Sam Khan Jr.Alex Scarborough 47d

SEC preview: Alabama's fate rests on Jalen Hurts' arm

Alabama
Last season's record: 14-1.

Key returning players: QB Jalen Hurts, WR Calvin Ridley, RB Damien Harris, RB Bo Scarbrough, LT Jonah Williams, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison.

Key losses: DL Jonathan Allen, LB Reuben Foster, LB Ryan Anderson, CB Marlon Humphrey, LT Cam Robinson.

Reason for optimism: The defense might lose a ton of talent from last season's squad, but the offense is in position to make up for that with the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year back at quarterback, a deep crop of tailbacks and arguably the best receiver in the SEC.

Cause for concern: Sure, Alabama is used to replacing stars on defense. And, yeah, there are four- and five-star players for days. But when you lose a Reuben Foster, a Jonathan Allen, a Tim Williams and a Ryan Anderson all at once, your front seven and your ability to affect opposing quarterbacks won't be the same.

X factor: It all rests on Hurts' arm. While he doesn't need to become Peyton Manning overnight, he does need to improve his work in the pocket. If he does that and becomes a more effective thrower of the intermediate-to-long ball, Alabama's offense could be unstoppable.

Game to watch: Saturday vs. Florida State (in Atlanta).

Arkansas
Last season's record: 7-6.

Key returning players: QB Austin Allen, C Frank Ragnow, DL McTelvin Agim, RB Devwah Whaley, LB Dre Greenlaw, DB Santos Ramirez.

Key losses: RB Rawleigh Williams III, LB Brooks Ellis, OT Dan Skipper, WR Keon Hatcher, WR Drew Morgan, DL Deatrich Wise Jr.

Reason for optimism: The Razorbacks have one of the SEC's best returning quarterbacks in Allen and return four starting offensive linemen.

Cause for concern: How long will it take for the Razorbacks to get comfortable in their new defensive scheme? After spending recent seasons in a 4-3 alignment, the Hogs switch to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. And the defense simply has to be better than it was in 2016.

X factor: How well will the Hogs protect Allen? They gave up 35 sacks last season, second-most in the SEC. It took its toll on the quarterback. They have to be better up front if they’re going to see an uptick in the win column.

Game to watch: Sept. 23 vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas).

Auburn
Last season's record: 8-5.

Key returning players: RB Kamryn Pettway, RB Kerryon Johnson, OT Braden Smith, WR Nate Craig-Myers, DL Marlon Davidson, S Tray Matthews, CB Carlton Davis.

Key losses: LB Carl Lawson, DL Montravius Adams.

Reason for optimism: In a word: Jarrett Stidham. Because the rest of the pieces are there for a good quarterback to flourish. Pettway and Johnson are one of the best tailback duos in the country, the line has experience and wideout is now a position of strength with Craig-Myers and Kyle Davis.

Cause for concern: Stidham might have a cannon for an arm, good accuracy and plenty of mobility. But the Baylor transfer doesn't have a ton of one thing: experience. Three starts and a year of rust means he's one of the SEC’s biggest unknown quantities.

X factor: Losing Lawson and Adams hurts, but the defense could nonetheless be a real strength this season. Davis is one of the better corners in the league and the line is loaded with talent with the likes of Davidson, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell.

Game to watch: Nov. 11 vs. Georgia.

Florida
Last season's record: 9-4.

Key returning players: OL Martez Ivey, OL Jawaan Taylor, DB Duke Dawson, WR Antonio Callaway, DL Jabari Zuniga.

Key losses: CB Teez Tabor, LB Jarrad Davis, S Marcus Maye, OL David Sharpe.

Reason for optimism: It doesn't matter if it's Feleipe Franks or Malik Zaire under center long term. The fact that Florida has two different, more talented quarterback options than the past few seasons is cause for hope for a struggling offense.

Cause for concern: You saw Tabor, Davis and Maye under "key losses," right? That's not to mention Caleb Brantley, Quincy Wilson and Alex Anzalone. With so many stars gone and a new coordinator, we could be in for an uncharacteristically down year for the Gators' defense.

X factor: The passing game needs to improve, granted, but don't forget the running game while you're at it. If Jordan Scarlett can become a top-five back in the league, it would relieve a ton of pressure on Zaire, Franks or whoever is under center.

Game to watch: Oct. 28 vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville, Florida).

Georgia
Last season's record: 8-5.

Key returning players: QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, OL Isaiah Wynn, LB Roquan Smith, DL Trenton Thompson.

Key losses: WR Isaiah McKenzie, DB Maurice Smith.

