Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. – During a USO tour of Iraq in June, LSU coach Les Miles spent long hours visiting soldiers and talking about Tiger football.
As Miles was wrapping up a visit one night, he was approached by a soldier from Louisiana with just one question - and it wasn't for an autograph or a photo.
"About 11:30 that night, I had a young man from Louisiana come in and say, as the last thing I did that evening, 'OK, coach, tell me who's the starting quarterback.' It certainly shocked me that I had to drive all the way to Baghdad to get that question again."
From Baton Rouge to Baghdad that's been the primary topic of discussion and debate for LSU fans.
Some favor junior JaMarcus Russell, who has started 16 games in his career and passed for 2,443 yards last season but suffered shoulder and wrist injuries.
Others prefer junior Matt Flynn, who started for the injured Russell in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and was named Most Valuable Player after throwing for 196 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-3 blowout of Miami.
Some want redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux, perhaps the nation's most coveted recruit in 2004.
So, who's it going to be?
"It is the most often asked question in every room that I've been in," Miles said Friday. "I hope it's the only question I'm asked game after game throughout the year.
"We have three good quarterbacks. We'll play them one at a time. I promise the competition at the position will kind of necessitate great play. We'll look forward to that play. We'll start with JaMarcus first."
Starting with Russell likely means he'll be with the first team when the Tigers start practicing in pads on Aug. 11, but it doesn't necessarily reveal who will be the starters when the Tigers open the season on Sept. 2 against Louisiana Lafayette.
Until then, the question may persist, even from those closest to Miles.
When he returned from Iraq his body's clock was out of whack and he couldn't sleep. So, at 3 a.m. he awoke his wife, Kathy, for a conversation.
"She rolled over and looked at me," Miles said. "She gathered her wits about her and says, 'So tell me, who are you going to play at quarterback?' "
Quarterback isn't the only position that has a cloud of uncertainty.There are also questions at running back.
Last year's leading rusher Joseph Addai is gone to the NFL. Alley Broussard, the leading rusher in 2004, is coming back from a knee injury and Justin Vincent and Jacob Hester last season combined for 602 yards.
"I think at tailback we'll have plenty of talent," Miles said. "Alley Broussard has to come, his knee has to heal. He's in position in the short-term to be ready to play.
"Justin Vincent is a guy that we can count on and is in great shape. I wouldn't go beyond Jacob Hester at tailback."
Miles said he'll feel that position is in good hands regardless of who emerges as the starter.
"I can't tell you right now who will get the first carry of the year," he said. "But I can tell you that whoever gets that carry will be good enough to win with."
SEC Preseason Media Poll
South Carolina (4)
(First-place votes in parentheses; one point awarded for each first place vote, two for second, etc.)
Glad he's here LaRon Landry is good. He's so good, in fact, some observers are somewhat surprised he's still at LSU.
Landry, LSU's spectacular free safety, is considered perhaps the best defensive back in college football. He would have likely been a first-round selection had he opted to enter the NFL Draft.
However, Landry said he never really considered that option.
"My mind-set was always coming back to finish my senior year," Landry said. "I just made the best decision for me and my family. I have personal goals for myself and my team, and I wanted to come back. That's in the past. I don't want to second guess myself. I'm looking forward to going to camp and getting better for this year."
Last year, Landry had three interceptions and 69 tackles, including four for losses and a sack.
"There are no reservations with me in his abilities to play at safety," Miles said. "He has an intuitive break on the ball. When he contacts you, when he brings contact into bear, it is a very physical force."
All three of Florida's losses last season came in opponents' home stadiums, which is somewhat alarming because the Gators played just four road games.
The lone victory at an opponents' home stadium was over Kentucky, and the Wildcats scored 28 points.
This season Florida travels to Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Florida State, so Gators coach Urban Meyer remains concerned with his team's play on the road.
"I think the number one thing we have to improve – this is just an opinion – is that tough teams tend to win on the road," Meyer said. "Toughness is the No. 1 element."
The Gators just weren't tough enough last season, especially on defense. In Gainesville, the Gators held five opponents to 14 or fewer points. But Florida surrendered 31 at Alabama, 21 at LSU and 30 at South Carolina.
That has to change, Meyer said.
"Our plan to win on the road is very similar to planning on winning at home, that is play great defense," he said. "Our objective offensively is to score in the red zone and to not turn the ball over. We didn't do that on the road. Twice we gave our opponent short fields, extremely short fields, one- and two-yard drives to score.
"Game management, I'm not sure how much will change. I think our approach and toughness is something we've been working on since we've been there. If we're a tough team, I really believe we'll have success on the road."
Senior quarterback Chris Leak, who has made 33 career starts, passed for 2,639 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, but he's still been labeled a "square peg" in the "round hole" that is Meyer's spread offense.
However, Leak figures to be a better fit in his second year in Meyer's system.
