Where the SEC stands after spring practice

Every long pass during A-Day brought a measure of relief.

This was what Nick Saban was hoping for, after all. The intermediate to deep passing game that disappeared late last season for Alabama returned during the Crimson Tide’s spring game two weekends ago. Jalen Hurts, no longer a freshman quartebrack learning on the job, showed progress in passing for more than 300 yards during the scrimmage, accomplishing what Saban called the “No. 1 goal” of spring practice: improving as a passer from the pocket.

But there were “mixed emotions,” as Saban put it.

“Every time we completed one,” he said, “I was happy for the guy that completed it, and I was saying, ‘Why did the defensive guy let him complete it?’”

Such is the life of a football coach during spring practice. Every good response is measured against a negative one. Figuring out whether you’re a better football team or not can prove difficult.

Kirby Smart, Saban’s former protege turned head coach at Georgia, had that same experience during his team’s spring game. The good news was that Georgia’s first-team defense racked up five sacks and forced a paltry 44 percent completion percentage. The problem was that the quarterback in question was Jacob Eason, the strong-armed true sophomore whom many expect to lift the Bulldogs from underachievers to SEC East champs in 2017.

Is Georgia the favorite to win the division regardless of one bad day from Eason? Probably. And is Alabama the most likely team to represent the West, even if the secondary was torched on national TV? Of course. But if you’re wondering if the SEC is in better shape today than it was before the start of spring practice, well, that’s a difficult question to answer.

Seeing as this is an optimistic time of the year, let’s say that if you want to find the positive, it’s there waiting for you beyond the obvious of Alabama being everyone’s preseason No. 1 ranked team. The Crimson Tide might have actually found a challenger or two these past few months.

After back-to-back beatdowns at the hands of Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Florida might have found its missing ingredient in the form of Feleipe Franks. The redshirt freshman entered the spring ensnared in a quarterback competition with Kyle Trask, but he appears to have separated himself after a strong spring game performance. And considering the recent run of mediocre passers to come through Gainesville (see: Luke Del Rio, Austin Appleby, Treon Harris), the former ESPN 300 recruit could be the kind of quarterback coach Jim McElwain has been waiting for to complement an otherwise top-notch defense. With a solid offensive line and arguably its best group of receivers in years, Florida’s offense might be ready to carry the team beyond the perception of winning the East by default.

Even Tennessee, which has fallen off the radar since the end of last season, had a quietly productive spring. Without expectations and with a weak nonconference schedule (Georgia Tech, Indiana State, Southern Miss and UMass), Butch Jones’ squad might be primed to surprise some people. While there’s no clear-cut star player on the roster year, the fact that Quinten Dormady went 10-for-10 passing during the spring game was a positive sign for an offense looking for new life under first-year coordinator Larry Scott.

In the West, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league in Nick Fitzgerald and Shea Patterson. What’s more, State appears to have grown a defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham, picking off Fitzgerald four times during its spring game.

But at the top of the division, Alabama and LSU could have company in the form of Auburn. Gus Malzahn’s squad limped to a disappointing 8-5 finish last season, but the addition of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham changes the equation. With a strong, accurate arm and good athleticism, he could make Malzahn’s offense roll in a way that we haven’t seen since Nick Marshall and Cam Newton. If Stidham can replicate his strong spring game performance and become a top 10 or top 20 passer nationally, then expect Auburn to become Alabama’s chief competition.

Of course, we don’t know what Auburn’s defense will look like now that Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams are no longer in the front seven. Arkansas’ defense, LSU’s offense and Kentucky’s passing game all remain significant question marks around the league.

And don’t forget that there’s a certain transfer quarterback from Notre Dame still in play, should the SEC grant him a waiver.

Things could be quiet over the next few weeks, but hold on. In a couple of months, SEC media days will be here, and fall camp starts shortly after that.

Spring practice didn’t dramatically change the landscape of the conference, but a few developments might have opened the door for more competition outside of the standby preseason favorite Alabama.