The NFL scouting combine wrapped up Monday with the defensive backs going through the on-field workouts. As always, the SEC was well represented at the event. Former Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley put on a show while a trio of LSU defenders -- Kwon Alexander, Jalen Collins and Danielle Hunter -- proved just how athletic that defense was last season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIn his freshman season at LSU, Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Who's next? The SEC has plenty of athletes made for the combine, and we decided to look at which returning players will turn heads when it's their turn to go through the gauntlet.

LB Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt: Don't be so shocked a Vandy player made the list. Azubike is a freak athletically. He's 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and there's not an ounce of fat on his body. As a junior, he started off strong but injuries derailed his season down the stretch. The senior-to-be will look to finish his career on a high note and earn his invite to the combine.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama: Brown is one of four Crimson Tide football players who double up with track and field. He played sparingly as a freshman last fall, but the expectations are high for the former five-star defensive back. On the track, he's the team's fastest runner in the 60-meter hurdles, and he recently ran the 60-meter dash in 6.82 seconds.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Who else remembers that picture of Chubb showing off his vertical before a track and field event at his high school last May? If not, here you go. The guy looks like he could jump over a car. After a sensational freshman season, he'll be one of the more talked about athletes when it's his turn at the combine. Odds are he won't disappoint.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Chubb isn't the only freshman running back we can't wait to see at the combine. Fournette, the former No. 1 player in the country, has all the skills to put on a show when he goes and works out. He's big, fast, and there always seems to be a chip on his shoulder. It won't be any different at the combine.

DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Chiseled would be the best word to describe Garrett's physique. The freshman is a weight room freak and should put up big numbers on bench press. The scary part is he'll be just as impressive in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. There's a reason he broke the SEC freshman sack record, previously held by No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.

CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: 4.3 is the new 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and Hargreaves has a chance to run in that 4.3 range. A performance like that could solidify his stock as a top-10 pick in next year's draft, assuming he decides to leave early. And don't be surprised if the former high school track star clears 40 inches in the vertical jump.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: Everybody wants to see what Henry is going to do when he goes to the combine. Players that big (6-3, 241) aren't supposed to run that fast. Henry likely won't be among the fastest at his position, but he did run a 4.45 at the 2012 Nike SPARQ competition. Granted, it was on a faster surface, but still -- that's moving for a guy his size.

DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: To nobody's surprise, another former No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 makes this list. Nkemdiche has always been gifted athletically, and though he might not be as fast as his brother, his overall performance will certainly grab the media's attention at the combine. Simply put, he's the complete package.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: It's all in the name. Wouldn't it be great if the fastest 40 time came from a guy named Speedy? It could happen. Noil won the Nike SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013 with a 40 time of 4.46 seconds and a vertical jump of 44.1 inches. He also ran the shuttle in a blistering quick 3.87 seconds.

OT Braden Smith, Auburn: Former Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers was deemed the strongest man at the combine this year after he put up 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Per Auburn's strength coach, Smith can already put up at least 30 reps and he's still a freshman. Imagine what he'll be able to do in two-to-three years when it's his turn.

Honorable mention
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.
Quarterbacks are committing earlier and earlier in the recruiting process. With 15 of the 27 signal-callers in the ESPN Junior 300 already having given verbal pledges, there is increased pressure to get a top quarterback in the fold early. Five programs are ahead of the curve headed into the spring evaluation period.

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Paul Finebaum and Louis Riddick discuss Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper, and Sean Ray at NFL Combine.

SEC morning links

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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Georgia will play North Carolina to open the 2016 season and Ole Miss will face Cal in 2017 and 2019, but what you're really after is more SEC-related news from the NFL scouting combine, right? Tweet of the day

If only everyone's insurance was this helpful ...

Ultimate ESPN 300: Who's next? 

February, 20, 2015
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It’s never too early to look ahead to next year. Here are seven prospects in the 2015 class who could make their mark in future editions of the Ultimate ESPN 300.

DT Daylon Mack (Texas A&M): Last year it was DE Myles Garrett who made a splash for the Aggies, and Mack is expected to do the same in 2015. While Texas A&M returns some quality young defensive tackles, none has Mack's combination of explosive power and quickness plus the ability to be a disruptive force in the backfield.

S Derwin James (FSU):

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Georgia running back Todd Gurley answers a question during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Georgia, UNC to play in 2016

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsMark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs will play North Carolina in their 2016 season opener at the Georgia Dome.

