A few thoughts about the state of the SEC East programs as spring football begins:
The Gators officially kick of spring football today, and it looks like Muschamp will have his work cut out for him if he wants to erase the memory of the most recent Sugar Bowl, where his team put on a nationally-televised egg laying clinic. The Gators return only 4 defensive starters. Of those four, three are cornerbacks, and one (Purifoy) will be practicing with the offense as a wide receiver. With no returning linebackers or safeties, and only one returning defensive lineman, Muschamp needs his offense to develop a pulse if the team is to have any hope of success. A scoring offense ranked 78th in the country isn't going to land you in a BCS game with this defense.
Fortunately for the Gators offense, the line is largely intact, with 3 returning starters, with the two holes at left tackle and left guard. The player expected to fill the empty spot at left tackle (former 5-star sophomore DJ Humphries) isn't exactly green, seeing that he started three games last year. The big news coming out of Gainesville this spring is that Trey Burton - TE, RB, Wildcat QB, Tim Tebow heir extraordinaire is being moved to wide receiver.
Like their Cocktail Party dance partners, Georgia will have their season defined by how well the offense can cover for a young defense. The dawgs return only three defensive starters from last year's unit. Gone are Geathers, Jenkins, Rambo, and Jones. In their stead, they leave one returning starter at each level of the defense. Of the three, only cornerback Swann moves the dial, on the heels of a fantastic debut season as a true freshman.
The other side of the ball is a different story, as Georgia returns a whopping ten starters from an offense that averaged nearly 38 points a game last season. The last that I saw, the offense is going through spring practices with only one running back, but the injured Marshall (hamstring) is expected to be back in time to participate in the spring scrimmage on April 6.
Mark Stoops did his surname justice back in November when he tied his fate to the hapless Wildcats. Last year, Kentucky went 2-10, and had offense/defense scoring rankings of 119 (!!!) and 86, respectively. Both rankings, by the way, come in below the mighty South Alabama Jaguars (REPRESENT).
The 'Cats return 7 starters on both side of the ball, but honestly, when a team is this bad, further analysis seems pointless.
Mizzou kicked off their spring practice yesterday, and I think it is safe to say that their freshman year went a lot differently than they had hoped. It was a lot more wedgies and being stuffed into lockers than contesting for the crown. To the casual observer, it may seem that Missouri is simply out of its league in its new league, but that ignores the ridiculous string of bad injury luck they had last year. Mizzou does not have the depth of talent to withstand a rash of injuries (as evidenced by their cringe-worthy #41 recruiting class, which was easily the worst in the conference), but they do have the top-end talent to beat any team in the division.
Mizzou returns seven starters on both offense and defense, including quarterback James (no, not that one, the other one) Franklin , and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who fell off the radar in one of the biggest surprises of the season. I don't know if Dorial's lack of production was more due to the inconsistency of the QB play or just him being green, but either way, Mizzou is going to have to get some more production out of him if they hope to even get to a bowl game, much less contend for a division title.
The roosters started practice last week, and just like the other East division front runners, USC has some work to do on the defensive side of the ball, where they only return five starters. The star of this team is unquestionably Clowney now that Lattimore has moved on to the league. After the first practice Tuesday, USC coaches spoke to the media, and it seems that Defensive Coordinator Lorenzo Ward had some interesting comments about Clowney:
If I could get him to play 100% every time then he might be unstoppable. If he wants to be the number one player taken in the draft, he's got to play harder. It's not that he takes [plays] off, it's just that Clowney's a player that knows that, when he wants to make a play, I think it's obvious - he's shown he can do that... I want him to make a play all the time.
Clowney is a playmaker, no doubt, and maybe being called out like this will spur him to go all out more often. At any rate, I would imagine the coaching staff has to find it a bit disconcerting that such motivation would be required for one of the presumed leaders of the 2013 squad.
The Vols started spring practice this past Monday as they try to reverse the trajectory of the program (or at the very least, slow the speed of the free fall). Tennessee bagged the coach everyone was pining for when they signed Butch Jones, and he has a heck of an uphill climb before him. The Vols return 8 starters off of last year's defense, but given how putrid that unit was (107th, twenty spots below Kentucky), I'm not sure whether that is a good thing or not.
Meanwhile, the offense returns only 5 starters. While the offensive line should be the strongest unit on the team (with four returning starters), the skill positions were decimated by attrition. They lost QB Tyler Bray, TE Mychal Rivera, and WRs Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and Zach Rogers. The race to keep an eye on is between junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman as they vie to be the next "not Peyton".
Hold on to your seats, but the Commies might could be considered one of the division front runners, at least in pre-spring practice picks. Vandy is coming off of a 9 win season, and they return seven starters on both sides of the ball. Vandy's defense was pretty stout last year (15th in the country), but the offense struggled mightily against better defenses, scoring a combined 33 points against the East's "big 3" (UGA, FL, USC). Offensive improvement won't come easy, as Vandy has to replace a senior QB Jordan Rodgers and senior RB Zac Stacy. If they can find that spark, though, they might could continue to break new ground and finish second or third in the division.