While the SEC still has a strong claim to rank as the No. 1 college football conference once again for 2017, this league slipped on the gridiron last year. Alabama played for the national championship, but the 13 other teams in the conference had at least four overall losses. Looking ahead to 2017, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn are all expected to take a step forward. Additionally, Alabama should be among the favorites to win it all in 2017. With better quarterback play and the improvement of a couple of teams, the SEC’s overall depth should be better next fall.
Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 130 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 and a pre-spring ranking facing the 14 teams in the SEC this spring:
SEC 2017 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Key Spring Goal: Jacob Eason’s Development
As a true freshman last fall, Jacob Eason showcased his potential and why he was regarded as a five-star recruit out of high school. In 13 games, Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns and completed 55.1 percent of his throws. Under the watchful eye of veteran play-caller Jim Chaney, how far will Eason progress this offseason? If Eason takes a step forward, Georgia should be the pick to win the East this summer. Of course, it isn’t just about Eason on offense. The Bulldogs have holes to fill on the line and need more playmakers to emerge after losing receiver Isaiah McKenzie to the NFL.
Key Spring Goal: Improvement on Offense
Considering the defense returns only three starters and loses a handful of key players, the offense isn’t the only concern in Gainesville. However, Florida has not finished higher than eighth in the SEC in scoring offense since 2009. The concerns for coach Jim McElwain start at quarterback. Is redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks ready to take over as the No. 1 quarterback? Can this team develop a few more playmakers and overall consistency at receiver? And how does the offensive line progress behind new assistant Brad Davis and a new left tackle after David Sharpe left early for the NFL?
Key Spring Goal: The Quarterback Battle
A couple of areas are worth a mention in this space, as Tennessee opens spring practice looking to replace defensive standouts Derek Barnett (DE) and Cameron Sutton (CB), as well as solidify the starting five for the offensive line. However, there’s no bigger storyline in Knoxville this spring than the quarterback battle. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano is battling with junior Quinten Dormady for the No. 1 spot. Dormady has completed 24 of 39 passes for 357 yards and one touchdown over the last two seasons. Can Guarantano – a four-star recruit from the 2016 signing class – unseat Dormady at the top of the depth chart?
Key Spring Goal: Find the Right Answers on the Defensive Line
The quarterback situation is also worth a mention here, but Drew Barker is still on the mend from back surgery and may not be at full strength for spring workouts. With eight starters back, coach Mark Stoops has reason for optimism on defense. However, the trenches are a concern. Last season, the Wildcats allowed 228.2 rushing yards per game and gave up 5.2 yards per rush. Additionally, the defense only accumulated 21 sacks. The staff received an overhaul in the offseason, as Matt House was promoted to defensive coordinator after D.J. Eliot left for Colorado, while Derrick LeBlanc and Dean Hood were added as assistants. End Courtney Miggins is the only significant loss in the trenches, leaving plenty of experience for House and Stoops to work with this spring.
5. South Carolina
Key Spring Goal: The Trenches
With 16 returning starters, and a rising star at quarterback in sophomore Jake Bentley, the Gamecocks should take another step forward in 2017. Coach Will Muschamp has assembled a talented core on both sides of the ball, but this team needs to fill a few voids in the trenches. Left tackle Mason Zandi departs after starting all 13 games last season, and the line as a whole must play better after surrendering 41 sacks in 2016. The defensive line loses Darius English, Marquavius Lewis and Kelsey Griffin and struggled to stop the run (90th nationally) and generate a pass rush (21 sacks) in 2016.
Key Spring Goal: Development of the Offense
It’s no secret Vanderbilt has to replace one of the nation’s top linebackers after Zach Cunningham left for the NFL. However, in order for the Commodores to reach the postseason for a second year in a row, the offense has to take a step forward after showing signs of life late in the 2016 campaign. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur, running back Ralph Webb and the team’s top five statistical receiving options return for 2017. How far can coordinator Andy Ludwig help this unit progress in spring ball?
Key Spring Goal: Improvement on Defense
A year after finishing second in the SEC in scoring defense, Missouri slumped to No. 12 in points allowed in 2016. The Tigers allowed 31.5 points per game last season and surrendered 6.1 yards per play – up from 4.3 from 2015. Coach Barry Odom’s defense did show some improvement late in the year but major question marks remain for 2016. End Charles Harris (eight sacks), tackles Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley, linebacker Donavin Newsom and cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson have expired their eligibility. Just three starters are slated to return for 2017, with end Marcell Frazier and tackle Terry Beckner headlining the key returnees. Can Odom get this defense back to its 2015 level?
