Alabama Crimson Tide: Amari Cooper

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

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
The past two NFL drafts have come and gone without a running back being selected in the first round, which had never happened in the common draft era, which dates to the NFL-AFL merger in 1967.

Teams are waiting until later in the draft to get their running backs, or maybe there simply haven't been any running backs special enough the past two years for a team to feel like it warranted using a first-round pick.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/John RaouxGeorgia RB Todd Gurley has 33 touchdowns in two seasons.
Nonetheless, the fans on the SEC blog have made their choice for next year, and Georgia running back Todd Gurley has been tabbed as the SEC's top pick in the 2015 draft. With more than 8,400 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Gurley received 32 percent of the vote.

Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was a close second with 28 percent of the vote. It's getting to the point that we can't have a draft without a Texas A&M offensive tackle going in the first round. Ogbuehi is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Jake Matthews, who was the sixth overall pick this year. Matthews made the same move a year ago to take over for Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

Alabama receiver Amari Cooper finished third in the poll with 17 percent of the vote followed by Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. with 15 percent and Alabama safety Landon Collins with 8 percent.

Cooper, if he stays healthy, could easily shoot up into top-10 status, especially if he flashes the same kind of production he did as a true freshman. He will be working with a new quarterback, though, as Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is expected to win the job.

The big question with Gurley also is injuries. He was banged up for much of last season. But his size and breakaway speed make him the kind of back NFL teams are looking for.

It's worth noting, though, that LSU's Jeremy Hill has that same kind of size and also showed the ability to break long runs in college and didn't go until the 23rd pick of the second round this year. So we'll just have to see.

Much like Cooper, Gurley was a force as a true freshman. For both players, this is their "money" season.
In the last two NFL drafts, the SEC has produced a staggering 23 first-round selections. This past draft, 10 of the first 23 picks were SEC players.

Already, we're seeing mock drafts for 2015, and the SEC is sure to be well represented again.

SportsNation

Who will be the SEC's highest draft pick in 2015?

  •  
    8%
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    16%
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    16%
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    32%
  •  
    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,203)

Who will be the top SEC player selected next year?

That's your job, so go vote in our SportsNation poll and tell us who will emerge in 2015 as the SEC's highest-drafted player.

That can be a tricky assignment at this point in the year and with so much that can happen between now and the next draft. Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was thought to be one of the SEC's marquee draft prospects heading into last season and didn't even go in the first round. By contrast, did anybody have Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson going with the No. 2 overall pick this time a year ago? I'm not even sure that thought crept into Robinson's mind last May.

The five candidates we've come up with all made Todd McShay's first mock draft for 2015, and I'm sure there are a handful of players we didn't consider putting on this list who will emerge as legitimate first-round picks.

The five we went with are all poised to have huge 2014 seasons.

Two of them are from Alabama -- safety Landon Collins and receiver Amari Cooper. If Collins does indeed go in the first round, that would mark the fifth time in the last six years that an Alabama defensive back will have gone in the first round. Cooper was slowed by injuries a year ago, but here's betting he returns to his freshman form that made him one of the most dangerous receivers in college football.

If healthy, Georgia's Todd Gurley is the total package at running back, even if running backs don't seem to be going in the first round a whole lot anymore.

Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi has a chance to be the third straight top-10 pick at offensive tackle for the Aggies, while Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. returns as one of the top big-play defensive threats in the league.

Go cast your vote, and we'll go over the results in the coming days.
The 2014 NFL draft is over, and the SEC made quit the impression with a nation-leading 49 draft picks.

But that was the past. It's time to look into the future, and NFL draft guru Todd McShay has us covered, even though he's due for a long vacation.

On Wednesday, McShay debuted his first 2015 mock draft Insider. These are never perfect, but that doesn't make them any less fun to look at. And the SEC is yet again well represented in McShay's first mock draft with 10 players, including four in the top 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTodd McShay doesn't expect Amari Cooper to be available for very long in the 2015 NFL draft.
USC junior defensive end Leonard Williams is projected to go first overall to the Oakland Raiders, while the highest pick from the SEC is Alabama junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is projected to go No. 2 to the Cleveland Browns. I guess Johnny Manziel won't make that much of an impact with the Browns this year.

