Today we take a look at the SEC West as spring practice gets up to full speed. On Friday we will look at the ACC Atlantic.
ALABAMA (12-2, practice started March 13, ends April 18)
What we know: Greg McElroy will be the starting quarterback. How do we know that? Look at the schedule. Alabama opens the 2009 season against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome. Virginia Tech returns seven starters from a defense that finished No. 7 nationally. McElroy knows Jim McElwain’s offense and he has played in a Division I-A game. Star Jackson, the redshirt freshman, is talented but you can’t start him against a Bud Foster defense. We also know that Alabama’s defense, which finished third nationally last season (263.50 ypg) will be scary good. NT Terrence Cody has now been through an offseason program and will again be impossible to block. LB Rolando McClain is one of the best in the country.
What we don’t know: How quickly can the offensive line be rebuilt? Andre Smith, a three-year starter at left tackle, is gone as is C Antoine Caldwell and RG Marlon Davis. That offensive line simply overwhelmed most opponents with brute strength last season. A JUCO transfer, James Carpenter, may eventually be the left tackle. Who is going to replace Rashad Johnson at free safety? Alabama lost more than a great player when Johnson finished his All-America career. That guy was a big time leader.
ARKANSAS (5-7, practice starts March 24, ends April 18)
What we know: The Hogs will be able to run the football. Say what you will about Bobby Petrino but his first Arkansas team got better as the 2008 season went along. That’s because Petrino found a jewel in running back Michael Smith, who had 1,072 yards in only 10 games. Smith is small and started to wear down at the end of last season. Petrino will get him some help, maybe from USC transfer Broderick Green. We also know that the offense, which finished fourth in the SEC (373.1 ypg) last season and returns eight starters, will be even better in the second year in Petrino’s system. But the pass protection must improve. Arkansas gave up an incredible 45 quarterback sacks last season.
What we don’t know: Will Ryan Mallett be the answer at quarterback? Petrino’s system is based on having a pro-style quarterback who can make very accurate throws. Mallett, who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan, has some experience and appears to have the tools. Who will replace Jonathan Luigs at center? The All-American Remington Award winner leaves a huge hole on that offensive line. And what about the defense? All 11 starters return from a unit that finished dead last in the SEC (375.2 ypg). In fairness that group was very young.
AUBURN (5-7, practice starts March 24, ends April 18)
What we know: Auburn is not very deep on the offensive line but the Tigers are talented. But these linemen were recruited for a run-oriented offense and not Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle, up-tempo passing attack. The defense will be good. Head coach Gene Chizik is a former defensive coordinator at Auburn. DL coach Tracy Rocker was an All-America at Auburn. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is a former head coach at Duke. With the staff that Chizik brought into Auburn, there will be a lot of energy in spring camp.
What we don’t know: Malzahn has an exciting offense, but does he have the quarterback to run it? Malzahn’s offense lit up the scoreboard at Tulsa, which was second only to Oklahoma in scoring, averaging 47.21 points per game. But at Tulsa Malzahn had David Johnson, who was fourth nationally with 4,059 passing yards. Kodi Burns can run but he is not close to being the passer that Malzahn needs. Will Chris Todd, who battled a shoulder injury all of last season, or highly-touted freshman Tyrik Rollison win the job? Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter are also in the mix.
LSU (8-5, practice started March 12, ends April 18)
What we know: John Chavis will make a huge difference at defensive coordinator. Given its talent, LSU’s defense woefully underachieved last season when DC Bo Pelini left to become head coach at Nebraska. Co-defensive coordinators did not work and now Les Miles has a pro in Chavis, the former DC at Tennessee. Chavis will have some very talented young defenders and knows how to use them. Chavis also gets some help on the DL as Charles Alexander was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of injury. Despite an injury on Monday to sophomore running back Stevan Ridley, the running backs, led by Charles Scott, are really, really good.
What we don’t know: Does Jordan Jefferson have a lock on the quarterback job? Right now the answer appears to be yes. Jefferson, a rising sophomore, was very impressive in the win over Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and has earned the confidence of his teammates. Jarrett Lee, who was the starter last season until getting injured, could be pushed by incoming freshman Russell Shepard of Houston, considered to be the best quarterback prospect in the country. Shepard will work at QB early in the spring but OC Gary Crowton will also look for a way to get him on the field at another position. He is too good of an athlete to sit. Will Atlanta’s T-Bob Hebert be able to replace Brett Helms at center? Hebert is recovering from a knee injury and will be limited this spring. But if he is ready to go this fall then the offense will be set.
OLE MISS (9-4, practice starts March 26, ends April 18)
What we know: The Rebels are set at quarterback. Jevan Snead exceeded all expectations in his first season after transferring from Texas. He will lead an offense that returns nine starters, including all-purpose WR Dexter McCluster (655 rushing, 625 receiving). Ole Miss was second in the SEC in scoring offense (32.1 ppg) behind Florida last season. Five of the top six receivers are back. If the Rebels can find a couple of new offensive linemen, this unit will be even better. But it won’t be easy replacing LT Michael Oher. He was big time. Only Kentucky (13), Florida (16), and Georgia (17) gave up fewer sacks last season than Ole Miss (20).
What we don’t know: Who is going to replace the big plays made by DT Peria Jerry? Jerry led the SEC in tackles for loss with 13 solos and 10 assists in 12 games. DE Greg Hardy showed flashes of brilliance last year rushing the passer. He needs to step up. Ole Miss led the SEC in sacks last season with 38 and does not want to have a drop off. DT Jerrell Powe has had a long and winding road to get to Ole Miss. He’ll get a chance to show what he can do.
MISS. STATE (4-8, practice starts March 24, ends April 18)
What we know: Mississippi State’s offense will be better. The primary thing that caused school officials to show Sly Croom the door was the inability to mount and effective offense. Of 119 Division I-A schools the Bulldogs ranked 113 last season. The quarterback play simply was not very good. Enter new head coach Dan Mullen, who tutored Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak (Florida) and Tim Tebow (Florida) as the OC for Urban Meyer. Mullen will start with a big-time running back in Anthony Dixon (who averaged 4.4 yards per carry in that bad offense). Dixon should have a huge year in this scheme.
What we don’t know: Does Mullen have a quarterback in camp who can run his offense? Probably not. Tyson Lee (153 of260, 1,519 yards, 7 TD) has the job by default going into spring practice. But this question won’t fully be answered until reinforcements arrive this summer. QB Tyler Russell (6-5, 217) of Meridan, Miss., appears to be the quarterback of the future but it will take some time for him to learn the offense. Will the offensive line improve? It has to if Mullen is going to have any chance to install his offense. Mississippi State gave up 37 quarterback sacks last season.