Two-a-Days rolls on with our 15th installment, in which we take a look around the SEC.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
So we've talked to the beat writers from every team in the SEC, and we've chatted with the beat writers from Georgia's three other FBS non-conference opponents. But that was all more of a micro-view of what's in store for the Bulldogs this year.
As we wind down Two-A-Days, I wanted to also take more of a big-picture look at college football. Later this afternoon we'll talk about the national landscape, but for now, I turned to ESPN's SEC blogger Chris Low for an around-the-horn look at the conference as it stands at the end of spring. Here's what he had to say...
David Hale: Ryan Mallett seems pretty well established as the SEC's leading QB at the moment, and Greg McElroy is coming off a national title. Beyond that, however, there are a whole lot of question marks. Georgia and Florida look like they've got talented prospects, but we haven't seen much (or any) of John Brantley or Aaron Murray. LSU and South Carolina looked to have established QBs, but Jordan Jefferson and Stephen Garcia haven't exactly endeared themselves to their coaches. Tennessee, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vandy... they look up in the air. So... is there a QB problem in the SEC right now or might we see a few of these ambiguous situations turn into major strengths by the fall?
Chris Low: This is like the third straight year where there's been a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position. Back in 2008, it was sort of Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow and everybody else. Everybody else had a lot of question marks. Last year, supposedly it was just Tebow and Jevan Snead and no one knew what to think of someone like Greg McElroy. It's been par for the course in this league that there's been a couple of stable situations and everybody else is going into the season a little bit blind.
The guy I think will break out and be a marquee quarterback this year is John Brantley at Florida. He's as pure a passer as Florida's had in a long time, and he's really played well in the last two springs. Last spring, Tebow didn't play a lot, and Brantley worked a lot with the first team. I think Brantley would be my first choice to really break out this season, and I think they're going to really tweak that offense around him. There's going to be much more emphasis put on throwing the football than in the past.
To me the most intriguing situation in the league is at South Carolina. You have a guy in Stephen Garcia who improved his numbers pretty significantly last year from his redshirt freshman year. If you look up just the SEC-only stats from last year, he had better numbers than almost any guy in the league, better than Tebow's numbers. Ryan Mallett's the only guy who had better numbers. But his coach, Steve Spurrier, is so down on him right now as far as his commitment and his work ethic, and he's telling everyone he might play a true freshman in Connor Shaw if he comes back in August and he feels like he's better. Maybe he's trying to motivate Garcia. Maybe he's really had it with Garcia. But to me, that's a pretty precarious position to be in. At every other position, you have the firepower to maybe make a run for the first time in ages, but you're looking at the prospect of maybe playing a true freshman at quarterback.
I think Chris Relf might be the most improved quarterback at Mississippi State. He had a really good spring, he's improved his passing, he's 240 pounds and a real good running quarterback. He really puts a lot of pressure on the defense with his ability to run, but he improved his passing this spring. I think he'll be even more effective this year.
DH: Lots of coaching changes around the league this year, including two head coaches (Tennessee and Kentucky) and a bunch of new coordinators (Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss) and staff shakeups everywhere except Auburn. From your travels this spring, who seems to be fitting in the best so far?
CL: Georgia, what they did bringing in Todd Grantham, he has extensive experience in college and the NFL, knows that 3-4 defense inside and out, coached with Nick Saban and coached it the whole time he was in the NFL. His approach is getting after the quarterback, hitting the quarterback, pressuring the quarterback, disguising coverages, disguising blitzes, getting into his head and doing anything they can to attack the quarterback. That will be their calling card this year, and they're going to be more aggressive. Now, do they have the personnel right now to do everything he wants? I think he's a little concerned about his depth at corner and whether they have enough outside linebackers.
But they'll be more aggressive, take a few more chances and be more multi-faced in how they come after the quarterback and where they come from. If you go back and watch last year how many times Alabama blitzed Javier Arenas from the cornerback position -- I think he ended up with around five sacks. I think they're going to do more of that at Georgia this year and really put the offense in bad situations. So I like Grantham and that defense, but they are going to have to recruit to it, and they'll probably need to have at least one more year to get the guys.
One other situation like that -- I like Dan Mullen's hire of Manny Diaz as his coordinator. The combination of him and Chris Wilson, the defensive line coach who came over from Oklahoma, Mississippi State up front this year will be a lot more active and a lot better.
DH: Spring practice is often a lot like spring training in baseball -- everything seems promising until the games actually start. But from what you've learned this spring, what two or three storylines do you think will actually have a major impact this fall?
