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2008 Spring Preview - The SEC
Alabama DB Rashad Johnson
Alabama DB Rashad Johnson
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 8, 2008


Just how close is Rashad Johnson's Alabama to being a superpower? How will Arkansas, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Auburn handle some big coaching changes? As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each SEC team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

SEC Spring Football Previews

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2007 SEC Spring Analysis
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2008 Early Lookaheads - SEC
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2008 SEC Insider Spring Questions & Answers

East

Florida  Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... With a little tweak here and a little nip/tuck there, the Gators are on the short list for the national title again. The running game has its back with USC transfer Emmanuel Moody ready to take the heat off Tim Tebow, the defensive coaching staff got a fantastic addition in former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney as an assistant, which helps ease the pain of the loss of Greg Mattison to the Baltimore Ravens, and there's a slew of excellent freshmen prospects coming in to provide an even bigger upgrade to the talent level. This is one of the five best teams in the country again.
The big spring question is ... Has the team matured? Over and over again last season the youth excuse was used. The pass defense was the worst in the SEC, but two freshmen and a sophomore were starting. The run defense was excellent, but the linebacking corps made plenty of mistakes, mostly because two sophomores and a redshirt freshmen were starting and the backups were all underclassmen. Now this is a mature team on both sides of the ball with loads of All-SEC and All-America talent brought together through phenomenal recruiting class after phenomenal recruiting class. Talent-wise, this is a faster, better team than the 2006 national champion.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Florida was 23rd in the nation in rushing averaging over 200 yards per game, but that was with Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow each averaging around 69 yards per game with RB Kestahn Moore checking in with around 44 yards per outing.  The coaching staff is going to invent new ways to get the ball in Harvin's hands as much as possible, but he needs to be used even more as a No. 1 wide receiver. Tebow is always a dangerous rushing option, but he was beaten up by the end of last year and shouldn't be running the ball 210 times again. In a perfect world, he's able to use his accuracy to ramp up the passing game more, especially with weapons like JUCO transfer Carl Moore and do-it-all playmaker Chris Rainey in the mix. All eyes are on Moody, because if he's able to provide the steady rushing threat that's been missing for a few years, the Gator offense will be unstoppable.
Spring attitude... National title or bust. Don't get fooled by all the Georgia hype; the Gators are every bit as good, if not better. Many will point to the schedule, facing Miami, at Tennessee, at Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and at Florida State, as a potential problem, but Florida will be favored in all of those games, even in the Cocktail-don't-call-it-a-Cocktail Party. The defense gets eight starters back with more help on the way, and the offense returns eight starters including Mr. Heisman, Harvin, who's going to have a huge year, along with a few more weapons being welcomed into the mix.

Georgia   Spring Practice Begins: March 5  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ... It's Georgia's turn. LSU has come up with its second title in the last few years, Florida won the national title last year, and Auburn cranked through an unbeaten season, but had nothing to show for it in the end, while Georgia hasn't really been in the national title hunt late in a season since the Herschel Walker days. Head coach Mark Richt has cranked out strong team after strong team, and now he appears to have his best team yet. Remember, 2007 was supposed to be a bridge season to this year, and coming off a red-hot second half, winning seven straight complete with a blowout of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Now this is THE hot team.
The big spring question is ... Is this finally the year Matthew Stafford becomes the NFL-caliber quarterback he's supposed to be? The Georgia offense was balanced and effective throughout last year, but the passing game was hardly efficient. Knowshon Moreno was the sparkplug who took the attack to another level, while Stafford was mostly along for the ride, even though he threw for 200 yards or more in seven games. Overall stats don't tell the whole story since Stafford was fantastic in the big games against Florida and Auburn, but he wasn't special. The O line will be better and more experienced, giving Stafford more time, and now it's time for the attack to get more from ...
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. It was better with Sean Bailey back in the mix, but it wasn't anything to get too excited about. Now, if nothing else, there are more weapons to use with star recruit A.J. Green certain to play a big role in a corps that gets everyone back but Bailey. Mo Massaquoi isn't going to be a 75-catch target, but he'll hit a few key home runs. TE Tripp Chandler is proven and there are several backups ready to play bigger roles, but overall there has to be more quality to go along with the quantity.
Spring attitude... Don't get caught up in the hype. Everyone's going to have Georgia in the preseason top three, if not No. 1, and now the target will be squarely on its back. For whatever reason, this hasn't been a program that deals with high expectations all that well, almost always doing its best work under Richt when no one is looking for much. The schedule is a killer with road trips to South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU and Auburn, along with the Florida game, so step one has to be to live the one-game-at-a-time cliché, and then hope things work out.

