Spring football primer: Burning questions for each SEC team

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Daring, I know.

The SEC has produced the past six national champions, and the league has shown no signs that it will stop pumping out two or three elite teams every year. LSU looks to be better in 2012 than in 2011. Arkansas looks like it might finally clear the Alabama-shaped hurdle that has tripped it the past two seasons. Alabama, meanwhile, just might defend its 2011 national title despite heavy turnover on defense. Meanwhile, in the East, a coach with six SEC titles on his résumé appears ready to strike.

The SEC hivemind has assimilated two more programs this season. Missouri and Texas A&M have joined the league, and the Aggies drew the short straw that will force them to get annihilated by Alabama, Arkansas and LSU as their welcome gift. Mizzou, through some miracle of gerrymandering, might actually think life in the SEC is manageable until Alabama arrives in Columbia in October.

But let's not worry about the slobberknocking to come. It's March. Enjoy the optimism, which springs up this time of year like so many roadside boiled peanut stands.

Alabama: Why does it feel like 2010 all over again?

Because it is -- only without the six-game gauntlet of SEC opponents coming off bye weeks. After Alabama won the 2009 national title, the Crimson Tide had to replace nine defensive starters. After Alabama won the 2011 national title, the Crimson Tide have to replace seven defensive starters. This includes both cornerbacks, two linebackers and the all-important nose tackle.

At cornerback, Dee Milliner -- who played corner so DeQuan Menzie could slide to the Star (nickel) position in passing situations -- has plenty of experience. No one else does. Deion Belue and Travell Dixon will get a chance this spring to do exactly what Menzie did in 2010: jump directly from junior college to a starting spot.

Terrence Cody and Josh Chapman so ably manned the run-stuffing nose tackle role for coordinator Kirby Smart that Chapman's successor will face a task almost as colossal as his own girth. Sophomore Brandon Ivory could fill the role, or the Tide could move Jesse Williams from the end/tackle combo position he occupied in 2011. One youngster who could get a look at nose tackle this spring is early enrollee Alphonse Taylor, a 6-foot-6, 360-pounder from Mobile.

Arkansas: Who will catch all those beautiful Tyler Wilson passes?

The Razorbacks had hoped top-ranked recruit Dorial Green-Beckham would be part of that group, but Green-Beckham signed with Missouri. They also had a shot at Davonte Neal, but he chose Notre Dame.

That's OK, because Arkansas already has a few players capable of catching the ball. Senior Cobi Hamilton, who averaged 15.9 yards per catch while playing alongside Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, should be Wilson's top target, while tight end Chris Gragg adds another set of sure hands. Who else can help replace the productivity lost with Wright and Adams? Sophomore Marquel Wade is physically similar to the explosive Adams, while Madrecus Humphrey -- the son of former Alabama great Bobby Humphrey -- and Javontee Herndon also will try to help stretch the defense.

If tailback Knile Davis, who rushed for 1,322 yards in 2010, is completely recovered from the ankle injury that cost him his 2011 season, the Razorbacks should have a good enough running game to keep defenses from smothering those inexperienced receivers.

Auburn: Can Brian VanGorder bring defense back to the Loveliest Village on the Plains?

VanGorder, the former Georgia defensive coordinator who spent the past four seasons running the Atlanta Falcons' defense, inherits a group of experienced players. That experience wasn't pleasant, though. Auburn's 2011 defense set a school record for average yards allowed (408), and with the exception of a weird win at South Carolina, the Tigers struggled to slow any of the SEC's better offenses.

That should change, and not only because of the arrival of VanGorder and a shuffling of the defensive staff. Auburn's defense struggled last year not because its players were inept, but because they were inexperienced. Tackle Jeffery Whitaker and end Corey Lemonier should lead an improved line. Meanwhile, sophomore Erique Florence should step in to replace Neiko Thorpe at free safety.

Auburn returns three experienced linebackers in Daren Bates, Jonathan Evans and Jake Holland, but the trio may not stay together. VanGorder has expressed a fondness for bigger linebackers. That suggests a potential move for three-year starter Bates from outside linebacker to safety, where he played in 2009.

Florida: Will Brent Pease give Florida a chance (to score)?

The Charlie Weis experiment at Florida was a disaster for a variety of reasons beyond the obvious lack of a decided schematic advantage. Those reasons were:

• Quarterback John Brantley's ankle injury.

• An underperforming offensive line.

• The lack of a legitimate between-the-tackles back.

• The lack of playmaking receivers.

Brantley is gone, and sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett will square off in the spring for the starting job. The linemen will have to get better under new position coach Tim Davis, who came from Utah. Senior tailback Mike Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in three seasons, but he has never convinced coaches to give him more than a pittance of a workload. Meanwhile, the Gators keep waiting for receiver Andre Debose to develop into the star he seemed to be coming out of high school.

