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Five Burning Questions for SEC West: Can 'Bama rely on passing?

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The Crimson Tide may have its best offensive line since coach Nick Saban took over in 2007. (Getty Images)  
The Crimson Tide may have its best offensive line since coach Nick Saban took over in 2007. (Getty Images)  

We wrap up our spring football tour with Five Burning Questions we still have about the SEC West heading into the summer:

1. After watching what AJ McCarron did in the BCS championship game, does Alabama really become more of a passing team in 2012?

Before the national title game with LSU in New Orleans, head coach Nick Saban sat down with his sophomore quarterback for a pretty serious discussion.

"I told him that we as coaches needed to trust him more and to be willing to put more of the game plan on his shoulders if we were going to win that game," Saban said. "He was ready. The only question was whether or not the coaches were ready."

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Turns out the coaches were ready to trust McCarron, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and no interceptions against the nation's No. 2 defense. Alabama won 21-0. McCarron's confidence soared and now he has become one of the leaders of the 2012 Crimson Tide.

"I'm a lot more comfortable," said McCarron. "And my teammates are a lot more comfortable with me."

So does Saban launch "Air Alabama" on Sept. 1 against Michigan? Hardly.

Alabama will still run the ball behind what may be the best offensive line Saban has had since he came to Tuscaloosa in 2007. Despite the loss of Trent Richardson, the stable of running backs remains deep with Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart and a newcomer, T.J. Yeldon, who is destined for stardom.

Alabama averaged 27 passing attempts in 13 games last season. I don't expect to see that number go up substantially. What you will see is Saban more willing to throw the ball on first down to keep defenses honest.

2. Before Bobby Petrino was fired, Arkansas was a top-10 team capable of winning the BCS championship. Has anything changed now that John L. Smith is the head coach?

Frankly, that depends on Smith and the rest of the Arkansas coaches. The talent is there. Tyler Wilson is a pretty remarkable quarterback with only six interceptions in 438 passing attempts last season. Yes, he'll be missing three big-time receivers (Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, Greg Childs) but running back Knile Davis returns after sitting out last season with an injury. That's big.

Before Petrino was fired the key to this season was improving a defense that finished ninth in the SEC last season. That was expected to happen with the hiring of Paul Haynes from Ohio State.

With both Alabama and LSU coming to Fayetteville, the schedule is also in place. All the coaches have to do is not screw it up. If they stick together, then the chances are pretty good the players will stick together as well. If their egos get in the way, or if Smith meddles rather than just manages, then things could unravel.

You can't overstate the importance of the Alabama-Arkansas game on Sept. 15. Win it and the rest of the conference is on notice that Arkansas has a chance to run the table. Lose it and anything could happen.

3. Of all the new coordinators in the SEC, who is likely to have the biggest immediate impact?

I'm going with Brian Van Gorder, the new defensive coordinator at Auburn.

Auburn was 11th in the SEC in total defense last season. And that's not going to cut it in a conference where four defenses (Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia) finished in the top five nationally in 2011.

Part of Auburn's problem in 2011 was extreme youth. Of the 31 defensive players on the depth chart, 21 were freshmen or sophomores. But the fact is that Auburn has to get a lot better on defense because head coach Gene Chizik wants to go back to the kind of blue-collar football (see Alabama, LSU) that usually wins championships in the SEC.

Enter Van Gorder, who was considered a rock-star defensive coordinator when he was with Mark Richt at Georgia (2001-04), winning the Frank Broyles Award as the national assistant coach of the year in 2003. He has done a couple of tours in the NFL with Jacksonville and Atlanta, the past four seasons as the DC for the Falcons.

This guy knows a lot of football. He knows what an NFL player is supposed to look like. He'll have the young players (and old ones, too) at Auburn hanging on his every word.

Betcha Auburn doesn't finish 11th in the SEC in total defense this season.

4. Will there be a hangover at LSU after the devastating loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game?

Since Alabama beat LSU in New Orleans, I have heard every kind of conspiracy theory you can name offered as an explanation: Coach Les Miles lost control of the team; quarterback Jordan Jefferson was mad and in the tank; then the players got mad and basically shut it down; the coaches were stupid and had a stupid game plan because Miles wouldn't let them throw the ball.

How about this as an explanation? Saban and his staff came up with a brilliant plan (throwing the ball on first down), Alabama's players executed the plan very well and the defense basically kicked LSU's butt and won the game. Hey, it happens. I picked LSU and I was wrong. Alabama was clearly the better team that night.

But you know what? All those folks who think because of that loss the LSU program takes a step back in 2012 haven't looked at the depth chart.

I'll say this right now: LSU will be a better team this season than last. The defense, despite the loss of cornerback Mo Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, is deeper and more athletic. Remember this name: Anthony "Freak" Johnson at defensive tackle.

The Tigers will have the threat of a vertical passing game with new quarterback Zach Mettenberger and sophomore wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is going to be a superstar. The Tigers will have eight home games instead of six and Alabama comes to their place in November.

5. Can Texas A&M replace Ryan Tannehill at quarterback?

Trust me when I tell you that is not the Aggies' biggest concern right now as they contemplate their first season in the SEC. It looks like Jamiell Showers (203 yards passing in spring game) will certainly be able to handle the position.

In fact, there is no need to worry about the Aggies' offense under new head coach Kevin Sumlin and his coordinator, former Texas Tech QB (and Mike Leach disciple) Kliff Kingsbury. Four of the past five offenses Kingsbury has helped put together have finished in the top four and averaged over 500 yards per game.

When I tracked down Sumlin this spring, he had just finished watching tape of some upcoming SEC opponents.

"I can't get over how big and fast the defensive linemen are," Sumlin said. "We have to figure out how to account for these guys on offense. Then we have to go out and recruit some of them for our defense."

The good news for the Aggies is that three of their first four league games (Florida, Arkansas, LSU) are at Kyle Field. But they pay for that on the back end of the schedule with three straight conference road games at Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama.

"There are no easy games in any big conference," Sumlin said. "But playing on the road in the SEC is obviously going to be something different for us."

Bonus questions

Is Tyler Russell going to finally grow up this season?

For two years we've been waiting for Russell, the former Mississippi high school player of the year, to become a big-time quarterback for Mississippi State. Russell was given opportunities to take the job when Chris Relf regressed from his 2010 form last season. If Mississippi State could have thrown the ball a lick last season, the Bulldogs would have won more than seven games.

Well, the team belongs to Russell now and coach Dan Mullen clearly wants to throw it more. Russell had 312 yards passing in the spring game and has some better-than-average receivers in Jameon Lewis and Joe Morrow. The table is set and the schedule has Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas coming to Starkville. Mullen has beaten everyone he is supposed to beat in three seasons at Mississippi State. Now he needs to post an upset. Russell can help him do that.

Does Ole Miss have a chance of getting out of the SEC West cellar under Hugh Freeze?

Doubtful. Freeze, who came from Arkansas State, told me he was able to put in about 50 percent of his spread offense this spring. He hasn't settled on a quarterback. Juco transfer Bo Wallace had a good spring game but Barry Brunetti, the transfer from West Virginia, is a little more athletic and started a couple of games last season. Remember this name: Donte Moncrief, who had 31 catches as a freshman in 2011, will put up huge numbers in this offense.

But none of that is going to matter if Ole Miss doesn't start playing better on defense. Last season the Rebels were dead last in the SEC and 90th nationally in total defense (419.33 ypg). The Ole Miss front seven, which used to regularly send guys to the NFL, has gotten pretty soft. Three of the front four from a year ago are gone.


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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