Reason for optimism: Year 1 for a new coach is always tricky. But Year 2, that's where the big improvements are made. Nick Saban jumped to double-digit wins at Alabama and Urban Meyer won his first title at Florida in their second seasons on campus. Could Kirby Smart be in for a similar surge?

Cause for concern: Chubb and Michel are explosive, talented runners. And it doesn't take long to see how special a thrower Eason is. But will it come together? The line still lacks top-level talent and receiver is a big question mark for an offense that struggled at times last season.

X factor: If Eason makes a Year 2 leap, fixes his accuracy issues and takes steps toward being that first-round talent we all believe he can be, Georgia will be fine. If not, it spells trouble.

Game to watch: Oct. 28 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Florida).

Kentucky
Last season's record: 7-6.

Key returning players: DL/LB Denzil Ware, LB Jordan Jones, DB Mike Edwards, K Austin MacGinnis, RB Benny Snell Jr., TE C.J. Conrad, QB Stephen Johnson.

Key losses: RB Stanley Williams, WR Jeff Badet, C Jon Toth.

Reason for optimism: There's a ton of experience back on defense (nine starters, 116 combined starts) and there's plenty of depth there, too. In the offensive backfield, a tested quarterback in Johnson and an explosive running back in Snell make for a nice duo. And the Wildcats' schedule sets up nicely.

Cause for concern: The offensive line took some hits: Four-year starting center Toth graduated and left tackle Cole Mosier tore his ACL in training camp and is out for the season.

X factor: The defensive line. That group accounted for only two sacks last season (if you count Ware as a linebacker). The Wildcats allowed an average of 228 rushing yards per game (third-worst in the SEC). That must improve if Kentucky plans to surprise some folks.

Game to watch: Sept. 23 vs. Florida.

LSU
Last season's record: 8-4.

Key returning players: RB Derrius Guice, LB Arden Key, OL Will Clapp, OL K.J. Malone, DL Christian LaCouture, DB Donte Jackson.

Key losses: RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Travin Dural, C Ethan Pocic, LB Kendell Beckwith, DB Jamal Adams, DB Tre'Davious White, DL Davon Godchaux.

Reason for optimism: The Tigers return one of the nation’s best running backs in Guice, (despite losing one of them to the NFL) and have one of the nation's most talented pass-rushers, if he's healthy, in Key. The roster is stacked with talent, as it usually is.

Cause for concern: As always, quarterback. Danny Etling is someone coach Ed Orgeron said LSU hopes can "manage the game." The senior is not a dynamic playmaker (and with Guice back there, they might not need one), but how he fares will have a lot to do with how the Tigers will do in the games that matter.

X factor: Key's health. He was absent in spring football and has missed most of fall camp with an injury. When he will play is unknown, according to Orgeron.

Game to watch: Nov. 4 at Alabama.

Mississippi State
Last season's record: 6-7.

Key returning players: QB Nick Fitzgerald, RB Aeris Williams, OL Martinas Rankin, DL Jeffery Simmons, LB Leo Lewis.

Key losses: WR Fred Ross, OL Justin Senior, DL A.J. Jefferson, DL Nick James.

Reason for optimism: Fitzgerald was a one-man band at times last season, throwing and running his way into being the most productive player in the SEC. And that was in his first year as a starter. What he does as a follow-up could be even more impressive.

Cause for concern: With Ross gone and not a ton of quality depth on the line, balance could be hard to come by on offense.

X factor: If you're looking for Fitzgerald’s potential sidekick and the player to bring balance to coach Dan Mullen's offense, look no further than Williams. He appeared to turn a corner late last season, rushing for 140 yards against Texas A&M and then 191 against Ole Miss.

Game to watch: Nov. 23 vs. Ole Miss.

Missouri
Last season's record: 4-8.

Key returning players: QB Drew Lock, RB Damarea Crockett, WR J'Mon Moore, DL Marcell Frazier.

Key losses: DL Charles Harris, LB Michael Scherer, CB Aarion Penton.

Reason for optimism: The Tigers have a ton back on offense (10 of 11 starters), including their top-producing skill-position players at quarterback, running back and receiver, plus the entire offensive line.

Cause for concern: The defense simply has to get better. Head coach Barry Odom took a more hands-on approach late last season and aims to continue that in 2017. Will it help?

X factor: Mizzou's defensive line success has long been a key factor in the program's overall fate. If the Tigers are going to get better on defense, it has to start there, where they have to stay healthy and produce to live up to the "D-Line Zou" moniker.

Game to watch: Sept. 9 vs. South Carolina.

Ole Miss
Last season's record: 5-7.

Key returning players: QB Shea Patterson, WR Van Jefferson, WR A.J. Brown, DL Marquis Haynes, DL Benito Jones, OL Greg Little.

