College football is getting younger and younger. Gone are the days of just relying on upperclassmen to guide your football programs. Really, gone are the days of waiting for freshmen to develop.

Getting guys on the field earlier and earlier is more than just the norm, it's a necessity. Just look at all the young skill players tearing it up around the country.

The SEC has a treasure trove of young stars, so today we're going to look at rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on in 2015.

Now, we aren't going to talk about the obvious guys. No All-SEC members from the coaches or the Associated Press. That's just too easy. We're diving into guys who just slid under the title of star in 2014 and could jump right in to the limelight this fall.

Here are the obvious guys who either made All-SEC teams, were honorable mentions or already are well known:
There are a ton of youngsters to choose from, so this certainly wasn't easy, but here are 10 rising sophomores and redshirt freshman from the SEC to keep an eye on in 2015:

EAST

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsJosh Malone didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but expectations for him remain high.
Will Grier, QB, Florida: He redshirted last year but will be in an all-out battle with Harris for the starting job. Some feel he might be more suited to run new coach Jim McElwain's more pro-style offense.

Jacob Park, QB, Georgia: Another quarterback who redshirted in 2014, Park will challenge for the starting spot in Athens, and he might be the most physically gifted of the three guys competing for that job this spring.

Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia: He really came on at the end of last season, proving to be one of the Bulldogs' best pass-rushers. He finished the year with 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

Isaiah McKenzie, WR/RS, Georgia: Running back Sony Michel should be fun to watch too, but McKenzie has a chance to really take a big step forward in the receiving, rushing and return game. He registered 684 all-purpose yards in 2014.

Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia: Sanders started all 13 games for the Bulldogs last season and finished the year on a very high note with a two-interception performance in Georgia's bowl win over Louisville.

Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky: He started seven games last season and finished the year with 10 tackles. He has to become a more disruptive player up front, but he really has a chance to help this defense in 2015.

Chris Lammons, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense will be a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser in 2015, and Lammons could be a big part of the improvements in the secondary.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: The Vols return a pretty deep receiving corps, but Malone could have a bright future in Knoxville and should improve on his 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown from 2014.

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee: Another talented, young weapon in the Vols' offense, Wolf made an instant impact as a freshman and should continue to be a key part of the Vols' aerial attack in 2015.

Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt: Not much went right for the Commodores in 2014, but Bowden could be a budding star. He led Vandy with 78 tackles and added two tackles for loss and a sack.

WEST

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Marquis Haynes led Ole Miss in sacks.
Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: He registered only seven tackles with two sacks in 2014, but Hand, a former five-star prospect, is a monster talent for the Tide who should see plenty of time this fall.

Marlon Humphrey/Tony Brown, CBs, Alabama: Brown played in 13 games, making two starts, while Humphrey redshirted. Alabama had issues at corner all year and these two youngsters, who might be the most talented corners on the team, will have every opportunity to take both starting spots.

Cam Sims, WR, Alabama: With Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones all departing, Alabama will be rebuilding at receiver. Sims, a former top high school prospect, could jump right into a key role at receiver for the Tide.

Jojo Robinson, WR, Arkansas: Coaches knew that he was really talented when he arrived last year, but he wasn't ready. There are high hopes for the former four-star prospect, who has a chance to make a strong impact in Arkansas' passing game.

Roc Thomas, RB, Auburn: In a crowded backfield, Thomas played in 12 games and registered 214 rushing yards with two touchdowns. With both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, Thomas will take over as Auburn's lead back so of course he'll be productive.

Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU: Eligibility issues cut into Valentine's chances of playing in 2014, but he has the potential to be a major player up front for the Tigers. He was probably physically ready to play last year.

Clifton Garrett, LB, LSU: Garrett didn’t really play much last season but was one of LSU's top prospects in its 2014 recruiting class. Garrett just wasn’t ready last season, but that will all change this year.

Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State: While he sat out the 2014 season, the good news is that he's built like Benardrick McKinney, who just left Starkville for the NFL. He's a big, fast, strong, long, athletic linebacker, who the coaches are very excited about.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: With Cody Prewitt gone, Hampton should step right in at that safety spot. There was even talk before the 2014 season that he could have replaced Prewitt and moved him to linebacker. He already has had good field experience, playing in 13 games.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: The Rebels are loaded with defensive line talent, but Haynes was Ole Miss' best pass-rusher in 2014. He started four of the 13 games he played in and led the team with 7.5 sacks while tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.

SEC all-bowl team

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The postseason wasn't just about the SEC Western Division going 2-5, sending the rest of the country into a state of euphoria. There were also some impressive individual performances that the league could hang its hat on, and it's time to acknowledge them.

Here's our All-SEC bowl team:

Offense

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: His team might have faltered in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but no other quarterback had close to the numbers he did in the Bulldogs' loss. Prescott threw for 453 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards with another score.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb had an SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the Belk Bowl against Louisville.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Is there anything this freshman can't do? He earned Belk Bowl MVP honors with his SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the win over Louisville.

RB: Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Another incredibly talented freshman, Hurd ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in Tennessee's Outback Bowl win over Iowa.

WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' star receiver had a nice closing act to the season, catching nine passes for 170 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown to jump-start South Carolina's offense in a win over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

WR: De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: He was Prescott's top receiving threat all season, and he didn't disappoint in the bowl game, catching nine passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

WR/TE: Amari Cooper, Alabama: Cooper's final game in an Alabama uniform didn't go exactly as planned, but he still had an impressive night with nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide's 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

OL: Jacob Gilliam, Tennessee: Despite playing with a torn ACL in his left knee and a heavily wrapped, injured left hand, Gilliam, a former walk-on, was an intricate part of Tennessee's impressive offensive performance against Iowa.

OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The main cog on South Carolina's line for years, Cann had another impressive day for the Gamecocks, helping push South Carolina's offense to 344 yards.

OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies piled up 529 yards of offense in the win over West Virginia with Ogbuehi leading the way on the left side. He didn't have the most impressive year, but a solid showing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl helped send the Aggies off on a high note.

OL: Evan Boehm, Missouri: Yes, he's a center, but he was just too good in the Tigers' 33-17 win against Minnesota in the Florida Citrus Bowl. It didn't hurt that the Tigers ran for 337 yards.

C: David Andrews, Georgia: Chubb was able to do a lot of his damage because of his own talent, but Andrews helped by having a very impressive game in front of him. Georgia finished with 492 offensive yards.

All-Purpose: Leonard Fournette, LSU: How about that? Another freshman running back. Fournette capped his first season in college football with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Defense

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: Considered one of the top defensive end prospects in this year's NFL draft, Fowler registered three sacks and was a constant disruptive force in Florida's win against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

DL: Markus Golden, Missouri: Not a real shocker that Golden ended the season on such a high note. He recorded 10 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and had three quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: During the Razorbacks' impressive defensive performance in their win against Texas, he had five tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: Another solid game for the SEC's top pass-rusher. Ray had four tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a forced fumble.

LB: Kris Frost, Auburn: Frost really cleaned up in the Outback Bowl despite the Tigers' loss. He piled up 12 tackles (nine solo) and a sack.

LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: The freshman just continued to impressive during the latter part of the season. He had eight tackles (tied for team lead) and a sack against Louisville.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He was all over the field for the Hogs, registering five tackles, including two for loss.

CB: Brian Poole, Florida: He returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble, recovered one and registered four tackles.

CB: Damian Swann, Georgia: In his final game with the Bulldogs, Swann grabbed an interception, broke up four passes and totaled three tackles.

S: Dominick Sanders, Georgia: The youngster snagged two interceptions and broke up another pass in Georgia's win against Louisville.

S: Jermaine Whitehead, Auburn: He finished Auburn's bowl game with eight tackles and two interceptions.

Special teams

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: When you hit 3 of 3 field goals, with a long of 41 yards, and all four extra points, you've done well.

