Five ???? Questions about the SEC West


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 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 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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105 comments Add your comment


March 24th, 2010
8:34 am


March 24th, 2010
8:44 am

river coot

March 24th, 2010
8:47 am

yellow stream

March 24th, 2010
8:47 am

well digger

March 24th, 2010
8:49 am

ocean voyager

March 24th, 2010
8:58 am


March 24th, 2010
8:59 am

I’d call my article whatever the hell I wanted to call it, and let the TB haters go pound sand……

I’m reading a terrific book, “The Last Coach, A life of Paul Bear Bryant” by Allen Barra. A great book. If you’re a Bear Bryant admirer, this is a must read…..great insight into a very interesting man. Also, a wealth of college football history detailing the prowess of programs throughout the growth of college football gives the reader a bonus in reading the book.

Les had better “smart’n up” pretty quickly…..LSU has had too much talent to flounder the way they have lately.

I get the feeling that Georgia’s new defensive scheme, and it’s results, will be “the talk of the town” by the middle of the football season.


March 24th, 2010
9:10 am


Why does the Ole Siss QB who throws over 20 ints decide to leave early for the NFL?

Any word on Alabama redshirt frosh RB Eddie Lacy actually beating out Richardson?

Can Les Miles tell time yet?


March 24th, 2010
9:16 am

BAMA with LSU and Arkansas chasing. The Georgia Dome will have very familiar colors for early December as the Crimson meets the Orange and Blue again.


March 24th, 2010
9:23 am

I feel Auburn will be much improved with Newton, will have depth on offense and defense (their achilles last season), and solild coaching by keeping the staff together. To make a run at Bama and LSU, they will have to find a running game to keep the pressure off Newton.

Tony Barnhart

March 24th, 2010
9:37 am


I think Jevan Snead left because his draft stock was dropping and it was time to jump while some teams might still like his arm. Good kid, but after he was put on a lot of draft lists before the 2009 season, he seemed to be pressing.Some kids benefit from a senior year and some don’t.

Big Dave

March 24th, 2010
9:58 am

How about calling it “Read ‘em and Weep”.


March 24th, 2010
10:06 am

How about, “My Column; Read It, Don’t Read It, I Don’t Care.”

tony's a homer

March 24th, 2010
10:07 am

Nice try Tony. You can’t self proclaim being a SEC homer. Your actions tell a different story. You are a UGA homer.


March 24th, 2010
10:10 am

1. McClain was a unique player, talented and smart. He will be tough to replace as well as the other starters on D the Tide lost. It will be interesting to see how the new guys turnout.

2. The Hogs will not win the West unless they improve their defense. I just don’t see them improving that much.

3. LSU’s problems on offense last season primarily were due to poor run blocking and Jefferson. The Tigers have alot of young talent on the OL but how they will play is anyone’s guess. I’m not sold on Jefferson and I have heard that Jarrett Lee has looked good in Spring camp. However Lee has been very inconsistent in games. I do think the offense will improve with the new hires, Frank Wilson and Billy Gonzales. Shepard has been moved to WR and will be used like Percy Harvin. Miles does recruit very well and makes good hires. Yet with all of that said, there will be alot of pressure on him this fall to win and anything less than going to the SECCG will not be acceptable.

4. It is tough to get a read on Auburn. I don’t think they are ready to challenge for the West just yet but you never know.

5. Ole Miss lost alot and it would not surprise me if they finish last in the West. Their out of conference schedule is a joke.

Bonus: I think Mullen is a solid coach and I think he will get them to a bowl this season.

I like the Bleacher Report myself.

Geaux Tigers

ga gator

March 24th, 2010
10:11 am

tony’s a homer, If Tony were a homer as you claim; he would have never picked the Gators to win the East in 2010.

