Alabama Crimson Tide: Carl Lawson

Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 12-2
2013 SEC record: 7-1, first in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 35-42-1
Last meeting: Won 34-28 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Nick Marshall, RB Corey Grant, WR Sammie Coates, OL Reese Dismukes, DL Gabe Wright, DB Jonathon Mincy

Key losses
RB Tre Mason, OL Greg Robinson, DB Chris Davis, DL Dee Ford

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tre Mason (1,816 yards)
Passing: Nick Marshall* (1,976, 14 TD, 6 INT)
Receiving: Sammie Coates* (902 yards)
Tackles: Cassanova McKinzy* (75)
Sacks: Dee Ford (10.5)
Interceptions: Robenson Therezie (4)

What they're saying:
“Up until last Friday, Nick [Marshall] has been a model student, teammate, and citizen. Nick made a mistake and he'll have to deal with the consequences. I'm not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he's regretful and he feels very bad about it,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

Three things to watch:

1. Marshall isn’t the only story: Lost in the aftermath of Nick Marshall’s arrest and absence from SEC media days was the fact that his ordeal wasn’t the biggest news to come out of Hoover, Alabama, last week. Instead, it was Gus Malzahn telling reporters that defensive end Carl Lawson had ACL surgery and is working to come back "toward the end of this year." Lawson is a huge loss. With a so-so secondary, the pass rush was going to be vital for Auburn. Losing Dee Ford hurt, but Lawson was a worthy replacement. Now it’s up to LaDarius Owens and Elijah Daniel. If those two can’t get to the quarterback, the back end of the defense could be exposed.

2. But Marshall’s improvement is key: Marshall took off like a rocket last season, improving his passing numbers each week. But for Auburn’s offense to take the next step and become more balanced, he’ll have to take his game to the next level, specifically his work in the pocket. There’s no doubt Marshall can run the football and execute the read option. The real question is what happens when all the running lanes are clogged and he has to go through his second, third or fourth read in the passing game. Can he sit in the pocket and diagnose a defense? Can he improve his accuracy and get the ball to the open receiver? His Hail Mary pass against Georgia was spectacular, but it was a mistake throwing to Ricardo Louis. He was triple-covered while Sammie Coates was wide open in the middle of the field. Sure, it worked out, but is it really better to be lucky than good? For Marshall to be great, he’ll need to make better decisions in 2014.

3. A tougher road: Auburn didn’t breeze through the regular season to reach the SEC Championship Game last season. Going on the road at LSU and Texas A&M was a lot to handle. But if you think 2013 was hard, wait for what’s ahead. If you’re comparing Auburn’s schedule to Alabama’s (and of course you are), there’s really no comparison. Where Alabama has a flaky nonconference slate (West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss, Western Carolina) and a pair of so-so crossover games (Florida, Tennessee), Auburn has a much tougher road to hoe with a Georgia and South Carolina from the East and a primetime matchup at Kansas State in mid-September. If the Iron Bowl is going to be another battle of top-5 teams, it’s going to be much more difficult for Auburn to reach the game unscathed than it is for Alabama.

Ranking the SEC defensive ends

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
5:20
PM ET
It's Defensive Line Day on the SEC blog.

We ranked the top defensive line groups earlier today along with the top 10 tackles in the league. Now, we rank the top 10 ends in the SEC heading into the 2014 season.

1. Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida: Technically he plays the "buck" position in the Gators' defense, which is part end and part outside linebacker. He's versatile enough that he's a force against the run and also a dynamic pass-rusher. Florida has produced its share of big-play performers on defense. Look for the 6-foot-3, 266-pound Fowler to explode this season after racking up a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas' Trey Flowers is back for his senior season.
2. Trey Flowers, Sr., Arkansas: His partner on the other side, Chris Smith, is gone, but the 6-4, 267-pound Flowers has already proven that he's a difference-maker regardless of who lines up around him or who he's going against. Flowers had five sacks and three forced fumbles a season ago and decided to come back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL.

