With spring practices completed across the nation, I continue to run down my post-spring conference power rankings. Today, let’s take a look at how things shape up in the SEC.
And be sure to check back with the NFP on Thursday morning for my SEC spring review.
1. LSU: The Tigers may have lost Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis and Kelvin Sheppard, but Les Miles simply has to look down the depth chart to find suitable replacements at his disposal. Why leave Baton Rouge for Ann Arbor when you can continually replace top talent year in and year out? Oft-criticized quarterback Jordan Jefferson had a nice spring — I know, we have to see the finished product before we believe it — and Steve Kragthorpe’s offense could actually be fun to watch in complementing the stout defense. The opener against Oregon at Cowboys Stadium will set the table for the rest of the season — or at least until the team begins its rigorous SEC campaign.
ICONMark Barron is the veteran anchor of an improved Alabama secondary.
2. Alabama: Statistically speaking, the Crimson Tide finished with one of the better defenses in the nation in 2010. But the pass rush wasn’t a consistent threat, and the secondary seemed to give up the big play at inopportune times. Those shouldn’t be concerns in 2011, as this unit is talented, experienced and deep. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are the most experienced along the front seven, and the secondary should be much improved despite battling the injury bug this spring. Safety Mark Barron is the veteran of the bunch, while cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick form a tough duo for opposing receivers. Last year’s inexperience led to a lot of missed assignments and mental errors, which shouldn’t be the case in 2011. The question is whether sophomore AJ McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims — or both — can be steady enough under center to complement the rushing attack paced by Trent Richardson.
3. Arkansas: Star quarterback Ryan Mallett is gone, but Tyler Wilson will have arguably the most talented corps of wide receivers in the nation at his disposal as well as accomplished running back Knile Davis. The defense made big strides in 2010, and the expectation is that head coach Bobby Petrino can keep this program an annual Top-15 contender.
4. Mississippi State: Third-year head coach Dan Mullen has done wonders in Starkville in a short amount of time. Chris Relf continues to improve under center and the offense continues to grow. Losing defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas hurts, but Mullen is confident that the unit won’t miss a beat.
5. South Carolina: The big question centers on Stephen Garcia, who is still on suspension. Will he open the season under center for the Gamecocks, or will it be backup Connor Shaw getting the nod? Head coach Steve Spurrier has his most talented team in Columbia, headlined by super sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore and a deep defensive line.
6. Auburn: The defending national champions entered spring practice missing 35 scholarship players from the roster that squared off with Oregon last January, including Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Darvin Adams and offensive tackle Lee Ziemba. The loss of Newton is one thing. But an even bigger question is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Tigers lost seven starters. They won’t be as strong defending the run, but an improved pass defense could make Ted Roof’s unit more balanced.
Charlie Weis is in his first year as offensive coordinator of the Gators.
7. Florida: New head coach Will Muschamp really isn’t messing around in Gainesville, making a big statement by dismissing star cornerback Janoris Jenkins. While the secondary has major questions, the defensive line could be nasty. And new coordinator Charlie Weis makes any offense better. Yes, even one quarterbacked by much-maligned John Brantley.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs enter a pivotal season under head coach Mark Richt, who has won 10 or more games in six of his 10 seasons. However, he’s accumulated 12 losses over the last two seasons and led the team to its first losing season since 1996 last year. Quarterback Aaron Murray is coming off of a promising first season as the starter, and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell could have a chance to receive a lot of playing time with Washaun Ealey out of the backfield mix. Will Todd Grantham’s defense be improved in year two under his leadership?
9. Tennessee: Tyler Bray would love to forget about his disastrous spring game, but his woeful performance have some wondering if he will really be able to make a jump in his sophomore season after showing vast potential last year when he assumed the starting role. Defensively, the Vols will be relying on a lot of junior college players and freshmen prospects. The big question is whether safety Janzen Jackson will return to the team after withdrawing from school this past semester.
10. Kentucky: Second-year head coach Joker Phillips will be looking for offense any way he can get it next fall. Losing Randall Cobb, Chris Matthews and Derrick Locke really hurts, as the trio combined for 32 touchdowns in 2010. Running back Raymond Sanders will step in for Locke, but new starting quarterback Morgan Newton will need some weapons to step up at receiver. Defensively, first-year coordinator Rick Minter will bring a variety of looks to create turnovers. But can the Wildcats get to the quarterback consistently?
11. Ole Miss: What direction are the Rebels heading under head coach Houston Nutt? The secondary was porous last year and remains young even though it looked improved this spring. The defensive line lacks a standout and starting weakside linebacker Clarence Jackson was just dismissed from the team following his arrest on public drunkenness charges last week. This came on the heels of losing linebacker D.T. Shackelford to a knee injury that will likely cost him his senior season. The Rebels will be able to run the ball, however, with a deep backfield behind a good offensive line.
12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores will be led by first-year head coach James Franklin, the former heir apparent to Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. Franklin is looking to instill fresh blood into the Vandy program and is hoping to change the losing culture that has been so prevalent in Nashville. While every season will be an uphill battle for the Commodores in the SEC, there is reason for hope in 2011 if Larry Smith has a standout senior season under center. The offensive line, however, is a big concern. And who will step up as playmakers? Wesley Tate leads a strong backfield corps, so rushing the football will be a priority.
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