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Spring football: Florida's future, more burning SEC questions

Until the Big Ten expands to 12 (or more) teams, the SEC probably will remain the most powerful force in the college football universe. It has produced the past four national champions. It has ultra-lucrative television deals. Many of its fans would travel to the moon to watch their teams play. One of its teams (Alabama) probably will start the season ranked No. 1.

Still, this feels like a season of change in the league. Tim Tebow, for three years the nation's most visible college football player, is no longer the quarterback at Florida. Lane Kiffin, who generated a decade's worth of headlines in a year at Tennessee, is coaching in Los Angeles. The nucleus of the Alabama defense that led the Crimson Tide to the 2009 national title is headed to the NFL. There are new head coaches at Kentucky and Tennessee, new defensive coordinators at Florida and Georgia and new quarterbacks or quarterback competitions at Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

All that change isn't necessarily good or bad. It's just different. It also means this could be a lively spring.

The simple answer is that Alabama must find replacements for some very good defensive players. The reality is that it's more complicated than that. Alabama fans won't want to hear this, but only one of those SEC national champs (LSU in 2007) was the favorite coming into the season. Auburn was the trendy pick in 2006, and Florida won the BCS title. Georgia was the favorite in 2008, and Florida won the title. Florida and Ole Miss were favorites in 2009, and Alabama won the title.

Looking around the country, Alabama seems like the only SEC team with the pieces to compete for a national title. Another team with a deep roster -- the usual suspects are Florida, Georgia and LSU -- might rise up and enter the conversation, but at the moment, the SEC's hopes will ride with Alabama, which has several issues to address.

The Crimson Tide bring back a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback (Mark Ingram), a younger tailback who might be just as good (Trent Richardson), a stud receiver (Julio Jones) several experienced linemen (William Vlachos, Barrett Jones, James Carpenter) and a better-than-he-gets-credit-for quarterback (Greg McElroy). But Alabama also must replace its best linebacker, its best defensive lineman and both starting cornerbacks.

Fortunately, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, lost last season to a torn ACL on Sept. 26, has recovered enough to practice. Rolando McClain was great, but Hightower could be just as good. Meanwhile, defensive end Marcell Dareus, one of the heroes of the BCS title game, will have to take on a bigger role.

The most important spring decision for Alabama may take place in the SEC office. As currently constituted, the SEC's master schedule would force the Tide to play their final six conference games against teams coming off bye weeks. This was an issue for Alabama last year, but six games against rested teams is beyond ridiculous, especially when the rest of the league will play a combined three conference games against rested opponents. Fortunately for the Tide, the SEC is considering altering the schedule, because a slate that tough could fell even the most dominant team.

We'll know more Wednesday, when the Gators open spring practice, but until someone in the know says anything different, I'll assume Florida coach Urban Meyer plans to coach spring practice and return full speed when preseason practice begins in August.

Meyer's health scare, sudden resignation and equally sudden change of heart have dominated the headlines for months. Those events obscured a good news-bad news scenario for the Gators. The good news is that, just as they did in 2007, the Gators signed a fantastic recruiting class. The bad news is that, just as it did in 2007, Florida will have to replace most of its defense from the previous season. Anyone who watched future star cornerback Joe Haden go through a baptism by go route as a true freshman knows that wasn't a pretty season in Gainesville in spite of Tebow's Heisman Trophy.

First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been coy about what he'll use as the Gators' base scheme, but he said he doesn't plan to completely overhaul the defense Charlie Strong ran at Florida (a 4-3, heavy on the pressure). Austin also said the defense would be "player-friendly." Someone looking to be friendly to Florida's current personnel probably would try to find a way to get linebackers Brandon Hicks, A.J. Jones, Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic on the field at the same time -- especially with freshman Shariff Floyd coming this summer. Floyd, the nation's top-ranked defensive tackle recruit, is built like a prototype 3-4 nose tackle, as is early enrollee Leon "Earthquake" Orr, a 300-pounder who played tight end in high school.

On offense, redshirt junior John Brantley finally gets his chance to succeed Tebow. NFL scouts will drool over Brantley, a more polished pocket passer who will have four returning starters blocking for him. But to whom will Brantley throw? Meyer and company hope Andre Debose is a frequent target. Debose, who missed his freshman season with a hamstring injury, looks an awful lot like Percy Harvin with the ball in his hands.

Absolutely. Consider this: One of the Mississippi schools likely will be picked to finish last in the west, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if either one winds up playing in a New Year's Day bowl. This is yet another reason why West favorite Alabama will have a brutal road if it hopes to repeat as BCS champ. Of course, any team that can survive this gauntlet with one or zero losses deserves a crack at the title.

