SEC questions: Who runs the ball at Georgia? Who will 'Bama miss most on defense?

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After a summer dominated by the politics of a four-team playoff and the Joe Paterno scandal, it will be a relief to actually talk about football again as SEC media days begin on Tuesday in lovely Hoover, Ala.

Texas A&M and Missouri will get their first taste of what the SEC is all about as more than 800 credentialed media will provide a spotlight unlike any they have ever seen.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive, one of the driving forces behind the four-team playoff, will open the meetings with his annual address to the media. The subject of Paterno and the Penn State scandal will probably come up.

The SEC will be going for its seventh consecutive BCS championship in 2012 and will certainly have two teams (LSU, Alabama) ranked in everybody's preseason top five.

A lot of questions will be asked over three days at the Wynfrey Hotel. Here are merely five we hope to get answered:

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1. Now that Isaiah Crowell is gone, who is going to tote the rock for Georgia?

Crowell, a talented kid on the field but a train wreck off it, was kicked off the Georgia team after a June 29 arrest on felony weapons charges. He was the media's pick for SEC Freshman of the Year last season with 850 yards in limited action. Now Georgia, which will likely be picked to repeat as SEC East champs, has to come up with another answer at tailback.

The Bulldogs have a couple of veterans in Ken Malcome, who was No. 2 behind Crowell after the spring. Malcome quit the team for 24 hours last season. Former tailback/linebacker/fullback Richard Samuel moves back to tailback. He's sturdy, but not particularly explosive.

Despite the presence of Crowell, Georgia was able to sign two of the better high school running backs in the South in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, both from North Carolina. Marshall enrolled early and participated in spring, where he got good reviews. Gurley was the North Carolina AP Player of the Year and arrived in June.

Georgia will find somebody who can run the ball. The bigger concern is three new starters on the offensive line.

2. Alabama has to replace seven starters on the No. 1 defense in America. What position concerns Nick Saban the most?

With two BCS titles in the past three seasons, Saban is the best head coach in college football. A little-known fact outside the state of Alabama is that Saban might also be the best secondary coach in the country. He'll have to be if the Crimson Tide are going to make a run at another title.

Three of four starters in the secondary are gone, including safety Mark Barron and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. In order to get some immediate help at corner, Saban brought in a pair of juco All-Americans, Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, who were in Tuscaloosa this spring.

Based on my last conversation with Saban, both Belue and Dixon will be ready to play against Michigan on Sept. 1.

"Our system is not as complicated as some people make it out to be," Saban said. "Both guys picked it up well, and I expect them to contribute."

The rule of thumb in the SEC is that you don't bring in juco players to sit on the bench.

3. Is Zach Mettenberger ready to play in the SEC?

In the spring of 2010, Mettenberger (6-feet-5, 228 pounds) was in a dead heat with Aaron Murray for the starting quarterback job at Georgia. Mettenberger got into trouble off the field, and was dismissed from the team. He played one season of junior college football in 2010 and transferred to LSU, where he saw limited action in 2011.

Now Mettenberger, who threw for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns (four interceptions) at Butler (Kan.) Community College, is the starting quarterback at LSU. Coach Les Miles is preparing Mettenberger for the glare of the SEC spotlight by bringing him to media days on Wednesday.

"We have confidence in Zach, and we believe he has the tools to be an excellent quarterback in our league," Miles said in June.

With Mettenberger and a good set of receivers that includes Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry and Russell Shepard, LSU will finally have a vertical passing game to go with its power running game.

4. Last season's coach (Bobby Petrino) is gone. The current coach (John L. Smith) is declaring bankruptcy. Can Arkansas overcome all of this angst and have a special season?

Smith, who was hired last April when Petrino self destructed, was in good humor when he arrived at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., in late May. The man who has run with the bulls in Pamplona and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro said he was looking forward to the biggest challenge of his life: being a head coach in the SEC West.

On July 4, Smith announced he would declare bankruptcy because of a series of land deals gone bad.

Arkansas has a talented team. If running back Knile Davis returns at anything close to 100 percent, the Hogs will have one of the best offenses in the country. But this has to be a fragile team after everything the players have been through. How could it not be? A Sept. 15 visit from Alabama will probably tell the tale. If Arkansas wins, it will be full speed ahead and the conversation turns to the Nov. 23 visit from LSU. If Arkansas loses to the Crimson Tide at home, the team could splinter.

5. Speaking of running backs, will South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore be ready to go when the Gamecocks open with Vanderbilt?

Before he tore his knee ligaments against Mississippi State on Oct. 15, there was no doubt in my mind Lattimore was the best running back in college football. He still could be.

Lattimore had 1,197 yards as a true freshman then got 818 yards more (5.0 average) before he got hurt in 2011. With a healthy Lattimore, South Carolina is capable of winning the SEC East. The Gamecocks have to play Arkansas and LSU from the SEC West (while Georgia doesn't), but they also get the Bulldogs at home on Oct. 6.

Lattimore, known for his world-class work ethic, was relentless in his rehab, coach Steve Spurrier told me.

"It was a tough injury for Marcus, but all the signs tell us that he is going to be OK," Spurrier said. "He's a special player. He's one of those difference makers who gives us a chance."

The Gamecocks open with an SEC game at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30. Vanderbilt finished No. 4 in the SEC in rushing defense last season.

The Tony Barnhart Show will debut on Aug. 28 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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