by | CBSSports.com

Tony's Top 10: SEC's burning spring questions

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Every SEC team but Kentucky has completed spring drills and is getting ready to shut it down until August. But there are so many questions that still need to be answered in a league that will be going for its sixth straight BCS championship in 2011. Here are just 10:

1. Is there any team in America that is hungrier than Alabama? Nope. Think about the triple-whammy that hit the Crimson Tide last season. No. 1, they did not repeat as national champions, which was certainly possible for a team that had Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, and Marcell Dareus. No. 2, they lost three football games after going 12-0 the past two regular seasons. One of those losses was a 28-27 collapse against Auburn (at home) after holding a 24-0 lead. And No. 3, that same Auburn team -- a hated rival -- went undefeated and held up the crystal football in Glendale, Ariz. Nick Saban didn't have to say a word about motivation this spring. "We didn't take care of business last season and you could tell it from the first day of practice," said Barrett Jones, a senior offensive lineman. "This team is a lot more businesslike in its approach. We cannot let that happen again."

2. Is Georgia's Mark Richt officially on the hot seat? Nobody in Athens is going to call it that but this is clearly an important year for Richt to prove things are heading in the right direction. Richt has won 96 games and two SEC championships, but the last title came in 2005. He has beaten Florida only twice (2004, 2007) in 10 tries. Urban Meyer is gone but Florida appears to be reloading under Will Muschamp (a Georgia grad). There is a window of opportunity here because for the second straight year the SEC East is wide open. Richt needs to take advantage. One other thing: Richt cannot start 0-2 when Georgia opens the season with Boise State and South Carolina.

Keep an eye on Zach Mettenberger at LSU, who could give the offense a change of pace. (US Presswire)  
Keep an eye on Zach Mettenberger at LSU, who could give the offense a change of pace. (US Presswire)  
3. Auburn is certainly going to take a step back in 2011. But will it be a big step back? Logic says this will be a difficult year for the defending national champions. You don't lose 23 seniors (four on the offensive line who started a collective 165 games), a Heisman Trophy winner (Cameron Newton), a Lombardi Trophy winner (Nick Fairley), and your best receiver (Darvin Adams) and think you are going to win the SEC West again. There is also the matter of a schedule that includes games with Mississippi State, at Clemson, at South Carolina, at Arkansas, Florida, and at LSU in a seven-week stretch. Auburn coaches knew this was coming and have planned for it. But after three straight quality recruiting classes Auburn will be back in the mix in 2012.

4. Will juco transfer Zach Mettenberger give LSU anything that resembles a vertical passing game? If he does, LSU may be pretty hard to beat. Mettenberger started at Georgia and then went to Butler (Kan.) Community College where he threw for almost 2,700 yards last season. Now he is in Baton Rouge. Trust me when I tell you Jordan Jefferson is still going to be the starting quarterback when LSU opens with Oregon on Sept. 3. But Mettenberger could give the Tigers a change of pace and a legitimate downfield threat, which is something they haven't had since Matt Flynn led the 2007 Tigers to the national championship. The key to all this is new OC Steve Kragthorpe figuring out a way to get the ball to the fleet Russell Shepard in space. That dude has a gear that most folks don't have.

5. Can Charlie Weis work his quarterback magic with John Brantley? Weis spent the first part of the spring rebuilding Brantley's confidence, which took a pretty good beating last season from a frustrated Gator Nation. The best thing Weis can do for Brantley at this point is develop a power running game (which Florida has not had) and find a couple of great receivers (which Florida has not had since Percy Harvin left). Brantley did not have a good spring game (4 for 14) but the offensive line was depleted by injury. Brantley has an NFL arm but has yet to prove he can throw it consistently in a game. But if Weis can make Matt Cassel (27 TDs, 7 INTs) into a top-flight NFL quarterback, he can sure help Brantley.

6. Can Tyler Wilson keep the Arkansas offensive machine humming? Yes he can and yes he will. Wilson came off the bench against Auburn last season and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns. He put Arkansas in position to win the game before the defense collapsed (Auburn scored 28 unanswered points to win 66-43). Arkansas had the best set of receivers in the SEC last season and that will be the case again in 2011 if Greg Childs completely recovers from a torn patellar tendon suffered last November. Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton combined to catch 170 passes last season. They are all back. The Hogs will miss tight end D.J. Williams (54 catches).

7. Is Stephen Garcia going to return at South Carolina? It is telling that athletic director Eric Hyman made the announcement when Garcia was suspended for the fifth time in his stormy career at South Carolina. Hyman recently said "football is a secondary issue" when it comes to Garcia. That is never a good sign. This is nothing but a gut feeling: Garcia has a chance to graduate in May. If he does and successfully goes through some kind of treatment and rehab program, the school might reinstate him this summer.

Justin Hunter could become a real force for the Vols receiving corps. (US Presswire)  
Justin Hunter could become a real force for the Vols receiving corps. (US Presswire)  
8. Is Tennessee's Justin Hunter the next star receiver in the SEC? Hunter is a freak at 6-4, 183 pounds of pure athleticism. He can blow by and out-jump any defensive back in the SEC. He caught 16 passes as a true freshman but averaged 25.9 yards per catch. If he puts on some weight so that the better DBs in this league don't overpower him, Hunter is going to be hard to handle this season. "This kid is special and has a chance to be a premier player in this league," said Jim Chaney, Tennessee's offensive coordinator. "He needs to be a little stronger and run his short routes a little sharper. But he's getting there and the fact is he's just getting started. He has a chance to be special."

9. Can Kentucky replace the big-play capability of Randall Cobb? An NFL team that doesn't have Cobb high on its draft board is really going to miss out. This kid did everything at Kentucky: Wide receiver (144 career receptions in three seasons), quarterback in the Wildcat formation (1,313 career yards rushing in 228 carries for a 5.75 average). He averaged 23.7 yards per kick return and 7.8 yards per punt return last season. He led the SEC and was No. 2 nationally in all-purpose yards averaging 184.3 yards per game. Then he turned pro as a junior. So the short answer to the question is "no." But the 'Cats can make a big step forward if junior Morgan Newton steps up and becomes the quarterback everybody thinks he can be. Newton was the Indiana high school player of the year in 2008 and was immediately hailed as the next Andre Woodson. Newton got on the field due to injuries and other issues involving starter Mike Hartline. Now Newton will be the starter. He has to raise the level of his game.

10. Are people sleeping on Dan Mullen and Mississippi State? When it comes to the SEC West, you're going to hear a lot of talk about Alabama and LSU, who will be in just about everybody's preseason top 10. You'll hear about the explosive offense of Arkansas. But very quietly Mississippi State has improved significantly in each of its first two seasons under Dan Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida. Last season the Bulldogs went 9-4 and just pummeled Michigan (52-14) in the Gator Bowl. They played Auburn to a three-point game (17-14) in early September. They beat Georgia (24-12) at home and went to Florida and won 10-7 but in reality dominated the game. Mullen has found his quarterback in the reliable Chris Relf (MVP of Gator Bowl with 311 yards of offense). He has the SEC's leading returning scorer in running back Vick Ballard (20 touchdowns). It won't take us long to find out about Mississippi State. The Bulldogs' second game will be at Auburn on Sept. 10. Just five days later they host LSU on a Thursday night in Starkville.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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