The SEC returned to the top of the college football universe in 2015 with Alabama claiming its fourth national championship in seven seasons under Nick Saban and the conference’s first in three years. An SEC player (the Crimson Tide’s Derrick Henry) also won a Heisman Trophy.
But the league also watched longtime head coaches Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Mark Richt (Georgia) and Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) leave the league after more than a decade each at their respective schools. Now, heading into 2016, the SEC could look very different than it did a year ago.
That’s why spring practice will be important for each SEC team. So what should the league’s members focus on this off-season? SI.com offers one burning question facing each team this spring.
Alabama: Can the Crimson Tide pass the torch at running back?
For perhaps the first time under Nick Saban, Alabama doesn’t have a sure-fire No. 1 running back on its roster. The Crimson Tide have done a marvelous job at passing the torch between stellar rushers, from Mark Ingram to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy to T.J. Yeldon. The team’s most recent stud rusher, Henry, won the Heisman last season before declaring early for the NFL draft. This spring all eyes will be on Bo Scarbrough, a 6'2", 240-pound rising sophomore who conjures up comparisons to Henry. As Alabama works to also name a new starting quarterback for the third time in as many seasons, its running back situation will be equally as important this spring.
Arkansas: Who emerges as the face of the Razorbacks’ offense?
Arkansas enters spring practice looking to replace two 1,000-yard running backs in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. It also must fill the void left by quarterback Brandon Allen, who threw 30 touchdown passes last season and finished his Razorback career with 34 consecutive starts. Playing behind a stout offensive line, those names helped Arkansas finish second in the SEC in total offense (6.83 yards per play) under first-year coordinator Dan Enos in 2015. Look for sixth-year senior Kody Walker to step in at running back, but the battle between Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey and USC transfer Ricky Town at quarterback is less settled.
Auburn: Will the Tigers’ offense rediscover its old Malzahn magic?
Last season Auburn’s offense barely resembled the efficient unit we’ve come to expect under Gus Malzahn. The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC in yards per play (5.39) and 10th in yards per rush (4.35) in 2015. Part of the problem was inconsistency at quarterback; highly-touted starter Jeremy Johnson threw six interceptions in his first three games, after which he lost the starting job to Sean White. This spring both signal-callers are set to return along with running back Jovon Robinson and three starters on the offensive line. If Malzahn doesn’t clean up this mess, his future on the Plains could be grim.
Florida: Do the Gators have a capable quarterback on their roster?
Last season Florida started 6–0 behind revitalized quarterback Will Grier. But after Grier’s October suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, the Gators stumbled to a 4–4 finish with Treon Harris under center. With Grier transferring and Harris moving to receiver (and missing spring practices), coach Jim McElwain must now search for a brand-new signal-caller. The crop of candidates includes transfers Jack Del Rio and Austin Appleby and freshmen early enrollees Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Keep an eye on Del Rio, who knows coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s offense from the duo’s stint at Alabama.
SEC players to watch in 2016
Georgia: Can the Bulldogs’ backs stay healthy under Kirby Smart?
Say this for former Georgia coach Mark Richt: He suffered from poor injury luck in his backfield. The Bulldogs lost stars like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to season-ending injuries all within the last few seasons of Richt’s tenure. New Dawgs coach Kirby Smart must hope for better luck. Chubb, fresh off rehab following a torn ACL, will reprise his role in Georgia’s offense along with fellow running back Sony Michael. That could become a formidable duo next to five-star quarterback signee Jacob Eason. But can the Bulldogs stay healthy in Smart’s first season?
Kentucky: Can the Wildcats finally take a major step in the SEC East?
Despite three seasons of promise, Kentucky has yet to reach a bowl game under head coach Mark Stoops. That futility comes notwithstanding hot starts in both of the last two campaigns: In 2014 the Wildcats started 5–1 before losing their final six games, and last year they dropped six of their final seven games following a 4–1 opening. This spring Stoops hopes a staff change will reverse Kentucky’s fortunes: He brought in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw and receivers coach Lamar Thomas to spark the SEC’s 10th-ranked scoring attack in ’15. The new coaches inherit promising quarterback Drew Barker and running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, who set a Kentucky record with 7.1 yards per carry last season.
LSU: Can Dave Aranda push the Tigers’ defense over the edge?