Key Spring Goal: Brian Daboll’s Offense
The Crimson Tide heads into 2017 with key losses on both sides of the ball, but there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding new play-caller Brian Daboll. What tweaks will the first-year coordinator install for Alabama’s offense and how far can he help quarterback Jalen Hurts develop as a passer? Daboll comes to Alabama after a stint with the Patriots, and the spring provides the first look at how he plans to coordinate and build this offense for 2017.
Key Spring Goal: Development on Offense
The Tigers will once again be strong on defense and on the ground next season. However, any hopes of finishing 2017 as a top-10 team or pushing Alabama in the West will hinge on the development of the passing game. Coach Ed Orgeron made the most important hire of his short tenure in Baton Rouge when he was able to pull Matt Canada away from Pitt. Under Canada’s direction in 2015, the Panthers ranked second in the ACC by averaging 40.9 points per game, and quarterback Nathan Peterman developed into a NFL prospect. Upgrading the passing game and overall performance is the top priority for Orgeron and Canada this spring. Will Danny Etling solidify his place as the top quarterback? And how fast can the Tigers reload at receiver after losing Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural?
Key Spring Goal: Jarrett Stidham and the Passing Game
Anchored by running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson and a solid foundation on the line, the Tigers were already poised to rank among the nation’s best in rushing offense next season. And with the addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Auburn’s offense should show marked improvement through the air in 2017. Stidham arrives in Auburn after sitting out last season at a junior college, following a stint at Baylor in 2015. Stidham was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 signing class and threw for 12 touchdowns and 1,265 yards in 10 appearances with the Bears. New coordinator Chip Lindsey arrives after calling the plays at Arizona State last season and inherits a talented (but young) group of receivers to go with Stidham. How far will Stidham and the receivers progress under Lindsey’s watch in spring ball?
Key Spring Goal: Progress on Defense
Bret Bielema is making a significant change to the Arkansas defense this spring. After allowing 31.1 points per game and 6.8 yards per play, the Razorbacks are shifting to a 3-4 scheme. In addition to a new play-caller (Paul Rhoads), the defense has two other new assistants, as John Scott Jr. was brought in to coach the line, while Chad Walker will handle the outside linebackers. Transitioning to a new scheme isn’t easy, but this defense can only go up after struggling last season. How quickly will the Razorbacks find the right players and pickup the scheme?
5. Mississippi State
Key Spring Goal: Transition on Defense
With Nick Fitzgerald firmly entrenched under center after a breakout season, the focus for coach Dan Mullen shifts to the defense. The Bulldogs gave up 6.2 yards per play last year, struggled against the pass (108th nationally in pass efficiency defense) and only generated 14 sacks in league play. New coordinator Todd Grantham should help this unit take a step forward, and Mullen wasted no time looking for upgrades in talent with the addition of seven junior college prospects, including former SEC signees Johnathan Abram and Chauncey Rivers. How much progress will the Bulldogs show on this side of the ball this spring?
6. Texas A&M
Key Spring Goal: The Quarterback Battle
Trevor Knight expired his eligibility after a successful one-year stint in College Station, leaving a three-man battle for the starting job in 2017. Redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, true freshman Kellen Mond and senior Jake Hubenak are vying for the top spot on the depth chart. In addition to the quarterback battle, the Aggies must replace a couple of key playmakers on the outside, as well as find two new tackles after the departure of Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor. Can Mond – the No. 108 recruit in the 2017 247Sports Composite – claim the starting job after arriving in time to compete in spring ball?
7. Ole Miss
Key Spring Goal: Establish a Running Game
The cloud of uncertainty surrounding the NCAA investigation is the biggest spring storyline in Oxford. But strictly focusing on the on-field action, Ole Miss has to do a better job of establishing balance on offense. Quarterback Shea Patterson could push for All-SEC honors after an impressive stint late in the 2016 campaign, and the Rebels return a solid group of receivers. However, Ole Miss has ranked seventh or worse in the SEC in rush offense in each of the last four seasons and averaged just 3.99 yards per carry in conference play last year. Leading rusher Akeem Judd has expired his eligibility, leaving Eugene Brazley (261 yards last year), D’Vaughn Pennamon and D.K. Buford as the top returning backs. The offense also returns Eric Swinney after he missed most of the 2016 season due to injury, along with Jordan Wilkins from an academic issue.