SEC Spring Football Preview Part Two

With the kickoff to spring practice only weeks away for most SEC teams, every conference team has questions to address moving into the 2009 college football season.

The Campus Game SEC spring preview continues with the SEC West.

Unlike conference brethren to the East, where Florida is a clear favorite, the West figures to be wilder and more wide open. Defending champ Alabama will probably get the preseason nod, but LSU and Ole Miss are definite threats with Arkansas and Auburn looming as wild cards.

Spring practice dates for each school are posted below.

Alabama

Who will be throwing the ball to Julio Jones? All the big questions are on the offensive side of the ball at Bama, and none is more significant than the one at quarterback. Greg McElroy is the favorite to replace the oft-maligned, but successful John Parker Wilson, with RS freshman Star Jackson in the mix (if he isn’t moved to another position). True frosh A.J. McCarron is a pure pocket passer, but will not enroll until summer. Whoever ends up under center will look often in the direction of big #8 … JJ is a Michael Crabtree-type talent with more size.

Is the offensive line championship caliber? The O-Line was in shambles by the Sugar Bowl at the end of the season, thanks to injuries and the Andre Smith saga (which will apparently continue until the NFL draft), and the disarray showed as Utah dominated the Tide along the line of scrimmage. Bama’s big uns will have to be ready early because the opening game is against always-rugged Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome.

Arkansas

How much impact will Ryan Mallett have on the Hog offense? Expect the big Michigan transfer to win the starting QB job (particularly with the transfer of Nathan Dick) and to have an immediate impact, although coach Bobby Petrino declares it a wide open race. A factor that will help Mallett is the depth of the Razorback running game. Leading rusher Michael Smith returns and should get help from Southern Cal transfer Broderick Green, and incoming freshmen Knile Davis and Ronnie Wingo.

Will Bobby Petrino still be in Fayetteville by the time you read this? Sorry for the cheap shot, but down here in Atlanta it is easy to question the word and the professionalism of Bobby P. Still, the man can coach and if he manages to avoid interviewing for other jobs between now and August, perhaps the momentum the Hogs gained from the season-ending win over LSU will carry over.

Auburn

Will Gene Chizik be more Pat Dye or Doug Barfield? Auburn’s hiring of Chizik from Iowa State, where he went 5-19 in two seasons, caught more criticism than an audience at a Don Rickles performance. Two aspects of the hiring stood out to me. First, nobody in Ames, Iowa, seemed to be terribly upset about the loss of Chizik. In fact, some of the columnists I read were downright happy to see him heading South … check out this Paul Clark article from 12.13.08 (not sure if you need a Rivals subscription or not to view). Aside from the surprise of Chizik getting the job, the renewed influence of Pat Dye also is intriguing. Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky proclaimed “It’s Dye Country Again” … after being mostly shunned under the Tommy Tuberville regime, Tiger legend Dye apparently is again wielding clout in the loveliest village.

AU is second-fiddle to UA again … for how long? When I was growing up Alabama dominated southern football generally, and far outpaced the Plainsmen as the state power in the heart of Dixie. That changed under Pat Dye and later Tommy Tuberville (who almost ran out of fingers to wag at Tide fans). The in-state matchup of coaches at the flagship schools looks mighty uneven on paper right now … and not in favor of the Plainsmen.

LSU

Can the defensive line rebuild? While talent is always plentiful for the Tigers, replacing all the lost talent along the defensive front is like trying to eat just one bite of jambalaya – not gonna happen. LSU did get a break when Charles Alexander was granted a sixth year, but some young Tigers will need to grow up quick.

Who will play quarterback? Rising sophomore Jordan Jefferson played a terrific Chick-fil-A Bowl in only his second start, winning Most Outstanding Player honors in leading the Tigers to a 38-3 thrashing of favored Georgia Tech. He will be the favorite to beat out Jarrett Lee (who logged the most playing time at QB last season) and already-enrolled freshman Russell Shepard.

Ole Miss

Are the Rebels for real? Nobody finished the 2008 season on a bigger roll than the Rebs. In addition to being the only team to whip national champ Florida, Houston Nutt’s squad reeled off six wins in a row to close the season, capped by a 47-34 manhandling of Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Yes, they are for real.

What is the biggest question mark? For my money, it will be replacing three starters on the offensive line. QB Jevan Snead looked like a big-time player by the end of the season (after some ups and downs during the year), and the Rebs have a deep backfield and a highlight reel playmaker in Dexter McCluster. With quality play up front, Ole Miss can challenge Alabama and LSU for the West. Oh yeah … one other query … how will Nutt handle those 232 scholarships (or maybe it was a few more) he gave out this season?

Mississippi State

Can Dan Mullen have an Urban Meyer-type impact? In short, no. Nobody expects two national championships in five years like Meyer has produced at Florida, but Mullen will struggle to compete for a division title in Starkville. The State program is not only battling its own problems, but also the rising power of other programs in the West. Mullen is young, energetic, and has a fine resume … he’ll need all that and more.

Will State avoid the West cellar this season? If the Bullies do, they’ll need to overcome a tough scheduling quirk. State plays its four toughest conference games at home (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss) and its four easier league games (Auburn, Vandy, Kentucky, Arkansas) on the road. Some years that might be advantageous. This season, it’s doubtful the Bullies can win any of the home games, and having to play the games they might win on the road makes those contests even more daunting.

