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2011 SEC Spring Preview

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 23, 2011


The big questions, the top position battles, the early buzz, and the attitudes for every SEC team going into spring practices.


2011 SEC Spring Preview

Click for each team's spring preview
East Florida | Georgia | Kentucky | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt 
West Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Ole Miss | Miss State
 
2011 SEC Spring Preview 
- SEC Spring Preview - Does SEC Champ = BCS Champ?
- 2011 SEC East Spring Buzz | SEC West   
- 2011 SEC East Spring Attitudes | SEC West
- 2011 SEC East Big Spring Questions | SEC West 
- 2011 SEC East Key Positions To Watch | SEC West
- SEC East Spring Rankings | SEC West
   
East

Florida

Spring Practice Begins: March 16
Game: April 9


The early spring buzz ... If Urban Meyer had left before last year, there would’ve been a sense of panic and urgency during spring ball. This year, after the way the 2010 team struggled and appeared tired, like its head coach, it’s time for a change, and in comes Will Muschamp to bring so new fire and new ideas. While there’s going to be even more of a bunker down mentality than there was under the ever-tight Meyer, it’s going to be an interesting offseason with some major changed, led by the switch to a pro-style offense. Between Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, the coaching staff will be full of quotes and opinions, but all that matters is production. This is one of the nation’s most talented teams, and the coaches have to come up with a good spring to set the tone that 8-5 isn’t acceptable in Gainesville while trying not to make everything as joyless as Meyer did.

The big spring question is ... Can John Brantley be a real, live NFL quarterback? Florida fans, do not adjust your set; you’re going to see a quarterback throwing from a pocket. The best thing that could’ve ever happened to Brantley and his career was the hiring of Charlie Weis and the changing of offensive philosophies. There’s was never any question that Brantley had the talent, and there hasn’t been any question that he’s a far, far better pro-style passer than Tim Tebow ever was or is, but he was stuck in the mish-mosh that was last year’s Gator attack and was never comfortable. Now Brantley will get a chance to wing it around the yard and he’ll get a chance to show why he was considered one of the nation’s top recruits not all that long ago. If he can’t get the job done and if he struggles at all under Weis, star recruit Jeff Driskel will almost certainly have a say in the discussion before the opener against Florida Atlantic.

The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. The meat of the all-timer of a 2010 recruiting class was on the defensive line with Ronald Powell the star of the class and Sharrif Floyd not all that far behind, and now they’re going to have to produce with three started gone off the line. Powell made a decent impact and showed a glimpse of his immense potential, but now it’s time to be the killer to revolve the rest of the defensive front around and it’s time for Floyd to show what he can do. The Gator line was decent against the run, but it failed to do enough to get into the backfield finishing 11th in the SEC, and 86th in the nation, in sacks and eighth in the league in tackles for loss. No Will Muschamp defensive line will ever be that mediocre.

Spring attitude... Win the national title. There’s no rebuilding at Florida and there’s no such thing as a grace period. There’s so much talent and the shelves are so stocked that the Gators should win most of their games by simply being better. That didn’t happen last year, but that’s partly because the offense couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be and the coaching staff had a bad, weird year. If the Gators can get the best of what Will Muschamp can do with a defense and the best of what Charlie Weis can do with an offense, then there’s no excuse to not be in the BCS Championship game for the second time in four years.

Georgia

Spring Practice Begins: March 10
Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... Win or else. No one wants to see a good coach and a great guy like Mark Richt go, and nothing would make Georgia fans happier than for him to be the one who takes the program on a national title run, but the door is closing. To call Richt on a hot seat isn’t quite right; he’s been on one, in a way, for years. He got Georgia close, but with Florida about to be Florida again, and with South Carolina loaded, the pressure is on to come up with a special year in an improved East. The offensive line has to start playing up to its billing and the defense has to be better against the top teams, but no matter how it happens, more big wins have to come. Richt did the fire-the-assistants thing last year, and while there were a few minor moves this offseason, this is it. Georgia doesn’t have to win the SEC title, but there will almost certainly be a new era of Bulldog football beginning next year if this isn’t a ten-win team and a player on a national scene.

