2006 SEC Spring Lookaheads

Posted Mar 6, 2006

Before spring ball 2006, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each SEC team.

By Pete Fiutak 

East Division
    Spring practice starts March 29, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Is the year two magic under Urban Meyer going to apply to Florida? It's been well documented how Meyer succeeded in his second season at Bowling Green and Utah, and now the same is expected at Florida. With Georgia in a possible rebuilding mode and Tennessee still trying to find the license plate of the truck that ran over it last year, Florida should be the preseason favorite to win the East, so the pressure should be on even more than last year. However, the really, really big things are expected in 2007 and beyond because ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Has a true Heisman contending quarterback ever been benched for a true freshman? Chris Leak is a prolific passer and a great talent, but as everyone knows by now, he isn't the prototypical Urban Meyer spread option quarterback. Super recruit Tim Tebow is. Is Meyer willing to take a step back this year by playing Tebow to take a huge leap forward for next year, or will Leak be able to hang on to the job all season long? What if Leak is merely above-average and not Heisman-like? The Gator quarterback situation will be sure to be a major topic of discussion all year long.
Spring attitude... Win the East. Not winning the SEC title isn't a sin, but not winning a division title is. Just ask Tennessee what happens when the favorite doesn't come through. The transition from the Ron Zook era to Meyer is now over, and if the offensive line comes together in a hurry, there's no reason not to finish the regular season 10-2 at worst.

Georgia    Spring practice starts March 4, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Can Georgia reload yet again? It seems like every year that Georgia is sending half its team to the NFL and has to fill in mile-wide holes, and it seems like every year that head coach Mark Richt and his staff get it done. Even so, there's a razor-thin margin between winning the SEC title and being a league also-ran, and losing a leader like QB D.J. Shockley, along with all the talent on the defensive line, most of the top defensive backs, and talented offensive linemen like Max Jean-Gilles, might be too much to overcome.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Shockley turned into a better passer than anyone expected and was the team's heart-and-soul last year. Big Joe Tereshinski is the first in line to be the new starter, and he has a little experience getting the starting nod in the loss to Florida last year, but he's not Shockley and he's not the type of quarterback who'll make a lot of big plays on his own. His job will be to not screw up, but he might not have the job for long if true freshman Matthew Stafford comes in and plays like the NFL-star-in-waiting that many recruiting gurus believes he is. Blake Barnes, who has a little bit of experience, and Joe Cox are likely jockeying for the number three job.
Spring attitude... Just win it again. Yeah, Georgia loses a lot of starters, but this is one of the nation's deepest programs and there are several more NFL prospects waiting for their turn. The backfield might be the best in America with too many good running backs for one ball. The receiving corps should be fine, and the linebacking corps should be a strength after having injury problems last year.

Kentucky    Spring practice starts March 29, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Does Rich Brooks have any tricks in his bag? With nine wins in three years, Brooks hasn't exactly capitalized on the positive momentum from the Guy Morriss era. However, give him credit for keeping his team playing hard when nothing has been going right. There's a fantastic playmaker in RB Rafael Little to build around, and QB Andre Woodson should be better after taking some lumps last year, so there is reason to believe the team should be better. It'll need to be a lot better for there to be a year five for Brooks.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line. More specifically, the defensive front seven that gets five of seven starters back. Stopping the run was a major problem all season long and was the main reason Kentucky got knocked out of games so early. Teams pounded the ball and pounded the ball some more taking the early momentum and forcing the ill-equipped UK offense to play catchup. With all the returning experience, the run defense has to be far better.
Spring attitude... Be Vanderbilt, but better. Kentucky doesn't have a Jay Cutler, but if the Commodores could come within a blocked field goal of going to a bowl, then the expectation has to be for the Wildcats to be at least as competitive. With its schedule, UK should be able come up with five wins if it doesn't screw up (Texas State, Ole Miss, Central Michigan, Vanderbilt and UL Monroe), so seven wins and a bowl game aren't a lot to ask for.

South Carolina    Spring practice starts March 14, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Does Steve Spurrier have the right pieces in place to run his offense the way he'd like? He didn't try to Fun 'n' Gun, or Cock 'n' Fire, with Lou Holtz's holdovers, but he did make the offensive effective enough to come up with a decent season. However, finishing 100th in the nation in total offense isn't exactly Spurrier's style. You could do a lot worse than have skill players like QB Blake Mitchell, WR Sidney Rice and RB Mike Davis, but they have to provide a lot more pop if USC is going to beat Tennessee and Florida again.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back seven and placekicker. The offense got the headlines, but the defense and the kicking game won the games. Josh Brown hit ten of 12 field goals and was always clutch. He also was the team's top punter averaging over 40 yards per kick. Replacing the starting linebacking corps is also a problem along with finding a new free safety for tackling ball-hawk Ko Simpson and a new top cover corner for Johnathan Joseph.
Spring attitude... Patch the holes on defense, find more offensive pop, and this could be a huge year. The schedule is as favorable as it gets in the SEC East with Georgia and Tennessee coming to Columbia and the only nasty road games at Florida and Clemson with both coming late in the year. For a strong team, this is a 9-3 schedule, but is South Carolina really that good? We might know right away at Mississippi State. With the right breaks, an appearance in the SEC title game isn't out of the question.

Tennessee    Spring practice starts March 2, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... So what really went wrong? It's too easy to blame former offensive coordinator Randy Sanders for everything and looking back, only the Vanderbilt loss was completely inexcusable. Of course, by that point of the season the wheels had completely come off. The defense never got credit for a great season because the offense couldn't score with an attack that struggled in every phase. The offensive line had a bad year, the receiving corps didn't make nearly enough plays, and ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is Erik Ainge the answer? He had a solid freshman season, but wasn't consistent last year forcing the limited Rick Clausen to play way too much. Ainge has next-level talent, but he has to focus and has to be a much sharper decision maker. Jonathan Crompton has a banged up shoulder which should finally be healthy by the start of the season. Bo Hardegree will also get a shot, but the season depends on Ainge and his ability to turn his career around.
Spring attitude... Last year was last year. Tennessee hasn't been a rock at home lately, but it gets most of the big games in Knoxville with three tough road dates at Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas. Any team wanting to win the SEC title has to be good enough to handle away games against Memphis and Vanderbilt. The return of David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator should jump-start the attack, while there are still more than enough good players to come up with another good defensive year.

Vanderbilt    Spring practice starts March 14, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Can Vandy take the next step and get to a bowl game? It'll be hard to do with QB Jay Cutler off making millions in the NFL, but last year at least showed that the team can be more than just an SEC doormat. Six wins might be tough with the schedule Bobby Johnson's team has to face, but it won't be impossible. To get to the post-season, Vandy has to win all the games it's supposed to and not have any MTSU or Kentucky losses like last year.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Oh sure, replacing Cutler will be the first priority, but the new starter will be running for his life if the line doesn't come together quickly. This was a senior dominated front wall that held its own throughout last year even though it didn't do much against the run.
Spring attitude... Win six. If the Commodores can beat Tennessee State, Kent State, Duke and Kentucky, which isn't too much to ask for, it'll take only two wins to possibly go bowling (depending on the NCAA's ruling about six win seasons counting D-IAA games for bowl eligibility). Of course, every team on the schedule will be looking at Vandy as a sure win. After last year, going back to the two win seasons just won't do.

West Division
    Spring practice starts February 24, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... What can the offense do to get more production? The running back situation is excellent with several good power backs, the receiving corps is full of deep playmakers, and the line, at least the starting five, should be far better than last year. It's all up to the quarterback situation and whether or not John Parker Wilson, Marc Guillon or Jimmy Barnes can be just as efficient and more dangerous than Brodie Croyle. The real key will be a line that was pounded by injury and inconsistency last year. There's not much developed depth, but the young front wall should grow into something special. As it develops, so will the offense.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. Gone are DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach, who combined to make 142 stops last year. Juwan Simpson returns to his weakside position and will have to carry things for awhile until Matt Collins and Terrence Jones get used to the full-time job. Alabama won't have anything close to the number one scoring defense in the nation again unless these two shine.
Spring attitude... Is it possible 10-2 wasn't good enough? It would be fantastic this year. Sure, Alabama had a fantastic season under Mike Shula and regained its status as a national power, but problems with the offense and a loss to Auburn left a feeling that 2005 was done with a bit too many smoke and mirrors. The defense isn't likely to be as good again without seven starters and the offense isn't going to be USC right away, but this is still a good team thinking SEC West title. That might be tough, but just being in the mix before the Auburn game would make for a successful year.

Arkansas    Spring practice starts March 27, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can the program hold on for one more year before the Mitch Mustain era begins? Head coach Houston Nutt got his star quarterback, but it was made very clear early on that Mustain is going to redshirt. This was a young team last year, but the program has been treading water for a few seasons under Nutt and it has to start winning now. This will be Nutt's ninth year in Fayetteville and there has to be some sign that the wheels are in motion to be a true SEC title contender in the very, very near future.
The most important position to watch is ... Placekicker. Just about everyone is back on both sides of the ball with more returning starters than anyone in the SEC, but steady placekicker Steve Balseiro is gone after connecting on 13 of 18 field goals. He might not have been the best kicker around and he missed two in the 19-17 loss to LSU, but he will be missed. The Hogs will likely be involved in several tight games and must find a suitable replacement. Junior Jeremy Davis will get the first shot.
Spring attitude... Don't play for next year. It'll be hard for the Hogs not to think 2007 will be the year Superman flies in to change around the program, and it'll be up to Casey Dick to be so good that Mustain can't just stroll on to the field and take over the job. This year's team should be good enough to get back to a bowl game. The Hogs played a rough schedule last year and managed to lose every close game with four losses by four points or fewer. A veteran team wins those games, and the 2006 Hogs will be full of experience.