3. Markus Golden, R-Sr., Missouri: Last season, it was Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Two years ago, it was Sheldon Richardson. Missouri just keeps cranking out the talented defensive linemen. The 6-3, 260-pound Golden only played about 40 percent of the snaps last season, but still managed to lead the Mizzou ends with 55 total tackles and was third to Sam and Ealy with 13 tackles for loss.

4. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Sr., Kentucky: Having successfully made the transition from outside linebacker to end last season when Mark Stoops and his staff arrived, the 6-4, 267-pound Dupree has finished in the top 10 in the SEC in sacks each of the past two seasons. He's the essence of consistency and has made at least three tackles in each of the 26 games he's started in his college career.

5. Carl Lawson, So. Auburn: The 6-2, 261-pound Lawson was the toughest of the ends to rank because he recently underwent knee surgery. There's a chance he could miss some time to open the season. But when fully healthy, there's no question that Lawson ranks up there with any of the defensive ends in this league. He was a Freshman All-American last season and racked up 7.5 tackles for loss.

6. Shane Ray, R-Jr., Missouri: Similar to Golden, Ray was also a reserve on that talented Missouri defensive line a year ago, but was still plenty productive. He finished second on the team with 11 quarterback pressures and also collected nine tackles for loss. The 6-3, 245-pound Ray is a a super athlete and has blazing speed off the edge as a pass-rusher.

7. Danielle Hunter, Jr., LSU: His enormous wing span makes him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks when he's bearing down on them. At 6-6 and 241 pounds, Hunter came into his own last season with eight tackles for loss, including three sacks. Look for those numbers to soar in 2014, as Hunter is poised to be the Tigers' next star defensive end.

8. C.J. Johnson, R-Jr., Ole Miss: The 6-2, 237-pound Johnson was on his way to an All-SEC season a year ago until an ankle injury sidelined him for the season. He had four tackles for loss in his first four games and, as a sophomore in 2012, led the team with 6.5 sacks. The biggest hurdle for Johnson has been avoiding injuries. But if he stays healthy, he'll make a ton of big plays for the Rebels this season.

9. Jonathan Allen, So., Alabama: Yep, yet another one of those talented sophomore defensive linemen. The 6-3, 264-pound Allen has "star" written all over him and should help bolster the Crimson Tide's pass rush this season after playing in a reserve role last season. He has all the physical tools and instincts to be that finisher off the edge that Alabama has lacked the last couple of seasons.

10. Za’Darius Smith, Sr., Kentucky: The other half of Kentucky's talented end tandem, the 6-6, 264-pound Smith made a big impact a year ago after coming over from junior college. He finished with six sacks and had a sack or tackle for loss in six games. Junior college players typically make a big jump in their second year in the program, which means Smith could really take off in 2014.
Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.
Who’s next? That’s the question asked by fan bases across the SEC. They all want to know which top recruit is most likely to come in and play right away. Who are the newcomers who are going to see the field early this fall?

In January, we broke down the top early enrollees once they arrived on campus. Now, as the late enrollees continue to trickle in around the conference, we take a look at a handful of four- and five-star guys who could impact the league in their first year.

Below are 10 late enrollees from the SEC West to keep an eye on. They're listed alphabetically. Check back later today for the top late enrollees from the SEC East.

Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU: Losing both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was a huge blow for LSU after last season, but some of that pain went away when Dupre signed with the Tigers. He’s not as experienced as fellow wide receiver Travin Dural, but he’s every bit as talented. Don’t be surprised if Dupre becomes the go-to guy for LSU this season.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: There’s not a more highly anticipated freshman in the country. As the nation’s No. 1 recruit, that comes with the territory, but the expectations for Fournette this season range from ridiculous to absurd. The scary part is that he has the talent and opportunity to make good on them and be one of the top running backs in the SEC.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: He’s not Jadeveon Clowney, but Garrett might be the closest thing since Clowney came out in 2011. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he’s a physical freak, and looks like he could step right on the field. The Aggies return all of their defensive ends, but that doesn’t mean Garrett won’t crack the rotation at some point.


Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: Finding pass rushers was a priority for Nick Saban and his staff in 2014, and they landed one of the nation’s best in Hand. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound prospect, ranked No. 6 overall, can play both with his hand down on the line or in space as a rush linebacker. Regardless of where he ends up, he’ll make an immediate impact.

Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama: Between Humphrey and five-star Tony Brown, Alabama should be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. The question is which one is more likely to play early this season? Brown has a leg up after arriving early, but Humphrey has the size and technical ability to come in and contribute right away.

Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s goal is to build Arkansas from the inside out, and Jackson is the perfect piece to serve as the cornerstone of the defensive line for years to come. He’s already big enough (6-2, 330) and strong enough to play as a freshman and should make a good unit even better for the Hogs this fall.

Rod Taylor, OG, Ole Miss: Austin Golson’s transfer this spring left Ole Miss thin along the offensive line, but Taylor, the Rebels’ top-ranked signee in 2014, could be just the man to fill the void. Year-after-year, he drew rave reviews from SEC coaches at various camps, and now he has an opportunity to fulfill the potential that everybody saw in him.

Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn: The Tigers have three capable running backs already on campus, but the coaches still believe that Thomas will be a factor this season. They’re even giving him a chance to compete for the starting job in fall camp. Although it’s unlikely he wins the job, Thomas will play and play often for Auburn this fall.

Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State: Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi didn’t go to Taylor, the state’s top recruit. It didn’t go to Markell Pack or C.J. Hampton. It went to Williams, a four-star running back who had 2,821 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. He’s now expected to carry that over to his freshman year at Mississippi State.

Andrew Williams, DE, Auburn: With the loss of Dee Ford and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens, defensive end went from a position of strength to a position of need for Auburn. The good news is that Williams arrived last month and is plenty capable of filling in and contributing early if needed.

Other late enrollees to watch include S Jamal Adams (LSU), LB Rashaan Evans (Alabama), CB Nick Harvey (Texas A&M), CB Tee Shepard (Ole Miss) and LB Tre Williams (Auburn).
The sophomore class of defensive lineman is loaded this coming season in the SEC.

There are future pros on a number of different teams, which has been what has historically set the SEC apart -- strength up front defensively.

SportsNation

Who will have the biggest sophomore season among the SEC's most promising young defensive linemen?

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    12%
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    24%
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    13%
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    30%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,301)

Who's primed for the biggest season? That's your job.

So go vote in our SportsNation poll on which of the sophomore defensive linemen will have the biggest season in 2014, and we'll review the results next week.

Of the five choices we've thrown out there, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson could be a bit of a wild card with his recent knee surgery. It's wait-and-see as to how healthy he'll be to start the season. But in terms of pure talent, he's right up there with anybody in the league. If he's not 100 percent, he could potentially be a candidate for a redshirt season.

The other four are defensive tackles, although Mississippi State's Chris Jones may play some end and tackle. Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and Arkansas' Darius Philon are also big, athletic guys who are playmakers in their own right.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With Jacob Coker ready to compete at quarterback, a freshman in line to start at left tackle, and a new coordinator calling plays, Alabama’s offense is in a state of transition.

With that said, here’s a look at the top five defensive players who could give the Crimson Tide offense trouble in 2014:

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt could be one of the top defenders in the conference.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida -- Sept. 6

There might not be a more talented cornerback in the SEC than Hargreaves, who burst on the scene as a freshman last season, starting for the Gators and hauling in three interceptions in his first four games. He was a bright spot amid Florida's tumultuous 4-8 campaign. A year wiser and more physically mature, he could present a real challenge for whoever starts under center for the Tide. His likely matchup with star wideout Amari Cooper will be worth setting your DVR.

S Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss -- Oct. 4

It isn’t just Hugh Freeze’s offense that’s loaded with talent. Ole Miss has a great nucleus on defense with Robert Nkemdiche at defensive tackle, Serderius Bryant at linebacker and Tony Conner at safety. But the man every quarterback must pay attention to is Prewitt, who wasn’t a high-profile recruit like many of his teammates, yet produces like an All-American. The 6-foot-2 junior led the SEC with six interceptions, finished fifth in passes defended (13) and ninth in fumbles forced (2).

