Thanks to seven consecutive national championships, the rest of college football is looking up at the SEC. And while there are some worthy challengers ready to make a push in 2013, there appears to be no end in sight to the SEC’s recent string of dominance.
Alabama defeated Notre Dame in January to earn its second consecutive national championship, and Nick Saban’s team is the overwhelming favorite for 2013. The Crimson Tide has a few holes to fill, but quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper are good enough to makeup for the losses on the offensive line and on defense. Chasing Alabama in the SEC West is Texas A&M. The Aggies return defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, but the defense and offensive line need some work this spring. Texas A&M hosts Alabama in September, which could go a long ways to deciding the SEC West champion. Outside of the Aggies and Crimson Tide, LSU has to reload with the departure of 12 starters, while Ole Miss is counting on a top-five recruiting class to contend for a top-25 spot in 2013.
While the SEC West is set with Alabama at No. 1, the East is up for grabs. Georgia, South Carolina and Florida each have a case to make to be the top team. The Bulldogs are Athlon’s very early pick to win the East, but the Gamecocks could take the top spot if they can find a few playmakers around quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson.
New coaches will be under pressure at Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky. Butch Jones was hired away from Cincinnati to replace Derek Dooley on Rocky Top, and Jones will have his hands full this spring, especially since the Volunteers lost quarterback Tyler Bray and two receivers to the NFL Draft. Auburn (Gus Malzahn) and Arkansas (Bret Bielema) both hope to rebound after disappointing 2012 seasons, and both teams have enough returning talent to get back to a bowl game under their new coach. Mark Stoops has the biggest rebuilding project at Kentucky, but the first-year coach is already off to a good start thanks to a solid recruiting class.
SEC Spring Team Storylines and Quarterback Battles to Watch
Who will be the Gators’ next star?
Florida has a dearth of star power on both sides of the ball. That’s not a huge shock for an offensive group that sputtered throughout the season, but the Gators are reloading a bit on defense. Safety Matt Elam, defensive lineman Shariff Floyd and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are all gone. Defensive end Dominique Easley and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy could become the backbone of the defense, but offense may be more difficult. The Gators leaned heavily on Mike Gillislee last season, but he’s gone along with tight end Jordan Reed. Florida has been without a 50-catch receiver for three seasons and without a true superstar at the position since Percy Harvin left.
Todd Grantham's rebuilding project on defense
Georgia lost its two best linebackers, its four best defensive backs, 700 pounds of defensive tackle and a host of other contributors on the defense. There is tremendous depth and talent waiting in the wings, especially in the way of upside players like end Ray Drew, linebacker Jordan Jenkins, cornerback Damian Swann and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. The talented youngsters will have to take the next step in their development this spring. The Bulldogs are never hurting for talent, but Grantham will have his hands full replacing nearly his entire defense in 2013.
Related Content: 2013 Georgia Bulldogs Spring Preview
Find playmakers on offense
Kentucky wasn’t good at much of anything last season, but the Wildcats’ inability to move the ball was glaring. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who brings a pass-oriented spread offense from Texas Tech, will need to locate receivers in a hurry, but the numbers may not be on his side until the fall. La’Rod King was the only receiver to top 30 catches and 300 yards (he had 48 and 488), and he’s gone. Only four wide receivers who caught a pass last season return, and the leader of that group, Demarco Robinson, caught a total of three passes in the last three games. Four freshman receivers will arrive in the fall hungry for playing time, so the veterans will have one more chance to make a statement.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Maxwell Smith (JR) vs. Patrick Towles (SO) vs. Jalen Whitlow (SO)
The Wildcats have three potential starting options, but Smith or Towles will likely edge Whitlow for the starting gig. Smith and Towles are better fits for Kentucky’s new offense, with Smith owning an edge in experience.
Rebuild the front seven
Keeping quarterback James Franklin healthy all season will be a major focus for Missouri, but Gary Pinkel also has reason to be concerned about his defense. In the final six games Missouri surrendered 500 yards four times, although one game was a quadruple overtime loss to Tennessee. And that was with NFL Draft hopefuls Sheldon Richardson, a possible first-rounder, and Zaviar Gooden. Missouri may be about to learn how difficult it is to win in the SEC with a lackluster front seven.
Quarterback Battle? James Franklin didn’t have the best of seasons in 2012, so the pressure is on the senior to play better this spring. The coaching staff wants to get a good look at redshirt freshman Maty Mauk and sophomore Corbin Berkstresser, but Franklin should be Missouri’s starting quarterback.
