We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?
When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.
Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.
Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.
Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.
Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.
The driving force behind the rule is player safety, yet there has been no real evidence that up-tempo, hurry-up offenses lead to more injuries. Still, Bielema isn't backing down from his stance on the proposal and wants to make sure something catastrophic doesn't happen.
"If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do?
"What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"
Shortly after news of the rule proposal broke, it was discovered that Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban voiced their concerns about the effects up-tempo, no-huddle offenses have on player safety to the NCAA committee.
Having one of the sport's most powerful figures backing such a proposal certainly gives it stronger legs, but it isn't winning over current coaches, who find the rule silly and want more evidence of it actually being a true concern for player health.
Even defensive-minded Florida coach Will Muschamp told ESPN.com on Thursday that he isn't in favor of the rule. While he ran more of a run-first, traditional pro-style offense during his first three years with the Gators, the addition of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has the Gators shifting to more of a spread, up-tempo look in 2014.
Muschamp said he did a study two years ago and learned that on average, four to six snaps a game come before 10 seconds tick off the game clock.
"You're talking four to six plays, come on," Muschamp said. "It's not that big of a deal. It's not about player safety. To me, it's funny that everybody wants to argue whatever their point is. It's not really about what's good for the game, it's about what's good for me, at the end of the day. All these hurry-up guys want to snap as fast as they can snap it, and the guys who don't hurry-up want the game slowed down."
To Muschamp, it's more about the administration of the game by the referees in games, who sometimes can't get set in time before a ball is snapped. That's the concern Muschamp has when it comes to evolution of offenses.
“"That's the issue," he said. "[Officials] have a hard time administering the game when it's moving that fast. There's times that they don't even have the chains set and the ball is being snapped. Is that good for the game? I don't think so, but I'm not making the decision. But it's comical to me to hear all these people come out and say their point of view and say it's what's best for the game. No, it's what's best for them; let's make that clear.
I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too.” -- Georgia coach Mark Richt
"As much as anything, it's the administration of the game that we need to help the officials. I'm not saying slow the game down, I'm just saying it's ridiculous that we can't even get the chains set and we're snapping the ball. Is that good for the game? We don't even know where the first down was? Where's the next first down? It's stupid, but that's just the way it goes."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier went as far as to call the new proposal the "Saban Rule" and hopes that "it's dead now." He even left a voicemail for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who is the chairman of the rules committee, stating his disapproval for the rule.
"I just told him I was against it," Spurrier told USA Today. "It's ridiculous. Let's let everybody keep playing the way they've been playing."
Georgia coach Mark Richt stood by Spurrier, saying defensive players should be able to adapt to staying on the field longer, just like offensive players.
"I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too," Richt told the Athens Banner-Herald.
- As usual, Johnny Manziel is at the center of the football universe. His height and hand size were all the talk after Friday's measurements at the NFL scouting combine. Manziel reached out to Tom Brady last week for advice on handling the combine spotlight. Brett Favre weighed in and said Johnny Football reminds him of "a young Brett Favre." Count San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh among those in the NFL who are similarly impressed with Manziel.
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is optimistic the the pace of play rule will pass. Many detractors, including Georgia coach Mark Richt, have demanded hard evidence that the rule is necessary. Bielema on Thursday cited the recent death of Cal's Ted Agu during a training run as such evidence. Of course, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier weighed in, calling it the "[Nick] Saban Rule." Spurrier said on Thursday that the rule "looks like it's dead now, hopefully."
- LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers plans to graduate, transfer and play for a new team this fall.
- Alabama has a school-record 12 players invited to the NFL scouting combine. Quarterback AJ McCarron is among those who will participate in full workouts.
- After having 11 players at the combine a year ago, Georgia will be represented by just one -- TE Arthur Lynch -- this weekend. QB Aaron Murray, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL less than three months ago, will be there just to chat.
- Florida's medical and strength staff is helping its many injured players making strides in their return to full health.
- Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a total of three prospects at the NFL combine.
- Relaxed, focused Missouri tailback Henry Josey is among the players at the NFL combine.