Kentucky   Spring Practice Begins: March 28  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... How much will Joker be coaching the team and how much will he be handling the offense? The succession is in place with Joker Phillips to take over whenever Rich Brooks calls it quits, possibly after this season, so part of the overall plan has to make sure the transition of power will go smoothly. Even with the coaching situation in place, the recruiting season was a relative disaster compared to the rest of the SEC, so the team might have to keep overachieving considering it hasn't exactly capitalized on the recent success. 
The big spring question is ... How's the team possibly going to be better after so many major personnel losses? The answer might be simple: it probably won't be. You don't get better by losing QB Andre Woodson, RB Rafael Little, TE Jacob Tamme, WR Keenan Burton, two key offensive linemen, and heart-and-soul LB Wesley Woodyard. The D gets eight starters back, and for the first time in a while, it'll likely have to carry the team until the offense gets everything in place.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Curtis Pulley was a star recruit a few years ago and was battling, at least according to the coaching staff at the time, for the starting job before Woodson became Woodson. Now he's likely the favorite, but ever so slightly, ahead of 6-6 Mike Hartline. If nothing else, there will be more mobility and more of a rushing threat for the quarterback than there was with Woodson.
Spring attitude... No slipping. After winning eight games last year and with so much recent success under Brooks, anything less than another bowl campaign will be unacceptable. No, this isn't an SEC East contender with so many holes to fill, and with Florida and Georgia coming back loaded, but the defense should be better and the offense should still be able to crank out yards and points in bunches against the average teams.

South Carolina   Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... This needs to be the year. No, Steve Spurrier isn't on any sort of a hot seat, but this is year four of the experiment with little to show for it with a five-game losing streak ruining 2007. The recruiting classes have to start kicking in and this can't just be an also-ran team that sneaks its way into wins here and there; consistency is a must. Injuries were a problem, but everyone in the SEC gets beaten up as the season goes on. Now there's depth, now there are good starters, and now there's no excuse for Spurrier not to have a big year with his strongest team since taking over.
The big spring question is ...
Will there be any defense? Last year's defense was supposed to be able to get into the backfield on a regular basis, and was supposed to get to the quarterback early and often, and didn't. The loss of superstar LB Jasper Brinkley to a knee injury killed the run defense, while there weren't nearly enough takeaways to change the momentum in key games. After the D's complete collapse in November, all eyes will be on a group that gets Brinkley back in the middle along with the entire secondary and three veterans on the line. The run D won't be the worst in the SEC again, while the pass defense should be nasty.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Spurrier has never been afraid to rotate his quarterbacks and keep everyone on edge, but that hasn't worked well so far. Last year is was Chris Smelly, and then it was Blake Mitchell, and then it was Smelley, and then it was Mitchell, with plenty of yards put up, but little in the way of efficiency. Smelley came to USC as a top recruit with the talent to be a superstar under Spurrier, but the light hasn't gone on quite yet. Stephen Garcia has all the tools and could be the sleeper this spring to win the No. 1 job, while Tommy Beecher, the third man in the mix throughout last year, will likely fill the same role.
Spring attitude... It's time. This is Spurrier's program from top to bottom now with all his guys where he wants them. With so much returning experience and so many options to battle for starting spots, the team should be as good enough to beat anyone in the SEC on the right day. With a joke of a road schedule until late November (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Kentucky) to go along with layups against Wofford and UAB, there's no reason not to expect a good year. The schedule, overall, is too tough to win the East, but that doesn't mean USC can't make things interesting.

