The SEC was probably happy to turn the page on 2014. With Alabama’s semifinal loss to Ohio State, the conference failed to field a team in the national title game for the first time since '05. College football’s champion (the Buckeyes) hailed from a league other than the SEC for the second consecutive year.
The rest of bowl season wasn’t much better for the South’s grandest conference, which finished a mediocre 7-5. The vaunted SEC West—28-0 in nonconference matchups during the regular season—limped to a 2-5 postseason record. SEC critics rejoiced as fans below the Mason-Dixon Line wondered what went wrong.
So, what can we expect from the SEC this spring? SI.com takes a look at the burning questions facing each team.
• Alabama: Is it finally Jake Coker’s time in Tuscaloosa?
Many expected Coker, the Florida State transfer, to emerge as Alabama’s starting quarterback last season. Instead, fifth-year senior Blake Sims assumed the role and blossomed into a dual-threat weapon in coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense. With Sims now gone, Coker will get another shot at the job, this time with the benefit of spring practice; last year he didn’t arrive in Tuscaloosa until the summer. Coker will battle redshirt junior Alec Morris, redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and early enrollee Blake Barnett for the signal-calling duties. This will be Coker’s final chance to take charge as the main guy, and he’ll have to do so in an offense that loses seven starters, including Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper and three offensive linemen.
• Arkansas: How will the Hogs maintain momentum on defense?
The Razorbacks' defense quietly turned into one of the SEC’s best last season, as it finished among the top five in the conference in every major statistical category. But that unit will have a number of new faces this spring. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon are headed to the NFL, though juco tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter is expected to make an instant impact. All-SEC linebacker Martrell Spaight is also gone. There’s a lot to like about Arkansas’s offense going into the spring—namely the dynamic running back duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins and the mostly veteran offensive line—but coach Bret Bielema needs to focus on his defense to continue last year’s growth.
• Auburn: Can the Tigers’ defense find an edge under Will Muschamp?
Florida’s loss turned into Auburn’s gain on the coaching carousel. The Tigers snatched up Muschamp after the Gators dismissed him. Florida’s offensive struggles overshadowed Muschamp’s notable success as a defensive mind. He spent five previous seasons as an SEC defensive coordinator at LSU (2002-04) and Auburn (‘06-07), and his defenses ranked among the nation’s top 10 in each of those years. Muschamp and new defensive assistants Travaris Robinson (defensive backs) and Lance Thompson (linebackers) will have their work cut out for them this spring. The group takes over an Auburn unit that ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring defense (26.7 points per game) and 12th in yards allowed per play (5.7). The good news? Eight starters return, including defensive back Johnathan Ford, tackle Montravius Adams and star end Carl Lawson, who missed last season with a torn ACL.
• Florida: Can Jim McElwain change the culture on offense?
Offense was ultimately the downfall of Muschamp’s tenure at Florida. Among SEC teams, only Vanderbilt (26) and Kentucky (41) scored fewer touchdowns than the Gators (44) in 2014. Athletic director Jeremy Foley knew the program needed an offensive mind moving forward, which is why he lured McElwain from Colorado State. McElwain won two BCS titles as Alabama’s offensive coordinator prior to his stint with the Rams, and Gators fans hope he can work the same magic with their roster. Can quarterback Treon Harris turn into a full-time starter? Or will Will Grier win the job? Who steps up as a receiving threat alongside Demarcus Robinson? Can the offensive line absorb the loss of four starters? Spring will be a time of learning for McElwain and the Gators’ attack.
• Georgia: Will there be a drop-off on offense under Brian Schottenheimer?
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left this off-season to take the Colorado State head coaching job. Now Schottenheimer, the Bulldogs’ first new offensive coordinator since 2007, inherits an attack that led the SEC in scoring (41.7 points per game) and yards per play (6.8) last season. Georgia’s offense isn’t likely to change dramatically under Schottenheimer—and that’s a good thing. Talented tailback Nick Chubb should thrive behind four returning starters on the offensive line. The primary question is at quarterback, where Schottenheimer must find a replacement for Hutson Mason. Georgia fans won’t be patient with this offense, so a favorite needs to emerge from Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.
• Kentucky: Can a new coordinator make Patrick Towles a true weapon?
It seems the Wildcats finally have some quarterback stability this spring. Towles will battle with Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, but should have the edge for the job after starting all 12 games in 2014. There’s a lot to like about Towles’s size (6’5”, 238 pounds) and dual-threat ability (305 rushing yards, six touchdowns in ’14). New Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who spent the last three years at West Virginia, inherits the Wildcats’ attack. Kentucky returns four starters on the offensive line, but that unit will have to be more consistent after allowing 2.83 sacks per game last year, 13th in the conference. Meanwhile, two of the team’s top three receivers are gone. But mixing Towles’s potential with Dawson’s pedigree could be fun to watch in an offense that needs a spark.
• LSU: Will the Tigers decide between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings?