SEC West Spring Football Dates

* Spring Game (SG) is on last day listed unless otherwise noted

Alabama: March 23-April 18
Arkansas: March 24-April 19 (SG 4.18.09)
Auburn: March 24-April 18
LSU: March 12-April 18
Ole Miss: March 26-April 18
Miss State: March 24-April 18


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SEC Spring Football Preview

With the kickoff to spring practice only weeks away for most SEC teams, every conference team has questions to address moving into the 2009 college football season.

The Campus Game SEC spring preview starts with the SEC East.

Defending national champion Florida figures to be an overwhelming favorite to win the division, the conference, and to top national polls. While no other divisional team appears an imminent threat to the Gators now … that’s why we play the games.

Here are two questions to track for each SEC East squad as we approach spring drills. Spring practice dates for each school are posted below.

Florida

How will the Gators handle the favorite’s role? Most likely very well. Expect Florida to be an overwhelming choice to repeat as national champions. Quarterback Tim Tebow, already a conference legend along the lines of Archie Manning, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and the like, returns as does the entire defensive unit that stifled Oklahoma’s record setting offense in the BCS title game. Can the Gators handle all that prosperity? The guess here is yes.

How bad does the loss of Percy Harvin hurt? It depends. First, imagine if the multi-purpose speedster had returned for his senior year … wow. The Gators have plenty of offensive speed with Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey (assuming he recovers from an injury in the NC game), and others, but Harvin possessed that special play-making ability that few can replicate. He will be missed.

Georgia

How will the Bulldogs replace QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno? From a statistical standpoint, they will not. From a production and wins view, they may be able to come close. Senior Joe Cox will take over for Stafford. He’s an accurate passer and by all accounts a tough competitor, but he has only average arm strength. At running back, the Dogs will count on a group that includes Caleb King, Richard Samuel, and (watch this guy) redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas. For the first time in a while, the backfield will be playing behind a first-rate and deep offensive line (a luxury Stafford never had).

Can the Bulldogs regain their swagger on defense? This may be more troublesome than replacing that offensive duo. Coordinator Willie Martinez caught tremendous flak when his troops gave up points in bunches in big games last season (41 to Alabama, 38 to LSU and Kentucky, 49 to Florida). The return from injury of DT Jeff Owens will help, but more production from the defensive end position is critical.

Kentucky

What to do with Randall Cobb? The multi-talented rising sophomore moved from WR to quarterback and was electrifying at times before going down to an injury. Mike Hartline nailed down the job by leading the Cats to a school-record third straight bowl win, but Cobb is too good to keep off the field. Expect him to play wideout while also getting snaps from the shotgun in the “Wildcat” formation.

Can UK win a 4th straight bowl? Sure. Coach Rich Brooks has built a nice program, and the 2009 outlook brightened considerably when three defensive stalwarts (DE Jeremy Jarmon, LB Micah Johnson, CB Trevard Lindley) all bypassed NFL green to play another year for the Big Blue.

South Carolina

How goes the development of QB Stephen Garcia? The enigmatic Garcia has the position to himself with the departures of Tommy Beecher (to Liberty) and Chris Smelley (to play baseball at Alabama), so maybe that security will lead to greater production. Of course, no quarterback playing for Steve Spurrier should ever feel completely secure.

Can the young SC offensive backfield excel? This is a tough one. The Gamecocks should be good enough on defense (with DE/LB Eric Norwood leading the unit), and Garcia will make some plays with his arm and his feet. Still, the Roosters need production at running back and (if it comes) expect redshirt freshman Kenny Miles and true frosh Jarvis Giles to get first crack at providing the yards.

Tennessee

Is Lane Kiffin crazy like a fox … or just crazy? Let’s see. The new Vol coach has tangled with Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Mark Richt, Florida AD Jeremy Foley, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Oh yeah, he also has committed at least three NCAA rules violations, while simultaneously publicly accusing Meyer of being a cheater, and he bragged about firing a low-level athletic department staff member who caused him to have to wait fifteen minutes for a ride at the Knoxville airport. Who said he didn’t learn anything from Al Davis and the Raiders? For all his zaniness, Vol fans seem to love him so far. The SEC is a truth-machine and we’ll find out soon enough whether the joke is on the league … or the Vols have hired a joke.

Can this staff coach? Kiffin assembled an all-star coaching staff of recruiters (he famously ran down the list of SEC schools from which he’d hired what he called their best recruiters), but the staff still must develop actual coaching chemistry. D-Line coach Ed Orgeron brought in much talent at Ole Miss but could not coach them to even a .500 record during his four years, but highly-touted defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has a sterling reputation. Lane Kiffin may be the biggest question mark because he was clearly in over his head with the Raiders, and was by most accounts not an overly significant part of the coaching staff at USC.

Vanderbilt

Can the Commodores build on their first bowl win since Ike was in the White House? Coach Bobby Johnson returns 17 starters along with some quality redshirts, but where do you go in this division. For Vanderbilt to keep moving up, somebody has to move down. With Florida dominant, Georgia still loaded, Kentucky on the rise, Tennessee rejuvenated, and South Carolina hungry … it’s a challenge.

Will sophomore QB Larry Smith live up to his promise? Smith receives accolades for his pocket presence and passing touch, but the former Mr. Alabama high school star from Prattville started only one game – that Music City Bowl victory over Boston College. The Commodores still have sometime starter Mackenzi Adams available too.

SEC East Spring Football Dates

Florida: March 25 – April 18
Georgia: March 16 – April 11
Kentucky: April 1 – April 25
South Carolina: March 3 – April 11
Tennessee: March 10 – April 18
Vanderbilt: March 10 – March 28