Here’s the most pressing question for every SEC team entering spring practice
Early enrollees have become acclimated to campus, and the new coaches are settled into their new offices with a host of new staffs across the league.
Welcome to the third season of the SEC football calendar as teams look to fix what happened in 2019, or build on it with a slew of new coaches and blue-chip recruits.
We’ll get a glimpse this spring at what the new coaches have in mind with their roster, how new offenses will be aligned, especially in the SEC East, and if there is truly a changing of the guard in the SEC West.
Here’s the most pressing question for each team:
Alabama Crimson Tide
On the day Tua Tagovailoa declared for the NFL Draft, he offered a preview of sorts for the spring quarterback battle: “If you love competition, now is the best time for it.”
Of course, the question is not who will win the quarterback job, but how much will coach Nick Saban reveal about the process of selecting a starting QB from the competition of Mac Jones, Bryce Young and Taulia Tagovailoa?
Jones is likely the leading candidate to start in 2020 after he exceeded expectations with a 3-1 record and 1,503 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He is a notch above the average Saban quarterback, but will the other 2 offer even more of an upgrade?
Young had one of the more memorable high school careers of all time, as he passed for 4,528 yards and 58 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions as a senior. He threw 152 TD passes in his prep career. Taulia Tagovailoa was a highly-touted recruit, though not as high as Young, but has only contributed passing numbers of 9-of-12 for 100 yards in 5 games of action.
For context, Jalen Hurts has been the only true freshman to start at Alabama since Vince Sutton in 1984.
Coach Sam Pittman used the graduate transfer route to close the gap on rebuilding the program. So which of the 5 grad transfers will have the biggest splash in front of an expected raucous crowd at the spring game?
The safe money would likely be on Florida transfer Feleipe Franks or former Clemson defensive tackle Xavier Kelly. Both were highly-touted recruits, and while Franks’ career is more well known, Kelly was also a 4-star recruit and sat behind the NFL logjam on the defensive line at Clemson. As a junior in 2019, Kelly had 9 tackles, 0.5 sack, 2 pass breakups and a fumble recovery during 87 snaps.
With a lot of eyes on Bo Nix and Chad Morris, don’t forget the area where Auburn dominated in 2019: the defensive line. Will Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant be enough to replace the likes of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe, and who else will help him?
Zykeivous Walker, a freshman, is on campus and has been compared to Davidson. There’s also Derick Hall, who got in the rotation last year. Davidson was an early impact player, and Walker will need to do the same.
While running back and finding a role for Emory Jones are question marks, the big reveal in the spring will be which pass rushers emerge as heir apparents to Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, who totaled 21.5 tackles for loss last year.
Georgia transfer Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter are the first options, but there’s a host of others including Khris Bogle, Lloyd Summerall, Antwaun Powell and Andrew Chatfield.
Todd Monken and Jamie Newman will get most of the spotlight in the spring, but don’t forget about the major overhaul on the offensive line. That was touted as a major strength for Georgia under Sam Pittman as he reeled in a slew of 5-stars at a pace not seen in Athens perhaps ever. Certainly in recent memory. How will Matt Luke rebuild the line with his philosophy? Replacing Cade Mays, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson is a tall order.
The scuttlebutt around Georgia is that Luke is viewed as more of a tactician than Pittman, while Pittman is a more elite recruiter. Luke might mold and develop a 4-star or 3-star lineman into a reliable starter who might excel in college but not necessarily have NFL comparisons like the top linemen Pittman recruited.
While Terry Wilson continues to recover from injury and eyes a return for the 2020 season, and Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood waits on his NCAA waiver decision, the most talked about question is how will the offense look in 2020?
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran received high marks in 2019 for rewriting his playbook on the fly with Lynn Bowden at the controls. So can Gran fuse some of those effective option-based rushing plays with a passing game that keeps defenses honest?
Along with Wilson and Gatewood, another QB recovering from a knee injury is Nik Scalzo, who suffered his injury in summer camp. Overall, UK returns 15 starters and coach Mark Stoops was proud that the Wildcats had such high success redshirting the 2019 freshman class.
Myles Brennan will draw plenty of comparisons to Kyle Trask, except the veteran Florida QB didn’t have to replace anybody like Joe Burrow. The question is not only how Brennan will perform against the white-hot pressure of SEC West defenses, but how will he manage the post-national championship treatment LSU faces in 2020?
