Georgia and Alabama squared off in the College Football Playoff National Championship to cap an exciting 2021 season back in January, further cementing the SEC as the best in the land. That's in the rearview mirror now, though. Both squads face pressing questions -- as do the other 12 teams in the conference -- as spring practices are in full swing ahead of the 2022 college football season.
In addition to the questions surrounding the talent on the field, two new coaches joined the conference during the offseason as well -- Billy Napier at Florida and Brian Kelly at LSU. Both will look to put their own stamps on their new programs as they hit the practice fields for the first time with the Gators and Tigers, respectively.
So what are the most pressing questions for each team this spring? Let's break them down.
How to replace the star receivers ... again: It seems like replacing stud receivers with stud receivers has become an offseason tradition in Tuscaloosa, and this spring is no different. Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden -- three of Alabama's top four pass-catchers from last season -- are gone, as is tight end Jahleel Billingsley.
Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton was the Bulldogs' second-leading pass-catcher last year, and tops among wide receivers (tight end Brock Bowers lead the team). He is the most likely candidate to be this year's Jameson Williams -- a star transfer who exploded on to the scene. Ja'Corey Brooks saved the day in the four-overtime win over Auburn with the game-tying touchdown in the closing seconds of regulation, and he should be one of the top targets for Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. Sophomore Agiye Hall was the star of the Crimson Tide's spring game last year but only managed 72 yards in 2022. Fellow sophomore JoJo Earle's career got off to a hot start including an 85-yard performance in Week 2 vs. Mercer, but he didn't have a single catch after Week 6.
Who has the chemistry with KJ Jefferson? The versatile quarterback lost superstar receiver Treylon Burks to the NFL Draft, and it's imperative that he find either a replacement, or multiple options, to match that production heading into the season. Former five-star standout Jadon Haselwood transferred in from Oklahoma and has the size and speed to take the top off of a defense with ease. Warren Thompson took some pressure off of Burks last season with 19 catches for 304 yards (16 yards per catch) and will also be in the mix for downfield targets.
Whether it's one player or coach Sam Pittman uses a wide-receiver by-committee approach, Jefferson needs to develop roles with his receivers to take some pressure off of the running game.
Which QB is the answer for the Tigers? Bo Nix transferred to Oregon, Robby Ashford transferred from the Ducks to the Tigers and former Texas A&M starter Zach Calzada joined Bryan Harsin's program in the quarterback shuffle on the Plains. What's more, TJ Finley is back after starting the final three games of the season in place of Nix.
Calzada has been a bit banged up to start the spring session, but his experience last season -- which included an upset win over Alabama -- makes him an intriguing option. With that said, Finley should get the first crack at the top spot on the depth chart considering he threw five touchdowns over that three-game stretch on a bum leg and has a firm grasp of what Harsin asks of his quarterbacks. Keep an eye out for Ashford, though. He's the most mobile of the trio and could sneak into the mix before A-Day.
Who will pound the rock? It'd be easy to say that the development of quarterback Anthony Richardson is the most-pressing question, but that development will accelerate if first-year coach Billy Napier can figure out his running back situation. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are gone, and junior Nay'Quan Wright won't participate in the spring while he recovers from a knee injury suffered late last season.
Napier will have to rely on multiple players who have transferred into the program over the last few years to bridge the gap -- Lorenzo Lingard (Miami), Demarkcus Bowman (Clemson) and Montrell Johnson (Louisiana). Napier has used multiple running backs in key situations in the past, so this spring is a golden opportunity to build the depth that the Gators will need to be competitive in 2022.
How deep can the defensive line be this season? The Bulldogs defense was historically dominant last season, but multiple key players from the national champs are gone -- particularly along the defensive line. Jalen Carter, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound monster, should be the talk of the town after showing flashes of stardom last season alongside departed monster Jordan Davis. Carter has the skillset to be a top-tier NFL draft pick in 2023 and needs to step up in the middle of the defensive line. Devonte Wyatt, a 315-pound monster as well, is also off to the NFL after seven tackles for loss a year ago, which will put even more pressure on coach Kirby Smart to build the depth that championship-caliber teams need to win at an elite level.
Co-defensive coordinators Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann have replaced Dan Lanning, who took the head coaching gig at Oregon in the offseason. Their first order of business will be developing talent up front.
Who are the stud wide receivers? Will Levis is back at quarterback, but he lost his two top receivers -- Wan'Dale Robinson and Josh Ali -- in the offseason. They were the only two receivers with more than 200 yards a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello will be charged with finding their replacements as soon as possible.
