Alabama Still Reigns Over the SEC, but New Coaches, QB Battles Bring Plenty of Intrigue

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Spring practice is the chronological midpoint of the long college football offseason, but with signing day, the final spins of the coaching carousel and a substantial portion of the graduate transfer market in the rearview mirror, the balance of the offseason intrigue has been settled until the media day circuit begins in July. Before the on-field news slows to a trickle as schools break for summer, SI writers are examining the most notable storylines and performances from each Power 5 conference during the spring session. The last league on our list: the SEC.

The Big Picture

It’s a tough existence, not being Nick Saban. One side effect of Alabama’s decade-long run of dominance is the question of whether the SEC’s other head coaches should be held to Saban’s standard, and this offseason’s coaching turnover around the league, fairly or unfairly, pointed toward the affirmative answer most programs have settled on: Four programs fired their coaches in the second half of the 2017 season, and a fifth, Mississippi State, had to find a replacement after Florida lured Dan Mullen away from Starkville in December.

The new bosses won’t be expected to chase down the national champs in just one season, but their first moves were the subject of much of the spring focus outside of Tuscaloosa. At Tennessee, former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt channeled his former boss’s intolerance for imperfection when he called out the Vols and their fans for a less-than-perfect spring game performance. Jimbo Fisher and Chad Morris have brought optimism to Texas A&M and Arkansas, but both have a mountain to climb to make the SEC West race more crowded. And Mullen has the interminable quarterback uncertainty in Gainesville to deal with.

State of the Defending Champs

Tua Tagovailoa is a testament to the power of scarcity. With one electric second half of quarterback play and an overtime touchdown pass to win the national title, the true freshman became an overnight Alabama legend and a 2018 Heisman Trophy candidate. And after fans braced for a breathless month of analyzing his battle with incumbent Jalen Hurts for starting duties, Tagovailoa injured his hand and missed most of spring ball, ensuring that Saban’s final decision would not come until the summer.

At every spot but quarterback, the Crimson Tide’s victory lap has been largely drama-free. DeVonta Smith, the recipient of that title-winning touchdown pass, is one of three rising sophomore receivers with bright futures, along with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and Bo Scarborough’s jump to the NFL somehow barely makes a dent in the running back rotation. Saban had to replace both coordinators and several other position coaches, but his crimson and white machine continues to hum.

Most compelling QB battle

The Tagovailoa-Hurts battle was billed as the offseason’s biggest story anywhere, but aside from the comments made by Jalen Hurts’s father that Hurts would be “the biggest free agent in college football history” if he lost the starting job and transferred out of Alabama, Tagovailoa’s injury deprived onlookers of the back-and-forth spring we were expecting. Setting the Tide aside, there’s a case to be made the league’s most fluid battle is its most compelling one.

LSU entered the spring with a wide-open competition between sophomore Myles Brennan, junior Justin McMillan and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse to replace Danny Etling, and the Tigers’ interest when Ohio State backup Joe Burrow announced his intention to transfer was a telling indictment of that trio’s inconsistent spring. Any time the offensive coordinator can wrap up spring ball by bluntly explaining to each quarterback why he has not been named the starter, as The Advocate’s Ross Dellinger relayed LSU OC Steve Ensminger did this week, a summer of intrigue is guaranteed. If Ed Orgeron and his staff make the right choice, the Tigers become an SEC West X-factor.

Awesome Highlight/Adorable Highlight

Yes, this is some serious spring game tackling right here, but you only get so many chances to watch Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks break free for a 60-yard touchdown run.

The Gators were one of two Steve Spurrier coaching stops to reveal a cutting-edge wrinkle of the Fun ‘N’ Gun for some spring game levity. Spurrier missed his chance at a wide-open touchdown in South Carolina’s Garnet and Black Spring Game…

… but one of his former players, mid-1990s Florida safety Lawrence Wright, made no mistake when he was targeted in the Orange & Blue Game.

Post-Spring, Pre-Summer Favorite

Everyone’s still chasing Alabama, but the final month of the Crimson Tide’s schedule could feature three games against top-15 teams: LSU (in Baton Rouge), Auburn and SEC East favorite Georgia. The Bulldogs lost most of the stars of their defense and their dynamic running back tandem, but sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm has a seasoned, sneaky-good group of receivers to work with—if he can hold off Justin Fields, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class who will be breathing down his neck in fall camp. Alabama was out of gas by the time last year’s Iron Bowl came around and was lucky to make the playoff field; its central rivals will once again be waiting to ruin a repeat bid.

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