Spring Preview 2009 - The SEC

Posted Mar 4, 2009

The SEC might have been down last season, but now the conference will be better with improved teams and stars like Greg Hardy of Ole Miss, USC's Stephen Garcia, and LSU's Jordan Jefferson ready to shine. Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each SEC team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2009

SEC Spring Football Previews

By Pete Fiutak 

- 2009 SEC Early Lookaheads
- 2008 SEC Lookbacks and Recaps
- 2008 CFN SEC Preview


  Spring Practice Begins: March 25  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... If nothing else, the defending national champion is getting annoyed by Lane Kiffin and Tennessee. The cheating accusations and innuendos have been the biggest issue around the Gator program, but none of that really matters going into this season. The recruiting season also turned out to be a bit rougher than expected, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The team is so loaded, so young, and so stocked that there aren’t many places for newcomers to be able to step in and shine right away.
The big spring question is ... Is the team going to get cocky or complacent? Any thoughts of that all but ended when Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes chose to come back for another year. By all accounts, the players are just as focused this off-season as they were last season on it. The key will be to maintain the focus throughout the season. Last year the schedule was among the best in the country. This year … not so much. There’s a nasty showdown at LSU, and the Georgia game is always interesting, but the Gators will be double-digit favorites against everyone else.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. It’s Florida. The receiver situation will turn out to be fine even after losing Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. The biggest issue is on the offensive line, with things possibly so sketchy that Matt Patchan, a defensive lineman who started out on the offensive side, will have to move back. Tackle is a problem after losing Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins, and things got even worse when spot starter Carl Johnson, who was penciled in to start at left tackle, got arrested after violating a restraining order.
Spring attitude... Win the national title or the season will be a failure. When you’ve had the career Tebow has had, and when you’ve won the national championship in two of the last three years, there’s only one way to define a season. Of course, winning the SEC title is step one, and that’s never a bad goal to shoot for, but with everyone back on defense, and that means everyone, including all the backups, and with Tebow back, anything less than a BCS championship for what will be the preseason No. 1 team would be aiming too low.

Georgia   Spring Practice Begins: March 16   Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ...
Is anyone able to play? It’s not quite fair to Florida, Georgia Tech, and Alabama to suggest that Georgia would’ve lived up to its preseason No. 1 ranking had everyone been healthy, but it’s an easy, and fair, excuse. The team is still loaded with various banged up players still trying to get back on the field. Several players who aren’t out will be going half-speed or will be limited as they try to get past their own injuries. For a team that needs to find some answers at some key positions, this might be a lost spring session at times considering the full team, or close to it, won’t be back in the mix until fall.
The big spring question is ... Is the offensive line going to be up-to-snuff? This is one of a few mega-questions the team will have going into the season. Can Joe Cox be almost as good as Matt Stafford? Are last year’s backup running backs as good as the hype? Is there anyone on the defensive front who can consistently rush the passer? But all of those pale in comparison to the offensive line issue. The team did a great job of patching things together enough to be solid last year, but the front five struggled against the better teams and was never consistent. Star OT Trinton Sturdivant is coming back after suffering a torn up knee to provide a star for a veteran line that had to start two freshmen and three sophomores during key stretches. It should be better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. There isn’t a number one overall draft pick like Stafford might be, but there are some excellent prospects to push Cox for the job. Cox, a senior, is a good veteran who should be able to step in and be solid right away, but he’s not spectacular. Logan Gray is spectacular, but he might end up playing receiver. Cox will have to take the offense by the horns right away this off-season and make it his.
Spring attitude... Be the underdog. Georgia never seems to do all that well when it’s the favorite. When it’s lurking just under the radar, at least relative to the big-time SEC team or teams of the moment, it tends to find ways to get to the conference title game. The Dawgs are good enough to have just as strong a season as last year, even with a brutal opening day game at Oklahoma State, and with the SEC road games at Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, there’s no reason to not think that this might be a sleeper team ready to surprise.

