The top six touchdown passers from last season have left. Johnny Manziel (37), AJ McCarron (28), Aaron Murray (26), Connor Shaw (24), Zach Mettenberger (22) and James Franklin (19) will all take their shots at pro football.
Go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll go over the results in the next few days.
We've come up with five choices, and the reality is that the guy who ends up leading the league in touchdown passes next season might not be one of our choices.
Manziel came out of nowhere two years ago, and look at the way Mettenberger blossomed last season.
Ole Miss' Bo Wallace is the SEC's returning leader in touchdown passes. He threw 18 last season. Second on that list is Auburn's Nick Marshall, who threw 14.
There could be as many as 10 new starting quarterbacks next season in the SEC, so this has the makings of a tricky question.
Let's see what you come up with.
Here's a quick taste:
• Georgia players are buzzing about how an entirely new set of defensive coaches will give the Bulldogs a fresh start this spring.
• With Auburn's spring practice approaching on March 18, AL.com's Joel Erickson takes a look at the Tigers' quarterback depth chart.
• Quarterback was a subject of discussion at Alabama on Wednesday, too, as Nick Saban said that his staff will be in no hurry to name a starter.
• Florida on Wednesday released the contracts for the three new coaches on Will Muschamp's staff – including a three-year deal for new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
• LSU's quarterback competition is front and center, as the Tigers prepare for their first spring practice on Saturday.
• DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan are among the candidates to become Ole Miss' backup quarterback behind Bo Wallace.
• Kentucky announced its ticket distribution plan for the April 26 Blue-White spring game.
• Missouri revealed on Wednesday that five players with eligibility remaining have “decided to graduate and not play football going forward” according to a team spokesman.
• Multiple reports on Wednesday night declared that Texas A&M has dismissed safety Kameron Miles.
• Vanderbilt assistant Vavae Tata will not coach with the Commodores in 2014 after pleading guilty on Wednesday to a February DUI charge. His long-term status with the program remains unclear.
• South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Clemson's Dabo Swinney are united on at least one point -- their relief that college football's rules committee withdrew a controversial 10-second rule designed to slow down college offenses.
• The Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown looks at five questions facing the Tennessee football team as it prepared to open spring practice.
• Bret Bielema covered a variety of subjects in speaking with the media at Arkansas' pro day.
We've already covered the competitions at safety, defensive line and offensive tackle. Today let's move to the star position, which lost starter Josh Harvey-Clemons last month when Bulldogs coach Mark Richt kicked him off the team.
Returning starters: None
Departures: Harvey-Clemons started 11 games between playing the star -- essentially a nickelback -- and safety positions. He ranked third on the team with 66 tackles, added 5.5 tackles for a loss, an interception and tied for the SEC lead with three fumble recoveries.
Newcomers: To be determined. With a new defensive coaching staff and a new coach (Kevin Sherrer) specifically handling the star and strongside linebackers, it's anybody's guess which newcomers might get a look playing the position.
What to watch: Because of his athleticism and the mismatches he could create, Harvey-Clemons seemed like a good fit for the star position. He was big enough to function like an outside linebacker and still quick enough to handle the coverage responsibilities that come while playing nickelback. He was a unique player, though. The question now facing Georgia's coaches is how they disperse the snaps at star. Will it be mostly a linebacker type in that slot defender position? Or will it be a third cornerback (someone like Swann, who played a lot of nickelback in 2012) when they are in a nickel package? It seems likely that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and company will test several different players in that role this spring to see who best suits the new staff's philosophy. The Bulldogs will surely use both defensive backs and linebackers in the nickel role this fall depending on the situation -- Pruitt was known for mixing things up last season as Florida State's defensive coordinator -- but as for specific personnel, it's far too early to make a prediction with any confidence. Keep an eye on the position when the Bulldogs play a nickel defense during the G-Day game, as that will likely provide an early idea of which way the new coaches are leaning.
