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SEC 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

Brandon Harris

Brandon Harris

Spring practice around the SEC begins with 13 teams chasing Alabama for conference supremacy. The Crimson Tide have won three out of the last four SEC titles and open offseason workouts as one of the favorites to win the 2016 college football championship. But Alabama’s path to another SEC or national title won’t be easy. LSU and Ole Miss are loaded for a run at the West Division title, and Tennessee returns 18 starters from a team that won nine games in 2015. Quarterback play is also a huge question mark around the league for next season. Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Florida and Auburn are just a few teams opening spring practice with uncertainty under center.

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Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the SEC this spring:

SEC 2016 Spring Preview and Power Rankings

East Division

Florida

2015 Record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

Florida’s passing attack struggled mightily after Will Grier was lost midway through the 2015 season due to a suspension. Over the final seven games, the Gators managed to surpass 165 passing yards only once (South Carolina) and never completed more than 49 percent of passes in the final four matchups. Treon Harris is slated to move to receiver, leaving two transfers Austin Appleby (Purdue) and Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and true freshman Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask battling for the starting job.

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Related: SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

Georgia

2015 Record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 5

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get QB Jacob Eason Ready

New coach Kirby Smart inherits plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs have concerns on both sides of the ball. Running back Nick Chubb’s return from a knee injury is something to monitor, while the offensive line has holes to fill, and more playmakers must emerge at receiver. The defense returns five starters but question marks remain in the front seven. While those areas are all worth watching in spring ball, there’s not a bigger storyline in Athens than the arrival of true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The Washington native was the No. 5 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite and arrived on campus to compete in spring practice. He’s the frontrunner to take the first snap for Smart in 2016. How quickly will Eason get acclimated to the offense under new coordinator Jim Chaney?

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Related: SEC's Top 15 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2016

Kentucky

2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 4

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improvement on Defense

There’s no doubt most of the preseason attention in Lexington will be on quarterback Drew Barker and his learning curve under new coordinator Eddie Gran. However, the defense is just as much of a concern for coach Mark Stoops. Over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have ranked 12th or worse in the SEC in scoring defense. Only four starters are back this spring, with standouts Cory Johnson (DT) and linebacker Josh Forrest expiring their eligibility. This is a big spring at linebacker for Nebraska transfer Courtney Love and former junior college recruit Alvonte Bell, while defensive end Denzil Ware and cornerback Chris Westry hope to build off promising freshman seasons.

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Missouri

2015 Record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 8

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Offensive Line

A similar theme should play out for Missouri in 2016. With eight returning starters, the defense will be among the best in the SEC. But the offense is going to be a work in progress with five starters back and question marks at each position. The offensive line is the position group likely giving new coach Barry Odom the most concern. This unit returns only one starter, and there’s very little in the way of proven depth. Junior college recruit Tyler Howell could help at one of the tackle spots, but this unit needs time to jell under new assistant Glen Elarbee.

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Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2016

South Carolina

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 5

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Playmakers

There are several areas requiring attention for new coach Will Muschamp this spring. The defense needs a major overhaul after giving up 6.03 yards per play last season, the quarterback position is unsettled and the offensive line returns only two starters. The Gamecocks are also thin on proven playmakers, as running back Brandon Wilds (567 yards) and tight end Jerell Adams (28 catches) expired their eligibility. Additionally, go-to receiver and all-around threat Pharoh Cooper left early for the NFL. The top returning statistical receiver is Deebo Samuel (12 catches for 161 yards). Could Lorenzo Nunez shift to receiver if he doesn’t win the starting quarterback job?

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Tennessee

2015 Record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 9

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Big Plays in the Passing Game

Tennessee is tied with LSU for the most returning starters (18) in the SEC next season. The Volunteers are the favorite to win the SEC East, and there are few glaring holes or concerns to address in spring ball. But one area of focus for coach Butch Jones has to be the passing game. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 scores last year, yet only connected on five passes of 40 yards or more. Last year’s leading receiver Von Pearson expired his eligibility, but Josh Malone, Josh Smith and tight end Ethan Wolf are back. This spring will be a good opportunity for sophomore Preston Williams and junior college recruit Jeff George to stake their claim for playing time. 

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Vanderbilt

2015 Record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 7

SEC East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking:  6

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Kyle Shurmur’s Growth at QB

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Derek Mason’s decision to take over the defensive play-calling paid big dividends for the Commodores last season. With the defense on the right track, the focus shifts to the offense after averaging only 4.08 yards per play in league games last season. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur had his redshirt removed midway through the 2015 season, and the true freshman showed promise by throwing for 503 yards and five scores. How much progress will Shurmur make under center this spring? 

