More March mania: SEC West football

More March mania: SEC West football

March 13th, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

In the midst of NCAA March Madness is that Southeastern Conference mania that never goes away -- football. Spring practice is under way or soon will be at the league's 14 schools. Today we look at assets and potential liabilities of the West Division programs for now and the 2012 season. Thursday we'll make the rounds of the East. The SEC West, of course, has produced four of the last five BCS national champions and both finalists last season.


Spring started: Last Friday

Biggest plus: Junior quarterback AJ McCarron is much more confident following last season's BCS championship surge and should make an easy transition from Jim McElwain to new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. McCarron could be playing this season behind the best line in college football, with All-America tackle Barrett Jones now working at center to anchor a front that would include tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio and guards Chance Warnack and Anthony Steen.

Biggest challenge: Alabama didn't do the best job of defending its 2009 national title, losing three times in 2010 with a roster that had four NFL first-round picks. Coach Nick Saban has been quick to detect and publicize when he likes or dislikes the chemistry on his team, and the fact there is healthy competition for seven new starting spots defensively could help keep entitlement concerns at a minimum.

Spring game: April 14


Spring starts: Today

Biggest plus: The Razorbacks have the top quarterback-tailback combo in the SEC with Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last August but recently said he's "100 percent and ready to ride." Davis rushed for 1,322 yards in 2010 and averaged 157.8 yards in November wins over South Carolina, Texas-El Paso, Mississippi State and LSU.

Biggest challenge: Replacing receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs would be difficult for 95 percent of college football programs, but coach Bobby Petrino still has Cobi Hamilton and Marquel Wade. A tougher task will be replacing linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson, who combined for 171 tackles for last season's Cotton Bowl champs. Senior Terrell Williams and sophomore Braylon Mitchell are the most likely candidates to join Alonzo Highsmith as starting linebackers.

Spring game: April 21


Spring starts: March 23

Biggest plus: The defensive line was young last season and got pushed around on occasion, but ends Corey Lemonier and Nosa Eguae are back along with the tackle quartet of Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter, Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson. Auburn is still relatively young across the board, but those 2010 and 2011 signing classes are ready to put their stamp on a program that is 30-10 under Gene Chizik with three bowl wins and a national title.

Biggest challenge: Auburn's heavy personnel losses from the 2010 champs were evident last fall, and the offense never seemed to click until the Chick-fil-A Bowl rout of Virginia, which was Gus Malzahn's finale as offensive coordinator. Malzahn has been replaced by Scott Loeffler, who has a background in the spread and pro-style and plans to formulate an attack based on personnel. Will that personnel begin with Clint Moseley at quarterback or Kiehl Frazier? Or will early enrollee Zeke Pike make a dent?

Spring game: April 14


Spring started: March 2

Biggest plus: All those super sophomores on defense last season -- ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, linebacker Kevin Minter and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- are juniors who are expected to be even better this year under coordinator John Chavis. The cornerback tandem has shifted from Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne in 2010 to Claiborne and Mathieu last season to Mathieu and Tharold Simon this year, which is quite a trifecta.

Biggest challenge: Zach Mettenberger takes over at quarterback following last season's drama involving Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Receiver Russell Shepard, who considered leaving early for the NFL, said he made the right decision to return because the Tigers will stretch the field more this year. Of course, the tailback quartet of Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard stretched the field on every defense except Alabama's.

Spring game: March 31


Spring starts: March 23

Biggest plus: The Rebels have a fresh start with new coach Hugh Freeze, who went 10-2 last year at Arkansas State but inherits a program that is 1-15 in the SEC the past two seasons. Freeze recently told reporters that he watched video of three games from last season to help prepare for spring practice, with those games being Georgia, Alabama and LSU. The Rebels lost those three by a combined count of 131-23.

Biggest challenge: Freeze said there are as many as 20 players battling academic shortcomings, and then there is the continuing hard-luck tale of linebacker D.T. Shackleford. Arguably the team's top talent, Shackleford tore his ACL in spring practice last year and recently had to undergo a second surgery, leaving his status for the 2012 season in doubt.

Spring game: April 21


Spring starts: March 22

Biggest plus: Tyler Russell returns at quarterback after taking the reins from Chris Relf midway through last season, and his top three receivers from a year ago -- Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis -- are seniors. The Bulldogs have to replace Vick Ballard, who rushed for 1,189 yards last year, but return backup LaDarius Perkins, who rushed for 422 yards and 4.9 yards a carry. All of the prominent offensive components are Dan Mullen signees.

Biggest challenge: MSU's defense was going to take a hit up the middle even before defensive tackle Fletcher Cox elected to forgo his final year for the NFL draft. The Bulldogs must replace inside linebacker Brandon Wilson and safeties Wade Bonner and Charles Mitchell.

Spring game: April 21


Spring starts: March 31

Biggest plus: New coach Kevin Sumlin was a hot commodity last season and joined the Aggies after guiding Houston to a 12-0 regular season. The Cougars led the nation in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense, setting Bowl Subdivision records in passing and total offense. Whether his offense will produce in the SEC has yet to be determined, but he is sure to seek advice from new defensive line coach Terry Price. A former Aggies defensive lineman, Price has a wealth of SEC knowledge, having worked under Tommy Tuberville for four seasons at Ole Miss and 10 seasons at Auburn before a second stint at Ole Miss under Houston Nutt.

Biggest challenge: The Aggies struggled to a 6-6 regular season last year with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and tailback Cyrus Gray, both of whom must be replaced. Gray rushed for 1,045 yards last season, while Tannehill threw for 3,744 yards and is expected to be a first-round selection in next month's NFL draft.

Spring game: April 28