Conference football is already underway now that South Carolina and Vanderbilt have opened the season (with the Gamecocks squeaking by the Commodores). Check out USA Today's preview of SEC football teams. Click here for the USA Today's full conference report.
INSIDE SLANT: Alabama
Robinson will test retooled Crimson Tide defense
There is a consensus that in time, the Crimson Tide defense will be fine. It won't be as dominant as last year's stop unit -- few defenses in the storied history of this program have been that good -- but it will be one of the nation's best.
But is that time Saturday night? It better be when Alabama opens up with Michigan in the Cowboys Classic under Jerry Jones' big top, or else senior quarterback Denard Robinson will trip up the Tide right off the bat and put an immediate crimp in their national title defense.
Coach Nick Saban prides his team on discipline and execution. Robinson's scrambling, borderline undisciplined style will test the inexperienced defense right away.
If they start running around with him, that's trouble, because he'll take advantage of open rushing lanes and bad pursuit angles to make big plays with his feet and his arm.
"I don't think you can totally simulate the quality, the speed, the quickness and the ability to execute with a lot of good players around him," Saban told the Mobile Press-Register.
"We're going to have to be a very disciplined defensive team to be able to contain him in the first game."
If Saban is looking for a template, he might want to consult what the likes of Michigan State and Virginia Tech did when confronted with Robinson last year.
The Spartans put relentless pressure on Robinson, forcing him to throw off his back foot regularly and hassling him into a poor game as they dumped the Wolverines.
In the Sugar Bowl, Michigan pulled out an overtime victory, but didn't move the ball that well. The Hokies kept Robinson in the pocket with their quick, well-drilled defensive ends and allowed barely 200 total yards, losing in part because of a plethora of mental and physical errors.
But Robinson will be a serious test right off the bat. Alabama has to play as an 11-man unit and not get caught freelancing too much or it will be in trouble.
"This is going to be a real challenge to play a guy who may be one of the most explosive players in college football," Saban said to the Press-Register.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB AJ McCarron -- Game manager can be a backhanded compliment, but not in this case. McCarron threw only five interceptions last season and did so while handling increased responsibility, peaking with a brilliant performance in the national title game against LSU. He'll get more chances to make plays down the field in the system of new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
RB Eddie Lacy -- Back at 100 percent after battling through turf toe for most of last season, Lacy is capable of keeping the Crimson Tide from suffering much drop-off after the departure of Trent Richardson. A big back who can also use the spin move to make people miss, Lacy will get about 20-to-25 chances per game to prove his worth to the offense.
DT Jesse Williams -- Moving from end to the nose means Williams is following in the footsteps of Terrance Cody and Josh Chapman, the anchors to Alabama's national championship defenses of 2009 and 2011. At 6-4 and 320 pounds, Williams has the strength and bulk to command double teams, which could give teammates chances to make plays behind the scrimmage line.
INSIDE SLANT: Arkansas
Crowe returns to Fayetteville on the other sidelines
Arkansas' season opener has an interesting twist, with former Razorbacks' coach Jack Crowe bringing Jacksonville State to Fayetteville, but other than that, there's not much that is going to excite Hogs' fans.
The 10th-ranked Hogs should have little trouble in disposing of the Gamecocks, who ply their trade on the FCS level.
The Gamecocks can be dangerous, as Ole Miss found out two years ago in a double-overtime loss, but there is a big difference between those Rebels and the Razorbacks.
But there still will be some things worth noting for Arkansas.
First will be how the wide receivers play. Senior Cobi Hamilton leads an inexperienced crew that could include at least three true freshmen in the rotation.
Next will be how running back Knile Davis performs after coming back from an ankle injury that cost him the 2011 season.
And finally, there is the defense.
If the Razorbacks are to live up to fans' expectations of competing for an SEC crown and a potential spot in the BCS title game, they are going to have to perform much better on that side of the ball than they did in 2012, when they take on conference rivals such as Alabama and LSU.
Giving up a bunch of yards and points to the Gamecocks would not exactly be a good sign.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tyler Wilson -- Wilson was the most prolific passer in the SEC last season, passing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns against only six interceptions. He will be missing two of his favorite targets, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, but still looks for a big year.
RB Knile Davis -- Davis got gentle treatment in the preseason and might not see a lot of work in the opener, assuming the Razorbacks roll as expected. But he still needs to test his ankle after missing last season.
