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July 18, 2011

Media Days Preview: SEC East



Football season is here. How do we know? It's almost time for Southeastern Conference Football Media Days in Birmingham. As always, there are dozens of storylines heading into the heavily attended event. More than 1,000 media members are expected to be credentialed for the three-day affair at the upscale Wynfrey Hotel when each of the 12 head coaches are paraded in front of the media to answer all sorts of questions. Here are the main storylines for the six schools in the SEC East:

SOUTH CAROLINA: Now entering his seventh year as head coach of the Gamecocks, Steve Spurrier has broken new ground at USC - he's expected by many analysts to guide the Gamecocks to their second consecutive SEC East title. If not, the 2011 season will be regarded by some as a major disappointment considering RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery are two of the best players in the country at their respective positions. Both players were named to the Watch List for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.

As a result, Spurrier should be asked how USC will handle being the hunted rather than the hunter, a far different perspective for a program that took two decades to finally climb to the top of the mountain. We could see a first in Hoover - USC picked by the media to win the SEC East.

Because controversy sells (see two years ago when the Florida based media went ballistic when Tim Tebow wasn't unanimously voted to the preseason Coaches All-SEC First Team Offense), it's easy to predict the No. 1 inquiry Spurrier will encounter when he takes the podium late Wednesday afternoon - the nagging and ongoing question concerning the status of quarterback Stephen Garcia, who remains on probationary status until being fully reinstated.

The magic moment when Garcia is cleared to return should occur shortly before the start of preseason camp, but that probability won't stop many journalists from debating whether Garcia should be reinstated at all following five suspensions.

What is the over/under on the number of Garcia questions Spurrier will probably have to answer in Birmingham? Well into triple figures, I'm sure.

GEORGIA: Two issues dominate the headlines in Athens: Mark Richt's job security and the chaotic state of the running back position. In a way, they're intertwined. Richt is feeling the heat from unhappy Bulldog fans following a very disappointing 6-7 mark in 2010. Georgia hasn't appeared in the SEC Championship game since 2005. Since then, rival Florida has won two national championships and USC won its first divisional title since joining the conference in 1992.

What is the minimum number of games Georgia must win in 2011 to allow Richt to keep his job for next season? Most estimates say nine. Losses in the first two games to Boise State and USC followed by a loss to Florida in the Cocktail Party game could be fatal.

Georgia fans have long waited for the next Herschel Walker to join the program. They thought Caleb King was the guy, but he underachieved in his four years before being dismissed for academic reasons. Washaun Ealey was indefinitely suspended and then given his unconditional release. Those departures left incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell atop the depth chart. UGA fans hope the heavily hyped Crowell is their version of Marcus Lattimore and Michael Dyer. Will Crowell fulfill the heightened expectations?

"I don't think you can ever count on a freshman tailback," ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach said recently in a radio interview. "The Marcus Lattimores and the Michael Dyers only come around every so often. Caleb King was a five-star recruit. But it just seemed like it was one thing after another. It's going to be difficult for Georgia. Isaiah Crowell better be pretty good. Right now, they have three unproven guys."

The depth at running back for UGA was so depleted the coaches returned linebacker Richard Samuel to his former position to support Crowell. Monday, it was also revealed Carlton Thomas will be suspended for at least one game for violation of team rules back in the spring.

"Nobody knows how good Isaiah Crowell will be," CBS Sports college football analyst Tony Barnhart said recently. "I have never seen him play. They (USC) didn't know Marcus Lattimore was that good. They thought he was good. When he carried it 37 times against Georgia, they knew he was pretty good. Same with Michael Dyer. Until you see a guy against a SEC defense, you don't know. Most freshman running backs in the SEC get a heavy dose of humility before they are able to contribute. So, the question is whether Isaiah Crowell is ready for the big time. He's going to get an opportunity, no question."

FLORIDA: Florida's Will Muschamp is one of two new head coaches in the SEC East, so how successful the former head coach in waiting at Texas does in his inaugural season in Gainesville will be the dominant issue. Already, Muschamp has made some difficult decisions such as dismissing talented defensive back Janoris Jenkins after multiple arrests.

The addition of former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis to the Florida staff as offensive coordinator created shockwaves throughout the SEC. As a result, the Gators are expected to shift to a pro-style offense, which some analysts believe will help quarterback John Brantley, who struggled in the spread option last season.

Another big issue for Florida is the schedule. After a soft start, the middle portion of the slate features consecutive contests in October against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. The final four games are highlighted by clashes with USC and Sunshine State rival Florida State.

KENTUCKY: Because Kentucky is a basketball school first and foremost, it's been a quiet offseason in the Bluegrass State. Former USC assistant Joker Phillips enters his second season as head coach of the Wildcats in Lexington, Ky., knowing he must find a way to rebuild the Wildcats offense following the departures of WR Randall Cobb (leading receiver in SEC with 6.46 receptions per game and SEC leader in all-purpose yards), WR Chris Matthews (61 catches), QB Mike Hartline (second highest passing average in SEC) and RB Derrick Locke (887 yds).

Phillips freely admits the wide receiver position is an area of concern for Kentucky, whose quarterback is expected to be Morgan Newton. The top returning recover is La'Rod King, who was third in 2010 with 36 receptions for 478 yards. After him, the Wildcats have a lot of unproven pass catchers.

"We don't have as much experience at that position," Phillips said. "But really, we're excited about what's walked through the door. Those young receivers are truly wide receivers. They're not guys we have to teach the position. We've just got to teach them plays."

TENNESSEE: The offseason drama in Knoxville has squarely centered on All-SEC safety Janzen Jackson, who left the program soon after the Music City Bowl loss because of 'personal reasons' and didn't participate in spring practice. Yet, Jackson recently enrolled in school and is working out with his Tennessee teammates with an eye towards mounting a comeback. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, though, is taking a cautious approach as he begins his second season.

"It's a little premature for me to say he's back," Dooley said in a report on Volquest.com, the Rivals.com site for Tennessee. "He has a long way to go physically and he still has a lot of things he has to do to stay a part of the team. Only time will tell if he's going to be our safety this year. I think it's a good positive step forward but we are certainly not done, if that makes sense. I'm cautiously optimistic that he's going to stay the track that he's been on. I am proud of what he's been doing. Hopefully he's going to continue to build on what he's done."

After three consecutive underachieving seasons under three different head coaches, Tennessee is desperately searching for stability with Dooley, the son of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley.

VANDERBILT: The second newcomer to the head coaching fraternity in the SEC East? Vanderbilt's James Franklin, the former head coach in waiting at Maryland who is off to a hot start in recruiting with one four-star prospect (RB Brian Kimbrow) and 10 three-star prospects already committed to the Commodores for 2012.

How is he doing it? By all accounts, the energetic Franklin and his staff have doggedly pursued prospects and won't take no for an answer, even when the Commodores are competing against some of the SEC's powerhouses. One of the schools Vanderbilt beat to secure Kimbrow's commitment was Auburn.

Typically, you can count on the Vanderbilt defense to try to hold its own against SEC opponents. The offense, though, was putrid in 2010, finishing at or near the bottom in all of the major categories. Franklin was the offensive coordinator at Maryland, a key reason he was hired quickly after Auburn OC Gus Malzahn turned aside Vanderbilt's overtures to make the move to Nashville.

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