Auburn was No. 2, South Carolina No. 4, Missouri No. 5 and Alabama No. 7. LSU also hit double digits in wins last season and finished No. 14 in the final polls.
Alabama, LSU and South Carolina are the only three schools in the league to have won 10 or more games each of the last three seasons.
So we'll ask you, the fans, for a little help. Go vote in our SportsNation poll and select the SEC team you think is most likely to drop off next season.
For whatever it's worth, Alabama, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina will all be playing with new starting quarterbacks next season. The only one that won't is Auburn, which returns Nick Marshall.
It's not all that uncommon for teams in the SEC to go from 10 or more wins one season to a losing season the next. Florida did it a year ago after winning 11 games the previous season. Arkansas did it in 2012 after winning 11 games in 2011.
And nobody has seesawed quite like Auburn recently. The Tigers went unbeaten in 2010 and won the national championship. They dropped off to eight wins in 2011, three wins in 2012 and came back last season and played for the national title. Missouri had a similar resurgence last season. Gary Pinkel's Tigers bounced back with 12 wins after mustering just five wins in their first year in the SEC in 2012.
It can change quickly in this league.
We'll leave it to you to tell us who will take a tumble next season.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at which programs compiled the nation's best overall position classes in 2014. For the full top position classes series, click here.
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating up-tempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s the most obvious position with room for improvement at Alabama: Quarterback. With AJ McCarron gone and no incumbent starter to step in, the race is wide open.
Throw in a new offensive coordinator -- you might have heard it’s a guy named Lane Kiffin -- and you’ve got all the ingredients for an interesting drama.
"That'll be a really good competition this spring -- really, really excited about our young players on the roster at that position," former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier told reporters before the Sugar Bowl and before leaving to take the offensive coordinator job at Michigan. "With any young quarterback there's a steep learning curve, and for those guys it's about getting snaps every day and continuing to progress, and I like the development that we've seen in those young players. They need to continue to grow. We need to have a really, really good offseason. But I'm very excited about what that competition is going to hold come spring."
Nussmeier, obviously, won’t be around to see it. Neither will Luke Del Rio, who transferred to Oregon State in January in what was a curious move considering he was the only true freshman to travel with the team last season.
Battling for No. 1: He isn’t yet on campus, and he won’t be until after the spring. In fact, Jacob Coker is too busy trying to graduate from Florida State to concern himself with where he ranks in Alabama’s quarterback competition. But that hasn’t stopped Tide fans from anointing him the front-runner to replace McCarron. Coker, who slipped past Nick Saban and his staff as a recruit out of high school in Mobile, Ala., committed to Alabama in January, ending the months-long drama surrounding his decision. His legend ballooned over that time, casting him as a quarterback with a cannon for an arm and a competitive streak that nearly allowed him to beat out eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. We’ll see during fall camp whether he can live up to such high expectations.
Strength in numbers: It’s been conveniently ignored that Coker isn’t in a one-man race to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback. Considering that he won’t even compete in spring practice, it’s safe to say he’s not in all that enviable a position to win the job in the first place. For Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod -- and yes, the race includes that many contestants -- making a lasting impression during the spring will be vital. Sims, despite being listed as McCarron’s backup last season, doesn’t have the skill set to fit Saban’s pro-style system. An athletic, running quarterback, he could ultimately be a change-of-pace option at the position, leaving Morris as the next most experienced quarterback. Morris, a strong-armed Texan, has two years with Saban under his belt. But considering he didn’t attempt a single pass in 2013, it’s safe to say that Bateman and McLeod are right on his heels.
New on the scene: The wild card in all this is David Cornwell, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at Alabama in January. The No. 2-rated pocket passer in the ESPN 300, he’s got all the tools to do well in Saban’s system. The question is when. Considering his lack of experience in high school -- he missed almost all of his senior season -- and his status as a true freshman, it’s likely too much to ask for him to compete for the starting job right away. The one thing in his benefit is that Kiffin is new. He doesn’t have an impression of any of the quarterbacks and will judge the competition with fresh eyes. With a strong showing in the spring, Cornwell could make Kiffin and Saban think twice about playing a true freshman.