"Coach from Day One said that he wanted to build this system and around me and strong players like me," Leak said. "I just have to go out and think about my teammates and be their leader. We have to know how to break down defenses."
Healthy receivers should help Leak fit better, too. Last year several receivers were hurt, including Andre Caldwell, who missed most of the season with a broken leg.
"We lost (Andre) Caldwell and production dipped a little bit," Meyer said. "We lost Dallas Baker in the first quarter against Georgia and production took a big swing.
"We had a little sweep in the middle there where we struggled very much on offense. More so than Chris Leak in a square peg, round hole theory is that personnel on the outside was not conducive to SEC conference play."
Auburn suspends two
If Auburn is to contend for the SEC championship this season, and possibly a national title, they are going to have to do so a little light at the linebacker position early in the season.
Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville announced Friday that he was suspending two of his starting linebackers for "quite a few games" following recent run-ins with the law.
The linebackers in question are senior Kevin Sears and redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon. Sears was suspended for last season's Georgia game after his arrest for driving under the influence, public intoxication and leaving the scene of an accident. He was scheduled to be the Tigers' starting middle linebacker this season before his convictions last month on those charges led to his suspension Friday.
Blackmon, a former Rivals.com five-star prospect, was arrested in May for underage alcohol consumption and being a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol. Rivals' top-rated outside linebacker in Rivals class of 2005, Blackmon was expected to be Auburn's starting weakside linebacker this fall. Click here for more on this story from AuburnSports.com.
A new wrinkle for Irons
Here's a sobering thought for SEC defenses. Auburn's Kenny Irons, who led the SEC in rushing with 1,293 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry, has gotten better.
"He has a great attitude when it comes to working to make himself better," Tuberville said. "He's added a little weight and I think he's improved his quickness and speed. He knows he's got the capabilities of being one of the better players in the country in college football this year."
Fans in South Bend and Norman might scoff, but Irons' teammates think he could win the Heisman Trophy. He won them over a long time ago.
"Kenny Irons will break a 70-yard run and thank everybody on the field," senior receiver Courtney Taylor said. "Then, he'll go to the sideline and thank the coaches for calling the play. I think he's the best back in the country."
Irons' totals last season were impressive enough, but he had only nine starts and he ended the regular season averaging 147.7 yards over the last six games. With 12 games as a starter, he figures to significantly increase those numbers.
"He doesn't look like a great running back at times, but all of a sudden he'll come out of the pack and still be running," Tuberville said. "He's more of a (former Ole Miss powerful running back) Deuce McAllister-type of player, he runs high but can break tackles. But when he breaks the line of scrimmage you seldom see anybody catch him."
Tuberville made it clear he does not favor a 12-game schedule, especially since Auburn has no open dates and a short week of preparation for a Thursday evening game on Oct. 28 at South Carolina.
The Tigers open the season on Sept. 2 against Washington and play every week leading up to the Nov. 18 finale at Alabama.
However, Tuberville said the Tigers are equipped to handle the demands of that schedule.
"It depends on your depth," he said. "I feel pretty good about our depth. Our depth in some areas is going to be very inexperienced.
"Is it a good situation? Probably not. After eight or nine games what happens – even if you're physically capable of going and playing a tough conference team or non-conference team – mentally, it's just a drain."
Tuberville will tweak the Tigers' practice routine to help ease that burden.
"We've adjusted," he said. "This year for the time first we'll practice Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We felt like after taking Monday off, our players would be fresher, go Tuesday morning early for your regular season practice, then they have that afternoon off for academics, study hall. It's something that we did for several reasons, but I think it will give us an opportunity maybe to keep our guys a little bit fresher."
Willing to move
Will Herring has started 36 games as a safety, so it might have raised a few eyebrows when Tuberville decided last spring to move him to linebacker.
But it was a move that Herring liked.
"Whatever is best for the team," Herring said. "I felt more comfortable throughout the spring. Hopefully, I'll feel secure during two-a-days, and pick up where I left off."
Tuberville said he would not have made the move if Herring hadn't approved it.
"It was his senior year and he's done a lot of great things for us," he said.
Tuberville suspects he'll do more great things, too. Herring was selected All-SEC preseason first team.
"I like it that he's more in the middle of the defense where he can help the guys behind him and the guys in front of him," Tuberville said.
Older may mean better
Eight sophomores are listed as starters on Mississippi State's preseason depth chart, and that's progress.
At least coach Sylvester Croom won't have to play as many freshmen as he has in his two previous seasons, both of which ended with 3-8 records.
"Our program has reached a level now to where we don't have to play freshmen," he said. "Right now I think there's four or five that I think will probably play. We're going to try to get them all ready to play and we'll make decisions week by week as to who's redshirted and who is not redshirted.
"But the wholesale playing of freshmen like we've had to do the last two years, I think that's over in our program right now."