Alabama Crimson Tide: Jacob Coker

We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.

SEC's lunch links

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
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The resignation heard ‘round the world. See how Mack Brown’s resignation at Texas impacted more than 100 coaches across the country, including a number of SEC coaches. For more news and notes around the conference, check out Tuesday’s lunch links.
  • Will college football go to an early signing period? Not yet. It could be at least a year off according to key decision makers.
  • Is Jacob Coker facing unfair expectations? The Florida State transfer has never taken a snap at Alabama, but yet he’s the Tide’s projected starter this fall.
  • Florida landed two elite quarterbacks in the 2014 class, but that didn’t stop the Gators from adding a commitment from Elite 11 invitee Sheriron Jones.
  • Drugs, guns seized from house owned by Mississippi State defensive backs’ coach Deshea Townsend.
  • Incoming freshman Al Harris Jr. is ready to compete for a role at cornerback after arriving at South Carolina in late May.
  • Lone Star quarterback prospect Quentin Dormady commits to Tennessee after attending the Vols’ QB camp over the weekend.
  • Former Heisman winner Eddie George says Johnny Manziel is more wrapped up in ‘being a celebrity than being in his playbook.’

Ranking the SEC quarterbacks

June, 9, 2014
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Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, we'll look at who we think will be the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesWith his experience and talents, Nick Marshall is the SEC's top QB heading into the 2014 season.
1. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: With a spring practice under his belt and a year in Gus Malzahn's offense, Marshall gets the nod as the top quarterback in the league. His athletic ability is off the charts, and even though he was erratic throwing the ball at times last season, he's improved in that area and has some big-time playmakers around him. Marshall also seems to thrive with the game on the line, which is perhaps the best quality a quarterback can possess.

2. Dak Prescott, RJr., Mississippi State: Prescott's upside is tremendous. He's a bullish runner with an equally strong arm and showed some real courage last season playing through injuries and his mother's death. The challenge is for him to become a more polished passer. But in Dan Mullen's offense, Prescott is a perfect fit and should have an All-SEC type of year.

3. Bo Wallace, RSr., Ole Miss: The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span.

4. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Even though the Tigers are losing a ton of firepower at receiver, look for Mauk to be one of the more improved players in the league. He got a taste of it in critical situations last season while filling in for the injured James Franklin, and he delivered. He has the athleticism, arm strength and toughness to be an elite quarterback.

5. Jacob Coker, RJr., Alabama: Every year, it seems, a quarterback comes out of the shadows in the SEC to have a huge year. Cam Newton did it in 2010, Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Marshall last season. Coker could be that guy in 2014 after transferring in from Florida State. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, says Coker will be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had at Alabama.

6. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: The Gators and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are building what they do offensively around Driskel's strengths. He's a super athlete (and trimmed down some by nearly 15 pounds) and is throwing the ball with renewed confidence. Coming off a broken leg, Driskel has the physical skill set to flourish in Roper's system as he enters his fourth season of college ball.

7. Dylan Thompson, RSr., South Carolina: There wasn't a better reliever in the SEC over the past couple of years than Thompson, who came off the bench in several pressure situations and led the Gamecocks to big wins. With Connor Shaw gone, Thompson now gets a chance to prove that he can get it done as an every-game starter. His forte is throwing the ball from the pocket.

8. Hutson Mason, RSr., Georgia: Mason has waited his turn while sitting behind the record-setter Aaron Murray and even redshirted in 2012 to get this opportunity. He's an accurate passer and knows the offense inside and out. He played late last season after Murray was injured, which should help the transition. Mason's another one who could easily shoot up this list.

9. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: The best news for Worley is that he'll have more guys around him who can make plays. The Vols played their best football last season before Worley injured his thumb. They nearly knocked off Georgia and upset South Carolina with Worley at the helm. He's improved his arm strength and has worked hard this offseason. His senior season should be his best yet.

10. Brandon Allen, RJr., Arkansas: Not much of anything went right with the Hogs' passing game last season, and much of that centered around Allen never really being healthy. To his credit, he continued to fight through injuries and is looking forward to showing what he can do now that he's back to 100 percent. If he stays healthy, Allen could be one of the league's top bounce-back players.
We're less than three months from the kickoff to the 2014 college football season, which means it's time to start examining every SEC team a little closer.

Today, we start unveiling our annual position rankings.

It's a task that seemingly gets harder every year, especially when so much is unknown and so much can change between now and the actual season.