LB Tenarius Wright -- Moved from end, Wright needs to have a solid season if the Hogs are to have the defense they hope for. He missed five games last season because of an arm injury.
INSIDE SLANT: Auburn
Off-field troubles clouding Auburn's prospects
Auburn returns 16 starters, plus its kicker and punter, from an 8-5 team that was extremely young last season.
Coach Gene Chizik would like to talk about his team's development, or the excitement instilled by new coordinators Scot Loeffler and Brian Van Gorder.
But his players can't seem to stay out of trouble. The latest incident came early Saturday, when starting center Reese Dismukes was arrested for public intoxication.
Dismukes was suspended indefinitely, leaving the Tigers with three new starters on the offensive line.
The offseason has been filled with such distractions.
Wide receiver DeAngelo Benton was suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of a team rule. Earlier he had testified in a trial that he smoked synthetic marijuana at Auburn.
Star running back Mike Dyer was dismissed after a traffic stop in which the arresting officer says he found marijuana and a gun in the car.
Freshman quarterback Zeke Pike was arrested for public intoxication, and later transferred to Louisville.
Freshman tailback Jovon Robinson had to leave Auburn after a high school guidance counselor reportedly admitted to altering his transcript.
Those were only some of the incidents that dominated offseason talk.
On the field, the Tigers have plenty of question marks on offense. Can new quarterback Kiehl Frazier get the ball to his talented receivers? Can a committee of backs led by Onterio McCalebb replace Dyer? Can the inexperienced offesnive line jell?
A cupcake opener would have helped, but Auburn opens Saturday against No. 14 Clemson in the Georgia Dome.
How Frazier, a sophomore, handles his first start will be huge.
"Very talented player, a young player," Loeffler said. "We're in a developmental process. As good as he looks, as big as he is, he's still 19 years old and has been on campus for almost a year."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Kiehl Frazier -- The sophomore won the starting job over Clint Moseley, in part because Moseley was limited by a sore throwing shoulder. Frazier is a dual-threat QB who did more running than throwing in his limited snaps last year. Frazier doesn't have RB Mike Dyer to lean on, but he has an experienced receiving corps, led by seniors Emory Blake, Travante Stallworth and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen.
DE Corey Lemonier -- The first-team All-SEC performer led the Tigers with 9 1/2 sacks, 13 1/2 tackles for losses and 15 QB hurries as a sophomore last year. He's the best player on a very good defensive line. The 6-4, 246-pounder is on the Hendricks Award watch list.
RB Onterio McCalebb -- The 5-11, 173-pound senior will lead a committee of backs trying to replace Michael Dyer. He already has more than 2,000 career rushing yards, and is Auburn's all-time leader in kickoff return average (27.90). In 2010, he set the school record for yards per carry in a season (8.5).
INSIDE SLANT: Florida
Florida's starter at quarterback remains up in air
It appears that Florida's quarterback controversy will stretch into the first week of the regular season.
Florida coach Will Muschamp said sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel both will play in the opener against Bowling Green.
"How we will manage that will be decided during the week," Muschamp said. "They both deserve the right to play. They've earned that and they both deserve the right to start. They both had really good camps."
The Gators are looking for big plays from both quarterbacks to help erase memories of last season's 7-6 campaign.
Fans will get a chance to see how first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease's play-calling will stack up against an opposing team. Pease, hired away from Boise State, will get full use of his playbook in the opener.
"We're going to play," Muschamp said. "I don't think you hide things. I think you go out and play the game. That's what we need to do."
Muschamp is optimistic about the season based on how his players responded during fall camp. Practices were more physical, by design. There was an increased emphasis on strength and conditioning in an effort to avoid the fourth-quarter fades that plagued the Gators last season.
Florida was outscored, 72-22, in the fourth quarter in SEC games in 2011.
"I can sit here and tell how I feel," Muschamp said. "At the end of the day, we'll be judged on Sept. 1, and how we perform, and then the following weeks from that on every Saturday."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Mike Gillislee -- Gillislee should get the bulk of the carries throughout the season, including the opener vs. Bowling Green. His ability to run between the tackles should fit in better to new offensive coordinator Brent Pease's downhill running game.
WR Frankie Hammond Jr. -- Hammond had an excellent camp and is Florida's most experienced receiver. He'll be counted on to lead a much-maligned receiving corps.
SS Matt Elam -- Elam is Florida's best playmaker in the secondary and will need to step up against Bowling Green's passing attack.
