Auburn Tigers: Ole Miss Rebels

HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to the impact he had on people based on the Twitter response. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
12:00
PM ET
Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to see the impact he had on people based on the response on Twitter and elsewhere. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.
Can you believe it? We're already into the final month of the SEC regular season.

If you're just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we've been to some of the usual spots (Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa), and a few outside of the SEC footprint in locales such as Houston and Oklahoma.

We've knocked out nine weeks of trips in all, which means we've got only five more to go. The conference title game in Atlanta is right around the corner.

So without further pause, let's take a look at the best options for Week 10:

Nov. 1
Arkansas at Mississippi State
Auburn at Ole Miss
Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
Kentucky at Missouri
Tennessee at South Carolina
Louisiana-Monroe at Texas A&M
Old Dominion at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough's pick: Georgia vs. Florida

Man, it sure was tough passing up those high-profile nonconference games featuring Old Dominion and Louisiana-Monroe.

(Pardon me while I try not refer to the Warhawks as being from La-Monroe. Apparently they don't care for the abbreviation.)

Yes, we're steadily seeing better out-of-conference scheduling. Georgia's agreement to play Notre Dame is a huge step in the right direction. Even though Mississippi State-Arizona won't happen until the polar ice caps finally melt, it's a welcomed sight. But the league's athletic directors and head coaches are nothing if not calculated, which means that the late cupcake nonconference games we'll see this November aren't going away. Teams will risk tough games early in the season, but never late. It's all about protecting your standing in the College Football Playoff.

Oh well.

I'll step off my soapbox at some point and hopefully find myself in Jacksonville on Nov. 1 for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Or whatever they want to call it these days.

If you care about SEC football, this is a game you have to get to at least once in your life. Most neutral site games lack that certain festive college atmosphere, but this one is different. Huge crowds show up and there's plenty of tailgating. The pregame atmosphere definitely lives up to the series nickname.

Then there's the game itself -- and it's seemingly mandatory instances of trash talk, cheap shots and excessive celebration. Who can forget Mark Richt sending his entire team on the field to celebrate Georgia's first touchdown in 2007? Brandon Spikes' attempted eye-gouge in 2009? What about Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler getting into it last year? These two teams just don't seem to care for each other.

It all makes for appointment viewing.

Greg Ostendorf's pick: Auburn at Ole Miss

Before you say anything, I know. The ultimate SEC road trip saw both Auburn and Ole Miss last week and though it would be nice to check out some different teams and venues, how do you pass up a game like this? Two teams jockeying for position in the West, two offenses engineered to go fast and put up points, and a tailgating atmosphere that will rival even the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. What's not to love?

For Ole Miss, it's not a stretch to say that this is the most important game on the schedule. We're at the point in the season where we'll already know whether the Rebels are legitimate contenders or not, but either way, this is the type of signature win they need if they want to take that next step as a program.

Auburn has already taken that step -- as evidenced by last year's run to the BCS title game-- but this game is just as important for the Tigers if they want to get back to the top. It's sandwiched in between home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M, and waiting for them on the other side are road trips to Georgia and Alabama. Let's just say they can't afford to lose this one.

For those still questioning my pick, consider seeing stars such as Nick Marshall, Laquon Treadwell and Sammie Coates running up and down the field and making plays. And don't forget about sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Carl Lawson (if healthy), the nation's top two recruits in 2013.

The rivalry pales in comparison to Florida-Georgia, but the game should be just as good if not better, and the party on the Grove will do more than hold its own.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



SEC lunch links

June, 26, 2014
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So how many of you used Jurgen Klinsmann's letter to get out of work today?

Before we get to your daily links, a moment of appreciation for Vanderbilt, the smallest school in the SEC, having finally won its first men’s title in any sport. It wasn’t quite a capacity crowd on the gridiron at Vanderbilt Stadium on Wednesday night, but about 2,000 showed up to watch their Dores win the College World Series.

Another impressive SEC winning streak is therefore still alive. This is ninth straight year that an SEC school has won a national title in football, men’s basketball or baseball.
If the SEC has plenty of one thing, it's athletes.