We’ve talked to people we trust around the league in coming up with these rankings, but there are always going to be epic whiffs. For instance, Nick Marshall wasn't on a lot of people's radar at this point a year ago, and neither was Marshall's chief protector on the left side of the Auburn line -- Greg Robinson.

Anyway, we’ve based our 2014 rankings on having a true game-changer (or game-changers) at the position as well as having experience and depth. Past performance is weighted heavily, but we also take into account what help is on the way and project the impact newcomers will have.

After unveiling the position rankings each day, we’ll come back later in the day and rank the top players in the league at the various positions.

We'll start with the quarterback position.

1. Auburn: Marshall emerged from the junior college ranks last season to win the job and lead Auburn to the national championship game. He’s one of the most explosive athletes in the country at the quarterback position and an improved passer. Behind him, the Tigers also like sophomore Jeremy Johnson, who has a big arm and played some last season when Marshall was banged up. Junior Jonathan Wallace also returns after starting the final four games in 2012 as a true freshman.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDak Prescott showed signs of being a star at quarterback late last season for Mississippi State.
2. Mississippi State: Junior Dak Prescott could be poised for a breakout season after showing his vast potential in flashes a year ago and finishing with a bang. If he becomes a more polished passer, look out. Sophomore Damian Williams is another dual-threat guy who played in six games last season, while true freshman Nick Fitzgerald brings some depth to the position after enrolling early and going through the spring.

3. Ole Miss: Bo Wallace enters his senior season ranked second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). It’s always nice to have that kind of experience, and Wallace should also be healthier after playing through shoulder pain each of the last two seasons. It’s a three-man race for the backup job. DeVante Kincade is an exceptional athlete, Ryan Buchanan is more of a pocket passer. Both are redshirt freshmen. Don’t forget about 6-foot-3, 296-pound sophomore Jeremy Liggins, who originally signed with LSU before going to junior college. Liggins could be a beast in short-yardage situations.

4. Missouri: It’s Maty Mauk’s show now at Missouri after he filled in more than capably a year ago as a redshirt freshman for the injured James Franklin. Mauk has all the tools to have a big year. Junior Corbin Berkstresser also has starting experience after subbing for the injured Franklin two years ago, while redshirt freshman Eddie Printz split the second-team reps with Berkstresser this spring.

5. Alabama: Jacob Coker hasn’t played a down for Alabama. For that matter, he hasn’t participated in the first official practice with the Crimson Tide. But already he’s the heir apparent to AJ McCarron, and the Tide are counting on him coming in and being their quarterback in 2014. He played behind Jameis Winston at Florida State last season and is extremely gifted. If Coker takes a little longer to develop, Alabama will likely turn to senior Blake Sims, who still needs to prove that he can beat teams throwing the ball.

6. Florida: As last season illustrated, an injury at quarterback can be devastating. The Gators need Jeff Driskel to stay healthy and develop into the kind of do-it-all quarterback he was billed as coming out of high school. Now a fourth-year junior, Driskel would seem to be poised to take that step after breaking his leg in the third game a year ago. Tyler Murphy has transferred, which means redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris would be next in line if something happened to Driskel.

7. South Carolina: Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has experience on his side, not to mention a penchant for delivering in clutch situations. Now, with Connor Shaw gone, Thompson has to prove he can get it done on a weekly basis. The Gamecocks will be a little different with Thompson at quarterback. He’s a pocket passer and not nearly the runner Shaw was. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is the most talented of the Gamecocks’ backups, although third-year sophomore Brendan Nosovitch also returns.

8. Georgia: It’s hard to imagine a Georgia team without Aaron Murray under center. After four record-setting seasons in Athens, Murray has moved on, and fifth-year senior Hutson Mason gets his shot to lead the Bulldogs. He played at the end of last season after Murray injured his knee and has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. Redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey might be the Dawgs’ quarterback of the future, but third-year sophomore Faton Bauta had the more consistent spring of the two.

9. Tennessee: The Vols have three quarterbacks returning who have started games for them, but there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the position after redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson decided to leave the program following the spring. Senior Justin Worley was solid before an injury ended his season a year ago, and Josh Dobbs was then forced into action as a true freshman. With better playmakers around him, Worley could end up being one of the surprises of the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Brandon Harris might be LSU's starting quarterback by the time the Tigers get into the heart of SEC play.
10. LSU: True freshman Brandon Harris was good enough this spring that several on the Bayou think he will be the Tigers’ starter at some point this season. Sophomore Anthony Jennings filled in at the end of last season when Zach Mettenberger was injured and might be the odds-on favorite to open the 2014 season as the starter. Either way, the Tigers will be lean on experience at the quarterback position.

