Paul Finebaum and ESPN's Travis Haney look at SEC football team's upcoming season.
Let’s be clear, it’s very tough to go into the state of Alabama right now and beat both Alabama and Auburn for a prospect either university covets.

Need proof? In the class of 2015 the top six prospects in the state signed with the two in-state powers. That was the year after the top 10 from the state inked with the Crimson Tide and Tigers. In the class of 2013, only one, Austin Golson, of the top eight picked an out-of-state school. Golson since has transferred to Auburn from Ole Miss.

[+] EnlargeJohn Broussard
Scott Fink for Student SportsJohn Broussard has visits set for FSU and Mississippi State, but Auburn will be hard to beat.
On May 7, ESPN Junior 300 No. 56 John Broussard is set to announce his decision. While the 5-foot-11, 173-pound cover corner still has schools he wants to continue to look at before making a decision, his mom is sold on the school just thirty minutes from home.

It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?

In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.

It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.

I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.

Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs
  2. Auburn Tigers
  3. Alabama Crimson Tide
  4. Tennessee Volunteers
  5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
  6. Arkansas Razorbacks
  7. Ole Miss Rebels
  8. Missouri Tigers
  9. LSU Tigers
  10. Texas A&M Aggies
  11. Florida Gators
  12. South Carolina Gamecocks
  13. Kentucky Wildcats
  14. Vanderbilt Commodores
[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsVolunteers QB Joshua Dobbs has a bounty of talented pass-catchers to throw to in 2015.


In Memphis, Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee

No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU


In Charlotte, North Carolina

No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU

In Orlando, Florida

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee

In Houston

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson is sure to surpass his 436 total yards passing from last season.

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas


In Arlington, Texas

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn

The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.

But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.

Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).

The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.

After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:

  1. Auburn
  2. Georgia
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Arkansas
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Texas A&M
  9. Missouri
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Florida
  13. Kentucky
  14. Vanderbilt


In Memphis, Tennessee

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry looks to build on a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M


In Charlotte, North Carolina

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWill Muschamp takes over an Auburn passing defense that was ranked 86th in yards per game allowed last season.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn

In Orlando, Florida

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee


In Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find a bargain in major college coaching -- or at least, the concept of value is being redefined because of continually climbing salaries.

Even with an evolving marketplace, a handful of programs are still getting solid deals. Here are the best examples, culled from contract files obtained by and USA Today’s salary database. Themes among the choices include Pac-12 coaches, veterans and private school employees.

1. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
Estimated 2015 salary:
$3 million
Rodriguez’s failed run at Michigan worked out fantastically for Arizona and AD Greg Byrne. Not only did it make Rodriguez available but it dropped the price tag for a proven coach who is again proving himself. The Wildcats, even with a freshman quarterback and a number of young skill players, broke through to win the Pac-12 South and reach the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. Michigan is looking more and more like an aberration for Rodriguez. Maybe it was more program than coach in Ann Arbor, huh? “That guy can coach,” one peer of Rodriguez’s texted last week. “I know that.”

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BUFORD, Ga. -- Temperatures in the 50’s on a rainy day didn’t keep more than 400 prospects from coming out to the Nike The Opening Atlanta Regional Camp on Sunday with hopes of receiving an invite to The Opening in Beaverton, Oregon.

Though the performances of the prospects were at the forefront, there were plenty of recruiting notes and some subtle messages delivered by prospects before the event began.

One of the best pictures of the day was ESPN Junior 300 wide receivers Tavares Chase and Kyle Davis. They could become rivals at the next level with Chase being committed to Clemson and Davis to South Carolina. The kink in the chain is the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Davis being a very "soft" verbal to the Gamecocks with Georgia, Auburn, and Tennessee all being in the mix. Though Chase was decked out in Clemson gear, Davis was very neutral. In this case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words considering Davis sounded like anything but a solid pledge Sunday.

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The state of Florida is generally loaded with playmakers at wide receiver. In fact, over the last five years, the state has produced at least eight ESPN 300 prospects in every class.

This year’s group of wide receivers just might top them all. An astounding 15 wideouts from the Sunshine State are listed in the ESPN Junior 300. It’s the deepest wide receiver class to come out of Florida in recent memory.

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SEC morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19

It's tournament time. Before you call in sick for work (wink, wink), how about we take a quick look around the SEC?

Tweet of the day

There goes Steve Spurrier hatin' again ...

No. 1 Greg Little has visit plans 

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The top ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, Greg Little, has been committed to Texas A&M since June 20 of 2014, but that hasn’t kept many of the nations top programs from attempting to knock down the door in hopes of swaying the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Texan.

