John Clay: Ten questions as SEC football teams open camp

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 31, 2013 

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow was sacked by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in September 2012 as the Gamecocks defeated Kentucky 38-17. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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The Georgia Bulldogs open fall camp Thursday.

Football is here.

As pads begin to pop, 10 SEC football questions.

1. Can anyone stop Alabama?

Nick Saban's Domination Nation has captured two straight and three of the last four BCS titles. Alabama will be atop the upcoming pre-season polls. And yet, challengers exist.

Inside the conference, Texas A&M, Georgia and South Carolina will press the Tide for the title. Nationally, Ohio State returns plenty from last year's unbeaten squad. Some like Stanford as a sleeper.

It says here, however, the Crimson Tide will be tough to overtake.

2. Can Steve Spurrier win South Carolina's first conference title?

The Ol' Ball Coach wants to make history. Carolina has never put a conference football title trophy in its case. Spurrier says his Gamecocks are capable. They just need to go out and do it.

Ironically, defense leads the way. Jadeveon Clowney is the best college football player in America. Now Spurrier must develop an offense that makes the defense proud.

3. How much will Johnny Manziel's off-the-field antics affect his on-the-field performance?

While the media have been tracking the Texas A&M quarterback's every move, defensive coordinators have been busy studying his every move from a year ago and figuring out a way to contain the elusive quarterback.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner faces a rougher 2013 road.

4. How much will Cam Cameron help the LSU offense?

Les Miles hired the former NFL offensive coordinator to revamp the tepid Tigers attack. Cameron inherits a veteran quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, but he needs running back Jeremy Hill off suspension.

Betting Miles grants Cameron that wish.

5. Will Vanderbilt's rise continue?

The Commodores bring a seven-game win streak into 2013. Sneaking up on opponents won't happen this season. You can't take Vanderbilt lightly anymore.

If SEC foes adjust to the new Vandy, can the new Vandy adjust right back?

6. Can Gus Malzahn put Auburn back on track?

Not if he can't find a quarterback. No one impressed the offensive guru enough in spring drills to gain starter status. Malzahn has four candidates. That's three too many.

And not one of the four is named Cameron Newton.

7. How much of a difference can Butch Jones make at Tennessee?

The former Cincinnati coach is a definite upgrade over Derek Dooley. Don't expect miracles overnight, however.

Jones must find a quarterback. The UT defense was a disaster last season. Rocky Top is a long-term project.

8. Which team is most likely to surprise?

Ole Miss has momentum. The Rebels earned a bowl bid last season. Hugh Freeze has ramped up recruiting. After back-to-back trips to Alabama and Auburn, Mississippi plays six straight home games. The Grove could be a happy place in 2013.

9. Which coach will be the most interesting to watch?

Ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is making a stand. He sparred with Malzahn at SEC Media Days. He fires back at Twitter detractors. In the league's new era of spread offenses, he's preaching meat-and-potatoes.

Arkansas figures to struggle, but Bielema will make headlines outside the lines.

10. Which coach is on the hottest seat?

Gary Pinkel has done great things at Missouri. Unfortunately, those were great things in the Big 12. The SEC is a tougher nut to crack. Pinkel learned that last year when his team went 5-7.

To survive, he needs a healthy James Franklin to thrive at quarterback. Pinkel's job could depend on it.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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