Drive Through: SEC Preview

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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In the spirit of the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys, Cary Chow and Heather Dinich hand out some preseason awards of their own for the SEC.

Impact freshmen from the SEC

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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough

Breakout players from the SEC

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Every year there are a handful of players who break out and become stars in the SEC. Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall are two of the more obvious ones recently, but it doesn’t always have to be a quarterback. Just look at what Michael Sam did last season at Missouri. Who will this be this year’s breakout star? We predict five who could take that next step.

D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan

De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough

O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough

Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf

SEC Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
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Football season is finally here. When South Carolina and Texas A&M kick it off tonight (6 ET, SEC Network), the SEC will be back in full swing.

With that in mind, it's time to make some game picks. Each week during the season, our SEC reporters will pick each game on the slate, and we'll highlight the biggest battles and the ones that generated the most disagreement.


Why South Carolina will win: The Gamecocks have a lot of firepower and experience coming back on offense, while the Aggies still have a lot of questions on defense. Texas A&M should put some points up with its own potent group of playmakers, but South Carolina's defense will force QB Kenny Hill into some late mistakes. Feeding RB Mike Davis the ball in the fourth should help put this one away. -- Edward Aschoff


Why Alabama will win: Despite the attention on Alabama's quarterbacks, nearly the only thing that makes this one interesting is how the Crimson Tide's retooled pass rush and secondary will fare against QB Clint Trickett and the West Virginia offense. Whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims under center for Alabama, expect him to hand it off plenty and for the Tide to have their way against a Mountaineers defense that finished 101st nationally in total defense last season by allowing 455 yards per game. -- David Ching


Why Georgia will win: Hey, the Bulldogs might make fans nervous with their defense, especially with that incredibly unproven secondary, but the offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with QB Hutson Mason taking over. Clemson's defense has improved, but there are just too many good working parts on Georgia's offense. I have a feeling that some pounding from RB Todd Gurley and a major play from LB Leonard Floyd will get the job done for Georgia on Saturday.
-- Edward Aschoff


Why LSU will win: The Tigers are 9-0 in season openers under coach Les Miles, including four games against ranked opponents and six away from Tiger Stadium. Wisconsin is good in season openers, too (16 straight to LSU's 11), but Houston's proximity to Louisiana and the large number of Tigers fans expected at NRG Stadium should give LSU a slight boost. These teams are similar, but LSU's experienced offensive line against Wisconsin's inexperienced defensive front gives the Tigers a slight edge. -- Sam Khan Jr.

Why Wisconsin will win: If this game were in November, LSU would be in better position. But given that the Tigers lost every key piece on offense (QB, RB, both WRs), it may be too much to ask them to go on the road this early against a top-25 team. Wisconsin may not have experience at QB, but it has one of the best tailbacks in the country in Melvin Gordon and an offensive line that could be special with four returning starters. -- Alex Scarborough


Why Tennessee will win: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained. Coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers will play as many as 30 freshmen in this one, so there are sure to be mistakes. Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home. -- Jeff Barlis

Why Utah State will win: This isn't your typical mid-major opponent. The Aggies won nine games last season despite not having Keeton for the second half of the season. Keeton is back, and this is the perfect game to jump-start his Heisman campaign. Tennessee is still a program on the rise, but with no returning starters up front and up to 30 freshmen expected to play, there are just too many question marks. -- Greg Ostendorf

More consensus picks: Ole Miss over Boise State, Vanderbilt over Temple, Florida over Idaho, Auburn over Arkansas, Kentucky over UT Martin, Missouri over South Dakota State, Mississippi State over Southern Miss.

SEC morning links

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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

More from around the SEC:
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Alabama will begin the season against West Virginia on Saturday without starting inside linebacker Trey DePriest due to an undisclosed NCAA infraction, coach Nick Saban announced.

DePriest, a senior who has started 26 games the past two seasons, is expected to return Week 2 against Florida Atlantic, Saban told reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday.

Saban pointed out that since DePriest, a preseason All-SEC selection by both the media and coaches, was limited for much of fall camp with an injury, his backups were able to get plenty of reps.

"Even though this wasn't something we anticipated, it was something we were able to prepare for," he said.

Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland will fill in for DePriest against West Virginia, Saban said. Dillon Lee and Shaun Dion Hamilton will be next in line.

Saban doesn't expect DePriest's absence to have a noticeable impact on the game plan because West Virginia likes to go with multiple-receiver sets on offense that require fewer linebackers on the field.

"We'll probably be in nickel or dime in this game 70 percent or more," Saban said, "so there won't be a lot of regular [base defenses]."

Alabama and West Virginia are set to kick off on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Atlanta.


(Read full post)


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National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert breaks down inside linebacker Joshua McMillon's commitment to the Crimson Tide.

QB: Saban's daughter was 1st kiss

August, 26, 2014
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West Virginia starting quarterback Clint Trickett has known Alabama head coach Nick Saban for a long time.

But Trickett apparently had a relationship with another Saban, as well.

"His daughter (Kristen) was my first kiss back in the day," Trickett said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

That revelation could turn into a bit of bulletin-board fodder as Trickett's Mountaineers open against Saban's Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta on Saturday.

"So yeah ... I don't know if I should have said that," Trickett said. "She's actually engaged now."

Trickett quickly added: "For clarification, we were like 6 years old! Just so everyone knows that."

Trickett has a long history with the Sabans. His father, Rick, who is currently the offensive line coach at Florida State, coached under Saban at LSU in 2000.

Trickett's brother, Travis, who is now at Samford, was a graduate assistant for Saban at Alabama in 2007.

"Coach Nick is one of the greatest there is," Trickett said. "We've known him for years; family friends and just one of the best coaches out there."