Every year we see running backs and wide receivers that can make one move and go the distance. They're explosive in every sense of the word. They're quick, fast and utterly elusive.

In 2013, Henry Josey and Tre Mason were home run hitters at running back. Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews routinely burned defenses deep at receiver. Heck, who can forget Johnny Manziel's big-play antics at quarterback?

But all of those playmakers have moved on. Now it's time for a new group of explosive athletes to emerge on offense in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of each team's most dangerous weapons:
  • Alabama: A talented return man, Christion Jones knows how to operate in space and break free from the defense. Amari Cooper, meanwhile, has the feet of a ballerina and can dance away from coverage just as well -- or run right by it. After experiencing a down sophomore year due to injury, he should return to his freshman form where he had 19 receptions for 20 yards or more. And don’t lose sight of Kenyan Drake while you’re at it. Even on limited carries last season he had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards.
  • Auburn: Speed is in ample supply at Auburn, from quarterback to receiver to running back. Nick Marshall’s agility and big-play ability under center speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Sammie Coates has some of the best straight-line speed you’ll find in the country. And, finally, running back Corey Grant is one of the league’s all-time burners, having reportedly clocked a sub-4.2 second 40-yard dash. He had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards last season and averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per carry.
  • Arkansas: Bret Bielema needs some help at receiver. Sure, Keon Hatcher (12.8 yards per catch) showed some promise late and the return of Demetrius Wilson from injury is reason for hope. But ultimately the real big-play ability on offense comes from the running backs. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined for 56 rushes for 10 or more yards last season -- a number that would have tied for third nationally behind Jordan Lynch (64) and Taysom Hill (60).
  • Florida: Andre Debose, when healthy, is an athlete with world-class speed. After all, he was a state track champion in high school, running the 100-meter dash in 10.68 seconds. It’s part of why he already holds the school record of four kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a record tied for tops in SEC history with Willie Gault, Felix Jones and Brandon Boykin. How's that for good company? With two major injuries hopefully now in his past, Debose is a threat to score at both receiver and in the return game.
  • Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell will be a welcome return at receiver after missing all but one game last season with a torn ACL. When he was healthy, he was able to run in the neighborhood of a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. He and Chris Conley, who led the team in receiving yards last year, can stress any secondary. That’s not to mention Justin Scott-Wesley, who was a state champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash in high school.
  • Kentucky: You should know Javess Blue's name, but chances are that many of you probably don’t. Unfortunately his work at receiver flew mostly under the radar at Kentucky in 2013. His five catches of 20-plus yards may not sound overwhelming, but you have to remember he did that without much help from his quarterbacks. Still, Blue is a burner to the tune of a 4.29 second 40-yard dash.
  • LSU: Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. will be missed. But coach Les Miles wasn’t left lacking for playmakers on offense when they went on to the NFL. Terrence Magee was quietly one of the most explosive backs in the league last season with 10 rushes for 20 or more yards. Even so, No. 1 overall recruit Leonard Fournette might overshadow him. Fournette is not just big and strong, he’s also fast. (Think of a young Adrian Peterson). And while we’re talking true freshmen, Malachi Dupre has the chance to make an immediate impact at receiver. The former five-star prospect runs in the 4.5-second 40-yard dash range, and has impressive size and a vertical to match.
  • Mississippi State: It’s a make or break year for Mississippi State’s offense. In the past coach Dan Mullen has struggled to find playmakers. Now he has three guys who can really spread out a defense. Jameon Lewis, who has the tools of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, is a great underneath receiver, and Brandon Holloway, who can play either running back or receiver, is lightning quick and deadly in space. With De’Runnya Wilson standing at 6-foot-5 with the leaping ability of a true basketball player (he's a forward for the Bulldogs, in case you didn't know), Mullen’s offense should be able to attack every level of the secondary.
  • Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel lost a lot of firepower on both sides of the ball this offseason. But even with Dorial Green-Beckham and LaDamian Washington no longer in Columbia, there are still plenty of dangerous weapons on offense. Russell Hansbrough is a talented back who had 20 rushes for 10 or more yards in 2013. Then factor in Bud Sasser (13.88 yards per play) and Marcus Murphy (17 career touchdowns four different ways: rushing, kickoff return, punt return and receiving), and the Tiger offense should be able to stretch the field just fine.
  • Ole Miss: By now you ought to know about Laquon Treadwell, who finished second only to Jordan Matthews in the SEC in total receptions last season (72). He became the first player in school history to be named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league coaches. Though he may lack elite top-end speed, he more than makes up for it with his elusiveness and ability to make yards after the catch. And don’t sleep on running back Jaylen Walton. In addition to being the team's primary kick returner, he also rushed for 523 yards last season. His 29 receptions were fourth on the team and he led all Rebs with eight total touchdowns.
  • South Carolina: Dylan Thompson may not have a lot of height at receiver, but he’s got plenty of speed. Shaq Roland is an All-SEC type of talent, if he can play with some consistency. His 18.2 yards per play last year ranked 15th nationally (minimum 25 touches). Opposite him at receiver is Damiere Byrd, who could be the fastest player in the league. His 17.3 yards per play ranked 20th nationally and an impressive 72.7 percent of his receptions went for either a first down or a touchdown.
  • Tennessee: Outside of a spectacular one-handed grab against South Carolina, Marquez North and his 13 yards per catch were somewhat lost in the shuffle last season. At 6-foot-4 and in the neighborhood of 220 pounds, he shouldn’t have the speed he does. With his size and athleticism (he won the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics 110-meter hurdles at the age of 12), he’s a threat to burn any defensive back in the SEC.
  • Texas A&M: All credit goes to Kevin Sumlin for pulling in some top-tier athletes on the recruiting trail the past two years. Trey Williams, who still has to adjust to the ins and outs of the running back position, has the speed and agility to be a breakout star this season. Meanwhile, there’s Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil to consider. They’ll wow you in different ways -- Noil is all moves and agility and speed, while Seals-Jones is pure height and jumping ability -- but both are threats to score from anywhere on the field.
  • Vanderbilt: The first sentence of Brian Kimbrow’s high school scouting report by ESPN says it all: “Kimbrow may be small but he's an electrifying running back prospect with excellent speed and quickness.” When you think of his running style, think of Warrick Dunn. Kimbrow came on strong as a freshman in 2012 with 413 yards on only 66 carries, but he saw his production taper off last year behind Jerron Seymour and Wesley Tate on the depth chart. Now he has a fresh start under new coach Derek Mason, who showed a major commitment to the running game while at Stanford.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.
If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we’ve been to spots like Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma.

