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2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the SEC

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 8, 2007


Can Auburn's Brandon Cox be a difference maker? Can Florida patch things up and repeat? Is LSU a lock in the West? Before we take a football break and go nuts with the March Madness team breakdowns and predictions (coming Sunday night), here's a look at SEC Spring Football with the key questions, positions, and expectations.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 SEC Spring Analysis
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2007 Preseason Lookaheads - SEC

East

Florida  Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The whole national championship thing is still sinking in. Ohio State went through the season crowned by just about everyone as the champion, and with the sudden shock of Florida's blowout, the year is still being put into perspective. Now, of course, the expectations are jacked through the roof. If Urban Meyer could do that with Ron Zook's players (for the most part), and his recruiting classes have been among the best in the country, then anything less than a national title will likely be seen as a disappointment. No one's going to overlook the Gators now.
The big spring question is ... Are we talking USC East here? Talent-wise, maybe, but it'll take a whole bunch of luck to be as consistently successful as the Trojans have been under Pete Carroll. The SEC is so loaded, Florida might be among the three best teams year in and year out only to see national title seasons fall short because of the tough conference schedule. Ask Georgia, LSU, and Auburn how tough it is, and how much luck you need, to maintain SEC-championship status. If Jarvis Moss doesn't block the late kick against South Carolina, if the defense didn't hold every time late in games against Florida State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia, the Gators wouldn't have been within ten miles of the national title.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The team's biggest issues might appear to be on defense, where all the future NFL talent is inexperienced, but everything will turn out fine with so many good athletes. The real question is offense where Tim Tebow goes from being a glorified fullback to a full-time quarterback ... maybe. While he's the unquestioned number one, Meyer might get other players some meaningful work throughout the off-season, and even platoon a little bit once the season starts, just to have a viable option ready. Freshman Cameron Newton and JUCO transfer Bryan Waggener will battle for the coveted number two spot, while Tebow has to show he can be the type of leader and steady playmaker Chris Leak turned out to be.
Spring attitude... No excuses. Many will assume the Gators will take a step back in 2007 to take a major leap forward in 2008, but there are so many great prospects, the coaching staff is so good, and the schedule is so much easier than last year, that anything less than another SEC title will be unacceptable. Even though winning the best conference in the nation should be enough, this program plays for national championships now no matter what.

Georgia   Spring Practice Begins: March 5  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ... 2006 was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year with issues at quarterback and several new starters on defense. Despite the overall inconsistency, going 9-4 with a bowl win over Virginia Tech was more than just solid, and now it appears the program is ready to challenge for its third SEC title in three years if some key issues like the passing game, punting, and defensive line can be fixed. Fortunately, some of the big problems might be fixed right away because ...
The big spring question is ... How much will the JUCO transfers make a difference? Considering four starters needed to be replaced off the offensive line and three on the defensive line, there might not be as much rebuilding as expected. For the first time in several years, Georgia opened the doors to JUCO players and if should make a huge difference. Jarius Wynn and Corvey Irvin should ease the loss of Charles Johnson, Ray Gant and Quentin Moses on the defensive line, while Vince Vance and Scott Haverkamp will provide a boost to the offensive front.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. The media is focusing on the development of QB Matthew Stafford, but he'll only improve if there's more from the receiving corps that struggled so much last season. Mo Massaquoi has to prove he can be a true number one target for SEC defensive coordinators to worry about, while A.J. Bryant and Kenneth Harris can do more. Finding a reliable go-to target to replace TE Martrez Milner would be nice.
Spring attitude... Get more offensive punch. Was it good or bad that the Dawgs managed to play so many close games? It was good that they won five games by seven points or fewer, but three of those games were against Colorado, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. On the flip side, they lost three games by seven or fewer including the home gaffe to Vanderbilt. A better offense would've made the wins over bad teams easier and wouldn't have resulted in the three close losses (including to Florida).

