SEC spring storylines

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Six straight BCS championships later, the SEC is undeniably the king’s conference of college football. There’s just one problem: the SEC’s vice grip on the BCS championship is going to end.

(Eventually)

Captain obvious, I know, but it’s just not wise to be picking against the SEC these days — especially the SEC West, which is home to the last three national champs and could very well make a run for its fourth in 2012. Alabama, Arkansas and LSU will all be in the limelight again as Top 10 teams.

Where the SEC needs some help is the overall depth of the conference, specifically in the East division. When traditional powers are good, the perception of the conference rises, and no team needs to elevate their game like Tennessee. The Vols are in a horrible slump and if Derek Dooley doesn’t turn it around soon, the heat beneath his coaching seat will be rising fast.

But there’s a lot to look forward to this spring in the SEC, including the new additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. Here’s what we’re watching:

The newbies 
Duh. The latest round of conference realignment started at the end of last summer when Texas A&M “resurrected its courtship” with the SEC, which resulted in the Aggies and Missouri joining as the conference’s 13th and 14th members. But now it’s about to get real. Can the former Big 12 members succeed in the SEC? It’ll be a tougher road for A&M right away; the Aggies are breaking in a new coach in Kevin Sumlin and replacing some key starters in what will undoubtedly be the toughest division — again — in college football. Missouri is a foreigner, a Midwest school going to places like Columbia and Gainesville. As spring practices commence, folks in SEC country are going to have a lot of interest in how Mizzou and A&M look.

Memo to the SEC East: let’s be a little more competitive, okay?
The SEC East posted a 6-13 record against the West last season, with half of those wins coming from East division champ Georgia. Granted, the West was top-heavy, housing three of the best five or six teams in college football and the bottom of the East was atrocious. But the last time the SEC East did anything significant was Florida’s 2008-09 BCS championship run. It’s uncertain if the East will improve this year, but it has the potential. Georgia and South Carolina will, again, be getting the preseason pub, but Florida, Vanderbilt — yes, the Commodores — and Missouri can all be considered in that next tier mix. Of course, everybody comes out of spring feeling pretty optimistic, but we’ll be watching to see if any team actually looks like they can challenge the West for the SEC crown — as tough as that may be to gauge.

Arkansas “offensive” O-line 
The Razorbacks managed to net just under 1,800 yards on the ground last season without Knile Davis, who sat out 2011 because of an ankle injury. Not bad for a group run by committee through an offensive line that had its fair share of struggles. Also, the fact that quarterback Tyler Wilson isn’t currently in iron lung after the shots he took last season is a feat within itself. If Arkansas is going to stay par for the course with their offensive production, they need Wilson to stay healthy, which means the O-line has to do a better job of protecting him while providing plenty of holes for the returning Davis. O-line improvement is a must for the Hogs this spring.

Copied and pasted from last year: Alabama, LSU favorites again 
Anyone ready for round two? Or, I guess, round three, maybe four? Months after meeting in the BCS championship game, all eyes will be on the defending national champion, Alabama, and the team that beat the Tide during the regular season but eventually lost when it matter most, LSU. Both lose a ton of talent to the NFL, especially on defense, but there always seems to be plenty of able and willing replacements to step in to starting roles. The quarterback situation for the Tide and Tigers is interesting, too. AJ McCarron showed remarkable improvement in the BCS championship and may be more than a “game manager” for Bama in 2012, and Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger appears to be the favorite to lead LSU out of its quarterback slump.

Doo(ley) or Die time in Knoxville?
It’s sort of wild to think that Derek Dooley could be out after three years at Tennessee if he doesn’t turn it around and fast, but that seems to be the feeling as the Vols enter spring practice. After a decent inaugural year for Dooley that included a Music City bowl appearance, things took a turn for the worse last season when Tennessee went 5-7, finished last in the SEC East and lost to Kentucky. Woof. The Vols are filled with young talent, not to mention plenty of new coaches, but things haven’t completely come together yet. It’s a shame, too. Dooley’s a likeable (and quotable) coach, but mercy isn’t exactly at the front of everyone’s minds in Knoxville. Plus, there’s a new athletic director in town… who didn’t hire Dooley. It’s time to impress.

