Alabama Crimson Tide: Damian Swann

Alabama might have fallen to No. 2 in ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, but I'd like to think that most of the college football world still considers the Crimson Tide to be the favorites to win the national championship again.

Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.

But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.

No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.

Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.

The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.

A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.

Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:

Florida

The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.

The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.

Georgia

Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.

Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.

LSU

Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.

The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.

South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.

And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.

Impact early enrollees in the SEC

February, 21, 2013
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Enrolling into college has become a growing trend in college football. Missing prom and Senior Skip Day has become a regular for a lot of high schoolers these days.

In the SEC, getting a high number of early enrollees is becoming more and more of a priority for coaches. This year, all 14 SEC teams had players from their 2013 classes enroll in school early. Georgia leads the SEC with 13, Alabama has nine, and Florida and Texas A&M both have eight. In fact, 73 players from this year's recruiting class enrolled early at SEC schools in this year.

ESPN colleague Travis Haney unveiled his top impact early enrollees Insider from around the country Wednesday, and of his five players who made the cut, three came from the SEC. Well, four, because he said defensive backs Tray Matthews and Reggie Wilkerson would make immediate impacts at Georgia.

Florida running back Kelvin Taylor, who was the nation's No. 1 running back, and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who was an ESPN 150 member, also made the list.

Those all make sense. Georgia is basically replacing its entire secondary outside of cornerback Damian Swann, so the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get in the secondary. Florida proved that it could survive -- for the most part -- on a very strong running game last fall, but workhorse Mike Gillislee is gone, so the Gators will need help for Matt Jones and Mack Brown. Taylor is an elusive, physical back who could find himself getting a boatload of carries this fall. And Howard is a real difference-maker at tight end. The Alabama coaches are very excited about his big-play ability and his ability to create a lot of mismatches for defenders.

Haney also gave Tennessee wide receiver Paul Harris the honorable mention nod. Harris comes in at a position of great need, and it will only benefit, well, everyone, having him on campus early.

But what other players who decided to trade in their prom tuxes for shoulder pads could make immediate impacts in the SEC? Glad you asked, because here are some other guys I think you should all keep an eye on:

True freshmen

Christian LaCouture, DL, LSU: With LSU losing starters at both end spots and one at defensive tackle, LaCouture has a chance to get immediate playing time. He can play inside or outside for the Tigers.

Christian Morgan, TE, Ole Miss: The Rebels lost three senior tight ends from last season's team, and the returning players lack experience, so Morgan could step right into a starting spot with a successful spring.

Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: The Gators need receiving weapons, and Robinson might be the most versatile of the bunch on campus right now. He's the play-making type this offense desperately needs.

Junior college transfers

Leon Brown, OL, Alabama: Three starting offensive linemen are gone, which means Brown could find himself playing a lot this fall. He could be in line to take the vacant right tackle spot left by D.J. Fluker.

Justin Cox, DB, Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are gone, and Cox is already impressing people around the program. Word is he's already one of the fastest guys on the team, and could come in and start immediately at cornerback.

Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky: With all the late movement in UK's class, Smith might have been overlooked, but Mark Stoops is very excited about him. He's been a monster in the weight room and could play right away this fall.
ATLANTA -- With Alabama down three points and the SEC title and a shot at the national title hanging in the balance, Nick Saban put the game in the hands of two freshmen.

Two players barely a year out of high school football would decide the fate of Alabama’s 2012 season.

Boy did it pay off.

“Two big plays by freshmen there,” senior center Barrett Jones said.

Big doesn’t even begin to describe them. You need more hyperbole for this one, like mammoth or gargantuan.

The first play came on third-and-5 at the 50-yard line. Georgia held a 28-25 lead, and it appeared that the Tide were squandering their great field position. With about four minutes remaining, quarterback AJ McCarron stuck the ball in T.J. Yeldon’s gut, and the frosh cut to the right side and barreled his way past the first-down marker.

It was a play everyone inside the Georgia Dome or plastered to a TV set knew was coming.

Yet Georgia’s defense, which had been giving up rushing yards like men give up beads at Mardi Gras, couldn’t stop the force that was Yeldon.

“He went out there and just ran people over,” offensive lineman D.J. Fluker said of the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder. “You can’t find that too often.”

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper, Damian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Amari Cooper hauls in the winning TD pass in front of Georgia's Damian Swann.
That play kept the Tide alive. The next play broke Georgia’s spirit.

It was a simple post play to the left side, where it’s better if Amari Cooper releases on the inside. He cut outside and stopped momentarily as he looked for McCarron. Once he saw the play was coming, he left a helpless Damian Swann in his dust before hauling McCarron’s perfectly thrown pass and waltzing into the end zone to give Alabama the winning score in a 32-28 victory.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and I wanted to come out here and be a big-time player,” said Cooper, who finished with a game-high seven catches for 127 yards and the key score. “I envisioned it before it happened, and it came true.”

He probably envisioned it because it looked easy on film, as he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier felt confident taking shots at the Dawgs.

“That’s what we want as receivers,” Cooper said. “We want to take those shots, and that’s what we did.”

It helps that Cooper, who goes by the nickname Hollywood because of his on-field skill, is an extraordinary athlete. Before his touchdown, his play of the night came when he went up top and snatched a 44-yard prayer from McCarron away from one of the most physical players in the game in safety Bacarri Rambo in the second quarter. After that, he spent the rest of the night sprinting past or cutting by Georgia defenders and bailing Alabama’s offense out in crucial situations.

“He’s able to do the things that you would think a normal freshman wouldn’t do,” Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He’s making big plays in big games, like he did today.

“He takes it and runs with it and lives to that name. He’s something special.”

To Jones, Cooper just has a different gear than a lot of players. One moment he is side-by-side with a defender; the next, he’s gone -- with the ball.

“He’s one of the fastest people I’ve ever seen,” Jones said.

Cooper stretched the field and gave Alabama more running room, which helped free Yeldon, who entered the game with just three 100-yard performances but carried the ball a game-high 25 times for a backbreaking 153 yards and a touchdown. While giving Eddie Lacy the occasional breather, Yeldon helped Alabama register an SEC championship record 350 rushing yards Saturday.

“It’s like he’s been here three times himself,” Lacy said. “As a freshman, you can’t ask him to play any better than he did tonight.”

You can’t ask more from either. They did so much for Alabama in the biggest game of either's career. Yeldon had nine runs that resulted in first downs, while Cooper had three first-down plays. Together, they touched the ball 32 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson tells both Cooper and Yeldon before every game to play with purpose. On Saturday, they did that and then some. This is only the beginning for these fabulous freshmen.

“I’m glad they’re freshmen because they are going to be here for a while,” offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio said.

That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.

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