The big spring question is ... Can the offense start to put up numbers and can it be more consistent? QB Aaron Murray’s offseason, soccer-playing, ankle injury wasn’t a great sign or a great start to the year, but he appears to be fine and he needs to be terrific to jump-start an offense that did a giant bowl of nothing when A.J. Green wasn’t making big plays. The Georgia Bulldogs shouldn’t be held to six points by a Conference USA team, even one as good as last year’s UCF, and it starts with doing more with a running game that has no excuse to be as mediocre as it’s been over the last few years. The offensive line gets three starters back and has a few all-star caliber talents to work around, but the running backs have to be better, too.

The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. Outside linebacker is also a key after losing the statistically-productive, but practically inconsistent Justin Houston, but the spotlight will be on the receivers. Aaron Murray Is a nice talent with a big-time arm, but he’s no Matthew Stafford. He didn’t have a bad 2009, but he needs more time to operate and he needs to get more out of his receivers now that A.J. Green is off to the big league. Not only is Green gone, but so is second leading receiver Kris Durham meaning junior Tavarres King, who’s moving from split end to flanker, and tight end Orson Charles have to start doing far more in lead roles. They have to be the stars of the offseason.

Spring attitude... Get nasty. The defense, even without Justin Houston, gets enough starters back to be among the best in the SEC. The special teams will be peerless with the return of punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh, and there’s more than enough talent on offense to e productive. The tone will be set immediately with home games against Boise State – it’s being played in Atlanta – and South Carolina. Win those two and it’s relatively smooth sailing until the Florida game in late October, but Georgia never seems to do things easily. The pressure is on this spring more than ever for Mark Richt, and his team needs to play with a sense of urgency and purpose out of the gate. Another Liberty Bowl performance won’t cut it early on.

Kentucky

Spring Practice Begins: March 23
Game: April 23


The early spring buzz ... Now we get to see what kind of a head coach Joker Phillips really is. It’s not like Rich Brooks left the cupboard stocked with All-Americans, but the 2010 UK squad had some extremely talented playmakers and a smart veteran quarterback in Mike Hartline to guide the ship. Even so, the Wildcats didn’t do much in the SEC outside of a wild comeback against South Carolina and only went bowling because Western Kentucky, Akron, Vanderbilt and Charleston Southern were on the schedule. There’s a ton of returning talent on defense, but the pieces aren’t quite there to run the 3-4 scheme the way defensive coordinator Rick Minter would like. The offense is missing almost all the key players from last year’s solid attack and needs some big performances from several untested prospects. Phillips is a great-looking coach and a rising star, but this year he has to show why.

The big spring question is ... Can the defense stop anyone from running the ball? Pittsburgh pounded the ball down the Cats’ throat in the BBVA Compass Bowl, ripping off 261 yards. Vanderbilt , Mississippi State, Auburn, and Ole Miss all ran for over 200 yards against a UK defensive front that ended up allowing 30 rushing scores on the year. The D desperately needs a wide-load, big-butt nose tackle who can sit in the middle of the line and take up space to run a 3-4 alignment, but there isn’t one on the roster. With three starters gone off line from last year’s 4-3, the run defense might rely way too much on tackling-machine weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan and a good-hitting veteran secondary.

The most important position to watch is ... Receiver. With Mike Hartline gone and Ryan Mossakowski leaving, the quarterback situation is Morgan Newton and Morgan Newton … and that’s not a bad thing. The 6-4, 235-pound junior has tremendous talent and could be one of the SEC’s top playmakers over the next few years if he gets some weapons to work with. Not having do-it-all back Derrick Locke to rely on is a problem, but the bigger issue is losing Randall Cobb and his 84 catches and Chris Matthews’ nine touchdown grabs. La’Rod King is thrown into the No. 1 role while Brian Adams is a big young target who needs to become a major factor.