Key losses: QB Chad Kelly, TE Evan Engram, DL D.J. Jones.

Reason for optimism: It was a small sample size, but boy did we get a feel for how well Patterson can sling it last season. He looked like a Johnny Manziel clone the way he scrambled and extended plays. With Jefferson, Brown and D.K. Metcalf at receiver, the Rebs' offense could be fun to watch.

Cause for concern: There was already no bowl in play. Then coach Hugh Freeze resigned amid scandal. Oh, and there has been no final verdict from the NCAA. With so much drama swirling around the program, interim coach Matt Luke will have his hands full holding the locker room together.

X factor: With nothing to lose, an us-against-the-world attitude and potentially prolific offense, Ole Miss could be a wild card in the SEC. The Rebels might not win many games, but they could give some teams a scare in the process and maybe ruin a season or two.

Game to watch: Nov. 23 at Mississippi State.

South Carolina
Last season's record: 6-7.

Key returning players: QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, WR Deebo Samuel, TE Hayden Hurst, LB Skai Moore, LB Bryson Allen-Williams.

Key losses: OT Mason Zandi, DL Darius English, DE Marquavius Lewis, K Elliott Fry.

Reason for optimism: The Gamecocks have a talented young quarterback and running back in Bentley and Dowdle and return a key defensive player in Moore, who missed all last season because of injury. This team overachieved in 2016, so if South Carolina can continue building on that progress, the win total will go up.

Cause for concern: The run defense must improve from the 215 yards per game and 5 yards per carry it allowed to Power-5 opponents last season.

X factor: While the Gamecocks have some talented offensive players returning, production must increase. No SEC team averaged fewer points than South Carolina last year (20.8). A second-year Bentley with a full offseason of preparation to start should help.

Game to watch: Sept. 30 at Texas A&M.

Tennessee
Last season's record: 9-4.

Key returning players: OL Jashon Robertson, RB John Kelly, WR Jauan Jennings, DB Evan Berry, P Trevor Daniel.

Key losses: QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Alvin Kamara, WR Josh Malone, DL Derek Barnett.

Reason for optimism: We all saw how Tennessee handled high expectations the past few seasons. Well, those expectations are gone now, and that just might be the best thing for the program and coach Butch Jones.

Cause for concern: Who’s the face of the program right now? With Dobbs, Barnett and Kamara gone, who does Tennessee turn to? The fact that there's no clear-cut answer is troubling.

X factor: It's a lot to ask of the 5-foot-9 Kelly, but he's going to have to be a workhorse this season. The good news is he's tough. If he can average anywhere close to the 6.4 yards per carry he did last season, it will be a good start for an offense in rebuilding mode.

Game to watch: Sept. 30 vs. Georgia.

Texas A&M
Last season's record: 8-5.

Key returning players: RB Trayveon Williams, WR Christian Kirk, DL Kingsley Keke, LB Otaro Alaka, DB Armani Watts, DB Donovan Wilson.

Key losses: QB Trevor Knight, WR Josh Reynolds, OT Avery Gennesy, OT Jermaine Eluemunor, DL Myles Garrett, DL Daeshon Hall, DB Justin Evans.

Reason for optimism: The Aggies actually have quite a bit of talent returning on defense. Everyone knows there's no Garrett and Hall, but the interior defensive line is talented and deep, and the Aggies might finally have what they need at linebacker. Their safety collection, led by Watts and Wilson, is All-SEC caliber.

Cause for concern: The spots with question marks are some important ones: quarterback, offensive tackle and defensive end. A&M must replace starters at every one.

X factor: Do the Aggies have enough depth at defensive end? Micheal Clemons, the junior college transfer, looks the part, and Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are experienced, but beyond that, there aren't a ton of experienced options.

Game to watch: Oct. 14 at Florida.

Vanderbilt
Last season's record: 6-7.

Key returning players: RB Ralph Webb, QB Kyle Shurmur, LB Oren Burks, WR C.J. Duncan, DB LaDarius Wiley.

Key losses: LB Zach Cunningham, DL Adam Butler, OT Will Holden, DB Torren McGaster.

Reason for optimism: The Commodores return one of the league's best rushers in Webb and several key pieces on offense.

Cause for concern: The offensive line allowed 32 sacks last season, third-worst in the SEC, and is working in players into new roles. Right tackle Justin Skule moves to left tackle, meaning both starting tackles will be new in those spots.

X factor: Can Burks become the kind of playmaker Cunningham was? He is sliding over to the position in the Vandy defense where Cunningham racked up an SEC-high 125 tackles last season on his way to becoming a second-round draft pick. If Burks can make that adjustment, it would be huge for the Commodores.

Game to watch: Sept. 16 vs. Kansas State.

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