Georgia and North Carolina are the latest SEC and ACC schools to get together for a big nonconference matchup, as it was announced Thursday that the pair will open the 2016 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.

"This will undoubtedly be one of the best games of the 2016 opening weekend and a long-overdue renewal of an old ACC vs. SEC rivalry," Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., said in a release. "Both programs have a rich tradition, devoted fan base, top-notch players and elite coaches."

The game will be played Sept. 3, 2016, in the Georgia Dome.

The schools have played each other 30 times, with the Bulldogs holding a 16-12-2 edge. This will be the first meeting between the schools in 45 years.

"I know our team, coaches, and fans will be looking forward to playing a quality opponent like North Carolina in Atlanta," Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a release. "It will be a national stage for a season opener and generate a lot of excitement for fans not only of both schools but college football fans around the country."


(Read full post)


SEC morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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You can feel the buzz emanating from Indianapolis, can't you?

We know you want to know all about the NFL scouting combine, and we've got you covered. Tweet of the day

One of these things is not like the other ...

Let's be real here.

If ever there were a season in which Georgia wasn't expected to win a championship or play in a big bowl game, that would be news.

So, yes, the Dawgs should absolutely be in the discussion as one of the teams in 2015 who could make a run at a New Year's Six bowl and maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff. They're the early favorite in the SEC's Eastern Division race and are starting to show up with regularity in the top 10 of the early preseason polls.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt's Georgia squad is among the early SEC favorites that could make a run at the College Football Playoffs next year.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that 2015 will be the year it all falls right for Mark Richt, entering his 15th season as Georgia's head coach. He was a big winner this offseason. Not only did he get a raise and an extension, taking him to $4 million per year, but he got a lot more cash for some of his staff members, namely defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who went to $1.3 million annually.

If there were questions about whether Richt was on shaky ground with the upper administration at Georgia, there shouldn't be now.

He has a team returning in 2015 that should again be lights out on offense with sophomore running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning (Keith Marshall, too) and a veteran offensive line that returns four starters.

The Bulldogs were a load running the football last season against everybody, with or without Todd Gurley. Chubb was playing at a different level when the season ended a year ago. Is there a more explosive returning player in the SEC?

Defensively, Pruitt has a lot more pieces to work with, especially in the front seven. The Dawgs have two true freshmen coming in -- defensive tackles Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter -- who should make an impact right away. They're also stacked at outside linebacker with returning veterans Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Jordan Jenkins.

Look for Georgia's defense to be much more disruptive in Pruitt's second season in Athens. The Bulldogs should be as good as they've been in a while, both up front defensively and at outside linebacker.

The schedule also tilts in Georgia's favor. That early-season nonconference game with Clemson comes off, and the Dawgs don't have to play South Carolina until the third game. That's significant because Georgia has suffered at least one loss in its first two games in five of the last six seasons.

What could go wrong

The combination of a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year starter at quarterback is never ideal, but that's what Georgia will be facing in 2015. Brian Schottenheimer replaces Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, and the quarterback battle will come down to third-year sophomore Brice Ramsey and redshirt freshman Jacob Park.

No matter which way Schottenheimer decides to go, he's going to be working with an inexperienced quarterback. Ramsey has a big arm and is more of a pocket passer. Park also throws it well, but is one of those guys who's also comfortable running around and trying to make a play.

With the Bulldogs' running game and offensive line, it should be easier to break in a new quarterback. But problems at the quarterback position usually mean problems for the whole team.

There's also a three-game stretch to kick off October that looks nasty. The good news is that Georgia gets Alabama and Missouri at home, but those games are sandwiched around a trip to what should be an improved Tennessee team on Oct. 10. Getting through that stretch unscathed will be a chore, and there are also trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech in November.

The secondary will bear watching as well, especially with cornerback Damian Swann gone. He wore several different hats for the Dawgs, and there aren't a lot of upperclassmen back there.

Georgia's undoing, more times than not, has been losing a game it had no business losing. See the Florida game a year ago.

We'll see if the Dawgs can keep from falling into that trap in 2015.

Ultimate ESPN 300: Top surprises in the SEC 

February, 17, 2015
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video
When the Ultimate ESPN 300 was released on Monday, there were some noticeable surprises. Some players shot to near the top of the list early on in their careers, while other players weren’t ranked high coming out of college but now appear on this prestigious list. Here’s a closer look at some of the top surprises in the SEC.


