dane Dunning going late first round and staff ace Logan Shore going in the first 5-6 picks of the second. Buddy Reed’s speed could get him into the second round and Peter Alonso should go mid-second to early third. Some mock drafts have closer Shaun Anderson going as high as late second but it’s more likely that he’s somewhere around mid-third. Kirby Snead will probably be drafted in the later rounds. That start at the SEC Tournament could seriously boost the draft stock of Scott Moss, but he’s one who would probably benefit from coming back and showing scouts what he can do in a regular spot in the weekend rotation.
The Cavaliers didn’t get a triple-double from LeBron James (32 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists) but he elevated his game and in doing so elevated the play of his teammates, which partially explains Cleveland’s 120-90 win over Golden State. What also partially explains the big win is Stephen Curry’s third consecutive very average basketball game. Just as LeBron has to come up big for Cleveland, Curry has to make shots for the Warriors. Nineteen points won’t get it.
Former Gator Aaron Hernandez, who has appealed his life sentence for a murder conviction, has a new defense team headed up by Jose Baez, the Orlando attorney who kept Casey Anthony out of the big house when all the evidence said she killed her 2-year-old daughter.
Super Bowl MVP Von Miller has rejected a 6-year, $114.5 million deal to stay with the Denver Broncos. The deal included $40 million guaranteed during the first two years of the deal. That’s a lot of money to walk away from. Believe it or not, I’ve actually worked for less at points in my career.
Ohio State will serve beer in the stadium this fall. Proceeds will go to funding two new full-time positions in the OSU PD.
The Sun Belt Conference will add a football championship game in 2018. The league currently has 11 teams but Idaho (dropping down to D1AA) and New Mexico State leave after 2017 with Coastal Carolina joining as the 10th team in 2018. New NCAA rulings allow leagues with only 10 teams to schedule a conference championship game.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
A couple of suggestions I’ve heard to clean up the college football mess after the blowup at Baylor: (1) fine the coaches when players are arrested for violent crimes or felonies; or (2) take away one scholarship for every player arrested for any violent crime, two scholarships away if three or more players are arrested for drugs. Would you agree that either of these suggestions would help solve the problems?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Canned Heat continues to tour and make money as a blues band thanks to drummer Fito de la Parra, but the band has never been the same since the death of The Bear, Bob Hite. Hite died in 1981 when he was handed a vial of drugs by a fan. Thinking it was cocaine, he snorted it. It was heroin and Hite collapsed and died. Today’s music is the 1969 release “Boggie with Canned Heat.”