DT Sharrif Floyd -- Floyd said he felt like he "hit the lottery" with the move back inside to defensive tackle. He will be a key player to help Florida stop the run and force opposing offenses to become one-dimensional.
INSIDE SLANT: Georgia
Richt, Georgia have SEC, national title aspirations
Georgia coach Mark Richt has set the bar high for the Bulldogs this season.
With several players back from a team that won its first SEC East division title since 2005, Richt and the rest of the Bulldogs have set a goal to return to Atlanta for the SEC title game this season.
"I'd be disappointed," Richt said. "That's where we want to be."
Georgia will begin that quest Saturday at home against Buffalo.
The Bulldogs have several pieces in place to make a championship season possible. Third-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray threw for a school-record 35 touchdowns last season and is being mentioned as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
Linebacker Jarvis Jones is back after leading the SEC in sacks last season with 13 1/2.
"It just kind of seems like the stars are kind of aligning for us to be able to do a whole lot of great things this year," Georgia linebacker Cornelius Washington said. "We've got to put in the work and put in the effort, and I feel like we go out every day and do that."
Added tight end Arthur Lynch: "Our goal is to get to Atlanta, to get to (the BCS title game in) Miami and to win. (Snapper) Ty Frix said it well the other night. Let's forget Miami. If you win every single game and you're in the SEC, you will be national champions."
Georgia finished 10-4 last season. The Bulldogs proved they were capable of getting a run last season. Sandwiched between a two-game losing streak to start the season and two-game losing streak to close the season were 10 consecutive victories.
"We want to be undefeated when we get to the SEC championship," safety Shawn Williams said. "It's going to take a great team, it's going to take everybody clicking. We just don't want to set our standards too low."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Ken Malcome -- Malcome won the starting job at tailback with a strong camp. He'll be counted on to replace the production of Isaiah Crowell, who was kicked off the team during the offseason for disciplinary reasons.
CB Malcolm Mitchell -- Mitchell makes the move back to defense after an exceptional freshman season at wide receiver. He's still taking snaps on offense, but will primarily be used on defense until some players from Georgia's secondary return from early-season suspensions. Mitchell was a star cornerback in high school and already has established himself as the top cover-corner on the Bulldogs after a strong spring.
QB Aaron Murray -- Georgia's offense begins with Murray, who is entering his third year as a starter. Murray is coming off another outstanding season, passing for 3,149 yards, with 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He'll have to adjust to some new receivers this season after TE Orson Charles declared early for the NFL draft and WR Malcolm Mitchell moved to defense.
LB Jarvis Jones -- Jones had a breakout 2011 that included an SEC-high 13 1/2 sacks and 19 1/2 tackles for losses. What do you do for an encore? Jones probably will face more double-teams this season. How he responds to it could determine not only his future but the fortunes of the Georgia defense.
INSIDE SLANT: Kentucky
As expected, Smith earns starting quarterback job
The biggest non-secret was finally formally announced in late August, that sophomore Maxwell Smith is Kentucky's starting quarterback.
Smith asserted himself well in a late-season cameo last season and had a full load of spring-practice drills while senior Morgan Newton rehabbed from shoulder surgery. Smith entered fall camp with a huge edge over Newton and his strong performance cemented the belief that he is the better option.
Smith will make his fourth career start when the Wildcats open at in-state rival Louisville on Sept. 2.
"You have to make the tough decisions and be accountable for them," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "This is one of the tougher decisions that I have had to make."
Smith threw four touchdown passes in his three starts last season and provided a downfield passing presence that was missing under Newton.
But Newton, who has made 17 career starts, has much more experience than Smith and Phillips took that into consideration while weighing whether or not to go with Smith.
"We have to think about leadership and both of them are great leaders," Phillips said. "Both of them have great knowledge of our offense. I think consistency and who can get the ball into the end zone and who can continue to lead this offense ... Max Smith, we feel, gives us the best chance to win at this point."
Phillips cited Smith's improved grasp of the offense, a belief also expressed by offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, as an important ingredient in selecting Smith.
Smith was low-key about winning the job, partly because of his close relationship with Newton.
"I am glad to be where I am and I am looking forward to having a good season," Smith said. "I was just wanting to go out and work as hard as I could and that is what it was all about."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Maxwell Smith -- The sophomore will be counted on to upgrade a passing game that stalled most of last season. Kentucky couldn't stretch the field and lacked big-play ability, and the belief is that Smith has the arm strength to change those weaknesses. Louisville will be a good first test.
