Spring football: Florida's future, more burning SEC questions
Alabama seems like only SEC team with pieces to compete for national title
All eyes have been on Urban Meyer, but now John Brantley takes QB reins
SEC West composed of most competitive set of teams in college football
Until the Big Ten expands to 12 (or more) teams, the SEC probably will remain the most powerful force in the college football universe. It has produced the past four national champions. It has ultra-lucrative television deals. Many of its fans would travel to the moon to watch their teams play. One of its teams (Alabama) probably will start the season ranked No. 1.
Still, this feels like a season of change in the league. Tim Tebow, for three years the nation's most visible college football player, is no longer the quarterback at Florida. Lane Kiffin, who generated a decade's worth of headlines in a year at Tennessee, is coaching in Los Angeles. The nucleus of the Alabama defense that led the Crimson Tide to the 2009 national title is headed to the NFL. There are new head coaches at Kentucky and Tennessee, new defensive coordinators at Florida and Georgia and new quarterbacks or quarterback competitions at Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
All that change isn't necessarily good or bad. It's just different. It also means this could be a lively spring.
What has to happen this spring for the SEC to produce a fifth consecutive national champion?
The simple answer is that Alabama must find replacements for some very good defensive players. The reality is that it's more complicated than that. Alabama fans won't want to hear this, but only one of those SEC national champs (LSU in 2007) was the favorite coming into the season. Auburn was the trendy pick in 2006, and Florida won the BCS title. Georgia was the favorite in 2008, and Florida won the title. Florida and Ole Miss were favorites in 2009, and Alabama won the title.
Looking around the country, Alabama seems like the only SEC team with the pieces to compete for a national title. Another team with a deep roster -- the usual suspects are Florida, Georgia and LSU -- might rise up and enter the conversation, but at the moment, the SEC's hopes will ride with Alabama, which has several issues to address.
The Crimson Tide bring back a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback (Mark Ingram), a younger tailback who might be just as good (Trent Richardson), a stud receiver (Julio Jones) several experienced linemen (William Vlachos, Barrett Jones, James Carpenter) and a better-than-he-gets-credit-for quarterback (Greg McElroy). But Alabama also must replace its best linebacker, its best defensive lineman and both starting cornerbacks.
Fortunately, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, lost last season to a torn ACL on Sept. 26, has recovered enough to practice. Rolando McClain was great, but Hightower could be just as good. Meanwhile, defensive end Marcell Dareus, one of the heroes of the BCS title game, will have to take on a bigger role.
The most important spring decision for Alabama may take place in the SEC office. As currently constituted, the SEC's master schedule would force the Tide to play their final six conference games against teams coming off bye weeks. This was an issue for Alabama last year, but six games against rested teams is beyond ridiculous, especially when the rest of the league will play a combined three conference games against rested opponents. Fortunately for the Tide, the SEC is considering altering the schedule, because a slate that tough could fell even the most dominant team.
What's happening at Florida?
We'll know more Wednesday, when the Gators open spring practice, but until someone in the know says anything different, I'll assume Florida coach Urban Meyer plans to coach spring practice and return full speed when preseason practice begins in August.
Meyer's health scare, sudden resignation and equally sudden change of heart have dominated the headlines for months. Those events obscured a good news-bad news scenario for the Gators. The good news is that, just as they did in 2007, the Gators signed a fantastic recruiting class. The bad news is that, just as it did in 2007, Florida will have to replace most of its defense from the previous season. Anyone who watched future star cornerback Joe Haden go through a baptism by go route as a true freshman knows that wasn't a pretty season in Gainesville in spite of Tebow's Heisman Trophy.
First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been coy about what he'll use as the Gators' base scheme, but he said he doesn't plan to completely overhaul the defense Charlie Strong ran at Florida (a 4-3, heavy on the pressure). Austin also said the defense would be "player-friendly." Someone looking to be friendly to Florida's current personnel probably would try to find a way to get linebackers Brandon Hicks, A.J. Jones, Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic on the field at the same time -- especially with freshman Shariff Floyd coming this summer. Floyd, the nation's top-ranked defensive tackle recruit, is built like a prototype 3-4 nose tackle, as is early enrollee Leon "Earthquake" Orr, a 300-pounder who played tight end in high school.
On offense, redshirt junior John Brantley finally gets his chance to succeed Tebow. NFL scouts will drool over Brantley, a more polished pocket passer who will have four returning starters blocking for him. But to whom will Brantley throw? Meyer and company hope Andre Debose is a frequent target. Debose, who missed his freshman season with a hamstring injury, looks an awful lot like Percy Harvin with the ball in his hands.
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