Can first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who came to Florida from Boise State, turn this group into the type of outfit that can score consistently in the SEC? If he can, he probably deserves to have his pay doubled. Florida might have had a decent jumbo package featuring tight ends Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard, but Leonard was suspended indefinitely last month after he was arrested and charged with domestic battery following a fight with his girlfriend.

The good news for Florida? The Gators return almost everyone from a defense that allowed 20.3 points per game even with the offense forcing it into terrible field position. Thanks to that defense, Pease might only have to work a minor miracle.

Georgia: Will the Bulldogs be playing ironman football in 2012?

Not exactly, but Georgia coach Mark Richt wants to keep his best athletes on the field. This spring, Richt plans to work sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell at cornerback. Georgia's defense brings back a lot, but with Sanders Commings suspended the first two games in the wake of a January arrest during which he was accused of striking his girlfriend, the Bulldogs are thin at a critical position. That won't matter in Week 1 against Buffalo, but it will matter in Week 2 at Missouri. (The SEC seems hell-bent on making sure the Bulldogs spend Week 2 in a city named Columbia every even-numbered year.)

Meanwhile, other Bulldogs will double-train on their own side of the ball. Tailback Richard Samuel may work at fullback, while linebacker Ray Drew may work at defensive end. Of course, in coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4, linebacker and defensive end can be interchangeable at times.

"We have got to make sure that we take up the entire talent base of our football team and get the best players out there and we have them in the situations that we need them in," Richt told reporters in a teleconference last month. "If it means a guy playing both ways, playing two positions on defense, or if it means the entire starting lineup on offense and defense playing special teams, I don't care what it is. Whatever we've got to do to get the best players on the field, we're going to do that."

Kentucky: Will the most important player at Kentucky's spring practice be a high-schooler on spring break?

Possibly. Patrick Towles, a Kentucky signee from Fort Thomas, Ky., plans to visit Lexington during his break and take in as much of spring practice as he can. Towles, a 6-5, 230-pounder who was named Kentucky's Mr. Football as a senior, plans to compete with Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton for the starting quarterback job when he arrives in the summer. (With Newton out this spring, Smith will get the bulk of the first-team reps and should be the player Towles would need to beat out in August.)

Towles wants to be the first Kentucky freshman to start the season opener since Jared Lorenzen. His desire to beat out Smith and Newton isn't that far-fetched, either. Kentucky's offense might have been at its best last year when neither quarterback was on the field. With both players hurt, Kentucky snapped a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee by using receiver Matt Roark as a wildcat -- the strategic kind, not the Kentucky kind -- quarterback.

LSU: Can Zach Mettenberger add the extra dimension LSU's offense needs?

The Tigers dominated last season despite mediocre-to-poor quarterback play. LSU brings back many of the key components of the team that went 13-1, won the SEC title and beat two AQ-conference champs (as well as the eventual national champ), but if the Tigers want to close the deal this time around, they'll need more from their quarterback. Enter the guy LSU blog And The Valley Shook tongue-in-cheekily refers to as Mettensavior, who toiled last season behind Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee after failing to beat them out in spring practice.

Mettenberger signed with Georgia in 2009, but he was jettisoned in March 2010 after one really bad night at a Remerton, Ga., bar that resulted in his arrest on charges of groping a woman and underage drinking. Mettenberger played well at Butler (Kan.) Community College in 2010, and LSU coach Les Miles signed Mettenberger with the hope that he could pull the Tigers out of the quarterback vortex that formed when Matt Flynn departed after the 2007 season. Mettenberger is a 6-5, 222-pound slinger who should allow LSU to throw more -- or at least as much as the Tigers did early in 2011 when Lee started. We already know LSU can run the ball; returnees Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard accounted for 2,382 rushing yards last year. Add in 225-pound freshman Jeremy Hill, and the ground game should not be an issue. The question will be how well Mettenberger fares throwing to a receiving corps led by senior Russell Shepard and sophomores Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

Mississippi State: Can the Bulldogs find new stars on defense?

Former Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox wowed scouts at the NFL combine, just as a high-school-sprinter-turned-college-defensive-tackle should. Back in Starkville, defensive coordinator Chris Wilson will be looking for someone to replace Cox as well as safety Charles Mitchell, who provided tackles and leadership for the Bulldogs.

Cornerback Johnthan Banks chose not to join Cox in the draft, so the secondary will have at least one elite player. On the defensive line, sophomore P.J. Jones should step in for Cox. He and Josh Boyd will play alongside defensive end Kaleb Eulls, who was best known in high school for disarming a gun-wielding student on a school bus. Eulls, a redshirt sophomore, was named freshman All-SEC last season. Two newcomers also could help on the line. Defensive tackle Quay Evans is a 305-pounder from Morton, Miss., while defensive end Denico Autry was considered one of the nation's top junior college prospects.