Spring attitude... Don’t worry about the rebuilding. Kentucky isn’t going to win the SEC East, and it might not even be a factor in any way, but the standards are a little bit different in Lexington. Oh sure, everyone will say all the right things about competing for a title and trying to be the surprise team in the East, but the offensive line is undergoing an overhaul, the defensive front needs work, and you don’t get better by losing Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb. Even with all the problems and all the concerns, it’ll take a total gag to not win six games with one of the SEC’s lightest schedules. The team will be experienced in 2012; going to a bowl in a stepping-stone season isn’t a bad thing.

South Carolina

Spring Practice Begins: March 15
Game: April 9


The early spring buzz ... This is it. 2010 was, arguably, the greatest year in the long and phenomenally mediocre history of South Carolina football, but things are different now. Florida isn’t going to be that lame again, Georgia will certainly be better, and teams are going to be gunning for the SEC East champs. Whatever. Florida is the most talented team in the East, but the Gamecocks are loaded with the best trio of skill players in the conference in QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffery, and RB Marcus Lattimore, who packed on extra weight to take more of a pounding. Seven starters are back on defense, and the recruiting class, led by the signing of NFL-ready defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, upgraded the talent level. Get ready for the expectations that are going to be through the roof. Winning the SEC East might not be enough for this team.

The big spring question is ... Can the secondary tighten up? South Carolina led the SEC in sacks and will only be better with Jadeveon Clowney joining the fun, but it didn’t seem to matter for a pass defense that got picked clean by anyone who could throw the forward pass with some semblance of efficiency. The big move was taking safety Akeen Auguste and making him a corner, his more natural spot, while hoping for DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger to be add more punch at safety. With Stephon Gilmore locking down one corner job and with so much experience and so many options returning, the Gamecocks have no excuse to be 97th in the nation in pass defense and 87th in pass efficiency defense again. East Carolina’s Dominique Davis will provide a nice test on Opening Day.

The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. The Achilles heel of the South Carolina offense over the years was a porous offensive line that got the quarterbacks killed and did little for the ground attack. Last year was different as the front five tightened up and pounded away for a big year from Marcus Lattimore. While the pass protection was still sketchy, the 30 sacks allowed were par for the course for a line that allowed 107 over the previous three seasons. With O line coach Shawn Elliott back to provide some stability, the line shouldn’t fall of the map if a few key pieces can be replaced in a hurry. This key will be to find the right combination right away that can develop over the course of the season, while some newcomers have to quickly develop to add some live bodies to the rotation. Three seniors and a junior will likely end up starting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this will be a cohesive unit.

Spring attitude... The world is not enough. Winning the SEC East might have been nice, but getting blown out by Auburn in the SEC Championship and embarrassed by Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl killed the positive buzz with an ugly thud. This year, with all the talent returning at the offensive skill positions, seven starters returning on defense, and with the phenomenal recruiting class expected to make an impact right away, this might be the SEC’s National Champion Flavor of the Moment if everything breaks the right way. Missing Alabama and LSU from the SEC West is a plus and getting Florida at home is a major break. Remember, this isn’t Florida, Alabama or Tennessee when it comes to history and past success; an SEC title would be truly something special in Columbia. Even so, this team might be capable of far more.

Tennessee

Spring Practice Begins: March 22
Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... The biggest news around the program is that Derek Dooley is still the head coach. Not that he was going to get fired after his first year, and he wasn’t looking around for another gig, but the 2011 Vols are used to putting up with different coaching styles with many getting recruited by Phil Fulmer, dealing with the Lane Kiffin experience, and then starting new last year with Dooley. There’s a little bit of drama with the secondary, hoping for a few key players to get off-the-field issues settled to be back on the field at some point this season, but for the most part, just being able to have the same coaches around, and the continuity that comes with it, should do wonders for a program in need of some consistency. Enough starters are back to hope for a strong season, and the coaching staff can now refine rather than spend all its time implementing the basics.