11. Vanderbilt: Preseason camp should be interesting for the Commodores, especially with Stephen Rivers transferring in from LSU and being eligible to play right away. It was already a close race between third-year sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette started in three games late last season, including the win at Florida and the BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Houston.

12. Texas A&M: Life after Johnny Manziel won’t be easy, but Kevin Sumlin has proven that his offenses can score points with different styles of quarterbacks. Sophomore Kenny Hill is probably the guy to beat despite his off-the-field issues this spring. True freshman Kyle Allen also has a big future ahead of him, but it might be asking a bit much for him to take the reins right out of the gate on the road against South Carolina. With Matt Joeckel transferring, the Aggies will be short on experience.

13. Arkansas: In his defense, Brandon Allen was injured for much of last season and did his best to gut it out. Now a junior, Allen needs to stay healthy and could use some help from his receivers. He’s backed up by his younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, and true freshman Rafe Peavey. The Hogs need to be a better passing team, period, this season, and that’s not just on the quarterbacks.

14. Kentucky: Sophomore Patrick Towles was once the forgotten man at Kentucky. But after redshirting last season, he enters preseason practice as the Wildcats’ likely starter. Towles shortened his release and was one of the team’s most improved players this spring. No matter who wins the job, he won’t have much in the way of experience. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker are the other two in mix after Jalen Whitlow transferred.
Not everyone takes a head start.

In January, Alabama welcomed eight early enrollees to campus for the spring semester.

[+] EnlargeBo Scarbrough
Miller Safrit/ESPNCould five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough contribute immediately for the Crimson Tide?
But those eight freshmen represent less than one-third of the Crimson Tide’s 2014 signing class. Nineteen signees chose to attend prom and graduate from high school in the traditional fashion. And even though they are indeed a step behind their peers today, the distance isn’t insurmountable.

Sure, it’s easier to play as a true freshman when you enroll early. A semester of school and 15 spring practices make a world of difference. But as players such as Jonathan Allen showed last season, sometimes the summer offseason program and fall camp are enough to show you can play early.

With that said, here’s a look at three summer enrollees, plus a transfer, who could give Alabama’s offense a boost as freshmen:

ATH Bo Scarbrough: He’s the wild card. Scarbrough, like Derrick Henry before him, has the ability to play almost anywhere on the field. He could fit in at linebacker or defensive end if he wanted to. In fact, he played some end and rushed the passer in high school. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he might not look like a running back, but that’s where he’ll get his shot. Don’t let his height fool you, he has good pad level and great burst. He can even catch the ball some, too. While it’s true that Alabama is absolutely loaded at running back, don’t count Scarbrough out. With his unique skill set, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be tempted to use him at any number of positions.

K/P J.K. Scott: Man, oh man, is there a need for a kicker on Alabama's special teams units, both at placekicker and punter. If you saw A-Day, you know. Not many SEC programs win with a backup quarterback punting, and it doesn’t look like Adam Griffith is the rock-solid field goal kicker coaches so covet. Enter Scott, who could contribute in either fashion. The Colorado native is ranked as the No. 5 kicker in the country, and if you look closer at his scouting report Insider you’ll read that “The ball explodes off his foot and he is a prototypical punter/kicker.”

OL Dominick Jackson: At the very least, Jackson is an insurance policy on Cameron Robinson. Robinson worked his way into the starting rotation at left tackle this spring, but he’s still a rookie fresh out of high school, even if he comes with five stars and looks nothing like a newbie. Jackson, on the other hand, has some seasoning from junior college. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he fits the mold of an offense tackle but could play guard as well. So maybe he’s an insurance policy on the line as a whole. The bottom line, however, is that if Nick Saban and the coaching staff didn’t think he could play right away they wouldn’t have signed him in the first place. With so few spots in each class, you can’t afford to waste one on a two-year player who needs development.

QB Jacob Coker: You didn’t think we forgot, did you? Just like Jackson, Coker wouldn’t be in Tuscaloosa if Saban and the staff didn’t think he could play. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, what makes you think Coker isn’t the presumptive favorite to start under center? He has prototypical size at 6-5 and 230 pounds, he has above-average quickness, the maturity to handle the competition and comes from a system at Florida State that’s very similar to what Alabama likes to run.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 29, 2014
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The SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, are winding down, but college football news from around the conference continues to roll out. As always, we've got you covered.
Parker McLeod knew this was a possibility. When the former three-star quarterback prospect enrolled at Alabama in 2013, he understood that he would be fighting tooth and nail for playing time.