South Carolina's Steve Spurrier added his name to the list of coaches opposed to a rule proposal that would slow down college offenses, and he wasn't afraid to point fingers while criticizing it.
"So, you want to talk about the 'Saban Rule'?" Spurrier told USA Today on Thursday. "That's what I call it. Looks like it's dead now, hopefully."
During the rules committee meeting last week, Alabama coach Nick Saban debated a rule policy that would force offenses to wait 10 seconds to snap the ball. Saban, along with Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, cited safety as the reason behind the proposal, but he's also been a longtime opponent of hurry-up offenses.
"Should we allow football to be a continuous game? Is that the way the game was designed to play?" Saban asked during last summer's SEC media days.
The Playing Rules Oversight Panel will consider the slow-down proposal March 6.
But Spurrier, a rival of Saban and Bielema's in the SEC, has joined Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in advocating against the proposal. Spurrier told USA Today he left a voicemail for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, chairman of the rules committee.
"I just told him I was against it," Spurrier told the newspaper. "It's ridiculous. Let's let everybody keep playing the way they've been playing."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama has sued former assistant coach Mike Groh seeking payment of his contract buyout.
The suit filed Thursday in Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court says Groh owes the university $57,000, equal to 20 percent of his $285,000 salary.
Groh was hired by the Chicago Bears as receivers coach in February 2013 after two seasons as the Crimson Tide's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
The suit says Tide coach Nick Saban "elected not to waive the liquidated damages" allowed under Groh's contract. It says the university has made written requests that the money be paid.
The Bears declined to comment. Groh's contract with Alabama ran through Feb. 28, 2014.
Groh also worked as an offensive graduate assistant at Alabama in 2009. He's a former offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Virginia.
But starting next week, with Texas A&M opening spring practice on Friday, it's full speed ahead to the 2014 season. Texas A&M will be the first of the SEC schools to start spring ball. With the ongoing expansion and renovation to Kyle Field, the Aggies won't have a traditional spring game and will hold their final practice of the spring on April 5.
The other 13 SEC schools will all crank up spring practice sometime in March, so we'll all get our football fix soon enough.
Below is a listing of the spring practice start dates and spring game dates for all 14 SEC schools.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.
Nationally (and SEC)
Not only did Alabama put together the best offensive line class in the 2014 cycle, but it's also one of the best in recent memory. The Crimson Tide inked early enrollee and five-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson (Monroe, La./West Monroe) and also got top-ranked junior college offensive tackle Dominick Jackson (San Mateo, Calif./College of San Mateo). On the interior, the nation's top two centers, No. 168 overall Josh Casher (Mobile, Ala./Saint Paul’s Episcopal) and No. 190 J.C. Hassenauer (Woodbury, Minn./East Ridge) signed, as did No. 3 guard Ross Pierschbacher (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Cedar Falls). A second guard in the class is three-star Montel McBride (Plant City, Fla./Plant City), who could also play nose tackle at the next level.
The Crimson Tide had the nation’s best offensive line class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With a new position coach, maybe it’s time for new expectations. Alabama’s defensive line always has been solid, but when was the last time it was impressive? When was the last time it created the type of pressure that routinely moved quarterbacks off their spot and into bad situations?
Bo Davis’ return to Tuscaloosa as defensive line coach represents an opportunity for Alabama. With starters Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson off to the NFL, there’s room for both a shakeup in personnel and philosophy.
Granted, Nick Saban is never going to be the type of head coach who chases sacks, or any stat for that matter, but there’s no doubt Alabama could stand to get better at rushing the passer up front.
With more hurry-up offenses and mobile quarterbacks taking over in the SEC and college football, simply getting in the face of the passer won't do it anymore -- the ball is out too quickly or the quarterback will too often scramble out of pressure.
