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SEC Preview Week: Five big questions entering the 2012 season

As we wrap up our conference previews here at Crystal Ball Run, it’s time to take a look at the conference of BCS champions, the SEC.

Now gunning for their seventh straight title, here are the five biggest questions entering SEC play in 2012:

 

5. Can Texas A&M and Missouri compete?

 

It seems to be the question we’re asking of every conference across college football these days: Will the new guys be able to compete? And in the SEC, it’s no different, as for the first time since the early 1990’s the league has expanded. Texas A&M and Missouri, welcome to college football’s premiere conference. Here’s a tool kit, compass and a couple of granola bars. Good luck surviving.

And interestingly, each team comes in with a different sort of expectations. In terms of current buzz and long-term outlook the school to watch out for is definitely Texas A&M. For the first time in a long time, a program that has been teeming with potential does finally seem to have the right man in place at in Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin is the first head coach at A&M in decades who could be described as “young” or “dynamic” (sorry Mike Sherman, it’s true buddy), and it seems to have worn off on all things surrounding Aggies football as well. The program has received unprecedented buzz entering this season, and things only appear to be better going forward with most experts indicating Texas A&M could land a Top 10 recruiting class next February. Long term, the sky is the limit in College Station.

Of course in the short term, the team that a lot of college football fans are looking forward to watching is Missouri. The Tigers return starting quarterback James Franklin from last year’s 8-5 club, play in the more navigable SEC East, and also welcome the biggest recruit in the history of the program, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Texas A&M might be able to compete for titles going forward. In the intermediary, Missouri can make noise in the SEC East right now.

Either way, regardless of what happens on the field in 2012, the rest of the SEC is on notice: Missouri and Texas A&M are coming town. And they’re not backing down from anybody.

4. Can Tennessee’s Defense Hold Up?

Honestly, there must be something wrong with my head. After all, how else can I explain my belief that Tennessee can compete in the SEC East this year? Someone call a psychiatrist, because I clearly need to be put on some kind of medication.

All joking aside though, I do believe the Vols can compete. Will they win the division? It’s not likely. But with the right breaks, it isn’t conceivable to see this team finishing the season the same place they start it August 31: In Atlanta, and in this case playing for the SEC Championship game.

Of course for that to happen, what it will ultimately come down to is whether the defense can be measurably better than they were in 2011. We know that as long as the offense is healthy, the Vols will score points. Yes, they only averaged 20 points a game last year, but when you factor in that the Vols lost the single most dynamic receiver in college football (Justin Hunter) for most of 2011 and a potential first round NFL Draft pick at quarterback in Tyler Bray, it seems safe to say that they’ll improve on that number. Add those two back in with Da’Rick Rogers and junior college super-recruit Coradarrelle Patterson, and this team could very well have the most explosive offense in the SEC.

Defensively though, there isn’t nearly as much reason for optimism. A young and thin Vols defense played a bit over their heads last year under Justin Wilcox, but still allowed 22 points a game, a number which ranked them just ninth in the SEC, but a respectable 36th nationally. Now, with Wilcox gone for Washington, the onus lies on new coordinator Sal Sunseri to take what’s left of this group (they lost maybe their single most dynamic player from last year in Malik Jackson) and keep this team afloat in the always tough SEC. Sunseri comes from Alabama with a new 3-4 defense, which brings plenty of problems in its own right. Does he have the right players to run the scheme? Can they learn it fast enough?

Most importantly, will they be ready for NC State Week 1? Obviously a win or loss there doesn’t effect Tennessee’s run at an SEC East title, but what it could do is set the tone psychologically for the Vols for the entire 2012 season. We know they’re a fragile group with a coach on the hot seat, so what happens if they lose? Could they end up in a season long funk? Conversely, if they win, could it give them the confidence to rip off a bunch of wins in a row?

Those are huge questions for Tennessee to answer, and could be the difference between the Vols making a run at an SEC East title or not.

