SEC spring preview: How will Bama, LSU and the rest contend with Georgia?

Sports

The SEC landscape will change after this season as Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. What doesn’t figure to change is that the national championship will continue to go through the SEC, which has produced the last four national champions (three different teams) and 13 of the last 17 national champs.

Kirby Smart and Georgia have taken the belt away from Alabama with back-to-back national titles. The Dawgs are looking to become only the second team in history to win three consecutive unanimous national titles. Minnesota pulled that off in 1934, ’35, and ’36 — and that’s it.

Alabama will enter the 2023 season with a quarterback not named Bryce Young. Tennessee and LSU, both of whom made big moves a year ago, get a chance to show that they’re here to stay, while Hugh Freeze is back in the SEC as Auburn’s head coach and Zach Arnett takes over as Mississippi State’s head coach after the death of Mike Leach last December.

Alabama won’t be the only SEC team replacing its starter or facing some uncertainty at quarterback, the most important position on the field. Add Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee to that list. And while all eyes are on Georgia and the juggernaut Smart has built in Athens, everyone in college football will also be watching Tuscaloosa to see how Nick Saban and Alabama respond. The Crimson Tide have never gone three straight seasons under Saban (going back to 2007) without winning a national championship.

As spring practices get under way, Chris Low (West) and Harry Lyles Jr. (East) break down the top storyline and newcomer to watch for each team in the SEC.

WEST DIVISION

Top storyline: There’s a lot that’s new within the Alabama football program, starting with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, although this will be Steele’s third stint working under Saban at Alabama. Rees, who comes over from Notre Dame, will be breaking in a new quarterback with the loss of Young to the NFL. And whether Ty Simpson or Jalen Milroe wins the job, Rees would like to take some pressure off his quarterback by running the ball more consistently. One of Steele’s priorities will be creating more negative plays on defense after the Tide finished next-to-last in the SEC last season in forced turnovers (14). Alabama will also be looking for a finisher on defense with Will Anderson Jr. heading to the NFL. Enter Dallas Turner as the top candidate to fill that role.

Newcomer to watch: Alabama was missing a deep vertical threat in its passing game last season, and junior college transfer Malik Benson has everything it takes to fill that void after showing great speed, sure hands and sound route-running in the practices leading up to the Tide’s bowl game last season.


Top storyline: After a brutal schedule a year ago, Arkansas looks to rebound in 2023 with some new pieces in place. The Razorbacks still managed to win seven games last season after winning nine in 2021. They have two new coordinators — Dan Enos on offense and Travis Williams on defense — and will have a total of five new position coaches. Also, Ben Sowders comes in as the Hogs’ new strength and conditioning coach. Fifth-year senior KJ Jefferson is back at quarterback after making big strides each of his past two seasons. It will be interesting to see what the offense looks like under Enos and how he uses Jefferson, who passed for 2,658 yards and ran for 640 yards a year ago. Williams will be looking to strengthen a group that finished 124th nationally a year ago in total defense (464.8 yards per game).

Newcomer to watch: Arkansas led the SEC with 42 sacks last season, and Missouri transfer Trajan Jeffcoat is a nice addition as a defensive end/pass-rusher after starting for the Tigers each of the past three seasons. The Hogs are transitioning from a three-man front to a 4-2-5 base under Williams and can use any help they can get up front to take some heat off a secondary that struggled a year ago.


Top storyline: Freeze is back in the SEC as Auburn’s third head coach in the past four seasons. The program never recovered after the university-directed investigation into Bryan Harsin’s relationships with players and coaches following the 2021 season, so the Tigers are starting over — again. Settling on a quarterback will be a priority, and Freeze has a strong track record of developing quality quarterbacks. Robby Ashford, who started the last nine games a year ago, would seem to be a fit in new offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery’s system, which features a heavy dose of run-pass option plays. There’s always a chance another quarterback could become available in the transfer portal after spring practice. Either way, the Tigers have to find a way to throw the ball better after finishing with nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season and finishing last in the SEC in passing offense.

Newcomer to watch: When Auburn has been at its best, the Tigers have almost always been menacing in the defensive line. That’s what makes Kentucky transfer Justin Rogers so valuable to this defense. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound tackle has gotten better each year he’s been in the SEC and should be a staple in the middle of the Auburn defensive front.


Top storyline: Expectations are soaring on the Bayou for the 2023 season after the Tigers made it to the SEC championship game in Brian Kelly’s first season at the helm. There’s a lot to like about this LSU team, starting with the return of Jayden Daniels at quarterback. He blossomed a year ago after transferring from Arizona State, and one of the things to watch this spring is the development of his young, talented offensive line. The core five returns up front, and some help is on the way via the 2023 signing class, but the Tigers need to establish some depth. They played a pair of true freshmen, Will Campbell and Emery Jones, at tackle last season, and Jones has the ability to move inside to guard if needed. On the other side of the ball, a lot of eyes will be on defensive lineman Maason Smith and how much he’s able to do this spring after tearing his ACL in the season opener last year.

