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 Toomer’s 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 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. It’s 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 quarterback Johnny Manziel. And the Rebels battled injuries throughout the spring. But positive feelings run through the program that welcomes the nation’s 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 hadn’t happened, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would be considered one of the game’s best returning players. But the highlight-reel blast allows Clowney to stand with a slew of quarterbacks such as Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Oregon’s 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.
He’s one of 10 returning quarterbacks who started the majority of his team’s games, and three may be a cut above the rest:
Manziel owns the Heisman. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, who has three national title rings after starting his career in 2009, looks to add to his jewelry collection. And Georgia’s Aaron Murray might be the best NFL prospect of the bunch.
South Carolina’s 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 Malzahn’s hurry-up, no huddle offense.
Missouri’s 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 didn’t score a rushing touchdown.
Bret Bielema. Arkansas’ new coach, arrives from Wisconsin and he’s already mixed it up with Alabama, asking fans at a booster club meeting to compare his record with the Badgers with the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban’s 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 didn’t comment, and Bielema later tweeted that he was joking.
• The SEC’s new coaching class also includes Malzahn, who returns to Auburn from Arkansas State, where he was the head coach, Tennessee’s Butch Jones (Cincinnati), and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who had been Florida State’s defensive coordinator.
The programs with new coaches were four of the five that didn’t make a bowl game last year. The fifth was Missouri.