The big spring question is ... Can the offensive line block someone? The Vols had to go through some major growing pains closing out the year three freshmen and a sophomore up front, and it showed as the running game didn’t go anywhere and the pass protection was non-existent allowing 41 sacks and finishing 115th in the nation in sacks allowed. On the plus side, the line returns full of veterans and is still very, very young with four sophomores and a junior to likely form the starting five. It’s a big group that should be able to shove some people around, but the Vols aren’t going anywhere this year unless there’s a big overall improvement. QB Tyler Bray is a promising young talent, but he needs time to work.

The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back. Janzen Jackson is a rising talent with good hitting skills and great range, but the starting free safety and the sheriff of the secondary is out dealing with undisclosed personal reasons. Brent Brewer, the starting strong safety who was suspended after being arrested on domestic assault charges, is back on the team after his charge was lessened to offensive touching. Meanwhile, junior corners Herman Lathers and Prentiss Waggner have to be better for a pass defense that allowed 230 yards per game.

Spring attitude... Take what you can get. Yeah, Tennessee looked great over the second half of last year because it played Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in November, but it looked like a real, live team against North Carolina in the bowl loss and was good earlier in the season against LSU. The recruiting has been strong and this is still going to be a work in progress, but with Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, and Vanderbilt all at home, there are five wins without breathing too hard and Kentucky on the road is more than winnable. Seven wins might not seem like much, but this is still a very, very young team that should be nasty in 2011.

Vanderbilt 

Spring Practice Begins: March 18
Game: April 17


The early spring buzz ... And here we go with the James Franklin era. Bobby Johnson had his moments, and he came up with a shocking 2008, but the program hasn’t been able to reach any consistent level of production and struggled mightily under Robbie Caldwell last season. Being beaten up in the SEC East is hardly anything to get in a twist over, but the Commodores lost to Northwestern and were blown out by Wake Forest. Franklin is wiping the slate almost clean with a slew of new assistants, more excitement and renewed energy, and a belief that it’s time to start being nastier. Franklin’s teams might not be challenging for SEC titles, but they’re going to go down with a fight.

The big spring question is ... Can the new passing attack work? James Franklin wants to start winging the ball all over the yard and wants to start pressing teams deep. The air show might not be any good, but the opposing secondaries are going to be tested – at least that’s the hope. The Commodores were 105th in the nation in passing and 119th in the country in passing efficiency, and while Larry Smith is a big, strong veteran, he might not be the right fit. Jordan Rodgers, brother of Aaron Rodgers, was brought in to be the main man to run the offense the way the coaching staff would like, but he has to get 100% healthy after undergoing surgery on his shoulder.

The most important position to watch is ... Outside linebacker. Ten starters are back on offense, both kickers are back, and nine starters return on defense including three veterans up front and all four main men for the secondary, not including nickel back, Andre Hal. Middle linebacker Chris Marve – the SEC’s active career leader in tackles - is the key player for the front seven and should be the leading tackler, but he needs help on the outside with John Stokes gone from the strongside and Nate Campbell needing to be replaced on the weakside. Juniors Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong have to be the stars of spring ball.

Spring attitude... New coaching staff, new attitude. It’s the same thing at every program with a coaching change, but it really is going to be different at Vanderbilt. For a team that returns 51 lettermen and 21 starters, opening ever spot up for competition, like all new coaching staffs do, should mean some big-time fights for jobs. After such a bad 2011, all that matters is finding a combination of players who can produce. According to James Franklin, “everything has changed, and everything will be challenged.” 
 
West

Alabama

Spring Practice Begins: March 21
Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... When a team goes 10-3 and is a disappointment, the expectations are either 1) a wee bit high and/or 2) right on the money because the talent level is so high. Alabama was the 2010 preseason No. 1 team in the nation mostly because there wasn’t another viable option for the top spot, but the defense had to reload and the offense lost Mark Ingram early on and didn’t find any semblance of consistency. The defense that was supposed to be such a concern with so many new starters finished fifth in the nation a third in scoring D, and now it’s loaded and should be a brick wall. The coaching staff ramped up the brutal offseason workout program even more, and while all the focus will be on the quarterback situation and the loss of offensive stars, the buzz should be around an even better-conditioned defense that might be truly special, even for the Tide.