DL Trey Flowers, Arkansas -- Oct. 11

Quietly, Flowers has developed into one of the top defensive ends in the SEC. It started with a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2011 and continued through last season, when he posted one of the best all-around stat lines you’ll ever see: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one interception. He could have skipped his senior season and entered the NFL draft but decided to stay, providing new defensive coordinator Robb Smith an important cornerstone to build around.

DL Chris Jones, Mississippi State -- Nov. 15

Everyone knows about Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. The former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 came in with high expectations and flashed plenty of promise as a freshman last season. But another rookie defensive end in the same state showed just as much potential on the field. Jones, who is a tweener end/tackle for Mississippi State, is jam-packed with talent. Dan Mullen referred to him a “freaky athlete” this spring. Big, strong and nimble, Jones led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries and tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.

DL Carl Lawson, Auburn -- Nov. 29

Cam Robinson is going to have his hands full if he winds up starting for Alabama as a freshman left tackle. We already mentioned Flowers, Nkemdiche and Jones in this post. Somehow, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida didn’t make the cut. LSU will surely have a few impressive d-linemen crop up, too. And then there’s Lawson, who grew leaps and bounds as a freshman last season. The 6-foot-3 former five-star prospect showed himself to be a menacing pass-rusher, turning in four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. With Dee Ford now off to the NFL, Lawson will get even more reps.
In honor of the greatest movie monster to ever live making his much-anticipated return to the silver screen, we only thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the monsters the SEC has to offer.

Can any of them live up to the legendary status Godzilla holds? Only time will tell, but you still wouldn’t want to get caught in their path. Nothing good can come of those who oppose these monsters from the SEC East and West:

EAST MONSTERS

1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia -- During his first year on campus, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 quarterback hurries. Jordan Jenkins gets a lot of attention on this defense, but Floyd might have the most NFL talent out there. He's ferocious off the edge and should wreak plenty of havoc this season with even more teaching. Double-team him if you want to have a chance.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. isn't a player that you want to mess with too often.
2. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida -- At 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds, you don't want to cross his path if you're in his backfield hunting grounds. Fowler is Florida's best edge rusher and can play standing up or with his hand on the ground. He has incredibly fast, violent arms to go with a truckload of speed. Fowler has six career sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and is already viewed as a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.

3. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri -- Well, with that head of hair, he already has the Predator look down. And he's just as lethal on the field. With fellow ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy both gone, Golden will have a lot more time on the field, giving him more room to roam and track down his next victims. He's got a scary burst and a load of strength that should help him pass the 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss he had last season.

4. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia -- He can bowl you over or blow past you with his speed. He has a scary combination of speed, strength and elusiveness that make him an absolute terror to bring down. Nagging injuries have plagued him during his two years on campus, but he still has 2,374 career rushing yards and has averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 387 career carries. Gurley is arguably the nation's best and scariest running back when healthy.

5. Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina -- He already has a menacing frame at 6-8, 348 pounds, which is just frightening in itself. But his job is to push guys such as Fowler around all season, and he seems to really get a kick out of it, too. Robinson can smother oncoming defenders with his size and strength. Trying to hit his quarterback comes with a price.

WEST MONSTERS

1. Landon Collins, S, Alabama -- You want a safety who can cover a lot of ground and deliver bone-rattling hits? Well, Collins is the guy for you. He really started to understand the safety position more last season and proved to be a real terror for the Crimson Tide's defense. Collins has first-round draft pick capability, and he's upset with how last season ended. You don't want to see him when he's angry.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesSophomore WR Laquon Treadwell is an absolute monster, pun intended, in the open field for Ole Miss.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- I know that T.J. Yeldon is still the starter in Tuscaloosa, but Henry has that scary talent that just doesn't come around all that often. Like Gurley, he can pound the ball through the middle with all that strength, but has the ability to make defenders miss and hit that gut-wrenching home-run play. Henry is going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall, no matter how many carries he gets.

3. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn -- Big things are expected from the rising sophomore after a season in which he slowly started to develop into a solid player off the edge. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson loved how he started to combine that freaky athleticism with technique and knowledge this spring. He's arguably Auburn's most talented lineman and will be doing plenty of head hunting this fall.

4. Jameon Lewis, WR, Mississippi State -- Don't let his 5-9, 183-pound frame fool you, Lewis will make plays on you. He has all the speed and athleticism to run circles around opposing secondaries and he's learning how to be a better route-runner. He just missed out on grabbing 1,000 yards last season and is the kind of player who will slash his way through defenses with an offense that is perfect for his quickness.

5. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss -- He can leap out of any gym and he's the kind of person who is already more athletic than you, no matter the setting. As a freshman last season, Treadwell led the Rebels with 72 receptions, but is now the main attraction at receiver for Ole Miss. Treadwell is a freak of nature that isn't afraid to get physical with defenders, and he can hit the deep ball with all that speed he owns.
The Iron Bowl rivalry never ends. Just listen to "The Paul Finebaum Show." Alabama and Auburn are never not at each other’s throats. They’re never not being compared to each other.

Here at the SEC Blog, we embrace the debate. Alabama and Auburn are forever intertwined for good reason. Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn go head to head on and off the football field 365 days a year, whether it’s during the season or on the recruiting trail.

Along that same vein, it’s time for a Take Two: Iron Bowl Edition. With spring football well in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to see who enters the offseason in better shape, Alabama or Auburn?

Alex Scarborough: I won’t even make this about Alabama at first. We’ll get to that later. What I’d like to hit on is how little we actually know about Auburn. I’ll concede that Malzahn is a good coach and maybe the best offensive playcaller in the country. But the program, top to bottom, is a mystery to me. The last time Auburn went to the BCS, the following two seasons didn’t end so well. I’m not going to call last season a fluke, but good luck capturing lightning in a bottle twice.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall have a tough challenge ahead in 2014 -- and they can't sneak up on anybody this time around.
Nick Marshall is undoubtedly one of the premier playmakers in the SEC, but can he take the next step? He can make a man miss in the open field, but can he make all the reads from the pocket? Defenses will go all in to stop the run next season. He’ll be forced to look for his second, third and fourth options. Is he ready? And how will his protection hold up without Greg Robinson at left tackle and Tre Mason shouldering the load at tailback?

All that goes without mentioning the defense, which was downright mediocre for most of last season. The secondary was porous and the linebackers weren't athletic enough to run Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme (ninth in scoring, 13th against the pass in the SEC). Carl Lawson looks like a budding star, but can he make up for the loss of veterans like Dee Ford?

Auburn’s roster is in better shape than Alabama’s at first blush, but a closer examination shows cracks. Yes, Saban’s missing a starting quarterback, but Jacob Coker is on the way. And besides, since when has Saban needed a star QB to win? Alabama’s secondary has holes, but is it worse than Auburn’s? One five-star cornerback is already on campus and another is coming soon. Landon Collins might be the best DB at the Iron Bowl this year. Based on pure talent (three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes) and a history of sustained success (two losses was a bad season), I feel more confident about the Tide’s chances.

Greg Ostendorf: Do we really not know about this Auburn team? They came out of nowhere last season; I won’t argue that. But the Tigers won 12 games and came 13 seconds from a national championship. Eight starters are back from that offense, including four O-linemen and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Remember how good Marshall was down the stretch? He was still learning the offense. This fall he’ll be more comfortable, and if he continues to improve as a passer, which SEC defense will stop him? An Alabama team that has shown time and time again that it has no answer for the spread?

I remember when Johnny Manziel shocked the Tide in 2012, and all offseason Saban & Co. were supposedly devising a game plan to stop him the following season. What happened in the rematch? Manziel threw for 464 yards, rushed for 98 and scored five touchdowns. Marshall is not Manziel, but I’m also not betting on Alabama to stop him.