The secondary storyline will center on Scott Linehan replacing Joe Brady. It’s unfair to expect Brennan and Linehan to duplicate the historic success of 2019, but LSU has had multiple All-SEC-caliber quarterbacks over the years, and Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall are a nice tandem to build around.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
How will the ballyhooed passing offense under Mike Leach manifest itself led by either K.J. Costello or Garrett Shrader?
Leach led the nation’s top passing offense in 4 of the past 6 seasons at Washington State, and understanding that spring games are mostly vanilla in what they reveal, how much will Leach show off?
If Costello is the leader in the clubhouse to start the season, look for him to be at the top of the SEC charts in passing. Leach’s quarterbacks routinely do that, and Costello himself in 2018 passed for 3,540 yards at Stanford, the 2nd-highest single-season total in team history. He completed 65.1 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns.
He was limited by injuries in 2019 and in 5 games had just 1,038 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
Something also intriguing is how Leach will use Keytaon Thompson after he had a volatile 2019 season.
With all the uncertainty about the Eli Drinkwitz era, the Tigers need to focus on a known commodity: Can Larry Rountree III return to the 1,000-yard form he had in 2018?
Rountree rushed for 1,216 yards in 2018, but slipped to just 829 yards in 2019 and struggled to find holes behind an offensive line that had a tough season.
What we know about the Drinkwitz is that a running back can produce a 1,000-yard-plus season because Darrynton Evans did it last year at Appalachian State. Last year snapped a 3-year run of 1,000-yard rushers for Missouri.
Ole Miss Rebels
Lane Kiffin, one of the better offensive minds in the SEC, was hired largely to deploy a productive attack behind one of the best offensive trios around in John Rhys Plumlee, Matt Corral and Jerrion Ealy. The only evidence you need to know about their importance is all 3 were involved in a touchdown in the 2019 Egg Bowl.
Rich Rodriguez appeared to have a handle on it at times in 2019, and Plumlee was as dangerous as any running quarterback, but had a disappointing Egg Bowl effort.
Kiffin has been a successful coordinator in the SEC West, and the way he puts this trio in position to be productive will shape his early tenure in Oxford. Don’t forget, Kiffin revolutionized the Alabama offense. With that history, Kiffin has plenty of firepower to build on the 2nd-best rushing attack in the SEC in 2019 with more than 3,000 yards.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Much like the Georgia situation, all eyes will be on the new offensive coordinator in Mike Bobo, but perhaps the most important spring development is Zacch Pickens. That’s the easiest answer for how the Gamecocks will replace the likes of Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum.
While Jordan Burch waits to arrive on campus, and Ryan Hilinski eases into the new Bobo offense, Pickens is a year into his journey to be the next great defensive lineman in Columbia.
The young defense that helped the Vols deliver a 6-game winning streak down the stretch returns a solid core of players. But the playmakers who scared opposing teams the most, Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings, are gone, so how will Jeremy Pruitt replace them?
Rising senior Josh Palmer showed flashes at times in 2019, especially with 6 catches for 124 yards against Missouri. In the bowl game, Ramel Keyton reeled in 2 catches for 60 yards. Deangelo Gibbs, a former Georgia defensive back, is a wild card at receiver, and Southern Cal transfer Velus Jones, although a special teams star, adds speed to the position. Jones played for Tennessee receivers coach Tee Martin at Southern Cal. Jones caught 36 passes for 347 yards and 1 touchdown.
And, of course, the Vols still have to figure out who will be throwing passes to the revamped receiving unit.
Texas A&M Aggies
This season will be a referendum on Kellen Mond. He has the potential to be a dark-horse Heisman candidate if he can show marked improvement beyond what he did in 2019, which wasn’t demonstrably different from 2018. But Mond is still the most experienced senior starting quarterback at Texas A&M since Ryan Tannehill in 2011.
The key question is will Jimbo Fisher identify a go-to running back, which is integral for his offense, after the Aggies went down the stretch with just 1 scholarship running back in the bowl game: freshman Isaiah Spiller. The Aggies signed 3 RBs in the 2020 class, and while Mond’s production is paramount to 2020 success, developing a feature running back is something to focus on starting in the spring.
Can Ted Roof fix the ailing defense even though the Commodores return every starter from the end of the season?
In a long and largely well-respected career, this might be Roof’s toughest task. Roof comes from an Appalachian State team that went 13-1 season and the defense ranked in the Top 25 in several categories. He was also the coordinator when Auburn won the national title for the 2010 season.
Vanderbilt was 101st in total defense last season, and the Commodores were 13th in the SEC after they allowed 436 yards per game.