Kentucky   Spring Practice Begins: April 1  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... The program’s success of the last few years isn’t a fluke and it’s not going to stop any time soon. At least that’s the hope. The talent level has been upgraded in a big way, and there’s enough good players sticking around to give the team a nice base to work with. Trevard Lindley might be the best corner in college football, and could be the second defensive back taken in the 2010 NFL Draft (with USC’s Taylor Mays going first). End Jeremy Jarmon could’ve gone pro early but he’s back to be the star of a line that lost Myron Pryor and Ventrell Jenkins. The Cats might not be good enough to challenge for the SEC title, but they’ll be good enough to pull off a big upset or two on the way to another bowl game.
The big spring question is ... Can anyone throw the ball? In the offensively-challenged SEC last year, with few teams that could throw the forward pass with any sort of consistency, UK stood out in a bad way finishing 105th in the nation in passing efficiency. Averaging fewer than 300 yards per game isn’t going to cut it, but that was expected after so many huge personnel losses last season. This year, the spotlight will be on …
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Randall Cobb was arguably the team’s offensive MVP last season; UK wouldn’t have gone bowling if he hadn’t become a major playmaker. However, his future is at receiver in an all-around sort of way. He’ll see some time under center here and there, run the ball a bit, and be the team’s most dangerous target, but Mike Hartline, the starter at the beginning of last year, will be the No. 1 guy going into the season. That could change. Hartline will be asked to throw more and carry more of the offense, and if he can’t get the job done then it’ll be Cobb to the rescue for stretches until the star freshmen are ready. Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton might see time sooner than later.
Spring attitude... Be ready to roll on September 12th. Yeah, of course everyone wants to be ready to rumble for the season opener, but most teams take it easy in September with time to work the kinks out and prepare for October. Kentucky’s season hits the ground running with the rivalry game with Louisville right away followed up by Florida and Alabama. All three of those games are in Lexington, and they’re followed up by road trips to South Carolina and Auburn. Just survive; go 3-2 and the season should be solid.

South Carolina   Spring Practice Begins: March 3  Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... There’s a lot of work to do, but there’s also a lot of excitement. Things haven’t exactly gone as planned for Steve Spurrier since taking over with mediocre season after mediocre season. This year could be just as tough if some of the gaping holes aren’t quickly patched, but there are some great pieces to build around. At least the program isn’t standing still. There are a few new coaches in place, a good group of new recruits are expected to push for time, and Spurrier is still pushing. He’s not going to take it easy with this team.
The big spring question is ... Is Stephen Garcia finally going to settle the quarterback situation? He was the most talented quarterback on the roster last year, but he was suspended early on for off-the-field problems and never appeared comfortable when he got his chances bottoming out with a 9-of-18, 79-yard, three interception game against Iowa in the Outback Bowl to close things out. Chris Smelley transferred to Alabama to play baseball, Tommy Beecher is done, and now it’s all Garcia … for now. He has to play up to his skills right away to end all thoughts of Spurrier being Spurrier when it comes to shuffling his quarterbacks. Redshirt freshmen Reid McCollum and Aramis Hillary are the two main contenders for the No. 2 spot.
The most important position to watch is ... The entire offensive line. The secondary is a close second, especially at corner, but the O line needs the most help. The threat of being yanked by the Ball Coach wasn’t the only reason the quarterbacks were a bit skittish. They were getting blasted all year long with no pass protection from a front five that also did nothing for the ground game. New offensive line coach Eric Wolford has lots of work to do needing to replace Jamon Meredith at left guard and Justin Sorensen at right tackle, but he has center Garrett Anderson to build around.
Spring attitude... Start fast. This team could be all about momentum, and it needs something positive to happen early on. The Gamecocks need to erase memories of yet another sour end to a season by playing well on the road against NC State and Georgia in the first two games or the pressure will be on for a home game against Ole Miss on a late September Thursday night. The schedule is hardly easy with a brutal finishing kick with road games at Tennessee and Arkansas before finishing up with Florida and Clemson.

Tennessee  Spring Practice Begins: March 10  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Lane Kiffin isn’t playing nice with others. The new young Tennessee head coach isn’t exactly endearing himself to the rest of the SEC, at least to Florida fans, by accusing the Gator coaching staff of questionable recruiting practices. It has made for good copy and lots of message board talk, and now Kiffin has to back it up. He has put together a whale of a coaching staff, at least a whale of a coaching staff that can recruit, and he’s bringing in the type of changes that all new head coaches do. Spring ball will be about efficiency and effort. Kiffin and his staff have to figure out who fits what they want to do.
The big spring question is ... What’s the first thing the new coaching staff has to do? Work on the lines. Having an assistant like Ed Orgeron, one of the finest line coaches in football, for either side, will help immeasurably. Demonte Bolden and Robert Ayers will be missed from the defensive front, while there will be some scrambling to find offensive tackles who can play. Chris Scott is back on the left side if needed, but he’s more of a guard. Coming up with a steady pass rush, and consistent pass protection, will likely be job one.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Put them all in a hat and pick one out. Jonathan Crompton didn’t get the offense moving, but he’ll be the first option because of his pro style passing skills and experience. That doesn’t mean B.J. Coleman and Nick Stephens won’t get every shot to win the job. After averaging a paltry 146 passing yards per game, and finishing 107 in the nation in passing efficiency, any production would be an improvement.
Spring attitude... Win and win now. For all the problems on offense, Tennessee still finished 5-7 with three losses (UCLA, Auburn and Wyoming) that would’ve been easy wins with even a little bit of production. The defense might not be quite as strong, but the offense can’t help but be better. With the Florida game coming up on September 19, and all the bad blood that will be brewing, the Vols have two games against Western Kentucky and UCLA to get ready.