Kentucky   Spring Practice Begins: March 28  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Has there ever been more excitement over Kentucky football? While Tubby Smith and the hoops program still gets all the UK headlines, the football team is making noise after an eight-win season with victories over Georgia and Clemson. With QB Andre Woodson returning for his senior year as the leader of the SEC's best passing game, if nothing else, this will be a blast of a team to watch every week. While the offense will crank out 400 yards and 30 points per game ...
The big spring question is ... Can the defense be remotely better? After finishing second-to-last in the nation in total defense (yippee for Louisiana Tech), all the Cats need to do is be mediocre defensively and they'll be the SEC's reasonable sleeper. Youth was the biggest problem, and now eight starters return including the entire linebacking corps for new defensive coordinator Steve Brown to work with. Mike Archer didn't get the job done and is off to NC State (even though he wasn't kicked out by any stretch). 
The most important position to watch is ... Right tackle. It's not like the offensive line was any good at getting a push for the ground game or protecting Woodson, but it'll miss center Matt McCutchan and right tackle Michael Aitcheson. While help might come in from the JUCO ranks, in a perfect world, true sophomore Justin Jeffries becomes a mainstay and Eric Scott is decent in the middle. The more time Woodson has to work, the deadlier the offense will be.
Spring attitude... If this isn't a monster, double-digit win type of season, it might never happen. Not only will UK have the SEC's best offense, it only has four road games while Louisville, LSU, Florida and Tennessee have to come to Lexington. There's no way the Cats win all four of those games, or even three of the four, but it's good enough to win two of them, three of the four road dates, and not brain-cramp against the below-average.

South Carolina   Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... After two years of mild success, and not enough consistent offense for all the yards cranked out, this is the year Steve Spurrier might have the team Gamecock fans have been waiting for. No, the team isn't as good as it's going to be once this year's phenomenal recruiting class kicks in, but after going 8-5 with skin-of-their-teeth losses to Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida by seven points or fewer, it might not take too much extra to win the SEC East.
The big spring question is ...
Will all the returning defensive talent turn into production? Sacks won't be a problem, the secondary will turn out to be fine, and the run defense should be better with all seven starters returning to the defensive front. Now the defense has to give up fewer yards even if it means taking fewer chances. The scheme has been all about attacking and getting into the backfield with good results in a bend-but-don't-break style, but now the D has the potential to be dominant if everything goes right.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Even with the early departure of Sidney Rice, the skill players are in place to do what Spurrier wants. Now the line has to play well. The tackles should be fine, but the interior will be the issue losing center Chris White and guard Thomas Coleman and Seth Edwards. If all goes according to plan, James Thompson should step into one of the guard spots and provide some nice bulk, but either the coaching staff will have to rely on some newcomers, or there will be a drop-off in overall size.
Spring attitude... Come close to winning the East. There's just enough top talent returning on offense to complement a defense that gets nine starters back led by, arguably, the division's best linebacking corps, but the schedule might be too tough. Four league road games at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas are too brutal for a team that's not national-title level to get through unscathed. If USC can win two of the four, beat Florida at home in the SEC regular season finale, and not screw up at home against teams like Kentucky and Vanderbilt, things could get interesting.

Tennessee  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 22  Game: March 23
The early spring buzz ... Last year was about restoring the program's reputation and getting Phil Fulmer off the hot seat. This year is about being considered among the elite of the elite and being a top contender for the SEC title. While the receiving corps takes a hit and the defense has to replace the starting tackles and three defensive backs, nothing less than double-digit wins and a shot at the SEC East title will do. The expectations are jacked up again.
The big spring question is ... Will there finally be a pass rush? The Vol defensive front was great at making plays behind the line of scrimmage and awful and generating sacks. Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds are veteran ends who need get even more pressure. They're playmakers and were good against the run at times, but if they're not pushing up the sack totals, the linebackers might have to do even more work to hurry opposing passing games.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. Quarterback is suddenly a huge issue after Erik Ainge went down early in spring ball with a torn MCL that'll keep him out for at least three months. Receiver is a concern after losing Robert Meachem, Bret Smith and Jason Swain, but the Vols always crank out elite targets. They're also good when it comes to finding top-shelf defensive backs, but replacing Jonathan Wade and Antwan Stewart will be the big worry with a trip to California to start the season and a date at Florida on September 15th. Roshaun Fellows is back after missing all of last year with a torn pectoral muscle and should be back at one spot. The other corner job is up for grabs.
Spring attitude... Get through September unbeaten and the national title will be there for the taking. Winning at Cal would make a big splash, beating Southern Miss would be nicer than many would make it out to be, and a win at Florida would mean an instant spot in the top three, if not number two behind USC. Georgia and Arkansas come to Knoxville while the three remaining road games are at Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky.