Yeah, just think about that comment for a second. Let it marinate, and before you Bulldogs fans start hurling insults my way, hear me out. For as great as he was as a freshman and as good as he was during an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, we really haven't seen the best of Gurley. And that has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.
I think most of us can agree that if Gurley had been healthy all season, he would have pushed for the SEC rushing title and might have had a shot at the Heisman Trophy. Now, I'm not taking anything away from Tre Mason, Jeremy Hill, Mike Davis and T.J. Yeldon. They all had great seasons, but even though Gurley missed all of October, he finished the season with 989 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
He showed more explosion in his runs, he's still a bull of a runner and bringing him down with just one person is almost laughable. The fact of the matter is that a healthy Gurley is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and he could look his best in what could be his final year with the Bulldogs.
It might sound cliché, but Gurley just loves getting better. He's a laid-back guy who really does breathe football (and has a "Star Wars" cameo). He doesn't care about media attention. He knows the playbook, he knows how to handle pressure and he knows what it takes to succeed in this league. He's too seasoned not to soar in 2014.
He wants to win, and he wants to leave defenders battered and bruised along the way. Gurley has done that at 100 percent healthy and at 75 percent. His first game back after that nagging ankle injury last year? He rushed for 100 yards, registered 87 receiving yards and recorded two total touchdowns on 20 touches against Florida, which owned one of the nation's best defenses. In his final six games of the season (all after his injury), Gurley ran for 539 yards and six touchdowns. At 100 percent, Gurley would eat that for breakfast.
And he might have to carry more of the load in 2014. Keith Marshall is expected to come back this fall after suffering that nasty, season-ending knee injury just five games in, but there's no guarantee that he will be 100 percent. Sure, the Bulldogs have some talented freshmen coming in (ESPN 300 members Sony Michel and Nick Chubb), but don't expect them to get the sort of practice reps Gurley and Marshall had as freshmen. Add the fact that quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, and Gurley will have more responsibility this year.
Gurley isn't as flashy as Johnny Manziel, but he could have a similar impact for the Bulldogs this year. He's a different kind of face of the program than Jameis Winston, but he has the same sort of ability to carry this team.
The SEC has a knack for producing scary combinations of strength, size and speed at the running back position, but Gurley just looks like a different animal. He runs like a different animal. He fights like a different one, too.
Gurley will be a Heisman front-runner before the season rolls around, and if he can stay upright all year, don't be shocked if he hoists it in early December.
On Monday, Murray discussed his rehabilitation from an ACL tear in the Bulldogs' Nov. 23 win against Kentucky, his experiences at the Senior Bowl and NFL combine and his upcoming appearance on “Gruden's QB Camp” with former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
Q: Your experience was different at the Senior Bowl and combine since you couldn't compete, but you still sat in on meetings and practices. Did you gain some insight by participating?
A: I definitely learned a lot. I love football, so it was fun to be in those meetings. The [Jacksonville] Jaguars were our team's coaches at the Senior Bowl and sitting in the meetings, I learned a couple new concepts here and there, and some concepts we did at Georgia, maybe they did a little different twist on them. So it's fun learning new things, watching film, seeing how they critique film and critique the quarterbacks in practices and things like that. So it was definitely a successful week.
Obviously the meetings with the teams, the interviews, sitting with them and getting to talk to them and letting them know me a little bit and what I did at Georgia and then figuring out if I fit in their system or not -- overall the Senior Bowl was a great success.
The combine was the same thing. Obviously I couldn't do the drills, but getting to meet the coaches, getting to watch the drills that the quarterbacks were doing, it was definitely helpful.
Q: From a preparation standpoint, what's your game plan between now and pro day?
A: We've got a long time. Just continue training and continue rehabbing. Right now I feel great. I'm already running pretty well -- probably 80 percent to 85 percent running sprints -- and doing side-to-side work. I've been doing drops and throwing for about three or four weeks now, jumping.
I'm pretty much doing everything. Like I said, I'm at about 80 percent now, so I think in another month-and-a-half, it'll be way, way better than we are now, so I'm looking to surprise a lot of people at pro day.
