Florida Gators: Jameon Lewis

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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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).
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.
In honor of the greatest movie monster to ever live making his much-anticipated return to the silver screen, we only thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the monsters the SEC has to offer.

Can any of them live up to the legendary status Godzilla holds? Only time will tell, but you still wouldn’t want to get caught in their path. Nothing good can come of those who oppose these monsters from the SEC East and West:

EAST MONSTERS

1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia -- During his first year on campus, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 quarterback hurries. Jordan Jenkins gets a lot of attention on this defense, but Floyd might have the most NFL talent out there. He's ferocious off the edge and should wreak plenty of havoc this season with even more teaching. Double-team him if you want to have a chance.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. isn't a player that you want to mess with too often.
2. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida -- At 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds, you don't want to cross his path if you're in his backfield hunting grounds. Fowler is Florida's best edge rusher and can play standing up or with his hand on the ground. He has incredibly fast, violent arms to go with a truckload of speed. Fowler has six career sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and is already viewed as a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.

3. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri -- Well, with that head of hair, he already has the Predator look down. And he's just as lethal on the field. With fellow ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy both gone, Golden will have a lot more time on the field, giving him more room to roam and track down his next victims. He's got a scary burst and a load of strength that should help him pass the 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss he had last season.

4. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia -- He can bowl you over or blow past you with his speed. He has a scary combination of speed, strength and elusiveness that make him an absolute terror to bring down. Nagging injuries have plagued him during his two years on campus, but he still has 2,374 career rushing yards and has averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 387 career carries. Gurley is arguably the nation's best and scariest running back when healthy.

5. Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina -- He already has a menacing frame at 6-8, 348 pounds, which is just frightening in itself. But his job is to push guys such as Fowler around all season, and he seems to really get a kick out of it, too. Robinson can smother oncoming defenders with his size and strength. Trying to hit his quarterback comes with a price.

WEST MONSTERS

1. Landon Collins, S, Alabama -- You want a safety who can cover a lot of ground and deliver bone-rattling hits? Well, Collins is the guy for you. He really started to understand the safety position more last season and proved to be a real terror for the Crimson Tide's defense. Collins has first-round draft pick capability, and he's upset with how last season ended. You don't want to see him when he's angry.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesSophomore WR Laquon Treadwell is an absolute monster, pun intended, in the open field for Ole Miss.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- I know that T.J. Yeldon is still the starter in Tuscaloosa, but Henry has that scary talent that just doesn't come around all that often. Like Gurley, he can pound the ball through the middle with all that strength, but has the ability to make defenders miss and hit that gut-wrenching home-run play. Henry is going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall, no matter how many carries he gets.

3. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn -- Big things are expected from the rising sophomore after a season in which he slowly started to develop into a solid player off the edge. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson loved how he started to combine that freaky athleticism with technique and knowledge this spring. He's arguably Auburn's most talented lineman and will be doing plenty of head hunting this fall.

4. Jameon Lewis, WR, Mississippi State -- Don't let his 5-9, 183-pound frame fool you, Lewis will make plays on you. He has all the speed and athleticism to run circles around opposing secondaries and he's learning how to be a better route-runner. He just missed out on grabbing 1,000 yards last season and is the kind of player who will slash his way through defenses with an offense that is perfect for his quickness.

5. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss -- He can leap out of any gym and he's the kind of person who is already more athletic than you, no matter the setting. As a freshman last season, Treadwell led the Rebels with 72 receptions, but is now the main attraction at receiver for Ole Miss. Treadwell is a freak of nature that isn't afraid to get physical with defenders, and he can hit the deep ball with all that speed he owns.
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.
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a burning question or hot debate facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Spring practice is alive and well, but we're all immersed in the madness that is March with the NCAA tournament in full swing. And in keeping with the Big Dance theme, it's time to talk Cinderellas.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of playing SEC Cinderella in 2014 -- Florida or Mississippi State?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff: Honestly, the SEC as a whole is going to be so much fun to watch this fall because of all the uncertainty when it comes to finding a true frontrunner. But when it comes to finding this year's Cinderella, I'm leaning toward the Gators. A year removed from a disastrous 4-8 season that set records in ineptitude in Gainesville, Florida will break through and challenge for the SEC this fall. Remember when injuries crushed Missouri's offensive hopes in 2012 and the Tigers took the SEC East by storm a year later? Well, the Gators will be similar with the return of starters Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.