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts uses photo of Clemson celebrating title win as motivational phone background

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Nick Saban said last week that the loss to Clemson in the the national championship game earlier this year is one that he’ll never get over, although he didn’t go so far as to compare it to a death in the family. One playing member of Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide team is taking to steps to ensure that he never forgets, either.

Jalen Hurts was the Tide’s talented true freshman starting quarterback who helped lead ‘Bama into the title game and, with a 30-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes left, gave his team a 31-28 lead. That lead was short-lived, however, as Deshaun Watson led his Tigers on an epic 88-yard drive that was capped by his two-yard touchdown pass with just one tick left on the clock for the 35-31 win.

The stunning last-second loss is something that Hurts makes a conscious effort to remind himself of daily as the rising sophomore, as the background on his smartphone, has a picture of Clemson players celebrating their win.

“We’re obviously all on our phones all the time,” Hurts said according to al.com after this past weekend’s spring game. “Every time I unlock it, it’s kind of a reminder. It kind of humbles me and keeps me motivated. …

“It’s not a grudge at all. It’s just something that keeps it on the back of your shoulder like, yeah, it’s still there. Remember why you’re doing it because at the end of the day, the goal for this team is to win the national championship.

Father of former Florida State WR Travis Rudolph killed in accidental shooting

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The father of Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph was killed Friday in an accidental shooting, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Monday.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, Darryl Rudolph was working on repairs inside a West Palm Beach, Fla., when a gun accidentally fired in an adjacent room, hitting him in the back/neck area. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 55 years old.

The younger Rudolph was Florida State’s leading receiver over the past two seasons before becoming an early-entrant into this week’s NFL Draft. He gained viral notoriety after a photo snapped of him sitting at lunch with an autistic elementary school student hit Facebook.

“When I used to coach and help other kids with football, basketball and sports, Travis was small but he used to pay attention to what I was doing,” the elder Rudolph said in an interview with ESPN last year. “I told them get your education. You can be the best athlete in the world, but without an education, you’re not going very far. That’s what Travis followed through on.”

LSU QB Danny Etling undergoes back surgery

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LSU quarterback Danny Etling has undergone surgery to relieve back pain, the program announced Monday.

“Danny had a minor back procedure this morning and everything went alright,” head coach Ed Orgeron said in a statement (and not in an Arrested Development way).

Etling has played through back pain for months, according to Ross Dellenger from The Advocate, and this procedure should remove that pain.

In a possibly related story, Etling went 4-of-11 for 53 yards in LSU’s spring game.

A transfer from Purdue, Etling appeared in 11 games for the Tigers last season, completing 160-of-269 passes (59.5 percent) for 2,123 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) with 11 touchdowns against five interceptions.

Etling’s recovery from Monday’s procedure is expected to be a short one.

Willie Taggart defends Oregon’s offseason workouts in interview

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Things got off to a rocky start for new Oregon head coach Willie Taggart. Among the issues Taggart was forced to deal with soon after accepting the job of head coach at Oregon was players falling ill during and after offseason workouts.

Three Ducks were hospitalized in January to treat symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a product of overworking leading to soft tissue and possible kidney damage. Oregon suspended strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde following the hospital treatments to players, and questions about his certification were thrust under a microscope. Despite the unfortunate situation in Eugene, Taggart has defended his program’s workout routine in an interview with Stewart Mandel of FOXSports.com.

“We know we didn’t do anything to try to hurt our kids. We’d done [the same program] everywhere we’ve been and never had a problem,” Taggart explained in the interview. “I think our guys just overworked themselves and didn’t hydrate. … They were trying to impress the new coaches.”

It seems Taggart has been trying to raise the bar at Oregon and find a way to make his new players tougher overall. That is a common strategy for a new coach in a new program, so Taggart’s mission is not unique in that sense.

Maybe it was just a tough physical transition in the approach to workouts after years of Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich running the show. Will this all pay off in the end? Taggart sure hopes so.