Developing playmakers on offense
The line of scrimmage is stacked on both sides of the ball, and Steve Spurrier has two talented options returning at quarterback. But he needs to see playmakers develop this spring on offense. The top two rushers from a year ago are gone (Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles), while dynamic receiver Ace Sanders unexpectedly left early for the NFL. Sophomore Mike Davis heads a trio of unproven backs, with Brandon Wilds and Kendric Salley all vying for carries in the backfield. Speedy wideouts Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington are both back but neither is a go-to target on the outside. Look for Nick Jones and Shaq Roland to get plenty of reps this spring.
Quarterback Battle? Stop us if you have heard this before: South Carolina has a quarterback controversy. Well, sort of. Steve Spurrier plans to use Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson this season, so it’s more of a two-quarterback system.
Related Content: 2013 South Carolina Gamecocks Spring Preview
Can the new coaching staff build a dependable secondary?
Few teams have as many question marks on the sidelines and under center, but Tennessee’s spring concerns don’t end there. This defense was historically bad a year ago and it will be featuring a new scheme for the third time in as many years. That said, there is some talent to work with at linebacker and on the defensive line. Needless to say, the secondary could be the key to the defense. This team was 111th nationally in passing defense a year ago after allowing over 282 yards per game through the air. It allowed at least 37 points in seven of eight SEC games and close losses to Mizzou, South Carolina and Mississippi State, for example, happened because the secondary couldn’t stop opposing quarterbacks.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Joshua Dobbs (FR) vs. Riley Ferguson (FR) vs. Nathan Peterman (FR) vs. Justin Worley (JR)
Not only is Tennessee losing quarterback Tyler Bray, but the Volunteers must also replace their top two wide receivers from last season and tight end Mychal Rivera. Worley has the edge in experience and threw for 291 yards in a start against MTSU in 2011. Dobbs is the wildcard to watch this fall, as he is the best fit for Tennessee’s new offense.
How do the Commodores handle the pressure?
The media coverage on West End is at an all-time high. And that is just the way James Franklin and company want it at Vanderbilt. With a deep backfield set to take over for Zac Stacy, a dynamic duo at wide receiver and both lines of scrimmage improving every day, the Dores will have sky-high expectations for 2013. Franklin has built a cult following in Nashville by constructing a brand and marketing it to anyone who will listen. Now, the nation is listening and he has to keep a traditional bottom feeder achieving at unprecedented levels by keeping his team focused and grounded.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Austyn Carta-Samuels (RS) vs. Johnny McCrary (FR) vs. Patton Robinette (FR)
Carta-Samuels was a starter for two years at Wyoming and made one start for the Commodores in 2012. Robinette was Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and impressed during his redshirt year. McCrary is the wildcard, as he has the potential to win the job as a true freshman.
Who steps up on the offensive line?
With 14 starters back from last season’s team, Alabama is widely considered the No. 1 team for 2013. The only thing that could derail the Crimson Tide from the top spot? The offensive line. Three first-team All-SEC starters (Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack) are gone from last season’s line. Alabama has recruited as well as anyone in the country, so there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. However, with a new coach (Mario Cristobal), it will take some time for this unit to jell. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio should be in the mix for All-American honors in 2013, while Anthony Steen returns after starting all 14 games in 2012. With Jones leaving, look for promising sophomore Ryan Kelly to fill the void at center. Junior college recruit Leon Brown and early enrollee Brandon Hill will also figure into the mix, but Alphonse Taylor, Austin Shepherd, Chad Lindsay and Arie Kouandjio have an early edge thanks to their experience last season. This unit should be fine in the long run, but Alabama will have some kinks to work out early in the year.
Is Jonathan Williams the answer at running back?
The Razorbacks were the SEC’s worst rushing attack last season, averaging just 118.7 yards per game. And the cupboard is looking a little bare for spring practice, as Knile Davis left for the NFL and Dennis Johnson finished his eligibility. Jonathan Williams is expected to work as the No. 1 back this spring and is still largely an unknown after recording 45 carries last year. The sophomore did show promise in limited work but needs to have a strong showing this spring, especially with touted freshman Alex Collins arriving this summer. With a new quarterback taking over, along with Bret Bielema’s run-first mentality, the spotlight is on Williams to show he can be a No. 1 back.
Can the defense make significant progress?