We’ve knocked out eight weeks of trips in all, which means we’ve got only six more to go. The clock is ticking. You know as soon as Halloween arrives, we’ve hit the home stretch.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best options for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Alabama at Tennessee
UAB at Arkansas
South Carolina at Auburn
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Ole Miss at LSU
Vanderbilt at Missouri

Alex Scarborough’s pick: South Carolina at Auburn

We’re eight weeks into our hypothetical season, so anything could have happened by now. But there’s a pretty good chance that this game will be a top-25 matchup with significant postseason implications.

Plus, it’s as good an East-West crossover game as you’ll find on the schedule. These two teams have met just five times since 2000, and three such contests were decided by 8 points or less.

It’s got a pretty good storyline to build around, too. Think about it: Steve Spurrier, the 69-year-old author of the Fun ‘N’ Gun, up against Gus Malzahn, the 48-year-old hurry-up no-huddle perfectionist. It’s the visor against the sweater vest. Well, they both wear visors, but still. In fact, there’s another storyline for you!

Outside of the head coaches and their fashion choices, the game on the field could be a good one as well.

The Auburn offense should be even better in 2014, with Nick Marshall progressing under center and D'haquille Williams added on the outside at receiver. The defense, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up, and should have some momentum after a relatively strong showing in the BCS National Championship Game.

South Carolina, despite losing Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, should match up well. Dylan Thompson has experience at quarterback, and he’s got plenty of weapons to work with. The receiving corps has some burners in Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper, and the running backs are led by an All-American candidate in Mike Davis. The secondary might be a major question mark on defense, but the linebackers are solid and the defensive line has some depth.