Vanderbilt  Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: March 31

The early spring buzz ... Vandy didn’t just get over the hump and got to a bowl game; it won. It might have been a tale of two seasons last year, with a hot start followed up by an ice-cold second half, and now the coaching staff is trying for a little more consistency. That could be a problem as some of last year’s weaknesses (like the offensive line) will now be strengths, and vice versa. Now the program has to show a little staying power and be a regular in the post-season, but that’ll be easier said than done in an improved SEC.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any semblance of an offense? The Commodores won on defense last season as the offense finished last in the SEC and 117th in the country averaging 123 yards per game. The running game was bad, the passing attack worse, and it was almost impossible to generate points without the defense helping to make it happen.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back. The quarterback battle will take center stage with Music City Bowl starter Larry Smith pushing to keep the job over the athletic Mackenzi Adams, but the secondary problems are more important. The Commodores had one of the best secondaries in the nation last season, and now they’ll have to go on without D.J. Moore, Reshard Langford, and nickelback Darlron Spead. Ryan Hamilton could be a special free safety and Myron Lewis is a big, talented corner, but this will be a major area of concern after the pass defense finished 15th in the nation.
Spring attitude... Stay hungry. When push came to shove last year, the Commodores came up with the late win needed over Kentucky to get to a bowl, and then the defense took over to beat Boston College. Everyone will have Vandy picked to finish sixth, or possibly fifth, but that’s nothing new. There are just enough winnable games to get to five wins, but it’ll take a few upsets to get back to a bowl game. As long as the team has the same ball-hawking tendencies on defense, and if the offense can start to produce a little bit, six wins is a very attainable goal.


Alabama   Spring Practice Begins: March 10  Game: March 28

The early spring buzz ...
The timetable might have been moved up on the Nick Saban era after last year’s tremendous campaign, but there’s so much rebuilding to be done that it might be one more season before the Tide gets in the national title mix again. Everything came together in a perfect storm last year, helped by a down year in the SEC, and now it might be tough to get near the same level until all the tremendous talent starts to shine through. Veteran teams stay on an even keel and don’t make a slew of major mistakes, but this year’s team has so much turnover on offense that it might be tough to pull out the tight games needed to win the SEC West again. However, LSU has to come to Tuscaloosa and the toughest road game is at Ole Miss.
The big spring question is ... Just how quickly will the superstar recruits of the last two years shine through? Julio Jones showed right away what he could do, and now there are even more superstar prospects ready to roll. Saban isn’t shy about playing the best players, so it’ll be interesting to see if D.J. Fluker really is ready to step in on the offensive line. Will Eddie Lacy provide a bolt of lightning in the backfield? Can Nico Johnson be a playmaker right away in the linebacking corps? They’ll all get a chance to show what they can do later this summer, so spring will be vital for others to secure jobs.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The offensive line is the team’s biggest issue with three key starters gone, but there are replacements ready to step in. Replacing John Parker Wilson will be more difficult. The Tide will have players with more talent and bigger upside who can step in, but Wilson was the steady veteran who kept the offense moving with his efficient play. Junior Greg McElroy was the backup last season and is the No. 1 going into the spring, but there’s never room to get comfortable on Saban’s team. Star Jackson has the potential to steal the job with a big off-season, while true freshman A.J. McCarron will get a look this fall.
Spring attitude... Do it again. With nine starters returning on defense, a home game against LSU, win no Florida or Georgia from the East, and with Auburn still rebuilding, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a run for the SEC West title. This isn’t going to be as good a team as last year’s, but it’ll be strong enough to potentially be 10-2 and in the title game again. The expectations and the potential are coming together at the same time.

