Monday, May 20, 2024
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SEC spring football overreactions: Arch Manning ready to contribute at Texas, Georgia has elite aerial attack

The 2024 season should be a fascinating one for the SEC. Its membership will swell for the first time since 2012, and just the second time since the turn of the century, with Texas and Oklahoma set to officially join in July. 

Thanks to the increased strength of the conference, the SEC feels like a virtual shoe-in to put multiple teams in the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff field. Even so, spots are going to come at a premium, and the level of competition just got significantly more difficult for the SEC’s myriad playoff hopefuls. 

Internally, conference stalwarts like Alabama underwent plenty of change. Legendary coach Nick Saban retired, making way for a new regime in Tuscaloosa for the first time in almost two decades. Ex-Washington boss Kalen DeBoer is set to lead the Crimson Tide in this time of immense transition, with championship expectations ever-present around one of college football’s premier programs. 

Ahead of a highly anticipated 2024 campaign, each SEC school took the field in March and April for their respective spring practice slates. Most capped the spring window with an exhibition game, giving us a peak at what teams look like in a simulated game setting. Given that the last couple of months provided the first real action of this athletic cycle, there’s plenty to overreact to now that each SEC team has put a bow on its spring practice slate. 

Alabama

Crimson Tide facing trouble along the defensive front: Thanks to recent stars like Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner, we’ve grown accustomed to the Crimson Tide churning out elite pass rushers on a consistent basis. Alabama’s spring game showed that DeBoer and Co. have work to do in that area. None of the Crimson Tide’s edge rushers really stood out, despite the fact that they were going against a shorthanded and largely inexperienced Alabama offensive line that was breaking in two new offensive tackles. 

The defense did get decent sack totals, but that was largely due to the fact that the quarterback wasn’t live — a defender merely needed to get in the vicinity of a signal caller to be credited with a sack. Even then, quarterback Jalen Milroe had 65 sack-adjusted yards rushing, including a 35-yard touchdown, while backup Ty Simpson added 58 yards of his own. That brings up another concerning pattern: though Alabama’s defensive interior is filled with veterans, and potential starter Jaheim Oatis was out with an injury, the line got pushed off the ball way too often and allowed frequent chunk plays in the run game. 

Arkansas

The offense will be better despite major losses: Arkansas lost the soul of its offense when quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders hit the transfer portal. That left new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino scrambling to find replacements for the Razorbacks’ two most important players from the past few seasons. Surprisingly, if the spring game is any indication, Arkansas will be just fine. More than fine, in fact. Even with Jefferson and Sanders (who did miss half the year due to injury) present last season, the Razorbacks fielded one of the SEC’s most ineffective offenses. 

Fast-forward to April, and Petrino’s unit looked like a well-oiled machine with an almost entirely new cast taking the field. Boise State transfer quarterback Taylen Green fit right in, completing 17 of his 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Ex-Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, a 6-foot-2 and 228-pound tank reminiscent of Arkansas running backs of yore, ran rampant with at least 80 combined yards and three total touchdowns in relatively limited action. Those two are the new duo to watch in Fayetteville, and that could translate into big numbers for the Hogs. 

Auburn 

WR Cam Coleman will lead the team as freshman: Auburn’s offense was hampered by inconsistent quarterback play and a lack of quality receivers last season. No one on the team finished with more than 400 yards receiving. Seeing a clear need, coach Hugh Freeze worked hard this offseason to completely revamp the position. He worked the transfer portal to bring in a pair of instant-impact players in Robert Lewis (Georgia State) and Sam Jackson V, a converted quarterback from California who got first-team reps in the spring. 

But it’s a true freshman that already looks like the Alpha of the group. Former five-star prospect Cam Coleman, the No. 5 overall player in the Class of 2024, was the best player on the field in Auburn’s spring game. He just brings a different dynamic to this offense with his 6-foot-3 frame, his tremendous speed and athleticism, and his contested catch ability. Don’t be surprised if, by season’s end, Coleman is well out in front of Auburn’s other receivers despite his limited experience at the collegiate level. 

More: Auburn WR depth chart projection after KeAndre Lambert-Smith transfers in

Florida

QB DJ Lagway needs a role this season: Graham Mertz was quietly great for Florida last year. He was efficient as a passer with a good command of the offense, and he elevated the play of those around him with accurate throws and sound decision-making. He’s back for another year in Gainesville, and his starting spot should be relatively secure, but freshman quarterback DJ Lagway has to see the field. If nothing else, he can give Gators faithful reason to hope about the future after a couple of lackluster years under coach Billy Napier. The No. 3 prospect nationally and No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2024 lived up to the billing in his unofficial Florida debut, completing 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his touchdown throws absolutely jumped out of his arm and zipped into a tight window to the wide receiver. Lagway is also an excellent rusher, so perhaps Florida can get creative with some packages to get him on the field early on into his career. 

Syndication: Ocala StarBanner

Florida QB DJ Lagway throws a pass during the Gators’ 2024 spring game. USATSI

Georgia

The Bulldogs’ passing attack will finish top-3 nationally: Carson Beck is a known commodity after a breakout 2023 season with the Bulldogs. Thanks to his 3,941 yards passing, the Bulldogs finished just outside of the top-10 with 305.3 yards passing per game. Despite the loss of stalwarts like tight end Brock Bowers and wide receiver Ladd McConkey, Georgia is going to take it to another level this year. Its insane depth at wide receiver was on display in the spring game, with former Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett stealing the show as he reeled in a few circus catches. Dillon Bell, Rara Thomas and Miami transfer Colbie Young are all legitimate weapons. Freshman Anthony Evans brings elite speed to the group and can carve out a niche thanks to his toolset. It might be lacking in star power, but this Georgia offense has plenty of punch.

Kentucky 

The team’s pass-catchers will make QB Brock Vandagriff a hit: On paper, Vandagriff is perfect for what Kentucky likes to do on offense. There’s some concern about his inexperience, though, given the fact that the former top-50 prospect attempted just 21 passes in three seasons at Georgia. Though there might be some growing pains as a first-year starter, Kentucky’s deep receiving corps will ensure that Vandagriff has success in his first year. The Wildcats have steadily built one of the SEC’s most impressive groups of receivers. The 6-foot-3 Dane Key is a steady hand who led the Wildcats in receiving last season. Barion Brown is a dynamic play-maker with game-breaking speed when he has the ball in his hands. Texas A&M transfer Raymond Cottrell Jr. has plenty of upside as a former blue-chip prospect, while North TexasJa’Mori Maclin should continue Kentucky’s stretch of excellent play from the slot position. There’s enough pieces here for a very potent passing attack. 

LSU 

LSU will go 2-0 against California’s Big Ten schools: LSU boasts a unique schedule in 2024 with a particularly challenging nonconference slate. The Tigers have to play not one, but two of California’s premier programs in USC and UCLA, newcomers to the Big Ten. Fortunately for LSU, it doesn’t have to travel to either team’s stadium. The Tigers open the year against the Trojans in Las Vegas at an ideal time as USC will be breaking in both a new quarterback following Caleb Williams’ departure and a new defensive direction after coach Lincoln Riley moved on from longtime collaborator Alex Grinch. Three weeks later, LSU welcomes a UCLA team that is moving forward after coach Chip Kelly’s offseason departure. Those are prime opportunities for the Tigers to make an early season statement and build momentum towards a loaded conference slate. 

Ole Miss

The Rebels will push for an SEC title: Ole Miss didn’t have a proper spring game, so it’s hard to draw any major takeaways from largely closed off spring practice sessions. Still, this Rebels team has the talent to compete on a national stage. Quarterback Jaxson Dart is back to run the offense, and he has an arsenal of weapons to which he can spread the ball. To offset the loss of star running back Quinshon Judkins, Ole Miss has loaded up on a stable through the transfer portal and recently nabbed a commitment from ex-New Mexico rusher Jacory Croskey-Merritt, who had 1,000 yards rushing last season. 

The defense got better via the portal as well. Former Texas A&M defensive lineman Walter Nolen and Florida edge rusher Princely Umanmielen vastly improve a defensive front that got overwhelmed at times last season. Ole Miss also plays an extremely favorable schedule. The Rebels dodge Alabama, the biggest thorn in their side from the past few years, and get both Oklahoma and Georgia at home. With the conference’s new format, Lane Kiffin’s squad can brunt one loss and still make it to Atlanta — and likely even more.

Syndication: The Clarion-Ledger

Lane Kiffin’s Rebels have their eyes on the CFP with a loaded roster in 2024.  USATSI

Mississippi State 

The Bulldogs will miss out on a bowl game: Jeff Lebby is going to face some growing pains in his first year as coach. The Bulldogs won a single SEC game last season and lost several starters to both the transfer portal and NFL Draft, including one of the conference’s best linebacker duos in Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson, plus record-holding starting quarterback Will Rogers

Though Rogers’ expected replacement, Baylor transfer Blake Shapen, carved up Mississippi State’s secondary in the spring game, it’s hard to see him as a high-impact starter at the SEC level after his career at Baylor. The offense has some talent and the offensive line looks solid, but that spring game dredged up some serious questions about the defense. The front seven couldn’t get a whole lot of push at the line of scrimmage, and the secondary looked lost at certain points. Mississippi State probably isn’t built to play catch-up on a schedule that features road games against Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Ole Miss. 

Missouri 

The Tigers will make the College Football Playoff: Its window is certainly now. Missouri will likely only enjoy the duo of quarterback Brady Cook and wide receiver Luther Burden for one more season, so they may as well take advantage of it. Outside those two, Missouri has plenty of experience at receiver, an offensive line that plugged its missing pieces with a transfer haul that includes Cayden Green, a top-15 overall prospect in 247Sports’ transfer rankings, and replaced the outgoing Cody Schrader with a likely stable of running backs highlighted by another pair of transfers in Marcus Carroll (Georgia State) and Nate Noel (Appalachian State). The Tigers will likely be at least slight favorites in 10 games on their schedule, which means they’ll have to steal a win against either Alabama or Oklahoma to feel really good about their chances of making the 12-team field. That should be doable for this darkhorse squad. 