CL: I think the quarterback situation at LSU is going to be big. Jordan Jefferson did not have a great spring. They thought he would. Everybody thought he would take that shot and run with it, and he didn't. In fact, almost everybody at LSU will tell you -- if not so much publicly -- but Jarrett Lee played at least as well, if not outplayed him this spring. And Lee's the guy that threw 16 interceptions two years ago, and seven of them went for touchdowns the other way. So it's going to be really intriguing if they get into that first month of the season -- and remember, they play North Carolina to open the season, who will be outstanding on defense, and they play West Virginia a couple of weeks later -- if they don't play well offensively and Jefferson struggles with his decision making, I think you're going to see Jarrett Lee out there. It'll be interesting to see how he's received. He was sort of the whipping boy, but Les Miles told me he would not be hesitant to play Lee.
I think the whole Urban Meyer, Florida thing -- what is the deal? He was there for practice, there for recruiting, and he hasn't been around much since. He had the whole blow-up with the reporter. He hasn't said a whole lot. Has he changed as a coach? Is he going to give up special teams, which has sort of been his baby? If not, will he be as involved? Just what is the post-I'm going to quit, no I'm going to take a leave Urban Meyer going to look like? That's one of the shorelines that everybody is waiting to see how it plays out.
DH: Tim Tebow, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry... some of the biggest stars in the SEC are off to play on Sundays, so who did you see this spring that you think has a chance to step up to that star status and become a household name in the fall?
CL: I don't know that Marcel Dareus was a household name to start the season last year at Alabama, but he ended up being the defensive MVP of the national championship game. But he only started four games last year. He wasn't even a full-time starter for Alabama. So he'd be my first guy. I think he's the best defensive lineman in the SEC. He's a top-10 draft pick next year.
I think Tauren Poole at Tennessee, the running back. I think he'll be the next 1,000-yard rusher at Tennessee. He never really got a chance last year to play, but in every scrimmage they had this year, he had a long run. He's a really tough, hard-nosed runner, and I think he'll have a big year.
I think Kris Durham at Georgia. Teams are still going to shadow A.J. Green everywhere he goes, but talking to Mike Bobo, Durham has had a really good spring, and they really feel like Durham has come on and will break out and can become their No. 2 receiver this year and have a big year. He's a guy to watch, certainly.
After that, two more guys I think will be that type of player: Russell Shephard at LSU will become more of a household name this year now that he's a full-time receiver. I think they're going to get him the ball. And DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina's sophomore safety, I think will be one of those guys that everybody knows who he is when this year's over. I think he and Stephone Gilmore back in that defensive backfield will be a pretty wicked combination.
DH: Alabama and Florida have played in the past two SEC title games and, despite some major changes, appear to be the favorites again. You have them atop your SEC power poll, but who might be poised to step up and grab a division title if the Tide or Gators take a tumble?
CL: Well I don't rank them by division, I rank them 1-12. I have the West teams all ranked ahead of Georgia because I think the West has sort of moved past the East and is a little stronger top to bottom. Now, I don't know if it's the case that they won't have more losses, but that's not how I do the poll right now. I think that Auburn, LSU and Arkansas are all a little bit stronger right now than Georgia, but not a lot, and I think Georgia probably stands as good a chance as anybody to unseat Florida than anybody in the West can unseat Alabama.
I think if Georgia gets good play from Murray and he stays healthy and they're able to eliminate some of those big plays and some of those games that plagued them on defense last year when they gave up 35, 45 points, I think Georgia will be right there to challenge Florida. I think Florida is going to lose a couple of games this year. I think everybody in the East will have at least one conference loss this year, and it might be one of those years where everybody has two.
So I'd go with the Bulldogs in the East, and in the West, I just think it's so close between Arkansas, Auburn and LSU, it's basically whoever gets the breaks, whoever stays healthy and whoever's quarterback situation works out the best. Even then I'd say Arkansas has a little bit of an advantage because Mallett is the best quarterback in the league, but they haven't proven that they can stop anybody on defense. So that's the big divide they have to cross this year.
Big thanks to Chris for taking so much time out to provide some really interesting insight from around the league. You can read his SEC blog for ESPN HERE, including his spring wrap-up of Georgia HERE.
So… fair to see Alabama and Florida as the favorites again? Who do you see as the best of the rest? Which story lines are you most interested in following through the spring? And who do you see as the burgeoning stars in the SEC?
And don't forget, we're wrapping up Two-A-Days tomorrow with a look at Georgia. So if you have some burning questions you want answered, here's your last chance. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT UP: A look at the national scene later this afternoon.