CB Martavius Neloms -- The senior has a wealth of experience in the back end and is Kentucky's top coverage corner. His presence will be important in hindering the deep threat posed by the Louisville receivers.
DT Mister Cobble -- Halting the run is the junior's specialty and turning the Cardinals into a one-dimensional offense would bolster Kentucky's chances at winning the game.
INSIDE SLANT: LSU
Mettenberger gives Tigers stronger passing game
Zach Mettenberger's long-awaited debut as LSU's starting quarterback finally comes when the Tigers open the season at home against North Texas on Saturday.
Mettenberger's potential was a highly touted recruit at Georgia two years ago before being kicked off the team after being arrested and charged with two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery.
The shortcomings of his immediate predecessors, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, suggest that he could be the final piece to LSU's BCS championship puzzle.
"We're going to throw the ball down the field more with Zach," offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said. "We're going to be efficient in the passing game and we're going to make big plays in the passing game."
But, Studrawa said, the Tigers have modified the offense, not scrapped it. They have a big, experienced and deep offensive line, plus a handful of very talented running backs. They still have a strong defense and special teams.
"Winning games is a still a three-pronged deal with offense, defense and special teams," he said. "We're a heavy run team with a lot of sets. There were times last season when teams played eight or nine guys (near the line of scrimmage).
"We're going to use the passing game to alleviate that pressure on the running game. It's a subtle change, but we are going to throw more and keep defenses honest."
The increased potential of the Tigers' offense has been evident in practice and scrimmages.
"There were two shots at practice where we had Odell Beckham down the middle one time and Jarvis Landry the other time," Studrawa said. "Standing behind the play in the end zone it looks covered. But Zach sent both those balls in there over the linebackers for 60-yard touchdowns.
"We wouldn't have even thrown those balls before. ... That's why the wide receivers are so excited. They used to run those routes before, and if it's not wide open it wasn't thrown. He's got the confidence to make those throws."
Although the Mean Green won't provide one of the stronger tests on the Tigers' schedule, they represent the first of three non-conference opponents against whom Mettenberger, who only played in mop-up duty last season, and the offense can sharpen themselves before opening Southeastern Conference play at Auburn on Sept. 22.
Mettenberger threw 32 touchdown passes and four interceptions in helping lead Butler Community College to the JUCO national title game two years ago. His teammates think he can get them back to the BCS title game this season.
"Really, it's whatever kind of year he wants to have," Beckham said. "I tell him all the time, 'You're a first-rounder. You're incredible.'"
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Zach Mettenberger -- All eyes will be on Mettenberger to see how much of a difference his arm strength and passing ability can boost the offense.
RB Alfred Blue -- Coach Les Miles, who utilized four backs almost equally last season, said he'd like to zero in on two guys early in games and have one guy to close with. Blue was mostly the closer last season, but is a strong candidate to grab one of the top two spots after a strong offseason and camp.
CB Jalen Mills -- No one player is going to make up for the absence of Tyrann Mathieu, but Mills steps into Tyrann Mathieu's role as cornerback/nickelback, so the spotlight will be on him. At 6 feet, he's a few inches taller than Mathieu, but it's unlikely he'll be able to match Mathieu's knack for taking the ball away, at least initially.
INSIDE SLANT: Mississippi
Ole Miss starts 2012 season with two quarterbacks
On one side, first-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has a junior quarterback with two years of experience, including two starts, Barry Brunetti.
On the other, Freeze has record-setting, junior college national championship-winning quarterback Bo Wallace.
Freeze cannot decide between the two, which is why he'll play both in the opener against Central Arkansas.
"You look at our two live scrimmages and the practices and we chart everything," Freeze said. "We watch every film and see who had the highest completion rate and who seemed to have the most productivity. That's who will start the game. We'll kinda play it by ear after that."
During two scrimmages, Wallace graded out higher, Freeze said. Still, he threw two late interceptions in the first scrimmage, and Freeze harped on his mistakes during the last week of practice.
Playing both may not be quite as awkward as it sounds, because the two bring distinctly different skill sets to the position. The 6-foot Brunetti is much more comfortable outside of the pocket and taking the ball himself, while the 6-4 Wallace is more of a traditional pocket passer.
