SEC Country offers a capsule review of some of the SEC’s best offseasons to date, an eclectic countdown of individual advancements and team accomplishments.
It goes without saying: No one had a better offseason than Alabama coach Nick Saban, who collected his fifth national championship in January (fourth with the Crimson Tide), clinched his sixth straight No. 1-ranked recruiting class in February and then was feted by the media masses throughout the spring.
However, since Saban (on the short list of greatest coaches in college sports history) already gets enough credit on this site, we wanted to shift the focus to other players/coaches/teams inside the conference.
In the end, though, the Saban coaching tree was just too expansive to ignore.
UGA COACH KIRBY SMART
- Smart landed his ‘dream’ job on his first head-coaching go-round — with his alma mater, no less.
- The deep-pocketed UGA alums and boosters were quick to pony up $20 million for a new indoor practice facility just one month into Smart’s hire.
- On short notice (after staying with Alabama through the College Football Playoff), Smart helped the Dawgs collect the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class.
- The coach persuaded QB Jacob Eason to honor his verbal commitment to UGA, which dated back to when Mark Richt ran the program.
- Smart spearheaded the Dawgs’ wildly successful campaign of attracting 93,000-plus fans to the G-Day spring game.
- On numerous occasions, Eason (whose physical talents are reminiscent of Matthew Stafford) electrified the spring-game audience, further raising expectations of short- and long-term greatness.
- Despite a limited time window, Smart managed to steal some of the limelight from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at a June 2 satellite camp in Georgia by helicoptering in and out for a quick photo op (below).
TENNESSEE QB JOSHUA DOBBS
- The senior-to-be produced one of the greatest singular moments of the bowl season, momentarily booting a shotgun snap and then running/leaping for an athletic 18-yard touchdown against Northwestern. It was the kind of extraordinary play that launches Heisman campaigns for the following year.
- Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 26 total TDs) posted a career-low tally of five interceptions last season despite being saddled with a so-so receiving corps. The talent quotient has been upgraded for 2016, with the Volunteers adding four decorated wideout prospects (including junior college star Jeff George).
- Tennessee boasts the SEC’s most prolific backfield, with Dobbs, tailback Jalen Hurd (1,478 total yards, 14 TDs) and running back Alvin Kamara all accounting for double-digit touchdowns last year.
- Hurd and Kamara are also good bets for 40 receptions, enhancing the Volunteers’ overall proficiency in the passing game.
- Tennessee could have the SEC’s best offensive line by season’s end if redshirt freshman Drew Richmond (a four-star recruit from Class of 2015) hits the ground running at left tackle. On the whole, the Volunteers have enough talent, depth, speed, versatility and power to claim the SEC East title; but for that to happen, the O-line must be successful against the likes of Florida, Texas A&M and Alabama.
- It’s been a relatively quiet spring for coach Les Miles, who survived a late-season coup attempt from the LSU athletic department but now appears to be more popular than ever (assuming the wins keep coming).
- The Tigers only lost two early-entry talents to the NFL draft, setting the stage for a monster 2016 campaign. LSU could have up to six first-round picks in next year’s draft (Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Tre’Davious White, Lewis Neal, Malachi Dupre, Ethan Pocic).
- The Tigers are progressing through the offseason without any major injuries.
- The buzz surrounding the season opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field —LSU’s first foray into Big Ten country since 1988 (at Ohio State) — has been terrific. It might even spawn future Big Ten-SEC showdowns during September.
- Fournette’s Heisman Trophy hype train (he’s a healthy bet to post 2,000 rushing yards in 2016) hasn’t been too exuberant, thanks to the late-season brilliance from Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey (2,019 rushing yards for the year; 277 total yards, two TDs in the Rose Bowl) and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (478 total yards, four TDs in the national championship game vs. Alabama). This frees Fournette up from the pressure of being the Heisman front-runner from the get-go.
TEXAS A&M QB TREVOR KNIGHT
- **The Oklahoma transfer didn’t need much time to cement the Aggies’ starting job for the fall, eclipsing promising passer Jake Hubenak (who threw for more than 300 yards in the bowl game) during spring practice.
- Knight now has access to the SEC’s best and deepest receiving corps, led by Christian Kirk (80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs as a freshman), Josh Reynolds (51 catches, 907 yards, 5 TDs last season), Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil and two four-star signees (Quartney Davis, Clyde Chriss).
- Knight has a realistic chance at grabbing the SEC passing title, or at least remaining competitive with Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly (vying to become the first QB in conference history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive full seasons).
