- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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It's finally here. Football season has arrived.
Preseason training camps open up across the SEC this week with Mississippi State first up, beginning its camp today. Before looking west -- which we'll do later today -- let's preview the SEC East teams and some of the burning questions facing those teams as they strap on their helmets.
Camp opens: Aug. 5
Big question: What kind of improvement can be expected on offense?
The Gators' struggles on offense last year are well documented (they were 12th in the SEC and 93rd nationally in yards per game) and the arrival of head coach Jim McElwain, whose Colorado State offense was in the top 20 nationally (480.9 yards per game), is expected to bring a boost as he replaces his defensive-minded predecessor, Will Muschamp. One of the primary tasks to accomplish in this camp is picking a quarterback. Redshirt freshman Will Grier and sophomore Treon Harris (who started six games last season as a true freshman) are the top contenders for the job. The winner will be tasked with engineering a better Florida offense in 2015.
Camp opens: Aug. 4
Big question: Who's the QB?
Three players will vie for the starting quarterback job in Athens: Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Greyson Lambert. Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, and Bauta, a junior, battled during spring football while Lambert transferred in this offseason from Virginia. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt isn't tipping his hand, saying he and his staff haven't defined "who's in the lead" going into camp. No matter who gets the job, the winner will have the comfort of knowing running back Nick Chubb is right there waiting for the football for what Georgia fans hope is a sensational sophomore campaign.
Camp opens: Aug. 7
Big question: Are the Wildcats bowl game bound?
Last season Kentucky took a step forward by inching closer to a bowl game, starting 5-1. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they dropped their final six games of the season to miss out on the chance for postseason play. This season, Mark Stoops and Co. hope to break the bowl drought (the Wildcats last played in a bowl in the 2010 season). A new offensive coordinator is in town: Shannon Dawson, who arrived from West Virginia. He'll have his choice of quarterbacks -- either last year's starter, Patrick Towles, or redshirt freshman Drew Barker. On defense, Kentucky must find a way to replace the production from its two best pass-rushers in 2014, Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, who are both in the NFL.
Camp opens: Aug. 6
Big question: How will the Tigers deal with a depleted defensive line?
For years, the Missouri defensive line has been a strength. The Tigers regularly churn out NFL draft picks and develop more to replace those who depart. After the most recent NFL departures -- defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- Missouri has even more attrition to deal with up front without two expected contributors. Defensive tackle Harold Brantley will miss the season after injuries sustained in an automobile accident and sophomore Marcus Loud was dismissed from the team this offseason. Only one player (defensive end Charles Harris) has starting experience, and even that is limited for Harris, who started once last season. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have a five-star recruit coming in (Terry Beckner Jr.) and one of the best defensive line coaches in the business, Craig Kuligowski, who has tutored Missouri's defensive linemen since 2001.
Camp opens: Aug. 4
Big question: What type of impact will Jon Hoke make on the defense?
The Gamecocks finished near the cellar (or in some cases, right at the bottom) of the SEC in numerous defensive statistical categories in 2014. Hoke, the Gamecocks co-defensive coordinator with Lorenzo Ward (last year's DC), was brought along to help fix the issues and will be the man calling the shots for South Carolina's defense in 2015. Hoke brings in his extensive NFL experience, particularly with the "Tampa 2" scheme the Gamecocks will utilize in hopes of reversing their defensive fortunes this fall. The defense returns eight starters, which is helpful in South Carolina's improvement efforts.
Camp opens: Aug. 5
Big question: Can the Vols meet -- or exceed -- the hype?
The Vols begin the season as a top 25 team (at least according to the coaches poll, the AP poll has yet to be released), ESPN's preseason Football Power Index has Tennessee at 13 and to hear people talk about the Vols this offseason, an SEC East title is becoming ever closer. All that positive buzz might cloud the fact that the team was 7-6 last season with its first bowl win since the 2007 season. Still, it was a big step forward in the program's rebuilding effort and the hype is a testament to the recruiting done by Butch Jones and his staff (two consecutive top-five classes) and the confidence in quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who has the look of a budding star quarterback. The Vols are talented, but also young. Can they handle the hype and, more importantly, live up to it?
Camp opens: Aug. 6
Big question: Can the Commodores find a consistent answer at QB?
Last season Vanderbilt had a revolving door of quarterbacks, starting four different signal-callers (highest in the FBS). Two of them are gone (Patton Robinette retired from football this offseason, Stephen Rivers transferred) leaving Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck to compete for the starting job. Both are sophomores with starting experience. Freebeck played five games, throwing for 376 yards and a score; McCrary played in seven with 985 passing yards and nine touchdowns. At SEC media days, coach Derek Mason alluded to the notion that he'll likely stick with one quarterback this season but first new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig must find the right one.
6dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough