2021 SEC spring football: Six key questions and storylines to follow as practices get underway – CBS Sports

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It seems like only yesterday when Alabama ran on the field in Miami Gardens to celebrate a College Football Playoff National Championship win over Ohio State. But the sport of college football never sleeps as spring practices are cranking up around the country. With that come burning questions and storylines in the nation’s top football conference.

Alabama’s reign hinges on coach Nick Saban’s ability to plug in top-tier talent with top-tier talent; LSU is looking to get back on the top of the college football world; and new coaches are hoping to make big impacts in Year 1. 

So what are the top spring storylines that will emerge as the flowers bloom? Let’s break down the top six.

Defending the dynasty

Alabama’s recruiting under Saban has become the stuff of legend. After all, if the Crimson Tide don’t finish with the top class in the country, it comes with a feeling of shock, awe and confusion. As a result, the program has developed a culture of competition among ultra-talented players that allows Saban to plug-and-play departed stars with inexperienced stars carrying comparable upside. 

This year is a bit different, though. Saban has to replace Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris (who finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting), Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, Rimington Trophy winner Landon Dickerson and Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. I didn’t even mention multiple other stars including defensive back Patrick Surtain II, all-purpose stud Jaylen Waddle and a small village of future NFL draft picks. 

Are you sensing a trend? 

The quarterback position will take most of the spotlight with former five-star prospect Bryce Young cemented as the frontrunner. Young saw action in nine games last season but didn’t get much of a chance to actually run the offense. With that said, the recruiting buzz surrounding the California native was higher than any Crimson Tide recruit in recent memory, which should give fans comfort knowing that new coordinator Bill O’Brien’s offense is in good hands. That is, of course, if he doesn’t get beat out by Paul Tyson. The great-grandson of Paul “Bear” Bryant has the name and pedigree to fit in but will have an uphill battle if he’s going to blaze his own trail.

Can the Bulldogs be bullies?

Georgia took a step back last season due in large part to quarterback issues that lingered through the first half of the season, but JT Daniels put a stranglehold on the job late in the season and will lead a rejuvenated attack that should take a massive step forward under second-year coordinator Todd Monken. 

There also seems to be a sense of urgency that stems from multiple players deciding to return to Athens instead of turning pro. Daniels, nose guard Jordan Davis and running backs Zamir White and James Cook are among the many Bulldogs who tagged tweets announcing their return with #UnfinishedBusiness. To me, that has a distinct “Clemson 2018” feel when many Tigers — specifically defensive linemen — passed up millions of dollars to make a run (and ultimately win) the national title.

In addition to what seems like added motivation, Georgia’s defense has established itself as a national force and coach Kirby Smart has amassed more talent than any other team in the country, according to the most recent 247Sports team talent rankings

The time is now for Smart to break through that glass ceiling and win the natty. If not now, when?

LSU’s dangerous dilemma

Calling LSU a mess would be an insult of messes everywhere. The Tigers didn’t seem to have any interest in defending the 2019 national title, lost quarterback Myles Brennan early in the season, were placed on probation and now are dealing with a Title IX issue that has engulfed the entire athletic department. Not all of that is coach Ed Orgeron’s fault, of course. But he’s the man charged with not only producing a championship-caliber team in 2021, but doing so without any serious off-the-field issues developing. 

This season for LSU feels like Gene Chizik’s 2012 season at Auburn. LSU is two years removed from a remarkable run to the national title, had a mediocre season the following year and is dealing with massive problems hanging over the program as a whole. Chizik went 3-9 and got fired in 2012, and it’s likely that a similar performance could result in Orgeron receiving a pink slip in December. 

There is talent and hope in Baton Rouge, though. Brennan was quietly solid before getting injured, there are talented skill players all over the place and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. will be the centerpiece of a defense headed up by Daronte Jones. There’s obviously a concern with Jones since he hasn’t been a coordinator at the FBS level — but hey, at least he’s not Bo Pelini. It’s addition by subtraction at the very least. 

It’s a pivot year for the Tigers. Which way will they go? It’ll be fascinating to track as spring rolls along.

Auburn’s future with Bryan Harsin

Auburn went outside of the box for its replacement for Gus Malzahn when it plucked Bryan Harsin away from Boise State, and the new Tigers coach has plenty of work to do. The Tigers offense lost wide receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz to the NFL Draft, and it’s not like quarterback Bo Nix has shown the kind of upside many thought he’d have when he was a high school prospect. Harsin plucked Mike Bobo from South Carolina to run the offense, and it’ll be fascinating to see what Bobo does with this attack. Boise State’s offenses under Harsin were pretty flexible based on the specific makeup of the roster, and there’s plenty of talent for the staff to work with — specifically running back Tank Bigsby

Spring will also be about chemistry for Harsin’s Tigers. He hired a balance of coaches who he’s comfortable with and coaches who are familiar with the SEC landscape. It’ll be imperative for the program to come together in unison to help get things back to a level where it competes for national titles. 

Harsin is an outsider. There’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s destined to fail. Malzahn topped Saban three times, so there’s a relatively high bar for Harsin to reach. That quest begins now.

Gators need to chomp

Florida ascended to the SEC East throne in 2020, but coach Dan Mullen has plenty of issues to deal with heading into the 2021 season. The most notable task at hand is replacing Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask. Dual-threat weapon Emory Jones, one of the stars of Mullen’s first signing class in 2018, is the odds-on favorite to win the job. What does that mean, though? Mullen has a long history of producing offenses that ebb and flow based on the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback, which means that we should see a ton of quarterback runs and zone reads in the playbook moving forward. With that said, his teammates have been impressed with his passing acumen so far during camp.

“If people think Emory Jones cannot throw the ball, they need to second guess it,” said defensive back Trey Dean III. “Emory Jones can throw the ball as well as Kyle Trask. I think he can do everything with his legs also. I think he’ll be a great dual-threat and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

The Gators also lost three star wide receivers to the NFL Draft, which will further complicate the task. Mullen better find that secret sauce in the offseason, because faith in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has worn thin. The Gators might have to score 40 points per game in order to defend their division title.

Where have all the quarterbacks gone?

Offense drives the bus in college football these days, and it all starts under center. That’s where the SEC is lacking in 2020, though. If you had to name the best quarterback in the conference right now, you’d probably land on Daniels or Ole Miss gunslinger Matt Corral. After that, in whom do you have faith? Bryce Young? Emory Jones? Bo Nix? There are several quarterbacks with potential, but not many with sustained success over a long period of time. 

That doesn’t mean that it’ll stay that way forever, though. It’ll be the opposite, and that starts with spring practice. 

Who is this season’s Mac Jones? Who is this season’s Joe Burrow? Who is this season’s Johnny Manziel? He’s out there somewhere. Coaches around the SEC are searching for him right now during the spring season.

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