So who will play more this week? That's up to them, if you lead the Rebels to a touchdown, chances are you get another shot at it. Don't, and you risk watching from the sideline.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Randall Mackey -- Mackey played in nine games last season, starting six at quarterback. He moved to wide receiver in the spring, then was shifted to running back in the fall. He's acclimated himself so well to the position that it's made some wonder why he wasn't always there. The big question is whether or not Mackey can block for the quarterback, something he has never done in his career.
RT Pierce Burton -- Burton was a mid-year junior collefe transfer who chose Ole Miss over Florida, in large part because of the promise of playing time. He's been with the first team since the first day of spring practice, replacing Bobby Massie (now in the NFL) on the right side.
CB Senquez Golson -- The sophomore missed the spring because of his baseball commitments, but has been Ole Miss' top corner in fall camp. He'll likely line up against former Rebel Jesse Grandy in the opener.
INSIDE SLANT: Mississippi St.
The time is now for Russell to step forward
Tyler Russell's long wait is over.
Mississippi State's starting quarterback will be given the reins after spending most of the last two years as a backup. Coach Dan Mullen has also re-tooled the offense for Russell, the Bulldogs' first pass-first quarterback in the Mullen Era.
Mississippi State figures to throw the football more with Russell, a former Parade All-American out of Meridian (Miss.) High, calling the shots Saturday in the Bulldogs' opener against Jackson State.
So, what's life like now that Russell will be the starter and not a backup battling for time in the spotlight?
"You would think this is the time you can actually take your foot off the gas if you wanted to, human nature a little bit, because 'I'm going to be the guy,'" Mullen said of Russell.
"He has actually continued to speed up and improve himself. That, to me, shows he has what we need, which is that winning attitude. He's going to continue to work to be the best he can be."
Russell played in nine games, including four starts in 2011, but his season was shortened by a knee injury. He completed 53.5 percent of his passes for 1,034 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions.
"I'm just focused," Russell said. "I prepared really hard. Our whole team has prepared. We're really focused and ready to show everybody what we're about."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tyler Russell -- His career-best game was also his debut, when he passed for 256 yards and four touchdowns against Memphis in the season opener in 2010. Russell should challenge those career numbers against Jackson State, an FCS school.
WR Joe Morrow -- The redshirt freshman is not listed on the two-deep depth chart, but he is the biggest receiver on the roster at 6-4 and a down-field threat who is expected to have a breakout year after a very successful spring.
DE Denico Autry -- He earned NJCAA All-American honors at East Mississippi Community College, where he was credited with 11 sacks, in 2011. Coaches see him as an every-down defensive end in the SEC, who should help veteran DT Josh Boyd on double teams. "He's never mentioned his stats and what he's been able to do," defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. "He's a really humble kid."
INSIDE SLANT: Missouri
Injuries cloud Missouri's season start
Entering August, all eyes were on the right shoulder of Missouri quarterback James Franklin. Franklin tore his labrum in the spring, and his return to full health would be imperative for the Tigers' first season in the SEC.
Four weeks later, Franklin's health is no longer a question mark. Instead, it's the health of the offensive line that throws the start of Missouri's season into some disarray.
Travis Ruth, the projected starter at left guard, tore his triceps tendon midway through camp and will be out for the majority of the season. Then, in the final scrimmage of camp, Jack Meiners -- the projected starter at right guard -- went down with a knee injury. Missouri caught a break when it was diagnosed a sprain, and head coach Gary Pinkel said Meiners could be back for the Week 2 game against Georgia.
However, that still leaves Missouri's offensive line in a state of flux, as back-ups Taylor Chappell and Mark Hill were already lost for the season as well.
"If you throw Jack in there, that's four guys I thought would be in the top-10 (of the offensive line depth chart)," Pinkel said. "It's a cry for backup players to get ready to play."
Throughout camp, the offensive line was a shifting group. Tackles Justin Britt and Elvis Fisher were limited for parts of camp as they recovered from injuries. Guards Max Copeland and Evan Boehm went from fighting for Ruth's vacated starting job to now being inked in as starters for the first game against Southeastern Louisiana.
A year ago, Copeland didn't have a scholarship and Boehm was preparing for his senior year of high school.
There's no questioning the importance of offensive line play in the SEC, and Missouri has to find answers quickly. Georgia awaits on Sep. 8, and Saturday's game will give this make-shift unit a chance to mesh and develop chemistry.
"We've still got a week," Britt said. "Oh yeah, a lot of things you can get done in a week."