Tennessee  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 22  Game: March 23
The early spring buzz ... The program needs something, anything to take the attention off a rough off-season with player after player getting in trouble. P Britton Colquitt was booted off the team for getting arrested on drunk driving charges and leaving the scene of the accident, LB Dorian Davis and SS Antonio Wardlow got the dreaded "violation of team rules" tag, and six other Vols getting in trouble for one reason or another, this hasn't been a good few months since the Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin. If that wasn't enough ...
The big spring question is ... With David Cutcliffe off to Duke, is Dave Clawson good enough to keep the offense rolling? Cutcliffe is a magician with quarterbacks, and now Clawson, the former Richmond head man, has to keep the momentum going with Jonathan Crompton. The now-junior has experience, but Nick Stephens and B.J. Coleman will each get long looks. The entire offensive coaching staff, outside of OL coach Greg Adkins, is gone, so the O, which was just above-average last year, has to get better with a ton of new faces.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. The Vols were awful at getting into the backfield, with the Wisconsin game an aberration. Now the line has to replace three starters including both ends. The tackles should be fine against the run with Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams good pluggers, but unless a pass rusher emerges from the outside, the secondary will have another rough year.
Spring attitude... This is the defending SEC East champions. Everyone was waiting for the collapse so Georgia could step into the SEC title game, but it never happened. Tennessee flashed an attitude that got it through the last five games, even if it was the light portion of the schedule, and it needs to keep the momentum going. With all the off-field problems and with Georgia, Florida, and even South Carolina looking strong, the expectations from the media won't be there, but that doesn't mean the Vols can shoot for anything less than another ten-win season.

Vanderbilt  Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ... The window might be closed. After being so close with two five-win seasons in the last three, the opportunity, at least for the short term, to get to a bowl game might be gone. There are massive replacements needed on both sides of the ball, and the SEC isn't getting any easier. This spring will be all about the young players looking to make quick names for themselves.
The big spring question is ...
Can the offense improve enough to make up for the almost certain drop-off from the defense? The D loses five players on the front seven, including linebackers Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs, and even if it's 16th in the nation again, the team won't go anywhere unless the O can score some points. Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson are veteran quarterbacks, Jeff Jennings is a decent back, and George Smith and Justin Wheeler are promising receivers who can pick up the slack in place of Earl Bennett, who jetted early for the NFL, but they're all going to struggle because of the ...
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive linemen. The Commodore front five was solid in the running game and strong in pass protection, and now all the starters need to be replaced including OT Chris Williams. Five juniors will likely take over with an eye on improving over the next year to be a jelled unit going into 2009, but the 2008 team needs everyone to grow up right away.
Spring attitude... "Nobody respects us." Vandy is used to being the preseason No. 6 pick in the East, and it'll be there again without hesitation from all the preseason prognosticators. There's no pressure on the program with 2009 when the experience will kick in, especially on the lines, but that doesn't mean this can't be the SEC's spoiler. With four winnable games against Miami University, Ole Miss, Duke and Rice, to go along with games against Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Wake Forest, a bowl game isn't completely out of the realm of possibility with a few huge breaks.

East

Alabama   Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ...
In case you've been living under a rock, or have been leading a more interesting life abroad, you can't be a college football fan and not be bombarded by the excitement coming from Tuscaloosa after Nick Saban loading up with the type of recruiting class you win national titles with. It's still going to take a year or two for the haul to fully kick in, but the talent level has been upgraded in a big way to at least add some strong young prospects to work in behind all the veterans. With the bulk of the new talent arriving after spring ball, look for this to be a spirited early session with everyone needing to prove themselves or risk being shoved aside a few months later.
The big spring question is ... What the heck happened to the offense at the end of the year? It kicked back in against Colorado in the Independence Bowl win, but it struggled way too much over the final three games of the regular season scoring a total of 36 points against Mississippi State, UL Monroe, and Auburn. The running game was stagnant and the passing attack inefficient while turnovers became a killer. Out goes Major Applewhite to Texas, and in comes new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain from Fresno State, where he did a mediocre job of developing talented quarterback prospect Tom Brandstater and struggled to get the offense up to WAC standards. Can he light a fire under the Tide offense and start generate points? The jury's out, and there's no excuse for the O to not be appreciably better with the possible exception of ...
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. D.J. Hall might have been the nation's most underappreciated receiver over the last few seasons, and Matt Caddell was a decent target who was good for around 55 yards a game. Mike McCoy is a decent player, but he's not a true No. 1. Nikita is a physical receiver who'll step in for Hall early on, but he'll have to battle with true freshman Chris Jackson, who'll be around for spring ball. Everyone's just keeping the seat warm for Julio Jones, arguably the nation's top wide receiver recruit who'll come in later this summer. Jones isn't just a potential No. 1 target, he's an All-American-in-waiting.
Spring attitude... Curb the enthusiasm for one more year, but don't set the expectations too low. This isn't a national title team yet, but with a relative down year ahead for the SEC West, with LSU undergoing some big personnel changes and Auburn switching up offenses, so getting to the title game isn't out of the question. Shoot for being 2006 Arkansas, not 2007 LSU.

