(AP) The reputation of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division took a hit last season after its top five teams all lost their bowl games.
Now the division’s seven teams — which account for five of the last eight national championships — are faced with a strange feeling following spring practice: Uncertainty about their place in college football’s pecking order.
As usual, Alabama has a roster stocked with former five-star recruits. But there are many questions on offense, including an ongoing quarterback battle between Jake Coker and David Cornwell.
Coach Nick Saban said spring football can give a coach some clues about his roster, but few things are settled.
“It’s almost like the midterm in school. It’s not the final exam,” Saban said after the Tide’s spring game. “It shows you the progress that you’ve made to this point, how many guys you actually have out there that have made the kind of progress that they need to make.”
Several other schools, including LSU and Mississippi, are also unsettled at quarterback.
There are intriguing defensive storylines, too. Two new defensive coordinators — Auburn’s Will Muschamp and Texas A&M’s John Chavis — will be watched closely next fall. Muschamp was Florida’s head coach before being fired following last season while Chavis has had successful stints at LSU and Tennessee before coming to College Station.
Here are some of other major developments to keep an eye on in the division:
ALABAMA: The quarterback battle between Jake Coker and David Cornwell got most of the attention, but the Crimson Tide must replace the top three receivers — including Heisman Trophy finalist and potential Top 10 draft pick Amari Cooper. Former prized recruits like Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart and Chris Black have openings, but none of the healthy returning wideouts caught a touchdown pass last season.
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks have huge expectations next fall after an encouraging 2014 season. Arkansas feels good about its offense, which has nine starters returning. Most of the question marks are on the defense, which has to replace stars like linebacker Martrell Spaight and defensive lineman Trey Flowers. Junior defensive end JaMichael Winston had three sacks in the spring game and should be one of the stars on next year’s team.
AUBURN: For the second straight year, the Tigers must replace the SEC’s top rusher. This time Cameron Artis-Payne is gone, along with backup Corey Grant and dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall. Sophomore Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson were both prized recruits, however. Thomas had his moments last season in running for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
LSU: Coach Les Miles is not ready to name a front-runner in a two-man quarterback race between junior Anthony Jennings and sophomore Brandon Harris, but did say he’d prefer to have a definite pecking order once the season starts. The Tigers are confident their running game will be strong, led by sophomore Leonard Fournette, a likely Heisman Trophy candidate.
OLE MISS: The quarterback competition to see who replaces Bo Wallace is expected to continue into August. Transfer Chad Kelly, along with holdovers Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, are all in the running. Several of the Rebels’ best players — including receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil — didn’t go through spring drills because of injuries, but the team expects both to be back at full health by the fall.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs are set at quarterback, thanks to the return of senior Dak Prescott. Now coach Dan Mullen is trying to find three new starters along the offensive line to replace him. The defense returns a decent amount of experience, but needs younger players like Beniquez Brown, A.J. Jefferson and Richie Brown to step into larger roles.
TEXAS A&M: Coach Kevin Sumlin has proven that he can have a high-scoring offense in College Station. Sophomore Kyle Allen is expected to take the full-time job at quarterback after throwing for 1,322 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. If new coordinator John Chavis can make Texas A&M respectable on defense, it could make a big jump in the SEC.