There are storylines everywhere you look in the SEC this week. With the college football season about to get fully underway on Saturday, here are the five biggest questions heading into the opening slate of games for teams in the SEC:
1. How will Nick Chubb look in his return?
The Georgia Bulldogs face a tough test to open the season against a North Carolina — a team that lost out to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game last season. All eyes will be on the Georgia backfield, with a strong chance that true freshman Jacob Eason starts at quarterback and the returning Nick Chubb behind him at running back. Chubb will start, and head coach Kirby Smart has suggested that he won't be on a “pitch count” either, so we should see how close to being back to his best Chubb is already. Before going down hurt last year, Chubb had forced 23 missed tackles on 94 carries, and will be the focal point of the Georgia offense once again this year.
2. Can Chad Kelly start the season strong in Orlando?
Ole Miss against Florida State at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida is one of the highlights of a fantastic opening few days of the 2016 college football season, and if Chad Kelly wants to take Ole Miss to the College Football Playoff and make himself a Heisman Trophy contender, he's going to have to start strong against a talented defense. No quarterback in the SEC threw for more yards on passes travelling 20+ yards downfield than Kelly (1,218) last season and his 16 deep touchdown passes were five better than the next best SEC QB. He'll have to look out for Florida State defensive back Derwin James though, with the talented playmaker lining up all over the field and causing havoc in coverage and as a pass-rusher.
3. Can Leonard Fournette run over the Wisconsin defense?
Leonard Fournette's ability to run over defenders is one of the most dominant forces in college football, and if LSU is going to challenge Alabama in the SEC and make a run at the College Football Playoff, they'll need him to be at his tackle-breaking best. Fournette forced a missed tackle once every 3.5 rushing attempts last year — a simply ridiculous achievement. Compared with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, Fournette forced nine more missed tackles on 96 fewer carries, and is likely to be one of the favorites to win the honor himself for most of the season.
4. How will Mississippi State's split quarterbacks cope in the opener?
The Mississippi State Bulldogs are expected to go with the combination of Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams, who have combined for 174 snaps over the past two seasons. Williams played in 2013 before we began grading every college football game, but in 2014 he completed just three passes travelling at least 10 yards downfield, though all three did go for touchdowns. Fitzgerald was something of a revelation on very limited snaps last year, completing all five of the passes travelling 20 yards or more downfield, with three of those throws going for touchdowns. It will be interesting not just to see if they can handle increased playing time, but also if either will step up and make the job his own at some point in 2016.
5. Can Carl Lawson apply the pressure to help Auburn to an upset?
The Auburn Tigers face a tough test when they welcome the runner up in the College Football Playoff in Clemson on Saturday night. If they are to have any chance of scoring the upset, their defense will have to make an impact and that means that edge rusher Carl Lawson is going to have to get pressure early and often. Lawson has struggled with injuries, limiting himself to half a season of playing time over the past two years, but at his best he can be a devastating pass-rusher. Our pass rushing productivity signature stat measures pressure on a per-snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, to give a better indication of pressure than sack totals alone. In the bowl game against Louisville, Lawson racked up the fifth-best pass rushing productivity rating of any 4-3 defensive end in a bowl game at 21.2, registering a sack and eight hurries on 38 pass rushing snaps. If he can be at that level on Saturday night, he's going to ask questions of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.