- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.
Need a little perspective?
The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.
“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.
Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.
So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.
The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.
Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.
The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.
The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.
“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.
“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”
While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.
Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.
“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.
The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.
There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.
Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.
The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.
Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.
Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”
With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.
We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.