SEC The Best in the Country

March 24th, 2010
10:11 am

Tony, yes, I agree. The Cam Newton story will be the most compelling. Why? Because it’s the first time in a few years that Auburn has had a QB that truly has a desire to win and lead the team and not just take snaps and run plays. This guy is for REAL. 6′6″, 250 and runs a 4.5 40. He will take snaps behind an experienced returning O line with an avg height of 6′5″ and 306 wt. The Tigers put up great numbers with a one dimensional QB in 2009. With his experience, arm, and mobility the opposing D will definitely have its hands full. This kid has his head screwed on right to lead AU to an SEC W, SEC C and compete for the NC in short order especially with returning seniors and the deep top 5 recruiting class this year. Can’t wait for Talkin Football in 2010!

ga gator

March 24th, 2010
10:13 am

If Malzahn can keep Newton’s head on tight, Auburn could win the West. The kid is more of a beast than Tebow. If he hadn’t of got in trouble, he would start instead of Brantley.

Ron Mexico

March 24th, 2010
10:17 am

Leave it with Burning Questions, who cares if it’s used elsewhere. You could go out on a limb and use “Inbred” Questions, reflecting both the stereotype of certain SEC states, as well as fact that the questions are often of interest only to those with an intimate relationship to the local football family. Unlucky for some, there are no ties in CFB any more…


March 24th, 2010
10:20 am

Pre-season question for Bama fans:

Julio Jones has to be one of the highest ranked wideouts to come along in years along with A.J. Green. At this point it seems like Green has achieved more. This will probably be Jones last year at UA.It still doesn’t seem like he’s reaching his potential. Is this because of the run-dominated offensive scheme, McElroy’s passing abilities or Julio underachieving?


March 24th, 2010
10:40 am

“I’d call my article whatever the hell I wanted to call it, and let the TB haters go pound sand……”

Tony, I second what SimpleDawg said.


March 24th, 2010
10:41 am

Auburn has a lot of upside going in to 2010 offensively. Newton has the physical tools in a QB that Auburn hasn’t had since Jason Campbell. I won’t get overly excited about Newton until I’ve seen him play. I learned that lesson when Kodi Burn came in to town and he ended up a WR.

Auburn’s defense is the real question. Sure, they were undermanned and had lack of depth last year. But being near the bottom in all defensive catagories is troubling. The defense must show a lot of improvement over last year. Chizik is a former DC and this is one area I didn’t think Auburn would struggle in. If they can improve on defense, then they’ll improve on their 8-5 record from last year.



March 24th, 2010
10:53 am

Alabama defense will struggle the early part of the season, but when it matters they will be ready for LSU,Auburn and of course the mighty fighting gators in Atlanta. The only thing holding Bama back from repeating as NC’s is the secondary!! They have talent but are going to be so young. LSU will never win the SEC with the clown coaching on the sidelines!! LSU only won in 07 because of talent
what Saban left!! RTR


March 24th, 2010
11:06 am

Tech fans always have SOMETHING to complain about.


March 24th, 2010
11:06 am

NoGaGator, Julio Jones has a great freshman season in 08 and in 09 was hurt in the early part of the
season and really did not get healthy till the UT game and won the LSU game for Bama!! Julio had
surgery after the 08 season on his shoulder and wrist and if he stays healthy this spring and summer
watch out for TOUCHDOWN ALABAMA per Eli Gold!! RTR

Clyde Bolton

March 24th, 2010
11:07 am

#2 BAMA FAN, I would also be concerned with your kicking game. Replacing Tiffin (UT last year) & Fitzgerald with unknowns is huge.

Tide Rising

March 24th, 2010
11:08 am

1)Bama- Hightower is 100%. Along with several part time starters with significant playing time like Dareus, Upshaw, Green, and Chapman we will only really be breaking in 4 new guys who have either never started or played a lot.The only real concern is at cornerback where we lose 2 starters but have 3 former 5 star recruits battling to start in Dre Kirkpatrick, BJ Scott, and Demarcus Milliner. Kirkpatrick is a lock at one corner as a soph and he and Milliner were each the no. 1 rated corners in the country coming out of high school the last 2 years. The D will be superior in talent and athleticism than last year and previous years but will be lacking experience in the defensive backfield.

2)Ark- If their D steps up they can make a run at the division but just like S. Carolina in the east I just don’t see them getting over the hump.