Q: What's that process been like? You often hear that ACL rehab is grueling.
A: It's actually been quite easy. You know me, I love to work, so every day I walk in there with a smile on my face and a lot of energy and ready to conquer the day. Really, you've just got to take no days off and really just get after it. We really haven't had any setbacks at all.
There hasn't been a day where I've shown up sore or hurting or needing to take a day off. Every day I feel like we've been progressing and getting better and better. It's exciting for me to get in there every day and to do stuff and continue to push the limits a little bit.
Q: Have you been in Pensacola [at the Athletes' Performance Institute facility in Gulf Breeze, Fla.] the whole time?
A: Yeah, I got here Jan. 1 right after the bowl game. Really, right when the game ended, I drove and got here that night and have been here ever since. … I've been here with [LSU's] Jarvis Landry, [L'Damian] Washington from Missouri, Eric Ebron from North Carolina. Obviously [South Carolina's Jadeveon] Clowney is here. We had about 40 guys here and it's been a great time. A couple of receivers from smaller schools, too, so it's been pretty good.
Q: You're doing the Gruden camp on TV. He's consistent about pointing out your positives and negatives. Have you thought about what he's going to throw at you?
A: Not really. I did a little mini one with him before the Outback Bowl and that was a lot of fun. But I think you've just got to relax and be honest and if he puts you on the spot, so be it. I'm not too worried about that. It should be fun.
Q: At the combine, you always hear about crazy questions that teams ask. Did you have a favorite question?
A: I actually didn't get any crazy questions at all. It was fine. The majority of my stuff was about the knee. They wanted to know how's the knee feeling, if I'm going to be back and ready to go. So nothing crazy at all.
It was mostly that and getting on the board and drawing up some plays and then installing some plays of their own and I have to memorize them and regurgitate what they said and rewrite them and describe what they said. So it was fun. It wasn't too difficult at all. I think I did extremely well with all of them, too.
Q: Obviously showing that your knee is stable will be Goal No. 1 for pro day. But aside from that, what do you want to show these teams at pro day?
A: First of all, I want to show that I'm healthy at pro day. I want them to say, 'Hey, we don't have to worry about this kid where if we draft him that he has to take a year off. He's ready to go and if we need him to play right now, he can.' That's the major thing that I want to prove when I get there. And then just show off -- show off my arm strength, my accuracy.
And then the more meetings I get, that's where I can really separate myself, just with my knowledge of the game. So the more meetings I get, the more time with these coaches to talk to them, I think that's where I can do well.
The coaches who want to go fast frown at the thought of a restrictor plate being placed on their offenses, while a few defensive-minded coaches, namely Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, are concerned that player safety is compromised by increasing the number of plays in a game.
“This is the only game in history of any sport where the college game is longer than the pro game,” Saban said.
Compared to the rest of the country, the SEC wasn’t a league last season that necessarily lived in the fast lane, at least as a whole.
Ole Miss averaged the most offensive plays per game (79.8), but only ranked 21st nationally. Texas Tech was first nationally with an average of 90.3 plays per game.
Not surprisingly, Alabama and Arkansas were at the bottom of the SEC. The Crimson Tide averaged 65.9 plays and the Hogs 64.7 plays.
Auburn, which is renowned for its hurry-up, no-huddle attack under Gus Malzahn, was tied for fifth in the SEC along with Texas A&M with an average of 73.8 plays per game.
In 2012, before to Malzahn’s arrival as head coach, Auburn averaged just 60.5 plays per game, which ranked last among 124 FBS teams.
The Aggies went the other way in Kevin Sumlin’s second season in College Station. They averaged 83.5 plays per game in 2012 and dipped to 73.8 last season, a difference of nearly 10 plays per game.