The big spring question is ... Can the defensive front get into the backfield? As good as the Tide defenses have been, end even with a top NFL draft pick like Marcell Dareus working at one end, the pass rush has been a bit weak. Bama finished sixth in the SEC, and 54th in the nation, in sacks last season and was 11th in the league in tackles for loss. The 2009 national title team was second in the SEC in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks, and now the call has gone out to start getting to the quarterback on a regular basis. LB Courtney Upshaw led the team with seven sacks, but getting more from all three spots up front would be nice. The veteran secondary doesn’t exactly need a ton of help, but with all four starters returning, a pass rush could make the pass defense phenomenal.

The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Trent Richardson will be more than fine taking on more of a role at running back, and Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze are dangerous receivers who can be steady veterans until a few of the great young prospects can be ready, but someone has to step in at quarterback and replace the very smart, very steady Greg McElroy. While McElroy will be a NFL backup, the Tide might be upgrading the talent level if it’s A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims under center. They each have great size and they have special talents, and they should wage a fantastic war to get the honor of running a national title-level team. The Alabama quarterback doesn’t have to bomb away for a bazillion yards, but he has to make plays on third downs and he has to keep the mistakes to a bare minimum.

Spring attitude... National title or bust. The Tide ran into a buzzsaw against South Carolina, but it should’ve beaten LSU and it flat-out gagged against Auburn. Win those two games and it’s on to the SEC title game and a second straight national championship. The Tide got every bad scheduling break in the book, including just about every big game coming against teams with two weeks off to prepare. This year, there are road trips to Penn State, Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn, but there are two weeks off before dealing with LSU and Georgia Southern is like an off week before Auburn.. The LSU and Arkansas games are at home, and the schedule, even with the tough road dates, can’t be used as an excuse for a team this talented. The bar has been set ridiculously high, but it’s fair.

Arkansas

Spring Practice Begins: March 15
Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... This is the year. At least that’s what the belief appears to be around the program. Houston Nutt had done some big things with the Hogs thanks to a special ground game, but Bobby Petrino was sort of starting from scratch when he took over. Now everything is in place to make a big run and be this year’s South Carolina, or better. The defense should be the best in the Petrino era by far, and the offense, even without Ryan Mallett, has the potential to be terrific with a loaded receiving corps, arguably the best in the nation, and a thumping group of running backs, which could also be the best in college football. Considering Arkansas should’ve beaten Alabama, was in the battle against Auburn until the fourth quarter, and should’ve finished the comeback against Ohio State, a team that was really, really good last year has the potential to be truly special this season.

The big spring question is ... Can the Hogs be better against the run? The defensive front was expected to turn things up a few notches with a veteran group returning, and it did by getting into the backfield on a regular basis and helping the D finish ninth in the nation in sacks and 13th in tackles for loss. Run defense wasn’t exactly the group’s forte, but with a good, strong group returning, and a few beefeaters on the inside, there’s room for improvement. There’s too much size, too much depth, and too many good tackles to be so average against the better ground games, and if Bryan Jones and DeQuinta Jones can be strong inside, the defense might not have any major holes. With Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy to start, the stats will be good early on, but the proof will come with a trip to Alabama in late September.

The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. While everyone is going to be talking about QB Tyler Wilson and his potential as Ryan Mallett’s replacement, he’ll be phenomenal if he gets time to work. The Hog pass protection wasn’t exactly a rock last year, and now it has to go on without DeMarcus Love on the left side and Ray Dominguez on the right. This is a HUGE line that should be great in the interior, but true freshman Brey Cook has to be fantastic at one tackle and Grant Freeman needs to shine on the other side.