McShay then has Texas A&M junior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi going third to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida junior defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. going fourth to the Washington Redskins and Alabama junior safety Landon Collins going 10th to the Browns.

The biggest surprise to me was the fact that McShay had Missouri defensive end/linebacker Shane Ray going 31st overall to the New Orleans Saints. Ray is certainly someone flirting with breakout status this season after collecting 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2013, but what makes him such an intriguing prospect is that he has a ton of speed and athleticism on top of that 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame. He was second on the team last season with 11 quarterback hurries.

Ray should have a lot of fun coming off the edge with fellow end Markus Golden, who could have easily left for the NFL this season. Golden is more of a name right now after registering 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, but Ray has a chance to be a really special player.

Who are some other guys who could help their draft cause this fall? Well, ESPN Insider KC Joyner listed his five players poised for big seasons in 2014 Insider, and Auburn's Corey Grant and D'haquille Williams made the cut.

Grant rushed for more than 600 yards last year and had six touchdowns as one of Tre Mason's backups. Now the starting running back spot is up for grabs, and Grant has every chance to take it while competing with Cameron Artis-Payne, who also rushed for 600-plus yards and six touchdowns last season.

As for Williams, the junior college transfer has yet to play a down at this level, but his new coaches see something very special in him. Co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig went as far to say this spring that Williams could have a Jameis Winston-like impact on Auburn's offense at receiver. Will he direct the Tigers to another national championship run? Not sure, but he could be a real spark for Auburn's passing game this fall.
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.
It’s never too early to look ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is over. It’s dead to us already. On to 2015.

The SEC had the first pick (Jadeveon Clowney), the most intriguing pick (Johnny Manziel), the most talked-about pick (AJ McCarron) and the most historically significant pick (Michael Sam) in the entire draft this year. The league even had the most overall picks with 49.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper could be a coveted WR for the 2015 NFL draft.
What will it do for an encore in 2015? While it’s hard to imagine SEC players dominating headlines in quite the same way, the league will undoubtably have a strong contingent of players drafted.

With that in mind, the SEC Blog decided to project next year’s top 20 NFL draft prospects. Edward Aschoff picked his 10 from the East earlier. Now it’s time for 10 from the West to keep an eye on, in alphabetical order:

  • La’el Collins, OL, LSU: Collins very well could have skipped school, entered the draft and been taken anywhere from the second to fourth round. But he chose to return to school, which could pay huge dividends if he improves his pass blocking. Already a known road-grader in the running game, he’ll benefit from the versatility to play either guard or tackle.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: He’ll make plays in the passing game. He’ll make plays at the line of scrimmage. And just in case you want an immediate return, he’ll make plays in special teams. The former five-star prospect showed his all-around game this past season with 70 tackles, eight passes defended, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. With a big junior season, his stock could soar.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He is silky smooth on the football field. But don’t let that fool you; he’s got all the moves. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can run in the 4.3-second range. He can go get the ball in traffic and has come up big in clutch situations. With his nifty footwork, he’ll remind some of Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
  • Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: A third-round grade from the NFL draft board wasn’t enough to get Flowers to leave school early. After racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, he returns to Fayetteville with the opportunity to improve upon those numbers. Strong, quick and well-built at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he could turn heads in 2014.
  • C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: This one might come as a bit of a surprise after he missed more than half of last season to an injury. But the NFL clearly loves pass rushers (23 defensive ends were drafted this year), and Johnson is one of the best in the SEC. He has that quick first step scouts covet. If he can show he’s athletic enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, he could make himself attractive to several NFL teams.
  • Bernardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: The tape doesn't lie. McKinney has been a tackling machine for two years now. He could have entered this year’s draft, but stayed. If Mississippi State makes a run this year, he’ll get noticed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can run in the 4.6 range, which will catch scouts’ eyes.
  • Jalen Mills, DB, LSU: You just know the Tigers are going to produce an NFL defensive back, and Mills has all the tools to develop into that guy. The former Freshman All-American has played both cornerback and safety, which will help him at the next level.
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M: It will look familiar -- another Aggies offensive lineman going in the first round of the NFL draft, and Ogbuehi has all the tools to do it. He has played guard and right tackle already, but this year will star at the big-money position of left tackle.
  • Gabe Wright, DL, Auburn: It’s easy to forget that Wright was once a top-30 prospect in the country. Playing in the interior of the defensive line can get you lost. But with a big season, we could see Wright catch the attention of scouts and make a Dee Ford-like rise up draft boards.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: It’s not a good time to be a running back coming out of college. And leaving early seems strange, but after all the carries Yeldon has racked up and the pressure behind him on the depth chart, it might be time to leave. He might not have great top-end speed, but scouts will love his vision, blocking and general all-around game.

