What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

Are you ready for some football?

SEC fans won’t have to wait until Saturday to kick off the 2010 season. South Carolina gets it started Thursday night against Southern Miss in Williams-Brice Stadium.

Questions abound about Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks. Who’s going to play? Who’s not going to play? How’s the quarterback situation going to shake out? Is this legitimately an SEC championship-caliber team?

We should start to receive answers soon enough. I can already see smoke billowing and hear the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing in the distance.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 1:

1. Catching a break: It appears that LSU will be facing a North Carolina team on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game that will be depleted. As many as seven defensive starters for the Tar Heels could be missing and up to 16 players total, according to ESPN reports. Star defensive tackle Marvin Austin has already been suspended for the game for violating team rules. Several more could follow as NCAA and school officials continue to look into agent-related allegations and possible academic fraud. The Tigers insist they’re worried only about themselves, especially with this being such a critical game in setting the right tone for the season. We’ll find out a lot more about this LSU team's maturity come Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.

2. Rebel Yell: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt conceded that he was “devastated” upon hearing the news Tuesday that the NCAA had ruled quarterback Jeremiah Masoli ineligible to play this season. There’s still an appeal out there, and Ole Miss could hear something by Friday. The Masoli news was just the first blow this week for the Rebels. Later Tuesday, it was learned that senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett was out indefinitely while he undergoes tests to determine what’s causing a rhythmic heart condition. Both players were going to play key roles this season for the Rebels, who will be counting on the likes of Nathan Stanley, Randall Mackey, Gerald Rivers, Jason Jones and Carlos Thompson more than ever now.

3. Missing in action: There are more than a few anxious coaches and players at a number of SEC locales thanks to all of the NCAA investigations hovering out there. South Carolina could be without as many as five players Thursday night. Safety Akeem Auguste, cornerback C.C. Whitlock, offensive tackle Jarriel King, guard Terrence Campbell and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye all face possible suspensions stemming from the Whitney Hotel probe. South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders has already been suspended for violating team rules. Alabama is waiting to hear something on defensive end Marcell Dareus, and Georgia is waiting to hear something on receiver A.J. Green. Georgia running back Washaun Ealey was suspended following his arrest last week, joining teammate Tavarres King, who was already suspended for this game following his July arrest. Injuries have also wreaked havoc, forcing Alabama running back Mark Ingram, South Carolina linebacker Shaq Wilson, LSU linebacker Ryan Baker and Florida offensive tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan to the bench for this first game.

4. Starting from scratch: Exactly half of the SEC teams will trot out a first-time starter at quarterback. That is, a first-time starter while playing in this league. Making their starting debuts will be Florida junior John Brantley, Georgia redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, Auburn junior Cameron Newton, Tennessee junior Matt Simms and Stanley at Ole Miss. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has yet to name a starter, but neither of the two quarterbacks who will play for the Bulldogs (junior Chris Relf or redshirt freshman Tyler Russell) has ever started a college game. Murray and Russell have never even played in a college game. One way or another, it ought to be interesting when the ball’s snapped this season in the SEC.

5. Passing fancy: It’s the first time we’ve seen Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett in live action since breaking a bone in his foot back in the winter during conditioning drills. At the top of his priority list this season is improving his accuracy and staying fundamentally sound when he is flushed out of the pocket. Now in his third year in Bobby Petrino’s system, Mallett isn’t one to talk about individual goals. His goal is to bring the Hogs an SEC championship. But with the talent surrounding him at all the skill positions, he could certainly make a run at a few SEC single-season passing records. Kentucky’s Andre Woodson has the touchdown record with 40 during the 2007 season, while another Kentucky quarterback owns the record for most passing yards in a season. Tim Couch threw for 4,275 yards during the 1998 season.

6. Rainey to the rescue:Florida coach Urban Meyer sounds excited about seeing Chris Rainey at the slot position, which was Percy Harvin’s old spot when he was scoring touchdowns on a weekly basis for the Gators. Meyer said Rainey was up to 178 pounds and poised for a big year. “He’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s now focused on a position that really his body is more trained to be,” Meyer said. “He has to give us the home-run shot. He’s got the ability. There’s really not an offense that can function without a home-run hitter, and he’s either 1 or 2 on our list of guys who can take it the distance.”

7. Big Orange firsts: Not only will it be Derek Dooley’s first game as Tennessee’s coach this Saturday against Tennessee-Martin, but he estimates that two-thirds of the Vols’ roster has never taken a snap in Neyland Stadium. Dooley said 18 freshmen are on his two-deep, and Tennessee also has a new playcaller on offense (Jim Chaney) and a new defensive coordinator (Justin Wilcox). Chaney was on the previous Tennessee staff with Lane Kiffin, but Kiffin called the offensive plays. What's more, seven of the nine players slated to start on the offensive and defensive lines will be making their first career starts for the Vols in their current positions.

8. Coaching debuts: It wouldn’t be the SEC without at least one new head coach taking the field for the first time. This season, there are three -- Joker Phillips at Kentucky, Robbie Caldwell at Vanderbilt and Dooley at Tennessee. Just in the past 10 years, there have been a staggering 22 head coaching changes in the SEC. The dean of SEC coaches at his current school is Georgia’s Mark Richt, and he came aboard in 2001. Florida’s Meyer, LSU’s Les Miles and South Carolina’s Spurrier are tied for second on the list, and they’re all entering their sixth season in the league.

9. Many happy returns: There’s been a lot of chatter among coaches about allowing key players to participate in the return game on special teams. It will be interesting to see how many of those players we really see back deep this first week. It’s a star-studded list. Some of the possibilities: LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Georgia's A.J. Green, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Alabama receiver Julio Jones, Florida running back Jeff Demps, Arkansas receiver Joe Adams, Tennessee receiver Gerald Jones, Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb and Kentucky running back Derrick Locke.

10. Emerging stars: We’re all eager to find out who those players are that will emerge from the shadows this season. Picking them out after just one week is tricky, too, especially when you consider some of the mismatches on tap in Week 1 in the SEC. But here’s a quick checklist of players to keep an eye on: Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard, Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward, Georgia nose tackle DeAngelo Tyson, LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis, Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Auburn running back Mario Fannin, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford and LSU receiver Russell Shepard.