The defense remains a question mark. I’ll give you that. And the injuries this spring did nothing to ease my concern. But Johnson has a proven track record, and despite losing key players such as Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Chris Davis, he’ll actually have a deeper, more talented group in Year 2. There might not be as many five-star recruits, but there’s still plenty of talent, with 10 former ESPN 300 prospects on the defense alone.

The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year and Saban is one of the best at exacting revenge. But what happens if Coker isn’t the answer at quarterback? What if the true freshman expected to start at left tackle plays like a true freshman? What if Marshall develops as a passer and torches a lackluster Tide secondary? Too many questions, if you ask me.

Scarborough: I’m glad you brought up the Iron Bowl being in Tuscaloosa this year, because that leads me to an even bigger point than the talent and potential of both Alabama and Auburn. In the words of Steve Spurrier, “You are your schedule.” And have you looked at Auburn’s schedule? Auburn could be better than Alabama and still lose more games.

If going on the road to Kansas State was easy, everyone in the SEC would do it. Survive that and October sets up brutally with LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Think last season’s “Prayer at Jordan Hare” and “Got a second?” finishes were a blast? Try recreating that with games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in November.

Alabama’s schedule, on the other hand, isn’t murderer’s row. A so-so West Virginia team starts things off, followed by cupcakes Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. Auburn gets South Carolina and Georgia from the East, while Alabama lucks out with Florida and Tennessee. On top of that, Alabama's two most difficult games aside from the Iron Bowl are at home and set up nicely with Arkansas before Texas A&M and a bye before LSU.

Ostendorf: There’s a brutal four-game stretch for Auburn with South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in consecutive weeks, but the first six games actually set up nicely for the Tigers. If they survive the trip to the Little Apple against Kansas State, there’s a strong possibility that they start the season 6-0, and we’ve seen how momentum can carry you through a season. This is also a veteran team with the confidence to win on the road.

Meanwhile, when you have a first-year starter at quarterback ... ahem, Alabama ... then every SEC road game becomes a potential pitfall. You might think the Tide lucked out with Tennessee, but don’t be surprised if a much-improved Vols team keeps it close at home. And I don’t care if LSU might be down this year. It’s never fun for a rookie signal caller to play in Death Valley.

Ultimately, it will once again come down to the Iron Bowl, and how can you bet against last year’s winner?

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

SEC's lunch links

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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The SEC bowl season kicked off Monday with a win by Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The league will now play five bowl games over the next two days so get caught up with the latest news and notes in the last lunch links of 2013.
We couldn't finish our lists of SEC all-stars without talking about the youngsters who help make this league go round.

For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!

The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M

SEC stocked with young talent

December, 12, 2013
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The Scouts Inc. guys, Todd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl, have ranked the top 25 underclassmen in college football for 2013.

These would be freshmen, redshirt freshmen and true sophomores -- or players not eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.

Of their top 25 underclassmen, 14 were from the SEC, including seven of the top 10.

In other words, don't look for the talent level in the SEC to drop off any over the next couple of years.

Not surprisingly, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the No. 1 player on the list. Winston is the heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night in New York City.

Some fans might be a little surprised at who was the top SEC player on the list. Florida true freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III checked in at No. 2. Granted, it was a forgettable season for the Gators, but Hargreaves was outstanding with his ability to cover and make plays. Even though he's only played one season of college football, a lot of the scouts like him as much or more than the Gators' other two heralded cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.

The other SEC players in the top 10 were:
[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFreshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III outshined even some of the upper classmen on Florida's defense.
Alabama had an SEC-high five players in the top 25. In addition to Cooper, Collins and Yeldon, defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson was No. 12 and tight end O.J. Howard was No. 15.

Ole Miss was next with three players, all members of the Rebels' top-5 2013 signing class. Receiver Laquon Treadwell was No. 16, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche No. 18 and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil No. 21.

Interestingly enough, seven of the 25 players on the list were true freshmen from the SEC. One that wasn't on there and will be is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones, who blossomed as the season progressed and has a chance to be dominant.

