Alabama Crimson Tide: Tony Conner

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.

Who to watch in the SEC bowl games

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:45
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Now that we’ve opened all of our Christmas presents and spent some quality time with family, it’s full speed ahead to the bowl games.

We know who the stars are in the SEC. But here’s a checklist of guys to watch in the bowl games who aren’t the usual suspects and aren’t necessarily household names ... yet.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: The Tigers make their living running the ball, but Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions. Auburn is going to need some big plays in the passing game to take down Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil got most of the pub this season among the Ole Miss freshmen, but Conner is a big-time player in his own right and will play a huge role in the Rebels’ defensive efforts against Georgia Tech’s option offense.

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Even though he played behind All-American Michael Sam, Golden was hard to miss this season after making the move from linebacker to end. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6 1/2 sacks, and will be looking to make amends (similar to the entire Missouri defense) after the way the Tigers were shredded in the SEC championship game.

Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for one of the most promising freshman defensive linemen in the country, keep your eyes on Jones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He’s freakishly big, athletic and disruptive.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: Recently elected as one of Alabama’s permanent team captains, Norwood is as steady as they come. All he does is make big catches on big stages. In other words, look for him to come up big against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Patton Robinette, QB, Vanderbilt: It’s Robinette’s show now that Austyn Carta-Samuels is recovering from ACL surgery. Robinette had the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee on the fake jump pass. He has the smarts and tools to be an excellent quarterback in this league, and leading the Commodores to a ninth win (for the second year in a row) would be a perfect way to head into what will be critical offseason for Robinette.

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina: With Damiere Byrd out for the Capital One Bowl with a knee injury, Roland becomes an even bigger part of the Gamecocks’ passing game. He has gobs of talent, and after a slow start to the season he began to play up to his talent level down the stretch.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
5:31
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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

Planning for success: Alabama

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
8:00
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to turn the page, if you haven't done so already. No. 1 Alabama had its cupcake game against Colorado State last weekend, but now comes the main course with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama knows they have to play better against Ole Miss on Saturday than they did against Colorado State last week.
After the way Alabama played against Colorado State, this team needed a talking to. The defense had too many missed assignments and the offensive line did a poor job of communicating. All around, it wasn't a pretty effort. And veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley recognized that, stepping up to talk to his teammates after the game in an effort to make sure the Tide's championship aspirations don't fall by the wayside. The little things that Alabama did so poorly against Colorado State, Mosley told his team, will get them beat, and beat badly by a team like Ole Miss.

Should Alabama play its game -- sound, fundamental football -- it should win. But there are serious questions about the play of the offensive line and the secondary. If either of those two areas do doesn't get turned around, Ole Miss could expose Alabama, whether it’s by forcing turnovers on defense or throwing the ball deep for big gains.

The Rebels will win if …

Meanwhile, Ole Miss comes into this game riding high, undefeated with something to prove. Year 2 of the Hugh Freeze experiment has been better than advertised with big wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. The Rebels have had immediate dividends on its spectacular 2013 signing class. True freshmen Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner are all contributing.

But this team has yet to face anyone like Alabama. Going on the road in a tough environment in Tuscaloosa could either make or break Freeze's young squad. That said, Ole Miss does have some veterans to rely on in quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and wideout Donte Moncrief. And that's just on the offensive side of the football. Much of the same nucleus that gave UA trouble at home a year ago returns to see if it can't learn its lesson and pull off the upset this time.

Ole Miss players to watch

QB Bo Wallace: Much of the talk about his offseason shoulder injury has been put to bed. Wallace, the orchestrator of Ole Miss' up-tempo attack, has looked good throwing the football, spreading it out to all of his receivers, especially his freshman tight end Evan Ingram, who is a nightmare matchup when he's split out.

S Tony Conner: Ole Miss has one glaring deficiency, and that's at cornerback where its starters come in at 5-foot-8 and 5-9, respectively. Alabama's wide receivers aren't giants, but they're bigger than that. Amari Cooper is much taller at 6-1 and true freshman Raheem Falkins would tower over them at 6-4. Instead, look for Ole Miss to pull down the 6-1 Conner from his safety position to get a better size matchup.

LB Denzel Nkemdiche: He says he'll play but his coach isn't committing to anything. Denzel Nkemdiche, older brother of Robert, injured his knee in the season opener and has been pushing to see the field against Alabama. Freeze, though, is taking it day by day. But you have believe Nkemdiche, who was the heart of Ole Miss' defense a year ago with a team-leading 82 tackles. He had a big game against the Tide a year ago, making 11 tackles, a sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Alabama players to watch

CB Deion Belue: It seems as if Alabama's best on-ball defender will be ready to go, but after sitting out last week's game with a nagging injury, you never know. Should he be sidelined, the secondary will be in big trouble. And even if he isn't, either John Fulton, Cyrus Jones or some other defensive back must step up to match Ole Miss' ability to spread the field, especially in the slot with Treadwell, who leads the Rebels in catches and receiving yards.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama's leading sack getter a season ago has been conspicuously quiet since skipping the NFL to return to school. Adrian Hubbard, the lanky pass rusher at Sam linebacker, has no sacks and just two tackles for loss this season. Against Ole Miss' spread, his ability to hold the edge and pressure the pocket will be huge.

O-line: Week 1 meant panic. Week 2 was relief. And Week 3 was a giant step back. It looked as if Alabama's offensive line has solved its problems against Texas A&M two weeks ago, moving the line of scrimmage almost at will, but against CSU this past weekend the sloppy play returned. Poor communication and bad technique are to blame, so say players, but however you define it 66 yards rushing, the number Alabama got against the lowly Rams, will not be enough against an SEC foe like Ole Miss.

Key Stats

3: Sometimes we go really in depth in the stats department, but we'll keep this number simple. Ole Miss shot itself in the foot last year with three turnovers, two from Wallace. The veteran quarterback led the league in interceptions last season (17) but he seems to have turned it around this year with zero picks through three games.

33.3: A year ago, Alabama had little trouble moving the football and converting on third downs. Not so this season as the Tide has slipped to 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage, moving the sticks one every three attempts, on average.

8: Alabama has owned the first half of games, outscoring teams 73-24. Those leads, though, have been harder to come by in the second half where that scoring differential slips to just eight points.

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