SEC football teams spring ahead to 2013

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG Quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a strong first season at LSU.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG Quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a strong first season at LSU.

Breaking down where all 14 schools stand after 15 days of spring practice

Doubt blooms equally with hope in the Southeastern Conference.

Or at least it does during spring football.

Who will tote the ball in Tuscaloosa? Bret Bielema doesn’t sit astride a Harley, but can he steer Arkansas back on successful path? Is it Lamin Barrow or D.J. Welter orchestrating havoc for LSU’s defense? Can Missouri, trampled under foot by “Old Man football,” find a quarterback in time to cool a warmer seat for Gary Pinkel? Does Will Muschamp, a risk-averse coach, get Florida’s passing game aloft?

After 15 practices, ranging from early days of Mark Stoops reign in woebegone Kentucky to Alabama’s hunt for a fourth title in five seasons, questions will persist into preseason camps in August.

But Aaron Murray’s hand is steady in Athens. Jadveon Clowney bull-rushing off the edge for South Carolina might cause tremors. The fabled oaks are down at Toomer’s Corner, and Auburn is rebuilding. Hugh Freeze lured talent to The Grove and Ole Miss. Vanderbilt wants its first monopoly since Cornelius founded the school. And Texas A&M has some guy named Johnny Football.

That much we know. For now, it will have to do.

Introductory text by Matthew Harris

Team breakdwons by Scott Rabalais

Western Division

Alabama

2012 RECORD: 13-1

2012 SEC RECORD: 7-1 (First overall)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS National Championship Game

RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Nick Saban (18th year overall and seventh at Alabama: 154-55-1 overall, 63-13 at Alabama)

SPRING STORYLINES

What can the Crimson Tide do for an encore? How about something that’s never been done. Alabama will try to ring out the BCS era with a third straight national championship and fourth in five years, both unprecedented feats in the college game. Accomplishing that won’t be easy, but it got easier when quarterback AJ McCarron decided to return for his senior year. The nation’s most efficient QB, McCarron will have his two favorite receivers: Amari Cooper (1,000 yards, 11 touchdowns as a freshman) and Kevin Norwood (461 yards, 4 TDs). Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (107 tackles) anchors the front seven, while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (5 interceptions) is back at safety.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

With Dutchtown graduate Eddie Lacy bolting to the NFL, Saban will have to turn to T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 TDs) at RB and at least three new starters to block for him. Dutchtown’s Landon Collins appears poised to pass Vinnie Sunseri at the safety spot opposite Clinton-Dix. Meanwhile, Bama must find a replacement for CB Dee Milliner. John Fulton is the likely candidate, but he sat out the spring with a toe injury. South Plaquemines’ Bradley Sylve also has a shot.

OUTLOOK

Alabama will almost certainly start as the preseason No. 1 in the polls and immediately will face a pair of tough and tougher tests against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and at Texas A&M. But despite O-line and secondary issues, Bama’s biggest obstacle to another national championship is Bama. If the Tide can get past A&M and LSU on Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa, Bama will be in Atlanta.

Arkansas

2012 RECORD: 4-8

2012 SEC RECORD: 2-6 (Sixth)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Last was in the Cotton Bowl after the 2011 season

RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (5 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Bret Bielema (Eighth season overall and first at Arkansas; 68-24 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

A hog farmer in his youth on his parents’ farm in Illinois, Bielema now takes over the Razorbacks after an embarrassing and dismal 2012. As the successor to both the deposed Bobby Petrino and the wacky John L. Smith, Bielema came in making no promises except one: to run the ball, run the ball and run it some more. In one 100-play spring scrimmage, new starting quarterback Brandon Allen threw all of 13 passes, as true a signal as any that the freewheeling days of the Petrino era are over. “There’s a lot of (SEC) coaches that have had my type of background that have had success,” Bielema said, a not so veiled reference to Saban and Les Miles.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Finding enough running backs to do the job is the question. Projected starter Jonathan Williams has the power and speed Bielema wants. Nate Holmes is his backup, but Keante Minor moved from WR to tailback in the spring as Cody Walker continued to nurse a broken leg. Is it a good thing to return eight starters on a defense that gave up 409.9 yards per game? The Razorbacks will find out, especially since there is little depth behind those eight. The biggest problem area is middle linebacker, where Daunte Carr put on pounds and moved from the safety spot. He’d better stay healthy, because his backups are equally inexperienced.

OUTLOOK

It would be unfair to expect rapid improvement out of the Razorbacks, especially since the early part of the schedule looks like it won’t allow it. A Sept. 21 game at Rutgers begins a rugged five-game stretch. Getting bowl-eligible is a lofty enough goal.

Auburn

2012 RECORD: 3-9

2012 SEC RECORD: 0-8 (Seventh)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Last was in the Chick-fil-A Bowl after the 2011 season

RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (6 offense, 9 defense, 2 specialists)

COACH: Gus Malzahn
(Second season overall and first at Auburn; 9-3 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

It’s hard to imagine a program that has had a more rapid fall. From the spotlight of a 14-0 season and a national title in 2010 to firing its coach in 2012, all played to a steady drumbeat of allegations and innuendo. Enter Malzahn, the deposed Gene Chizik’s former offensive coordinator, who returns after one successful Sun Belt-winning season at Arkansas State. Auburn spent the spring getting reacquainted with Malzahn’s spread offense and getting up to speed on the 4-2-5 defensive set favored by new co-defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson (he will share the role with former LSU assistant Charlie Harbison).

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Kiehl Frazier is the type of run-pass quarterback best suited for Malzahn’s offense, but he got benched last year in favor of Jonathan Wallace. Both split time in the spring, the results inconclusive. Whoever wins the job won’t be helped by the fact Auburn needs to find receivers. The top three from 2012 are gone, with Quan Bray (14 catches) and Thibodaux’s Trovon Reed (nine catches) trying to fill the gaps. Tre Mason rushed for 1,002 yards in 2012, but he is expected to be pushed hard by junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne.

OUTLOOK

While Malzahn’s return has re-energized an emotionally battered fan base, realistic fans know the Tigers won’t return to the heady days of Cam Newton in just one year. The schedule starts with three home games before a season-defining stretch against at LSU, against Ole Miss and at Texas A&M. If Auburn is to harbor any bowl hopes, it’s likely to have to somehow get to six wins before finishing with Georgia and Alabama.

LSU

2012 RECORD: 10-3

2012 SEC RECORD: 6-2 (Tied for second)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Lost to Clemson 25-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

COACH: Les Miles (13th season overall and ninth at LSU; 113-42 overall, 85-21 at LSU)

SPRING STORYLINES

LSU has probably had about as much upheaval as a program can have that has won 34 games the past three years with a record 11 players declaring early for the NFL draft and four offensive coordinators since 2010. Now it’s up to Miles, defensive coordinator John Chavis and new play-caller Cam Cameron to pick up the pieces and mold them into another contender. Cameron had the Tigers sprinting through spring drills with an eye to producing an offense that will blend vertical passing, power running and no-huddle facets around senior QB Zach Mettenberger. La’El Collins made a celebrated shift from LG to LT, his natural position.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

The biggest question now is whether Jeremy Hill will play after the TB was indefinitely suspended following his arrest for an April 27 bar fight that may prove to violate his 2012 probation in a sexual assault case. If he can’t play or is suspended, expect Alfred Blue to fill in after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Defensively, Chavis must decide whether to move Lamin Barrow from weakside to middle linebacker or trust D.J. Welter to do the job. Lastly, will sophomore Danielle Hunter shine as LSU’s latest and greatest defensive end?

OUTLOOK

It would be unfair to expect miracles, or a repeat of runs to the BCS championship game as in 2003, ’07 ’11. The schedule is daunting, starting with the Cowboys Classic against TCU and continuing with road games at Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama. Home games with Florida and Texas A&M will also tell whether the Tigers can again contend in the SEC West. At this point, the call is for 9-3 and the Cotton Bowl.

Ole Miss

2012 RECORD: 7-6

2012 SEC RECORD: 3-5 (Fifth)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated Pittsburgh 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

COACH: Hugh Freeze (Fifth season overall and second at Ole Miss; 37-13 overall, 7-6 at Ole Miss)

SPRING STORYLINES

Hard to say how Freeze ranks as an SEC coach just yet, but he appears to be a marketing genius. He parlayed a 7-6 season (just three years after the Rebels went 9-4 and 9-4 with back-to-back Cotton Bowl trips) into a top-10 recruiting class and the reputation as the hottest SEC program east of College Station. Luring the nation’s No. 1 recruit, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, was a huge coup, one that helped Ole Miss land a number of other top prospects. They’ll need them to close the talent gap with the SEC West’s top three: Alabama, LSU and A&M.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Quarterback Bo Wallace was a major dual threat in 2012 (2,994 yards passing, 390 rushing) but sat out the spring after January ankle surgery. Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller filled the void in practice in case Wallace’s recovery time is behind schedule. Runner/receiver Randall Mackey is gone, but Jeff Scott (846 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and Donte Moncrief (979 yards receiving, 10 TDs) will keep the offensive gears well oiled. Defensively, the big question is whether Nkemdiche can make as big an impression as a freshman as Jadeveon Clowney did. He’ll have to be special to beat out C.J. Johnson (6.5 sacks) or Channing Ward, though Johnson broke a leg in the spring and will miss summer workouts.

OUTLOOK

Ole Miss will be improved, but there’s no magic bullet for experience. And Ole Miss starts with a confidence-killing September that includes trips to Vanderbilt, Texas and Alabama. If the Rebels can shake off a potential 1-3 start with a win at Auburn on Oct. 5, Ole Miss can rebound to end its season in a bowl.

Mississippi State

2012 RECORD: 8-5

2012 SEC RECORD: 4-4 (Fourth)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Lost to Northwestern 34-20 in the Gator Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense, 6 defense, 2 specialists)

COACH: Dan Mullen (Fifth year, 29-22 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

A promising 7-0 start last season nosedived into losing five of the last six, including 41-24 to archrival Ole Miss and in the Gator Bowl to Northwestern. How to reverse the sense that the Mississippi State program overall is slipping, especially compared to the Rebels’ apparent resurgence, is Mullen’s top task. As is often the case with State, there is reason for optimism and concern. Senior quarterback Tyler Russell is back after throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 TDs, as is tailback LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards, 8 TDs). The concern comes at cornerback as State tries to replace Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and two other starters in the secondary. Jamerson Love and junior college transfer Justin Cox are projected to start at the corners.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

The Bulldogs lost their top four receivers, so finding fresh bodies to fill the gaps is imperative. Junior college transfer Jeremey Chapelle and freshman Fred Ross Jr. must come into fall camp ready to contribute if the passing game is to be as productive as it was last season. Four offensive line starters return, but the right tackle spot was unsettled leaving the spring between senior Charles Siddoway and junior Damien Robinson.

OUTLOOK

Trying to earn another bowl trip in the increasingly competitive SEC West won’t be easy. State absolutely must get off to a strong start with a win over Oklahoma State in the inaugural Texas Kickoff Classic. Must-win September games against Alcorn State, at Auburn and Troy follow. If State only comes out of September with a split, it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs making a fourth straight bowl trip.

Texas A&M

2012 RECORD: 11-2

2012 SEC RECORD: 6-2 (Tied for second)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 12(6 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Kevin Sumlin (Sixth season overall and second at Texas A&M; 46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)

SPRING STORYLINES

What can the incomparable Johnny Football do to embellish his legend? Texas A&M was happy just to get away from Texas and the Big 12 Conference. The Aggies found not just shelter, but shocking success in the SEC, toppling BCS champion Alabama on the road and watching freshman Johnny Manziel claim the Heisman Trophy. There are differing opinions as to how much fame will affect Manziel. Same for the fact that Clarence McKinney replaced Kliff Kingsbury (now head coach at Texas Tech) as offensive coordinator. A&M coaches shifted All-American Jake Matthews from right tackle to left to replace Luke Joeckel (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars).

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Leading receiver Mike Evans (1,105 yards, 5 TDs receiving) returns, but receivers Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are gone. Sumlin and staff are high on massive junior college transfer Cameron Clear (6-6, 270), who can play either the slot or tight end. Defensively, the Aggies need a healthy Julien Obioha to return to replace the departed Demontre Moore at DE. Also injured, and suspended, is nose guard Kirby Ennis, whose return is critical.

OUTLOOK

A&M overachieved last season compared to expectations, but now the expectations will be so much higher. A Sept. 14 home game with Alabama looms as one of the biggest of the college football season going in. Survive that, and the Aggies may come to Baton Rouge on Nov. 23 unbeaten. Again it may be too much too fast for A&M. As it is, once everyone stops hyperventilating, the Aggies would probably do well to match last year’s win total.

Eastern Division

Florida

2012 RECORD: 11-2

2012 SEC RECORD: 7-1 (Tied for first, lost tiebreaker)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Lost to Louisville 33-23 in Allstate Sugar Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense, 4 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Will Muschamp (third year, 18-8 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

Improving the vertical passing game was the primary goal. The Gators were an anemic bunch in 2012, ranking 10th in the SEC in scoring, 12th in total offense and last in passing offense. The Gators threw for just 1,902 yards, their fewest since 1969. Finding improvement was tough as Florida had to overhaul its O-line and skill players. All of this means plenty of pressure on QB Jeff Driskel, who must continue to improve as a dual-threat quarterback — a poor man’s Manziel. Even special teams had a big loss in Caleb Sturgis, arguably the best place-kicker in Gators history, but All-SEC punter Kyle Christy returns.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Matt Jones (52 carries, 275 yards, three TDs in 2012) must show he can fill the void left by 1,000-yard man Mike Gillislee. The Gators lived by the run a year ago (remember 25 straight rushes to end the LSU game?) but must find pass catchers to help Driskel. To that end, Florida may play Loucheiz Purifoy at both cornerback and wide receiver along with the likes of Trey Burton, Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Solomon Patton. The Gators left the spring unsettled on the D-line after the loss of Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter to the NFL. Senior Dominique Easley shifted from end to tackle after spring practice, with Leon Orr likely taking over at nose tackle, Jonathan Bullard replacing Easley at one end and Dante Fowler Jr. playing the other.

OUTLOOK

Muschamp can’t help but recruit well in Gainesville, so there is talent. Talented, but flawed, however. There are too many questions not to expect UF to take a step back and finish behind South Carolina and Georgia in the East.e_SClB

Georgia

2012 RECORD: 12-2

2012 SEC RECORD: 7-1 (Tied for first, won tiebreaker)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated Nebraska 45-31 in Capital One Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (10 offense, 4 defense, 2 specialists)

COACH: Mark Richt (13th year, 118-40 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

Finish the play. That’s what this entire season will be about for the Bulldogs. Doing what it takes to cover the 5 yards Georgia couldn’t cross in the dramatic final seconds of its loss to Alabama in December’s SEC title game. Bulldogs fans haven’t been able to stop smiling since Aaron Murray (Georgia’s record holder with 126 career TD passes) announced he would return for his senior year. WR Malcolm Mitchell, the Dogs’ top pass catcher, underwent arthroscopic right knee surgery April 5 but should make a full recovery. All five O-line starters return, but Richt left the spring saying only C David Andrews has a spot locked up.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Sophomore James DeLoach must prove himself a worthy successor at OLB to Jarvis Jones. Sheldon Dawson hurt a hamstring in spring practice and may find it hard to fend off Reggie Wilkerson at CB. Can Josh Harvey-Clemons handle both SS and nickel? On offense, can “Gurshall” (running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) be as good as their combined 2,144 yards and 25 TDs from a season ago?

OUTLOOK

Georgia has seen this schedule before. In 2011, the Bulldogs opened with losses to Boise State and South Carolina before peeling off 10 straight wins. This season, Georgia starts with a prime-time blockbuster at Clemson followed by a home opener against South Carolina. If the Bulldogs can exit September (which also includes a visit from LSU) with no more than one loss, their SEC and BCS title hopes will still be intact. Weighing its talent, experience and motivation, Georgia looks like the team to beat in the East.e_SClB

Kentucky

2012 RECORD: 2-10

2012 SEC RECORD: 0-8 (Seventh)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Last was in the BBVA Compass Bowl after the 2010 season

RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Mark Stoops (First year at UK and overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

Pedal to the metal, baby. Stoops may come into his first head coaching job fresh off serving as Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons at Florida State, but it is a NASCAR-style no-huddle, fast-paced, spread offense that was the new coach’s primary objective in the spring. Stoops tapped Neal Brown as his crew chief, an offensive coordinator who ran up-tempo, high-octane offenses at Troy and Texas Tech. The goals are lofty, but compared to the rest of the SEC, the talent Stoops and Brown have to work with is modest. QB Maxwell Smith threw for 975 yards and 8 TDs in four games last year, while small but swift WR Demarco Robinson returns as his top target.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

New defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has shifted the Wildcats from a multiple defensive look to a base 4-3. Will it be the equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs if UK’s six returning starters, led by senior MLB Avery Williams (135 tackles), can’t improve on the 31 points per game they surrendered in 2012? The new defense means switching Bud Dupree (91 tackles) from end to outside linebacker.

OUTLOOK

As always with a regime change, there is optimism. A reasonable amount of improvement should be expected, but this program isn’t about to evolve from a plodder to a Triple Crown contender overnight. Games against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio) offer a chance to get off to a quick start. Then the Wildcats begin what could be a death march of four straight games against Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Improvement, yes, but five wins or even four may be too much to ask too soon.e_SClB

Missouri

2012 RECORD: 5-7

2012 SEC RECORD: 2-6 (Fifth)BOWL APPEARANCE: Last was in the Independence Bowl after the 2011 season

RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Gary Pinkel (23rd year overall and 13th at Missouri; 163-98-3 overall, 90-60 at Missouri)

SPRING STORYLINES

“Old man football” left tire tracks on the Tigers and their new-fangled offensive ideas. Now comes their chance to make amends after a sobering first year in the SEC — Missouri’s first losing season since 2004. The Tigers are at least in part going with an “If you can’t beat ’em, bulk up” approach, elevating co-offensive line and former LSU tight ends coach Josh Henson to offensive coordinator. His main task in the spring was to try to improve the offensive line’s depth and strength, with the goal of keeping much injured QB James Franklin upright more often. Expect to see Henson sacrifice more spread formations for more blockers for Franklin.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Of course, that assumes Franklin will be the QB. He will have to fight off understudy Corbin Berkstresser and redshirt freshman Maty Mauk. The nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2012, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, had a decent freshman year (28 catches, 395 yards, 5 TDs). But he will be counted on to fill a much bigger role with the departure of T.J. Moe and Gahn McGaffie, alongside senior Marcus Lucas (46 catches, 509 yards, 3 TDs). Can DE Kony Ealy (10 tackles for loss) continue to channel his inner Alden Smith and take up for the loss of Sheldon Richardson to the NFL?

OUTLOOK

Pinkel has had his ups and downs before, but considering the splash Texas A&M made in year one, Mizzou needs to show improvement for his sake. If the Tigers can get more physical on offense and stabilize a defense that gave up 28.4 ppg last season, they should be able to go bowling. For Pinkel’s job, that had better be the case. Going into 2013, no SEC coaches’ seat is hotter.e_SClB

South Carolina

2012 RECORD: 11-2

2012 SEC RECORD: 6-2 (Third)BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated Michigan 33-28 in the Outback Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: Steve Spurrier (29th year overall and ninth at South Carolina; 255-118-2 overall, 66-37 at S.C.)

SPRING STORYLINES

“The Hit.” More than four months after DE Jadeveon Clowney looked briefly as though he had separated the head of Michigan RB Vincent Smith from his body, it’s still rippling through the sports world and on YouTube. The play has already taken its place at the top of South Carolina football lore. The question is, what can Clowney do for an encore? He could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft and is the favorite to go No. 1 next year. The only thing he hasn’t done is lead the Gamecocks to their first conference title since Paul Dietzel’s 1969 team won the ACC.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

A number of players must make full recoveries from offseason surgery, not the least of them QB Connor Shaw (left foot). Whether even a healthy Shaw can hold off Dylan Thompson, who threw for over 300 yards in both his starts as Shaw’s replacement, is debatable. Meanwhile, the derby to replace tailback Marcus Lattimore ended the spring in a photo finish between sophomores Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. Clowney didn’t play in the spring game as a precaution but three other starters missed rehabing from knee surgery: OLB Cedric Cooper, FS T.J Gurley and CB Rico McWilliams.

OUTLOOK

If the Gamecocks all heal properly this offseason and settle the QB situation — even if that means using two QBs as Spurrier so often has done in the past — they will be as capable as anyone of winning the East and going to the SEC title game. The early showdown at Georgia will make the Gamecocks or the Bulldogs the team to beat in the East, at least until South Carolina hosts Florida on Nov. 16.e_SClB

Tennessee

2012 RECORD: 5-7

2012 SEC RECORD: 1-7 (Sixth)BOWL APPEARANCE: Last was in the Music City Bowl after the 2010 season

RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)

COACH: Butch Jones (seventh year overall and first at Tennessee; 50-27 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

For the first time in his career, Jones is working without a net. He coached three years at Central Michigan and three years at Cincinnati, both times taking over established winners built by current Notre Dame coach Chip Kelly. That’s not the deal at Tennessee, which is on its fourth coach since 2008, has had three straight losing seasons and has won just two SEC games combined in the past two. In the spring, the focus was on getting junior Justin Worley (who threw just 23 passes in 2012) up to speed as Tyler Bray’s replacement. Also gone are Bray’s top four receivers. At least Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane, who combined to rush for 1,366 yards and 7 TDs, are back.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Though the Vols return the SEC’s top tackler in OLB A.J. Johnson (138 tackles) and have a strong linebacker corps, the rest of the defense needs work. Tennessee ranked last or next to last in the SEC in total yards, rushing yards, passing yards and points allowed last year. UT will break in a pair of new defensive ends, likely Jacques Smith and Jordan Williams. Though three secondary starters return, the Vols surrendered 282.5 passing yards per game in 2012. Other than SS Byron Moore (86 tackles, 5 interceptions), there could be changes.

OUTLOOK

Tennessee should cruise to its 800th victory in the Aug. 31 season opener with Austin Peay. After that, things get rocky on Rocky Top, with coast-to-coast road trips to Oregon and Florida and a brutal four-week stretch against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. UT will probably go into the season-ender at Kentucky needing a win to get in a bowl.

Vanderbilt

2012 RECORD: 9-4

2012 SEC RECORD: 5-3 (Fourth)

BOWL APPEARANCE: Defeated North Carolina State 34-28 in the Music City Bowl

RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)

COACH: James Franklin (third year, 15-11 overall)

SPRING STORYLINES

It’s beyond remarkable how far the Commodores have come under Franklin. The last time Vanderbilt won nine games was before the U.S. entered World War I (1915). The last time it finished a season ranked, the U.S. was in the middle of the Berlin Airlift (1948). But is this a Vandy program equipped to build on that success and actually be a factor in the SEC East? The Commodores are likely to again be kingmakers than kings, especially with Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels taking over for Jordan Rogers. Carta-Samuels threw all of 25 passes last season, 20 in one game. He will benefit from the return of All-SEC WR Jordan Matthews (1,323 yards, 8 TDs last season). Wesley Tate (376 yards, 8 TDs) and Brian Kimbrow (413 yards, 3 TDs) are part of a battery of RBs trying to replace Zac Stacy.

MUST ANSWER IN AUGUST

Injuries forced DE Caleb Azubike to switch to DT in the spring. If Barron Dixon isn’t back to full speed by August, Azubike may stay there. Vandy’s problems at DT are compounded by the spring suspension of Jared Morse along with the loss of two other seniors. Vince Taylor is the man in the middle next to Azubike for now. Back on offense, RT Andrew Bridges will have to fight off an August challenge from Andrew Jelks.

OUTLOOK

It may sound strange to say, but Vandy returns a veteran, reasonably talented squad that won’t be an easy out for anyone. It’s not a stretch to pencil the Commodores in for six wins. In fact, it would be an upset if Vandy isn’t playing in a third straight bowl game. To get back to eight regular-season wins, the season opener with Ole Miss and the Nov. 23 game at Tennessee will make the difference.