- The star-laden Aggies (citing both sides of the ball) are viable contenders for the SEC West crown and/or a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl berth; and Knight should play a vital role in the chase.
THE LEFT SIDE OF FLORIDA’S O-LINE
- Last season, left tackle David Sharpe and left guard Martez Ivey took their respective lumps within a Gators offense that ranked 100th nationally in scoring and averaged only 16.7 first downs per game.
- By all accounts, Florida will soon convert that former weakness into a relative strength, using Sharpe, Ivey (both preseason All-SEC picks in Lindy’s football magazine) and right guard Tyler Jordan as building blocks to an offensive resurgence this fall.
- The Wildcats (just 12-24 over the past three seasons) are expected to take a major step forward this season, harvesting the seeds of solid recruiting classes from 2014 (six 4-star prospects), 2015 (19 3- or 4-star prospects) and 2016 (25 3- or 4-star prospects).
- Quarterback Drew Barker could/should be Kentucky’s entrenched starter for three seasons, and his receiving corps (led by Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker) will be around for at least two years. It’s hard to put a price on that kind of continuity.
- Along those lines, it’s quite possible that Kentucky has the SEC East’s best receiving corps.
- In a bit of honesty, there might only be two presumed losses on Kentucky’s schedule (at Alabama, at Tennessee), putting the Wildcats in play for the other 10 games.
- Tailback Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams remains a major breakout candidate and could wind up with over 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns.
- Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has air-tight job security for at least two more seasons … that is, unless the Kentucky athletic department chooses to cut an eight-figure buyout check (doubtful) sometime around this year’s Christmas/New Year’s holidays.
ALABAMA DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JEREMY PRUITT
- Pruitt has seamlessly moved from a UGA defense which ranked 8th nationally last season to an Alabama unit that ranked 3rd nationally (allowing just 15.1 points per game).
- The stacked Crimson Tide defense was further fortified this offseason, with defensive end Jonathan Allen (12 sacks last year), linebacker Tim Williams (a potential top-five pick next year) and safety Eddie Jackson all postponing their NFL careers until 2017.
- Seven of the Tide’s expected defensive starters reside on Lindy’s All-SEC teams for 2016.
- Pruitt, a prominent defensive coach/recruiter with UGA and Florida State, should flourish at Alabama, which has boasted the nation’s top recruiting class for six years running (source: 247Sports.com).
- The 42-year-old coordinator could be a prime candidate for a Power 5 head-coaching job in the next year or two, assuming the Alabama experience goes well.
- Pruitt will have constant access to (and input from) Saban — perhaps the finest and most demanding defensive mind in college football.
- Coach Gus Malzahn recently agreed to a contract extension, creating the perception that Auburn officials have no long-term concerns with the Tigers’ recent woes (6-10 in SEC play since 2014).
- The Tigers merit praise for happily standing pat: Defensive stars Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams ignored the fame and fortune of the NFL (for one year, at least) and returned to school for another season.
- Sophomore Byron Cowart, who enjoyed similar hype to that of Lawson and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett coming out of high school, didn’t register a single sack as a freshman. However, the Auburn coaches still have grand expectations for Cowart in Year 2.
- Auburn has seemingly forged an upgrade at quarterback, signing junior college All-American John Franklin III. If he’s ready for the speed and aggression of the SEC, Franklin — a dual-threat specialist — could be an easy starting pick over Jeremy Johnson and Sean White (struggling assets in 2015).
- Auburn has three returning starters along the offensive line: center Austin Golson and guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith.
- Tailback Jovon Robinson could be a major breakout performer in 2016 if he can replicate the yearly averages of Auburn’s last three alpha-dog running backs — 1,813 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. (For what it’s worth … with Georgia Military College in 2013, Robinson amassed 2,387 rushing yards and 34 TDs.)
SOUTH CAROLINA QB BRANDON MCILWAIN
- For a brief moment, forget about Eason, Ole Miss’s Shea Patterson or even Florida’s Feleipe Franks — arguably the three most touted passers from the Class of 2016. If McIlwain can find his football footing early in fall camp, he might log the most starts of any true-freshman quarterback in the SEC. Simply put, the rebuilding Gamecocks (under the new direction of Will Muschamp) need all the immediate help they can get.
- McIlwain is also a fixture on the South Carolina baseball team, evoking cool comparisons between him and Jameis Winston (two-sport star at Florida State; 2013 Heisman Trophy winner). Which brings us to this: When was the last time an SEC school boasted a true-freshman starter at quarterback, who also happened to play two varsity sports at the college level?
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.