With spring practices starting all over the country, teams and fans are starting the new season with a clean slate. Everybody is undefeated. Let's take a look at the the biggest question marks across the Western Division of the SEC Conference as teams hope to answer these questions and stay undefeated once the season starts.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Replacing Lost Offensive Production- When I look at the strength of this Alabama team it's the back seven (or eight since they run the 3-4) on defense that stick outs. They return a ton of starters with four or five likely All-SEC performers just out of those eight positions. There is nobody that stands out to me on Bama's front three but under Saban, Bama usually just reloads and they have a lot of returning talent at those positions as well. So that leaves us with the offense and when you lose your starting QB, a Heisman Trophy winning RB and one of the best receivers in the country then you have some question marks on offense. I think the position that Bama will be most prepared at will be RB as they return Trent Richardson (700 yds rushing last year on 6.25 ypc) and Eddie Lacy is ready for more playing time (406 yds rushing last year on 7.25 ypc). If one of them should falter then you have ESPNU 150 recruit Dee Hart in the wings. So I think you are set at RB.
The most interesting battle this spring at Alabama might just be at QB where A.J. McCarron will battle RS frosh Phillip Sims. Both are QBs with high pedigrees (both rated as 4-star recruits at Rivals) but one would think that McCarron has an edge going into spring since he's seen the field before during the season (30 of 48 for 389 yds and 3 TD last year). As our Alabama blogger has already pointed out for us, this will be one of the more interesting battles in the SEC this spring. And what about the question of replacing Julio Jones. Alabama will return two very competent senior receivers in Marquis Maze (38 receptions for 557 yds and 3 TD) and Darius Hanks (32 receptions for 456 yds and 3 TD). It will be interesting to see who can step up and be the go-to-guy on the outside for Bama and become their primary play-maker at WR.
Replacing Mallett and strengthening the DL/OL- Arkansas looks dangerous this year. I don't think Bobby Petrino is going to be leaving notes in these players lockers and skipping out of town by cover of nightfall. Knile Davis broke out last year (1322 rushing yds on 6.48 ypc and 13 TD) and they also return 3 receivers who had more than 40 catches each (and 4 WRs who caught at least 5 TD). On defense, Arkansas made a huge improvement from 2009 to 2010 in terms of passing defense (gave up 248 yds per game in 2009 vs 185 in 2010). Defensively they return All-SEC talent in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tremain Thomas. The question is if they can do a better job stopping the run (in their 3 losses last year they got destroyed by the ground game). Back to offense, which is where Bobby Petrino excels (it's certainly not in people skills! zing!), Tyler Wilson steps in to replace Ryan Mallett. Wilson's stats don't exactly jump off the page at you (34 for 51 for 453 yds 4 TD and 3 INT) but that's because he was thrown into the fire in an old-west shoot-out against Auburn last year.
The talent is there and he has the most explosive supporting cast in the SEC. I'm more concerned with Arkansas having to replace 3 offensive lineman and with their 2 returning linemen being only sophomores. If they can't block for Davis and Wilson then it could be a disappointing season. QB is the sexy position to watch during the spring but the Razorbacks have bigger questions along both lines of scrimmage.
Depth on the OL/DL and Play-Makers- Where do you start when you are returning the least amount of starters in all of college football? Not only do you lose your Heisman Trophy winning QB, you also lose your best defensive player who by the end of the year had become a force to be reckoned with. Auburn must also replace 4 of their Offensive Linemen and 3 of their Defensive Linemen. Last year really was a perfect storm for Auburn. They combined the ascension of Newton and Fairley with a lot of senior leadership and it led them to the promise land. The obvious first question is how do you replace Newton? Barrett Trotter will get the first shot but he only threw 9 passes last year. A lot of what Auburn did last year, and the success that was had by McCalebb and Dyer, was because of teams keying in on Newton (McCalebb averaged 3 more ypc with Newton than without him in 2009).
This will be a big year for Gus Malzahn. I think his offensive can work without all the talent he is losing but doing it with almost an entirely new OL is going to really test his abilities as a coach. Offensively the keys this spring for Auburn will be seeing if Trotter is the man, finding a replacement for Darvin Adams (60 rec for 997 yds and 10 TD last year) and maybe more importantly replacing the OL and DL. Once all is said and done it's hard to fathom that Auburn will have the quality depth needed to be a challenger in the SEC West but they sure proved me wrong last year. Auburn will be one of the most interesting teams to watch this spring and fall.