He said he was confident. He said he was a competitor. He said he would work his hardest and hope for the best.

[+] EnlargeParker McLeod
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsParker McLeod redshirted last season at Alabama.
But after redshirting his first season on campus and then watching as three other quarterbacks on the roster separated themselves this spring, he had to know what the future held: He would not become AJ McCarron’s successor under center in 2014.

On Tuesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters at the SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, that McLeod had been given clearance to look around for another school to transfer to this offseason. And with that, Alabama’s quarterback competition became the slightest bit clearer. With Luke Del Rio long gone (to Oregon State) and McLeod having one foot out the door, as many as four players will vie to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback when fall camp begins.

The presumptive leader in the clubhouse, of course, is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. The redshirt junior was the backup to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season and first-round NFL draft pick EJ Manuel the season before that. He enrolled at Alabama earlier this month and should be fully recovered from knee surgery when practice begins later this summer.

Coker is considered the front-runner due in large part to poor performances by the other quarterbacks already in Tuscaloosa. Blake Sims, a senior with dual-threat capabilities, threw the ball poorly on A-Day, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Cooper Bateman, a former four-star prospect who redshirted last season, and Alec Morris, a sophomore who didn’t attempt a pass last season, didn’t fare much better as the two combined to complete 14 of 31 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Coker, who attended Alabama’s spring game but was unable to participate because he hadn’t yet graduated from Florida State, looked the best out of anyone, and he was in a simple T-shirt and a camouflage hat.

But Saban, forever the pragmatist, has urged caution when trying to predict the quarterback race. Coker won’t be handed anything. Even with news of McLeod’s departure, there are still too many horses who can win this race, he insists.

“There's a lot of competition at the position,” Saban told reporters earlier this month. "I think this is something that our team has to embrace and try to help each and every one of these guys play winning football for us at this position."

With McLeod on his way out of town, there will be more snaps for everyone when practice begins. But even with one fewer quarterback in the huddle, Alabama is still a long way from determining who will win the job.
It’s Day 2 of ESPN.com’s May Madness, and the field of 16 contenders for the first ever College Football Playoff was cut in half. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 each had at least one team advance, but only Alabama and Auburn remain from the SEC.

The other four teams -- Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- each had a fatal flaw that prevented them from moving on.

So what helped Alabama and Auburn make the cut? The quarterbacks.

Jacob Coker has only been on Alabama’s campus for only two weeks and has yet to throw to a receiver, but as he goes, so goes the Crimson Tide’s offense. And he has the bloodlines and résumé to be very successful.

Meanwhile, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is a little more established, but his best is yet to come. Now that he’s been through a winter and a spring practice, he’s more comfortable with the offense and the expectations are even higher.

Will we see a rematch of the Iron Bowl in the first ever College Football Playoff? We’ll find out Wednesday when the field gets cut to four.
By now we should have our legs about us. No more early season mistakes. Make sure the cooler is stocked, the oil has been changed and the GPS is fully updated.

If you’re just now getting on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the season by plotting out the top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Houston, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. Three weeks down, 11 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 4:

Sept. 20
Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Florida at Alabama
Northern Illinois at Arkansas
Troy at Georgia
Mississippi State at LSU
Indiana at Missouri
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Texas A&M at SMU

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Mississippi State at LSU

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDak Prescott and the Bulldogs will get their first tough test of the season when they visit LSU on Sept. 20.
Expect the hype for this game to be considerable. Mississippi State, barring a considerable collapse, should enter Baton Rouge, La., undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. If LSU survives its season opener against Wisconsin, it will be in the same boat.

With a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers on offense and a deep, veteran defense, the Bulldogs are a team worth keeping an eye on. The momentum Mississippi State gained from beating Ole Miss and Rice to end last season was huge. In a wide-open West, Mississippi State is in as good a position as any to make it to Atlanta, especially with its schedule. Early season games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama should be a breeze. In fact, I’d be concerned about playing down to the level of competition.

LSU will be a considerable obstacle, however.

Against LSU, we’ll see if Mississippi State is for real. Against a John Chavis-Les Miles defense, we’ll see just how good Dak Prescott is and how far Dan Mullen’s offense has come.