Spring attitude... Ten wins wasn’t good enough. The receiving corps should be devastating, Knile Davis has the potential to be in the Doak Walker discussion, and the pass rush and secondary should be fantastic. While the offensive line needs work and Tyler Wilson has to still prove he can be as productive as Ryan Mallett, everything is in place for the program to take yet another step forward. Going to Alabama and LSU will be a problem, but there’s no Florida on the slate and Auburn, South Carolina, and Tennessee are all home games. This is a good enough team to be in everyone’s top ten to start the year, and top five might not be out of the picture in some polls. Yes, the team is that good, and it shouldn’t shoot for anything lower than an SEC title.

Auburn

Spring Practice Begins: March 23
Game: April 18


The early spring buzz ... Everything is wide open, and that’s a good thing. With seven starters gone off both sides of the ball, and with new kickers needing to be brought in, Auburn has a lot of work to do. A LOT of work. However, what’s being lost on many is how Gene Chizik and the coaching staff have done a phenomenal job of recruiting over the last few seasons, and while there might not be a Cam Newton or a Nick Fairley, there’s tremendous talent all across the board and there will be plenty of very, very good prospects looking to prove they can play. RB Michael Dyer is hardly a bad centerpiece to work around, and the secondary should be better with a bit more experience. Yes, this might be a team full of no-names, but remember, there was a battle for the starting quarterback job last year at this time and Nick Fairley was a promising part of the tackle rotation.

The big spring question is ... Who gets to be the one who follows that? It might seem crazy now, but Cam Newton, as good as he was last offseason, didn’t have a rock-solid grasp on the starting gig. Barrett Trotter was in the hunt for the job with a good passing arm and nice mobility, and while he’s not nearly the player that Newton turned out to be, he has the skill and the talent to continue to make the offense go. Sophomore Clint Moseley will get every shot to win the starting gig, and top recruit Kiehl Frazier is coming aboard later this summer, but it’s Trotter’s job to lose. Don’t be too stunned if he’s very, very good.

The most important position to watch is ... Besides quarterback, offensive lineman. The linebacking corps needs two new starters, the defensive tackles have to be replaced, and losing receiver Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery will hurt, but the Tigers have nice young prospects waiting to step in and produce almost everywhere. The problem is on the offensive front with four starters gone including tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh. Right tackle Brandon Mosley is the only returning starter, and while there are some nice prospects, particularly guard Ed Christian and tackle A.J. Green, who got hurt with an ankle problem but is healthy again, it’s asking a lot to form a consistent, tight line from the start.

Spring attitude... “Nobody believes we can do it.” The cliché fits here. The buzz about Auburn is that there isn’t any buzz. After winning the 2008 national title, Florida came back loaded with the attitude that anything less than dominant national title campaign would be disappointing. Alabama was preseason No. 1 last year after winning the 2009 national championship. Will Auburn be ranked in the preseason top 25? Yeah, it will because it’s Auburn and it’s still full of talent, but with so many huge losses and with such a massive rebuilding job being done, there’s not going to be any respect whatsoever. You only get on Cam Newton, but remember, last year at this time no one outside of the SEC had ever heard of him, and few outside of Auburn knew who Nick Fairley was. Don’t be shocked if the Tigers are right back in the race for the SEC title, at least that’s the hope.

LSU

Spring Practice Begins: March 11
Game: April 9


The early spring buzz ... No, Zach Mettenberger hasn’t won the Heisman yet. Because LSU was so awful throwing the ball last year, there’s hope that Mettenberger becomes the latest Cam Newton-like SEC reclamation project who takes a great team and makes it a national champion. While the former Georgia Bulldog has great size and enough talent to potentially be a starter, Jordan Jefferson will still be the main man going into the season with Jarrett Lee getting his share of snaps in the possible No. 2 role. Mettenberger isn’t Newton in any way other than that they both quarterbacks and they both started their careers at an SEC East school before going to the West, but if the passing attack struggles so badly again, Jefferson might be on a short leash and Mettenberger might be seen as the savior.

