Just as I was pleasantly greeted by a warm 65 degree Maryland day after returning from Utah this past Sunday, so has the thawing of the ice begun around the college football landscape as another spring asserts itself between the conclusion of the 2008 season and the gearing up for the 2009 season. And while academic scandal, off season arrests, and something called the "World Baseball Classic" seem to dominate the monotone headlines of our 24/7 sports ticker, thankfully a welcomed break is on the horizon. For some schools this process is well under way, and for many others it will begin soon.
We are of course talking about Spring Football; a delightful invention that promises any college football fan worth his season ticket plan the chance to scope out how his/her team will fare during the fall to come. Perhaps more of an indicator of individual player improvement than of outright team cohesion, spring football has nevertheless taken on a life of its own in the southern reaches of America, as fans literally flock to places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Gainsville, Florida for the chance to see some good 'ol helmet popping for at least one Saturday in March or April. Today begins the first part of our spring football odyssey, as we embark on a tour of all six BCS conferences en route to identifying the major questions and concerns for those teams which figure to be in the hunt for their conference's title. In addition to these six conferences, we'll also be taking a look at five questions for non-BCS conference teams in 2009, as well as five questions facing members of the Football Championship Subdivision. But first and foremost we begin with the SEC, where spring football isn't just a prelude to the start of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but rather a continuation of a 365 day a year love affair that knows no boundaries in terms of season or other sports alike.
Can anyone catch Florida? When previewing the spring shortly after the end of last season I used the word "unfair" to describe the amount of talent and experience coming back to the National Champion Florida Gators next season. Not only do the Gators return arguably one of the best players in college football history in Tim Tebow, but Urban Meyer's squad also gets back virtually their entire defense, offensive line, and a host of explosive skill position players who should step right in for Percy Harvin. With a proven system in place that has been able to overcome the familiar storyline of bad SEC offenses, Florida looks unstoppable not only from a conference perspective, but from a national perspective as well. Once more, traditional SEC heavyweights such as Georgia, Tennessee, and Auburn all look to rebuild after disappointing seasons a year ago, as does Alabama, which while extremely young last season will have to find a quarterback and running back moving forward this spring. One team that could challenge the Gators for the SEC crown could be the team that upset them last year in Houston Nutt's Ole Miss Rebels. Yet given Florida's body of work in 2008 and the number of question marks facing other SEC teams heading into this spring, one has to seriously wonder if anyone can catch the Gators in their quest for a second consecutive SEC and National Title.
Can Guz Malzahn do it again? Auburn was one of the biggest disappointments in the entire country last year, in no small part to an offense which ranked 104th in the country in terms of yards gained per game. While much of the attention this offseason has focused on the hiring of new head coach Gene Chizek after the abrupt firing of Tommy Tuberville, the real question for the rebuilding Tigers will be whether or not new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn can succeed in where Auburn's last OC failed; installing the spread offense. Malzahn had great success at both Arkansas and Tulsa in installing and running the spread offense, creating the now infamous "Wild Hog" formation which has been utilized as far up as the NFL. Yet he'll have a wide-eyed cast of players this spring at Auburn, and must first identify a quarterback to lead the Tigers forward before fully installing his system.
Who will be Tennessee's Quarterback? No team summed up the middle-of-the-pack SEC's slide into mediocrity more last season than the Vols, who went 5-7 on the year and only 3-5 in conference. With an offense that ranked 115th in the country, Tennessee suffered their low point of the year in a 13-7 home loss to Wyoming. Quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens managed to hit just over 50% of their passes on the year, and failed to spark the offense to any meaningful wins. With Stephans out with a hand injury this spring finding a quarterback becomes all the more important for new head coach Lane Kiffin, who worked wonders during his time as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for USC. Yet he'll have decidedly less talent to work with in Rocky Top, as he has already indicated a plan to open up every position for competition. If he can get Crompton over the hump though watch out, as the Vol defense should solid with one of the league's best defenders in Eric Berry back in 2009.
Will Vandy Find Some Offense? Wait a second? Five questions about the SEC and you want to talk about Vandy? You're kidding me Adam, aren't you? Well, not exactly, and fresh of the program's first bowl win since 1955 head coach Bobby Johnson could have his Commodores in an even better position to compete with the rest of the league after a .500 finish in the SEC last season. That's because Vanderbilt returns 19 total starters from last year's team, including 10 on a defense that ranked a productive 30th in the nation. Yet for coach Johnson's team to come out of SEC play with a winning record in 2009 they'll have to find some offense, as the Commodores ranked an anemic 117th in total offense last season. Vanderbilt will have to do it without the benefit of last year's leading rusher Jared Hawkins, who'll miss the spring with a foot injury. That means the spotlight will be on quarterbacks Mackenzie Adams and Larry Smith, who will battle for the starting job behind an experienced offensive line.
Is Jordan Jefferson the guy in Baton Rouge? Les Miles is notorious for allowing quarterback competitions to drag on through the spring and into the summer, and this year is likely to be no exception. Jordan Jefferson may have struggled through much of 2008 in a back-and-forth lineup with co-starters Andrew Hatch (who has since transferred back to Harvard) and Jarrett Lee, but there was no denying that the talented Jefferson made progress as the year progressed. Yet even after leading the Tigers to a route over Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl Jefferson is far from the "official" starter heading into 2009, with Miles indicating that highly touted freshmen Russell Shepard would get a crack at the job along with fellow freshmen Chris Garrett (both of whom enrolled early.) Whether Jefferson is really the starter heading into 2009 or if Miles is just trying to challenge his athletic but inexperienced quarterbacks remains to be seen, but the situation will likely mean the difference between an LSU team that challenges for the SEC West and one that just settles for a second tier bowl.
SEC Spring Game Dates Alabama (April 18th) Arkansas (April 18th) Auburn (April 18th) Florida (April 18th) Georgia (April 11th) Kentucky (April 25th) LSU (April 18th) Ole Miss (April 18th) Mississippi State (April 18th) South Carolina (April 11th) Tennessee (April 18th) Vanderbilt (March 28th)