Don’t adjust your screen: Yes, that question is eerily similar to the quarterback conundrum LSU faced last off-season. Jennings ended up starting 12 of the team’s 13 games in 2014, but both passers split time and completed just 50 percent of their passes with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. One of the two needs to grab hold of this job and keep it. The Tigers return eight other starters on offense, including the bulk of the receiving corps and standout tailback Leonard Fournette. But LSU won’t go far in the SEC West without more consistent play under center, so it needs to exit spring practice with a leader in the clubhouse.
• Mississippi State: Beyond Dak Prescott, who steps up for the Bulldogs?
Dan Mullen’s biggest recruiting job this off-season was convincing his star quarterback to return to Starkville. Prescott turned into a legitimate Heisman candidate in 2014, when he set 12 single-season school records. His decision to stay is a major boost, but Mississippi State’s cupboard is otherwise pretty bare. Running back Josh Robinson (1,238 yards, 11 touchdowns) is gone, as are three starters along the offensive line. On defense, All-America linebacker Benardrick McKinney is one of seven departed starters. Prescott can’t do it all by himself. Can Mullen find new playmakers to maintain momentum?
• Missouri: Can the Tigers absorb the exits of Markus Golden and Shane Ray?
Golden and Ray were a menacing duo for opponents last season, as the defensive end tandem amassed 43.5 tackles for loss, including 24.5 sacks. Ray led the SEC in sacks (14.5) and tackles for loss (22.5), the former total setting a Mizzou record. Now the pair are two of five departing starters from the Tigers’ defense, which is why the line must become a point of emphasis this spring. Keep an eye on Josh Augusta, Harold Brantley and Charles Harris, who will be counted on to shore up the unit. At least Missouri has a history of restocking its defensive line—many wondered how the program would replace SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam and Kony Ealy before last fall.
• Ole Miss: Is Chad Kelly really the answer at quarterback for the Rebels?
If Kelly isn’t the favorite to replace Bo Wallace in 2015, then Rebels coach Hugh Freeze took on a lot of potential headaches for nothing. Last spring Kelly was kicked off Clemson’s program for what the Tigers termed “detrimental conduct.” After a season at East Mississippi Community College, Kelly was arrested in December following a fight with bouncers at a Buffalo, N.Y., restaurant. This incident came just days after he committed to Ole Miss. Kelly has talent, passing for 3,906 yards with 47 touchdowns for East Mississippi in ‘14, but struggles to stay out of trouble. Can he hold off competition from redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade? For now, Freeze is doing all he can to keep Kelly focused: The transfer is even going on a mission trip with his new coach.
• South Carolina: Will a staff shakeup fix the Gamecocks’ defense?
It took a 24-21 win over Miami in the Independence Bowl for Steve Spurrier to avoid his first losing season as a head coach. Even with the bowl victory, South Carolina’s 7-6 campaign fell short of expectations for a program that had won 11 games in each of the previous three years. Much of the blame falls to the defense, which surrendered 30.4 points per game, 12th in the SEC, and a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry. Spurrier decided to shake things up and bring in Jon Hoke, his old defensive coordinator at Florida, to help lead the defense alongside co-coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Hoke needs to breathe life into a unit that returns eight starters and gets a couple of early enrollees. Spurrier noted the importance of his defensive additions on Signing Day, especially four-star end Marquavius Lewis.
• Tennessee: How will the Volunteers handle expectations this spring?
Tennessee hasn’t faced positive expectations in a long time. Finally, as Butch Jones enters his third season in Knoxville, the pieces appear to be in place for a run in the SEC East. The Volunteers won their first bowl game since 2008, beating Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and bring back an SEC-leading 18 starters. The roster features quarterback stability with Josh Dobbs, renewed depth in the trenches and two top-five recruiting classes. But is the hype justified? Tennessee’s best win last season came against the worst South Carolina team of the Spurrier era. Jones must keep his players grounded this spring.
• Texas A&M: Can the linebackers grow under John Chavis?
The middle of the Aggies’ defense was perhaps the worst part of a sluggish unit last year, but new defensive coordinator Chavis will attempt to change that. Chavis, who came to College Station after a successful run in the same role at LSU, will oversee A&M’s entire defense but will focus on the linebackers. That’s good news for early enrollees Claude George and Richard Moore. With sophomore Otaro Alaka out for spring, a young group of linebackers should get reps.
• Vanderbilt: Can Derek Mason’s play-calling save his defense?
No team in the SEC needs a fresh start more than the Commodores. Mason’s first year in Nashville produced a 3-9 record and the league’s worst offense and defense. The head coach’s answer? Fire both coordinators. Now the former Stanford coordinator is in charge of his own defense while delegating offensive duties to Andy Ludwig, who managed Wisconsin’s attack for the last two seasons. But can Mason oversee his defense while also wearing the head coach’s hat? At the very least, an experienced roster will absorb his scheme; nine starters return on defense, including end Caleb Azubike and linebacker Nigel Bowden.