3)LSU- Boatload of talent but qb play will hurt LSU bad last year and will likely hurt the team again this year. Very hard to see them jumping all the way from 112th in total offense in 1 year to something respectable like top 20. I don’t see Ridley as the answer at rb either. The good news though is that LSU as usual is loaded everywhere and especially on D and defensive secondary.

Jumbeauxtiger- Do Richard Murphy or Keiland Williams return at RB?

4)AU- Chizik had a great 1st year and if Cam Newton is half his high school hype he could be the answer at QB. I think AU improves more and will beat someone big that they didn’t beat last year like an Alabama, Georgia, or LSU. Just not enough horses yet to seriously contend for the division title.

5)MSU- Dan Mullen continues to make strides and maybe state wins 7 games and gets to a bowl.

6)Hiring Dave Rader as co-offensive coordinator says it all and that is that Ole Miss drops off to the cellar. His offenses at Bama were bland, highly predictable, and just plain bad at times.

Tide Rising

March 24th, 2010
11:17 am


AJ Green has achieved more than Julio at this point. But Georgia also passed more, AJ had the benefit of Stafford his first year, and Bama is a run first pound the rock mentality that limits Julio’s opportunities. Its just Saban’s philosophy to physically dominate with a strong running game and under Saban we will never be a prolific passing team.

Both Julio and AJ were hurt some last year so I don’t think we even saw the full potential of both. Jones actually had 3 different surgeries he was so beat up wrist, shoulder, and I think the 3rd was a sports hernia. Julio is back to full health though and is turning some heads at practice again. I think you are right in that Julio as well as AJ will probably both go pro after this year. I would be surprised if either stayed.


March 24th, 2010
11:38 am

Wouldnt suprise me at all if Ole Miss has a better than expected season.
We all know Nutt does well when he is the underdog, and The Rebels have so much more young talent than the last time the were faced with rebuilding (in 2004, after Eli left the cubbard was bare; note the case this time). Thier Oline is not too bad, so maybe they can run the ball and they do have some young skill guys with alot of talent on Offense.
And.. their out of conference schedule is a joke.. And, their DC, Tyrone Nix is fantastic and has some young talent to work with.


March 24th, 2010
11:44 am

Tide Rising

“Jumbeauxtiger- Do Richard Murphy or Keiland Williams return at RB?”

Keiland has used up his eligibilty and really never panned out even though he was a 5 star out of high school. Murphy has been held out of contact in the Spring but he is nearly fully recovered from knee surgery. Michael Ford is a redshirt freshman who was outstanding on the scout team last year and the top RB in Louisiana as a HS senior. Ridley has the edge right now but I believe Ford will overtake him and get the bulk of the carries. Murphy is not a between the tackles back but will play alot. I agree with you about Ridley. He’s a good but not great back which as you know is what you need in the SEC.

Bama Rules, not

March 24th, 2010
11:45 am

Did Bama vacate their SEC Championship last year also. They cheat so much it is hard to keep up with it all. You Bammers must be proud of your fine win at all cost coach and athletic department. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. The Death Penalty can’t be far off now.

Da truth

March 24th, 2010
11:57 am

NO GA GAtor … Tide Rising explained most of the issues. But Da truth is…Julio will rise up when we need him. Look at 2008 SECCG vs. Fla , 2009 vs. LSU and Auburn. More times than not, if it is 3rd and 7 …we can count on him to catch the ball for 8.

Da truth

March 24th, 2010
11:58 am

Yep, BAma Rules again! Your envy is duly noted…now move along.

[...] greatness for a team with a stud quarterback and a questionable defense, but he’s picking Arkansas as his SEC West dark horse if Mallett’s [...]


March 24th, 2010
12:17 pm

“Five questions that Tony is only raising because we all know he is an SEC homer.”

Classic, Tony!


March 24th, 2010
12:19 pm


“Can Les Miles tell time yet?”



March 24th, 2010
12:28 pm

How about “Five Noteworthy Thoughts”.

I enjoy your style of writing (although I disagree with many points) because it seems you are thinking out loud and writing your thoughts. A lot of writers over think resulting in mind numbing articles. Keep up the good work.

