Can Alabama repeat as national champions? Can Alabama repeat at SEC champions? How many national titles will Nick Saban rack up before he takes it to the lake house and calls it a career?
Will AJ McCarron win the Heisman? Will T.J. Yeldon win the Heisman? Will Amari Cooper win the Heisman? Will the backup long-snapper win the Heisman?
Who will Alabama play for the national title? Who will challenge Alabama for the league title? Who might temporary sideline Alabama’s national title hopes by hanging a loss on the Tide?
Either all the questions surrounding the 2013 SEC football season involve Alabama or it just seems that way.
Certainly, the Crimson Tide dominates the storylines as the Southeastern Conference moves into the 2013 season. However, even though Alabama’s chance for another title is one of the league’s biggest stories, the SEC is about much more than the Crimson Tide.
So, with that in mind, here are the SEC’s 10 biggest storylines entering this season:
1. Alabama’s chances
As always, the Crimson Tide lost a decent amount of talent, including nine players taken in the NFL draft. As always, there are plenty of talented players in line for their chance in Tuscaloosa.
But the defense won’t rebuild overnight, and while the offensive line might be surprisingly good even after losing three All-Americans (Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker) and the position coach (Jeff Stoutland), the Tide won’t be quite as solid at that spot as it was in 2012.
Also, keep in mind that even Alabama’s great 2011 and 2012 teams needed a bit of luck to make the national championship game in the first place. What if Oklahoma State hadn’t lost to Iowa State in 2011 and Oregon hadn’t lost to Stanford in 2012?
Sooner or later, the ball isn’t going to bounce Alabama’s way.
Will it be this year? Alabama has enough talent that an undefeated season is a possibility, and if that happens, the Tide won’t have to worry about whatever challenger getting knocked off by whichever underdog.
Here’s guessing Alabama will roll again and make the national title game again … as long as luck holds out and starting quarterback AJ McCarron — the key to the team — can make it through another season without missing a game.
2. Beasts of the East
Georgia, Florida and South Carolina will challenge for a spot in the SEC title game, and it’s hard to pick a winner.
Last year, Georgia beat Florida, which beat South Carolina, which beat Georgia. LSU’s win over the Gamecocks essentially decided the division. That meant Georgia and Florida tied for the division title, and the Bulldogs advanced by virtue of a 10-9 win over the Gators.
We’re picking the Bulldogs to repeat. They return 10 of 11 starters from a rock-solid offense. The defense lost eight starters, including a lot of star power. But they’ve got some newcomers ready to fill important positions, including junior college transfer Chris Mayes, a defensive lineman, and freshman linebacker Ryne Rankin. He enrolled early and went through spring practice.
The biggest obstacle for Georgia — a game against South Carolina in the second week. So the defense is going to have to grow up fast.
3. Johnny Football, season 2
The cool thing these days is to knock Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner last year as a redshirt freshman.
Did he deserve the award? That’s a good question, since the play that put him over the top (teammate Deshazor Everett’s interception in the end zone to clinch a win over Alabama) wasn’t even made by him.
Will he be good NFL quarterback? Maybe not, but this isn’t the NFL.
Did he handle his off-season all that well? Certainly, he could’ve spent more time on campus. Instead, he took his spring classes online, and it seemed as if he was traveling somewhere to accept some award or visit somebody every week.
But Manziel certainly is an exceptional college quarterback. Teams likely will have a better idea of how to defend him, but he still is an elusive runner and an accurate passer.
Will he put together another Heisman season? If he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he can’t be great. Tim Tebow didn’t win the Heisman again after his exceptional sophomore season, but he led the Gators to a combined 25-2 record his last two years.
This leads perfectly into our next storyline.
4. Heisman talk
If Manziel doesn’t win the Heisman, who from the SEC will offer the biggest challenge?
Bovada of Las Vegas lists three SEC quarterbacks among the top four candidates for 2013.
Manziel is a 17/4 choice, while Alabama’s McCarron is 9/1 and Georgia’s Aaron Murray is 12/1. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller is 13/2.
