By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Two years of rescue efforts ended without success earlier this month and Auburn removed the iconic trees that were poisoned by an Alabama fan. The two 130-year-old oaks at Toomers Corner, which got the toilet paper treatment after big victories, soon will be replaced by two new oaks. Meanwhile, the perpetrator, a man in his mid-60s who copped to the crime on a call-in radio show soon after Auburn had defeated Alabama in 2010, remains in jail.
But otherwise, it was a normal spring in SEC land, where fans show up for the final scrimmages by the tens of thousands. More than 83,000 watched Auburn and gave the dying oaks a final rolling.
Alabama had 78,000, Tennessee, 61,000, and Kentucky, which finished 0-8 in SEC play last season, welcomed 50,000.
The league has more reason than any to be fired up about the College Football Playoff. Some details for the postseason changes coming in 2014 were announced this week. Had the new system been in place in 2012, as many as five SEC teams Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and LSU could have been in the six major bowl games, including two in the national semifinals.
Mississippi returns 19 starters, including the entire starting defense, from a team that finished 7-6 under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Its tough to make headway in the West Division, which returns the two-time defending national champion in Alabama and the Heisman Trophy winner in Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. And the Rebels battled injuries throughout the spring. But positive feelings run through the program that welcomes the nations top recruit, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, this fall.
The temptation is to say Alabama steps back, but a national championship three-peat is entirely possible. Florida, surprisingly good in 2012 with only a loss to Georgia preventing a perfect regular season, slips a bit in 2013 as it continues to find play-makers on offense. The Gators ranked 114th in passing offense last season.
Top Heisman hopeful
Even if the hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl hadnt happened, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would be considered one of the games best returning players. But the highlight-reel blast allows Clowney to stand with a slew of quarterbacks such as Manziel, Louisvilles Teddy Bridgewater, Clemsons Tajh Boyd, Georgias Aaron Murray, Alabamas A.J. McCarron, Ohio States Braxton Miller and Oregons Marcus Mariota as favorites.
The Rebels Bo Wallace missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery but is expected to back at full strength for the fall.
Hes one of 10 returning quarterbacks who started the majority of his teams games, and three may be a cut above the rest:
Manziel owns the Heisman. Alabamas A.J. McCarron, who has three national title rings after starting his career in 2009, looks to add to his jewelry collection. And Georgias Aaron Murray might be the best NFL prospect of the bunch.
South Carolinas Connor Shaw missed the spring recovering from surgery and Dylan Thompson, who led the Gamecocks to a victory over Clemson and threw the game-winning touchdown in the bowl victory over Michigan, handled the No. 1 role. Shaw and Thompson will play in a rotation system.
Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace split reps for Auburn this spring, and the Tigers welcome three quarterbacks in the fall as they break in Guz Malzahns hurry-up, no huddle offense.
Missouris James Franklin emerged from spring atop the depth chart, and the Tigers are hoping to get sophomore-season production from Franklin, rather than what he did in an injury-plagued junior season. In 2011, Franklin passed for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 15. Last season, he passed for 10 and didnt score a rushing touchdown.
Bret Bielema. Arkansas new coach, arrives from Wisconsin and hes already mixed it up with Alabama, asking fans at a booster club meeting to compare his record with the Badgers with the Crimson Tides Nick Sabans at Michigan State. Bielema went 68-24 in seven seasons at Madison, and Saban was 34-24-1 in five years with the Spartans. Saban didnt comment, and Bielema later tweeted that he was joking.
• The SECs new coaching class also includes Malzahn, who returns to Auburn from Arkansas State, where he was the head coach, Tennessees Butch Jones (Cincinnati), and Kentuckys Mark Stoops, who had been Florida States defensive coordinator.
The programs with new coaches were four of the five that didnt make a bowl game last year. The fifth was Missouri.