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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper wasn’t himself for much of last season.

An injury to his foot robbed him of games against Colorado State and Georgia State, and even then, it needed longer to heal. He wasn’t near 100 percent until halfway through the season. And by that point, the dubious question of whether we were witnessing a sophomore slump was unavoidable. The same receiver who burst onto the scene in 2012, earning SEC All-Freshman and freshman All-American honors, was a shell of himself. He couldn’t get off the line quickly and, to make matters worse, he was dropping the passes that were thrown his way.

The former four-star prospect from South Florida who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman saw his numbers slip to 45 receptions, 736 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. The number of times he was targeted didn’t drop off significantly -- from 77 to 74 -- but his receptions for first downs fell by 31 percent and his number of catches for 20 yards or more was cut nearly in half, down from 19 to 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a foot injury limited his productivity in 2013, Amari Cooper expects to bounce back this fall.
Cooper may not know those numbers off the top of his head, but he should remember the frustration he felt last season. “Not being able to play to your fullest potential when you know you can go out there and dominate,” as he described it, ate at him. Only over the final few games did we see the Amari Cooper we were used to seeing. During that stretch, he caught 15 passes for 299 yards, including a 99-yard breakaway touchdown against Auburn. His speed was back on full display and so were his feet. Without pain, he could be elusive once again. He could finally cut and dance away from defenders like he did as a freshman.

The hope for Alabama’s coaches and quarterbacks is that Cooper’s strong finish will serve as a springboard into a junior campaign that will help return him to the conversation of the SEC’s elite receivers.

“Amari's really played outstanding football here for us for two years,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player. He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year, I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.”

Cooper, by all accounts, is back to his old self. He said he's added five to six pounds during the offseason conditioning program and worked on his speed. At Alabama’s pro day earlier this month, he ran the 40-yard dash for scouts and came in at a jaw-dropping 4.31 seconds on one of three times he received. The other two stopwatches weren’t that far off at 4.35 and 4.38 seconds, he said.

“It’s all about technique in the 40,” he explained. “I’m trying to get faster, and I guess you guys will see whenever I decide to come out [for the NFL].”

If he has another 50-plus reception and double-digit touchdown season this fall, he could turn pro sooner than later. The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is deep, but next year’s doesn’t figure to be quite as challenging.

But for now, the focus is on putting together a strong junior season, starting with a strong spring. With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback, there’s a lot to adjust to. What Cooper has seen from Lane Kiffin’s time at USC has him excited, though.

“We look at it for concepts we need to learn for our offense here, and we know what those guys did for him at USC at the wide receiver position,” he said, noting how Kiffin has a simpler and more player-friendly way of coaching the offense.

Said Saban: “Obviously [Cooper is] a guy [who] we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs we have and the receivers we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year.”

That said, someone will have to distribute and deliver the football. Alabama has five quarterbacks competing for the starting job now, and that crowded backfield will grow by one when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May.

Cooper admitted that not having AJ McCarron to throw him the football is different, but he’s not showing the slightest sign of concern.

“It’s like when I came in. AJ was a new quarterback to me,” he said. “It’s the same thing with these guys. We’ve been working on timing since before spring practice started.

“We tried to get together almost every day to work on our timing.”

If Cooper can stay healthy and return to his 2012 form, he’ll be a benefit to whomever starts under center for Alabama.

He’s already shown he can dominate with what he’s done in the past. Whether you choose to call his sophomore season a full-on slump or a minor setback, there’s plenty of room for him to get better as a junior. With those feet, those hands and that speed, he could easily rise to the top of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the entire country.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Three practices into spring camp, it’s been all Lane Kiffin all the time. Love him or hate him, the man moves the needle. And even though he can’t speak to the media in his new role as offensive coordinator at Alabama, he seems to be all anyone in Tuscaloosa can talk about.