Here’s a rundown of the entire SEC in the last two seasons in terms of offensive snaps per game:
1. Ole Miss: 79.8
2. Missouri: 75.5
3. Georgia: 74.6
4. Mississippi State: 74.2
5. Auburn: 73.8
6. Texas A&M: 73.8
7. South Carolina: 72.5
8. Vanderbilt: 70.8
9. Florida: 68.9
10. LSU: 67.7
11. Tennessee: 67.7
12. Kentucky: 66.8
13. Alabama: 65.9
14. Arkansas: 64.7
1. Texas A&M: 83.5
2. Ole Miss: 76.2
3. Missouri: 75.7
4. Tennessee: 75.1
5. LSU: 70.8
6. Arkansas: 70.5
7. Vanderbilt: 69.2
8. South Carolina: 69
9. Georgia: 67.8
10. Florida: 67.2
11. Kentucky: 67
12. Mississippi State: 66.8
13. Alabama: 66.3
14. Auburn: 60.5
- After putting on a show at the combine, offensive tackle Greg Robinson didn’t participate in on-field workouts at Auburn’s pro day. He’s still aiming for the No. 1 spot in May’s draft.
- It wasn’t long ago that John Calipari did to Kentucky basketball what Saban did to Alabama football, but at this rate, expect Saban to get back on top before Calipari.
- Spring practice has always been closed to Florida fans, but coach Will Muschamp is changing his policy this year.
- LSU opens practice Friday. Here are six key positions battles to keep an eye on this spring.
- A new deal is imminent for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. It will pay him at least $3 million and include raises for his assistant coaches.
- When Ole Miss opened practice Tuesday, Denzel Nkemdiche was nowhere to be found. He’ll miss the entire spring as part of his punishment for an offseason arrest.
- South Carolina is proving that winning can be contagious throughout the sports program, and Steve Spurrier is at the center of it.
- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says the spring game is good for the fans but worthless for the team. The Aggies won’t have one this year because of stadium renovations.
The first two installments covered the competitions at safety and defensive line. Today, let's move to the offensive tackles. Georgia lost a longtime starter in left tackle Kenarious Gates and have two part-time starters returning.
Departures: Gates was never a star, but he was reliable, closing his career starting 33 consecutive games split between guard and tackle. He was exclusively the Bulldogs' starting left tackle for the last two seasons, so Georgia has a significant hole to fill in protecting new quarterback Hutson Mason's blind side.
Returning reserves: This is where things get interesting. We know that rising juniors Xzavier Ward and Zach DeBell are tackles, and we assume that Theus and Houston will remain at the position, but position coach Will Friend doesn't hesitate to juggle rotations. Seniors Mark Beard and Watts Dantzler and redshirt freshman Aulden Bynum are each listed as guards, but all of them have the size and ability to play tackle. If Friend doesn't like the way things are shaping up -- or even if he does and simply wants to weigh all of his options -- don't be surprised if he shuffles some of these guys inside and out.
Newcomers: Bynum is the only possible tackle who redshirted last season, but the Bulldogs signed three potential tackles last month in Dyshon Sims, Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards -- none of whom will arrive on campus until the summer.
What to watch: Offensive linemen are accustomed to players at other positions getting all of the attention, but the tackle races rank among the most important position battles for the Bulldogs this spring. Friend's offensive line had an up-and-down season in 2013, but it might get off to a much better start if Theus and Houston -- or a different candidate -- lock down the tackle spots by proving they can handle the job during spring practice. Houston didn't even know if he would be able to play at this time last year thanks to a long-running NCAA eligibility dispute. He definitely looked rusty at times, particularly when trying to anticipate the snap count in noisy road venues. Now he has a season of steady playing time under his belt, and most of the other leading tackle candidates have played in big games as well. Someone simply needs to prove to Friend that he deserves the job. Otherwise, expect to see Georgia continue to rotate players in and out until Friend discovers a combination that he likes.
With nearly 11,600 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, the Gators narrowly edged Georgia by collecting 36 percent of the vote, while the Bulldogs grabbed 33 percent. Tennessee finished third with 17 percent of the vote, Arkansas was next with 12 percent, and Kentucky finished with two percent.