The nation's No. 1-ranked offensive tackle made a first visit to someone other than the Aggies since committing in February, making the short trip north to take a look at the Oklahoma Sooners. As it turns out, that will be just one of many hurdles the Aggies have to clear to sign the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game selection.

"Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, UCLA and USC are coming at me hard,” Said Little. "And Auburn and Florida, too. The first week of June, I’m going to take visits to the Southeast. I’ll go to Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and some other schools like that. Then in the middle of the summer I’m going to go to the West Coast to see USC, UCLA and Stanford. I want to try and get up to Ohio State, too."

Little, who lists the Aggies and Bruins as the schools he talks to the most, says building a relationship with new offensive line coach Dave Christensen is going to be key for keeping his commitment to Texas A&M.

"[A&M] is telling me to just be patient. They have a new O-line coach, so we have to build a good connection. I just have to get to know him, because I think we have only talked a couple of times. I need to get to know him a little more."

For Texas A&M fans hoping or expecting Little to make a final declaration by the end of the summer, that is unlikely to happen.

"I will probably have a true final decision after my senior season. Probably at the beginning of January."

Following the Nike Opening Dallas Regional on Sunday, Little was one of 13 players invited to the The Opening to be held July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters.

Quick take: There are a couple of key factors to look at with the recruitment of Little. First is his relationship with teammate and class of 2015 Texas A&M signee Kyler Murray. Murray is a pied piper of sorts on the recruiting trail, and this is certainly true when speaking about Little. As long as Murray shows up on campus and suits up for the Aggies, and does not choose to go the MLB route if selected in the first round of the June draft, Texas A&M stands a good chance to sign Little. Should Murray end up going to MLB, and Little does not feel comfortable with his relationships with the Aggies' offensive staff, then all bets are off.

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SEC morning links

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Let me start out by wishing everybody a happy St. Patrick's Day. I hope you all remembered to wear green today. Now let's get to the links.

1. Florida held its first practice of the spring Monday, and with it came the official start to the Jim McElwain era. There was a newfound energy among the players, but that didn’t change the fact that there were still more questions than answers after practice was over. It’s always that way this time of year, and a new coach only adds more intrigue. Who is going to be the starting quarterback? How will the offense look under McElwain? How does the defense replace a star like Dante Fowler Jr.? You get the picture. But it was clear that finding a quarterback is at the top of McElwain’s to-do list. Redshirt freshman Will Grier took the first snap in Monday’s practice, but don’t read much into that. McElwain didn’t even notice who took it, or at least that is what he says. Either way, it should be a fun battle to watch in the coming weeks.

2. The Gators weren’t the only SEC team to kick off spring practice on Monday. Across the conference, Bret Bielema and his upstart Arkansas team got back on the field for the first time since knocking off Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The Razorbacks are going through their own changes this spring with the addition of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and learning the terminology was priority No. 1 the first day. Meanwhile, the defense is in search of playmakers after losing so much production from a season ago, and it didn’t take long to figure out that redshirt freshman defensive back Santos Ramirez can be one of those impact players. He’s drawn rave reviews from the coaches since he first stepped on campus.

Around the SEC

Tweet of the day

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It took 2 minutes for reality to sink in. After Nick Saban professed his excitement for spring camp beginning and touched on the idea of the next 14 practices providing a "snapshot" of where the team is, he had to turn his attention to personnel.

Cornerback Cyrus Jones was out with a hip injury.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoAlabama coach Nick Saban says he's unsure at the start of spring practice whether returning QB Jake Coker will be the starter heading into the season.

Linebacker Denzel Devall was sidelined after having an operation on his foot.

Running back Tyren Jones was still suspended for undisclosed reasons.

Offensive lineman Grant Hill, meanwhile, was on "medical leave."

There was good news, of course. Kenyan Drake, one of the offense's most explosive weapons at tailback, was back on the practice field after breaking his leg last year and had recently run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Saban said. But with two starters on defense sidelined until fall practice, one hopeful starter on the offensive line under a cloud of health concerns and the team's fourth-leading rusher in the dog house, the biggest takeaway from the start of spring camp was just how different everything looked.

On offense, the team's leading passer (Blake Sims), leading receiver (Amari Cooper) and leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon) were are all gone. On defense it was more of the same with three of the top four tacklers (Landon Collins, Trey DePriest and Nick Perry) off preparing for the NFL draft.

In a statement that should reverberate over the next few weeks of practice and on into the offseason, Saban said, "Any time you lose experienced players it's a work in progress to try and replace them."

Patience with the QBs

Before the start of spring practice last year, Saban warned reporters.