Houston Nutt is once again laying in the weeds at Ole Miss, and that's when his teams are the most dangerous. Meanwhile, in Starkville, second-year coach Dan Mullen should build on a great first season.

At Arkansas, the Razorbacks should light up the scoreboard behind quarterback Ryan Mallett, who will miss spring practice after breaking his foot. If defensive coordinator Willy Robinson can get his group to improve on its last-place conference finish last year, Arkansas can make noise in the West.

LSU must replace most of its rushing attack, linebacker corps and safety Chad Jones, but the Tigers still have talent to spare. Patrick Peterson is one of the nation's best cornerbacks, and sophomore Russell Shepard's move from quarterback/tailback to receiver should give quarterback Jordan Jefferson a dynamic target and allow offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to draw up some wicked trick plays this spring to unleash in the fall. Plus, it's LSU, so we know the Tigers will have athletes.

Meanwhile, on the Plains, coach Gene Chizik has brought Auburn back faster than anyone expected. All eyes will be on junior college transfer Cameron Newton, the one-time Tebow backup expected to earn the keys to Gus Malzahn's offense. Newton got lapped by Brantley at Florida, but his physical tools may fit better in Malzahn's hurry-up spread. At 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds, Newton is as big as a lot of defensive ends and quite a bit faster. His running ability will add the only dimension Auburn's offense lacked last year.

This is as open as the East has been in years. If Steve Spurrier wants to make South Carolina the first school other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee to win the division, this is the year to do it. Spurrier has an experienced quarterback (Stephen Garcia), a stud receiver (Alshon Jeffrey), four returning offensive line starters and an incoming freshman back (Marcus Lattimore) who was coveted by much of the top 25. The Gamecocks also have sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who might be the SEC's best athlete.

After a defensive staff overhaul in Athens, Georgia could return to the SEC title game for the first time since 2005. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, late of the Dallas Cowboys, will bring in a 3-4. One player who could reap the benefits is 6-3, 260-pounder Justin Houston, a fierce pass rusher who will move from defensive end to outside linebacker.

On offense, the alcohol-related spring break arrest of redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger could give classmate Aaron Murray the inside track to win the starting quarterback job. If a university rule that would force coaches to suspend Mettenberger for the season opener kicks in, it will make it difficult for him to compete with Murray and junior Logan Gray.

Meanwhile, in Knoxville, Derek Dooley will try to build on the improvements Kiffin made in his lone year on Rocky Top. To do that, he'll probably have to convince tailback Bryce Brown to stay. Brown's older brother, Arthur, transferred from Miami to Kansas State earlier this month. The Browns are from Wichita, Kan. Bryce is waiting to see how he fits in Dooley's system before he makes a decision about whether to stay at Tennessee.

And Dooley, the son of an SEC coaching legend, should know this already, but he learned quickly in his first few months on the job that every move will be scrutinized. Dooley took a lot of heat in February when he ordered Tennessee's indoor practice facility cleared of everyone but current players. Staffers following Dooley's orders then proceeded to throw several former players out of the building.

Dooley personally called former Vol Wes Brown to apologize for the slight and made sure to outline a policy that welcomes all former players, but tossing former players in the first place certainly didn't help Dooley ingratiate himself to a fan base expecting the new coach to embrace the program's rich tradition far better than the last guy did.

While we're talking East contenders, let's not forget Kentucky. Rich Brooks left new coach Joker Phillips with a program that has won at least seven games each of the past four seasons. In a year when an eight- or nine-game winner might take the division, the Wildcats could play their way into contention.

Of course, the other contender in the East is still Florida. While the Gators have plenty of holes to fill, they still have several pieces from the teams that went 26-2 the past two seasons.

We could see several new quarterbacks put up huge numbers thanks to experienced offensive lines. Brantley and whoever wins the quarterback derbies at Auburn and Georgia should enjoy the benefit of playing behind at least four returning offensive line starters.

The situation at Georgia might be the best one for a young quarterback. Whether it's Murray, Gray or Mettenberger, the winner will play behind an experienced line and have the privilege of throwing to A.J. Green and handing off to Washaun Ealey and Caleb King. The Bulldogs' ability to run the ball should take a ton of pressure off the quarterback.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar -- quarterback competition, solid offensive line, an emerging young back bolstered by a steady older one -- it should. Georgia found itself in this situation during coach Mark Richt's first season in 2001. The quarterback who emerged as the starter was redshirt freshman David Greene, who went on to set the Division I-A wins record that Texas quarterback Colt McCoy broke last season.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance?ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge?Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati?Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year?Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off?SEC: What's happening at Florida?THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?

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