The visor! My goodness, the visor!

[+] EnlargeKiffin
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsLane Kiffin brings his visor and offensive acumen, along with some baggage, with him to Alabama.
As far as career arcs go, Kiffin’s has been interesting, erratic and downright inexplicable. He rose through the ranks almost as quickly as he fell out of them. When he finally hit rock bottom at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was called off the USC team bus and fired, an unlikely hand was there to catch him. Nick Saban, who shares an agent with Kiffin and coached against him during his brief stint as head coach at Tennessee, threw the 38-year-old a lifeline few expected, offering him a chance to rebuild his reputation at Alabama.

First he was hired. Then he sang karaoke. And now, mercifully, he’s doing the simple job of coaching football.

The Kiffin melodrama has finally taken the important turn from speculation into substance. The talk is still ongoing -- depending on who you ask, he’s either going to bring Alabama’s offense into the 21st century or send it back to the stone age -- but now at least he’s moving around on the practice field, leading an offense that lacks a starting quarterback but is loaded with talent. He’s still wearing his visor, it just has a different shade of red.

So far, players seem to be buying in to Kiffin’s coaching style. Standout receiver Amari Cooper said Kiffin has made the offense more simple and “player-friendly.” The way he calls plays, Cooper explained, makes it easier to know what you’re supposed to do.

But what’s he like underneath that visor? Has he sang to you in any of your meetings yet?

“Pretty cool guy. Pretty laid back guy,” Cooper said of his initial impression of Kiffin. “He pays attention to everything -- every little thing. I noticed that about him when we were practicing for the bowl game.”

Astute college football fans will remember the first taste of Kiffin in Tuscaloosa came back in December when Saban brought him in to help evaluate the offense during bowl practice. It caused a minor uproar, to which Saban said he “couldn’t believe there’s any reaction to it.” A month later Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan, and Kiffin took his office and his title.

Brian Vogler, who started every game at tight end last season for the Crimson Tide, had to get used to seeing Kiffin on the field directing the offense. The senior had seen him plenty on television, but having him there in person was altogether different.

“People know who he is. He's very high profile,” Vogler said. “Seeing him over there, I think it’s great, honestly.”

Vogler credited Kiffin with being more hands-on and player-friendly, just like Cooper did. How the offense will change remains to be seen, though. On the one hand, Vogler said he expected it to be “a little bit more dynamic,” but at the same time he thought things would stay fairly similar to years' past.

“It’s Saban’s, so it’s going to be the same offense,” he said.

Each new coordinator brings his own set of wrinkles, certainly, but Vogler’s observation isn’t far off from what former coaches and players told ESPN a year ago.

Will Kiffin incorporate a more up-tempo attack? Maybe, maybe not.

“We’re a team that’s made to be maulers,” Vogler said. “Guys are just going to be really physical with you, hit you from every aspect of the game and hit you in every direction. I just don't know if that's really our style of being speedy and trying to be elusive around everybody and dodge people like other schools do."

For now, Saban is mostly noncommittal about what changes Kiffin will bring to the offense. He would, however, like to see him get the ball to guys such as Cooper more often.

“Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball into the playmakers' hands,” he said.

Expectations might be under control within the Alabama bubble, but outside they’re not so reasoned. Kiffin isn’t just any new offensive coordinator. He’s still the guy who ruffled the feathers of many in the SEC and didn’t make a lot of friends during his time at USC. He’s stepped into a much different role now where he won’t make headlines with what he says, but he still has all eyes on him.

If you’re an Alabama fan, you’re watching for the spark of greatness that afforded him so many jobs in the past. If you’re not wearing crimson, you’re watching to see if he'll self-destruct as he has before.

But chances are that whoever you are, you’re watching. A lot of people are tuned in to see whether the marriage of Kiffin and Saban will work. It’s become must-see TV.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban said his team “lost respect for winning” last season.

Trey DePriest said players “lost sight of the small things.”

Amari Cooper, agreed, adding that his teammates “didn’t connect with each other” like they needed to.

