SEC questions: Clowney's Heisman march starting? Bama's No. 2 back?
Among the questions facing the SEC as the season begins: Can South Carolina defensive menace Jadeveon Clowney actually win the Heisman?
Mercifully, after a summer filled with Johnny Manziel's escapades and other excesses we would rather forget, games finally begin on Thursday.
Still there is much we do not know as the SEC begins its pursuit of an eighth straight BCS national championship.
So, as a public service, please allow me to present Five Burning Questions we still have about the SEC as the 2013 season finally gets underway:
1: Will Clowney's Heisman march start Thursday?
Please don't tell him I wrote this, but South Carolina's All-World defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is not going to win the Heisman Trophy. There are just too many great quarterbacks whose last name begins with "M" (Manziel, Murray, Miller, Mariota, McCarron) plus Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater for No. 7 to become the first defensive player to walk away with the trophy.
But Clowney can make a hell of a case that he deserves to be in New York when they hand out the hardware in December. And he can start making that case Thursday night when North Carolina visits Columbia in a game that is going to be watched by a whole lot of people, including the Heisman voters.
North Carolina has a very good quarterback in Bryn Renner, who led a Tar Heel offense that averaged 40 points in 2012.
"You certainly are going to look where No. 7 is on every play," said Renner, who threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns last season.
Clowney had 13.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last season. If he has a big game against North Carolina, he can follow it up the next week with a trip to No. 5 Georgia. Last season he feasted on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in a 35-7 win over the Bulldogs. Just sayin'.
2: Who's Bama's No. 2 tailback?
Being the No. 2 tailback at Alabama has been a pretty good gig lately. Trent Richardson played behind Mark Ingram for a couple of seasons and then became the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft. Eddie Lacy then played behind Richardson and then became the star in 2012, leading the Crimson Tide to the national championship followed by a second-round pick in the draft.
Now T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,108 yards as a true freshman behind Lacy last season, moves into the No. 1 spot. But who is going to be No. 2 when the two-time defending national champions open Saturday night against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta?
Despite the return of Yeldon and some other proven backs, Alabama was able to sign four highly recruited runners in February. Derrick Henry of Yulee, Fla., broke the all-time high school rushing record (11,232 yards) that had stood for 59 years. Tyren Jones and Alvin Kamara were the best two running backs in Georgia and they both signed with the Crimson Tide. Altee Tenpenny was the best running back in Arkansas but Bret Bielema couldn't convince him to stay at home.
3: Will Florida's Driskel really be better?
Rising Florida junior quarterback pretty much did what he was asked to do last season by offensive coordinator Brent Pease and coach Will Muschamp. He completed 63.67 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. His 10.55 yards per completion was the lowest among the SEC's 14 starting quarterbacks.
Pease, Driskel and Muschamp have all told me that there is more confidence in the passing game and Driskel will be given the green light to throw the ball down the field in 2013.
"The difference in Jeff now and a year ago is like night and day," Muschamp said. "We think he's going to have a very good year."
We'll find out starting Saturday when the Gators open with a Toledo team that went 9-4 last season and averaged 31.5 points. Florida will be without sophomore running back Matt Jones (viral infection), so Driskel may have to air it out a little, especially with a trip to Miami coming up next week.
4: Will LSU finally find an offensive identity?
Somebody asked me last week what offense I was most looking forward to seeing this season. I told them LSU because the Tigers basically haven't had an offense for the past five years.
I have watched LSU win a lot of games since its 2007 BCS national championship, but for the life of me I haven't been able to figure out what they are trying to do on offense. It has been a mishmash of plays and some of them worked simply because they were being run by superior athletes. But there simply was no coherent strategy -- at least none that I could see.
That is supposed to change with the arrival of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. Cameron, who worked with head coach Les Miles at Michigan, has spent the past 11 seasons in the NFL and was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins for a season.
"I think the offense is really going to respond," Miles said. "My expectations are sound and solid, not lofty in any way. But I just think we're improved."
We should get an indicator Saturday when LSU takes on TCU in Arlington, Texas. TCU had the No. 1 defense in the Big 12 last season.
5: Is Vanderbilt a distracted team?
When I went to Vanderbilt last April, you could literally feel the energy in the football offices. After winning nine games last season for the first time at 1915, the Vanderbilt players and coaches couldn't get to the opener with Ole Miss (Thursday night in Nashville) soon enough.
Since then the excitement has been dampened by rape charges against four former players who were dismissed from school. A fifth player, wide receiver Chris Boyd, has been charged as an accessory after the fact.
Police say that Boyd gave one of the four dismissed players advice on how to cover up the crime. Boyd, who caught 50 passes last season, is suspended from the team as the case is reviewed.
How Vanderbilt's close-knit team is going to react to these events is anyone's guess. What I do know is that Thursday night's SEC showdown is a monster game for both teams because both expect to get back to a bowl.
Last season, Vanderbilt trailed Ole Miss by 17 points in the second half but Jordan Rodgers brought the Commodores back and threw a 26-yard touchdown pass with 52 seconds left to beat the Rebels 27-26. The winning touchdown pass was caught by Boyd.
"We will focus on the task at hand and do what we have to do," coach James Franklin told me in our last meeting. "We don't have any choice."
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