The Gators ranked last in the SEC in scoring and total offense in 2013, struggling without key parts on both sides of the ball. Having Driskel back is huge, but the biggest thing for him is that he'll be manning a new offense that actually suits his skill set better. Kurt Roper's more spread approach that will feature a lot more shotgun and zone-read will open things up for Driskel and allow him to use his feet more. It'll make Florida's run game more dangerous and should get receivers more involved. The key, of course, is Driskel knowing this offense backward and forward before spring practice ends so that he can teach, teach, teach during summer and fall workouts.

The defense will be fine. There were inconsistencies during the second half of the season, but it's tough when a defense has to stay on the field for so long. Will Muschamp has recruited well enough during his tenure that the defense will suffer only a few hits from the loss of some 2013 studs.

Florida has the advantage of playing LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home.

Take 2: Chris Low: First, I'd like to point out that we had this same debate a year ago at this time, and the two teams we selected were ... Auburn and Missouri. So we nailed it last year. Let's see if we can make it two years in a row.

It's always a gamble to pick a Cinderella out of the Western Division, which is easily the most rugged division in all of college football. Each of the last five national championship games has included a team from the West, with Auburn losing to Florida State last season in Pasadena. Alabama and LSU played each other for the title in 2011. And, now, with Texas A&M in the mix, it's a big-boy division if there ever was one and only getting stronger. According to ESPN's recruiting rankings in February, Alabama's class was No. 1 nationally, LSU's No. 2, Texas A&M's No. 4 and Auburn's No. 8.

Even though Mississippi State hasn't been a regular among the recruiting heavyweights, Dan Mullen has assembled and developed a nice nucleus of talent entering the 2014 season, and this has a chance to be his best team in Starkville. It starts with junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who's the type of run-pass option that puts so much pressure on opposing defenses. The Bulldogs need to keep him healthy. They also have an underrated group of receivers around Prescott, led by senior Jameon Lewis, who was the star of the Bulldogs' bowl win last season.

Defensively, the Bulldogs should be a load in their front seven. They have depth, and good luck to anybody trying to block 6-5, 300-pound Chris Jones, who's a force at both end and tackle. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are also playmakers. The cornerback tandem of Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love produced six interceptions last season, and the Bulldogs also expect to get back senior safety Jay Hughes, who was injured in 2013. The secondary could be the deepest unit on the team.

The key game, if the Bulldogs are going to make some serious noise in the West, is at LSU on Sept. 20. They get a week off after that game before coming back home to face Texas A&M and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Mullen has guided Mississippi State to four straight winning seasons, beaten rival Ole Miss four of his five years on the job and engineered three bowl victories. The next step is knocking off one or two of the "big boys" in the West. And even though the Bulldogs have struggled against nationally-ranked foes (they've lost 15 in a row), this is the year that changes.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
9:00
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Another week means another set of Power Rankings in college football's top conference:

1. Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide looked a little sluggish at times in a 31-6 win over Colorado State, but did you really think Nick Saban was going to have his guys hammer a former assistant? Yeah, neither did I. People are getting a little concerned with this team, especially with the shaky play in the secondary, but Saban has never been one for truly mashing cupcakes.

2. LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bayou Bengals just keep rolling, but Auburn certainly gave LSU its best test so far. Gus Malzahn's up-tempo spread registered 437 yards on LSU's defense, including 213 on the ground. But LSU spent another day in the 200-200 club when it came to passing and rushing. Jeremy Hill had a monster game with 183 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.

3. Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1 SEC; LW: 3): We wanted to see improvement from the Aggies' defense and we got it on Saturday. While the defense did surrender 434 yards, it allowed only 13 points. That's 20 points fewer than the average allowed going into the game! Johnny Manziel had another big outing and the offense churned out nearly 600 yards.

4. Georgia (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 4): If not for some major special teams blunders, the Dawgs would have had a much larger margin of victory over North Texas. Special teams has been a problem for Georgia over the last few years, and that's dangerous heading into the meat of conference play. The offense is still red-hot, while the defense allowed just one score and finally kept an opponent under 450 yards of offense (245).

5. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Gamecocks were off this week, which should have given the defense more time to prep and study what it did against Vanderbilt. That was an impressive showing by this group, and it has to keep going with a tricky road trip to face unbeaten Central Florida this weekend.

6. Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 6): The Rebels were off, which meant guys could get healthy, but it did slow down some of the momentum from that huge win at Texas. No problem. All Ole Miss has to do is get up for a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama. With an offense that's averaging a little less than 500 yards per game and is scoring almost 40 points a contest, Saturday's showdown should be pretty fun.

7. Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 7): The Gators were dealt a tough blow when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a broken fibula in the first quarter in their 31-17 win over Tennessee. He's out for the season and now fourth-year junior backup Tyler Murphy is in. While he looked good against Tennessee, you can't measure too much against a defense with as many holes as the Vols have. Even with an elite defense, Florida is still quite the enigma in the East.

8. Missouri (3-0, 0-0 SEC; LW: 10): All of a sudden, the Tigers' offense looks pretty exciting as it's averaging 47 points and almost 600 yards a game. Say what you will about the competition it's had to face; this team is on fire when it has the ball and that's something we didn't see at all last year. Going on the road to blow out Indiana was a nice victory for Mizzou as it prepares for its last nonconference foe (Arkansas State) before conference play begins.

9. Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 8): The Tigers' offense was able to move the ball against LSU, but turning it over three times and going 6-for-17 on third downs won't win you many games in this conference. Also, giving up nearly 7 yards per play to LSU won't help you out, either. It's still a work in progress on the Plains, but you can see the development continue across the board for Malzahn's team.

10. Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-2 SEC; LW: 9): It was a win, but it wasn't the most glamorous win for the Commodores this weekend. Credit the UMass defense, which held Vandy to just 239 yards and 10 points through the first three quarters. Then the Dores wore down UMass to score 14 more points and generate 167 yards in the fourth quarter.

11. Arkansas (3-1, 0-0 SEC; LW: 11): The Razorbacks really gave up a golden opportunity on the road against Rutgers. After leading 24-7 late in the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights rallied to score 21 unanswered points in their 28-24 win. The Hogs' ground game, which was averaging a little less than 300 yards per game, managed just 101 yards against Rutgers. That was a bad loss for a team in rebuilding mode.

12. Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 13): Quietly, Mississippi State ran Troy out of the state Saturday with an impressive 62-7 win over the Trojans. With Dak Prescott still handling quarterback duties, the Bulldogs gained 551 yards of offense and both Prescott and receiver Jameon Lewis rushed for, threw for and caught touchdowns Saturday night. The defense also held Troy to only 186 yards of total offense.

13. Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 12): When the Vols went up 7-0 in the first quarter against Florida, people in the press box joked that Butch Jones should just take a knee every down before punting in order to keep the ball away from Florida's defense. Well, he didn't, and his team turned it over six times, including four interceptions between Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley. The offense is in desperate need of playmakers and a consistent quarterback, while the defense allowed a quarterback with no true game experience to lead the Gators to a season-high 31 points and 218 total yards with two touchdowns.

14. Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off after a tough loss to Louisville the previous week. The defense played better against the Cardinals and now has to face a Florida team with a new, very inexperienced quarterback. The question is whether the Wildcats' situation at quarterback is any better.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
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A little lunchtime reading from around the SEC:

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