LSU Tigers: Brendan Douglas

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:

5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.

All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.

4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?

Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.

The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.

3. Who will start at safety?

Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.

Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.

2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?

It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.

Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.

Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.

1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?

We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.

LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/Wade PayneAaron Murray is on the verge of breaking several SEC career records, but also needs to help keep Georgia in the SEC East race.
1. Missouri offense vs. Florida defense: Missouri earned its biggest victory in its year-plus in the SEC last weekend when it beat Georgia. The Tigers' challenging October schedule continues this week when No. 22 Florida brings its fearsome defense to Columbia, and the Tigers must face those Gators without starting quarterback James Franklin, who separated his shoulder against Georgia. Freshman Maty Mauk did a fine job against Georgia's subpar defense, but he will face few stiffer challenges than what he'll face Saturday against a Florida defense that is allowing just 235.3 yards per game. Mizzou is third in the SEC in total offense with an average of 515.7 yards per game, so the many talented skill players at Mauk's disposal will have to give the new starter a hand on Saturday.

2. Record watch in Nashville: In Saturday's Georgia-Vanderbilt game, a handful of SEC career records could fall. With 112 career touchdown passes, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is just two behind Danny Wuerffel's SEC career record. And with 12,203 career yards of total offense, Murray needs 29 yards to match Tim Tebow's SEC mark. On the other sideline, Vandy's Jordan Matthews needs 97 receiving yards to match Terrence Edwards' SEC career record of 3,093 yards. Matthews had 119 receiving yards against the Bulldogs last season.

3. Gators running game: With the news this week that running back Matt Jones became the seventh Florida player to suffer a season-ending injury, the Gators' running game is now largely in the hands of Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor. Brown has been solid enough thus far, rushing for a team-high 340 yards. But Taylor is the guy many Gators fans are excited about. The son of UF great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor has rushed 16 times for 98 yards (6.1 per carry), including 10 carries for 52 yards in last week's slugfest against LSU. Missouri's run defense ranks third in the SEC at 126.2 YPG, but Georgia freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas ran for 157 yards and averaged 6 yards per carry against the Tigers' last week. The Gators probably need Brown and Taylor to be similarly productive in order to hang with the Tigers' prolific offense.

4. Marshall back for Auburn: After sitting out last week's blowout win against Western Carolina with a knee injury, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall returns to the lineup this week against Texas A&M. Marshall rushed for 140 yards -- the most by an SEC quarterback this season -- in his last game, the Tigers' 30-22 win on Oct. 5 against then-No. 24 Ole Miss. He led the resurgent Tigers to a 4-1 record before taking a seat last week while true freshman Jeremy Johnson played for the first time -- and won SEC Freshman of the Week honors -- against the overmatched Catamounts.

5. Can Georgia recover? With half a dozen starters sidelined last week against Missouri, Georgia lost its first home game since September 2011. Now the Bulldogs limp to Vanderbilt, where they have struggled in two of their last three visits before earning narrow wins. UGA hopes to reach next week's open date with its SEC East hopes still intact. All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley likely still won't play this week, so the Bulldogs' offense must hope Murray, freshman tailbacks Green and Douglas and their crew of replacement wideouts can generate enough offense to outscore the slumping Commodores.

6. Vols back from open date: The last time we saw Tennessee, it came within an eyelash of upsetting then-No. 6 Georgia in overtime. First-year coach Butch Jones' team took last weekend off and now has another enormous test on its hands: a visit from No. 11 South Carolina, which finally seems to be hitting its stride after some early struggles. Volunteers fans are optimistic about the new coaching staff, but their team hasn't beaten a ranked opponent in its last 19 tries. Their next four opponents are all ranked in this week's AP Top 25.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsHugh Freeze and Bo Wallace will try to snap Ole Miss' losing streak against LSU this weekend.
7. Can Hogs “snap out of it?” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said this week that he doesn't want his players to be a bunch of “Debbie Downers” after Saturday's 52-7 loss to South Carolina. That was the Razorbacks' fourth straight loss, the most lopsided loss of Bielema's coaching career and matching his worst defeat as a head coach. Unfortunately for Arkansas, it visits No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, where it will be a four-touchdown underdog. It could be a long second half of the season for the Razorbacks.

8. Maintaining historic run: The SEC set a record when Auburn jumped into this week's AP Top 25, giving the conference eight ranked teams. But that historic total might be short-lived. At No. 24, Auburn will likely drop out if it loses on Saturday at No. 7 Texas A&M. No. 15 Georgia and No. 22 Florida also can't afford a loss if they want to remain in the poll next week.

9. Repeat performance for Aggies? Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M offense gained 671 total yards, the most ever allowed by an Auburn defense, in last season's 63-21 win against the Tigers. Those 63 points also represented the third-most points ever scored against the Tigers. If that wasn't the last straw for then-coach Gene Chizik and his staff, it was awfully close. New coach Gus Malzahn has instilled new optimism on the Plains. The Tigers are a ranked team for the first time since November 2011, but the Aggies are still a two-touchdown favorite.

10. Rebs on the ropes: Ole Miss was one of the feel-good stories of the season just a few weeks ago, with the Rebels' Sept. 14 win helping them jump to No. 21 in the polls. But entering Saturday's home game against LSU, Hugh Freeze's club has lost three straight games: a shutout loss to top-ranked Alabama followed by narrow losses to Auburn and Texas A&M. LSU has won nine of the last 11 against the Rebels, although three of the last four have been decided by a touchdown or less. Keep your eyes on Oxford on Saturday night. This game often has a way of remaining surprisingly competitive.

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