With only Kentucky and Arkansas left on the spring practice slate, this edition of Three & Out is focused on the big picture. What was really learned during spring practice?
CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THE EAST IS NOT WIDE OPEN
The phrase, "the door is open in the SEC East," (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) has been uttered non-stop this off-season by fans and analysts. I even wrote it from time to time.
But now, I'm not sure if I believe it.
Florida is down by Florida standards. What team wouldn't be after losing the population of a small country to graduation and the NFL Draft? But that doesn't mean that the division is ripe for the picking. In reality, it's the contrary. While Florida may be down a bit, the gap between the Gators and the rest of the pack is as wide as ever.
While Florida must contend with the departures of Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden and just about the rest of the 2009 roster, the rest of the East is full of question marks.
The top contender is South Carolina, but the Gamecocks have hardly proven that they can legitimately compete in the division. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is already in head coach Steve Spurrier's doghouse and they will probably have to rely on incoming freshman running back Marcus Lattimore to be the workhorse in the backfield. With 19 of 22 players on both two-deeps returning, there's a lot experience in Columbia. But that returning talent only managed seven wins last season. Besides, the Gamecocks only have posted a 10-win season once during their entire existence, and that's probably what it's going to take to topple the Gators.
Georgia has no quarterback and has to replace six starters on defense. Yes, Willie Martinez is gone, so that's addition by subtraction. But a questionable defense and shaky quarterback situation isn't a recipe for success in the SEC.
New Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley isn't Lane Kiffin, which is a step in the right direction; but the Vols have no experience at quarterback, no Eric Berry and a steady stream of players walking out the door from the Kiffin's only recruiting class. The Vols simply don't have the team to contend with Florida in 2010.
Kentucky has wide receiver Randall Cobb and running back Derrick Locke returning. That could be enough to get the Wildcats to eight wins, but that's not enough to compete for the division title.
Barring an unforeseen disaster, Florida is going to win the SEC East. They have loads of talent in Gainesville. Granted, a lot of it is raw talent, but guys like Andre Debose and John Brantley are more than capable of stepping up. Is it enough talent to get the Gators in National Championship contention? Maybe. But the talent level in Gainesville, coupled with the uncertainly in the rest of the division, should give the Gators their third straight trip to Atlanta.
THE WEST COULD BE INTERESTING
While the East may not be as wide open as some may think, the SEC West may be a little closer than some Alabama fans would like.
Bama has to replace nine starters on defense – NINE. That's a little deceiving considering that linebacker Dont'a Hightower technically isn't included in that statistic after injuring his knee early in 2009, but that's still a ton of holes to fill.
There's still talent on that roster though. Defensive end Marcel Dareus, a reserve last season, returns after becoming a household name after Mack Brown's ill-fated shovel pass in the National Championship Game. Dre Kirkpatrick, Phaleon Jones and B.J. Scott are capable of filling in for the recently-departed Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas at cornerback. But, with so many starters gone off that defense, there might be some speed bumps.
The Crimson Tide must face Penn State, Arkansas and Florida in the first five weeks of the season. Granted, Penn State isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut (plus, they're a Big 10 team, and the SEC owns the Big 10); but that will be a big game early. You never know how an inexperienced defense will react when the lights get a little brighter.
While the rest of the East is down, several West teams are on the rise.
Arkansas returns quarterback Ryan Mallett, a very underrated receiving corps led by Greg Childs and Joe Adams, and a solid running back committee including Broderick Green and Dennis Johnson. It's true, the Razorback defense would have trouble stopping a Pop Warner team, but sometimes you can win games by simply outscoring your opponent.
Auburn is definitely hiding something. Quarterback Cameron Newton and running back Mario Fannin didn't see a lot of action in the Auburn A-Day Game, and it's not because they were buried on the depth chart. There are some depth issues on defense, but the return of Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage in the secondary should help.
LSU found the running game that they desperately missed last season with the emergence of Michael Ford and Stevan Ridley this spring. That, along with wide receivers Terrance Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard, should help Jordan Jefferson out a lot. If the Tigers can figure out a way for Les Miles to suddenly learn how to manage a clock, they'll be all set.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss will have a lot of work to do to get in contention, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one or both of them wind up in bowl games.
I don't see Alabama going undefeated in the regular season for a third straight year. If the Crimson Tide lose the wrong games, things could get very interesting in the SEC West.
Alabama running back Mark Ingram made history last season, bringing the first ever Heisman Trophy to Tuscaloosa. Could the trophy stay in the SEC in 2010? Maybe. The list of contenders is pretty impressive.
Ingram is obviously the top contender, but some of his carries will be taken away by Trent Richardson. That's not to say that Ingram is not one of the best backs in the game, but Richardson isn't so bad himself. Archie Griffin is the only player in history to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Ingram certainly is capable of doing it too, but considering the amount of talent on that roster, their offensive numbers are going to spread around to a lot of players.
The chic pick to win the Heisman in the SEC is Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett has the talent, but that doesn't necessarily translate into Heisman consideration. The Heisman Trophy has evolved into an award for the best offensive player on one of the best teams in the county. Do you see Arkansas competing for the National Title? I don't.
Several people have floated John Brantley's name out there. While that may be possible, he's yet to take truly meaningful snaps as a starter in the SEC. Let's hold off on anointing him the second coming of Tim Tebow for now.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at
2010 Spring Three & Out Archive