SportsPulse: Miss college football action already? Well, Trysta Krick and Paul Myerberg tell us what to look forward to next season.
With seven new assistant coaches tucked under the one constant, Nick Saban, Alabama begins early preparations for the 2019 season amid a level of change extreme even for a program famous for its ability to adjust through nearly any transition.
For that reason — and for several others — Alabama is, once again, the talk of the SEC entering spring football. Here’s another storyline worth monitoring: Tua Tagovailoa’s cross-conference competition for the Heisman Trophy with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who got the better of the matchup in January.
Every team in the SEC heads into the spring with at least one dominant storyline, question, concern or issue at the forefront. That begins with the Crimson Tide and how the new-look coaching staff embraces the process.
Alabama: The on-paper coaching upgrade
Two of the seven new hires have been here before: offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri. At least they have an idea as to what to expect. As for expectations, the rest are viewed as improvements on the 2018 staff, especially on defense. Well-regarded in the profession, defensive line coach Brian Baker and safeties coach Charles Kelly face the challenge of replacing some of this unit’s production and pride after that humbling loss to Clemson earlier this year.
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Arkansas: SMU addition marks QB debate
Chad Morris’ second season at Arkansas will be better than his first, if by default, and perhaps dramatically so should the Razorbacks streamline their production at quarterback. This spring sees the arrival of SMU transfer Ben Hicks, who rejoins Morris as the heavy favorite to grab the starting role. Hicks threw for 51 touchdowns across his final two seasons at SMU.
Auburn: Senior-heavy roster still needs help
The Tigers are heavy on seniors, which is undoubtedly a good thing, but inexperience is an issue at quarterback and linebacker. The latter will be helped this spring by the addition of freshman Owen Pappoe, one of the nation’s top prospects at his position. Another freshman, Bo Nix, could put himself into the mix at quarterback with a strong spring.
Florida: Can the Gators take the next step?
It’s safe to say the Gators at worst met and at best exceeded expectations in Dan Mullen’s debut season. The catch to a great start? That expectations are now that Florida will vault this spring begin to vault into the upper echelon of the SEC — and by extension the entire Bowl Subdivision. We’ll begin to see in March and April just how close the Gators are to cracking into that elite club.
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Georgia: Alabama really is the focus
At Georgia more than anywhere else in this conference, the Crimson Tide are on the center of the radar. That’s because of how close the Bulldogs have come in the past two years to taking the Tide’s place atop the conference. While Kirby Smart has a few personnel holes to address this spring, including at wide receiver, it will all be done with the end goal of getting over the hump against Alabama this fall. Maybe the spring would be a good time to work on a fake punt that works?
Kentucky: Stars leave big shoes to fill
Kentucky was rewarded for its faith in Mark Stoops with a fantastically successful 2018 season. A few months later, the Wildcats face the daunting prospect of replacing two stars set for the upper parts of the upcoming NFL draft: running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen. Replacing both will take a team effort.
LSU: The Tigers’ next defensive star
There’s no doubt that Kristian Fulton will start on one side of the field as LSU’s next cornerback with preseason All-America credentials. It’s nearly equally likely that the other side will be handled by true freshman Derek Stingley, Jr., who turned heads during the Tigers’ preparations for the Fiesta Bowl and may be the talk of spring drills.
Mississippi: Can the defense carry the load?
In a vacuum, the eight returning starters is reason for optimism. Then again, this unit finished last in the SEC in yards allowed per game and per play a season ago. But with a redshirt freshman, Matt Corral, taking early first-team snaps during spring drills, the Rebels need a defense led by linebacker Mohamed Sanogo to move into the middle of the pack in the SEC for this team to be more than an afterthought in the West Division.
Mississippi State: Seeking a passing game
The Bulldogs’ quarterback competition begins between junior Keytaon Thompson, the favorite, and freshman Garrett Shrader. Thompson has starting experience and the skill set to start in the SEC but Mississippi State needs more consistency in the passing game — one reason why Shrader, a solid prospect, has a shot at making waves in the spring. Both will work with an experienced receiver corps that has been underwhelming in its production.
Missouri: Kelly Bryant and a bowl ban
A recent NCAA ruling left Missouri ineligible for the postseason in 2019, though the university has since filed an appeal. That stands at the forefront of the Tigers’ spring, overshadowing even the official arrival of Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant. After losing the starting job to Lawrence last September, Bryant looks to capitalize on the Tigers’ quarterback-friendly offense to impress NFL scouts as a one-year rental.
South Carolina: Daunting schedule looms
Spring football is supposed to be a time for optimism. But any talk of the Gamecocks in 2019 can’t avoid a glance at the team’s brutal schedule, which bookends games against North Carolina and rival Clemson with conference games against the normal cast of East Division foes and crossover pairings with Alabama and Texas A&M. A team that ranks firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of returning production will have its hands full.
Tennessee: Envisioning that Year 2 bump
Alabama did it. So did Georgia. Tennessee is the next SEC blueblood to daydream about the prospect of taking a mammoth step forward in its second season under a respected coaching staff. Not that it’s a truly fair comparison: UT showed a spark in 2018 but still seemed a distance from competing on the same level with the top half of the SEC. A gifted incoming recruiting class will help, however.
Texas A&M: A team ready to take the leap
In comparison, Texas A&M and its second-year staff seems ready to meet some significant preseason expectations. A dark-horse SEC and College Football Playoff contender, the Aggies’ hopes hinge in no small part on the continued improvement of junior quarterback Kellen Mond, who threw for 24 touchdowns in his first season under coach Jimbo Fisher.
Vanderbilt: The running game should lead
One of the team’s five leading tacklers from last season returns in 2019. Kyle Shurmur is gone at quarterback, likely replaced by junior Mo Hasan. It’s not an ideal personnel situation. But where Vanderbilt is in great shape is in the running game, where Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s decision to return for his senior season gives this offense one of the SEC’s best at the position.