Vanderbilt  Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ... This might be the best team yet under head coach Bobby Johnson. The program took a turn two years ago flirting with a bowl game thanks to Jay Cutler, and then youth and a bit of rebuilding caused a little step back. Even though the Commodores went 4-8, they were hardly a pushover beating Georgia  and losing to Florida, Alabama and Arkansas by a total of 12 points. Nine starters return on offense and eight are back on defense, but ...
The big spring question is ...
Does it matter? This could be the best Vandy team in decades and it could still finish dead last in the loaded East. Three of the first four games are against teams that didn't go to bowls (Alabama is the lone exception), and then things get positively nasty finishing up with seven straight bowl teams including road trips to Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee before finishing up with defending ACC champion Wake Forest. Catching the better teams off-guard, winning the close games, and not making any mistakes is are all musts.
The most important position to watch is ... Kick and punt returner. Return men?! A team with one of the league's worst defense has many things to bear watching in spring ball, but to start winning all the close games and being better overall, the little things have to be done right. Vandy was dead last in the SEC in punt returns averaging 4.73 yards per try and averaged a mere 17.85 yards per kickoff return. Improving the kicking game would also be nice after hitting nine of 18 field goals and netting just 33.52 yards per punt.
Spring attitude... Just keep improving. There will be days when a more talented team comes out just blasts the Commodores. In the other days when things are close, the veterans on offense have to come through and surprise. A more experienced team would've won at least two of last year's close games. This is a better team that can reasonably dream of six wins and a possible bowl game as long as there's improvement on both sides of the ball.


East

Alabama   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
Did anything happen to the program this off-season? Oh yeah, Bama bought itself a coach to make it one of the elite of the elite again, and this spring should be extremely interesting with as much pressure as any coaching staff in the country will have to deal with. Getting paid the kind of money Saban is getting, just getting to a bowl game isn't enough. The Tide has to be a contender for the West title, get double-digit wins, and beat Auburn; not necessarily in that order.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any sort of a pass rush? The Tide defense was strong up until the final four games, but it somehow survived without any pass rush whatsoever with just 13 sacks and 55 tackles for loss. Saban and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele aren't going to allow that to happen a second year in a row and will be certain to invent ways to generate pressure making quarterbacks worry. Fortunately, no one on the schedule can throw all that well until the date with Florida State in late September.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. The passing game should be fantastic with the expected emergence of John Parker Wilson into an even better passer than last year and with D.J. Hall and Keith Brown forming one of the SEC's best 1-2 receiving tandems. Running the ball was painful throughout last year and now starter Ken Darby is gone.
Top recruit Demetrius Goode will eventually be the man, but this spring it'll likely be up to Jimmy Johns, Roy Upchurch and Ali Sharrief providing a nice blend of speed and power.
Spring attitude... It's not like the team was bad in 2006 under Mike Shula, so it might not take too much tweaking to be really, really good. Remember, last season was about rebuilding and the Tide went 6-7 losing three games by a total of nine points. The defense, even with several key starters gone, should be better under the new regime, while the offense will be far more balanced and more effective.