Newcomer to watch: LSU’s cornerback room from a year ago was wiped out, which makes former five-star recruit and Texas A&M transfer Denver Harris a key addition. Syracuse transfer Darian Chestnut and Ohio State transfer JK Johnson are two more newcomers in the secondary expected to play key roles.


Top storyline: The sudden passing of Leach last December left a somber cloud over the entire Mississippi State campus. The school acted swiftly in promoting Arnett to permanent head coach. The good news is that he’s not starting over. As Leach’s defensive coordinator, Arnett knows the players and the program, which was 4-4 in SEC play each of the past two seasons. It’s always good to have an experienced quarterback returning, especially one like Will Rogers, who already owns school records of 10,689 passing yards and 82 touchdown passes. Under new coordinator Kevin Barbay, the Bulldogs will move away from the Air Raid offense they ran under Leach and adopt more of a balanced offense with different groupings, motions and shifts. Rogers likely won’t throw as much as he did the last three seasons, but Barbay has already hit it off with his senior quarterback as they head down a different road offensively.

Newcomer to watch: Mississippi State has 15 high school early enrollees/college transfers on campus this semester. Rogers is clearly the guy at quarterback, but Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright could be a valuable asset in certain packages. Safety Isaac Smith could be an early contributor as a freshman. Mississippi State beat out LSU to get Smith, one of the top recruits in the state of Mississippi.


Top storyline: Some schools go into the spring trying to find a quarterback. Ole Miss goes into this spring trying to sort through its quarterbacks. Jaxson Dart was the Rebels’ starter last season after transferring from USC. He will have his hands full keeping the job, as Lane Kiffin brought in Spencer Sanders from Oklahoma State and Walker Howard from LSU. Sanders was a four-year starter and first-team All-Big 12 pick in 2021. Howard is a former five-star recruit who attempted just four passes a year ago as a freshman. All three are talented and have somewhat different skill sets. Sanders has been a really effective runner at quarterback throughout his career, which could pair nicely with an Ole Miss rushing game that has averaged at least 210 yards in all three of Kiffin’s seasons. Quinshon Judkins led the SEC with 1,567 rushing yards last season as a freshman.

Newcomer to watch: The Rebels brought in a couple of transfers to help on defense, but the big offseason acquisition was defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who oversaw the Alabama defense the past four seasons. Golding hopes to steady an Ole Miss defense that gave up too many long running plays last season.


Top storyline: Nobody in College Station wants to go through what the Aggies did a year ago. They finished 5-7, lost at home to Appalachian State, lost six straight games at one point and had a handful of their most coveted signees from the No. 1-ranked 2022 signing class get in trouble off the field and ultimately leave the program. So finding some solidarity and regaining their focus will be paramount for the Aggies this spring. Talented quarterback Conner Weigman is back, and Texas A&M got a pleasant surprise when receiver Ainias Smith decided to return to school. What will the offense look like in 2023 after a dreadful year last season? After calling his own plays in the past, Jimbo Fisher didn’t sit pat this offseason. He brought in former Arkansas and Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, one of the best playcallers in the business, and is turning those duties over to him.

Newcomer to watch: Texas A&M added what should be immediate help at cornerback in the portal with the addition of North Carolina’s Tony Grimes, a former five-star recruit who played the past three seasons for the Tar Heels. And on offense, freshman running back Rueben Owens has the versatility and speed to fit perfectly into Petrino’s offense. Owens signed with Texas A&M after originally committing to Louisville.

EAST DIVISION

Top storyline: The Gators are going to have fresh faces on the offensive line after losing four starters, including O’Cyrus Torrence, who will likely be the first guard taken in the NFL draft next month. The Gators hit the transfer portal, acquiring tackles Damieon George Jr. from Alabama and Kiyaunta Goodwin from Kentucky, as well as Baylor guard Micah Mazzccua. The Gator faithful should feel confident in the abilities of offensive coordinator Rob Sale and offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton to get this group together, given their track record with Billy Napier’s great offensive lines at Louisiana, which produced multiple NFL draft picks.

Newcomer to watch: Quarterback Graham Mertz, who transfers in from Wisconsin. He will be competing with Jack Miller to be the Gators’ starter this season behind that offensive line.


Top storyline: Georgia is losing one of its most celebrated players ever in quarterback Stetson Bennett, who transformed from a walk-on to a Heisman candidate. Redshirt junior Carson Beck and redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff appear to be in line to compete for Bennett’s old gig, with the opportunity to lead Georgia’s bid for a three-peat. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken left for the NFL, but a familiar face in Mike Bobo takes over a job he’s got plenty of experience in; he was Georgia’s OC from 2007 to 2014 and was an offensive analyst for the Bulldogs last season.

