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Five Burning Questions for SEC East: Can Bulldogs repeat?

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Richt's Bulldogs are favorites, but don't count out Spurrier's Gamecocks or Muschamp's Gators. (US Presswire)  
Richt's Bulldogs are favorites, but don't count out Spurrier's Gamecocks or Muschamp's Gators. (US Presswire)  

Spring practice is over. We've completed our tour to various campuses around the SEC, but we still have questions -- lots and lots of questions.

So today we're going to give you our "Five Burning Questions" that we still have about the SEC East heading into the summer. On Friday we'll come back with our questions concerning the SEC West.

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1. Georgia returns 10 starters from the nation's No. 5 defense in 2011. Will that be enough for the Bulldogs to repeat as SEC East champions?

It depends on how many of those starters actually show up Sept. 8 against Missouri in Columbia. Cornerback Sanders Commings has already been suspended for the first two games (Buffalo and Missouri) after his arrest on a domestic violence charge. Branden Smith, the other starting cornerback, was arrested for marijuana possession while traveling to spring break in March. He faces a mandatory one-game suspension, but it could be more.

While Georgia has not acknowledged it publicly, various media reports say that starting safety Bacarri Rambo will be suspended for the first four games after testing positive for marijuana. Ditto for starting linebacker Alec Ogletree, who could miss between two and four games.

That's a lot of starters missing for a road game against a team that knows how to throw the ball. Missouri is already going to be geeked up because it is the Tigers' inaugural SEC game. With no Alabama, LSUor Arkansas on the schedule, Georgia has a pretty decent chance to repeat in the East if it can survive the trip to Missouri.

2. Can South Carolina keep playing great defense under new coordinator Lorenzo Ward?

In 2011 South Carolina finished No. 3 nationally in total defense. The Gamecocks won 11 games in a season for the first time in school history. Four of the top five secondary players are gone, including junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who went in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Also gone is defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who became head coach at Southern Mississippi. Spurrier elevated Ward, who has handled the Gamecocks' cornerbacks the past three seasons.

"I think Lorenzo will be fine," said Spurrier. "He and I are on the same page in a lot of areas."

We'll see. South Carolina has won 20 games and an SEC East title the past two seasons because Johnson's defense allowed Spurrier to be more conservative on offense. If running back Marcus Lattimore returns anything close to 100 percent, Spurrier will want to continue that trend.

3. What will it take for Florida to be a contender in the SEC East in Will Muschamp's second year as coach?

The list is pretty long, but here is one thing Florida MUST do have any kind of chance of staying in the division race until November: The Gators have to force more turnovers.

I've long believed that turnover margin is the most important statistic in football. Taking the ball away from the opponent on a regular basis and then limiting the amount of times you give it back on turnovers can mask a lot of other problems on a team.

Example: Oklahoma State's defense ranked 107th last season (456.77 ypg). The Cowboys' defense was on the field for an incredible 1,089 plays -- more than any other team in the FBS.

But the Cowboys finished 12-1 because they had a great offense AND they were a whopping plus-21 in turnovers (44 takeaways, 23 turnovers).

"That gave us a chance to win," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told me.

Florida finished 113th in turnover margin last season because they forced only 14 turnovers in 13 games and gave up 26, a margin of minus-12.

"With that kind of number we were fortunate to win seven games," said Muschamp.

Florida's offense will be better this season, but not a whole lot better. The defense has to make things happen and give the offense good field position.

4. Will anybody step up at running back for Tennessee?

For a school that has produced Travis Henry, Arian Foster, James Stewart, Jamal Lewis and a bunch of other really good running backs, it's hard for me to believe that the Volunteers do not have a big-time player at the position. But they don't.

They have a bunch of guys who can play reasonably well. Marlin Lane was a four-star recruit out of Daytona Beach who ran for 280 yards as a true freshman last season. He had 136 yards in the spring game. Junior Rajion Neal had 134 yards last season and sophomore Devrin Young is small (5-feet-8, 171 pounds) but can give the Vols a change of pace.

Nobody will say it out loud in Knoxville, but there doesn't appear to be anybody on this roster durable enough and physical enough (and tough enough) to carry it 20 times a game and go over 100 yards against a quality SEC defense. Tennessee finished 116th nationally in rushing last season. That has to change.

Four-star running back Davante Bourque from Crowley, La., decommitted from LSU and signed with the Vols last February. But not everyone recruiting Bourque thought his future was at running back. New running backs coach Jay Graham may have to give him a shot.

5. With quarterback James Franklin (3,846 yards of total offense) returning, could Missouri actually win the SEC East in its first year as a conference member?

Missouri is going to be very competitive in its maiden voyage through the SEC because of Franklin, who is recovering nicely from shoulder surgery on March 23, and the fact that Gary Pinkel is a good coach. And folks in Missouri are excited about the arrival of freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 220) who, as coaches like to say, comes highly recommended.

But the Tigers are not going to win the division for two reasons:

 In the SEC, it's what's up front that counts. Missouri has to replace three offensive linemen and three defensive linemen from a year ago. The talent and depth at those positions is not where it needs to be right now. One thing every new coach in this league learns very quickly: To win the SEC you must be able to run the ball and stop the run. You must be strong up front to do that.

 Henry Josey is probably not going to play this season. Josey ran for 1,168 yards last season before suffering a horrific knee injury in the 10th game against Texas. He has already had two surgeries and is not expected to return in 2012. He is a special talent and will be missed.

Bonus questions:

 Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, brother of Aaron, led Vanderbilt to a bowl last season. Will he be the starter when the Commodores open with South Carolina on Aug 30?

Probably, because it's the opener and it's a conference game at home. But coach James Franklin told me he is intrigued by the athleticism of Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2009 and sat out last season.

 Will Kentucky play a true freshman at QB?

Kentucky went 5-7 last season after going to five straight bowl games. But the Wildcats finished with a 10-7 win over Tennessee, snapping a 26-year losing streak to the Vols. Still, coach Joker Phillips is going to be scrutinized heavily in this, his third season as head coach.

Phillips has made it pretty clear that incoming freshman Patrick Towles (6-5, 230), Kentucky's Mr. Football, is the future. And the future for Phillips could be right now. Maxwell Smith made the All-SEC freshman team last season after replacing Morgan Newton, whose performance has been uneven at best. But some are talking about Towles as a once-in-a-generation talent who needs to get on the field early. This will be an interesting process for Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.


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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