With Gus Malzahn coming to back to Auburn, the Tigers should be able to find a spark on offense. And while there are concerns on that side of the ball, Auburn’s quest to get to a winning record will likely depend heavily on its defense. Despite having three top-15 recruiting classes from 2010-12, the Tigers finished 13th in the SEC in total defense and allowed 28.3 points a game. Considering nine starters were back from 2011, those numbers are simply unacceptable. New coordinator Ellis Johnson is well-versed in the SEC and was one of the league’s top assistants at South Carolina. His first priority is to find a replacement for defensive end Corey Lemonier, but the linebacking corps and secondary also need significant attention. Expect Auburn’s defense to be a work in progress early in the year, and Johnson could move a few players to different positions to get the best 11 on the field.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Kiehl Frazier (JR) vs. Jeremy Johnson (FR) vs. Nick Marshall (JR) vs. Jason Smith (FR) vs. Jonathan Wallace (SO)
Under Gus Malzahn’s watch this year, expect Auburn to have one of the SEC’s most-improved offenses. Frazier was recruited to run Malzahn’s system, so he should have an edge on the other candidates. Marshall is the most intriguing option, as he started his career at Georgia as a defensive back and played at a junior college for one season at quarterback.
How quickly can John Chavis restock the defense?
It seems like a broken record every season, but LSU usually has one of the best front sevens in the SEC. However, with the loss of defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan, Josh Downs and Lavar Edwards, the Tigers are essentially replacing an entire two-deep up front. The story isn’t much better at linebacker, as Kevin Minter left early for the NFL. The secondary also lost cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Eric Reid to the NFL, which means only three starters on defense return next season for Chavis. Although LSU has recruited well, it’s going to take some time to get the eight new starters all on the same page. The line has promising players like Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson ready to emerge, but there’s no clear pass-rush threat to scare opposing offensive lines. The Tigers will eventually find the right answers on defense but how far they come this spring could determine whether or not LSU can push Texas A&M or Alabama in the SEC West.
Which receivers are ready to step up?
If Mississippi State wants to make a push for a finish in the top four of the SEC West, it has to get quarterback Tyler Russell back on track. The junior finished the year with 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns but threw six interceptions over his final two games. In order to get Russell back on track, Mississippi State needs to find more weapons at receiver. Gone are receivers Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and tight end Marcus Green, leaving Robert Johnson (17 receptions) and tight end Malcolm Johnson (10 receptions) as the top two targets in spring ball. Sophomore Joe Morrow is a promising player but caught only five balls last year. Incoming junior college recruit Jeremey Chappelle and true freshmen Shelby Christy, Donald Gray, B.J. Hammond, Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson could all figure into the mix. Developing a pecking order and getting Russell comfortable with the new receivers is one of Dan Mullen’s top spring priorities.
The development of quarterback Barry Brunetti
With Bo Wallace undergoing shoulder surgery, Ole Miss can’t take for granted he will return at full strength. As evidenced by James Franklin’s 2012 season at Missouri, quarterbacks can take a while to get back to 100 percent after shoulder surgery, so it’s important for the Rebels to get Brunetti comfortable in case he has to start. Wallace is a better passer than Brunetti, but the Memphis native brings a little more mobility to the offense. In addition to Brunetti, the Rebels need to get an extended look at sophomore Maikhail Miller before true freshman Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan arrive on campus this summer. While Wallace’s absence in spring practice is a huge loss, this allows Brunetti and Miller to get ready just in case they are needed for an extended stint during the year.
Can the defense make progress in 2013?
Texas A&M’s defense certainly wasn’t awful last year, but the Aggies have plenty of room to grow. Mark Snyder’s defense ranked ninth in the conference in yards allowed but held opponents to 21.8 points a game. Replicating or improving those numbers in 2013 will be a challenge, especially with the departure of end Damonte Moore and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart. Cornerback Dustin Harris and safety Steven Terrell will also be missed. The Aggies are bringing in an outstanding recruiting class, so some of the youth could be asked to contribute right away. Replacing Moore’s playmaking ability off the edge will be crucial, especially since the Aggies ranked 86th nationally against the pass last season. With a high-powered offense leading the way for Texas A&M, the defense won’t be asked to be a shutdown group. However, the Aggies will need this unit to deliver stops, especially in a key early-season showdown against Alabama.
Related Content: Texas A&M 2013 Spring Preview
Writeups compiled by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
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