Another true freshman from the SEC who will almost certainly play his way onto the list is LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson. Go back and watch him in the Texas A&M game and the job he did on Mike Evans. Robinson wasn't cleared academically until the week of the first game this season, so with an entire spring and an entire preseason camp under his belt next year, Robinson should emerge as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of all 14 SEC players who made the list:

  • 2. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida, Fr.
  • 4. Todd Gurley, Georgia, RB, So.
  • 5. Amari Cooper, Alabama, WR, So.
  • 6. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri, WR, So.
  • 8. Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida, DE, So.
  • 9. Landon Collins, Alabama, S, So.
  • 10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, RB, So.
  • 12. A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama, DT, Fr.
  • 15. O.J. Howard, Alabama, TE, Fr.
  • 16. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss, WR, Fr.
  • 18. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss, DT, Fr.
  • 20. Mike Davis, South Carolina, RB, So.
  • 21. Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss, OT, Fr.
  • 23. Carl Lawson, Auburn, DE, Fr.

Five things: Alabama-Auburn

November, 30, 2013
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Here are five things to watch as No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium for one of the South's biggest rivalries: The Iron Bowl.

Big-game jitters: Alabama has been through this drill before. Big games are nothing new to the veteran Crimson Tide. AJ McCarron doesn't buy into the hype and neither does C.J. Mosley. For them, it's just another game. But for Auburn, this isn't just another game. Gus Malzahn has said all the right things, but there's no denying that this is the biggest game of his tenure as the Tigers' head coach. It's a moment for Auburn to prove it's more than lucky. It's a chance to earn a reputation as a championship contender. And frankly, Auburn's players have never had to deal with that kind of pressure. How will they respond? When Nova flies around Jordan-Hare Stadium and the buzz reaches a fever pitch, will Auburn keep its emotions in check or allow them to run wild?

McCarron for Heisman: The momentum is gaining quickly. But is it too late for McCarron to become a serious contender to win the Heisman Trophy? Given Jameis Winston's off-the-field entanglements and Johnny Manziel's three losses this season, the chips are starting to fall McCarron's way. His numbers are impressive (2,399 yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions), but has he had the kind of "Heisman Moment" that can catapult him to victory? You could argue his performance against Texas A&M was up to that billing, but that was so long ago and his game against LSU didn't exactly intrigue would be voters. If McCarron is going to win the Heisman, he'll have to do it on Saturday afternoon against Auburn. A big game on the biggest stage might be the final push to send him into the forefront of the Heisman race.

Protecting the quarterback: As Auburn defensive end Dee Ford told reporters this week, "You change the game when you get to the quarterback." Make no mistake, the Tigers defense plans on pinning back their ears and getting after McCarron on Saturday. And with Ford, Nosa Eguae and Carl Lawson at defensive end, they have the tools to do it. Alabama has faced good defensive lines this season (Virginia Tech, LSU, etc.) but none had the type of edge rushers Auburn possesses. As Ford said, "[McCarron] hasn't been hit all year, so we want to see what he can do after being hit a few times."

Who starts at center?: A sprained knee has Alabama starting center Ryan Kelly as a game-time decision, according to coach Nick Saban. He hurt the knee early this week and was limited in practice since then. Saban stopped short of saying that backup Chad Lindsay would start, but you've got to believe the staff has confidence in him after already starting three games this season. “Chad Lindsay did great when he played and we did great on the offensive line,” Saban told reporters on Wednesday. “We have every confidence in him, we view him as a starter.”

Perimeter tackling: This isn't a game where the front seven will do all the work. Alabama's secondary will have to put a hat on a hat to be successful against Auburn's vaunted running game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason aren't the only two guys that can hurt you. As one SEC head coach told me, the trouble with defending Auburn is that there are five or six guys who can run the ball from anywhere in the formation. Defending the end-arounds, fly-sweeps and other perimeter runs will be vital for Alabama. Because of that, look for safety Landon Collins to have a big day. He's one of the best on Alabama's defense in terms of reading the play and closing speed.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 27, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you're a fan of rivalry games, this year's edition of the Iron Bowl doesn't get any bigger as Alabama and Auburn, both in the top five of the BCS standings, will fight it out over the SEC West crown and a shot at making it to the conference championship game in Atlanta.