P: JK Scott, Alabama: Another great game by Scott in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He boomed five punts 50-plus yards, including a long of 73 yards. Five of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

Top recruiting targets in the SEC 

January, 16, 2015
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With the dead period ending and less than three weeks remaining until national signing day, recruiting is coming down to crunch time. Each school is working feverishly to fill out the remainder of their 2015 recruiting class. Here’s a closer look at the top remaining targets for each school.

The deadline to declare for the NFL draft has come and gone.

The SEC, as usual, saw its fair share of early entrants. At last count, the conference led the nation in underclassmen turning pro.

While those who have declared for the draft have another 72 hours to go back on their decisions and return to school, for today's purposes we'll assume everything holds and declare three teams winners and three losers when it came to retaining talent.

Three up
  • Alabama -- Yes, the losses of T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins and Amari Cooper are huge. But no one expected them to stay. Instead, Nick Saban welcoming three defenders back into the fold on defense was the big takeaway. Cyrus Jones is someone to build around in the secondary, Reggie Ragland provides continuity at linebacker, and Jarran Reed bolsters a defensive line that could be among the best in college football in 2015.
  • Auburn -- QB Jeremy Johnson received a pleasant surprise when it was learned that star wideout Duke Williams would return for his senior year. But Johnson, the Tigers' expected starter, should be happy for the other side of the ball, too, as new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp gets Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy back at linebacker.
  • Georgia -- Todd Gurley turning pro was a given, but for Mark Richt to keep John Theus, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd in school was a coup. Theus gives Georgia four returning starters on the offensive line, which will be a boon for whoever wins the starting job at QB. Floyd gives defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt one of the best pass-rushers in the country.
Three down
  • Florida -- Jim McElwain's hands are full as he attempts to rebuild Florida's offense, and that job wasn't made any easier with the decisions of Matt Jones, D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore to enter the draft. That's two starting offensive linemen from a group that was already depth-challenged. Throw in the loss of pass-rush specialist Dante Fowler Jr. and you're looking at a depleted roster all the way around.
  • LSU -- Les Miles needed Travin Dural and Jerald Hawkins back on offense, but his defense could have used help, too. Kevin Steele, who takes over as defensive coordinator after the departure of John Chavis, will be without three key starters: linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter.
  • South Carolina -- With Mike Davis and Shaq Roland off to the NFL, the Gamecocks are without two of their most talented players on offense. Granted, consistency was a constant battle for Roland at receiver, but good luck replacing Davis' 2,000 rushing yards over the past two seasons.

What he brings: John Houston Jr., the new No. 1 inside linebacker, could also be in the running for the top outside linebacker ranking. Houston is a tall, long and athletic prospect when covering in space, but also shows good instincts and awareness pursuing the football between the tackles. With the prevalence of high-tempo, spread attacks, a strong space player and coverage linebacker like Houston is coveted at the next level. He has also demonstrated the ability to be a well-rounded player. He is an active first-down defender capable of being a physical run-stopper between the tackles.


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SEC morning links

January, 16, 2015
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1. Weird things always happen in the offseason. And while a player isn't exactly directly involved with this story, it is still weird. A Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shoe store employee recently told police he would rather go to jail than help police with an investigation dealing with some official, game-worn LSU football equipment that recently had sold on eBay. So the police arrested Fletcher Sanders after an investigation showed that he sold of a pair of LSU cleats and gloves that were worn during LSU's upset win over Ole Miss. According to the police report, Sanders decided not to cooperate with police because he didn't want to be "responsible for ruining someone’s career.” Police believe this is just an isolated incident, and LSU isn't commenting since the investigation is ongoing.

2. While everyone huddled around their TV sets to watch a once third-string quarterback who started three games this season have a press conference to announce he's returning to school, there actually were others around the country decided to make their football decisions as well. Alabama got some good news with linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive Jarran Reed deciding to return to school instead of jumping to the NFL early.



You can read Alabama's full release on the two, here.

Of course, Arkansas wasn't as lucky with star defensive tackle Darius Philon deciding to make that early jump to the pros.

