The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Barnhart's Five Burning Questions for Week 1

25 days ago
Tony Barnhart | SEC Network
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Almost a year ago, we began the 2020 college football season with a significant level of trepidation. We didn't know what we didn't know.

Because of the impact of COVID-19, the SEC scheduled 70 regular season games (10 for each school) plus the conference championship game. The season did not start until Sept. 26. There were contingencies upon contingencies put into place with the goal of completing as many games as possible.

It worked. Of those 71 games scheduled, the SEC played 69 of them. The only games not rescheduled were Ole Miss at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt at Georgia.

No other conference came close to that.

With relatively few fans in the stands, it was just a different game. But we pressed on.

And when all the games were played the SEC had four teams in the final top nine of the College Football Playoff rankings and another national championship in Alabama, the conference's 11th in the past 15 seasons.

So here we go again and this season, we hope, feels closer to normal.

Happy College Football, friends. Here are our Five Burning Questions about SEC football for Saturday, Sept. 4.

1. Is this finally the year for Georgia?

The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since 1980, Herschel Walker's freshman season.

But they have been close.

In the 2012 SEC championship game, Georgia trailed Alabama 32-28 and was driving for a potential winning score in Atlanta. With no timeouts left, an Aaron Murray pass was tipped and caught by a Georgia receiver in the field of play. The clock ran out before Georgia could run another play. Alabama advanced to the BCS championship game where they dominated Notre Dame. There is little doubt Georgia might very well have done the same if they had advanced.

In the 2017 national championship game, held in Atlanta, Georgia lost to Alabama in overtime when Tua Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith for a 26-23 victory. This Georgia team, despite some preseason injuries, seems to check all the boxes. We'll find out a lot when the No. 5 Bulldogs meet No. 3 Clemson in Charlotte Saturday night.

2. How good is Bryce Young?

Depending on who you ask Young, the Alabama sophomore from California, was either the No. 1 or No. 2 high school quarterback in America in 2019. A lot of us thought that Young would win the Alabama job as a freshman in 2020. But Mac Jones had other plans, leading the Crimson Tide to a 13-0 record and a national championship.

Now Young, who played in nine games and threw only 22 passes last season, takes over an offense has lost a lot of weapons, including wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, and running back Najee Harris, who is only the leading rusher in Alabama history.

And did we mention that the Crimson Tide has a new offensive coordinator in Bill O'Brien? Alabama opens with a Miami team that is expected to challenge North Carolina in the ACC's Coastal Division this season. The Hurricanes also return quarterback D'Eriq King, who is in his sixth year of college football.

3. Does the long week for LSU impact Saturday's game at UCLA?

LSU already had a lot to prove this season after going 5-5 in 2020 after winning the national championship in 2019.

The Tigers lost Myles Brennan, who many thought would be the starting quarterback, to a freak injury in the preseason. Then last Saturday the entire LSU football operation had to pack up and relocate to Houston to get out of the path of Hurricane Ida, who did incredible damage to the Louisiana coast.

Then late in the week LSU packed up again and headed to Los Angeles, where the Tigers will play in the Rose Bowl Stadium for the first time. UCLA (1-0) has already played a game, beating Hawaii 44-10 last week. LSU hopes to be able to return home and play a Sept. 11 home game with McNeese State.

4. How great a story is Zeb Noland starting at QB for South Carolina?

Noland, who played at Iowa State and FCS-member North Dakota State, came to South Carolina earlier this year as a graduate assistant because he wanted to get his coaching career started. But when projected starting quarterback Luke Doty suffered a foot injury, Coach Shane Beamer asked Noland to practice in order to give the Gamecocks some depth at the position.

Then an unusual thing happened. He won the job. He will start in Saturday's opener against Eastern Illinois at Williams-Brice Stadium. Luke Doty is expected to be healthy enough to play in South Carolina's Sept. 11 game with East Carolina.

5. What's the new Kentucky offense going to look like?

Mark Stoops, in his ninth season at Kentucky, is taking a chance by bringing in a new offensive coordinator in Liam Coen, who has installed a 21st-century offense with a transfer quarterback from Penn State in Will Levis, who recently was named the starter.

Stoops made some tough choices in order to improve a Wildcat passing game that was struggling to keep up with the rest of the high-octane SEC. It should fare pretty well against ULM, where former Auburn coach Terry Bowden is rebuilding. But the Wildcats want to make some progress because next week Kentucky hosts Missouri in a big SEC East game.