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February 28, 2008

As spring practices begin across the country, the SEC is coming off its second consecutive national title.

There are two new coaches this season, including one (Ole Miss' Houston Nutt) who made a rare intraconference move.

Here is our Spring Preview for the SEC.

Alabama: March 13-April 15.
Arkansas : April 3-April 26.
Auburn: Feb. 28-March 29.
Florida: March 19-April 12.
Georgia: March 3-April 5.
Kentucky: March 26-April 29.
LSU: Feb. 29-April 5.
Ole Miss: March 17-April 12.
Mississippi State:Feb. 25-March 29.
South Carolina:March 19-April 19.
Tennessee: March 11-April 19.
Vanderbilt : March 4-March 29.

New coaches

Bobby Petrino, Arkansas: Petrino posted a 41-9 record and won one Orange Bowl title in four seasons at Louisville before leaving for the Atlanta Falcons. He was in such a hurry to return to the college game that he took Arkansas' job with three games remaining in his lone season as an NFL head coach. Petrino's background is almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball. The former Auburn and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator helped develop former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm into a potential first-round draft pick. Petrino, who turns 47 on March 10, should help provide some balance to an Arkansas offense that focused on the rushing attack under former coach Houston Nutt, who resigned under fire to take the job at Ole Miss.

Houston Nutt, Ole Miss: Although he created plenty of drama off the field at Arkansas, Nutt also produced plenty of wins on the field. Nutt, 50, was 75-48 with three SEC West titles and eight bowl appearances during his decade-long tenure at Arkansas before deciding to take the job at Ole Miss. Arkansas was the highest-scoring team in the SEC West during Nutt's tenure and averaged a school-record 39.8 points per game last year. Nutt replaces Ed Orgeron, who was fired after going 10-25 in three seasons.

Biggest position battles this spring

  • Alabama: Secondary. The Tide is looking for candidates to replace Simeon Castille at cornerback and Marcus Carter at strong safety. Candidates at strong safety include Justin Woodall, Javier Arenas and Ali Sharrief. Lionel Mitchell, Marquis Johnson and Tarence Farmer will fight it out at cornerback.

  • Arkansas: Wide receiver. Arkansas figures to throw the ball more often with Petrino in charge, but who's going to catch it now that Marcus Monk has departed? London Crawford, Reggie Fish and Crosby Tuck are three top contenders.

  • Auburn: Quarterback. Sophomore Kodi Burns probably got a leg up on the competition with his performance in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Clemson, but junior college transfer Chris Todd should push him throughout the preseason. Todd may even perform well enough to force a two-quarterback system.

  • Florida: Defensive end. Derrick Harvey's decision to turn pro after his junior season left a big hole in the Gators' defensive line. Jermaine Cunningham will start at one defensive end position, but who will fill the other slot? Former five-star recruit Carlos Dunlap could be the guy.

  • Georgia: Center. Fernando Velasco's senior leadership helped anchor a freshman-laden line last year. Now that Velasco's gone, do the Bulldogs move guard Chris Davis to the middle or break in a first-year starter at center?

  • Kentucky: Defensive end. Somebody's going to benefit from all the attention SEC offensive lines give to Jeremy Jarmon, who collected nine sacks last year. Nii Adjei Oninku started five games in 2006 before missing the '07 season with a knee injury, but he will have to hold off a challenge from Jamil Paris.

  • LSU: Cornerback. The departures of Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon will force the Tigers to break in two new starting cornerbacks.

  • Ole Miss: Center. Junior college transfer Brandon Green could move right into a starting assignment. If Green isn't ready to go, the Rebels could move Rishaw Johnson or John Jerry from guard.

  • Mississippi State: Quarterback. Wesley Carroll led the Bulldogs to their first bowl bid since 2000 as a freshman in '07, but he'll have to fend off Chris Relf and Josh Riddell.

  • South Carolina: Quarterback. Chris Smelley, Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher will get a chance to succeed Blake Mitchell as the Gamecocks' starter. Garcia, a redshirt freshman, may have the most upside, but he has had some off-field issues.

  • Tennessee: Secondary. Eric Berry will start at strong safety, Brent Vinson will occupy one of the two cornerback spots and the Vols have plenty of experienced candidates for the other two positions. Demetrice Morley, Marsalous Johnson, Antonio Gaines, Dennis Rogan and DeAngelo Willingham give Tennessee plenty of options. Morley missed last season because of academic issues.

  • Vanderbilt: Tight end. Jake Bradford is the Commodores' most experienced candidate, but he could face serious challenges from Austin Monahan, Virginia Tech transfer Brandon Barden and Justin Green.

    Five players who should emerge this spring

    1. LSU S Chad Jones: LSU had a Thorpe Award finalist (Craig Steltz) at safety last year and a first-round draft pick (LaRon Landry) at this position two years ago. The next great LSU safety could be Jones, a former five-star prospect whose sack and forced fumble set up the winning touchdown against Alabama last year.

    2. Kentucky QB Curtis Pulley: Pulley nearly won Kentucky's quarterback competition in 2006 before barely losing out to Andre Woodson, who went on to enjoy back-to-back stellar seasons. Now that Woodson's moving on to the NFL, Pulley gets his long-awaited opportunity to run Joker Phillips' offense.

    3. Auburn DT Jake Ricks: Pat Sims' decision to turn pro after his junior season is good news for Ricks, a former four-star prospect who backed up Sims last year and should move right into the starting lineup this fall.

    4. Tennessee WR Gerald Jones: This former four-star prospect showed his versatility in a backup role last season by catching six passes in Tennessee's last four games and rushing for 58 yards on eight carries. New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson will find ways to get the ball in Jones' hands this season.

    5. Alabama WR Mike McCoy: Quarterback John Parker Wilson will need to find plenty of new targets after losing his top three receivers (DJ Hall, Matt Caddell and Keith Brown) from last season. We're guessing that results in a big season for McCoy, who caught 28 passes for 207 yards last year.

    Five impact newcomers this spring

    1. Florida RB Emmanuel Moody: Florida coach Urban Meyer has searched in vain for a legitimate feature back since he arrived in Gainesville. The search could be over now that Moody, a former four-star prospect, has transferred in from USC.

    2. South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia: This former four-star prospect has made more headlines off the field than on it thus far, but he eventually could develop into the quarterback who helps Steve Spurrier deliver a long-awaited division title to South Carolina.

    3. Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead: The last time the Rebels relied on a transfer quarterback to lead their offense, Brent Schaeffer delivered the kind of results that helped lead to former coach Ed Orgeron's demise. Nutt is counting on better production from Snead, a former four-star prospect who originally signed with Texas.

    4. Auburn QB Chris Todd: Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has declared the quarterback competition wide open heading into spring practice, even after Kodi Burns performed so well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That gives Todd, a junior college transfer, a chance of winning the job. Todd started his career at Texas Tech, then transferred to a junior college when he lost out on the starting quarterback job to Graham Harrell.

    5. LSU QB Jarrett Lee: Ryan Perrilloux's suspension gives Lee a golden opportunity to make a name for himself this spring. If Perrilloux isn't back with the team by the start of the season, Lee or Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch likely would open the season as the Tigers' starting quarterback.

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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