When Kevin Steele departed after one season as LSU’s defensive coordinator, Les Miles went out and hired an upgrade in Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Under Aranda, the Badgers finished with the country’s second-ranked scoring defense (13.7) last season. Now Aranda inherits a Tigers defense that returns several players who spurned the NFL draft. Linebacker Kendell Beckwith, safety Rickey Jefferson, tackle Christian LaCouture, end Lewis Neal and cornerback Tre'Davious White are back to play big roles for Aranda. But will that make LSU an SEC contender once again?
Mississippi State: How will the Bulldogs replace the best player in program history?
In four seasons at Mississippi State, Dak Prescott set 38 individual school records, earned first team All-SEC honors and helped the Bulldogs earn their first-ever No. 1 ranking. Now the veteran quarterback is gone, and sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, who appeared in seven games in ’15, is the expected frontrunner to replace him. But more than in just the passing game, Mississippi State must also fill Prescott’s rushing production; he led the team with 588 yards and 10 scores on the ground last fall. If tailback Brandon Holloway (413 rushing yards in ’15) can’t complement Fitzgerald’s game, will the Bulldogs become one-dimensional?
Missouri: Can the Tigers fix an inept offense?
Missouri ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring offense (13.6 points per game) in 2015. That unit overshadowed the SEC’s No. 2 total defense and became the primary driver behind a 5–7 finish. Last year’s defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, is the Tigers’ new head coach, so he isn’t unfamiliar with their offensive struggles. But Missouri loses seven starters from its attack, including four of five on the offensive line. The good news is sophomore quarterback Drew Lock returns after starting the final eight games of ’15. Lock also gets most of his primary receivers back while adding Alabama transfer Chris Black. Still, Odom and coordinator Josh Heupel have their work cut out for them this spring.
Ole Miss: How will the Rebels replace three projected first-round picks?
Hugh Freeze’s 2013 recruiting class was a cornerstone to Ole Miss’s current success, and now three of its top signees—defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil—are prepping for the NFL draft. Luckily for Freeze, the coach has stocked up on depth in Oxford. Wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore'ea Stringfellow and tight end Evan Engram will be asked to replace Treadwell’s production. The offensive line loses all five starters from the Sugar Bowl, but five-star tackle signee Greg Little is an elite talent. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Benito Jones could be the next big thing on the Rebels’ defensive line. The other good news: Ole Miss might boast the SEC’s most electric returning quarterback in Chad Kelly.
South Carolina: Has Will Muschamp learned his lesson?
Muschamp arrives at South Carolina with one memorable prior stint as a head coach. He went 28–21 in four seasons at Florida before being fired at the end of the 2014 season. Muschamp’s biggest downfall in Gainesville was his offense, which finished 12th or worse in the SEC in yards per play in each of his final three seasons. Now he takes over a Gamecocks team that averaged a dismal 21.9 points per game in ’15, 12th in the league. Muschamp has tabbed co-coordinators Bryan McClendon and Kurt Roper to fix things, a process that will include a five-person quarterback battle this spring. Muschamp has said he envisions an Auburn-style offense in Columbia, but do the Gamecocks have the personnel?
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Tennessee: Will negative headlines dominate the Vols’ spring?
A public relations nightmare has defined the off-season for Tennessee and head coach Butch Jones. A federal lawsuit filed last month alleged a “hostile sexual environment” and “rape culture” at Tennessee, with Jones personally accused of telling a player he “betrayed the team” for assisting a female student-athlete who had allegedly been raped by Volunteers football players. This spring Tennessee returns a host of talent, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive back Cam Sutton. The Volunteers appear to be the favorites in the SEC East, but will ugly headlines affect high expectations? Furthermore, is Jones’s future in any jeopardy?
Texas A&M: Is Trevor Knight the Aggies’ answer at quarterback?
Coach Kevin Sumlin has likely had better off-seasons. After capping his second straight five-loss campaign, Sumlin watched his top two quarterbacks, former five-star signees Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, transfer from the program. But a signal-caller who transferred into College Station might just save Texas A&M. Former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight should compete immediately with little-used backup Jake Hubenak for the Aggies’ starting job. Sumlin will kick off the season on the hot seat, so can Knight bring his new coach some sorely needed stability?
Vanderbilt: Can the Commodores’ D build on its progress?
With head coach Derek Mason calling plays in 2015, Vanderbilt’s defense went from 12th in the SEC in total defense two years ago to sixth. That amounted to a top-30 defense nationally and a one-win improvement in overall record (4–8) from the year before. 2016’s defense could be even better. Adam Butler, Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods return to bolster the depth on the defensive line while Zach Cunningham will lead a group of linebackers. Heading into year three under Mason, could Vanderbilt’s defense pose a threat in the SEC East?