Biggest post-spring question every SEC West team faces
With spring practice in the rearview, we dive into the biggest question facing each SEC West team.
Will Jacob Coker be able to grasp Alabama’s playbook, and if not what does it mean for the offense?
Coker was expected to start last fall after arriving from Florida State as a graduate transfer, but didn’t get up to speed quickly enough to take the job. That ended up being more than okay, as fifth-year senior Blake Sims had the most prolific passing season in school history. There’s no such experienced option outside of Coker this year — Coker isn’t experienced as a starter to begin with, but is the only Alabama quarterback to take a college snap — putting Alabama in a delicate and unfamiliar position. The Tide are loaded with talented quarterbacks who have yet to take a college snap, and if one of them starts it would be uncharted territory for Nick Saban’s team. On top of replacing Sims, Alabama has to replace its three starting receivers from last year. If Alabama has to ease in a rookie quarterback, the team will be forced to lean on the run far more than it did in Lane Kiffin’s first year running the offense. While Alabama has a talented (albeit depleted) backfield, the offensive line is reloading as well. Alabama badly needs someone to take control of the quarterback position this fall if the Tide are to have a chance at repeating as SEC champions.
Will Arkansas be able to achieve some semblance of offensive balance?
The Razorbacks, surprisingly, weren’t the most run-heavy team in the SEC last year, running the ball on about 60 percent of their offensive snaps. However, Bret Bielema has been intent on making that number a little closer to even, and he’s stated the goal several times this offseason. He hired Dan Enos away from Central Michigan, and the new OC fits Bielema’s pro-style offense and has a strong background in the passing game as a former quarterback. Will Arkansas have enough options in that phase of the game, though? Keon Hatcher is a dangerous weapon, while Hunter Henry is an ace receiving tight end. If teams take those two options away from Brandon Allen — who has proven himself to be a solid quarterback — someone will have to step up as an outlet. Despite some big losses, including Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, Robb Smith’s defense should still be among the best in the SEC. The offense will have to catch up for the Hogs to continue their rise in the West.
Can Will Muschamp get Auburn’s secondary up to speed?
When the Tigers hired Florida’s former head coach (and the Tigers’ former DC) to run the defensive side of the ball, it was seen as a major win. Auburn returns plenty of talent along the defensive line and brings in five-star freshman Byron Cowart, while the team’s two best linebackers are back for their senior seasons. However, the Tigers need to replace half the secondary, with safety Johnathan “Rudy” Ford and cornerback Jonathan Jones as the only returning starters. Nick Ruffin is adjusting to a new role at safety after arriving on campus last year as a cornerback, while Auburn was down several potential rotation players in the defensive backfield in its spring game. If Muschamp is going to get the Tigers defense running close to the level of Gus Malzahn’s offense — which will be just fine as it transitions to Jeremy Johnson, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas, along with returning star receiver D’haquille Williams — then he and trusted assistant Travaris Robinson will have to get the new starters groomed and ready to go.
How will the lack of answers at quarterback affect LSU’s future?
At this point, everyone knows that there is still no resolution to LSU’s quarterback situation, which could derail its SEC West title hopes and leave the Tigers in much the same place they were in last year. While that puts a major question mark over this fall, it also clouds LSU’s future. Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach tasked with getting at least one of Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris ready to take on the SEC, is entering the last year of his big-money contract. If LSU’s passing game doesn’t take a big leap forward, it’s not such a big leap to imagine the team looking elsewhere for someone to run its offense after the season. LSU has touted quarterback Feleipe Franks coming in next year, and the Tigers might have to go in a different direction if Cameron can’t get the offense back to a consistently productive level.
Will Mississippi State be undone by its roster turnover and lack of experience?
Last year’s Bulldogs team, the school’s best in the last 70 years, was laden with veteran talent. Unfortunately for Dan Mullen and his staff, much of that talent is gone as the team prepares for 2015. The team loses 13 of its starters from 2014, one of the highest totals in the SEC. The biggest losses come up front on both sides. Mississippi State will go from having one of the best offensive lines in the conference to a mostly unproven line — including a center who has little experience at the position. The same goes along the defensive line, where three starters depart. The defensive secondary, a weak spot last year, will be down three of last year’s starters as well. The Bulldogs return last year’s first-team All-SEC quarterback, Dak Prescott, and have several defenders ready to step up into bigger roles in place of the departed leaders, but they’ll be rife with rookie starters in 2015, which could prevent a repeat of 2014’s 10-win campaign.
Can the Ole Miss offensive line get healthy and gel quickly enough to protect the new quarterback?
It’s easy to look at the indecision at quarterback between Chad Kelly, DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan as the biggest issue for the Rebels, but finding a healthy combination along the offensive line will be vital in keeping whoever is under center upright. Perhaps the best left tackle in the nation, Laremy Tunsil, is coming off of a broken leg that kept him out of spring. Guard Aaron Morris is recovering from an ACL that he tore late in the season and attempted to play on in the Egg Bowl. Robert Conyers is coming off of knee surgery as well, and several other linemen were dealing with injury this spring. Getting (and keeping) the offensive line healthy will be paramount to Ole Miss’ success in 2015. Reinforcements are on the way, with touted prospect Javon Patterson already on campus and two more offensive line signees arriving in fall, which should help the cause. The OL was the weakest link on last year’s team, and unless they can get on the field intact this fall that will be the case again this year.
What happens if Kyle Allen goes down for Texas A&M?
This is secretly one of the scariest possibilities for any team in the SEC this fall. Allen took over the starting quarterback job in the final third of last season, playing admirably for a true freshman. He was the only scholarship quarterback in practice this spring following Kenny Hill’s decision to transfer. After the Aggies plugged in Hill and then pivoted to Allen last season and still led the SEC in passing yards, it’s fair to think that they’ll be fine with whoever the quarterback is, especially with all the offensive talent on this team. However, if five-star signee Kyler Murray ends up pursuing a baseball career instead of enrolling at Texas A&M for football, that puts the Aggies in a precarious position. Is the Kevin Sumlin/Jake Spavital offensive machine fine-tuned enough to withstand a walk-on player throwing the ball in a worst-case scenario, or tossing a fresh-faced Murray into the fire as a true freshman? The Aggies hope they won’t have to find out.