Around the SEC:

SEC's top recruiting visits 

January, 16, 2015
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With national signing day less than three weeks away, it is officially crunch time. There are only three recruiting weekends left for visits, and most schools plan to take full advantage of those available weekends. Here are a closer look at some of the top visits around the SEC this weekend.

Auburn


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Elliott headlines All-Bowl team

January, 15, 2015
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video

Ohio State became the first team to win the College Football Playoff after running over Alabama in the semifinal and then Oregon in the championship game.

It should be no surprise that the Buckeyes are well represented on ESPN.com's All-Bowl team with four selections. Leading the way is tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for a combined 476 yards with six touchdowns against the Crimson Tide and Ducks.

Quarterback Cardale Jones, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Tyvis Powell also made the team.

Elliott was one of four running backs to make the squad, along with Georgia's Nick Chubb, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and LSU's Leonard Fournette, who was an all-purpose selection.

Here's the ESPN.com All-Bowl team:

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Cardale Jones, Ohio State


(Read full post)


ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

January, 15, 2015
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More than a third of the players in the final 2015 ESPN 300 rankings are committed to SEC schools. As for distribution of those 102 conference commitments, Alabama leads the way with 20, followed by Georgia with 10. Here is a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.


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Overreacting in the SEC

January, 15, 2015
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Our world is full of overreactions. The slightest flap of a butterfly's wings has us all in a tizzy.

That's why we were so quick to jump on Texas A&M as a title contender after Week 1. That's why the SEC was thrashed after going 7-5 in bowl season. It's a never-ending cycle of instant hyperbole, and it usually comes back to haunt us.

The 2014 SEC season certainly didn't lack overreaction during an exciting year, and here are some of the major ones we got wrong:

The Magnolia State takeover

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanA promising start for Bo Wallace and Ole Miss fell apart with consecutive losses to LSU and Auburn.
After Mississippi State and Ole Miss beat Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, at home on the same day, the state of college football resided in the 20th state admitted to the Union. The Bulldogs thrashed A&M 48-31, and Ole Miss topped Alabama 23-17 at home and watched the Grove overflow onto the field inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. The schools then tied for third in the Associated Press Poll, and Mississippi State would eventually rank No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

All was good in Mississippi until Ole Miss lost an ugly one at LSU and a heartbreaker at home to Auburn in consecutive weeks. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the season at Alabama. The regular season culminated with neither Mississippi team in the SEC title game after the Rebels were blown out at Arkansas 30-0, then eliminated Mississippi State from the race with a 31-17 win at home.

Bowl season erased any remnants of that magical Magnolia run, as Ole Miss was demolished 42-3 by TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and Mississippi State surrendered 452 rushing yards in a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Kenny Thrill for Heisman

After a record-setting 511-yard passing debut by Kenny Hill in Texas A&M's 52-28 drubbing of South Carolina in Columbia, we all thought we were seeing another College Station Heisman winner. And he just kept bringing us back in with more jaw-dropping performances. By the start of October, Hill had thrown for 1,745 yards and 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also had a QBR that didn't dip below 91.5 at any point during the Aggies' 5-0 start, which pushed them to No. 6 in the country -- another thing that caused us to overreact.

Then the meat of the SEC season arrived, and the Thrill was gone. During three straight blowout losses, Hill turned it over seven times with just six touchdowns. After a disastrous 59-0 loss at Alabama, Hill was benched for freshman Kyle Allen and would never see the field again. He dealt with a suspension and decided to transfer from A&M after the season.

South Carolina's East run

We in the media picked South Carolina and Steve Spurrier to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. After opening night, that prediction imploded. Despite sporting a record-setting offense, the defense was atrocious, ranking 13th in the SEC (432.7 yards allowed per game). South Carolina surrendered 36.8 points per game in SEC play; made choking in the fourth quarter with double-digit leads an art; and finished the season 7-6 (3-5, SEC). Not exactly title-worthy.