Both sides are playing down the hype, as you'd expect. Players have said all the right things and so have the coaches. Auburn's Gus Malzahn is doing nothing to fan the flames, and neither is Alabama's Nick Saban.

"Focus on the next play. Focus on what you've got to do the next play to try to give your guys the best chance to be successful and make corrections, coach them on the mistakes that they made," Saban said of his outlook at the start of rivalry week on Monday. "This is an ongoing process for the whole week plus the whole 60 minutes of the game right down to the last play of the game. And then when the game's over, it is what it is."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesAuburn's Tre Mason is second only to Georgia's Todd Gurley in rushing yards over the past two seasons among SEC backs.
But for whatever is said, there's no playing down the enormity of Saturday's game in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Rivalry games don't get any bigger than this. Just ask Alabama center Ryan Kelly, who grew up in Ohio watching what some contend to be the best rivalry in college football: Ohio State-Michigan.

"The roots run a little deeper around here," Kelly said. "It's always a big game, especially this year. We're two top-10 teams, and on the road at Auburn, it's going to be a big game."

Auburn players to watch

QB Nick Marshall: If he gets comfortable throwing the football, watch out. Marshall's ability to run the ball is well documented. He can use his speed to get outside the tackles and has the shiftiness to make people miss. But unlike opponents in the past, Alabama will force him to stay in the pocket and beat the defense through the air.

RB Tre Mason: He has had arguably the best two seasons of any running back in the SEC, trailing only Todd Gurley for tops in the league with 2,155 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns in that time, yet he doesn't get the attention he deserves. Marshall gets the hype as a quarterback and runner, but Mason really makes the offense go. He'll keep Alabama honest with his ability to run the ball between the tackles.

DE Dee Ford: Auburn's defense is still a major question mark, especially on the back end. But up front, Auburn has some tools to work with, starting with Ford, who has eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. But he's not alone. Defensive tackle Montravious Adams is a load and defensive end Carl Lawson (three sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) is one of the top freshmen in the SEC.

Alabama players to watch

RB T.J. Yeldon: Establishing the running game early and controlling the clock will be big against Auburn. For that reason, it's important that Yeldon has a big game. He was once committed to Auburn, so expect him to have some added motivation at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he'll need to keep that in check. He and fellow running back Kenyan Drake need to take care of the football, something they haven't done particularly well this season.

LB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama fans have to feel good about what they've seen from Hubbard lately. After starting out the season slowly, he has picked up sacks in each of the last two games. And he'll have to continue that hot streak against Auburn. While he might not get the sacks fans so covet, what Hubbard does sealing the edge and keeping containment on Marshall will be vital to Alabama's success on defense.

S Landon Collins: Expect Collins to play near the line of scrimmage a lot on Saturday. Because of Auburn's lack of a passing game, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will be able to move around Collins, blitzing him and using him as a spare linebacker. He and speedy middle linebacker C.J. Mosley will play a big part in stopping Auburn's multi-faceted running game, which utilizes more than just Marshall and Mason.

Key stats

1994: Alabama and Auburn have never met in an Iron Bowl in which the winner would clinch the SEC West and the division's bid to the SEC championship game. It would have happened in 1994, but Auburn was on probation at the time and wasn't eligible to compete for in the league title game.

5: It's no secret the key to the game will be Auburn's running game versus Alabama's run defense. And poring over those stats show that both teams are ranked in the top five nationally for rushing yards per game, yards per rush, runs of 10-plus yards and expected points added via rushes. Alabama, for its part, has allowed only five rushing touchdowns in its last nine game, while Auburn has scored at least five touchdowns in each of its last six games.

77: The Iron Bowl has been very one-sided the last two years in favor of Alabama. In fact, the Crimson Tide has outscored the Tigers 91-14 in the last two meetings.

ESPN Stats and Information was used as a resource for this article.

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