So which teams enter spring with an eye toward winning the national semifinal SEC championship game? Read on to find out.
Alabama: Did last season signal a dip for the Tide?
Absolutely not. If anything, Alabama wound up being exactly the team Coach Nick Saban said it would be in the preseason. We media types just didn't believe him. Alabama's immaturity on defense showed in its losses to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn, but the Tide bring back a wealth of experienced talent on that side of the ball. But what happens on offense now that tailback Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Greg McElroy have gone to the NFL? Ingram's carries probably will go to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, so the running game is in good hands. Marquis Maze should be the marquee name at receiver. But what about quarterback? The competition should come down to redshirt sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Just don't expect Saban to name a starter this spring. Last week, he answered a question about the quarterback competition in the most Nick Saban way possible. "Obviously we'll have a new quarterback one way or the other," Saban told reporters. "Without creating a quarterback controversy of any kind, and I would appreciate it if we don't, somebody's going to have to earn the job through their ability to manage the team, lead the team and make good choices and decisions that allows them to play winning football on the team. That has to be determined, and there's no timetable to determine it."
Arkansas: With quarterback Ryan Mallett gone, will the Arkansas offense keep rolling?
Most likely. Junior Tyler Wilson -- who famously replaced Mallett at Auburn in October and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns against the eventual national champ -- is the leader in the clubhouse to replace Mallett, but the Razorbacks might be just as dangerous on the ground as through the air. Even though he didn't emerge as the go-to back until midseason, Knile Davis finished second in the SEC in rushing with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. This spring, Davis will be joined in the backfield by senior Dennis Johnson, who was supposed to help Davis in the ground game last year. Unfortunately, Johnson perforated his colon -- yes, you read that correctly -- on a kickoff return Sept. 11 against Louisiana-Monroe. Add Ronnie Wingo Jr., who is tied with receiver Jarius Wright for the team title in the 40-yard dash, and the Hogs have plenty of rushers. There's only one catch. Like Auburn, Arkansas has to replace four starters on the offensive line. How the new starters adjust will play a huge role in how the offense performs.
Auburn: The Tigers won the national title last year, so why isn't anyone talking about them in 2011?
Obviously, losing Cam Newton and Nick Fairley has a lot to do with it. But just as important is the loss of four offensive line starters. Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes plans to hold an open competition for every job. Not even Brandon Mosley, last year's starting right tackle, or A.J. Greene, a starting guard lost for the season after a knee injury against Mississippi State, are guaranteed jobs. "We're starting all over on the offensive line," Grimes told The Anniston (Ala.) Star. "On the one hand you might say, 'Wow, that's going to be tough,' but on the other hand I'm kind of excited about it because one thing we haven't had since I've been here is competition." Several newcomers will have a chance to win jobs, including early enrollee center Reese Dismukes of Spanish Fort, Ala., and early enrollee Thomas O'Reilly of Marietta, Ga.
Florida: Will the arrival of Charlie Weis salvage John Brantley's Florida career?
Brantley, the 2006 Gatorade national high school player of the year, turned down offers from schools whose offenses fit his drop-back style much better to go to Florida, where his father, John, played quarterback and where his uncle, Scot, was a star linebacker. Brantley then waited behind Tim Tebow for three seasons only to be jammed like a square peg into the round hole that was a spread offense designed to be run by Tebow. The result? A disaster. By season's end, Gators coach Urban Meyer couldn't choose from among Brantley, freshman Trey Burton or quarterback-turned-tight-end-turned-quarterback Jordan Reed. When Brantley took the field, opposing defensive coordinators knew the Gators would throw and adjusted accordingly. Now Meyer has resigned, ushering in the Will Muschamp era. Muschamp, a defensive guy, brought in former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis to run a pro-style offense that fits Brantley's skill set better. But Brantley still must contend this spring with freshman early enrollee Jeff Driskel. Brantley's hope is that he can hold off Driskel and then make the same kind of leap Brady Quinn made in his first year under Weis. In 2004, Quinn threw for 2,586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In 2005 with Weis, Quinn threw for 3,919 yards, 32 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Georgia: What can Mark Richt do to get back to winning 10 games a year at Georgia?
Last offseason, Richt fired most of his defensive staff. This offseason, he replaced his strength coach -- a move that if handled correctly can change the entire demeanor of a program. Now, Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have to find the correct formula on the field. Sophomore Alec Ogletree has moved to inside linebacker from safety, and USC transfer Jarvis Jones has slipped into one of the outside linebacker spots after sitting out 2010. Meanwhile, Kwame Geathers will have a chance to establish himself at nose guard before 340-pound junior college transfer John Jenkins arrives in the summer. No matter who eventually starts, both players are important. Nose guard play could determine how Georgia's defense plays. Injuries last season left the Bulldogs scrambling to find players healthy enough to play nose, and a 3-4 defense like Grantham's just doesn't work properly without a massive space-eater blowing up a gap in the middle of the line of scrimmage.
Kentucky: With receiver Randall Cobb and tailback Derrick Locke gone, Kentucky's next starting quarterback will inherit a tough task. Who is that new quarterback?