(Read full post)


The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today's offerings: Notre Dame has the No. 15 class in the country, but the Irish could quickly climb into the top 10 with a monster recruiting weekend on the horizon. Plus, after Georgia landed star junior quarterback Jacob Eason, the Dawgs have been on a recruiting run at receiver, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

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West Virginia's opener with Alabama this weekend took an interesting turn Tuesday when Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett was asked after practice about his relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban.

Trickett's father, Rick, who is currently Florida State's offensive line coach, worked at LSU under Saban in 2000.

Trickett, however, apparently had a relationship with another Saban, as well.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Trickett, when prompted that he probably knows Saban well: "His daughter was my first kiss back in the day. So yeah... I don't know if I should have said that [laughs]. She's actually engaged now. Coach Nick is one of the greatest there is. My brother (Travis Trickett) worked for him. He was a GA for him when he first got to Alabama. And we've known him for years, family friends and just one of the best coaches out there."

Trickett cut off the next question to add one more tidbit: "For clarification, we were like six years old! Just so everyone knows that."

It's unclear at the moment whether this news will affect how many blitzes Saban dials up on Saturday.

Preseason predictions and betting guide

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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ESPN's college football experts offer their predictions for the 2014 conference winners, which four teams will make the final four and which team will win the first College Football Playoff.

Alabama is the most popular pick to win the SEC crown, with Georgia, South Carolina and Auburn also receiving support. The Crimson Tide are the only conference team picked to win it all, although only two of the panel's 23 experts picked Nick Saban's crew to win it all.

Click here for the full list of predictions.

And make sure to check out our comprehensive betting guide Insider from Phil Steele and Will Harris.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn't that long ago that a fresh-faced Landon Collins committed to Alabama in one of the strangest announcements ever recorded on national television.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama's defense will lean heavily on junior defensive back Landon Collins this season.
You know how it went: The five-star safety from Louisiana says, "Roll Tide Roll!" and pulls on a pair of Alabama gloves while his mother, April Justin, looks on in disappointment. Every one of Collins' 15 friends and family on stage -- that is, all but Justin -- applaud. And in the few weeks until national signing day, everyone wonders whether he'll flip to LSU. But he doesn't. He enrolls at Alabama and for the next year or so we catch only glimpses of the athlete who ignited such a firestorm of emotion.

That Landon Collins seems long gone now. His body has filled out. His hair has grown some, too. His mustache and chin-strap beard aren't trimmed up neatly like before. The talented special teams gunner fighting for reps is suddenly a veteran in a secondary hoping to return to its former glory. The drama of the past, the questions about his mother and LSU and his very public commitment, are now anecdotes in a larger story about one of the best safeties in the country, a First Team Preseason Coaches All-SEC selection and future NFL draft pick.

"Me and my dad sat down and talked about it before I ever signed to come here," Collins said. "He said by my junior year I'd be starting. I was like, 'No, I'll be playing my freshman year and get my starting job as a sophomore.' We didn't know the outcome, but by God's grace that's what we did.

"I just took it and ran with it."

In a way, both father and son were right. Collins played on special teams as a freshman and was expected to come off the bench as a sophomore. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, two upperclassmen, were entrenched at safety. But Clinton-Dix missed time sorting out an issue with the NCAA, and right as he returned, Sunseri tore his ACL. Collins stepped in, started nine games and filled up the stat sheet, finishing second on the team in tackles, first in passes defended and tied for second in interceptions and forced fumbles.

With Clinton-Dix and Sunseri off to the NFL and former starting cornerback Deion Belue gone as well, Collins is now the most recognizable face of Alabama's secondary. In fact, he might be the most indispensable player on Alabama's entire defense.

"He's been probably a key guy in a leadership role, defensively for this team in terms of how he's embraced that role and done a really good job," said coach Nick Saban. "The guy practices hard every day, works hard every day."

"I see a guy who's really hungry for this season, a guy who goes out and gets better and better every day" said fellow safety Jarrick Williams, who lauded Collins' speed and ability to tackle. "There's no slacking with him, it's full every day."

Amari Cooper, Alabama's star receiver, said you have to keep an eye on him.

"He's a fast guy getting to the ball," he said. "Like on a reverse, he's coming down really fast. He's always near the ball, so you have to be very aware of him."

Instead of answering questions about his infamous commitment, Collins is now answering for a defense expected to be one the best in the country, despite losing more than half of its starters from last season. On Monday, he talked up rookies, praised the defensive line and assessed the play of another hotly contested recruit, linebacker Reuben Foster. He even answered the tough questions like whether the defense has anything to prove after struggling against hurry-up, no-huddle offenses last season.

His response: "Definitely."

"We've always been known as a defense that's unstoppable [sic]," he said. "You can't run the ball or throw the ball on us. That's how we want to portray our defense like we did in previous years."

We'll know right away whether Collins and Alabama can paint that familiar picture.

The Crimson Tide's opponent to open the season, West Virginia, may have won only four games last season, but coach Dana Holgorsen's offense is potent, having averaged 26.3 points and 410.8 yards per game. It likes to push the tempo, too, as last season it averaged 22.8 seconds of possession per play, 26th quickest in the country.

Collins' leadership, as much as his talent, will be critical to Alabama's success. How he handles Saturday's fast-paced environment will be an indicator of how the defense will fair in the weeks to come.

But talking to Collins, you don't sense any pressure. After having gone through so much already, he's excited about what's ahead.

"Having these guys look up to me and the expectations I have for myself, I think it's going to be a great year," he said.
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Paul Finebaum answers fans' questions about college football, including which four teams will make the College Football Playoff and Florida State QB Jameis Winston's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
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