With spring practice just around the corner, this week we'll look at the strongest and most uncertain positions at six of the SEC's leading contenders for 2016.
These six are the teams -- Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida -- that ESPN's Mark Schlabach ranked in his “Way-Too-Early Top 25” after national signing day.
Today we begin with defending national champion Alabama:
Position of weakness: We know what you're thinking, right? It has to be quarterback. Jake Coker was a senior and unproven contenders like Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and others are about to take center stage.
That notion might be correct, but focusing on quarterback (or to a lesser degree, cornerback) is taking the easy route. Let's examine another position group that faces questions this spring: the defensive line.
As has been well-publicized, Nick Saban's staff has recruited just fine, so there is not a talent shortage anywhere in this group. However, the Crimson Tide lost starting defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed and nose Darren Lake, plus senior reserve D.J. Pettway. That's a boatload of talent to lose up front, although Jonathan Allen (he of 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss) made a huge decision to return for his senior season. There are also younger players like Da'Ron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand who should be ready to step into larger roles.
They'll need to be ready because Reed and Robinson in particular were absolute beasts. We're talking about a pair of players who now rank among ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 16 prospects for 2016. Guys like that are not easy to replace.
Nonentheless, Alabama has some major experience to replace along the front line and that will bear watching just as much as the quarterback battle that will receive far more publicity. This group should be good, and it has the potential to become exceptional, but performing at the same level as the group that preceded it might take time.
Position of strength: There are also questions at linebacker with the departure of seniors Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee, although that position group is still loaded with impact players.
Reuben Foster was second on the team last year with 73 tackles, while Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson combined for 16.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss off the edge. You also have former hotshot recruits like Rashaan Evans, Christian Miller and Shaun Dion Hamilton ready to make some noise, plus ESPN's No. 1 linebacker prospect Ben Davis will arrive this summer.
We could have gone with Alabama's offensive line here, but the departures of Ryan Kelly and Dominick Jackson make things a bit less certain. The Tide's talent along the line, though, is highly impressive.
That said, the sheer speed and athleticism at linebacker, plus a healthy amount of returning experience, swung things in that group's favor.