If Alabama can avoid key injuries, they will be in the NCG again this year. Although the defense is young, the talent is sick. I look for the offense to continue running the ball at will and the passing game to open up a bit. All this will allow the defense time to gel. Number 8 will be in the Heisman talk early.

Roll Tide.


March 24th, 2010
12:29 pm

I can’t think of a time in recent history that a SEC team has won a division tittle one year, lost a bunch of starters and went out the next season and repeated as division champs.So Bama and FLA will get the preseason pub but neither will win their division this year.Aub and LSU are the likely SEC west contenders.I can’t see ARK being more than a trendy pick that will end up 4-5 losses.


March 24th, 2010
12:31 pm

And the Led Zeppelin wrote, “Stairway to Heaven,” but you don’t see every other band in the world singing the same song, do you? The point of journalism is to report, expound, and contribute. Regurgitation of the efforts of other’s is borderline plagiarism, right? Formulate your own ideas and establish your own brand. People (especially me) get sick and tired of these half-ass local stories being processed to and refined in order for the AP to package and deliver. You have a brain, and you’re cognizant. Think for yourself.

Frustrated, Inc.

March 24th, 2010
12:42 pm

Hmmmm. An Alabama Tide website that has an article about a cheater like Charley Pell. That sounds about par for the course.


March 24th, 2010
12:46 pm

The big question is how many UGA goons will be arrested in 2010. Get your lottery tickets now.


March 24th, 2010
12:56 pm

Geez, Annette. Save your stupid rant for at least a page about UGA. Roll, Tide, but if Mallett is back and ok, Arkansas will win it all


March 24th, 2010
1:01 pm


I’m glad that you’re back. I enjoy reading your articles and the insight that you have into these programs. I disagree with these people that you’re a UGA homer. There is nothing but impartialty in everything that you write. Of course, when you work for the AJC and the majority of the state is UGA fans then you will write more about UGA. I think that you basically tells it like it is and i’m a big fan of yours…Keep up the good work

Silver Creek Dawg

March 24th, 2010
1:02 pm

I could be wrong, but I swear I recently saw an article that said Russell Shepard was academically ineligible in 2010. Could I be confusing it for spring practice?


March 24th, 2010
1:06 pm

Tide rising,

Agree with your assessment of AJ and Julio. They are both once in a generation receivers. AJ has benefitted from being on a team that passes more but Julio is a great talent also. I actually think Julio will be rated a little higher because of his size and strength advantage. Right now, i think AJ is more of a polished receiver with slightly better hands and JJ is the big strong wr (ala Calvin Johnson) that will flourish in the pros. Either way , nfl teams will be lucky with whichever one they draft.

[...] Five????Questions about the SEC West–Tony Barnhart, [...]


March 24th, 2010
1:09 pm

What is wrong with just “Five questions about ______”? (Or, for that matter, why “Five,” especially when it is really six? That’s Big Ten math.) If it is by Tony Barnhardt, we know it’ll be good. There is no need to use tired, worn out, phrases to make it sound sensational with adjectives like “burning” or “life or death.”

Gen Neyland

March 24th, 2010
1:11 pm

TB : How about, ‘Five Searing Stones From the Eyes of Medusa’..?

Before you Bammers start rearranging your trophy case for the 2010 SECC hardware, keep an eye peeled for your West rival bandits. Cheesestick would love to take (steal) it and LSU won’t go down without a fight. Then comes the rest of the posse gunnin’ for fame…Yep, if anybody needs Yeller Feller, it’s the Red Elephants 2010…

Bama Rules, not

March 24th, 2010
1:12 pm

Annette, if a goon is someone who can’t do things within the law then Nick and Mal certainly qualify as King Goons and they are supposed to be in charge. Bark up another tree Goon, pun intended.


March 24th, 2010
1:22 pm

“The big question is how many UGA goons will be arrested in 2010. Get your lottery tickets now.”

No, the big question is how many mouth-breathing mongoloids like Annette will confuse “thuggery” with “drinking underage and not renewing your drivers license”.