by | CBSSports.com

Burning SEC questions: Favored 'Bama to rebuilding Gators

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HOOVER, Ala. -- I'm often asked about the biggest differences between the SEC and other conferences when it comes to football. Quite honestly, there are only two:

1. The SEC has bigger, faster defensive linemen who arrive at the football in an angry disposition. Ask Oregon about how much fun it was to block Nick Fairley.

2. There ain't nothing in the wide, wide wonderful world of sports -- nothing -- like SEC media days.

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It's not that Wednesday starts a 72-hour feeding frenzy with more than 900 credentialed media looking for the story of the day (actually, the nice folks at the NCAA usually give us that). That's not unusual. It's that stuff happens here that just doesn't happen anywhere else:

 One year, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer didn't attend because he had been named party to a lawsuit by a disgruntled Alabama fan. When he did return, Fulmer got subpoenaed before he could get into the Wynfrey Hotel. Bet that doesn't happen in the Big Ten.

 In a room filled with about 300 reporters, one hopeful scribe asked Tim Tebow if he was a virgin. The media people in the room were embarrassed, but Tim handled the play as though it were just another read option. The answer was "Yes," by the way.

 When he was Florida coach, Steve Spurrier stood on the podium in front of the print media and called out commissioner Roy Kramer, who was standing in the back of the room. Spurrier wanted to know why we couldn't get rid of this silly BCS and have a playoff in college football.

What's going to happen in the next three days? What questions will we remember? I could be a smart aleck and say Gene Chizik will be asked if he has heard from the NCAA's Julie Roe Lach and whether she's ready. Or that Les Miles will be asked about Willie Lyles just days after getting LSU's first major NCAA violation since 1987. We could ask commissioner Mike Slive about those pesky Texas A&M rumors that won't seem to go away.

But for now it will be mostly about football -- and not a moment too soon. And on the field, here are five early questions about the SEC and what the answers appear to be as of Wednesday. But if there is one lesson we've learned from SEC media days, everything could change by Friday.

Dont'a Hightower (Getty Images)  
Dont'a Hightower (Getty Images)  
1. Can the SEC win a sixth straight BCS championship? Which team here has the best chance to do it?

The answers are yes, and Alabama. The Crimson Tide lost four first-round draft choices (Marcel Dareus, Julio Jones, James Carpenter, Mark Ingram) and a veteran quarterback (Greg McElroy). But here are three things that give the 2011 team a better shot at holding up the crystal football in January:

It's hungry. After losing three games, one of which came after blowing a 24-0 lead to Auburn, this team does not feel entitled.

This will be Nick Saban's best defense at Alabama. The secondary is the most talented in the country and it's not close. If you can find a better pair of linebackers than Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, please show them to me.

They get their two toughest games -- Arkansas on Sept. 24 and LSU on Nov. 5 -- at home.

Mark Richt (Getty Images)  
Mark Richt (Getty Images)  
2. Is Georgia's Mark Richt really on the hot seat?

Richt has won 96 games in 10 seasons at Georgia and even my limited math skills tell me that's 9.6 wins per season. That ain't bad. But this is the SEC, and Richt's past two seasons (8-5, 6-7) plus a 2-8 record against Florida have Bulldogs Nation on edge. A bunch has changed since this time last season. Georgia has a new athletic director (Greg McGarity). Richt completely revamped his strength and conditioning staff in an attempt to make the Bulldogs bigger, faster and tougher. Richt ran the most competitive spring practice in his 11 seasons in Athens and had a little edge to him.

So what does it all mean? Georgia starts with Boise State in Atlanta and South Carolina in Athens. Start 2-0 and the schedule sets up nicely. Start 0-2 and the Dogs will be howling.

And there is this: His top two running backs from a year ago (Washaun Ealey, Caleb King) left school this summer. A true freshman will have to come through.

"It's a big year. I know it. Everybody knows it," said Richt. "We have to be good from Day 1."

Greg Childs (Getty Images)  
Greg Childs (Getty Images)  
3. Arkansas lost one of its best quarterbacks ever in Ryan Mallett. Can the Hogs actually be better in 2011?

Yes they can, and yes they will. If Greg Childs (46 catches) has completely recovered from a patella tendon injury that caused him to miss the final five games of 2010, Arkansas has the best set of wide receivers in college football (yes, you read that right).

Running back Knile Davis, who had 1,322 yards rushing last season, would be a unanimous first-team all-conference player in any other league. But the league's coaches had him second team behind sophomores Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) and Michael Dyer (Auburn) when they released their preseason All-SEC team last week.

Tyler Wilson came off the bench against Auburn last season and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns. He knows Bobby Petrino's system and can make all the throws.

The problem is that while Arkansas could be a preseason top 10 team, the Hogs have to play two top-five SEC West teams (Alabama, LSU) on the road.

Marcus Lattimore (Getty Images)  
Marcus Lattimore (Getty Images)  
4. Can South Carolina handle life as a favorite?

"We've got some good players but the thing about us is that we don't handle success very well," Steve Spurrier told me this spring. "We win a few games and people keep telling us how good we are."

I expect the assembled media here to vote South Carolina as the preseason favorite to repeat as SEC East champion. That's because the Gamecocks have two of the nation's best players in running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. When the quarterback, Stephen Garcia, has his head on straight, he can play at a very high level (ask Alabama).

But Spurrier knows that throughout its history, South Carolina has not been very comfortable in the role as a favorite. He also knows his Gamecocks must play SEC road games at Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.

But Spurrier also knows his defense will be good again. The Gamecocks led the SEC in sacks last season and to that unit has added defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, selected by many as the nation's No. 1 recruit. Ellis Johnson, South Carolina's veteran defensive coordinator, doesn't gush over players. He says Clowney is the most physically gifted player he has ever recruited. And that's saying something.

John Brantley (Getty Images)  
John Brantley (Getty Images)  
5. What about the Mighty Gators?

After winning national championships in 2006 and 2008 and going 13-1 in 2009, Florida is starting over under Will Muschamp. Muschamp, who played at Georgia and served as a defensive coordinator at Auburn, LSU and Texas, has a plan to get the Gators back on top after going 8-5 in Urban Meyer's final season.

He will transition the Gators to a more power-oriented team that has dominant players on the offensive and defensive lines of scrimmage, like his mentor, Nick Saban.

But right now Florida doesn't have the personnel to complete that transition. John Brantley has not proven that he can be a successful SEC-level quarterback, but new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is working on it. Florida doesn't have a power tailback and its receivers are pretty average.

So while it might drive the fans crazy, Florida is going to play it close to the vest on offense, hope to play good defense and try to win every big game 17-10.

Here is the other problem. While Florida could do well in the SEC East, which is wide open and average, the Gators play Alabama, at LSU and at Auburn on consecutive weeks in October. Ouch.

Those are my early questions. What are yours?

The Tony Barnhart Show resumes on Aug. 30 on The CBS Sports Network.


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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