KEEP AN EYE ON: Missouri no longer lists a tight end on its depth chart. Instead, the Tigers have the position listed as a Y-receiver. Eric Waters, a junior, remains No. 1 at the position, although at 6-4, 235-lbs, he's built like a traditional tight end. Green-Beckham is the second option, and the two players could rotate based on run plays and pass plays. In its first SEC season, it doesn't appear that Missouri will begin using a tight end in a more traditional manner.
INSIDE SLANT: South Carolina
Spurrier likes Shaw's consistency, on and off the field
For the first time in several years, coach Steve Spurrier is entering a football season somewhat relaxed. The biggest reason is his comfort level with junior quarterback Connor Shaw.
"Connor is the kind of quarterback any coach would love to have," Spurrier said. "He does all the right things. He works hard, studies film and doesn't get into trouble."
That is a big difference from the Stephen Garcia era when the Head Ball Coach never knew what to expect on or off the field.
Things were progressing well for Shaw until he was forced to miss a recent practice because of back spasms. The fear appears to be over, however, as he has been practicing at full speed ever since.
"Connor is doing fine," Spurrier said. "His back is fine."
Just as important and encouraging for the South Carolina offense has been the progression of All-American junior tailback Marcus Lattimore. After being knocked out by torn ligaments in his left knee midway during the 2011 season, he appears to be 100 percent.
While Spurrier has limited Lattimore's contract, he has played against enough to prove he is ready to play.
"I just to run as hard as I can," said Lattimore, who enters the season with 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in his first two seasons. "I don't know how many carries I'm going to get. We've got Connor (Shaw). We've got Kenny (Miles). We've got Brandon (Wilds). We've got Mike Davis.
"We're going to run the ball a lot, and I'm going to try to get as many yards as I can on every carry I get and protect Connor."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Marcus Lattimore -- The junior All-American is the foundation of the South Carolina offense. Although the unit played well in their last three games, the offense is much better with Lattimore in it.
FS D. J. Swearinger -- After playing half with 2011 season despite a broken bone in his foot, he has taken the mantle as the leader of the unit. As a junior he was a leader by action, now he is also becoming more vocal.
C T. J. Johnson -- The Gamecocks have a talented offensive line, but it is young and inexperienced. Johnson, a senior, will be leaned on to guide the group.
INSIDE SLANT: Tennessee
Vols plan to throw the ball, even without Rogers
Da'Rick Rogers was one of the crown jewels in Derek Dooley's first, hastily assembled recruiting class after Dooley arrived on Rocky Top in late January of 2010.
After two seasons filled with dynamic plays and drama, the talented wide receiver Rogers is finished with the Vols.
Dooley suspended Rogers indefinitely from the team last week, stating he found it unlikely Rogers would see the field at any point during the 2012 season.
On Monday, Dooley confirmed that Rogers is no longer with the program, amid reports Rogers would be transferring to Tennessee Tech, an FCS school.
It's become the dominant storyline as the Vols wrap preparations for Friday night's opener against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome, the first step in what's largely seen as a make-or-break year for Dooley.
In terms of on-field production, Rogers' exit is a huge blow.
Rogers led the SEC in with 67 catches and 1,040 receiving yards last season, becoming the sixth Volunteer to amass quadruple-digit receiving yards in a single season.
In terms of chemistry and locker-room harmony, Rogers' exit might be a good thing. He skipped several workouts with teammates this offseason and was rumored to have a few run-ins with former receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who retired late last year.
"We were going to throw it, whether we have experience or not," Dooley told reporters on Monday. "We like our guys, so that's not going to change our plan."
That plan likely includes more reliance on Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Hunter is an international-caliber high jumper who stands 6-4 and has shown tremendous big-play ability, but is coming off a torn ACL in the third game of last season.
Patterson was one of the top-rated junior-college prospects in the 2012 class.
However, neither is proven he can make plays over the course of an entire season.
Complicating matters, the Vols must prepare for an N.C. State team that boasts All-American CB David Amerson, who set team and conference records for interceptions in a single season with 13 last year.
For Tennessee's receiving corps, the pressure is on. Then again, the pressure's on for all the Vols this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Raijon Neal -- He's not the biggest guy in the world at 5-foot-11 and 211 pounds, but Neal heads into 2012 as Tennessee's starting running back in a bit of a surprise, considering Marlin Lane was the arguable favorite as preseason practice began. Neal's probably the best of Tennessee's backs at making catches out of the backfield.