There are plenty of reasons why Alabama went from unquestioned No. 1 in the polls to a two-loss disappointment last season. Everyone remembers the last-second loss at Auburn and the backbreaking defeat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but do they remember the fumbles, missed opportunities and general malaise that came before it? Do they recall how poor the offense was against Virginia Tech, how terrible the defense was against Texas A&M? What about the goal-line fumble that kept LSU from going up 4 points at halftime or how a sub-.500 Mississippi State team played Alabama close for the better part of four quarters?

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsBama LB Trey DePriest says complacency won't be an issue for the Crimson Tide this season.
Whatever plagued Alabama can be best summed up in one catch-all word: complacency.

We hadn’t heard that one around Tuscaloosa in a while before the new year. For weeks and weeks heading into the Sugar Bowl the narrative was how complacency wasn’t an issue. Alabama wasn’t taking Oklahoma lightly, Saban and his players explained. It wasn't the national championship, but they were eager to show they were championship-caliber still, they insisted. Then came the two-touchdown loss in which Alabama gave up 45 points and 429 yards of offense.

And, then, talk of complacency.

It became the narrative of the offseason. It wasn’t that Alabama wasn’t good enough last season -- looking at the stacked roster, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t -- it’s that the players were somehow not focused enough. They didn’t want to win as much as they should have. They weren’t ready to fight for it like they had in years past.

Back-to-back national championships led Saban to say that, “I think sometimes players can get a little complacent and lose their respect for winning, and what it takes to be their best. … Sometimes you need a few setbacks to straighten you out.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar story to what we heard following the 2010 season when Alabama lost three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. With a chip planted firmly on its shoulder and complacency solidly in its past, the Crimson Tide went out and won a national championship in 2011.

DePriest was a true freshman playing primarily on special teams that season. Now he’s the most veteran player on defense, a senior taking over C.J. Mosley's role as the vocal leader at inside linebacker. He’s someone that everyone should “look up to,” according to Saban.

Complacency, DePriest said, won’t be an excuse this spring. Not from what he’s seen.

Usually when Alabama players gathers for the Fourth Quarter Program, strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s grueling series of workouts, there are more than a few who aren’t altogether excited for the challenge. Going from the couch to the weight room isn’t an easy transition, especially when it comes only weeks after the season ends.

But this year was different.

“Stepping into that Fourth Quarter Program, it’s usually like, ‘Aww, man, it’s the Fourth Quarter and we’ve got to run,’” DePriest said prior to practice on Monday. “But guys were actually excited to go out there and run and see if they can push themselves to the limit.

“That’s another thing I’ve seen, that guys are pushing themselves to the limit and not just letting their mind control their body. They were pushing and actually telling themselves that they can do it.”

If players weren’t complacent in the face of a screaming Scott Cochran, that’s a good sign. But it’s only the first sign. Monday marked practice No. 2 of 15 this spring, and then after A-Day there’s three more months of downtime to deal with. If players don’t motivate themselves then, look for it to show up late in the summer when preseason camp begins. And then the competition really begins and players either step up and separate themselves or fall behind.

After losing two games and falling into bad habits last season, Alabama can’t afford to lose a step. Defending SEC champ Auburn isn’t going anywhere, LSU is loaded with talented players, and Texas A&M promises to continue its upward trajectory without Johnny Manziel. And that’s just half of the SEC West.

Whether or not this spring’s attitude holds, one thing is certain: Complacency is not an option in 2014. Everyone is saying that right things so far, but only time will tell if words translate into action.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 17, 2014
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Yes, it's that time of year where the talk is centered on the hardwood and brackets, but don't forget, spring football and pro days are in full swing, so there is still much to talk about on the gridiron. A sampling of news, notes and nuggets from around the SEC today:

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite some new faces at Alabama, Nick Saban is a creature of habit whose goals remain the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.

And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.

A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.

Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.

“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.

He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.

Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.

“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.

Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.

“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”

Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesExpect the Crimson Tide's QB competition to heat up in May when Jacob Coker arrives.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”

As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”

But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.

The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”

If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open spring practice on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All practices are closed and only the A-Day scrimmage at 2 p.m. ET on April 19 will be open to the public.

What’s new: The coaching staff has gone under some serious reconstruction. In fact, it looks a lot like Nick Saban’s staffs of old with Kevin Steele as the linebackers coach and Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved back to coaching the secondary to allow for Steele’s return. And let’s not forget the one new face on the staff, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. You might have heard of him.

