With the kickoff to spring practice only weeks away for most SEC teams, every conference team has questions to address moving into the 2009 college football season.
The Campus Game SEC spring preview continues with the SEC West.
Unlike conference brethren to the East, where Florida is a clear favorite, the West figures to be wilder and more wide open. Defending champ Alabama will probably get the preseason nod, but LSU and Ole Miss are definite threats with Arkansas and Auburn looming as wild cards.
Spring practice dates for each school are posted below.
Who will be throwing the ball to Julio Jones? All the big questions are on the offensive side of the ball at Bama, and none is more significant than the one at quarterback. Greg McElroy is the favorite to replace the oft-maligned, but successful John Parker Wilson, with RS freshman Star Jackson in the mix (if he isn't moved to another position). True frosh A.J. McCarron is a pure pocket passer, but will not enroll until summer. Whoever ends up under center will look often in the direction of big #8 ... JJ is a Michael Crabtree-type talent with more size.
Is the offensive line championship caliber? The O-Line was in shambles by the Sugar Bowl at the end of the season, thanks to injuries and the Andre Smith saga (which will apparently continue until the NFL draft), and the disarray showed as Utah dominated the Tide along the line of scrimmage. Bama's big uns will have to be ready early because the opening game is against always-rugged Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome.
How much impact will Ryan Mallett have on the Hog offense? Expect the big Michigan transfer to win the starting QB job (particularly with the transfer of Nathan Dick) and to have an immediate impact, although coach Bobby Petrino declares it a wide open race. A factor that will help Mallett is the depth of the Razorback running game. Leading rusher Michael Smith returns and should get help from Southern Cal transfer Broderick Green, and incoming freshmen Knile Davis and Ronnie Wingo.
Will Bobby Petrino still be in Fayetteville by the time you read this? Sorry for the cheap shot, but down here in Atlanta it is easy to question the word and the professionalism of Bobby P. Still, the man can coach and if he manages to avoid interviewing for other jobs between now and August, perhaps the momentum the Hogs gained from the season-ending win over LSU will carry over.
Will Gene Chizik be more Pat Dye or Doug Barfield? Auburn’s hiring of Chizik from Iowa State, where he went 5-19 in two seasons, caught more criticism than an audience at a Don Rickles performance. Two aspects of the hiring stood out to me. First, nobody in Ames, Iowa, seemed to be terribly upset about the loss of Chizik. In fact, some of the columnists I read were downright happy to see him heading South … check out this Paul Clark article from 12.13.08 (not sure if you need a Rivals subscription or not to view). Aside from the surprise of Chizik getting the job, the renewed influence of Pat Dye also is intriguing. Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky proclaimed “It’s Dye Country Again” … after being mostly shunned under the Tommy Tuberville regime, Tiger legend Dye apparently is again wielding clout in the loveliest village.
AU is second-fiddle to UA again ... for how long? When I was growing up Alabama dominated southern football generally, and far outpaced the Plainsmen as the state power in the heart of Dixie. That changed under Pat Dye and later Tommy Tuberville (who almost ran out of fingers to wag at Tide fans). The in-state matchup of coaches at the flagship schools looks mighty uneven on paper right now ... and not in favor of the Plainsmen.
Can the defensive line rebuild? While talent is always plentiful for the Tigers, replacing all the lost talent along the defensive front is like trying to eat just one bite of jambalaya - not gonna happen. LSU did get a break when Charles Alexander was granted a sixth year, but some young Tigers will need to grow up quick.
Who will play quarterback? Rising sophomore Jordan Jefferson played a terrific Chick-fil-A Bowl in only his second start, winning Most Outstanding Player honors in leading the Tigers to a 38-3 thrashing of favored Georgia Tech. He will be the favorite to beat out Jarrett Lee (who logged the most playing time at QB last season) and already-enrolled freshman Russell Shepard.
Are the Rebels for real? Nobody finished the 2008 season on a bigger roll than the Rebs. In addition to being the only team to whip national champ Florida, Houston Nutt's squad reeled off six wins in a row to close the season, capped by a 47-34 manhandling of Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Yes, they are for real.
What is the biggest question mark? For my money, it will be replacing three starters on the offensive line. QB Jevan Snead looked like a big-time player by the end of the season (after some ups and downs during the year), and the Rebs have a deep backfield and a highlight reel playmaker in Dexter McCluster. With quality play up front, Ole Miss can challenge Alabama and LSU for the West. Oh yeah ... one other query ... how will Nutt handle those 232 scholarships (or maybe it was a few more) he gave out this season?
Can Dan Mullen have an Urban Meyer-type impact? In short, no. Nobody expects two national championships in five years like Meyer has produced at Florida, but Mullen will struggle to compete for a division title in Starkville. The State program is not only battling its own problems, but also the rising power of other programs in the West. Mullen is young, energetic, and has a fine resume ... he'll need all that and more.
Will State avoid the West cellar this season? If the Bullies do, they'll need to overcome a tough scheduling quirk. State plays its four toughest conference games at home (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss) and its four easier league games (Auburn, Vandy, Kentucky, Arkansas) on the road. Some years that might be advantageous. This season, it's doubtful the Bullies can win any of the home games, and having to play the games they might win on the road makes those contests even more daunting.
SEC West Spring Football Dates
* Spring Game (SG) is on last day listed unless otherwise noted
Alabama: March 23-April 18
Arkansas: March 24-April 19 (SG 4.18.09)
Auburn: March 24-April 18
LSU: March 12-April 18
Ole Miss: March 26-April 18
Miss State: March 24-April 18