Alabama Crimson Tide: Odell Beckham

AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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There were numerous blowouts around the SEC on Saturday, but it was capped by a thriller in Columbia, Mo., as South Carolina came from behind to defeat Missouri 27-24 in double overtime. Definitely one of our helmet stickers is going to a player from that thriller. Check out who he is and the rest of this week's recipients below:

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: What a gutsy showing by the senior. Because of a knee injury and illness prior to the game, Shaw was not expected to play. But with his team down 17-0 midway through the third quarter, coach Steve Spurrier sent in Shaw to replace Dylan Thompson. Shaw completed 20 of 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns in relief of Thompson, including a huge touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the Missouri 15 at the end of the first overtime session. As a result, the Gamecocks became the first team to knock off Missouri this season and put themselves back in the SEC East championship chase.

Texas A&M's defense: Forget that it was against a freshman quarterback making his first start (Vanderbilt's Patton Robinette); the Aggies' have struggled against almost everyone they've played, so their performance on Saturday was a breakthrough. They held Vanderbilt to 329 yards (95 rushing) and generated seven sacks as well as three turnovers. Quite a contrast after allowing 45 points, 615 yards and 379 rushing yards to Auburn the week before. A lot of good performances on the Aggies' D, so it's hard to single out one player.

Odell Beckham, WR, LSU: Beckham continues to shine and turned in a 200-yard performance on Saturday against Furman. He caught six passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. His scoring grabs went for 37 and 63 yards.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: The senior had season highs in catches (six) and receiving yards (112) in the Crimson Tide's 45-10 rout of Tennessee. He also had a pretty highlight-worthy grab while falling backward. Afterward, coach Nick Saban used the word "unbelievable" to describe Norwood's catch.

Ja-Mes Logan, WR, Ole Miss: The senior had touchdown grabs of 37 yards and 65 yards from quarterback Bo Wallace and finished with six receptions for 122 yards in the Rebels' 59-14 rout of Idaho.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
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1. Will Clowney play?: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and his last-minute decision to sit out against Kentucky. It didn’t go over well with coach Steve Spurrier based on the postgame comments. However, Spurrier defended his star player this week. Once again, Clowney is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game at Arkansas with a muscle strain near his rib area. He returned to practice on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesJames Franklin and Missouri can prove they're legit SEC contenders with a win at Georgia on Saturday.
2. Health concerns at UGA: The Bulldogs survived a scare in Knoxville last weekend, but they didn’t come out unscathed. They lost both running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending injuries while fellow wide receiver Michael Bennett will miss an extended period of time with a knee injury. Georgia will have to bounce back quickly with No. 25 Missouri coming to town on Saturday.

3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.

5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?

6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.

7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.

8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.

9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.

10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
12:40
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It's Wednesday which means the SEC coaches and players have turned their attention to Saturday's opponent. See what's being said, who's going to play or not play and how teams are preparing in a sampling of news across the league.
  • Alabama center Ryan Kelly is expected to a miss a couple of weeks with a “stretched” MCL. That means more playing time for Chad Lindsay, who is making the most of his opportunity.
  • Coming off a huge win over LSU, Georgia is still on high alert as it heads to Knoxville this weekend for a matchup with SEC East foe Tennessee.
  • Since Lane Kiffin was fired, there have been rumors linking Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin with the open USC position. He says the rumors are just part of the job as the Aggies head into an open week.
  • LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. muffed a punt against Georgia on Saturday that led to a touchdown. It’s not the first miscue for the dynamic return specialist, but he knows how to respond from a mistake like that.
  • Connor Shaw was expected to miss at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder sprain, but the South Carolina quarterback could play against Kentucky on Saturday.
  • Florida boasts one of the top defenses in college football, so the Gators’ offense has resorted to an old-school approach -- a simple, keep-away philosophy.
  • Ole Miss was shutout last Saturday at Alabama. Head coach Hugh Freeze says it starts with the offensive line, and they will need to play better this weekend against Auburn.
  • Missouri has yet to start SEC play, but through four games, the Tigers’ offense has passed the test under new coordinator Josh Henson.
  • Auburn cornerback Chris Davis has missed the last two games due to injury, but the Tigers are eager to get their “extra spark” back on defense this week against No. 24 Ole Miss.
  • The trash talk has already started between Arkansas and Florida this week. Florida defensive lineman Damien Jacobs called out the Razorbacks’ offensive line, saying they play a little dirty. He singled out Hogs’ center Travis Swanson.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
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Week 5 in the SEC provided what could have been the game of the year between Georgia and LSU. The nation’s No. 1 team played up to its ranking, and there were plenty of impressive performances across the league. It’s time to hand out the helmet stickers.

Aaron Murray, QB Georgia: It wasn’t long ago when Murray was labeled the quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. It’s time to throw that away. The senior finished 20-of-34 for 298 yards and five total touchdowns in Georgia’s biggest game of the year. He has always been productive -- he could soon become the SEC’s most productive quarterback of all time -- but add the clutch factor and there’s no reason not to think he’s a top contender for the Heisman this year. The Bulldogs control their own destiny in the SEC East, and Murray and company would love nothing more than a chance to avenge last year’s loss to Alabama in the conference championship. They have to get through Florida first.

Zach Mettenberger, QB LSU: It doesn’t matter how well somebody plays, there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser. Unfortunately for Mettenberger, he finished on the losing side Saturday, but the former Georgia quarterback played admirably against his former team. He finished 23-of-37 for 372 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Down the stretch, he made clutch throw after clutch throw to keep the Tigers in the game. LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry had close to 300 yards receiving between them, but it starts with Mettenberger. He had a terrific homecoming but came up just short.