Arkansas  Spring Practice Begins: March 24   Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ...
The Hogs ended the season on a high note with the win over LSU, and now the attitude of the players and everyone around the program seems to be sky-high in the off-season. At least that’s what the coaching staff is saying, and why not? Last year’s team had to undergo a major overhaul in both style and personnel, and while it was a 5-7 disappointment, three of the last four losses were by a total of six points. A few more close wins and Arkansas is back among the living in the SEC world. This year’s team should be far better than last year’s, so the expectations are sky-high.
The big spring question is ... Can the defense actually play? The Hogs had to go with two freshmen on the defensive front, a redshirt freshman (Jerry Franklin) at middle linebacker, and sophomores at corners. Nine starters from last year’s group that had major problems at linebacker and finished last in the SEC in total defense, scoring defense, and run defense. The key this spring will be to find a few sure-thing playmakers and leaders all across the board. Who’s going to step up and be a star?
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. The quarterback situation will get all the attention with Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett almost certain to be the main man, even though the job is supposed to be open. The key to the team will be in the backfield where the very small, very talented Michael Smith will have to recover from a bad hamstring injury. USC transfer Broderick Green, if he’s eligible to go, will get plenty of attention, while Ronnie Wingo and Knile Davis are key recruits who are expected to play key roles. Dennis Johnson, the team’s second leading rusher last year, will also be in the mix.
Spring attitude... It’s still going to take a little while before Bobby Petrino gets everyone in place he wants, but the growing pains of last year should pay off this season. As well as the Dick brothers played at quarterback, Mallett should be an upgrade, the running backs have speed and quickness, and the lines can’t play any worse. If the Hogs could be so competitive last season with so many issues, it shouldn’t take too much to shoot for a winning season. However, the schedule is too tough to ask for anything more than seven wins.

Auburn  Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ...
For the all the drama and all the controversy after the hiring of Gene Chizik, things have calmed down in a big way after loading up with a good group of assistants. The jury is still out on Chizik, but he came up with a coup getting Gus Malzahn on board to steer the offense. The Tigers are a recruiting class or two away from having the right players to crank out the big numbers Malzahn’s offense is expected to. He didn’t get a chance to show what he could do when he was with Houston Nutt at Arkansas a few years ago, but he’ll get free reign on his second stint in the SEC.
The big spring question is ... Can Chizik actually coach? While he has said and done most of the right things since being hired, and Iowa State appeared to be upset to see him go, the guy has done a fat load of jack squat as a head coach. He’ll be given a year to try to generate the excitement to make the program hot again, but he had better be rocking and rolling in 2010. He’ll be on a short leash if this year is a disaster.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback, specifically Kodi Burns. He can run, but he couldn’t throw with a mere two touchdown passes and seven interceptions. To be fair, he had an awful receiving corps to work with and the coaching situation was a mess, but for a player who’s supposed to be the main man for the attack, he needs to prove he can do what Malzahn needs. If not, there will be some scrambling to find the right guy.
Spring attitude... Rebuild. You don’t can a coach as successful as Tommy Tuberville (or let him “resign”) without thinking you want to win and win now. That might be a problem with Alabama growing into an unstoppable juggernaut. That doesn’t mean Auburn is going to go away, but the Tide has a who’s who of four-star recruits hanging around and there’s a growing talent gap. Auburn is allowed to throw around the “no one believes us” line, because it’ll be true. A bowl game is the first step, and next year the team can focus on trying to slay the elephant.