The Backfield- LSU returns a ton of talent across the board this year and that was enough for us to rank them #4 in our Pre-Spring Top 10. Despite all of the talent that LSU is returning when we did our Pre-Spring All-SEC team there was a noticeable lack of LSU players on it. I think that will change as LSU reloads from the loss of Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis on the defensive side of the football. I have a lot of confidence in John Chavis and think he should be able to maintain the success level of the Tigers defense this year. The bigger question mark is finding the answer at QB and re-placing Stevan Ridley. Jordan Jefferson came on a little at the end of the season with his performances against Ole Miss and A&M but he will be pushed this spring by exiled Georgia Bulldog Zach Mettenberger. After making some huge mistakes and getting kicked to the curb by Georgia, Mettenberger enrolled at Butler Junior College where he put up some strong numbers (2,678 passing yards and 32 TDs and leading his team to an undefeated regular season). Mettenburger also put up some good numbers for Georgia last year in it's G-Day game before getting kicked off the team.
Along with the QB battles at Bama and Florida this one will be one to watch this spring and it might have the biggest impact on the SEC race. Can Jordan Jefferson be better than he was last year and if not can Mettenberger win the job and perform at a higher level? While LSU has to replace a lot of production at RB I'm not as concerned with them finding a good replacement for Ridley. It seems like LSU always has a stable of competent backs who can go when called upon. The fact that LSU returns a lot of talent on the OL make this even more of a probability. Can LSU find the QB they need and challenge for the SEC Championship and maybe more in 2011?
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Replacing the LB Corps- I really like just about everything going on right now at Miss State and with Dan Mullen. They return 15 starters off a team that went 8-4 last year and they play one of the easiest out-of-conference schedules in the Nation (at Memphis, Louisiana Tech, at UAB and Tennessee-Martin). Seriously, that looks like a TCU type schedule (ouch!). There is a lot to like about what Mississippi State has returning. In our "Statistically Speaking" series we looked at returning offensive firepower in the SEC and Miss St returns 100% of their passing yards, 98% of their rushing yards and 88% of their receptions from 2010. Sure they need to replace a couple of offensive linemen but they should be even better this year on offense.
The major question for Miss State will be in the middle of their defense as they have to replace 3 LBs. They have to replace Chris White (110 total tackles, 15.5 TFL, 6 sacks), K.J. Wright (98 total tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) and Emmanuel Gatling (44 total tackles). That's a lot of production to try and replace and it's going to be mostly under-classmen who should be getting the playing time. Couple that with the fact that Manny Diaz left for Texas and the majority of my concern for Miss State is on the defensive side of the football.
OLE MISS REBELS
Finding a QB and fixing the defense- Houston Nutt made a huge mistake last year by accepting Jeremiah Masoli and playing him the majority of time at QB last year. If you are going to bring in a QB for one year it certaintly shouldn't be for a 4-8 season. All Nutt did was give the rest of the QBs less reps and less time to grow. I think it's fair to say that Ole Miss could have gone 4-8 with anybody else at QB and they would be more prepared for this year. Nathan Stanley is the only returning guy with any experience but he only threw 32 plasses last year and only 6 in SEC play. Randall Mackey is the other guy in the mix and he would give the Rebels a more versatile option if he wins the job. That is yet another interesting SEC QB battle to add to the likes of Bama, Florida and LSU. But if the Rebels can't stop anybody then it's a moot point who is at QB. In 2010, Ole Miss finished 11th in the SEC in Total Defense and dead last in Scoring Defense.
They gave up 35.2 points per game last year (versus 17.7 points per game in 2009). The biggest issue for Ole Miss was stopping the big play, Chris Low over at ESPN pointed out that Ole Miss gave up more "big plays" (plays of 20 yards or longer) than any other SEC team last year and ranked 113th Nationally in that metric. Four of the top five leading tacklers were seniors last year, two of the top three sack artists were seniors, and three of the four players who got interceptions were seniors. Ole Miss is losing a lot of depth but it's off a defense that was horrible last year. Is this addition by subtraction or will Ole Miss be even worse this year in terms of defense. If Ole Miss can't get their defense fixed then they are looking down the barrell at another losing season.