The SEC West

The SEC West took a lot of heat for its embarrassing 2-5 bowl record. Arkansas and Texas A&M -- the only winners -- were ashamed of their division mates, and the 5-0 SEC East was left smiling after being lambasted for most of the season. Chants of "overrated" rained down around the SEC, especially after No. 1 Alabama was left out of the national title game after losing to Ohio State -- the eventual champion -- in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. All that talk of how great the West was during the season went out the window because of its bowl showing. Is the SEC still the deepest conference? Yes, but when your star attraction (the West) fails to show up against everyone else, it's hard to call it the best division ever. It's hard not to at least listen to some of those "overrated" chants. It puts a damper on such an exciting regular season from that side of the conference. And I don't buy the excuse that the division was beaten up from the regular season.

Save it. A few teams played better opponents, and others just fell flat at the worst time.

The conference certainly isn't in ruins now, but the gap between the SEC and the rest of the nation is closing.

Some early overreactions for 2015

Alabama's run of dominance is over

You never quite got the feeling that you were looking at a dominant Alabama team in 2014, and Ohio State's 42-35 College Football Playoff Semifinal win against the Crimson Tide supported those feelings. The Tide was the No. 1 team in the country, but couldn't make it to the final game. Now, Alabama loses a lot of what pushed the team to a No. 1 ranking. Only two starters -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- return on offense, and four very valuable defensive starters are gone, including safety Landon Collins and linebacker Trey DePriest. Plus, two defensive coaches left.

Are we seeing the demise of the Tide? Heck, no! Don't throw dirt on Nick Saban and his squad just yet. The Tide will rebuild on offense, still has some young talent to work with, and running back Derrick Henry might as well have been a starter last season. The defense has some work to do, yes, but if you think Saban is going to let his program leave the realm of relevance, you are greatly mistaken.

Steve Spurrier is done

From three straight 11-win seasons to a disappointing 7-6, the Head Ball Coach has seen better days. Rumors swirled about his possible retirement, but Spurrier will return in 2015, and like Saban, he is not one to just let his program fall apart. The defense will be older in 2015, and you better believe that Spurrier will be coaching with a chip on his shoulder this fall. Will the Gamecocks win the East? Not gonna put money on it, but Spurrier will make his squad much more competitive in 2015.

Will Muschamp will turn Auburn's defense around

Regardless of what you think of Will Muschamp's head-coaching job at Florida, he's an excellent defensive mind. And his hiring as Auburn's defensive coordinator has the Plains all abuzz with the thought of an SEC and playoff run with only three starters departing on the defensive side. But not so fast, Auburn fans. Can Muschamp have the same sort of success Lane Kiffin did in his first year at Alabama? Kiffin wasn't exactly working with an inept offense when he arrived. Muschamp must turn around one of the SEC's worst defensive units. I'm not saying Auburn won't challenge for the West, but let's be careful immediately crowning the Tigers this early.

Nick Chubb for Heisman

Yeah, he's the best running back returning in the SEC and should be one of the nation's best ... again ... but come on, this a quarterback award.
video

Heather Dinich and Ivan Maisel look back on the first College Football Playoff.

Best quotes of bowl season

January, 14, 2015
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A few weeks ago, we unveiled our best college football quotes of 2014. It featured the usual suspects: Steve Spurrier, Art Briles and more. Now it's updated for bowl season. We have 300-pounders talking about catching passes, Baylor's punter letting the world know he's OK, Urban talking about the whip and a whole lot more. And, of course, the Head Ball Coach makes an appearance.

They don't build trucks like they used to
"The check engine light came on. That's when I had to fall down." -- Oklahoma State's 300-pound DT James Castleman after his glorious reception
video

Safe to say you were ready
"Oregon won by 40? I gotta go. We gotta go get ready for that one." -- Urban Meyer

I see what you did there
"I don't think I have to say anything" -- TCU's Gary Patterson after dismantling Ole Miss 42-3


Hard to shake Bielema's hand anyway since it's in a permanent state of Horns down
"I got beat, so what are you going to do, go talk and tell jokes?" -- Charlie Strong on his quick handshake with Bret Bielema

Everything's bigger in Texas, including blown fourth-quarter leads
Moderator: Coach, your thoughts about this afternoon's game.
Baylor coach Art Briles: Seriously?


