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Insider

Biggest weaknesses for SEC contenders

7/18/2012

HOOVER, Ala. -- Even a conference that boasts six consecutive BCS championships has warts. The SEC doesn't have a perfect team, or else the season wouldn't be very much fun to play. The national champion didn't even win the conference last season, something Steve Spurrier made an effort Tuesday to point out. (Who rips Bama?)

But there are weaknesses, even among the SEC's favorites -- and, mind you, the SEC's favorites have to be among the favorites to win the national title.
Missouri Tigers receiver T.J. Moe, the snarky darling of the league's first of three media days, had a different take: "It's not like all 12 teams are winning a national championship every year. Only one has done that each year. It doesn't mean we can't beat some of the other teams."

Quite naturally, for every weakness, the teams are trying to find answers in those problem areas. Here are the biggest issues and potential solutions for the projected top three on both sides of the conference.

Eastern Division

Florida Gators

Concern: Playmakers in passing game

Boy, this department sure has changed since Urban Meyer had Percy Harvin lining up -- and running wild -- all over the field. One-and-done coordinator Charlie Weis never could find a bona fide home run threat, even if part of the problem was erratic quarterback play that made it nearly impossible to get the ball up and out to the team's receivers.

Twenty-one receptions led the Gators' wideouts in 2011, and the leading returning receiver, Andre Debose, made just 16 catches. But do not discount Jordan Reed's worth in that discussion. The tight end, who was shoehorned into a part-time quarterback role in 2010, made 28 receptions for 307 yards as a sophomore. At 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds, he isn't the Harvin-type burner that you're used to seeing Florida utilize, but he can line up in a lot of different places and be dangerous in a number of ways. The same goes for the other former-forced QB, Trey Burton, who can carry the ball out of the backfield and jitterbug when he gets the ball in space.

Among pure receivers, those around the team say true freshman Latroy Pittman is the player who could have an immediate impact.

Georgia Bulldogs

Concern: Blocking in the running game

It would be a bit kneejerk to presume running back is the primary issue for the Bulldogs, following the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell. No, they're actually OK there, with veteran Richard Samuel and newcomers Ken Malcome and Keith Marshall. Really, it's about who is blocking for them, as well as quarterback Aaron Murray.

Last year, even with the dynamic Crowell in the fold, the Bulldogs had no backs average more than 5 yards per carry, the standard for per-play running success. They ranked 73rd in the country and ninth in the SEC with that per-carry average. Additionally, they gave up 33 sacks, 85th in the country.

Overall, the O-line has been a rather inconsistent -- and injury-riddled -- group under Mark Richt, and that was before highly regarded position coach Stacy Searels left for Texas after the 2010 season.

Unsolicited, Richt raved to me about the line's progress after spring ball had concluded. If projected starters such as David Andrews and Kolton Houston develop, the Bulldogs will be fine.

If not, Georgia could trip up short of its expectations of again playing for the SEC title.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Concern: Lack of a jump-ball receiver

Alshon Jeffery just concluded his three-year run as a blankie for the Gamecocks' quarterbacks. When in doubt, throw to Alshon. When Alshon is covered, throw it higher to Alshon. One of the SEC's best go-up-and-get-it guys in recent memory will be a tough player for the Gamecocks to replace.

Does South Carolina even have anyone on the roster who qualifies? Barely. Senior D.L. Moore (6-4, 203 pounds) was a fairly reliable receiver early in his career, but his production (32 career catches) has been modest at best and he entered Spurrier's doghouse last fall after a missed block led to a teammate's injury.

Shaq Roland (6-1, 170 pounds) has that kind of potential, but it's tough to ask that of an incoming freshman. Then again, Jeffery made an impact right away and Roland, the top prep player in the state last year, had a similar big-name offer list.

This point could be extended to receivers, in general, but Spurrier gushed Tuesday about the advancements of junior slot receiver Ace Sanders. Spurrier said Sanders, the son of former FSU standout Tracy Sanders, will have the Seminoles and Gators wishing this season they'd given the Bradenton, Fla., native more of a look.


Western Division

Alabama Crimson Tide

Concern: Kicking field goals

If you type "Alabama missed field goals" into a search engine, "vs. LSU" automatically fills in. It was the theme of the most important regular-season game of 2011, and it seemed at the time as if it had cost the Tide a shot at the national title.

It didn't, but you know Nick Saban would sure like to have that shored up in the event of additional close games in 2012. (That's almost guaranteed, given how the Tide plays and a schedule that includes road trips to Fayetteville and Baton Rouge.)

Both Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster return. Foster missed three of the four kicks in the first LSU matchup -- all of them relatively long, which is Foster's primary function in the platoon -- and Shelley missed the other. What you might have neglected to note is that Shelley (21 of 27) actually had a decent season, but that game caused both to be lumped together.

How do you coach kicking, anyway? Good question. Drills away from the tee and strength training are just as important as anything. The Tide, and every other team in America, don't want a kicker with a tired leg by November. Alabama plays LSU on Nov. 3, in case you're curious.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Concern: Stopping the run

After playing three non-AQ or non-FBS schools to start the 2011 season, the Hogs proceeded to allow 203.2 rushing yards a game in the final nine regular-season games -- including 381 to Texas A&M (they won, somehow), 291 to Auburn, 222 to Vanderbilt and 286 to LSU. And that was with All-SEC defensive end Jake Bequette (10 sacks, five hurries and five forced fumbles in '11), who is now a New England Patriot. Yowzers.

New coordinator Paul Haynes will bring a new spin to a line that will feature first-time starters Trey Flowers and Chris Smith at the ends. The sophomore and junior did combine last season for 59 tackles, 11.5 of them for a loss, so they're not completely raw. The staff is also hopeful that California junior college product Austin Flynn can immediately factor into a rotation.

Junior tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas will need to play like veterans. Tank Wright's shift from end to linebacker is meant to bring more toughness to that group. The fifth-year senior battled injuries last season, but he registered six sacks as a sophomore coming off the bench.

Wright said Wednesday that the first message the defense received from Haynes was that it had to stop the run. The Hogs' goal is to eventually get their yards per carry allowed average to 3.2, down from 4.3 last season. "We looked at the facts," said Wright. "We noticed the teams that won national championships stop the run. That's something we've focused on."

The biggest issue for Arkansas is that both Alabama and LSU will almost assuredly, again, be very effective running the ball, and A&M, with Christine Michael still there, is now in the Razorbacks' division.

LSU Tigers

Concern: Vertical passing game

LSU darn-near won the national championship last season without any consistency out of its quarterback play. Heck, the Tigers might have been better off letting the Honey Badger run the Wildcat the entire BCS title game against Bama.

But what happens now that LSU believes it has someone who can fling it? Recall that prior to being booted off Georgia's roster, Zach Mettenberger was in a dead heat to win the starting gig with Aaron Murray, one of the better QBs in the league.

Mettenberger patiently waited his turn last season, soaking up the offense while Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee rode a roller coaster of production. No LSU receiver averaged more than 14 yards a catch, meaning the Tigers struggled to hit the deep ball. Mettenberger is expected to be more than capable, and that has to be to the liking of vertical-threat receivers such as Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard.