Today is a huge day for SEC football fans. Seven spring games are happening and some starting jobs may be won or lost by sundown. Here’s a run down of each game and what to look for. Gridron Now’s Tony Barnhart explains what’s on tap.
With seven spring games set for Saturday, I’ll be in the SEC Network Studios following the action. Here are the things I’m looking for in each of the games.
GEORGIA: HOW BIG WILL THE CROWD BE AT SANFORD STADIUM?
When Kirby Smart took over as coach, he basically called out Bulldog Nation. Smart wanted to jam Sanford Stadium to its capacity (about 93,000) at the spring game as a sign that a new day has arrived at Georgia.
I’ve heard from a lot of people who are going to Athens, and the hotels, based on a few quick phone calls, seemed to be booked. The Georgia record for a spring game is just under 48,000, set last spring.
Here is what those fans want to see: They want to see true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, who many think is the future. They want to see what the offense looks like under new coordinator Jim Chaney. For 15 years the offense was run by Mark Richt and Mike Bobo. What, if anything, is different? But mostly they want to see if there is a different vibe at Sanford Stadium. For the first time in 15 years, there is a new coach, who won a lot of games as the DC at Alabama. Does Georgia football feel different under Kirby Smart?
ALABAMA: DOES QUARTERBACK COOPER BATEMAN SOLIDIFY HIS POSITION?
Nick Saban told ESPN.com that Cooper Bateman, a junior, was the current frontrunner in the race to replace Jake Coker. He has gotten more first-team reps than his competitors: redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, sophomore David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts, who enrolled in January.
Bateman is not the most physically gifted in the bunch. Barnett has more upside, Cornwell has a stronger arm and Hurts is a talented dual-threat quarterback.
But Bateman has done two things this spring that are crucial for Saban: He has taken care of the ball and he’s started to win over the locker room as a leader.
With a good performance on Saturday, Bateman could lock down the position.
TENNESSEE: IS JOSH DOBBS GOING TO IMPROVE AS A PASSER?
Tennessee does things a little different at its spring scrimmage. Coach Butch Jones puts players into competitive individual drills to see how they perform under the pressure of a crowd.
Everybody agrees that Tennessee has enough talent to win the SEC East in 2016 if QB Josh Dobbs can raise the level of his game as a passer. Tennessee probably has the best one-two punch in the league at running back in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Now Dobbs has to throw the ball well enough to keep the defenses honest. So keep an eye on the quarterback drills, where they will be asked to make specific types of throws, then judged on the accuracy.
And keep this name in mind: Wide receiver Preston Williams was a five-star recruit in the 2015 class out of the Atlanta area. He had maturity and injury issues as a freshman. Now he’s starting to grow up. Tennessee’s receivers have been hampered by injuries this spring; let’s see if Williams does something that will make fans go “wow.”
I also got word that there will be a surprise during the game.
LSU: HAS QB BRANDON HARRIS REALLY MADE STRIDES?
Let’s be candid here: LSU’s inability to recruit and develop a quarterback the past two years almost cost Les Miles his job in 2015. And, while we’re being honest, let’s also say that if things don’t get better in 2016, Miles probably will be back in the same position in November.
This offseason, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hit the road looking for ideas from other programs, and quarterback Brandon Harris reached out to pro quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Robert Griffin III and Zach Mettenberger and asked for advice. They told him to live in the film room, breaking down all the things he does wrong and does right.
Harris, a junior, doesn’t have to be great at quarterback. With Leonard Fournette (1,953 yards rushing in 2015), the best back in the country, I’m not sure Harris even has to be good. But he does need to be better than a 53.6 percent passer, with 13 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Harris has been pushed this spring by Purdue transfer Danny Etling. That has been a good thing.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: WHAT IS LIFE GOING TO BE LIKE WITHOUT DAK PRESCOTT?
Dak Prescott was the best player in the history of the school and the alpha Bulldog both on the field and in the locker room. Dan Mullen lost a lot when Mr. Prescott finished his time in Starkville.
Saturday, you’ll see four quarterbacks. When I visited Mullen in March, he insisted it was a wide-open competition. But the starter, IMO, is going to be sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, who got some spot play last year (eight games, 14 pass attempts). Let’s see how many reps he gets in the game along with Elijah Staley, Damian Williams and redshirt freshman Nick Tiano. All have played except Tiano.
In the first scrimmage of the spring the quarterbacks struggled, throwing six interceptions. Things went much better in the second scrimmage, with no turnovers.
The Bulldogs are thin at wide receiver for this game because of injuries (Fred Ross, Donald Gray) and discipline issues. Fred Brown, who caught 27 passes last season, was dismissed from the team Thursday for violating the school honor code.
And keep your eye on the defense. Peter Sirmon, who had been at USC, is the new coordinator and he’s switched the Bulldogs to a 3-4. They probably will keep it vanilla Saturday, but I’ve heard good things about Sirmon.
KENTUCKY: WHAT DOES THE OFFENSE LOOK LIKE UNDER EDDIE GRAN?
After failing to make a bowl game in each of the past two seasons, Mark Stoops shook up his offensive staff, bringing in veteran assistants Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw. Gran, who has worked at Ole Miss, Auburn and Florida State, among other stops, has been riding his guys hard in the spring, looking for some consistency.
Quarterback Patrick Towles was replaced by redshirt sophomore Drew Barker at the end of last season. Towles transferred to Boston College, and Barker has spent the spring competing with JC transfer Stephen Johnson, a dual-threat quarterback. We’ll see what happens Saturday, but I think Barker is the guy.
Kentucky is deep in running backs, which is Gran’s specialty. Stanley “Boom” Williams has been held out of contact drills (elbow), and JoJo Kemp tweaked a hamstring and may be limited.
MISSOURI: THE TIGERS START OVER UNDER BARRY ODOM
After 15 years of consistent winning, Gary Pinkel stepped down as Missouri’s coach. Former Missouri linebacker and assistant Barry Odom has taken over and has raised the intensity level in the program.
But it looks as if the talent level will keep the Tigers from being a serious contender in the SEC East. Drew Lock became the starter at quarterback when Maty Mauk was dismissed from the team last season. Lock completed only 49 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel took over the offense and has installed a more up-tempo attack. When I was at Missouri in March, folks told me that the offense was well-suited to Lock and his skill set. It will be interesting to see how the offense looks Saturday at Faurot Field.
Odom told reporters this week that he’ll use three quarterbacks in the spring game: Lock, sophomore Marvin Zanders and sophomore Jack Lowary, who is a JC transfer.
Here’s the schedule for Saturday’s SEC spring games.
(All times Eastern)
- Kentucky, Noon, SEC Network
- Mississippi State, Noon, ESPNU
- Tennessee, 2 p.m., SEC Network
- Alabama, 3 p.m., ESPN
- LSU, 4 p.m., SEC Network
- Georgia, 4 p.m., ESPNU
- Missouri, 8 p.m., SEC Network