Newcomer to watch: Two players who will be key in ensuring a smooth transition at quarterback will be wide receivers Rara Thomas and Dominic Lovett, a pair of transfers from Mississippi State and Missouri, respectively. Having Brock Bowers available to whoever wins the quarterback battle will be great, but the Bulldogs have lacked a stable, healthy wide receiving corps the last couple of seasons.


Top storyline: Who stands out in the running game? Kentucky has always found a way to run the football during its current streak of bowl appearances, whether it was with Chris Rodriguez, Lynn Bowden, Benny Snell or Boom Williams. This spring, we should see Rodriguez’s backup from the last two seasons, JuTahn McClain, get plenty of reps. McClain also had 18 receptions out of the backfield in 2022, but with Ray Davis transferring in from Vanderbilt, he’s going to have competition. And it won’t be easy for McClain, as Davis was one of just four SEC rushers to break the 1,000-yard mark last season.

Newcomer to watch: Quarterback Devin Leary transfers in from NC State, where his 2022 season was cut short due to injury after a monster 2021. Mark Stoops had success with his last transfer QB in Will Levis, and it would be fair to expect more with Leary, who should enjoy throwing to the immensely talented Barion Brown.


Top storyline: The possible emergence of Jake Garcia. Most eyes go to quarterback competitions when spring ball rolls around, but the Tigers truly have an interesting case on their hands. Miami transfer Garcia is going to be the only healthy quarterback the Tigers expect to compete for their starting job coming into the spring. Last season’s starter, Brady Cook, is recovering from surgery on a torn labrum and won’t be throwing in the spring. The other quarterback, Sam Horn, strained his forearm pitching for Missouri’s baseball team, but is expected to throw at some point. For now, it appears Garcia has an opportunity to get more reps than he otherwise would.

Newcomer to watch: Offensive coordinator Kirby Moore comes in from Fresno State, where he ​​led the Bulldogs to the top offense in the Mountain West, averaging 402.6 yards and 30.6 points per game. Missouri’s offense struggled in 2022 and was ranked 88th in the nation in points per game, sandwiched between Central Michigan and Vanderbilt.


Top storyline: The defensive end position and its depth (or lack thereof) is one to watch. Shane Beamer has mentioned this offseason that the team’s depth on the edge isn’t where he’d like it to be. The Gamecocks lost Jordan Burch and Gilber Edmond to the transfer portal, which will leave it up to the likes of Terrell Dawkins, Tyreek Johnson, Jordan Strachan and Bryan Thomas to step up. Strachan missed most of the 2022 season due to a torn ACL, but is the most experienced of the group. With another portal window yet to come, this group might look different after spring ball.

Newcomer to watch: Nyckoles Harbor. Ranked 39th in the ESPN 300, it’s not a stretch to say Harbor might be the best incoming athlete in college football. With a frame that has many expecting him to either play the edge or at tight end, he also has incredible speed, running a 10.32 in the 100 meters.


Top storyline: The veteran vs. the shiny new quarterback. Joe Milton is entering his third year with Tennessee (his sixth total in college football) and reminded everyone in the Orange Bowl against Clemson what he’s capable of with his absolute cannon of an arm. Milton finished that game with 251 yards through the air and three touchdown passes. But incoming freshman Nico Iamaleava has plenty of hype behind him as the 23rd player in the ESPN 300 and the fourth-ranked quarterback. No matter who wins the job, there will be plenty of pressure replacing Hendon Hooker, who made Tennessee the story of college football for a big chunk of 2022 and led the Vols to their first win over Alabama in 15 years.

Newcomer to watch: Offensive coordinator Joey Hazle should theoretically provide a seamless transition with Alex Golesh gone after spending the last few seasons with Josh Heupel (including 2020 at UCF). Hazle has worked with Heupel for years now as he’s developed as a coach.


Top storyline: Will we see the necessary improvements to get Vandy back to postseason play? The 2022 recruiting class received much praise, with AJ Swann being a part of that group. In his first season, Swann completed just over 58% of his passes for 1,274 yards, 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Improvements from him, combined with continuity on the offensive line, will be big for this team. Defensive back Jaylen Mahoney said Tuesday that the first spring practice this year compared to last year was much better under coach Clark Lea, who enters his third year with the Commodores. “We’ve improved a lot,” Mahoney said. “It’s a lot faster. Faster pace, we know what’s going on as players, we’re not just on the field confused and stuff like that.” If that pace keeps up, it’ll be a big boost for Vanderbilt’s 2023 outlook.

Newcomer to watch: Cornerback Martel Hight is the Commodores’ highest-ranked recruit in the ESPN 300, coming in at No. 274. He’s listed as the 25th-best player in the state of Georgia, and his development will be key for the team’s future success.

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