Along those same lines, we'll learn a lot about LSU's retooled defense and its overhauled offense, which features exactly zero returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

This game should be a good one. And the fact that it will be played in the renovated Tiger Stadium only makes it that much more appealing. If it’s not a night game, and I don’t get to hear the P.A. announcer say, “It’s Saturday night in Death Valley,” I’ll be thoroughly disappointed. There’s not a better environment in all of college football, for my money.

Sam Khan’s pick: Florida at Alabama

After Florida's rough 2013 season, this game at first glance might not have much appeal. That's fair, but both teams are likely to head into this one unbeaten. It will be the Crimson Tide's conference opener after nonconference tilts against West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi, while Florida has dates with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Florida's offense can't be as inept as it was last season, right? Kurt Roper's arrival as offensive coordinator should help the Gators improve vastly in that area and help quarterback Jeff Driskel make significant progress. The defense should be fine. Overall, as long as the Gators can avoid the rash of injuries they encountered last season, things are looking up for a sizeable leap in the wide-open SEC East standings.

Alabama is Alabama and will be one of the favorites to take the SEC title once again. But Florida -- if the Gators are playing well defensively -- will provide a good test for the new Crimson Tide quarterback, whether it be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or someone else. The Tide have a new offensive coordinator, too -- Lane Kiffin -- and there will be plenty of eyes watching to see how the offense develops under Kiffin.

If the Crimson Tide roll to an easy victory, it will probably come as no surprise. But as we saw last season with the Gators' fall and Auburn and Missouri's rise, things can change quickly, even in the span of one year. Alabama is likely to be a heavy favorite, but if the Gators get off to a good start and show signs of life during their early season slate, it should provide some intrigue in the buildup to this early season conference clash.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Some stocks rise during spring practice and some inevitably fall, and that wave of momentum heading into the offseason can be a valuable determinant when it comes to seeking more playing time during the season.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players emerging on offense for Alabama. Stay tuned Wednesday as we’ll turn our attention to the defense.

QB Jacob Coker: Yeah, we’ve never seen him wear an Alabama jersey, but is there any doubt after A-Day that he’s the frontrunner to start at quarterback? He’s now officially on campus, according to his father, and doing well. We’ve heard stories about his arm strength and his athleticism, but in a few months we’ll get to witness it first-hand when camp opens.

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsRobert Foster, who dueled Tony Brown for this pass on A-Day, showed big-play potential this spring.
WR Robert Foster: Many might not remember that Foster was a late arrival as a true freshman, getting cleared by the NCAA and showing up at almost the last possible minute for practice in the fall. Still, he was listed as the second-string ‘Z’ receiver behind Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell. In case you were sleeping under a rock, those two have graduated and moved on. And while Foster might not start, he should make a contribution as those around the program have been impressed by his big-play ability.

RB Derrick Henry: At this point, is anyone is sleeping on Henry? After his breakout performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, he’s been all the rage. He’s even gotten in the Heisman Trophy discussion and caused speculation that he might replace T.J. Yeldon in the starting lineup. This writer disagrees, but another doesn’t. However, everything out of Alabama has been positive. Nick Saban has been effusive in his praise of Henry, calling his spring “fabulous” and his work ethic commendable.

TE O.J. Howard: It’s only a matter of time before Howard’s skills as a pass-catcher translate to the field. As a freshman, he showed promise but was inconsistent. According to those close to him, he was frustrated at times as he caught six passes in his first three games and then eight the rest of the season. But with Lane Kiffin now installed as offensive coordinator, things should be different. Kiffin has had success with tight ends in the past and would do well to feature Howard more heavily in the offense, moving him around the field where he can exploit his size and athleticism against smaller defensive backs.

LT Cam Robinson: The true freshman certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, he has the build scouts dream about. Early on this spring, it appeared as if his mind was elsewhere. In typically rookie fashion, he struggled to keep up as he learned everything for the first time. But he was a quick study and began rotating in with the first-team offensive line in no time. The former five-star prospect -- the No. 1-rated offensive lineman in the ESPN 300 -- wound up starting with the ones at A-Day, further solidifying his chances to start from Week 1.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 7, 2014
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With the NFL draft set to begin on Thursday, it should be another showcase weekend for the SEC. Let's take a look at what's happening with several SEC prospects -- as well as some other league headlines -- as the draft approaches.
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 lunchtime links

May, 6, 2014
May 6
12:00
PM ET
Lots more NFL draft talk and a bit from spring practice as we take a spin around the SEC with today's lunchtime links.

It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
11:30
AM ET

Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

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