Battling for No. 1: Based on last season, the writing might already be on the wall for who replaces Pagan and Stinson in the starting lineup. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake should continue to hold down at nose guard, and the way true freshman A’Shawn Robinson played, leading the team with 5.5 sacks, he’s a lock to start. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds with surprising athleticism, he’s the kind of “quick-twitch” down lineman Saban has been looking for. The same can be said of fellow rookie Jonathan Allen, who played in all but one game last season. His 16 tackles and half a sack won’t knock your socks off, but considering he played so much as a true freshman without the benefit of spring practice, it’s nonetheless impressive.
Strength in numbers: The return of D.J. Pettway from junior college could push the presumptive starters, however. You’ll recall that Pettway was a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2012 and only left the team after being arrested in an on-campus altercation. Should he remain out of trouble and regain the confidence of coaches on the field, he could make an immediate impact. He’ll be joined by a handful of solid reserves: Dalvin Tomlinson, Dee Liner, Korren Kirven and Dakota Ball. Tomlinson is an intriguing prospect; coaches and players have raved about his potential, but knee injuries in successive years have forced him out of the lineup.
New on the scene: Alabama won’t be hurting for depth as it welcomes in four defensive linemen, not counting Pettway. Junior college transfer Jarran Reed is one to watch. At 6-4 and 315 pounds, he could compete for time at nose guard. Four-star prospects O.J. Smith, Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier are big bodies who could fill roles as interior linemen. And don’t forget the most high-profile recruit of them all: Da'Shawn Hand. The five-star defensive end from Virginia is a physical marvel at 6-4 and 262 pounds with a sub-5.0 40-yard dash. He could easily trim down and play outside linebacker, but coaches will get a better look when he enrolls this summer.
"I stare at the depth-chart board a lot," Larry Fedora admitted as signing day drew to a close and he started to concentrate fully on his third season as head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. "Who is coming back? Who fits where? Where might the new guys fit in? Honestly, I don't think you want the coaches to have too much time to fiddle around with that board, swapping guys in and out of different positions. We can start coming up with some crazy ideas."
Crazy? Well, yes, some of them are. But most are born of necessity.
"Obviously, you want your players in the positions where they are the most comfortable," new Penn State head coach James Franklin said after having some time to digest his Penn State roster, still very much affected by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and resulting NCAA sanctions. "But at the end of the day, I want to come as close to having my 22 best athletes on the field as I possibly can."
That means some position switching will likely be coming to Happy Valley, as it will throughout the land during the great experiment that is spring practice. What roster swaps will have the greatest impact on the 2014 college football season? It's too early to tell. But here are some potential flip-flops to keep an eye on this March and April:
Blake Bell, Oklahoma Sooners
Bell, the one-time heir apparent to Landry Jones, is no longer a Sooners quarterback. He's a tight end, officially handing over the QB duties to teammate Trevor Knight. As a junior in 2013, Bell ceded the QB job to Knight, who locked up the starter's role by leading OU to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. With Bell moving over to TE, and only a pair of freshmen and Texas Tech refugee Baker Mayfield behind Knight, the soon-to-be sophomore looks to have that job from now until he leaves Norman.
But you remember the Belldozer, don't you? The guy who scored 24 touchdowns in 104 rushes during his two years watching Jones under center? Now head coach Bob Stoops hopes to recapture that red zone magic using the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder as a tight end, the same position his father Mark played (as well as defensive end) during five seasons in the NFL.
"Blake wants to stay here and finish out. He wants to try tight end and I think it's a great fit," said Stoops.
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The Tuscaloosa News was first to report the scheduled game.
Alabama is currently scheduled to open the 2015 season against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas. The Tide has an open date the following weekend and would follow that with the home date with Louisiana-Monroe. The last time the Warhawks came to Tuscaloosa, Ala., they upset the Crimson Tide 21-14 on Nov. 17, 2007, a moment that served as a low point in coach Nick Saban's first season.
The details of the contract were not made available. Alabama paid Colorado State $1.5 million for a home game last season and Southern Miss will reportedly receive $1.4 million for its Sept. 13 trip to Tuscaloosa this coming season.
Recruit Comparison: Kouandjio to Big Cam
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35