- The Crimson Tide won't be the only team bringing lofty expectations into the summer. Here's what to watch as the SEC's 14 schools get spring ball underway.
The SEC was once again the best conference in college football, taking four of the top ten spots in the final AP Poll and sending 11 teams to bowls. Alabama’s blowout loss in the title game forced a public reassessment of exactly how strong the league was in 2018, but five or six members should enter next season believing that they’re in the discussion for a playoff spot. The two worst teams in the conference, Ole Miss and Arkansas, should be slightly better in 2019. With fewer obvious bottom-dwellers to feast on, the SEC may not have as many teams threaten 10 wins as it did a year ago, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be the class of the Power 5.
State of the Spring Favorite: We’ve come to expect major turnover after every season at Alabama, and 2019 will be no different. Every member of the on-field coaching staff from the 2016 season is now gone. The sideline stewards of last year’s explosive offense—offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, quarterbacks coach Dan Enos and receivers coach Josh Gattis—have all left. The defense should have continuity with 2018 co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding taking over the DC duties vacated by Tosh Lupoi, but Alabama is once again starting from scratch on offense. Steve Sarkisian is the new OC, and former Rutgers coach Kyle Flood is the new offensive line coach. The new staff has the benefit of working with Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy and a wealth of five-stars around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but we have only one game of data on what Alabama’s offense might look like under the direction of Sarkisian, who disappointed Falcons fans in his two-year NFL stint after replacing Lane Kiffin as OC in the national championship loss to Clemson following the 2016 season.
Most Interesting QB Competition: Jared Stidham has graduated, leaving Auburn with an open competition at quarterback. Freshman four-star Bo Nix, the No. 2 quarterback in the class of 2019 according to the 247Sports Composite, is the hot name coming into spring, but he will need to beat out returnees Joey Gatewood and Malik Willis to get the job.
Burning Non-QB Depth Chart Question: Kentucky must replace a star on both sides of the ball with running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen off to the NFL. Junior A.J. Rose looks set to be the starter, but two redshirt freshmen (Chris Rodriguez and Kavoisey Smoke) and true freshman Travis Tisdale could have a say. Replacing Allen will be more difficult. Kentucky has an unproven group of linebackers, and this spring should serve as a good indicator of who will get snaps during the season.
Coach to Watch: All 14 SEC head coaches kept their jobs this offseason, a rarity. The hires from 2017 (Jeremy Pruitt, Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, Joe Moorhead) all seem to be settling in well enough, and someone from that group could put together a banner year, but expectations in year two are still reduced. The coach to watch, then, is Gus Malzahn at Auburn, who accepted a reduced buyout and will enter the fall on the hottest of hot seats. The expectations for Malzahn are extremely high, and this spring will give us the first chance to see how his team is shaping up for this critical season.
Spring game viewing guide
All 14 SEC spring games will be televised.
Saturday, March 30: Vanderbilt (12 p.m., SECN)
Saturday, April 6: South Carolina (12 p.m., SECN), LSU (2 p.m., SECN), Arkansas (4 p.m., ESPNU), Ole Miss (4 p.m., SECN)
Friday, April 12: Kentucky (6 p.m., SECN)
Saturday April 13: Florida (1 p.m., SECN Alt), Alabama (2 p.m., ESPN2), Mississippi State (2 p.m., ESPNU), Texas A&M (2 p.m., SECN), Auburn (4 p.m., SECN), Missouri (4 p.m., ESPNU), Tennessee (6 p.m., SECN)
Saturday April 20: Georgia (2 p.m., SECN)
Mississippi State fans will get a good long look at quarterback Keytaon Thompson, the presumptive replacement for Nick Fitzgerald, who hasn’t seen extended playing time in significant moments since he came in after Fitzgerald’s grisly ankle injury in the 2017 Egg Bowl. Thompson is a talented dual-threat quarterback, and expectations should be high after his second spring in Joe Moorhead’s offensive system.
After Texas A&M lost a handful of crucial offensive contributors, including running back Trayveon Williams, tight end Jace Sternberger and center Eric McCoy, the spring game should be a good opportunity to get familiar with the new faces around junior QB Kellen Mond.
After the NCAA brought the hammer down on Missouri in a case where a former tutor completed classwork for athletes, what was supposed to be a triumphant spring game for graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant is now a massive downer for the Tigers, who will serve out a one-year bowl ban during a season that held plenty of promise.