The big spring question is ... Can new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe make that much of a difference? It was a complete and total miracle that LSU won 11 games with the nation’s 107th ranked passing game, 92nd in passing efficiency, and 11th in the SEC in total offense. The team might be good enough to challenge for the SEC title as is, but if it wants to play for the national title, and that’s a realistic expectation, the attack can’t stink. Kragthorpe isn’t looking to rebuild the machine, but he’s looking to simplify how it works by making the reads easier for the quarterbacks. The moves have worked so far as Jordan Jefferson has thrown well in early practices, while the coaching staff has said it likes what Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger were doing. With eight starters returning, including the entire offensive line, the expectations are for the production to start to come.

The most important position to watch is ... Kicker, punter and returner. The quarterbacks will be under the spotlight, a new left tackle has to step in to replace Joseph Barksdale, and a new starting running back has to replace plowhorse Stevan Ridley, but the biggest challenge could be to replace Josh Jasper, who led the SEC in field goals last year and helped; Derek Helton, who helped the punting game finish 13th in the nation and third in the SEC; and Patrick Peterson, who averaged 29 yards per kickoff return and 16 yards per punt return is also an issue. For a team that played so many close games, the difference between being good, winning the SEC West, and winning the national championship could be the emergence of key special teamers.

Spring attitude... Win the national title. This is hardly an air-tight team and there are plenty of big things to work on, but eight starters are back on offense and seven return on defense after winning 11 games last year. Sure, the Tigers should’ve lost to Tennessee, and there were several skin-of-the-teeth wins, but they also lost to Auburn by just seven despite getting run over, and last to Arkansas by eight. With so much returning experience, and with Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas coming to Death Valley, LSU can survive a loss at Alabama and still be in the hunt for the whole ball of wax. This team should be good enough to win the West. If you’re good enough to win the West, you’re good enough to win the SEC. If you’re good enough to win the SEC …

Ole Miss

Spring Practice Begins: March 28
Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... Welcome back, David Lee. Everyone is having a party in the SEC, and Ole Miss didn’t get an invite. (Vanderbilt’s got “lost in the mail.”) The 2010 season started out weird, with a double-overtime loss to Jacksonville State, and it didn’t get much better thanks to an offense that rolled against Louisiana-Lafayette, Fresno State, Jacksonville State, and shockingly, LSU, but was non-existent way too often. Finishing 43rd in the nation in offense, averaging 400 yards per game, isn’t bad, but more is needed out of one of the nation’s most inefficient passing games and the running game, while good yardage-wise, hasn’t provided the pop it did for Houston Nutt at Arkansas. Nutt brought back Lee, the former Hog assistant and Miami Dolphin QB coach, and it should be back to the good old days of Wildcat offense and even more running. However, the Rebels have to find their Darren McFadden-Felix Jones combination – Brandon Bolden is a start - and they have to find a quarterback.

The big spring question is ... Can the secondary improve? It’ll be all about the offense and the quarterback situation, but the bigger deal should be a secondary that was a complete and utter disaster allowing 246 yards per game and finishing last in the SEC and 109th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. It’s not like the SEC was full of high-octane passers, but when LSU is putting up 258 yards through the air and Mississippi State is throwing for 288, there’s a problem. Two starters need to be replaced, but it should be an open casting call to find playmakers. The pass rush will be there to help the cause, and now the hope will be for Marcus Temple – who’ll miss spring ball with a sports hernia - to eventually be a shut-down corner and for a few young prospects, particularly Charles Sawyer, to step up and shine right away.

The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Jeremiah Masoli was supposed to make a huge splash and was expected to be a difference-maker, but instead of leading Oregon to a national title, he ended up struggling to get the Ole Miss offense going. Before Masoli came in and was eligible, the job was supposed to go to Nathan Stanley, a tall, promising player who could quietly become a very steady, very productive player. However, he’ll have to fight off Randall Mackey, a tremendous runner who’ll get his chances this fall after getting his knee healthy. He’ll also have to hold off JUCO transfer and former Louisville Cardinal, Zack Stoudt, and West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti.