Arkansas  Spring Practice Begins: April 3   Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ...
The NCAA holds the team's fate in its hands with the decision on whether or not Ryan Mallett, the big bomber from Michigan who's applying to be eligible right away after transferring. Casey Dick is in place, but if Mallett, one of 2007's top recruits, is available, the Bobby Petrino offense has its triggerman. For all the self-righteous anger from NFL types about Petrino bailing on the Atlanta Falcon sinking ship, it was the right move for a coach who belongs at the college level. He might just be the one who takes the program over a hump that Houston Nutt couldn't.
The big spring question is ... What's going to change right away on the offense? Without Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, the running game isn't obviously going to be as potent, but don't forget that Petrino's Louisville teams, known for their high-octane offenses, weren't just about throwing it; they always got mega-production from the running backs like Michael Bush. Even if it's Dick at quarterback, there's going to be more passing. It's not going to be pretty early on, the receivers simply aren't there, so it'll be about improving each week and figuring out who can hit the ground running in 2009.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. The secondary is going to be a huge, huge concern throughout the offseason, the backfield situation might be a mess if Mallett isn't eligible, and the offensive line has to replace some key players, but the biggest weakness early on could be at wide receiver after losing Robert Johnson and Marcus Monk, who was never right last year. Tight end Ben Cleveland needs to be back after missing last year with a neck problem, and promising inside target Crosby Tuck has to be a factor after suffering an injured elbow. Lucas Miller is a big receiver with big upside, and Reggie Fish is a lightning quick prospect who'll get a long look on the outside. London Crawford could be a sleeper now that there's an opening for him to do more.

Spring attitude... Find something that works right away. With Western Illinois and UL Monroe to start the season before dealing with a killer four game stretch at Texas, Alabama, Florida and at Auburn, getting to mid-October 3-3 would be a positive. 4-2 would be huge. The schedule is just easy enough to demand a bowl appearance, but more importantly, this year has to be about building towards being potent in 2009. For now, the offense has to find an identity in the pro-style attack, and the defense has to somehow improve with five key starters gone.

Auburn  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 28  Game: March 29
The early spring buzz ... Things are quickly changing, and Tiger fans are holding their collective breath. Not only is Alabama laying the foundation for a potential juggernaut, but the offense is undergoing a face-life with new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin installing a spread attack to jump-start things after averaging a mere 334 yards and 24 points per game. Losing defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, one of the nation's hottest young coaches, to Texas isn't a plus, and now the pressure is on Paul Rhoades to keep the D among the best in the SEC.
The big spring question is ... Do the Tigers actually have a quarterback who can run thing thing consistently? There's no question Kodi Burns is an exciting prospect who has the experience from a strong Chick-fil-A Bowl to count on going into spring practices, but the job is hardly his. JUCO transfer Chris Todd will be on campus to compete right away, while strong freshman recruit DeRon Furr will likely be groomed to be a factor in a few years. It would've been nice if Blake Field was around to provide a little bit of senior leadership, but the offense isn't for him so he transferred.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. With Pat Sims jetting to the NFL early and rock of an anchor Josh Thompson done, there are two glaring holes in the middle of the defensive line. Unfortunately, the top tackle prospect for this year, JUCO transfer Raven Gray, but he's got a bum knee and won't be around until summer. Until then, fast-rising 290-pound junior Sen'Derrick Marks will likely slide inside after a good year at end, and last year's backups, Jake Ricks, Mike Blanc and Zach Clayton have to be decent. If Marks stays on the outside, the Tigers could eventually have the SEC's most fearsome pair of ends if Antonio Coleman plays up to his promise.

Spring attitude... Win the West. While Auburn fans always want to hope to be in the national title chase, to be realistic, the team is in too much of a transitional period to hope for a trip to Miami this year, but that doesn't mean it can't win the SEC title. The conference road slate is a relative dream facing Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama, while LSU, Tennessee and Georgia have to come to Jordan-Hare. If the offense can come together early in tune-ups against UL Monroe and Southern Miss, this could be a fantastic season.