Arkansas  Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
Didn't Arkansas win the West? With all the drama this off-season about Mitch Mustain, Damian Williams and Gus Malzahn, and with the retirement of athletic director Frank Broyles, it's been easy to forget how the Hogs shocked the college football world and played for the SEC title. Yeah, the three losses to close things out might have ended things on a sour note, but it's easy to excuse the four defeats on the year considering USC, LSU, Florida and Wisconsin combined to go 47-6. Now the bar has been set even higher while the SEC has gotten better.
The big spring question is ... Will the offensive line be able to patch and repair? All Darren McFadden and Felix Jones need is a sliver of daylight and they're gone, but it'll take a few unproven players to help make it happen. You don't get better by losing three starters up front including tackles Tony Ugoh and Zac Tubbs. For a team that lives and dies with the running game, and gave the quarterbacks ten days to throw, being strong up front is vital to have any hope of repeating in the West.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback.
Take the hissy fit out of the equation, and Mustain is still an NFL caliber talent who could've been the star of the offense even with its great backfield and running scheme. Now the pressure is on Casey Dick to be merely adequate and make the plays he has to. With Marcus Monk and Marques Wade, who's coming off a toe injury, to throw to, Dick has the weapons. Now he has to get his completion percentage over 50% has to put the last three games of last year (including a three-of-17 day against LSU) in the past.
Spring attitude... Act like the SEC West champions. There's no reason the formula can't work again. If the O line comes together in a hurry, and McFadden and Jones stay healthy, there's no reason to shoot for anything less than another trip to the title game. The schedule isn't all that bad until late going on the road to play Tennessee and LSU in the final three weeks, but the team might be fully jelled by then. Going unbeaten probably isn't a must to win the West.

Auburn  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 27  Game: April 17
The early spring buzz ... Auburn always likes to start nice and early to make sure everyone is healthy for the fall. There's always pressure on everyone in the SEC, but two years removed from the unbeaten SEC title year, and with Mr. Saban being picked up over in Tuscaloosa, the stakes have impossibly been raised even higher for Tommy Tuberville and his team. The defense was one of the best in the nation last year and gets seven starters back, while the offense gets most of the key skill players back, and has replacements for RB Kenny Irons. However ...
The big spring question is ... Will the offense be more consistent? Auburn suffered a textbook case of not being able to turn it on after turning it off. You can't blame Tuberville and his staff for limiting a banged up Irons and not pushing the offense during a light midseason stretch against Tulane, Ole Miss and Arkansas State, but the offense was off in the 37-15 loss to Georgia to ruin any national title dreams and struggled against Alabama and Nebraska to close out the year. Consistency could be a problem early on with four starters lost off the offensive line, so ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. It's time Brandon Cox went from being a decent caretaker to a top playmaker. Oh sure, he's been efficient and solid against the mediocre, but he's hardly been special against the better teams. The veteran line didn't give him a whole bunch of help last season, and the inexperienced new group of starters isn't likely to be much better in pass protection for a while. That means Cox has to be sharp with his reads, has to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry, and has to be the reason Auburn wins and not just along for the ride.

Spring attitude... Hope for the SEC title, be prepared for much less. It's dangerous to underestimate what Tuberville and Auburn can do, but with so many replacements needed on the offensive line and so much more needed from Cox and the passing game, if the defense isn't lights out, a division title might be tough. The scheduling gods send the Tigers to Florida and Georgia from the East to go along with dates at Arkansas and LSU. At least the Alabama game is at home.

LSU  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 26  Game: March 24
The early spring buzz ... Spring ball has already begun for a the national title contenders, and while it's not quite right to take too much from early practices, the team looks really, really good. Both sides of the ball are shockingly sharp including QB Matt Flynn and the passing game. After battling USC for the unofficial title of being the best team not playing for the 2006 national championship, there appears to be a sense that this season could be special as long as ...
The big spring question is ... Can Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux actually fill the mega-shoes of JaMarcus Russell? Maybe not literally, but each is good enough make the offense go. It's Flynn's gig to lose, while Perrilloux is getting plenty of work with the ones and might be folded into the mix to get a few snaps here and there once the season starts. Lost on the hubbub over Russell was how much time he had to work. Oh sure, Russell's a once-in-a-generation physical marvel, but he also played behind a line that didn't allow him to be hit all that often. The quarterbacks will shine as long as the front five is strong again.
The most important position to watch is ... Safety. The front seven should be oh-my-goodness good with six starters returning led by All-America DT Glenn Dorsey and LB Ali Highsmith. The corners are going to be tremendous, but they're not going to have LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels to rely on. Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor have the experience to be decent, and now there needs to be competition to find who the special prospects are.