Edward Aschoff’s pick: Ole Miss at LSU

This might not be Alabama-Auburn or even Ole Miss-Mississippi State, but this is a very important and heated rivalry. Just ask Ole Miss fans what they think of LSU when it comes to singing the National Anthem. It's a rivalry that stretches as far back as 1894, with LSU holding a commanding 58-40-4 record.

But all-time records will mean absolutely nothing when these two meet. It's actually been one of the more fun SEC rivalries of late, as four of the last five games in this series have been decided by seven points or less. A year after losing a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge, the Rebels bounced back to shock LSU with a 27-24 win at home last season, so you know the Tigers will be looking for revenge inside of Death Valley.

This game has some exciting storylines, and we haven't even gotten to Week 1 of the regular season. Ole Miss is a dark horse to take the SEC West, while LSU is a relative unknown with so many questions on both sides of the ball. Who's going to be LSU's quarterback? Who's going to step up at wide receiver? What we do know is that Ole Miss should have a potent offense with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace back and some quality athletes at receiver and running back to take some pressure off of star receiver Laquon Treadwell. But can LSU's defense stop it?

The Tigers have some budding stars, especially in the secondary and at linebacker, but defensive line could be an issue. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have experience, but who's going to step up at tackle? Ole Miss is not a team that you don't want to struggle in rushing the passer against, and the Rebels plan to use their running backs even more in the passing game.

If Ole Miss is going to take the next step in its quest to becoming an elite SEC team, it needs to get wins like this one in hostile environments. If LSU wants to prove that it's still a contender in 2014, it needs to beat an up-and-coming, dangerous team like this. Drama, excitement and the possibility of a lot of points await in Tiger Stadium.

The West could be on the line for both teams when they meet, but so will the ultimate SEC tailgating challenge. Baton Rouge and Oxford own arguably the SEC's -- and nation's -- best tailgating spots, which means you're going to be in absolute heaven dining on gumbo under a tent with a chandelier.

Even if your team doesn't win, you'll eat well, and you'll see a pretty exciting game. Sign me up.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
12:00
PM ET
We have recruiting, transfers, injury updates, playbook kerfluffles and much more in Friday's edition of the lunch links. Hope you all have a great day and a great weekend.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
AM ET
Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Ranking the SEC safeties

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
1:00
PM ET
We could have sold ourselves short with a top 10 comprised of all the league's defensive backs. Instead of leaving out too many talented players, we took the long route and split the secondary in two.

Earlier this afternoon you should have read Chris Low's breakdown of the top-10 cornerbacks in the SEC. Now it's time for the safety rankings entering 2014.

Safety position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the anchor of what could be the SEC's best secondary.
1. Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss: On a defense loaded with former blue-chip recruits, it was Prewitt, a three-star safety from the tiny town of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who stood out the most last season. The 6-foot-2 junior showed the complete package as he led the SEC with six interceptions and became a near unanimous first team All-America selection. Now a senior, he’s the clear face of a secondary that could be the best in the conference.

2. Landon Collins, Soph., Alabama: It’s scary to think what he’ll do as a starter from Day 1. Alabama fans will remember that Collins was the backup to Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety last season and only became a full-time starter after Sunseri tore his ACL. Despite starting only nine games, Collins led the team in passes defended and finished second in total tackles. A heavy hitter as much as he is a ball hawk, Collins could easily develop into a first-round pick with a strong junior season.

3. Tony Conner, Soph., Ole Miss: Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended.

4. Braylon Webb, Sr., Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s defense could use a veteran presence now that E.J. Gaines, Matt White and Randy Ponder are all gone. Webb, fortunately, is just the stabilizing force that’s needed. He has 30 career starts, and last season he was the team’s second leading tackler in addition to picking off three passes.