Oklahoma

The offensive line will be fine: The talk surrounding Oklahoma’s spring practice slate orbited around the offensive line, for good reason. The Sooners have to replace five players uwith starting experience up front and break in a first-year starting quarterback in former five-star Jackson Arnold. All of this coincides with Oklahoma’s move to the SEC, where winning along the line of scrimmage is paramount if a team hopes to have any success. With that in mind, the Sooners hit the portal during the winter window and brought in four potential starters to mesh with returning players pushing for bigger roles. The first team that Oklahoma put on the field in its spring game did a good job despite missing key players due to injury. The unit should see further improvement when SMU transfer Branson Hickman joins the team over the summer. 

South Carolina 

LaNorris Sellers will be the starting QB: Coach Shane Beamer won’t commit to it until closer to the season, but it’s clear who will be running South Carolina’s offense this fall. Sellers, a former three-star prospect out of Florence, South Carolina, looked well ahead of his competitors in the Gamecocks’ spring game. He completed 9 of 11 passes for 70 yards and rushed for another 38 yards. On the first drive of the game, he connected on all four of his pass attempts and capped things off with a rushing touchdown. The 6-foot-3 and 240-pound Sellers has excellent athleticism and a strong arm. If how he performed in the spring is any indiction, he could give defenses fits in 2024. 

Tennessee

The defensive line will be among the nation’s best: Tennessee’s defense has steadily improved over the first few years under coach Josh Heupel, though it’s still a work in progress. A big reason for that steady climb is the improved play of the defensive front, mentored by one of college football’s best position coaches in SEC veteran Rodney Garner. That development will hits its peak in 2024. The Vols boast one of the deepest and most experienced defensive line rooms in the entire nation. Tackle Omari Thomas is a big-bodied run-stuffer, while fellow interior standout Omarr Norman-Lott brings some disruption to the middle. Oh, and there’s edge rusher James Pearce Jr., who tied for the SEC lead with 10 sacks last season and has the potential to be a top-five pick in the 2025 NFL Draft with immense athleticism and a deep tool bag of pass rush moves. There are other players with starting experience behind those names, and with such an extensive rotation, Tennessee’s front seven has all the potential in the world. 

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Tennessee’s pass rush features a potential high draft pick in James Pearce Jr. Getty Images

Texas 

QB Arch Manning is ready to go: Manning won’t have to go this season — Quinn Ewers is firmly entrenched as Texas’ starter — but be it due to unforeseen circumstances in 2024 or beyond once the starting job opens up, Manning showed that he’ll be able to live up to the lofty billing often associated with his name. He completed 19 of his 26 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns in Texas’ spring game, unquestionably his most impressive performance in a Longhorns uniform yet. He had two separated 75-yard touchdown throws, including one to DeAndre Moore that traveled at least 50 yards through the air. It’s time to get this hype train rolling down the tracks once more. 

Texas A&M 

Mike Elko will match Jimbo Fisher’s best regular-season win total: This isn’t necessarily the highest bar to clear. Fisher never won more than eight games in a full regular season during his time with the Aggies, and things really took a dip in recent years, culminating in Texas A&M’s costly (literally) firing of Fisher. After a whirlwind coaching search, the Aggies brass landed on Elko, a former Texas A&M defensive coordinator and Duke’s coach, as Fisher’s replacement. Elko immediately went to work rebuilding a Texas A&M roster that lost a lot of talent in the wake of Fisher’s termination and netted the No. 2 class in 247Sports’ Team Transfer Rankings. 

On top of that, the Aggies return starting quarterback Conner Weigman who, when healthy, has shown upside as one of the best signal-callers in the SEC. Elko won eight regular-season games in his first year at Duke and led the Blue Devils to a 7-5 record last season despite dealing with some major injuries, so there’s plenty of reason to think that he can achieve even more with the talent-base available to him by coaching at Texas A&M. 

Vanderbilt 

The Commodores will have the SEC’s worst passing attack: This despite a robust quarterback transfer haul that features two former starters from other programs. The Commodores were actually quite effective moving the ball through the air last year, finishing ahead of the likes of Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn 223.7 passing yards per game. But both of Vandy’s highest-upside quarterbacks in AJ Swann and Walter Taylor transferred out of Nashville to fill backup spots elsewhere. Vanderbilt’s three leading receivers — Will Sheppard, London Humphreys and Jayden McGowan — all left via the portal as well. The Commodores have tried to use the portal in their favor to stop the bleeding. New Mexico State transfer Diego Pavia is a steady hand at quarterback, while Utah transfer Nate Johnson brings another dimension to the offense with his rushing ability. But there’s just not much reason for optimism around this Vanderbilt offense given what it has to replace. 

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