Alabama Crimson Tide: Marquez North

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: 5-7
2013 SEC record: 2-6, sixth in the Eastern Division
Record all time against Alabama: 37-51-8
Last meeting: Lost 45-10 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 5; Defense: 15; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
LB A.J. Johnson, QB Justin Worley, WR Marquez North, S Brian Randolph, CB Justin Coleman, CB Cam Sutton

Key losses
OT Antonio Richardson, C James Stone, OT Ja’Wuan James, RB Rajion Neal, DE Jacques Smith, DT Daniel McCullers

2013 statistical leaders (*-returners)
Rushing: Neal (1,124 yards)
Passing: Worley* (1,239 yards, 10 TD, 8 INT)
Receiving: North* (496 yards)
Tackles: Johnson* (106)
Sacks: Corey Miller (6.5)
Interceptions: Randolph (4)

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTennessee coach Butch Jones will have one of the youngest depth charts in the country in 2014.
What they're saying:
“We’re still dealing with the realities of building a football program in an elite conference, but I thought our players were very focused. ... I thought our program benefited from 14 newcomers. I thought they brought a whole other level of energy and competition and that competitive culture that we speak about each and every day. I thought we took tremendous strides improving as a football team and as a football program,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, after spring practice

Three things to watch:

1. Youth is served: “Brick by brick” has been the theme of Jones’ tenure at Tennessee. If you follow him on Twitter, you’ll see the “#BrickbyBrick” hashtag often. And most of the time it’s having to do with recruiting. Jones inherited a mess in Knoxville two years ago. He’s spent the time since trying to rebuild through recruiting -- hence the brick symbology. He’s been successful, too, at least as far as recruiting rankings go. This year, Tennessee finished with the No. 5 class in the country, which was long on both talent (18 four-stars) and overall numbers (35 total commits). Of that group, 14 enrolled early with the expectation to compete for playing time as freshmen. All told, we could be looking at a Tennessee depth chart that will be majority first-year and second-year players.

2. Questions in the trenches: Losing Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson hurts enough for Tennessee. Watching center Alex Bullard and guards James Stone and Zach Fulton move on as well is brutal. But if losing the entire starting offensive line from a year ago wasn’t depressing in itself, say sayonara to the defensive line as well. In fact, all four of its starters and a total of six members of the two-deep depth chart are all gone. Good luck with that. If the SEC is truly a line of scrimmage league, then the Vols are in huge trouble. There are some pieces to work with (Kyler Kerbyson and Dontavius Blair on offense, Corey Vereen and Owen Williams on defense) but there’s no getting around that lack of experience.

3. A QB battle: Justin Worley is the starter, if only by default. The former three-star prospect didn’t exactly impress last season when he threw 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Injuries kept him off the field the final four games, but the damage was already done. You have to wonder whether the staff sticks with the senior or looks to the future with someone younger like Nathan Peterman or Josh Dobbs. Whoever starts should have plenty of weapons to work with (Marlin Lane, Marquez North, Alton “Pig” Howard), but without an experienced offensive line to protect them, it could be a long season for Tennessee’s quarterbacks.

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
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Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.
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 best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

SEC Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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We're inching closer and closer to the finish line, and our No. 1 doesn't look to be budging anytime soon:

1. Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide faced its biggest test since Texas A&M and passed with flying colors Saturday night with a resounding 38-17 win over LSU. Alabama didn't need a lot of yards, but the defense stood tall, holding LSU to a season-low 284 yards and 17 points. People continue to wonder if this truly is the No. 1 team in the country, but Alabama has tackled every obstacle that has come its way. Also, Phil Knight was decked out in Alabama gear in Tuscaloosa, so clearly the bandwagon still has room.

2. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 2): It seems like Auburn is getting better and better each week. The Tigers weren't intimidated at all by the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium and walked out with a commanding 55-23 win over Tennessee. The offense rolled up 444 rushing yards, and the defense is getting better and better -- just in time for this week's showdown with Georgia on the Plains.

3. Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 5): These Tigers continue to impress and had no problem handling a weary Kentucky team on the road. Maty Mauk is growing for the future, and Dorial Green-Beckham showed us all why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year with his school-record four touchdown catches in Mizzou's 48-17 thumping of the Wildcats. This upcoming bye week should give quarterback James Franklin even more time to rest his shoulder before a trip to Ole Miss.

4. Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC; LW: 3): We all know the Aggies can score at will when Johnny Manziel is under center, but the defense took a few steps back (again) in A&M's 51-41 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Right when you think that unit is getting better, it starts to lag behind, like surrendering 556 total yards to the Bulldogs. Still, the Aggies won in spite of the defense and get a bye week before taking on LSU and Mizzou on the road.

5. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks were off this weekend, which should help them rest any nicks or bruises. South Carolina is approaching its final SEC game, which is big, because a win over Florida on Saturday would get the Gamecocks one step closer to Atlanta. South Carolina still needs help, but the Gamecocks will have every opportunity to take care of business against a struggling Florida team.

6. Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): The Bulldogs had a nice tuneup game before facing Auburn on the road. Even after a sluggish start, the Bulldogs routed Appalachian State 45-6. If Georgia wants a shot at the SEC Eastern Division title, the Bulldogs have to beat Auburn and hope for Mizzou to fall off late. Aaron Murray continues to rack up records, and this offense regained its form Saturday. The defense will have to be at its best against a very good Auburn running game.

7. Ole Miss (6-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 8): After winning just six combined games from 2010-11, the Rebels are going bowling for the second straight year. Coach Hugh Freeze has led a very impressive turnaround in Oxford. Ole Miss let things get a bit interesting in its 34-24 win over Arkansas, but the outcome never really seemed in doubt. The Rebels go for win No. 7 against Troy before hosting Missouri.

8. LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 6): It really has been a season of what-ifs for the Bayou Bengals. Turnovers and mental errors have plagued this team in its three losses, and Saturday's 21-point loss to Alabama was no different. Fumbles by J.C. Copeland and Zach Mettenberger proved costly, as they created a 10-point swing that didn't go in LSU's favor. The Tigers were left scratching their heads in Tuscaloosa and get another bye week to stew over it.

9. Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 SEC; LW: 11): Remember when head coach James Franklin said you'd never see the old Vanderbilt again under his watch? Well, after taking the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, Saturday's 34-17 win over Florida marked the first time the Commodores have beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1945, and the first time ever the Dores beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. Vandy's blowout win in the Swamp came thanks to four takeaways by the Commodores and only 183 yards of offense, and Vandy is a win away from making its third-straight bowl.

10. Florida (4-5, 3-4 SEC; LW: 9): It has been a challenging season in Gainesville, and Saturday's ugly loss to Vandy (snapping a 22-game winning streak over the Dores) didn't help. The injuries have piled up, Florida has lost four straight and the Gators are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1990. Coach Will Muschamp said his team has a "woe is me" attitude right now, and the fans are restless. Seeing all those empty seats and hearing all those boos told you everything you need to know about the state of Florida football.

11. Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC; LW: 10): It was another long day for head coach Butch Jones and his Vols. Auburn ran up 444 rushing yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry, and had the game well in hand before the second quarter even ended. Tennessee has to be encouraged by the growth of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and receiver Marquez North, but it's just not enough right now. Five times this year Tennessee has given up 400 yards and gained less than 350.

12. Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 12): Hats off to quarterback Dak Prescott for going out and playing Saturday just days after his mother passed away after her battle with cancer. He and his Bulldogs didn't beat Texas A&M, but they never quit. Still, this has been a trying year for Mississippi State, which has to win two of its last three games in order to keep its three-year bowl streak going.

13. Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 SEC; LW: 13): Another weekend, another loss for the hapless Hogs. Arkansas' 34-24 loss to Ole Miss marked the seventh straight for Bret Bielema and his squad. It's the longest of Bielema's coaching career, and the Razorbacks are officially out of the bowl hunt for the second straight year. Arkansas has the SEC's No. 12 offense and a defense that ranks 11th in the league, after surrendering 531 yards to Ole Miss.

14. Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 SEC; LW: 14): For the third straight year, the Wildcats aren't going bowling. They certainly have shown heart, but the talent on both sides of the ball just isn't there right now for Kentucky to actually compete week in and week out against its SEC foes. Kentucky has now lost 13 straight SEC games.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
9:00
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Well, a lot has has changed in the SEC after just one weekend. Our No. 1 team is clear, but after that, well, it's a bit murky. That just makes it that much more fun, but we are finally seeing the SEC actually beat up on itself in the final year of the BCS era:

1. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC; last week: 1): Say what you will about the lack of competition Alabama has faced since the Ole Miss game, but the Crimson Tide are doing exactly what they need to develop and build momentum. For the second straight year, the Tide blanked an overmatched Arkansas team 52-0 and appear to be the SEC's biggest hope for bringing the conference its eighth straight national championship.

2. Missouri (7-0, 3-0 SEC; LW: 4): So this is what Missouri's offense is supposed to look like when guys are healthy. Well, even with James Franklin out and Maty Mauk running things, the offense is pretty deadly. The Tigers are the surprise of the conference and crushed Florida 36-17 over the weekend with 500 yards of offense and a smothering defense that allowed just 151 yards. A win over South Carolina this weekend would essentially clinch the SEC Eastern Division for the Tigers.

3. Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 8): It's clear that Gus Malzahn was the right choice for this team. The Tigers marched into Kyle Field on Saturday and shocked the nation with a thrilling 45-41 win over Texas A&M. The offense churned out more than 600 yards, including 379 rushing yards. The Tigers might be a bad first half against LSU away from being undefeated. Auburn is now averaging a league-high 300.1 rushing yards per game, which is 65.7 more than Missouri's No. 2 rushing offense.

4. Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC; LW: 2): Not even the great Johnny Manziel could rescue the Aggies against Auburn. Despite playing with a bad shoulder and throwing for 454 yards and four touchdowns, Manziel wasn't enough. Why wasn't he enough? Well, look at the Aggies' pitiful defensive performance. They surrendered 615 yards of offense, allowed Auburn to convert 7 of 14 third downs and gave up 7.2 yards per play. I've never seen a team so great offensively yet so bad defensively.

5. LSU (6-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 3): Just when we thought LSU was really figuring things out, the defense gets gashed in Oxford, Zach Mettenberger reverts back to his bad habits throwing the ball and the Tigers get outplayed in a rivalry game. LSU fell to Ole Miss 27-24 on Saturday and looked as though it didn't want it as much as the Rebels. Mettenberger was flustered all night, throwing three interceptions and registering a QBR of 33.2

6. South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 6): The Gamecocks looked like a team ready to make a charge through the SEC, but that sight was short-lived after Saturday's 23-21 loss to Tennessee on a last-second field goal. It was a bad loss that might knock the Gamecocks out of contention for the East title, and quarterback Connor Shaw left the game with a knee sprain. South Carolina's only hope for the East crown is to win at Missouri this weekend.

7. Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 5): As the injuries continue to pile up in Athens, so do the losses. Georgia surrendered a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, allowing Vanderbilt to score 17 straight in the Commodores' 31-27 upset. Now, top receiver Chris Conley and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons could be out against Florida in two weeks with injuries. This was Georgia's worst offensive showing of the year, registering just 221 yards of total offense and turning it over three times.

8. Ole Miss (4-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 9): Right when it looked like the honeymoon with Hugh Freeze was starting to lose its luster, the Rebels shocked LSU with a 27-24 win after losing three straight in conference play. The mistakes that had plagued this team during its three-game losing streak vanished as Ole Miss outplayed the Tigers at home.

9. Florida (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 7): A week ago, coach Will Muschamp said his defense shouldn't worry about the offense. On Saturday, the defense gave up 500 yards and 36 points but got absolutely no help from an inept offense that has generated just 391 yards, 16 points and one touchdown in the past two games combined. The defense was gashed, but fatigue had to set in with a sputtering offense barely staying on the field. It'll be a long two weeks in Gainesville before next week's game against Georgia.

10. Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC; LW: 11): Something tells me those guys in the Knoxville are really digging what new coach Butch Jones has to say. After some shaky play and some over-coaching early, the Vols put together back-to-back solid games against SEC East heavyweights and really shook things up with their 23-21 shocker over South Carolina. Keep an eye on freshman wide receiver Marquez North. The kid has some talent.

11. Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3 SEC; LW: 10): If Vanderbilt was truly going to take the next step under coach James Franklin, the Commodores had to beat one of the big guys in the SEC East. Well, that finally happened after the Dores upset Georgia 31-27 in Nashville on Saturday. With backup quarterback Patton Robinette in, Vanderbilt erased a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to end the game on a 17-0 run.

12. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): After a close call against a scrappy Bowling Green team, the Bulldogs were off over the weekend. They'll face a hurting Kentucky team Thursday, which is an important game in the realm of bowl talk for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs haven't been very flashy this season, but the defense hasn't been half bad, ranking fourth in the SEC in total defense (364.5 yards allowed per game) and allowing just 23 points per game.

13. Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 SEC; LW: 13): It has been a nightmare of a start to the Bret Bielema era in Fayetteville. It seems like ages ago that the Hogs were sitting at 3-0. Now, after Alabama destroyed this team in every area of the game over the weekend, Arkansas has lost five straight. The past three losses (all in conference play) have been by a combined 117 points.

14. Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off this past weekend after getting thumped 48-7 by Alabama the previous week. Coach Mark Stoops said after the game that neither he nor his players would give up after a rough first half. Kentucky enters Thursday's matchup with Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC in total offense and defense.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
10:00
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Saturday was full of upsets, injuries and last-second finishes -- just another day in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from action in Week 8.

Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter dominating Florida, Missouri (yes, Missouri) is on a collision course with Alabama to face off in the SEC title game.
Collision course: The only two teams that didn't slip up Saturday were the two unbeatens in the SEC: Alabama and Missouri. Now, the Crimson Tide and Tigers are on a collision course headed for Atlanta and the SEC championship game. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the two-time defending national champions are in this position, but who would've guessed Missouri would still be perfect this late in the season? The Tigers dominated Florida on Saturday, putting up 500 yards of offense to the Gators' 151. Quarterback Maty Mauk didn't miss a beat in his first start in place of James Franklin. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 15 yards and a score.

Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.

Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.

Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.

SEC's lunchtime links

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
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Game week has arrived. No more waiting for the action because it all starts this week. Here are some links from around the SEC to whet your football appetite as game day nears:
SAN ANTONIO -- Wednesday was a day off for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl teams. Instead of working out and participating in drills, the players took in visits around the city -- including a stop at the Alamodome for photo opportunities and to see their game apparel -- and used the day to recover from two days of practice.

The teams will return to the fields on Thursday in arguably the most important practice of the week. Here are five things to keep an eye on for Thursday’s practice:

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
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