The Alabama secondary: Before the game, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said he thought they could score on anybody. Evidently not Alabama. The No. 1 team in the nation shut out the Rebels, 25-0. Wallace singled out the Crimson Tide cornerbacks, saying they weren’t exactly first-rounders, but Deion Belue and Eddie Jackson stepped up on Saturday. Jackson, a true freshman, was especially impressive locking up Wallace’s favorite target Donte Moncrief for most of the game. He also came down with the Tide’s lone interception. As a whole, the UA secondary held Ole Miss to just 159 yards through the air.

Mike Davis, RB South Carolina: At halftime, it didn’t look good for South Carolina. The Gamecocks trailed Central Florida, 10-0, and quarterback Connor Shaw was lost for the game with a shoulder injury. But Davis didn’t care. He put his team on his back and carried it to victory. It started with a 53-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter, the first points of the game for the Gamecocks. He scored twice more in the fourth quarter to extend the lead and put the game away. The sophomore back finished with 26 carries for 167 yards and three touchdowns as South Carolina survived a difficult road test.

The Texas A&M offensive line: Johnny Manziel gets most of the credit for Texas A&M’s high-powered offense, but it was the offensive line that absolutely dominated Arkansas up front on Saturday. The Aggies rushed for 262 yards against the Razorbacks, averaging six yards per carry. No one player reached 100 yards rushing, but Trey Williams and Tra Carson played well down the stretch, and starting running back Ben Malena scored twice. Manziel still finished with 261 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another 59 yards on the ground, but it all started with the offensive line.

SEC lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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We're a little closer to game day in the SEC. With several notable conference matchups on tap, here's look at some of the storylines, news and notes from around the league:
It’s Rankings Week at TideNation. Every day we’ll rank some facet of the Alabama football program heading in 2013. Today we’re ranking the top 10 offensive players the Tide will face this season. On Wednesday we’ll rank the top 10 defensive players Alabama will face in the fall.

Ranking the offensive players

1. QB Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M): Alabama hasn't faced a Heisman Trophy winner since Tim Tebow starred at quarterback for the Florida Gators. And while UA didn't come out on top of the first meeting with Tebow in the SEC Championship, it did in the second. Alabama fans are hoping for similar results after a heartbreaking defeat to Manziel and the Aggies last season. Stopping an athlete with his unique skill set and ability to make plays out of nothing won't be an easy task, though.

2. RB LaDarius Perkins (Mississippi State): He did so largely under the radar, but Perkins was second in the SEC in all-purpose yards and out-rushed every running back in the SEC West not wearing crimson last season, tallying 1,016 yards on 205 attempts. With All-SEC offensive guard Gabe Jackson leading the way, he should be in for a banner senior year.

3. QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech): Thomas has been up and down in his career under center, but no one doubts the senior's arm strength and athleticism. He threw for just as many yards as AJ McCarron did last season (2,976), despite playing in one fewer game. And he finished 18th in the ACC in rushing with 524 yards. His ability to stretch the defense vertically through the air and horizontally with his feet will give Alabama headaches.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAt 6-foot-5, Aggies receiver Mike Evans can dominate opposing defensive backs. Having Johnny Manziel as a triggerman helps, too.
4. WR Mike Evans (Texas A&M): With an entire offseason to prepare for Manziel, rest assured that the Alabama coaching staff has been busy devising ways to keep the fleet-footed quarterback stationary this time around. That means Manziel will have to use his arm to beat the Tide, and he'll have a good target to throw to in the 6-foot-5 Evans, who finished third in the league with 1,105 yards receiving.

5. QB Bo Wallace and RB Jeff Scott (Ole Miss): When they're executing the read-option and pushing the tempo, Wallace and Scott are hard to stop. Neither is what you'd call an NFL talent, but together they can keep a defense on its heels, as they did against Alabama last season. If they get going downhill and can convert on third downs, it will mean trouble for UA.

6. RB Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue (LSU): Alabama's duo of tailbacks has commanded the lion's share of attention in recent years, but LSU has quietly perfected its rotation of ball-carriers as well. And Hill and Blue should be respected as they're both prototypical NFL backs in terms of size and speed. Hill averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and Blue had two 100-yard performances in his first three games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.

7. WR Odell Beckham (LSU): He was a steady playmaker last season when he caught 43 passes for 713 yards, but he hasn't been much of a threat to score, settling for four touchdowns in his career. With new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in place and Zach Mettenberger a year wiser, Beckham could see his role expand as the Tigers look to inject some explosiveness into the passing game.

8. OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M): More than weapons in the passing and running game, someone will need to protect Manziel from opposing defenses. Matthews is as capable an offensive tackle as you'll find in the SEC. If Alabama hopes to get its revenge against Texas A&M, it will have to find a way to get around Matthews and the Aggies offensive line.

9. RB Dennis Johnson (Arkansas): Bret Beilema leaned heavily on his running game at Wisconsin the past two seasons, handing his former running back Montee Ball the ball 663 times over that time. Now at Arkansas, Beliema will likely look to do the same with Johnson, who led the Razorbacks with 757 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

10. HC Gus Malzahn (Auburn): Malzahn turned Chris Todd into a respectable quarterback, morphed Michael Dyer into an All-SEC performer and helped Cam Newton to one of the best single seasons in college football history. Auburn's new head coach has a knack for getting the most out of his players and we'll likely see a few surprises for the Tigers this season, whether it's running back Tre Mason, quarterback Jonathan Wallace or an unknown commodity like wide receiver Ricardo Louis.

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