Spring attitude... National title or bust. The road schedule is a relative joke going to Mississippi State, Tulane, Kentucky, Alabama and Ole Miss while Virginia Tech, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas all have to come to Death Valley. Basically, if the Tigers go unbeaten at home, they should be in the SEC championship with a shot at the national title. With a defense line the one coming back, and more speed than most on offense, there's reason to be very, very excited.

Ole Miss   Spring Practice Begins: March 2  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ... Spring practice has started and it's all about offense, offense, offense, offense, and offense. After averaging fewer than 16 points and 261 yards per game and struggling to find any sort of a passing game, head coach Ed Orgeron and his staff are looking for ways to put points on the board. How? The competition for starting spots has been cranked up ten-fold in the search for offensive balance. With all the scrutiny ...
The big spring question is ... Can any of the Ole Miss quarterbacks play? Yeah, Texas transfer Jevan Snead, but he's not eligible until next year. Brent Schaeffer was handed the starting job after transferring over last year, stunk it up, and opened the door for Seth Adams, Michael Herrick and Cliff Davis to be in the hunt for the gig. Schaeffer has experience in the system, something he didn't have last spring, and is likely to still hang on to the number one spot. For now.
The most important position to watch is ... Besides quarterback, linebacker. Players like Patrick Willis don't hang around Oxford every year, and the loss of weakside tackling machine Rory Johnson a year early to the NFL isn't going to help. Jamarca Sanford is a weakside defender who played on the strongside last season, but he might get to play on the other side if JUCO transfer Ashlee Palmer plays as well on the strongside as he has over the first few practices. Brandon Thomas and Allen Walker, among a slew of other prospects, know what they're doing.

Spring attitude... The program might be closer to being really, really good than many make it out to be. If there was even the slightest semblance of a consistent, balanced offense, the Rebels probably would've won at least six games considering it lost four games by a total of 18 points including overtime battles with Alabama and LSU. Orgeron has recruited extremely well on the lines, and now the labor should pay off in the overall depth. It's taking too big a step to call this a sleeper team in the SEC race, but it'll be a spoiler for someone else.

Mississippi State   Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 26  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ... One of the first teams to get spring practice rolling, and one of the first that'll finish, MSU has cranked up the hitting and intensity knowing there's plenty of time for everyone to heal. Something drastic has to be done after three years of futility under Sylvester Croom. That change might have come from the JUCO ranks with several players expected to make an impact on the defensive side, while receivers Co-Eric Riley and Brandon McRae might become deadly on the other side of Tony Burks.
The big spring question is ... Will the offense be any better? If everyone can stay healthy, absolutely. While no one will confuse Michael Henig with Peyton Manning, the offense found more pop once he was healthy and slinging it around. The backfield could be Arkansas-lite with the young 1-2 punch of Anthony Dixon and true freshman Robert Elliott. To help the improved skill players, four starters return to what should be an improved line.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. The Bulldogs are going to miss MLB Quinton Culberson and can't quickly replace top end Michael Heard, but unless a slew of untested prospects rock out of the gate, the real problem will be at defensive tackle after losing Deljuan Robinson, Andrew Powell and Antonio Johnson. Jessie Bowman comes from the JUCO ranks with all the hype, but it'll take several young players to fill in the depth and compete provide an overall upgrade inside.

Spring attitude... Everyone's going to pick MSU last, so it might as well embrace the giant killer role. What would it do for the program if it could come out of the gate and ruin LSU's national title dream before September even started? It's not like there a ton of gimmes on the slate playing LSU, at Auburn, at South Carolina, Tennessee, at West Virginia, Alabama, and at Arkansas, but if the offense improves as expected, and Croom's recruiting classes start to kick in and play well on defense, six wins isn't unreasonable.
  

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