Auburn      Spring practice starts February 28, Spring Game March 18
The big spring question is ... Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding one, so will this season bring an SEC title? Auburn is a firmly established superpower at this point. The Tigers were an overtime loss to LSU away from playing for the SEC championship, but all the warm fuzzies at the end of last year quickly dissipated after getting dominated by Wisconsin in a 24-10 loss in the Capital One Bowl. However, that loss might have been the best thing to happen to Auburn since it seemed to be a motivator for this year. Auburn couldn't have a better SEC schedule with the road games at Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Alabama, so there's no real reason to not at least win the West.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. The Tigers have two very big and very talented players to replace on the line losing big Marcus McNeill along with Troy Reddick. King Dunlap is a mountain on the left side at 6-8 and 313 pounds, while Leon Hart is a good-sized player on the right side at 6-5 and 300 pounds. Everything else on offense will fall into place as long as these two play well.
Spring attitude... So far it's all been positive from the great Academic Performance Report from the NCAA to the relatively crisp first few practices. This year might not be 2004, but the team is good enough to be playing for the SEC title and the enthusiasm around early practices appears to reflect that. The early word is the team looks a lot faster. It wasn't exactly a slow group last year.

LSU     Spring practice starts March 4, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Will LSU fans accept an average year? How can an 11-2 season be a disappointment? Give away one game at home in overtime to an inferior Tennessee team, and lose the SEC title game. While it might be a little harsh to not heap the love on Les Miles and his staff for a terrific first season in the midst of a disaster like Katrina, the bar has been raised on the Bayou. Never mind that Miles' surpassed most expectations, LSU might be asked to do even more with its ridiculously talented team. That might be impossible with road games at Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas. 
The most important position to watch is ... Tackle, on both sides of the ball. LSU has to replace All-Americans Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams on the defensive side and mammoth left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the left side. The main focus all spring will be on the quarterback situation, but the Tigers can't think about getting back to the SEC title game unless Peter Dyakowski, or another top prospect, can step in for Whitworth and Glen Dorsey can grow into a rock in the middle of the defensive line.
Spring attitude... If LSU can overcome the adversity of last year, it can handle a tough four-game road slate. The program overcame a hurricane to get to the SEC title game, and the loss of starting quarterback JaMarcus Russell to blow up Miami in the Peach Bowl. This might be the fastest, most athletic team in America with a boatload of talented skill players.

Ole Miss    Spring practice starts March 6, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Can things be better in Ed Orgeron's second year? Oh yeah. Coach O's tough style ran off some players and didn't appear to work all that well in an ugly 3-8 season, but there's hope for a night and day turnaround thanks to two key moves. First, he added Art Kehoe to coach the offensive line. The longtime Miami Hurricane assistant is still one of the best in the game and should be an instant shot in the arm. Second, former Tennessee quarterback Brent Schaeffer is in to run the offense adding more athleticism and talent to the position.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Kehoe helps, but does he have any players to work with? There's no center to speak off at the moment with an open audition for the job, and a battle for the remaining four spots. Michael Oher might be the closest thing to a lock stepping at tackle, but that's about it.
Spring attitude... Win or get your butt chewed out. Orgeron is a take-no-prisoners coach who knows what top-level teams look like from his days at USC, and he's going to do whatever it takes to get Ole Miss to that level. It's going to take more time before there's any realistic thoughts about the SEC West title, but the team should be far more competitive this year. It's certainly going to be better on the lines.

Mississippi State   Spring practice starts March 6, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... How will the team generate more offense? Finishing 114th in the nation in scoring and 115th in total offense isn't going to win many games in the SEC. MSU has to start putting points on the board, and it has to do it without the only guy who could play last year, RB Jerious Norwood. To get better, the Bulldogs need for more production out of the ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Omarr Conner and Mike Henig combined to complete a mere 48% of his throws with only 1,524 yards and ten touchdowns and ten interceptions. With Conner at receiver now, it's up to Henig to sink or swim. He's not a runner and he doesn't have a big arm, but he's going to have to be the one who turns things around or else redshirt freshmen Tray Rutland and Ty Evans will soon get their chances.
Spring attitude... Be ready to come out roaring. Conventional college football wisdom dictates that if you're going to beat a superior team, you have a better shot of doing it if the game comes early on. With no preseason to tune up, it takes a little while for some teams to get going. MSU has to start fast with three straight home games highlighted by SEC battles with South Carolina and Auburn. Getting blown out early on won't do much for a team that desperately needs a shot of confidence.