One day last summer, an LSU staffer came into Ed Orgeron's office to ask if the recruits then on campus for a visit were allowed to watch practice. What practice? We don't hold practice over the summer, Orgeron said.
The practice was being run by the players, he was told. As it turns out, quarterback Joe Burrow had issued an alert to his teammates: practice in the morning. To a man, the roster that would run through an unbeaten, championship-winning season showed up.
LSU is Ed Orgeron's program. But last year's Tigers were Joe Burrow's team. Orgeron was only too happy to cede the day-to-day policing to his senior captain, who would put together one of the finest seasons by a quarterback in Bowl Subdivision history in becoming the heavy favorite to go No. 1 overall in the upcoming NFL draft.
LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase runs past Clemson defenders during in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)
But Burrow is gone. So are many other stars on last year's roster, not to mention defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive wunderkind Joe Brady. Repeating will not be easy. Rivals in the SEC seem poised to fill the void.
Here's one big question facing each team as the SEC gets rolling this month. (The date of each team's spring game or final scrimmage is in parentheses.)
Georgia (April 18): How quickly can Jamie Newman get acclimated?
The Wake Forest graduate transfer will be the starter in 2020, barring injury. Georgia needs to get him up to speed in an effort to maximize the senior's two major assets: his legs and a powerful arm that could mesh perfectly with offensive coordinator Todd Monken's downfield passing game. If he can get on board with the scheme, Newman will be in the mix for postseason hardware.
SPRING PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
BIG CONCERN: Ohio State thin at RB after injury to projected starter
LOOKING AHEAD: USA TODAY Sports early Top 25 for the 2020 season
Florida (April 18): What's separating Florida from an SEC title?
Expectations are sky-high in Gainesville after the Gators notched 21 wins across Dan Mullen's first two seasons. The next step — from New Year's Six contender to College Football Playoff participant — is the hardest. What's missing? One position group in need of a rebuild is wide receiver, where Florida looks to bank on the development of several true and redshirt freshmen to go with more established options in Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland.
Tennessee (April 18): How about eight wins in the regular season?
Don't discount some continuity: Tennessee will return both coordinators for the first time since 2014, a fact that speaks to the program's seemingly constant staffing turnover. After winning seven games during the regular season in 2019 and an eighth in the Gator Bowl added some juice to Jeremy Pruitt's tenure, the Volunteers are poised to take another step forward and inch closer to Georgia and Florida atop the East.
Kentucky (April 11): Can you replace a player like Bowden?
It won't be easy. Lynn Bowden Jr. was the Wildcats' do-it-all superstar in 2019, putting together one of the top statistical seasons by a skill player in recent conference history to carry Kentucky to another successful finish under Mark Stoops. One way is to find consistent play at quarterback, though that search won't hit full gear until Terry Wilson recovers from the injury that cost him almost all of last season.
Missouri (April 11): Can Robinson pin down the starting job this spring?
Former TCU transfer Shawn Robinson will have a great opportunity to put a hold on the starting job at quarterback this spring while his top competition, Connor Bazelak, recovers from an ACL injury. One thing that could stand in Robinson's way is new coach Eli Drinkwitz, who could prefer to focus more this spring on installing his system than making a major decision under center.
South Carolina (April 4): What will Bobo do for this offense?
New offensive coordinator Mike Bobo takes on the difficult task of rebuilding one of the SEC's worst offenses — the Gamecocks finished last season ranked 104th nationally in scoring. While he'll preach offensive balance paced by improved quarterback play, one of Bobo's greater assets is his experience in navigating through the SEC due to his long stint under Mark Richt at Georgia.
Vanderbilt (April 3): Can two new coordinators make the difference?
Former Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Todd Fitch becomes the fourth coach to hold the position at Vanderbilt since Derek Mason was hired in 2014. Unlike some of the others, however, Fitch brings a strong pedigree: Tech averaged 32.5 points and 436.8 yards per game in 2019. At coordinator, longtime FBS assistant Ted Roof comes over after playing a key role in helping Appalachian State go 13-1 last season. More importantly, Roof has a long history of coaching the 3-4 defense that Mason prefers.
LSU (April 18): Can the Tigers pull off a repeat?
There's enough talent there to take home the West, the SEC and reach the playoff. (Talent is never in short supply in Baton Rouge.) It just seems like a tall task to pull off considering the three main missing pieces: Burrow, the all-everything quarterback; Aranda, one of the game's preeminent defensive planners; and Brady, who turned the annual disappointment that was the LSU offense into a scoreboard-shattering behemoth.
Alabama (April 18): Does Bryce Young have a shot at the job?
Five-star freshman Bryce Young doesn't bring to Tuscaloosa the sort of hype that greeted Tua Tagovailoa's arrival a few years ago, but it's close. He's the biggest challenge to Mac Jones' tenuous hold on the starting position after the junior tossed 14 touchdowns as the injury replacement for Tagovailoa last season. In the past, you'd say that Nick Saban would be against giving a true freshman the starting job. But times have changed.
Auburn (April 11): How will the Malzahn-Morris pairing work?
Auburn made a hiring splash this winter by hiring former Arkansas coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator. You can say what you will of Morris' tenure with the Razorbacks — there's really nothing good you can say, admittedly — but his reputation as a coordinator is spotless; he's responsible for helping lay the groundwork for the Clemson dynasty. It'll be interesting to see the dynamic between Malzahn, an offense-first head coach that is hands-on, and his experienced new coordinator.
Texas A&M (April 18): Will newfound experience pay off?
A&M may have double-digit seniors in the starting lineup this season, a far cry from the handful of upperclassmen who drew starting assignments in Jimbo Fisher's first two seasons. One, quarterback Kellen Mond, needs a strong offseason to fend off young challengers for the starting job. Overall, however, the Aggies' increased experience will help the program meet the high expectations that greeted Fisher's arrival. Another year of eight or nine wins is going to bring further scrutiny.
Mississippi State (April 11): Can Costello be Leach's Air Raid passer?
Stanford transfer K.J. Costello has the physical gifts to flourish in new coach Mike Leach's passing game; Costello was viewed as a potential high-round pick before injuries slowed his final year with the Cardinal. Rather than asking if Leach's offense will work in the SEC — it'll work in the league just as it's worked everywhere else — it's worth considering if Costello and this receiver corps can mesh before September.
Ole Miss (April 18): How will Plumlee factor into the quarterback competition?
John Rhys Plumlee will try to balance baseball and football this spring, meaning the competition between the sophomore and fellow second-year quarterback Matt Corral might not fully heat up until August. Plumlee's athleticism and ability as a runner makes him a potentially explosive fit in coach Lane Kiffin's system.
Arkansas (April 25): How long would it take Pittman to rebuild?
The question of whether new coach Sam Pittman can rebuild Arkansas into an SEC contender won't be answered for at least a few years, due to the current state of the program. Does Pittman have a blueprint for this major project? He might look back on his recent coaching past, to stints under Joe Novak at Northern Illinois, Butch Davis at North Carolina and Kirby Smart at Georgia. But the Razorbacks need to be patient.
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