The hope is that the injury bug won't sink its teeth into the Gators this fall like it did in 2013 and that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's more spread attack will help open things up for quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is coming off of a season-ending leg injury. Adding a trip to Alabama won't make things any easier for Florida in 2014 but having LSU and South Carolina at home will be better.
The Bulldogs have a shot to rebound from their eight-win season by making it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Dawgs have the offensive talent to continue that scoring spree from last season, and there’s a sense that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can sure things up on a unit that was inconsistent.
As for Tennessee and Arkansas, they are looking to find their identities on both sides of the ball. Both have quarterback questions and are looking for valuable offensive playmakers. Both need work in their front sevens and have challenging schedules as well. However, a change of attitude could propel both teams. The Vols have shown it ever since Butch Jones arrived, while the Hogs are still looking to get tougher under Bret Bielema.
Kentucky had talent deficiencies all over the field in 2013, leading to just two wins in Mark Stoops' first year. Like Arkansas and Tennessee, a change in attitude and confidence will go a long way for the Wildcats. Stoops has recruited well and expects to get a lot out of his youngsters. But making sure offensive playmakers emerge, a quarterback takes the lead and the secondary comes together remain Stoops' biggest challenges going forward.
Clemson has suspended returning starters Corey Crawford and David Beasley along with Garry Peters and Shaq Anthony for the season opener against Georgia for a team rules violation, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney announced Tuesday.
"A huge part of our program is teaching accountability, responsibility and that there are consequences for your actions," Swinney said in a statement released by the school. "These are four good young men, but they broke a team rule, and as a result they will each miss a game. I am hopeful that they will learn and grow from this and have a great 2014 season on and off the field."
Crawford is perhaps the biggest loss of the bunch.
Clemson will bank on stellar play from its defensive line this season, as every starter from a year ago returns. Last season, Crawford had 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 12 starts at defensive end.
Beasley started seven games at left guard a year ago. Anthony had three starts at right tackle, and Peters played as a backup cornerback.
Both Anthony and Peters are competing to win starting jobs for this season.
- According to a report, Missouri and coach Gary Pinkel have agreed to a new deal.
- How LSU got its purple and gold colors from Mardi Gras and how the Tiger nickname came about.
- Which Alabama public officials bought Auburn tickets in 2013?.
- Here are three former Auburn players who have the most to prove at Pro Day.
- Georgia coach Mark Richt talks about the recruiting impact new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has on Georgia.
- Texas A&M hit the practice field in pads for the first time this spring.
- South Carolina is showing that "winning is contagious" throughout its sports program.
- Here are five Alabama players who will have to step into big roles for the Crimson Tide in 2014.
- Tennessee has a lot to replace in its defensive front seven in 2014.
- Kentucky's new football recruiting page breaks down the Wildcats' 2015 targets.
Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:
Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.
Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.
What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.
- There are mixed opinions on new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, but some of his former players believe he’ll do well with the Tide, calling him an ‘offensive guru.’
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who accepted the Bobby Bowden Coach of the Year Award on Sunday night, saw a role model in the former coaching legend.
- More than half the teams in the SEC will be looking to replace their quarterback in 2014, which sets up some great battles beginning this spring.
- Florida is not happy about former coach Urban Meyer turning Tim Tebow into a recruiting tool for Ohio State.
- Johnny Manziel is gone, but Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital says the offense will remain dynamic no matter who the quarterback is.
- Both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Mark Richt want officiating crews to dictate the tempo of games, similar to how they do in the NFL.
- Michael Sam is the one in the headlines, but fellow defensive end Kony Ealy should be Missouri’s next first-round pick.
- When spring practice begins in Knoxville later this week, Tennessee will start the process of replacing its entire offensive line.
Spring start: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
- Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
- Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
- Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
- Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
Spring start: March 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
- Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
- Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
- Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
- Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
- A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
- Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
- QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
- Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
- Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
- But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
Top Returning Players: SEC East
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35