Good news for Baylor, though, its kicker is alive

You know, an extra five touchdowns here or there and he's right
"This game could have went either way, if you want to be, if everybody in this room just want to be real with themselves, this game could have went either way." -- Jameis Winston


Anyone from Oregon care to respond?
"Well, it didn't go his way" -- Oregon OT Jake Fisher


Oregon is happy to announce Christmas will continue as scheduled
"If he gets his hands on you, you can pretty much cancel Christmas." -- FSU's Mario Edwards on freshman OL Roderick Johnson


You don't want to hear about how overrated the SEC is?
"For at least a week or two, we don't have to hear about the SEC." -- Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson

Urban learns the whip

Is it like what Saban says to Kiffin?

The king stays the king
“Georgia always has a whole bunch of good players. They probably have been the most consistent team in the East. Well, maybe they haven’t. Heck, we’ve beat them four out of five years, but overall they have probably been one of the best teams on the Eastern side" -- Steve Spurrier
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
When the good folks at the ESPN Stats & Information department came up with their annual Conference Power Rankings, they took a number of factors into account.

But there is one measure that never shows up on a spreadsheet and trumps all those that do: perception.

The SEC might be the No. 2 conference in America on paper, but after a bowl season in which nearly all of its supposed powers lost, the impression on the hearts and minds of football fans is much more grim.

Today is a new day for the conference that berthed seven straight national championship contenders.

Today is the day the conference must swallow its considerable pride and admit it's no longer king of the hill.

That title belongs to the Pac-12, according to ESPN's latest rankings. But the Big 12, which boasts powerhouse TCU, has every reason to gloat over the SEC as well, as does the Big Ten, which is home to the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

And how ironic it is that Urban Meyer helped create this overly decorated SEC we know today with two championships at Florida, only to be the one to lay the conference bare by beating Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal before moving on to win the first national championship of the playoff era.

Now, instead of everyone chasing Nick Saban at Alabama, it's the SEC playing catch-up with Meyer and a resurgent Ohio State poised to make another run at the national championship next season.

If it's not the Buckeyes hoisting the trophy in 2016, it could be favorites TCU, Baylor or USC. If you're following along with Mark Schlabach's Way-too-early Top 25, you have to then pass Oregon, Michigan State and UCLA before landing on a team from the SEC. And even then, it's the perennially underwhelming Georgia Bulldogs at No. 8, which are without a returning starter at quarterback and haven't won a national championship since 1980.

That's looking ahead to next season, of course, but it speaks to the status of the conference as a whole after what we saw during its zombie walk through the bowl season. It speaks to perception, whose momentum drives through the offseason and carries well into the fall.

The SEC is a dying conference by no means, but after so long at the top, ranking second should come as a major disappointment. A slap in the face. A wake-up call.

Because in the coming months, it won't just be the Pac-12 that taunts the conference with feelings of superiority. Outside of perhaps the ACC, the rest of the Power 5 should feel as if its turned the tables on the SEC.

Now, mind you, Alabama isn't going anywhere. Neither is Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss or Mississippi State. Outside of Georgia in the East, we've learned that you shouldn't sleep on Missouri, Tennessee or even Florida with its new coaching staff.

But depth is only one part of the equation. Potential is meaningless without results either.

Until the SEC breaks its two-year streak without a national championship, perception will continue to go against the conference that has long relished its status as No. 1.

Top early enrollees: SEC 

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
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Newcomers to the SEC made a huge impact throughout the conference this past season. From running back Jalen Hurd at Tennessee, to offensive tackle Cam Robinson at Alabama and to wide receivers D'haquille Williams and Speedy Noil at Auburn and Texas A&M, respectively, these prospects who enrolled last January left their mark on the 2014 football season. Whether it be junior college transfers or true freshmen, these newcomers are counted on every year to help fill voids. Here's a closer look at some of the top candidates who are likely to make an impact early on in their collegiate careers.


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