DT Daniel McCullers -- Literally the biggest member of Tennessee's well-regarded 2012 recruiting class, McCullers is a 6-6, 377-pound, gap-plugging defensive tackle, who fits exactly what a nose tackle should contribute in Tennessee's new 3-4 base defense.
WR Justin Hunter -- All eyes will be on the 6-5, high-jumping speedster now that Da'Rick Rogers is no longer with the team. Hunter averages an astounding 22.1 yards per catch for his career.
INSIDE SLANT: Texas A&M
Texas A&M opens Sumlin Era with SEC slate looming
Before Texas A&M plays its much-hyped SEC debut on Sept. 8 against Florida at Kyle Field, the Aggies open the 2012 season against Louisiana Tech, the defending WAC champion, in coach Kevin Sumlin's debut.
Sumlin knows better than anyone that he can't peek ahead to the Gators. His Houston team needed a furious 28-point rally to beat Louisiana Tech last season.
Now at his new post at A&M, Sumlin is relying on redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, who will take his first snaps in a college game Thursday at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La.
Manziel won the starting job in fall camp, making immense strides in protecting the ball and in his preparation to win over the coaching staff.
Jameill Showers had been considered the leader to win the job after spring ball. Coaches and teammates have also noted Manziel's mobility on his feet. He will be the first Aggie freshman quarterback to start a season opener since 1944.
While Manziel is a rookie, he has an experienced offensive line in front of him and standout receiver Ryan Swope and running back Christine Michael for help.
The first game could reveal how the rapid-paced, spread offense Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury employed at FBS-leading levels at Houston will translate at Texas A&M.
"From our standpoint, our guys are chomping at the bit, because we've got really new schemes across the board," Sumlin said. "That can be good and bad going into the first game. But from an energy standpoint, our team really feels good."
--The Aggies return two standout pass rushers. Sean Porter had 9 1/2 sacks last season, while Damontre Moore had 8 1/2. Moore has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end as part of A&M's switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3.
--K Taylor Bertolet marks the first change at the position in years. Graduated Randy Bullock attempted A&M's last 80 field goals.
--KR Dustin Harris led the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2011 with an average of 18.6 yards per punt return. He scored on a 72-yard return against Kansas.
INSIDE SLANT: Vanderbilt
Improved offense hopes for better against South Carolina
Vanderbilt would rather forget about last year's dismal offensive performance in a 21-3 loss in Columbia, S.C. in the fourth week of last season. Nobody can blame the Commodores, since the team gained only 77 total yards, including four net rushing yards on 25 carries.
"I've watched (the game again) quite a few times," said quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who watched most of the game behind starter Larry Smith.
"We struggled to get any consistency in the run game ... in our short pass game we were successful in completions ... but really our run game wasn't where we needed that game and that really put us in a bind."
But that was before Rodgers took over as the starter, and before Vandy got its offensive line healthy with the pieces in the right places. The last seven games of the season, the Commodores scored 31.5 points per game.
Rodgers has some weapons to work with at the skill positions.
Tailback Zac Stacy came on to the tune of 1,198 rushing yards by the end of the season, and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd emerged as difference-makers.
Surprisingly, the Commodores, who had been dismal on offensively for five years running, led the Southeastern Conference in plays over 20 yards.
The Commodores also saw more answers emerge elsewhere, with true freshman tailback Brian Kimbrow and redshirt freshman H-back Kris Kentera, who both made several big plays in August practices.
Add the return of former SEC Freshman of the Year Warren Norman to back up Stacy, and there's more to work with in Nashville than there's been in a long time.
The offensive line also appears more settled. Depth has allowed Vanderbilt to move Wesley Johnson back to left tackle after he started at guard and center last year, and Ryan Seymour is now at guard, where he's more comfortable.
The unit will have its hands full with South Carolina's defensive line, especially 6-foot-8 Devin Taylor and 6-6 Jadeveon Clowney on the ends.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LT Wesley Johnson -- The junior is one of the SEC's best linemen, but will have his hands full against whichever of 6-8 Devin Taylor and/or 6-6 Jadeveon Clowney.
QB Jordan Rodgers -- Rodgers' big-play ability was a big reason the offense improved a year ago. His 50 percent accuracy rate was a reason it wasn't even better.
DE Johnnell Thomas -- Fugger's pass-rushing abilities will be missed, but the steady Thomas had a great August camp and could plug in and patch the wound here.