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Roquan Smith got it right by waiting

February, 16, 2015
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1. So Roquan Smith went on ESPNU on signing day and put on a pair of UCLA gloves to announce his decision, and 10 days or so later, he signed with Georgia. The fact is, the description of Smith and the other saviors riding to the rescue of their nationally-ranked teams, didn't match what ESPNU televised, which was a lot of wide-eyed 17-year-olds scared to death of being on a national television stage. They were, essentially, a lot of boys pretending to be men. Good for Smith -- he had the luck to do his second-guessing before he sent in his paperwork.

2. The NCAA Football Rules Committee recommended that the distance that offensive linemen may go downfield to block on a pass be trimmed from 3 yards to 1 yard, and every defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 yelled, “Halleluyah!” No teams have done a better job of turning that 3 yards into 5 or 7 than Oregon and Arizona. NCAA rules editor Rogers Redding said that officials had a tough time keeping an eye on where the linemen were while seeing when the quarterback released the ball. It will be interesting to see if this change impinges on the offenses, or merely makes it easier for the striped shirts to do their jobs.

3. Charlie Weis didn't win enough at Notre Dame and he went to Kansas, which, if it's not a dead-end job, is certainly a cul de sac, and didn't win at all. He's been getting $2 million a year not to coach Notre Dame since he was fired five years ago. He's still getting $2.5 million from Kansas, where he's no longer the coach. Did he coach himself out of the game? Of course. He could latch on as an assistant, but he told the South Bend Tribune he'd rather go try to do some good somewhere. Good for him -- he has the money and the time to do so. I still believe, all things being equal, Weis would prefer to do his good on the practice field. The Weis I know would rather coach.
COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- The 2015 Pylon 7-on-7 tournament at Cocoa Beach High drew many of the top prospects in Florida in the 2016 class Saturday. More than 15 skill players in the ESPN Junior 300 competed throughout the day, including nationally recruited juniors such as Trayvon Mullen, Darnell Salomon and quarterback Ervin “Woody” Barrett.

Here are notes on some of the top players in attendance:


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COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- The Pylon 7-on-7 2015 tournament at Cocoa Beach High drew many of the top prospects in Florida and beyond in the 2016, 2017 and even 2018 classes Saturday. More than 15 skill players in the ESPN Junior 300 competed throughout the day, including nationally-recruited juniors such as Trayvon Mullen, Dredrick Snelson and quarterback Ervin “Woody” Barrett.

Here is the latest on several Sunshine State prospects.

Eli Stove, WR
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 80


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Predicting the preseason AP top 10

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
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In each of the past six years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. I do this by taking several different factors into account:

• Most AP voters usually look at a couple of criteria when they evaluate a team for the upcoming season. First, they look at the number of returning starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. A team that returns its starting quarterback and a combination of its running backs and wide receivers, for example, is often more highly regarded than a team that loses its starting quarterback but returns its entire offensive line. Similarly, a team that returns most of its starters on offense but loses a lot of its defensive playmakers is usually more highly regarded than a team that returns a majority of its defensive starters but loses its skill-position players on offense. 

• Another factor weighed heavily is the performance of the team in its bowl game, which is undoubtedly the lasting image voters carry with them during the offseason. A team coming off a huge bowl win is usually more highly regarded than a team that is coming off a bowl loss, regardless of what its schedule looks like for the upcoming season.

• Also weighed heavily is where the teams finished the previous year. Naturally, teams that finished somewhere in the rankings (top 25) have a much better chance of being preseason top 10 than a team that finished unranked last year.

Using these factors -- and a few others, such as strength of schedule -- I project the preseason AP top 10 every year at the start of February, which in most cases is six months in advance of the poll's release. Now, as you all know, a lot can happen between February and August, including injuries, suspensions and transfers. But over the past six years, I have been very successful using this method, correctly projecting 56 of 60 teams (93.3 percent), including a perfect 10-for-10 again in 2014.

Before I go into the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is NOT my preseason top 10 for next season, but rather what I am projecting the AP top 10 will look like to start the season. If you're familiar with my college football preview magazine, you will know that every year I tend to go out on a limb for a couple of teams in my top 10, and this year will be no different.

Now, let's take a look at this year¹s projected preseason AP top 10 teams.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes


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