Spring attitude... It shouldn’t take that much to be among the living. If the Rebels didn’t gag against Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt, they would’ve gone bowling. Losing six of the final seven games wasn’t a plus, but they were in it against LSU and Mississippi State and weren’t embarrassing against some of the other West big boys. No, the talent level isn’t there to win the division, but there’s no excuse to not get to a bowl game with nine offensive starters returning, five back on defense, and with Southern Illinois, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, Kentucky, and Louisiana Tech on the slate. Win those five games, beat a BYU or a Georgia at home, and it’s off to the bowl.

Miss State

Spring Practice Begins: March 4
Game: April 11


The early spring buzz ... Hitting, and lots of it. The Bulldog practices have been full-contact and with lots of popping on both sides. No one is kept out of the fun, with QB Chris Relf getting hit and not shying away from contact on his runs. The main focus, though, has been on a passing game that was efficient, but only averaged 186 yards per game. The hope is to make Relf more of a dangerous playmaker through the air to keep teams from loading up on him and the ground game, but it’s early and there’s still plenty of work to do. MSU is going to be physical, it’s going to keep running the ball, and unlike the last few years, it’s more about tweaking than building.

The big spring question is ... Can Manny Diaz be replaced? He might not be a college football household name, but he did a fantastic job with a defense that finished 21st in the nation in points allowed, was fantastic at getting into the backfield, and was a rock against the run. He left to take over the open Texas defensive coordinator job, and now it’ll be up to Chris Wilson to run the D, with Geoff Collins from FIU coming in to assist, and there’s no excuse to not keep the production going. Seven starters return led by a terrific line that should be fine even without Pernell McPhee on the outside, and with all four starters returning to the secondary.

The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. The Bulldogs have to replace left tackle Derek Sherrod, but that’s about it for the big losses on offense. All-star Pernell McPhee was a strong defensive end, but the Bulldogs have several good players waiting to step in. The punting game also must be addressed with Heath Hutchins gone. The biggest position, through, to work on is linebacker with Chris White, K.J. Wright, the team’s top and Emmanuel Gatling, who made 45 stops, all gone. Cameron Lawrence is ready to go in place of Gatling on the outside, but the spotlight will be on Brandon Wilson to try to take over for White in the middle and Mike Hunt – two words – getting the first look for Wright. However, sophomores Deonte Skinner and Chris Hughes along with middle prospect Ferlando Bohanna are promising. Basically, it’s going to be an interesting offseason to find the right three prospects.

Spring attitude... 2010 was just the beginning. A nine-win season with a dominant bowl win, an Egg Bowl victory, and with wins over Florida and Georgia is a big deal for a program that’s always a bit out of the limelight a bit in the star-studded SEC West. But now the expectations are high, and they should be, with plenty of returning talent and with everything Dan Mullen wants to do in place. The offseason is vital for a team that has to get off to a hot start, with West showdowns against Auburn and LSU coming after the layup at Memphis. On the plus side, the schedule isn’t all that bad with LSU, South Carolina, and Alabama all coming to Starkville, and with no Florida from the East. It’s time to become an even bigger player in the SEC West race, and everyone will now where the team stands by late September.

Click for each team's spring preview
East Florida | Georgia | Kentucky | South Carolina | Tennessee | Vanderbilt 
West Alabama | Arkansas | Auburn | LSU | Ole Miss | Miss State
 
2011 SEC Spring Preview 
- SEC Spring Preview - Does SEC Champ = BCS Champ?
- 2011 SEC East Spring Buzz | SEC West   
- 2011 SEC East Spring Attitudes | SEC West
- 2011 SEC East Big Spring Questions | SEC West 
- 2011 SEC East Key Positions To Watch | SEC West
- SEC East Spring Rankings | SEC West