Five SEC spring football questions
MAR 04, 2014 9:45a ET
For the first time since 2006, the SEC enters the spring without a defending national champion in its ranks. Still, the league should have multiple teams in the top 10, if not the top five, when the preseason polls roll out, including Auburn, fresh off its surprising national title game appearance.
But the SEC is down some serious star power, with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney, AJ McCarron -- and on, and on, off to the NFL. There's plenty to keep an eye on as camps open, beginning with ...
1. Who is the face of the conference now at quarterback?
The aforementioned Manziel and McCarron are gone, along with Georgia's Aaron Murray, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and South Carolina's Connor Shaw. In fact, the top eight passers from a year ago all departed, with Ole Miss' Bo Wallace the returning leader with 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, followed by Auburn's Nick Marshall at 1,976 yards and 14 scores.
While Florida's Jeff Driskel returns after suffering a season-ending knee surgery, it's not as if Driskel was all that effective when he did play, throwing three picks to two TDs in 61 attempts.
Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, who has three games of at least 100 yards rushing and 100 passing as a sophomore, and Missouri's Maty Mauk (1,071 yards and 11 TDs, which game in five games) could challenge for the conference's QB throne and South Carolina senior Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience (1,827 yards and 14 scores for his career).
But it remains to be seen if they elevate their teams to contender status -- and the same question surrounds those who cut their teeth last year Georgia's Hutson Mason, LSU's Anthony Jennings and Vanderbilt's Patton Robinette.
There's plenty of potential with a conference that could see as many as 10 new starters at the position this season, but it's Marshall, the most tested in helping the Tigers to a conference title a year ago, that is the poster boy for SEC QBs for now. Aiding his cause, he'll go through spring practice for the first time after arriving midway through last summer, allowing Gus Malzahn to open up the playbook a little bit more. Should he improve on his 59.4 completion percentage, Marshall could transform into an elite QB in Year 2 on the Plains.
2. Will McCarron's successor emerge?
Who Auburn will find to step in for Heisman finalist Tre Mason at running back is huge, but with the depth at that spot, a sixth straight years with a 1,000-yard rusher isn't out of the question.
So instead, we turn out attention to the more pressing query in the Yellow Hammer State as Nick Saban seeks an heir to McCarron, winner of a school record 36 games and a pair of national titles -- a question to which it doesn't appear we're going to get an answer any time soon.
The current choices have either limited experience -- rising senior Blake Sims has 39 career pass attempts -- or none at all with redshirt sophomore Alec Morris, redshirt freshman Parker McLoed and early enrollee David Cornwell.
Compounding matters, Florida State transfer Jake Coker (41 attempts and one TD in two seasons for the Seminoles) won't be on campus until the summer as he fulfills his academic requirements to graduate from in May, meaning whatever progress is made at QB in the coming weeks could be for naught.
At the very least, whoever emerges from this spring will set himself up to battle it out with Coker this summer (the belief here is that will be Sims). But ultimately, with a chance to lead a team capable of winning a national title, the spring is only going to serve to whet the appetite for one of the more interesting QB battles anywhere leading into the fall.
3. Can Florida turn things around in a hurry?
Will Muschamp got a reprieve one season after getting a raise on a contract that has him in Gainesville through 2020 (a deal that includes a $6 million buyout), but can he survive another run like 2013, which saw the Gators go 4-8 (3-5 in the SEC), their first losing season since 1979?
The defense, which wasn't to blame last season in ranking eighth nationally (314.3 yards per game) and allowing 21.1 points (15th), should be strong again with five of the front seven returning. The secondary does return just Vernon Hargreaves, but among the eight early enrollees are two four-star corners in Jalen Tabor (No. 41 prospect in Scout.com's rankings) and Duke Dawson.
Florida's problem last season was an offense that, frankly, has never been very imaginative under Muschamp, ranking in the 100s in each of three seasons, including 113th in '13.
There is new blood in coordinator Kurt Roper, the former Duke staffer, who installing an up-tempo spread system with shotgun looks and zone-read, which could play to Driskel's strengths.
Also helping the beleaguered QB will be getting RB Matt Jones and WR Andre Debose -- both are coming off surgery -- back. But Jones is sitting out after a second knee surgery and Debose, coming off his own knee procedure, is a non-contact participant this spring.
Nevertheless, getting comfortable with a new playbook this spring is pivotal for Driskel if the Gators offense is going to make any kind of strides.
4. Was Missouri's East title run a blip on the radar or just the beginning?
Offensively, the Tigers could be just as good if not better than last year's group, which averaged 39.1 ppg.
The QB job looks to be in good hands post-James Franklin with Mauk -- especially with a now veteran Dorial Green-Beckham coming off a breakout year at wide receiver -- and while 1,100-yard rusher Henry Josey is also gone, the Tigers to have strong options there with Russell Hansbrough (685 yards) and Marcus Murphy (601) to pick up the mantle.
But it was really the defense that keyed that run to Atlanta, allowing 17.2 points in SEC play (prior to giving up 59 to Auburn) and generating a league-best 2.93 sacks per game.
Unfortunately six starters are gone, including the keys to that rush, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Shane Ray (39 tackles, including nine for loss with 4 1/2 sacks) and Markus Golden (13 TFL and 6 1/2 sacks) are going to have to fill that void if the Tiger are going to have a defense to defend its division crown.
5. What impact will Pruitt have on Georgia's defense?
Vanderbilt luring Derek Mason away from Stanford after James Franklin departed for Penn State was big, but no personnel move in SEC land will be more heavily watched than Jeremy Pruitt taking over Georgia's defense after helping Florida State win a national title.
He guided a Seminoles unit that ranked first in points allowed (12.1) and third in total D (281.4) and inherits a Bulldogs group that returns nine starters from a year ago -- though that could change, especially in the secondary.
Pruitt coached the defensive backs at Alabama before going to Tallahassee and is certain to put his focus on what was the weak link a year ago, allowing 227.4 ypg through the air (60th) and sitting 84th in pass efficiency D (134.7).
Key there is at safety with Josh Harvey-Clemons dismissed and the likes of senior Corey Moore (35 tackles), sophomores Quincy Mauger (57), Tray Matthews (37) and redshirt freshman Tramel Terry, a former wide receiver, battling for spots.