Speaking of the SEC East…

3. Who wins the Georgia-South Carolina game?

While there’s no guarantee that either of these teams will win the East, what we can assure is that the winner here will be in the driver’s seat going forward.

Georgia again has a schedule that could only be described as “a God’s gift from the SEC offices” (as in, no games with Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, Tennessee at home), and looking at things realistically, the Dawgs could very well might be favored in every single game SEC game they play in 2012 besides their trip to Columbia. As for South Carolina, well, a win against Georgia opens up things big time for them as well. While their schedule isn’t quite “Georgia-like” in the relative easiness of it, every game does seem winnable except for a trip to LSU on October 13. The Gamecocks get Tennessee and Arkansas at home, and despite a trip to the Swamp in October, Florida is still in major rebuilding mode as well. If the Gamecocks can get by Georgia, an SEC East championship seems totally conceivable.

Keep in mind one thing also: Because this game is played much later in the SEC schedule than usual (realignment ruined what had become a fantastic Week 2 tradition in this conference), we should absolutely get the best of both of these teams. For Georgia, that means getting all their suspended players back (hold your jokes for another time; those four suspended players will make a difference) and plenty of game reps to figure out what exactly they’re doing at running back with Isaiah Crowell out the door. And as for South Carolina, the extra couple weeks gives Connor Shaw plenty of time to get game reps under his belt, and Marcus Lattimore plenty of time to shake off the rust of a knee surgery that cost him about half of the 2011 season.

How the East was won? It’ll likely come down to September 29 in Columbia.

2. Can John L. keep the Arkansas ship moving in the right direction?

Of every coaching job in the SEC, there’s no doubt that John L. Smith has the most unique one at Arkansas. Truthfully, Smith doesn’t have to be “great” or even “good” but mainly, he just has to make sure and not do anything really stupid and totally screw things up. The talent is there for Arkansas to beat anyone, but at the same time no one actually expects him to take down Alabama or LSU. Basically, John L. Smith is on a free roll. He can do no wrong…

Unless the wheels come completely off the tracks, something- that at least in this writer’s eyes- is a real possibility. After all, this team had plenty of questions before Bobby Petrino was fired (especially on the offensive line and defensively), and offensively, there’s no doubt that Petrino’s fingerprints were all over everything this team did. Sure Petrino’s brother Paul is still there to call the plays, but without the big boss around, will this offense still hum like it once did? Say what you want about Bobby Petrino, but it’s hard to argue anyone got more out of the guys on his roster than he did.

Then finally, there is Smith himself, a guy who didn’t exactly shine in his last few years as a head coach at Michigan State. By now we already about the three straight losing seasons to end his reign in East Lansing and ultimately got him fired, but beyond that, don’t forget about the “cultural” change from the hard-lined Petrino to the more easy-natured Smith either. We’ve already seen players say things about how much more relaxed Smith is than his predecessor, and for those paying attention closely in the off-season, it does feel like the edge that made Arkansas so successful these last few years could potentially slipping just a bit. We know Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis are great, but will Smith be able to maximize everyone else’s talent like Petrino did?

The questions at Arkansas don’t center on talent, but coaching. And sadly, they might not have the right kind going into the 2012 season.

1. Who wins November 3 in Baton Rouge?

I mean really, what else do we really need to say?

For a game that was once known as the “Saban Bowl” before eventually morphing into “The Game of the Century” and later determined a BCS title, there’s no doubt that this is the matchup marked on everyone’s calendar entering the 2012 season. It doesn’t hurt that both these teams will also both be ranked in the Top 5 to start 2012, and could very well be undefeated, with a potential trip to the title game on the line when they do battle this year as well.

So who’ve you got November 3 in Baton Rouge?

The answer could determine a National Champion.

And it’s undoubtedly the biggest question entering SEC play in 2012.

For all his opinions, articles and insights on college football and beyond, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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