- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Change is inevitable in the world of SEC football.
It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
And probably more precisely, how wide is the gap between Alabama and everybody else in the SEC?
Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.
“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”
That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.
It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.
Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.
Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.
Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.
Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.
If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.
The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.
Right behind McCarron in passing efficiency last season was Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who returns for his senior season and is on track to break virtually every SEC career passing record.
One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.
Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.
Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.
The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.
If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.
This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.
There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.
We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.
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