Junior Morgan Newton will get the first crack. Newton started the final seven games of his freshman season in 2009, but he was beaten out by Mike Hartline in 2010. When Hartline was suspended before the BBVA Compass Bowl, Newton took over and led the Wildcats to a loss against a coachless Pittsburgh team. With Ryan Mossakowski transferring out, Newton is the only Kentucky quarterback with game experience. His main competition could come from freshman Maxwell Smith, a Californian who joined the Wildcats for five pre-bowl practices in December after grayshirting in 2010. While grayshirting, Smith worked at UPS. If Newton falters, Smith may ask what Brown can do for Big Blue.
LSU: How will the Tigers replace cornerback Patrick Peterson?
LSU's three-man quarterback derby this spring will steal most of the headlines, but anyone who has watched the Tigers the past few years knows it shouldn't matter whether Jordan Jefferson, Zach Mettenberger or Jarrett Lee wins the job as long as LSU's defense remains ferocious. Which begs the question: How will the Tigers handle the loss of Peterson, the freakishly athletic jumbo cornerback who eliminated one side of the field for opposing offenses? They might do it with Tyrann Matheiu, a micro -- Peterson was 6-foot-1 and weighed 222 pounds; Mathieu is 5-9 and weighs 180 -- corner who seemingly made a big play every time he was on the field as a freshman. Mathieu, who played in nickel situations in 2010, introduced himself to the world in LSU's season opener with a sack-strip of North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates on fourth down that helped the Tigers escape the Tar Heels. Mathieu closed his first season by winning the Cotton Bowl's MVP award after forcing two fumbles and sacking Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill once.
Mississippi State: Now that coordinator Manny Diaz has left for Texas, will Mississippi State's defense drop off?
Not if co-coordinators Chris Wilson and Geoff Collins have anything to say about it. Wilson, who works with the defensive line, shared coordinator duties with Diaz last year and should keep the mentality the same. Meanwhile, Collins represents head coach Dan Mullen's second dip into the Sun Belt Conference for defensive coaching talent. Mullen hired Diaz away from Middle Tennessee State in 2010, and he hired Collins in 2011 after one excellent season as Florida International's defensive coordinator. Wilson brings back an excellent group that features tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Collins, meanwhile, takes over a linebacker corps that must replace its top playmakers in middle linebacker Chris White and outside linebacker K.J. Wright. Former walk-on Brandon Wilson, a 6-0, 245-pounder, is expected to take over for White. Cameron Lawrence may be the one who fills the giant void left by Wright.
Ole Miss: Can David Lee resuscitate the Ole Miss offense?
Lee reunited with Rebels coach Houston Nutt after three seasons coaching the Miami Dolphins' quarterbacks. With the Dolphins actively seeking a new head coach, Lee decided he'd rather be the offensive coordinator for Nutt, his old boss at Arkansas. Nutt will allow Lee, one of the founding fathers of the Wildcat package, to call plays in Oxford. Lee knows he has a gem in tailback Brandon Bolden, but Lee still must choose a quarterback. Junior Nathan Stanley will compete with Randall Mackey, who redshirted last year, and Zack Stoudt, who signed with Louisville out of high school but landed at Iowa Western Community College. The wild card is West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, who must sit out the 2011 season unless he receives a hardship waiver from the NCAA.
South Carolina: How will the Gamecocks handle the biggest expectations the program has seen?
By opening up the quarterback job, of course. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier hasn't entered a season settled on a starting quarterback since Rex Grossman in 2001 at Florida, so it makes perfect sense that Spurrier would want to see if senior Stephen Garcia can hold off sophomore Connor Shaw for a second consecutive year. South Carolina will open the season as the favorite in the SEC East, and the Gamecocks know what they'll get from receiver Alshon Jeffery and tailback Marcus Lattimore. Quarterback play remains the wild card. Garcia has looked fantastic (against Alabama last year) and shaky (against Auburn in the SEC title game). Garcia has all the tools, but Spurrier has always eventually chosen the guy who will offer the most consistent performance over the one with the best physical tools. Of course, if Garcia can marry consistency with his physical gifts, South Carolina could meet or exceed those lofty expectations.
Tennessee: Will things get better at Tennessee, or was last year's late-season surge the product of an easy schedule?
Look at it this way. If you're a Tennessee senior, this is the first time you'll have the same head coach for two consecutive spring practices. A little continuity -- for the first time in a long time -- has got to help the Volunteers. Tennessee has a multitude of holes to plug on defense, but the offense should be much better. Consider this: As a freshman in 2010, James Stone expected to play guard. Because of injuries, he was pressed into duty as Tennessee's starting center midway through the season, but he didn't have experience snapping the ball properly. The lefty employed an old-school "pop-up" snapping style that started with him setting the ball on its end. Stone, one of Tennessee's smartest players, wasn't trying to be different. He needed to get the ball back to the quarterback, and Vols coaches couldn't afford to mess with a style that got the job done. Still, it made them nervous. This spring, coaches will try to help Stone adopt a more standard style. In the process, they could make a freshman All-America even better.
Vanderbilt: Can first-year coach James Franklin invigorate players and fans?
Franklin wants 10,000 people at the Commodores' spring game. That's one-tenth the anticipated attendance at Alabama's spring game, but it would be a big deal at Vandy. Franklin isn't afraid to dream big. As he told Nashville's excellent3-Hour Lunch radio show, Franklin has trained even his young daughters to expect great things. When he asks what daddy is doing, his daughters know to say "building championships!" Will Franklin be able to pull that off at an academically rigorous school in the nation's most competitive conference? The task is nearly impossible, but Franklin doesn't sound the least bit afraid.