It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights.
The SEC season gets underway Thursday night with No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 9 South Carolina with a different ring to it. There is no defending national champion in the conference’s midst, no brand-name quarterbacks to hang its collective hat on.
But while the title and the Heisman Trophy reside in Tallahassee, the SEC remains the king conference with a nation’s-best eight teams in The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll, including three in the top 10.
The point is, this league still has the college football-watching country’s undivided attention. We couldn’t look away if we tried.
Here are five storylines that will define the conference in Week 1, put to movie trailers. These are your SEC Coming Attractions:
This much is clear, or at least as much as it can be: Jeremy Johnson will start Saturday for No. 6 Auburn against Arkansas with Nick Marshall punished for his summer marijuana possession citation. But when Marshall will enter the game is far from clear. As Gus Mazlahn told AL.com late last week "We’ve got some ideas right now, but we’re not ready to say what they are." There’s always the possibility it could hinge on how much trouble the Tigers have with the Razorbacks, who despite coming off an 0-for SEC season have a two-headed rushing attack in Alex Collins (1,026 yards) and Jonathan Williams (900 yards) that has the potential to keep Malzahn’s up-tempo offense on the sideline (and allow Bret Bielema to chalk one up for the clock supremacy coalition). Keeping Marshall’s punishment secret — along with that of senior corner Jonathan Mincy, who was arrested and charged with second-degree marijuana possession this summer — Malzahn went from a coach keeping everything behind closed doors to one diving deep into the realm of gamesmanship. Considering the reason Marshall isn’t available to start, let’s hope the actual length of the QB’s punishment gets spelled out publicly.
Grab Your Popcorn: Is Malzahn purposely being coy about Marshall or is he just planting the idea that he would do such a thing? Does anyone else’s head hurt?
For a New Orleans native, the LSU freshman running back got the only praise that mattered when Lil Wayne tweeted in October "Leonard Fournette is the truth!" The 6-foot-1, 224-pounder makes his Tigers debut Saturday night opposite a Heisman contender in No. 12 Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, and upstaging him could thrust Fournette into the incredibly early trophy conversation. But can Fournette possibly live up to all that has proceeded him in Baton Rouge before ever taking a snap? If he does, will Les Miles take the only logical next step after comparing the RB to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and drum up Muhammad Ali or Moses? It’s worth noting the Badgers have an entirely new front seven and Fournette could take advantage before this unit gets a chance to gel with significant time together.
Grab Your Popcorn: The most hyped player of 2014 gets the most hyped movie of 2014.
With a new offensive coordinator in Kurt Roper, a healthy QB in Jeff Driskel and a deep running game that brings back (an also healthy) Matt Jones to go along with Kelvin Taylor, Mack Brown and freshman Brandon Powell, the Gators will assuredly be better than last year’s 316.7 yards (113th) and 18.8 points (112th) per game. It’s going to be awfully hard to tell how much in Week 1 though, as Florida faces a Idaho Vandals defense that was among the nation’s worst last season, giving up 529.4 yards (121st) and 46.8 points (123rd). Driskel and Co. could look like Eastern Division and playoff contenders in this one, but we won’t know where the Gators are really at until a Sept. 20 trip to Tuscaloosa. Of course, should Roper’s offense somehow look out of sorts, expect the pitchforks to come out in Gainesville.
Get Your Popcorn: Randy "The Ram" Robinson was broken down and dying to reclaim the glory days. Can you believe the Gators’ last East crown came with Tim Tebow in uniform?
Texas A&M could put too much stock in its ability to put the Johnny Manziel era behind it should the offense look strong against the Gamecocks. Likewise, No. 12 Georgia may not want to get too high should the Bulldogs secondary — which was porous before the arrival of Jeremy Pruitt (84th in pass efficiency D) — look vastly improved against No. 16 Clemson, which is down two of the most prolific players in program history.
But the fanbase most likely to get too high or too low one game in is that of No. 2 Alabama. Jacob Coker and Blake Sims are listed as co-starters at QB going into the West Virginia game and Nick Saban doesn’t have to crown anyone after the opener. The Crimson Tide follow with Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss, meaning this could conceivably stretch into the Tide’s preparations for Florida. Alabama may have a QB capable of leading it to another title and the opener may not give us a clear indication of that. But for now, indecision isn’t likely to give Tide fans any confidence, though we should remember that in 2011 AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims split snaps in the opener before Saban gave the job to McCarron.
Get Your Popcorn: It’s like Saban were a certain tribute from District 12, tugging at our hears while he picks between Peeta and Gale. Also, it’s not hard to envision the cold, calculating Saban laying waste to all around him in a ‘Hunger Games’ of college football coaches.
Explaining the nautical theme featured in the Commodores’ renovated football facilities, Derek Mason told The Tennessean: "If you’ve ever seen any movies, like Titanic, where ships are out on deep oceans and deep seas — it’s a scary place to be. And that’s where we want to take teams. To deep water. We want to live in that place. We feel like this football team has a bunch of sharks on offense, defense and special teams. And sharks want to take their prey to deep water."
Mason, the only new kid on the SEC’s block, shouldn’t have a problem opening with a victory as Vanderbilt hosts Temple, winners of a combined six games the past two seasons. Still, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Patton Robinette-led offense looks sans its top three pass-catchers from a year ago, including the league’s most prolific WR in Jordan Matthews. It’s likely they’ll ride the running game with Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow, but with Ole Miss looming in Week 2, it will be imperative Mason gets Robinette comfortable.
Get Your Popcorn: Mason teed this one up himself.
Enjoy SEC Week 1. In the immortal words of Siskel and Ebert, until next time, the balcony is closed.