LSU  Spring Practice Begins: March 12  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ...
Last year was just a stepping stone to get back to form. After winning the 2007 national title, there was an inevitable drop-off with so much personnel turnover in key places. But Les Miles and the coaching staff were able to reload with elite prospects over the last few years and they’ll all be expected to contribute early on. With the quarterback situation a bit more settled, John Chavis coming in from Tennessee to take over the defensive coordinator job, and with some surprising decisions by OT Ciron Black and WR Brandon LaFell to come back for their final seasons, the team is loaded again.
The big spring question is ... Just how good is Jordan Jefferson? If you listen quietly, Jarrett Lee just threw another pick six. He’s still around, but Andrew Hatch transferred to Harvard, where he started out his career meaning Jefferson is likely the only real option the coaching staff will feel mildly comfortable with. There’s true freshman Russell Shepard ready to hit the field this spring, but his future, at least if he wants to go to the NFL, might be at receiver. Jefferson is the guy for the time being, especially after a strong second half of the year. Now he has to make more plays and prove that he’s not under center because he’s not Lee.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive linemen. LSU has been a factory for high-level stars for the defensive front, but anyone would have concerns after losing Tyson Jackson, Ricky-Jean Francois, Marlon Favorite, and Kirston Pittman. Al Woods appears to be the next great Tiger tackle if he can keep his size in check, and Drake Nevis is a promising inside presence, but there will be an overall drop-off even though last year’s line was a disappointment.
Spring attitude... LSU 38 – Georgia Tech 3. After losing three of the final four games, and needing an epic fourth quarter to get by Troy in the one win, LSU limped into the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With time to prepare, the defense stopped the Yellow Jacket attack while the offense found its mojo with a strong performance. Will that be the type of game that propels the program to a high level again? It should’ve provided the confidence boost needed for a relatively young team.

Ole Miss   Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ...
Get ready to jump on the bandwagon. After closing out the season with a six-game winning streak, and being the one team able to beat Florida, and with the 47-34 Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech, Ole Miss is the team everyone’s going to be in love with. And with good reason. Former head coach Ed Orgeron spent so much time stockpiling talent that he and his staff failed to do much with it. In came Houston Nutt to reap the rewards, and now he’s getting top players of his own with a strong recruiting class coming in. There might not be quite enough in the bag to win the SEC title, but there Rebels are going to be in the mix with a favorable enough schedule to win the West (more on that in a moment).
The big spring question is ... Is the secondary good enough to slow anyone down? The final stats were a bit skewed after finishing the season against Texas Tech, but it’s not like the Rebels faced a who’s who of passing games throughout the regular season yet they still finished last in the SEC in pass defense. Considering the pass rush was the best in the SEC, and among the best in the nation, giving up 222 yards per game was inexcusable. The quarterbacks will be pressured again, and now the secondary has to come through.
The most important position to watch is ... Left tackle. Michael Oher wasn’t always perfect, but he did a fantastic job of protecting QB Jevan Snead from the SEC’s top speed rushers. While Snead’s mobility should help the cause, there’s still a gaping hole on the left side to deal with. 6-4, 337-pound Alex Washington was the understudy last season at left tackle, while 6-7, 310-pound Bradley Sowell will move over from the right side to battle for the job.
Spring attitude... Win the West. The schedule is as dreamy as can be asked for in the SEC with no Florida or Georgia and with Alabama and LSU coming to Oxford. How’s this for an SEC road schedule? South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State. If Ole Miss is the real deal, it should win three of those. Keeping expectations in check hasn’t been easy at a place that cans coaches with a quick trigger, but there’s reason to shoot for big things.

Mississippi State   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ...
It’s time to figure out how to score. After years of being great defensively and, to put it nicely, challenged offensively, Mississippi State had had enough. In comes Dan Mullen after helping guide Florida to the national title, and while the former Gator offensive coordinator won’t have Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin to play around with, they should pay immediate dividends for a team that was 115th in the nation last year in scoring and 113th in total offense. At least that’s the hope, but it might take a recruiting class or two for Mullen to do all the things he’d like to, which begs the question …
The big spring question is ... … is anyone there to run his version of the spread. While he says he’ll adapt to the players and not force square pegs into round holes, anything Mullen tries to do should be an improvement. RB Anthony Dixon is the star of the show, but he needs help around him. QB Tyson Lee is a tough little playmaker who’ll do what he can do get the offense rolling, but he’ll need more time from a line that was a nightmare throughout last season. Also …
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. To be fair to the passing game, the quarterbacks never had time to work. MSU was 114th in the nation in sacks allowed, but the receivers didn’t exactly help the cause with any big plays. Leading receiver Brandon McRae is a 6-4, 200-pound target who needs to come back healthy after breaking his leg late in the year. He’s out until fall, meaning JUCO transfer Leon Berry will get a shot to show his stuff while Delmon Robinson will get his chances this spring.
Spring attitude... Get better every practice. Mullen and the coaching staff will have to say all the right things about going to a bowl game and turning things around, but the schedule is a killer, and on paper, this should be the No. 12 team in the twelve-team SEC. For now, the idea has to be to improve week after week and find something the team can do really well. Being able to win games at home would be a start. It might be tough to find another team in America with a tougher home schedule (after playing Jackson State in the opener): LSU, Geo