LSU  Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 26  Game: March 24
The early spring buzz ... This is obviously one of the elite of the elite of the elite programs, and will be for years to come, but this might be a relative rebuilding season. Make no mistake about it, anything less than an SEC West title will be a major disappointment, but head coach Les Miles appears to be tempering overall expectations a little bit as the team gears up for what should be a huge 2009. But why? There's more athleticism and talent here than more than 100 other teams, but ...
The big spring question is ... who will the quarterback be? Two years ago, LSU had JaMarcus Russell, the eventual No. 1 pick in the draft, Matt Flynn, an eventual national title winner, and Ryan Perrilloux, an elite talent who would end up winning the 2007 SEC title game. Russell and Flynn are done, and Perrilloux can't stop being a knucklehead with his third team suspension in the last year. Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch might not be an SEC-caliber passer, but he can move a bit, and Jarrett Lee has even more mobility. Perrilloux might eventually be back, but the team can't count on him.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. LSU's foundation has come in the middle of the defensive line with All-America tackle after All-America tackle. With Glenn Dorsey gone, there's a big hole in the middle that should be filled by Ricky Jean-Francois ... eventually. An elite shot putter, he'll miss time this spring opening up opportunities for Marlon Favorite and Al Woods to shine. If the tackles can play well, really well, then Jean-Francois can rotate more on the ends with Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman, who was given a sixth year of eligibility.

Spring attitude... Rebuilding, schmebuilding. Yes, the team is in a transition year, but the schedule is just light enough that a repeat national championship campaign isn't out of the question. The four road games are at Auburn, who's undergoing a massive offense change, Florida, South Carolina and Arkansas. If the Tigers can beat the Gators and can beat Georgia in Death Valley, or at least come up with a split, and get to the SEC title game with one loss, the national title will still be there for the taking.

Ole Miss   Spring Practice Begins: March 2  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ... The potential is there for the the Rebels to make major improvements right away. Ed Orgeron did a decent job of stocking up the lines with his recruiting classes, and with OT Michael Oher returning for his senior season, the O line should be strong while the D line, led by pass rushing terror Greg Hardy, has tremendous potential. If star prospect Jerrell Powe finally gets eligible, it'll give the inside a major playmaker. With key newcomers for the offensive backfield, head coach Houston Nutt has nice players to work with.
The big spring question is ... Is Jevan Snead ready? He was one of the nation's top quarterback recruits for Texas a few years ago, but Colt McCoy took the job by the horns and never let it go. Snead transferred to Ole Miss, and now gives the team its most talented quarterback since Eli Manning was winging it around. Of course, that's what many said about Brent Schaeffer, and that was a relative disaster.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Enrique Davis originally was going to Auburn, but switched to Ole Miss to give Nutt his next star runner. He has to get his schoolwork in order, and if he does, he could be a star from day one. Nutt also got a few other strong running back prospects, so if anyone else, like Cordera Eason and former UCLA Bruin Jeremy McGee have any interest in being the main man, they need to have a big spring.

Spring attitude... Get to a bowl game. Orgeron set them up, and Nutt will knock them down. There's no reason to not get a 13th game with a not-that-bad slate with at least four games that have to be wins (Memphis, Samford, Vanderbilt and UL Monroe) meaning it should take two upsets to turn things around. This team is good enough to do it.

Mississippi State   Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 26  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ... Now the expectations are there. After years of being a speed bump for the rest of the SEC, MSU came up with a great eight-win season in what the coaching staff sees as a jumping off point and not a culmination. The recruiting class brought in some instant help, there are decent running backs and receivers to work with, and the defense should be even stronger, especially in the secondary. For the first time in a long time, there are high expectations, and that's a positive for a program that hasn't generated much noise since Sylvester Croom took over.
The big spring question is ... is the offense going to show up? MSU was 113th in the nation in total offense and passing, and 96th in scoring, with the points mostly generated from defensive big plays. Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre are two good running backs, and Jamayel Smith and Aubrey Bell are nice targets who could flourish if there's more quarterback consistency. Losing three tight ends is a problem, and Tony Burks was a veteran receiver who'll be missed, but the biggest problem is at ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is there any depth? Michael Henig was a decent starter when he was able to stay on the field, but he had to retire with hip injury problems, meaning it's all about Wesley Carroll. If Chris Relf and Tyson Lee aren't at least adequate, there will be big, big concerns about the depth considering Josh Riddell is trying to come back from a knee injury.

Spring attitude... Keep building while keeping the underdog attitude. Even with all the success last year, MSU will still be picked around fifth in the West, and could even get a few sixth place votes if some like the potential at Ole Miss. The Bulldogs can't care about that and have to keep feeding off the disrespect. Anything less than a bowl game will be unacceptable with several gimme games, but unless the offense improves, MSU can get tagged on any given Saturday. From top to bottom, there can't be any overconfidence whatsoever.