"You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game, who's the first-team quarterback," he said, "and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.'"

Ready for more of the same? You should be.

Saban all but scoffed at the notion of evaluating the progress of freshman and former five-star prospect Blake Barnett, noting how, "Like all freshmen, they all have a lot to learn." And to hit both ends of the spectrum, Saban wasn't up for judging the difference in former Florida State transfer Jake Coker either.

"We only had one practice and you guys act like we've been practicing illegally everyday in the offseason," Saban said.

He later said of Coker: "Obviously when he started last year it was a whole new offense to him, everyone was ahead of him and right now I feel like right now he's a lot more comfortable and confident with what we're doing."

Whether it's Coker, Barnett or another QB on the roster, what Saban wants from the starter is clear.

"I want to see what every coach would want to see and what every fan would want to see and everyone sitting in this room would want to see, is that the guy can go in and provide leadership for our team, make good choices and decisions about what he has to do to play winning football as his position," he said.

Retooling the offensive line

Hill's absence lessens the pool of O-line candidates by one, but the battle to replace Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown at guard and Austin Shepherd at right tackle is still quite competitive.

On Friday, Saban mentioned Dominick Jackson and Bradley Bozeman, who appeared in a combined 16 games last season, as potential replacements. He also singled out redshirt junior Alphonse Taylor and Brandon Greene, who had spent time at tight end last season but was back with the linemen this spring.

"Having Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson back certainly is very, very helpful," Saban said. "I think every player out there is going to get an opportunity.

"[Ross] Pierschbacher was redshirted last year. He's a guy that we had high hopes for."

Offseason spotlight: Alabama

March, 16, 2015
Mar 16

When Nick Saban said on Friday that Kenyan Drake was doing well and recently ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, the Alabama fan base was able to breath a sigh of relief. Because when he’s healthy, he has the potential to be a difference-maker on offense.

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Tide is expecting Kenyan Drake to be the X factor that keeps opposing defenses on edge.

Spotlight: Running back Kenyan Drake, 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, junior

2014 summary: He was, for a time, the most explosive player on Alabama’s roster. Amari Cooper was the most productive, obviously, but Drake was a firecracker, an athlete who could go the distance whether he was carrying the football or catching it. Take, for instance, Alabama’s very first offensive series against Florida when coordinator Lane Kiffin had some fun with him, motioning him from the backfield out to receiver on the far side of the field. The linebacker covering him was too slow, the safety was caught sleeping and Drake wound up with an 87-yard touchdown. But a week later, all that explosiveness and big-play ability was sidelined as he broke his leg and missed the remainder of the season. In five games, he finished with 277 yards and six touchdowns on 27 touches.

The skinny: Replacing Cooper and his 31 career touchdowns is one thing. But when you consider that T.J. Yeldon and his 3,322 career rushing yards are now gone, too, you’ve got something of a situation. Now it will take a village to account for those eye-popping numbers, but a key cog in that effort will be Drake, who is slated to be a starter in all but name only. In fact, think of him something of a vital sixth man in basketball, a James Harden-type back when he was coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Drake doesn’t have Harden’s prodigious beard, of course, but he provides a similar spark. If healthy, he’ll be the lightning to Derrick Henry's thunder at running back and the change-up to whoever starts at receiver. Like an athletic tight end, he has the ability to become the focus of the defense whenever he’s on the field.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Everything is bigger in Texas, especially high school football. That lesson was taught to us once again at Sunday's The Opening regional at Lamar High School.

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SEC spring practice storylines: Alabama

March, 13, 2015
Mar 13

Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama lost to Ohio State in the national semifinals last season.
Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, SEC Champions last season)

2014 Postseason: Lost to Ohio State in College Football Playoff Semifinal (Sugar Bowl)

Final AP Rank: 4th

Returning Starters: 4 offense/7 defense/2 specialists (via Phil Steele)

2015 ESPN FPI Rank: 2nd

Spring Game: April 18

2015 Storylines Can Lane Kiffin re-tool the offense after mass departures?
Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin will need to replace the 2014 starting quarterback, running back and top three wide receivers, including 2014 SEC Offensive Player of the Year Amari Cooper. For the 2nd straight year, Alabama will be starting a quarterback without any prior FBS starting experience.

After leading the Crimson Tide to the first ever College Football Playoff, quarterback Blake Sims is off to the NFL, with the Alabama passing and total offense record in hand. But quarterback experience has not been a trend of recent champions. Five of the last six BCS/CFP champions were led by first-year starting quarterbacks. Look for Jake Coker to battle a slew of blue chip recruits for the starting nod at quarterback.