On the move: When Saban last spoke to the media a week ago, he said there was “no news on who’s playing what position and who the quarterback is.” But there will be movement. Look for some tweaking in the defensive backfield this spring. Much like last year,when Saban asked offensive players Dee Hart, Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to try their hand at cornerback, he might ask someone like ArDarius Stewart to see if a return to defense is in order. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback and the departure of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, the coaching staff might need to plug some holes in the secondary with some surprise players.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Pettway
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Pettway is back and will attempt to earn a shot at playing time at Alabama.
On the mend: One of those defensive backs coming back is Nick Perry. The safety started four games in 2012 and appeared in two more games in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Though he might not be the most talented option at the position, he’s clearly the most experienced, with 30 games under his belt. And that counts for something with Saban, who needs to trust whoever starts opposite Landon Collins.

New faces: Aside from the handful of early enrollees fresh out of high school, there are four junior college transfers to watch, including the return of former Alabama defensive end D.J. Pettway. There’s also tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, who was at Georgia once upon a time and could add to the passing game behind O.J. Howard; defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who could help plug the middle at 315 pounds; and offensive tackle Dominick Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 1 player at his position and could challenge to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.

Question marks: We’ve detailed the problems in the secondary and hinted at the battle at left tackle, leaving a major unanswered question as to who replaces C.J. Mosley on defense. The former All-American linebacker was the heart and soul of the unit. We know Trey DePriest wants to take on the role, but is he ready? And who will play alongside him at inside linebacker? Reuben Foster was an immensely talented linebacker coming out of high school -- with a dramatic recruitment, no less -- but he played mostly on special teams as a freshman. He’ll have a lot of competition for playing time, with Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland hoping to emerge.

Key battle: Unfortunately, this one won’t be solved until the fall. But that makes the battle no less important. Alabama needs to find a starting quarterback to replace AJ McCarron, and until that’s resolved, it’s priority No. 1. Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer, won’t arrive on campus until May. So that leaves a bevy of unproven options under center. Blake Sims will get his shot after backing up McCarron last year, but it remains to be seen how the run-first athlete will do as a pocket passer. Beyond Sims, there’s rising sophomore Alec Morris and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. If one stands out this spring, he’ll surely have the upper hand come fall and could challenge the presumed frontrunner, Coker.

Breaking out: It was a process started at the Sugar Bowl that many Alabama fans hope will continue right on into his sophomore season. Derrick Henry didn’t do much during the regular season, carrying the ball a total of 28 times. But all you’ll remember is the bowl game and his eight carries and one reception against Oklahoma, accounting for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He’s big (try 6-3 and 238 pounds) and he’s deceptively fast. With dreadlocks that stick out from under his helmet, picture a stretched out Trent Richardson. After losing a large chunk of practice last spring to a broken leg, he’ll have the benefit of a full offseason to climb the depth chart and nip at the heels of incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon.

Don’t forget about: Don’t sleep on Yeldon. He’s pretty darn good, with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career. But don’t forget Alabama’s depth at wide receiver. Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of receivers to throw to. Amari Cooper, who is among the best in the SEC when healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg. DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are two veteran pieces, and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be one of the disruptive offensive weapons in the league if he reaches his potential. Given the way Alabama has recruited of late, look for one or two blue-chip prospects to emerge. Chris Black has been waiting patiently, and Robert Foster seems poised to step up with a year of experience under his belt.

All eyes on: There’s going to be a quarterback competition, position battles and several new players will emerge. But keep an eye on Alabama’s attitude. Saban’s dynasty in Tuscaloosa was shaken but not entirely derailed last season. Losing the final two games, to Auburn and Oklahoma, in such unspectacular fashion hurts. The question is how Alabama will respond. It worked out well after the 2010 season, but this isn’t the same team. There are quite a few leaders in need of replacing, and there might be something to McCarron’s criticism that a five-star sense of entitlement crept into the program. Righting the ship won’t be easy for Saban and his staff, but he will have the luxury of putting a gigantic chip on his players’ shoulders this offseason. How they respond is up to them.

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Drive Through: SEC Preview
In the spirit of the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys, Cary Chow and Heather Dinich hand out some preseason awards of their own for the SEC.
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