Thursday March 12th, 2009

The SEC has produced the past three national champions, but it's also produced at least 50 percent of the nation's college football-related drama this offseason.

The high jinks began in December when Auburn stunningly hired Gene Chizik, who managed only five wins (but 19 losses) in two seasons as Iowa State's head coach. First-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin stirred the pot next. He swiped recruits from Florida and LSU, accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of breaking a non-existent NCAA rule and committed a few secondary violations of his own. Meanwhile, coach Houston Nutt signed 37 players at Ole Miss, and, just before spring practice, Alabama self-reported several violations involving athletes and textbooks.

Now, for a month, the focus can turn to the field. Expect plenty of hype out of Oxford, Miss., where enough players return from a 9-4 team to make a preseason top 10 ranking perfectly reasonable. And expect plenty of questions on the Plains as Chizik tries to replace Tommy Tuberville. But Auburn isn't the only program in a state of flux. Plenty of questions need answering in the SEC.

We know Kiffin doesn't have a verbal filter and we know he doesn't exactly have a working knowledge of the NCAA rulebook. But all those people gleefully predicting a flop may be sorely disappointed. We also know Kiffin can recruit; in a very limited window, Kiffin and his staff upgraded Tennessee's talent. This spring, we should get a taste of Kiffin the coach.

Kiffin, 33, certainly knows how to hire a staff. Go ahead and rip Tennessee for spending so much on assistants, but for a total payroll that ranks fourth in the SEC, the Volunteers bought an impressive amount of gridiron wisdom. It should be interesting to watch Kiffin's father, Monte, adapt his Tampa 2 defense -- a scheme so effective much of the NFL adopted it -- to the college game. The elder Kiffin probably has had fun this offseason dreaming up ways to use safety Eric Berry, one of the nation's best defensive backs. This spring, senior Dan Williams will work at nose tackle and competition will rage to fill the "under tackle" spot Warren Sapp made famous. The Vols don't have a lot of experience at defensive tackle, so Wes Brown may slide down from end.

Tennessee's offense, which had little identity last season, shouldn't have much trouble adjusting to the younger Kiffin's pro-style scheme. The Volunteers ran a pro-style offense under current Duke coach David Cutcliffe, so the quarterbacks should feel comfortable. Senior Jonathan Crompton and sophomore B.J. Coleman will split reps early this spring while junior Nick Stephens recovers from a broken wrist.

The Crimson Tide surged ahead of schedule last season, going from 7-6 in coach Nick Saban's first season to 12-2 in his second. A top-ranked recruiting class contributed sooner than expected as receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram, nose tackle Terrence Cody and linebacker Don'ta Hightower made immediate impacts. Still, Alabama will have to replace more than the on-field contributions offensive tackle Andre Smith, center Antoine Caldwell and safety Rashad Johnson provided.

Those players suffered through the ugly end of the Mike Shula era, and they helped guide Saban's signees as the coach rebuilt the program. This season, new leaders will have to emerge. Junior linebacker Rolando McClain should be the bell cow on defense, while sophomore William Vlachos and senior Evan Cardwell will compete to replace Caldwell at center. Smith may be the toughest to replace, as Alabama's offensive struggles when Smith was suspended for the Sugar Bowl loss to Utah made clear. Senior Drew Davis, who played right tackle last season, will get the first crack at filling Smith's shoes. Some probably expect signee D.J. Fluker to jump in and start immediately, but that's an awful lot to ask of someone who didn't start playing offensive line until his senior year of high school.

The quarterback job is up for grabs, too. Junior Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson will compete this spring to replace John Parker Wilson, but Saban said this week he has "no timetable" to name a starter. If the competition continues into preseason, freshman A.J. McCarron may also get a shot.

Yes, but not enough to keep the Gators from again competing for an SEC and a national title. Don't expect a post-title slide like the one that occurred two years ago in Gainesville. The 2007 team had to replace 10 defensive starters. This team doesn't have to replace any. The offense won't find a replacement for receiver Percy Harvin, because Harvin can't be replaced, but if coach Meyer and recently promoted offensive coordinator Steve Addazio spread Harvin's touches between Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Deonte Thompson, the Gators could recoup some of Harvin's yardage. Or they could just let that Tim Tebow guy throw or run.

The Gators only suffered significant losses at offensive tackle. It appears Carl Johnson, a starting guard in 2008 who was expected to take over one of the tackle spots, will remain on the team. Johnson was arrested for violating a restraining order he didn't know existed, and the woman who filed the restraining order has declined to press charges for the any of the accusations contained in her petition. Still, Johnson's attorney told The Orlando Sentinel Johnson will testify at the April 7 hearing -- if the petition isn't withdrawn -- to discuss the restraining order in an attempt to clear his name. After all that, Johnson (knee) may not be healthy enough to participate in spring practice. Meanwhile, lineman James Wilson, who planned to transfer to Wake Forest this time last year, stayed in Gainesville and will have a chance to win a starting guard spot.

Sometimes fans and media types get a little too caught up watching the ball to notice what's going on around it. Most teams must deal with five or six season-ending injuries a year. Eighteen Georgia players suffered season-ending injuries in 2008. The two worst came early. Offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant (knee) went down during preseason practice, while defensive tackle Jeff Owens (knee) went down in the season opener. Both players may be limited this spring, but they should be healthy by preseason practice. (In the meantime, keep up with Owens by reading his blog.)

Freshmen quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger have enrolled and will play this spring, but the starting job is fifth-year senior Joe Cox's to lose. Don't be shocked if junior Logan Gray, an excellent runner who came to Georgia in 2006 with Stafford, also takes snaps as part of a change-of-pace package. If the circumstances surrounding Cox's ascension seem familiar, they should. In 2005, Georgia was supposed to take a step back after losing quarterback David Greene, but D.J. Shockley, who waited for four years behind Greene, finally took over as the starter and led the Bulldogs to an SEC title.

Teams typically fall off after a national title, and it makes sense. It takes significant veteran leadership to win one, and those leaders typically exhaust their eligibility the year they win the title. After losing all those leaders, dismissing projected starting quarterback Ryan Perrilloux only exacerbated the falloff.

The Tigers should be better this season, but they enter spring with some unanswered questions. Former Tennessee coordinator John Chavis takes over the defense. He'll try to find a more cohesive mix of players than predecessors Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto, who never seemed to settle on a lineup. Defensive tackle Charles Alexander, whom the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility, should help provide leadership. Defensive end Rahim Alem led the Tigers in sacks (eight) last season despite starting only one game.

On offense, the return of left tackle Ciron Black and tailback Charles Scott should provide a huge boost for quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who solidified his hold on the job with a breakout performance in the Chick-fil-a Bowl drubbing of Georgia Tech. But all eyes will be on Russell Shepard, the freshman quarterback from Houston who enrolled in January. Shepard has said all along he plans to compete with Jefferson for the starting quarterback job, but even if Shepard doesn't win the job, he may be too valuable to leave on the sideline. "He's a good learner and he works hard and has a great enthusiasm for learning," LSU coach Les Miles said. "He'll be at quarterback most of the spring, but there's going to be some opportunities for him to move around a little bit and look at some other spots. He has to develop, and to develop at quarterback will take some time."

MORE BURNING QUESTIONS Pac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle? ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player? Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT? Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White? Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle? SEC: Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach? THE REST: What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?

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