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Related: Vanderbilt Commodores 2016 Spring Football Preview

West Division

Alabama

2015 Record: 14-1, 7-1 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

The SEC is short on proven quarterbacks next season, and for the third consecutive offseason, the Crimson Tide open a spring practice with uncertainty under center. Jake Coker expired his eligibility after the national championship, leaving Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, sophomore David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts as the contenders to start at quarterback. Bateman has the edge in experience, but Barnett is the most talented quarterback signed by Nick Saban at Alabama. Will spring ball provide any clarity?

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Related: SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

Arkansas

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 9

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Rebuilding on Offense

Despite losing a handful of key players from last season’s team, Arkansas is in relatively good shape going into spring ball. The defense has plenty of room to improve after giving up 27.4 points a game last season but nine starters are back and improvement is expected. The biggest question marks for coach Bret Bielema reside on offense. The Razorbacks thrived under new coordinator Dan Enos last year, leading the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring (34.4 ppg). However, quarterback Brandon Allen, guard Sebastian Tretola and center Mitch Smothers expired their eligibility, and running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and tackle Denver Kirkland left for the NFL. Austin Allen has the edge to start at quarterback, but USC transfer Ricky Town is a name to watch. Kody Walker will get the first opportunity to win the starting job at running back. However, true freshman Devwah Whaley is a name to remember this summer. The cupboard isn’t bare for Enos, but there’s a lot of work ahead this offseason.

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Auburn

2015 Record: 7-6, 2-6 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get the Offense Back on Track

Was 2015 an aberration or are there real concerns for Auburn’s future under coach Gus Malzahn? The Tigers went 12-2 in Malzahn’s first year but have slipped to 15-11 over the last two seasons, including a 2-6 mark in league games in 2015. The first step for Auburn to erase last year’s disappointing record? Get the offense back on track. Auburn averaged only 22.1 points in league games last season – the lowest mark of Malzahn’s tenure as head coach. Settling the quarterback battle is Malzahn’s top priority, and junior college recruit John Franklin will compete with Jeremy Johnson and Sean White for snaps this spring. The offensive line must replace both of its starting tackles, and the receiving corps lost its top two targets. Additionally, more big plays are needed from the receivers in 2016, which is expected to rely on a couple of talented freshmen for major contributions.

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LSU

2015 Record: 9-3, 5-3 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 10

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Developing Balance on Offense

LSU doesn’t have to have the nation’s most prolific offense to win the SEC West next year. With running back Leonard Fournette and a standout defense in place, coach Les Miles’ team has the talent in place to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. However, the Tigers need to show improvement after only generating 172.6 passing yards in SEC contests last season. Quarterback Brandon Harris is back, and there’s plenty of talent at receiver with Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and Tyron Johnson. How much progress can the passing attack show in spring practice?

Related: SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

Mississippi State

2015 Record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Dak Prescott’s Replacement

Dak Prescott finished his prolific career in Starkville as one of the best players in Mississippi State’s history. Needless to say, filling Prescott’s shoes won’t be easy for the next quarterback. But coach Dan Mullen has a few intriguing options to choose from this offseason. Sophomores Elijah Staley and Nick Fitzgerald are considered the frontrunners, and Damian Williams is back after a redshirt season (one start in 2013). Will Mullen identify a clear frontrunner in spring practice?

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Related: SEC's Top 15 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2016

Ole Miss

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Offensive Line

Keeping quarterback Chad Kelly upright in the pocket is critical to Ole Miss’ hopes of winning the SEC West in 2016. While receiver Laquon Treadwell is a big loss, and more improvement is needed from the ground game, the focus of spring ball has to be up front. Standout tackle Laremy Tunsil left for the NFL, and four other starters from the Sugar Bowl expired their eligibility. Finding the right mix up front could be tough this spring, especially with Robert Conyers (center/tackle) and guard Rod Taylor out due to injuries. Additionally, incoming freshman Greg Little is expected to start at left tackle next season, but he won’t arrive on campus until this summer. The first step to finding the best five linemen in the trenches starts this spring.

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Related: Ole Miss 2016 Spring Football Preview

Texas A&M

2015 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

SEC West Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

The unexpected departures of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray before the Music City Bowl placed the Aggies into a difficult spot at quarterback this offseason. Former junior college recruit Jake Hubenak started the bowl game against Louisville and completed 28 of 48 passes for 307 yards and two scores. He’s the only quarterback on the roster that’s completed a pass in a Texas A&M uniform. But competition is on the way this spring in the form of Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, the offense also has a new play-caller (Noel Mazzone) and a few voids to fill up front. 

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