It's warming up and people are dipping their toes deeper and deeper into pool water.
Summer is just around the corner.
And with its impending arrival, we push further away from spring football practice, and inch closer to fall practice. It's a blessing and a curse, really.
So as we deal with the dog days of non-football season, let's take some time to look back and take stock of the springs that were in the SEC. Today, we're starting with the Eastern Division.
Let's be clear: The Gators have some soft spots on offense and defense that have to be filled before they meet Michigan in Arlington, Texas in September. But Florida's stock is up right now because there's finally some confidence in the quarterback position. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks hasn't taken a collegiate snap -- and he hasn't even officially won the starting job -- but he came a long way this spring. He'll get more competition from classmate Kyle Trask and former starter Luke Del Rio, but he's the guy, right now, and he has the kind of arm talent to resurrect a position that's been mediocre for nearly a decade. The defense took some hits with graduations and the draft, but coaches were pretty pleased with the play of the line and secondary this spring.
Getting 10 starters back on a defense that was quietly one of the SEC's best last year was always going to be a good thing for the Bulldogs, but seeing some much-needed maturity from freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has people giddy about the Dawgs. He's getting good push from backup Jake Fromm, but this is still very much his offense, and that only increased the more comfortable he got with the system and with reading defenses this spring. The offensive line lost three starters, but should be more cohesive and athletic this fall. Finding a go-to wide receiver and a starting nickel corner are the next steps for Kirby Smart.
It would be a lot easier to list the Wildcats as a rising program in 2017 if quarterback Stephen Johnson hadn't had such a bad spring game. But Mark Stoops has some firepower on offense and his defense should be much better than it has been in the past. When you look at the offense, 1,000-yard back Benny Snell Jr. is back, along with four starting offensive linemen. The receiver position looks solid with Garrett Johnson returning, and there's a ton of experience on defense. The Wildcats also stayed healthy this spring.
We really didn't learn a ton about the Tigers this spring, but the defense did make steady improvements. The offense was always going to be in good hands with Drew Lock and most of his partners in crime returning, but getting a handle on the defense was critical. Barry Odom seems happier with a defense that is less confused by its new scheme, compared to last year's. But until this unit faces real competition, it's still very much an unknown.
South Carolina: Even
Having standout quarterback Jake Bentley and top pass-catchers Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurst and Bryan Edwards back should make Will Muschamp smile when he thinks about his passing game. And rising sophomore running back Rico Dowdle has a chance to have a true breakout year. But even with some of the improvement the offensive line made this spring, South Carolina has a long way to go after giving up an SEC-high 41 sacks last year. The defense is still a complete unknown. No one returns with more than two sacks from last year and the defensive line has to get deeper and more consistent.
There's no question that a defense that ended the season as one of the SEC's worst will see improvement in 2017, but replacing first-round draft pick Derek Barnett off the edge won't be easy. It's time for linemen Jonathan Kongbo and Kahlil McKenzie to live up to their respective expectations, and the Vols need interior beast Shy Tuttle to get healthy. Tennessee figures to be in good hands at linebacker and in the secondary, but offensively, there are questions just about everywhere. Quinten Dormady literally had a perfect spring game and Jarrett Guarantano wasn't far behind him, but both are limited in ways that Joshua Dobbs wasn't. A go-to receiver needs to emerge, and the offensive line, as a whole, is still a mystery.
Derek Mason was pleased with quarterback Kyle Shurmur's spring progress, and he thinks receivers Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott will take a lot of pressure off Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb. This offense could actually be one of the league's most improved. Defensively, however, the Commodores are more athletic at middle linebacker, but there's no getting around the fact that All-America and do-everything linebacker Zach Cunningham is gone, and replacing his on-field presence will be hard to do. There's a group trying to do it, but don't count on it being at the level of Cunnigham.