A gentle reader suggested yesterday that I quit using the term “Five Burning Questions” to describe this exercise because so many others had used it to the point of rendering it ineffective.
I always thought the term conveyed that there was a high degree of interest in these issues. Yes, others have used it, but they are smart people like Andy Staples of SI.com so I’m in good company there. And if the words communicate what you’re trying to say as a writer, then you use them.
Still, I’m open to new ideas. So today I want to raise five questions that interest me (and hopefully interest you) as we resume our look at spring football. We are covering the SEC this week and will do the ACC next week. You may choose from the following titles or add your own (but keep it clean):
Five incredibily compelling questions.
Five Life and Death Questions.
Five moderately interesting questions.
Five questions in which I have absolutely no interest because I am not a fan of the SEC.
Five questions that Tony is only raising because we all know he is an SEC homer.
1. Can Alabama LB Dont’a Hightower come back at 100 percent? Everybody knows that linebacker Rolando McClain was a great, great player for Alabama. He started his first game as a freshman and never left the middle linebacker position. But what Alabama will miss most about McClain (who left school early to enter the NFL Draft) was his mental approach to the game. For three years McClain was the traffic cop of that defense. If a formation was wrong or if a guy was in the wrong place, McClain would fix it before the snap. If Hightower, who injured his knee against Arkansas on Sept. 26 and was lost from the season, can fill McClain’s shoes as the defensive leader, I think Alabama has enough talent on hand to be very good on defense again, despite the loss of nine starters. All of the media reports coming out of Tuscaloosa say that Hightower is physically back to his former self.
2. Will Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett completely recover from his broken foot? If he does, then Arkansas is my dark horse in the SEC West. Mallett is sitting out the spring after surgery to repair a broken left toe that he hurt during drills in February. The recovery is expected to take about four months. If Mallett comes back to his 2009 form (3,624 yards, 30 touchdowns) and the defense (No. 89 nationally at 401.15 ypg) improves just a little bit, Arkansas has a chance to make some noise in the SEC West with home games against Alabama and LSU (in Little Rock). In the meantime, Bobby Petrino can develop a backup quarterback—just in case. Tyler Wilson will get a lot of snaps.
3. Can LSU figure out its many issues on offense which include, but are not limited to, getting the ball to Russell Shepard? If you’re looking for a place where the heat has been turned up a little bit, try the head coach and offensive staff at LSU. Here are a few stats to back that up: LSU was 112th (out of 120 Division I-A schools) nationally in total offense last season at 304.5 yards per game. When LSU won the national championship in 2007, it rushed for 214 yards per game. In 2008 the Tigers dropped to 166.8 ypg and last season LSU was ranked 90th in rushing offense at 122.7 yards per game. Rising junior quarterback Jordan Jefferson did not improve significantly last season. Quarterback Russell Shepard of Houston, considered to be one of the nation’s best athletes as a high school senior, averaged 6.2 yards every time he touched the ball, but he only touched it 45 times in the 11 games where he got on the field. It’s clear that the head coach, Les Miles, and his offensive coordinator, Gary Crowton, are often not on the same page. My opinion? LSU needs to re-establish its offensive identity and it should be the smash-mouth attack that put the Tigers in position to win the national championship in 2007. Also, the clock management problems that popped up last season must go away or somebody is going to lose his job.
4. Is Cameron Newton going to complete his career comeback by becoming Auburn’s starting quarterback? It sure looks like Auburn is putting its quarterback chips on Newton, a splendid athlete at 6-6, 247 pounds. Newton, a native of Atlanta who played at Westlake High, started his career at Florida and was suspended in November of 2008 after he was arrested and charged with stealing a laptop computer. Newton then went to Blinn Junior College where he threw for 2,833 yards, ran for 665 more and led his team to a JUCO national championship. His ability to run and throw will give Gus Malzahn’s offense a dimension did not have under Chris Todd in 2009. This will be one of the most compelling story lines in the SEC this fall.
5. Does Ole Miss have a serious drop off on offense after the loss of QB Jevan Snead and All-Everything Dexter McCluster? There will be a drop off for the Rebels but I think they are going to miss McCluster more than Snead. Snead came into the 2009 season with all kinds of hype and was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Heisman Trophy. But the fact is he never got comfortable and made way too many mistakes. He decided to turn pro rather an face another season of SEC defenses. Now the Rebels are starting over on offense with quarterbacks Nathan Stanley, who played well in the Cotton Bowl, and redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton, who was a pretty highly recruited player in 2009. Ole Miss also lost offensive coordinator Kent Austin, who became the head coach at Cornell. Veteran OC Dave Rader has joined Houston Nutt’s staff and will share the coordinator’s job with Mike Markuson, the offensive line coach who has been with Nutt for 16 years. Rader is a former offensive coordinator at Alabama (2003-2006) and was the head coach at Tulsa for 12 seasons (1988-1999). He knows how to develop quarterbacks.
Chris Relf played well at the end of last season, but will he be the starting quarterback at Mississippi State? Relf came off the bench to run for 131 yards and throw for two touchdowns as Mississippi State upset Ole Miss 41-27 last November.. The rising junior will start the spring at No. 1 but Bulldog fans really need to keep their eyes on redshirt freshman Tyler Russell. The former Mississippi High School Player of the Year in 2008 sat out last season but by the end of 2009 I was hearing rumblings that he was the best quarterback on campus. Relf is big and strong and can certainly run. He may be the starter when the 2010 season starts. But I think Russell is just too talented to keep off the field.
From time to time I’ll mention a website that I think football fans will find interesting. If you’re an Alabama fan and like football history, may I suggest Crimsonreplay.com. My buddy Keith Dunnavant, one of the best Alabama football historians around, put this together to celebrate the rich tradition of the Crimson Tide. There is a lot of really good writing and research. Check it out. A great cover story on the late Charley Pell is posted right now.
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