So with SEC Football Media Days kicking off Monday in Birmingham, we addressed five questions about the conference in yesterday's column. Here are five more questions, leading up to the grand finale -- who will win it all?
Can Will Muschamp turn Auburn's defense around in one season?
Coaching matters. Schemes matter. Chemistry and communication matter.
Players matter more. Auburn's defense went from weak to awful last year, because the pass rush was non-existent and the tackling was poor. Beginning with the Mississippi State loss, the Tigers gave up 31 to 55 points in the rest of their games except for that scrimmage against Samford. Ellis Johnson was a capable defensive coordinator who took too much of the blame for these shortcomings. The fact that Gus Malzahn fired him, though, suggests the problems were more than just philosophical differences.
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Not every defensive coach can peacefully coexist with a quick-strike offensive coach who does not worry about controlling the clock. Muschamp brings intensity and new ideas so the relationship will be more harmonious. Staff relationships filter down to the players.
Ultimately, though, it's still about players. Carl Lawson needs to be healthy. Montravius Adams needs to play up to his enormous potential. The defensive personnel doesn't stack up with Alabama's, Georgia's or LSU's. But with Auburn's offense, the defense just has to get a few stops and hold teams to under 30 points.
So will Muschamp turn the defense around? No. But will he make enough of a difference win more of those shootouts? Yes. Just not enough to win ALL of them.
Can Georgia win the big games with their quarterbacks?
There's so much talent and experience on offense, the quarterback doesn't have to be Matthew Stafford or Aaron Murray to be successful. Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Greyson Lambert can get the ball to Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jeb Blazevich. Of course, it doesn't take much ability to toss or hand the ball to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
But Mark Richt puts more on his quarterbacks in terms of leadership and decisions at the line of scrimmage than most coaches do. Everyone will key on Chubb.
The schedule helps tremendously with Louisiana-Monroe, Vanderbilt and Southern among the first four games and South Carolina coming to Athens.
Whether that will be enough to prepare for Alabama coming to Athens -- and very likely ESPN's Game Day and enormous hype -- is another matter. The next week will be a completely different challenge against Tennessee -- a huge road test in Knoxville. Missouri coming into Athens the next week is huge trap game. Then the big three rivalry games are away from Athens -- Florida in Jacksonville, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.
The bottom line is almost like Auburn's. The Dogs are probably not good enough at quarterback to win all of these games.
Will Alabama regain its mental edge?
There's probably not much debate that Alabama has the most talented roster in the SEC, maybe in the country. Almost every player who steps on the field was a four- or five-star prospect in high school. The few three-stars were selectively chosen because Nick Saban has an exceptional eye for talent. But that has been the case each of the last two seasons, and it still wasn't enough to win national championships.
Saban has been candid about the Crimson Tide losing their mental edge.
"We used to be a team that nobody wanted to play, relentless competitors, tough, hard-nosed. We've got to get some of that back."
Saban publically disagreed with AJ McCarron's assessment that recent signing classes have felt that winning was an entitlement. He probably realizes that McCarron's thoughts were keenly insightful.
A few months ago, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, "Culture beats talent." Be assured that Saban has been intentional in addressing this attitude behind the scenes. No, he's not a magician. But he's the best coach in college football. The best coaches make the best adjustments --not only during games but in the offseason. Sometimes they have to adjust their own habits and approaches.
I have to believe Saban has done that. And the result will be well, I don't want to spoil the ending.
Which incoming or upcoming player will make the biggest impact?
It's hard to say because so much of this is opportunity. If Todd Gurley had not been suspended and Michel had not been injured, Chubb would have continued to get about 10 carries a game and would not have put up the numbers he did. So, among the players whom we know will get the opportunity. Auburn running back Jovon Robinson will be a nice addition, and Georgia defensive tackle Trent Thompson should provide the run-stopper the Dogs sore need. But no position makes more of a difference than quarterback so the nod here is to
Will Grier of Florida.
For a school that has produced some very good college quarterbacks, the Gators have been astonishingly bad at this position since Tim Tebow graduated. Grier doesn't have to be an All-SEC player to be a major upgrade. If the rebuilt offensive line can give him a chance, Grier could be a stabilizing factor to an offense that could complement what should be again one of the best defenses in the country.
Finally, drum roll
Who will meet in Atlanta?
Admittedly, this is neither dramatic nor creative, but until someone proves otherwise, the two best teams are
Alabama and Georgia.
Criticize Mark Richt if you want about not winning national championships. But he has won five East titles and tied for one other in 14 seasons, so getting to the SEC Championship Game hasn't been the problem.
As for Alabama winning the West, this is not an easy call. As deep as their roster is, the Tide is not without their flaws. Quarterback is a big unknown. If Jacob Coker isn't the answer, David Cornwell will get a shot. The schedule is brutal having to face probably the two best teams from the East, Georgia and Tennessee. Wisconsin has a new coaching staff and lost Melvin Gordon but is dangerous. Then there's that gauntlet known as the SEC West.
Who wins the rematch? Injuries could have a lot to do with it. Both teams will be coming off what should be hard-fought emotional games against their rivals.
So it comes down to who can best manage the quick turnaround and make adjustments from their first game in October. Nothing against Richt, but would you really pick against Saban?
Alabama over Georgia.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org