Missouri: Will Tigers' quarterback James Franklin become the most famous James Franklin in the SEC?

Though Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is working hard to ensure that doesn't happen, the Mizzou signal-caller has solidified his grip on what should be a pretty good team by leading the Tigers through their offseason workouts.

Missouri has some established players on light duty this spring because of injuries. Defensive end Brad Madison (shoulder) and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (shoulder) will sit out, but that should allow less experienced players to get quality reps. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Elvis Fisher, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, will work back slowly as he recovers from the knee injury that knocked him out in 2011.

Franklin and the Tigers will have to wait until the summer for the arrival of 6-6 receiver Green-Beckham. Still, Franklin can practice throwing to big targets by working with 6-5 receiver Marcus Lucas, who should take on a bigger role in 2012 even though T.J. Moe is back and Green-Beckham is on his way.

Ole Miss: Can Hugh Freeze change the culture in Oxford?

Forget any particular position. Ole Miss needs a complete attitude overhaul after losing its past 14 SEC games. Freeze already began working on his players during his offseason conditioning program, but spring practice will be his first chance to coach his players on a day-to-day basis.

"We understand that to accomplish what we want will take tremendous energy, passion and desire," Freeze said when he was hired. "Our players have to play like that. The first thing we have to get together is that we have to play with passion and effort for sixty minutes. Then we will look up and see where the clock is. We have to start this to get out of the wilderness."

South Carolina: Is the happiness of the Head Ball Coach bad news for the rest of the SEC?

In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Steve Spurrier threw out an interesting statistic. South Carolina is 8-0 against Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson the past two years. The very idea of such a statistic would have been laughable five years ago, but it says just as much about how far South Carolina has come as it does about where those other programs have gone. (Let's not forget that South Carolina also is the only SEC East team to beat Alabama since 2008.)

Spurrier has good reason to crow. He might have his most talented team yet in Columbia -- as long as tailback Marcus Lattimore can return healthy from a 2011 knee injury -- and for the first time since he entered the 2001 season with Rex Grossman at Florida, Spurrier has a starting quarterback he truly likes. Connor Shaw looked like a different player at the end of the season after Stephen Garcia was dismissed and it became clear Shaw would be the Gamecocks' quarterback of the future.

With Alshon Jeffery gone, developing targets for Shaw will be a priority. Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd are small, speedy receivers who can make plays in space, but the Gamecocks also will need a taller receiver to catch passes over the middle and near the goal line. That receiver might be Jeffery's younger brother, Shamier, who redshirted in 2011, or fellow redshirt freshman K.J. Brent.

Tennessee: Can the Volunteers develop playmakers to take the pressure off receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers?

When Hunter went down last year against Florida, Tennessee's offense became pretty easy to stop. Things got even worse in October when quarterback Tyler Bray broke his thumb.

If Bray and his top two receivers can stay healthy in 2012, the Vols will have an adequate offense. If someone else steps up and forces defenses to account for them, Tennessee could have an extremely effective offense. Maybe that player is sophomore tailback Marlin Lane, who still suffered from the lingering effects of a high school knee injury in 2011. Or maybe it's tailback Raijon Neal, who has yet to live up to his recruiting hype.

Texas A&M: Will Kevin Sumlin find a Case Keenum-type record setter on the Aggies' roster?

Four quarterbacks will compete this spring for the right to replace Ryan Tannehill, but they're competing for more than that. They're competing to succeed Keenum as Sumlin's quarterback.

With receiver Ryan Swope, tailback Christine Michael and tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews returning, whoever wins the job will have plenty of talent around him. Combine that with Sumlin's breakneck, high-scoring system, and the man who wins the job should put up great numbers despite the move to the SEC West. (That doesn't mean the Aggies will be good enough yet to compete in the West, but they should be able to move the ball.)

Jameill Showers backed up Tannehill last season, but the regime change means fresh eyes will evaluate the quarterbacks. That means Jonny Manziel and Matt Joeckel -- the not-identical-at-all twin brother of Luke -- should get looks. Sumlin offered scholarships at Houston to Showers and Joeckel, so he is plenty familiar with them. Another possibility is early enrollee Matt Davis, a dual-threat quarterback from Houston who drew Sumlin's ire when he bashed Texas on Twitter on National Signing Day.

Vanderbilt: Can the Commodores keep climbing?

The leap from two wins to six wins in coach James Franklin's first season was impressive, but getting wins seven, eight or nine will require winning more SEC games. That won't be easy, but Vandy is in a better place now than it was a year ago.

Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of Aaron, is the starter at quarterback after beating out Larry Smith last season. Tailback Zac Stacy averaged 5.9 yards per carry and broke Vandy's single-season rushing record in 2011, and he'll have more help in 2012. Warren Norman, the SEC's freshman of the year in 2009, will return after missing all of 2011 with a knee injury.