[+] EnlargeBrison Williams
AP Photo/Richard ShiroBrison Williams, who had three INTs last season, hits like a linebacker and adds valuable experience to the South Carolina secondary.
5. Brison Williams, Sr., South Carolina: He may look like a linebacker in a helmet and shoulder pads, but the 5-11, 218-pound Williams is all safety. In the past two years he has started 23 games and racked up 97 tackles and three interceptions. In a secondary lacking experience, his leadership will be vital.

6. Jermaine Whitehead, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary was unspectacular last season, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem. The soon-to-be senior finished fourth on the team in tackles (65) and third in passes defended (6), two of which he turned into interceptions. Now with a full year in Ellis Johnson’s system, he and the rest of the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.

7. Brian Randolph, Jr., Tennessee: Count Randolph among the better players you probably don’t hear much of. A year after suffering a season-ending injury, the former SEC coaches’ All-Freshman team selection had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing second in the team with 75 tackles. On top of that, he finished fifth in the SEC with four interceptions.

8. Alan Turner, Sr., Arkansas: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more productive, experienced safety in the SEC this season than Turner, who has played in more than 30 games for Arkansas. The 6-foot senior was the team leader in tackles last season with 97 and also hauled in two interceptions.

9. Ronald Martin, Sr., LSU: This might be Jalen Mills’ spot had he not been arrested and subsequently suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles. Martin, nonetheless, is a worthy selection. Though he had a quiet 2013, expect a big senior season from him as he takes over for Craig Loston at strong safety in 2014, a spot where his 6-1, 218-pound frame should come in handy in run support.

10. Justin Cox, Sr., Mississippi State: Cox was admittedly a step behind last season after transferring from a junior college. He was asked to play cornerback and ended up contributing very little. But this spring he came up to speed and was welcomed back with a new position that better suits his 6-3 frame: safety. Now the word from Starkville is what an upside he has at safety, how it’s a more natural fit and how he can really cover some ground. Though he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if he climbs the depth chart quickly.
The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.

These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.

Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTrey DePriest will fill the big shoes vacated by C.J. Mosley.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.

2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.

3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.

5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.

6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Skip Williams/Icon SMICurt Maggitt will return for Tennessee after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.

9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.

10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.

14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
12:00
PM ET
Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and check out what's happening in today's lunchtime links:

• Tommy Tuberville once snapped off six consecutive wins against Alabama when he was the coach at Auburn. Tuberville will have a considerably more difficult beating the Crimson Tide again if a plan comes together for his Cincinnati club to host Alabama in 2015.

• Mike Slive of the SEC and Jim Delany of the Big Ten discussed with USA Today's George Schroeder on Tuesday how they remained committed to the notion of legislative autonomy for the NCAA's biggest conferences to develop their own set of operating guidelines.

• With all the departures from Georgia's secondary this offseason, junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng could be an important player for the Bulldogs. He told the Athens Bannner-Herald's Marc Weiszer this week that he hopes to grab a starting job in the fall.

• Missouri athletic director Mike Alden addressed college football scheduling with the Columbia Daily Tribune's Steve Walentik on Monday night.

• Georgia (versus Clemson), Alabama (versus West Virginia), LSU (versus Wisconsin) and Ole Miss (versus Boise State) are all comfortable favorites in marquee nonconference games to open the season. Phil Steele takes a look at the Vegas lines for a ton of big games throughout the 2014 season.

• Speaking of which, the Charleston Post and Courier is already starting to take a look at that first week's matchups for South Carolina (Texas A&M) and Clemson (Georgia).

• Everyone has an opinion about Johnny Manziel, it seems. Here's former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn sharing his. Spoiler alert: he doesn't speak in glowing terms about Johnny Football's off-the-field behavior.

• How about a sweet story involving a former SEC quarterback? Little George Gring got to practice this week with his favorite player, Cam Newton, after the Carolina Panthers selected him with the first pick in the “NFL Make-A-Wish Draft.

• Now that the athletic year at Florida has ended, the Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley takes a look at the top 10 stories of the year from Gators athletics.

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Four SEC West Teams In AP Top Five
For the first time ever, four teams from the same conference are ranked in the top five of the AP Top 25 -- and all four are from the same division. ESPN college football reporter Adam Rittenberg provides his rankings reaction.
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