At running back, Derrick Henry figures to get the bulk of the carries this season after splitting time in the backfield for the last two seasons with T.J. Yeldon. Henry actually led Alabama in rushing last year despite receiving 22 fewer carries than Yeldon. 47 percent of Henry's rushes last season gained at least five yards, the highest percentage for any running back in the conference.

Fixing the defense
Alabama's defense struggled down the stretch in 2014. The Tide allowed 630 yards in their Iron Bowl win against Auburn and 537 yards in their season-ending loss to Ohio State.

Those totals are the most and the third-most yards allowed by a Nick Saban-coached Alabama squad.

They'll hope to turn this around in 2015. Alabama needs to replace both its starting safeties from a secondary that ranked first in the SEC in pass defense efficiency a year ago.

Can Alabama win the big one?
Alabama lost to eventual champion Ohio State last year in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff, and the Tide have now lost two straight bowl games. In the last two seasons, Alabama is 0-3 against teams that finished ranked in the final AP Top 10 and 23-1 against everyone else.

Alabama hasn't won a national title in two seasons, which doesn't seem like a long time. But since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama has never gone three straight years without a title.

Stats & Info SEC spring practice series:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Auburn Tigers
Missouri Tigers
South Carolina Gamecocks
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Arkansas Razorbacks
Tennessee Volunteers
Georgia Bulldogs
Florida Gators

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 13, 2015
Mar 13
Schedule: The Crimson Tide begin spring practice on Friday with a workout at 4:30 p.m. ET. They will take the week of March 15 off for spring break and return to practice on March 23. The spring game will be held on April 18 at 3 p.m. ET at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

What’s new: The defensive coaching staff will have a different feel this spring with Lance Thompson and Kevin Steele gone. In their place, former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was hired to coach defensive backs, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from analyst to outside linebackers coach and coordinator Kirby Smart shifted from coaching the secondary to inside linebackers.

On the mend: Like a lot of players these days, Kenyan Drake has taken to social media to show off his rehab. The speedy running back has looked good, too, as he attempts to return from a broken leg he suffered in October. Outside linebacker Denzel Devall, who injured his ankle during the same game Drake went down, was spotted at Alabama's pro day this week using a scooter with his leg in a protective cast.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker 140806
AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha HuntJake Coker will have another shot at winning the starting quarterback job that has eluded him at Alabama and Florida State.
New faces: With T.J. Yeldon off to the NFL, Drake coming back from an injury, Altee Tenpenny gone after transferring and Tyren Jones in the doghouse, the depth chart at running back is wide open. So don't be surprised if Bo Scarbrough makes a push for early playing time. The late qualifier and former five-star athlete enrolled at Alabama in January.

Question marks: There are plenty, but the most compelling question might be on defense, where Alabama allowed an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game to end the season against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State. The common denominator in those games: an uptempo attack featuring a mobile quarterback. So is that Nick Saban's kryptonite or does the coach many describe as a defensive mastermind have an answer?

Key battle: The starting QB job was Jake Coker's to win last year after he transferred in from Florida State. So will he take advantage a second time around? Or does another veteran like Blake Sims emerge in the form of Alec Morris or Cooper Bateman? There's even the possibility that redshirt freshman David Cornwell or true freshman Blake Barnett vies for playing time.

Breaking out: We've only seen glimpses of Derrick Henry's talent. He's started a few games at running back, but with Yeldon ahead of him on the depth chart he's never had the ability to be Alabama's featured back. With Yeldon gone now, though, it's time. It's time for Henry to show what he can do with 20 carries a game instead of his usual 10-15. At 6-foot-3 and 245 or so pounds, that should be a frightening prospect for SEC defenses.

Don’t forget about: They don't pick up eye-popping stats and their names aren't on the cover of magazines, but Alabama's defensive line could be its biggest strength in 2015. In Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson, you're looking at two future NFL interior linemen. And in Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da'Shawn Hand, you've got a nice group of pass-rushers, too. If junior college transfer Jonathan Taylor can make an impact right away, Alabama could have an embarrassment of riches at the position.

All eyes on: They'll go up against one another in practice every day, so it's logical to pair the defensive backs and wide receivers together as the most pivotal position groups this spring. At cornerback, the focus will be on whether sophomore Tony Brown or redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey can win a starting job. And at wideout, everyone will be paying attention to who becomes the next Amari Cooper, whether that's Chris Black, Robert Foster, Cam Sims or any one of Alabama's highly touted prospects who have been overshadowed in recent years.


Alabama Dismisses Jonathan Taylor
Alex Scarborough discusses the Crimson Tide's decision to dismiss defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor after he was arrested on domestic violence charges in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.