For McCarron or Murray to win, they’ll need a great team performance. If Alabama goes unbeaten and is in position to play for a third national title, McCarron will get a lot of support. If Georgia is unbeaten, Murray will land on a lot of ballots.
But recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks have put together absolutely eye-popping numbers. (Manziel in 2012, Robert Griffin III in 2011, Cam Newton in 2010, Sam Bradford in 2008 and Tebow in 2007.)
Will McCarron and Murray put up nearly 5,000 yards of offense? Probably not, which means if Manziel doesn’t get it done again, the Heisman will go somewhere besides the SEC.
5. The Gus Bus
Will Gus Malzahn dramatically turn around Auburn’s football fortunes?
The schedule isn’t a killer, although the Tigers will have to play Texas A&M and LSU on the road and Georgia and Alabama at home. That’s killer enough.
Malzahn will make improvements. For example, the morale seems to have gotten much better. But Auburn has such a long way to go from how it was at the end of the 2012 season.
The team that folded so thoroughly against Georgia and Alabama hardly looked worthy of Division II, much less the SEC.
The defense still needs a lot of help, from front to back. Malzahn still needs a quarterback, and the offensive line needs a big upgrade.
A reasonable expectation should be 6-6.
6. LSU defense
Like Alabama, the Bengal Tigers have relied heavily on their defense in recent years, and head coach Les Miles has geared recruiting toward keeping the pipeline going.
Last year, LSU finished third in the SEC in scoring defense, rush defense and total defense. Alabama was first and Florida second in all three categories. But does LSU have enough talent returning to help carry the team? The Bengal Tigers lost seven starters, and six of them were taken in the first 95 picks of the NFL draft.
If LSU does, it likely will be because three players in particular produce big: junior defensive tackles J.R. Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and senior linebacker Lamin Barrow. Also, keep an eye on cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins. Both are sophomores.
7. Spread offenses
The spread continues to be the primary weapon the have-nots of college football use to combat the haves.
Saban doesn’t like it and has said the pace of the game could result in more injuries.
Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was Manziel’s quarterbacks coach last season, answered that with this in June: “Stop recruiting these beasts up front, and we won’t run as many plays.”
Don’t look for spread offenses to go away, especially when more and more high school players are entering college ready to play that style.
You know those 7-on-7 summer tournaments that have gained so much traction? They prepare quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs for the spread.
It’s not going away at all.
8. Rising Vols
Tennessee went 5-7 last year, including 1-7 in the SEC, but the Vols have a decent amount of talent back to work with new coach Butch Jones.
The offensive line returns four starters, and the defense can’t get any worse than it was.
The running backs are SEC ready. At quarterback, the Vols are in flux. Tyler Bray is gone, and that might be addition by subtraction for Tennessee. Backup Justin Worley isn’t a world-beater. The top newcomer is freshman Joshua Dobbs, an unremarkable three-star quarterback out of high school.
9. Excitement in Oxford
After winning six games in two years, Ole Miss put up seven wins last season. In addition, the Rebels put together the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com.
Still, let’s be real for a moment.
The Rebels went 3-5 in the SEC, with wins over slumping Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State. Also, that recruiting class won’t pay dramatic dividends immediately. Keep in mind, too, Rivals had three of Ole Miss’ division opponents in the top eight: No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Auburn.
The Rebels still need more offense, more defense, more breaks and more players to challenge in the SEC West.
No. 10 Vanderbilt
Congrats to the Commodores, who won nine games in 2012. That’s the most since they won nine under Dan McGugin in 1915. You remember him, don’t you?
That was less than a decade after the introduction of the forward pass in college football.
The schedule undoubtedly helped Vanderbilt. The Commodores didn’t have to play Alabama, Texas A&M or LSU, and Auburn and Tennessee weren’t nearly as good as they’ve been in the past.
Still, Vanderbilt has had favorable schedules before and hasn’t come close to nine wins. It might be more difficult to match that this season.
Alabama and LSU still aren’t on the schedule, but Texas A&M has replaced Auburn. In addition, the Commodores will have a new starting quarterback, and the offensive line has some holes.
Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter @MarkSportsStar.