Tayvion Robinson had 556 receiving yards at Virginia Tech last season, and is the most likely candidate to emerge as the top target this spring. All indications are that the 5-foot-10, 187-pounder from Virginia Beach, Virginia, has settled in nicely during the early stages of the spring session. He'll get help this summer when Alabama transfer Javon Baker arrives, and the duo needs to provide the downfield threat needed to take pressure off of the running game.
Who will take the snaps for Brian Kelly? The quarterback competition in Baton Rouge will be fascinating to watch over the course of the offseason, and it kicked off in earnest last week when the Tigers hit the practice field. Max Johnson, last year's starter, left for Texas A&M, which left a void under center.
Kelly, entering his first season as Tigers coach, will have himself plenty of options in the offseason after luring ex-Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels to town and convincing 2020 opening day starter Myles Brennan to exit the transfer portal and remain with the program. Redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier and true freshman Walker Howard are also in the mix for Kelly, and all of them will receive first-team snaps as practices continue.
Filling the voids at offensive tackle: The Bulldogs lost both starting tackles from last year's squad, including potential first-round pick Charles Cross. He, along with Scott Lashley, were huge reasons why they only gave up 61 tackles for loss -- third fewest in the SEC.
Nick Jones started in place of Cross in the Liberty Bowl, but Texas Tech stopped the Bulldogs behind the line of scrimmage seven times in the 34-7 loss -- one of their worst performances of the season. Coach Mike Leach could move Kameron Jones outside to help out at tackle and/or rely on hot-shot junior college transfer Percy Lewis to step right in and earn playing time this spring.
How to get the run game going: Missouri already held its spring game, so it already answered several questions facing second-year coach Eli Drinkwitz. The most notable of which was the running game, which lost star Tyler Badie following last season. Stanford transfer and multi-faceted weapon Nathaniel Peat had a strong performance, and could be the star of the backfield moving forward.
Can the defense just be adequate? Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin left to take the same role at Texas A&M, and coach Lane Kiffin chose to hand the duties to co-coordinators Maurice Crum and Chris Partridge in 2022. The Rebels finished tied for eighth in yards per play allowed with 5.51 and 11th in total defense with 420.4 yards per game allowed last year, which prevented the Rebels from truly contending for the SEC West title. That has to change, and the time is now to make it happen.
We know how good the offense will be. Yes, quarterback Matt Corral is gone, but Kiffin's well-chronicled success suggests that they'll still be fine in that department. It's safe to assume that there will be at least a small step back, though, which means the defense has to be more consistent in order the Rebels to contend.
Can some consistency be found up front?: The Gamecocks finished 13th in the conference in tackles for loss with 62, and that has to improve in order for Shane Beamer's squad to continue its ascension to SEC East relevancy. Kingsley Enagbare and Damani Staley combined for 13.5 of those but have moved on from the program.
Super senior Jordan Strachan opted to return this year, former star recruit Jordan Burch could be a terror off of the edge and Zacch Pickens decided to come back for one more season in Columbia. Beamer has a foundation to work with, but there's no question that the Gamecocks have to be significantly better along their front seven this season.
Can the Vols improve their pass defense? Tennessee had the worst pass defense in the SEC last year (273.2 yards per game), and second-year coach Josh Heupel has to fix that glitch. That won't be easy, though. Warren Burrell, who started at cornerback last year, won't play this spring, along with multiple other potential starters who are looking to earn playing time in the defensive backfield.
It's going to be very difficult for Heupel to actually answer this question, but he has to develop at least one or two players into contenders to build the depth the Vols need. After all, the secondary will be counted on in a big way considering how little time of possession means to the lightning-fast offense.
Who leads the offense? Former LSU starting QB Max Johnson joined the Aggies this offseason and will contend with 2021 opening day starter Haynes King and five-star freshman Conner Weigman for the top spot on the depth chart. It's one of the most intriguing battles in the country considering the hype surrounding coach Jimbo Fisher's program.
All three players will receive first-team snaps over the course of the month, which will give Fisher a good idea of the depth chart as the Aggies head into the summer. At that point, the question might change from "who will start" to "who will transfer."
How to wreak more havoc in opposing backfields: The Commodores had nine sacks for the entire season in 2021 -- tied for the worst mark in the country. That seems impossible considering head coach Clark Lea's track record of success as a defensive coordinator prior to his arrival in Nashville.
Six defensive linemen entered the transfer portal and Daevion Davis is still recovering from a knee injury suffered late last season, which has added to Lea's biggest problem. Myles Cecil, a transfer from Cal Poly, announced his intent to join the 'Dores last week. That will certainly help. But as of now, there's absolutely nothing to be excited out up front.