LSU Tigers: SEC

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
BATON ROUGE, La. – La'el Collins took a risk in returning for one more season at LSU. That much is certain. But the senior offensive tackle believes that the potential payoff outweighs the chance he took by remaining in college.

Yes, returning will help him graduate from college. And yes, he’ll have one more chance to help the Tigers compete for championships. But perhaps the biggest payoff would be if he manages to improve his NFL draft stock from possible first-round pick to surefire first-round pick.

“It was a lot of things in my game that I feel like I could get better at,” Collins said. “I had so much more room to grow as a left tackle in this league, so why would I want to enter the draft and know I didn’t reach my full potential in this league first?

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMILa'el Collins is returning to LSU to show the NFL he's the total package.
“So I wanted to come back and work on those things -- just being more consistent, just working on technique things and just coming out here and really just giving my all in practice. Practicing like it’s a game and putting myself through that so when it’s game time, I’m ready.”

That’s a unique attitude anywhere in college football, and especially at LSU, which has seen 18 players with eligibility remaining opt to enter the draft in the last two years.

It’s a sport-wide problem, however, as a staggering number of underclassmen enter the draft only to discover too late that they weren’t ready for the pros. Many of them, such as LSU defensive lineman and early draft entrant Anthony Johnson, aren’t even among the 256 picks in the seven-round draft.

That would not have been Collins’ fate, but when it was time to make a decision, he heeded LSU coach Les Miles’ call not to give an NFL team a bargain. Collins said he received a mix of first- and second-round draft grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which helps underclassmen understand how NFL teams view their readiness to play in the league, but he felt he could do better.

He believes a second season starting at left tackle, unquestionably a premium salary position in the NFL, is well worth the injury risk that accompanies another college season -- and Collins has impressed his coaches in many ways since making that decision.

“I think leadership is evident in La’el Collins, a guy that’s really not eligible to wear 18 [a jersey number handed to a team leader each season, but offensive linemen can't wear such a low number], a guy that really turned down what was certain wealth at some level to get his degree, play championship ball here and put himself in position to move his draft status up,” Miles said. “So that kind of guy is a leader in every huddle that we break.”

Collins’ leadership came up again and again as one of his strengths, as he steadies an offense that could be heavy on freshmen at the skill positions.

“La’el Collins is a man and a great leader,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I’ve been so impressed with him. He chose to come back and he did it for all the right reasons and he’s never looked back and he’s becoming a great, great leader. He’s impressive and I think that’s rubbing off on the other guys and he’s setting high expectations for this offense.”

Now about that draft stock.

Collins worked relentlessly since the end of his All-SEC junior season, improving his physique and working on the technical aspects of his position in order to become a more consistent blocker. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has noticed a difference in Collins even since they first worked together in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins is putting in the work to be even better than he was in an All-SEC junior season.
“The first thing I would say about La’el is he has improved as much if not more than anybody on the line since I’ve been here, which I think is quite a statement given his experience and success that he’s had,” Grimes said. “So he is really working to get better. The other thing I can say is he’s really stepped up his leadership, which is important for a guy in his position, important for our team because he definitely has a strong voice in the locker room. Guys will follow him.”

From a technical perspective, Grimes said the keys for Collins are to play with sound technique and stay under control.

“I think the things that he’s had to do is just really refine his footwork and his hat placement and realize he’s an aggressive kid, and sometimes the most aggressive kids are the ones that may get a little out of control just wanting to whack somebody on the line of scrimmage,” Grimes said. “He’s had to realize that sometimes you have to start the block right in order to finish the play with the defender on his back."

It’s a cliché, but Collins knows improving at those little things can add up -- perhaps literally if a strong senior season results in a lucrative NFL contract. He feels he has something to prove, and that’s a big reason why he’s still a Tiger.

“You have to have the technique and that’s something that I feel like I have to be more consistent on,” Collins said. “That’s things that I really feel like I need to really put myself in it and work and come out and practice each and every day and make sure I take the correct steps, make sure I get my hat on the right side, make sure I get my hands in the right place.

"Those little things right there can carry me from now to however long I play football in my life. I just felt like I needed to work on those things.”
Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,133)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

With the start of the 2014 season a little more than a month away, we are still trying to figure out who will be in position to capture the league title this fall. But there are a few teams we are still trying to get a good read on.

Today’s Take Two topic: What is the toughest SEC team to get a handle on in 2014 -- Missouri or LSU?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMaty Mauk returns, but Missouri has several question marks on both sides of the ball.
To me, the Missouri Tigers are the toughest team to figure out in 2014. After last season's special run through the SEC, there is plenty of confidence in Columbia, Missouri, but there is also a lot of uncertainty in some areas on this team. I could see this group of Tigers continuing to ride the momentum they created last season, but I could also see Mizzou take a nosedive this fall.

I do like that Mizzou has a confident, talented quarterback returning in Maty Mauk. He went 3-1 as a starter last season in place of an injured James Franklin. Mauk threw for more than 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns to just one interception. He lost almost nine pounds this summer because of a viral infection, but he thinks it has made him lighter, faster and quicker. He has a stacked backfield to work with and an experienced offensive line in front of him. The defense will again be anchored by a stout defensive line, starting with potential All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden.

But there are plenty of questions. Who is Mauk going to throw to? How will reshuffling affect the offensive line? Are there true playmakers at linebacker? How is an inexperienced secondary going to hold up this season? Who's going to replace all those proven leaders?

Receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White have good field experience, but one of them is going to have to stand out as the guy for Mauk to rely on. Are any of them ready? Can any of them be dynamic enough playmakers to force defenses to adjust? Not having someone like Dorial Green-Beckham could really hurt this offense.

Two starters are gone at linebacker, and this unit dealt with injuries this spring. Not great. Mizzou’s secondary was one of the SEC’s worst last season, and three starters are gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is depth in the secondary, but not a lot of proven guys, and that concerns me.

The biggest thing might be finding new vocal leaders. Who can carry this team like Franklin, Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington did last season? Is Mauk up to the task? Golden? I don’t think we really know what the locker room scene is like for this team.

Take 2: Greg Ostendorf

Let’s start with the fact that LSU lost nine players to the NFL draft this past year, more than any other team in college football. The team’s starting quarterback, its top two running backs, top two wide receivers and its top offensive lineman have all moved on to the next level. Time to rebuild, right? Not in Baton Rouge. Not under Les Miles.

Since Miles took over in 2005, LSU has had 60 players taken in the NFL draft, yet the Tigers have managed to win at least 10 games in seven of Miles’ nine seasons as head coach.

So don’t expect this season’s LSU team to fall off completely, but with so many unknowns and a stacked SEC West, the Tigers could finish anywhere between first to sixth in their own division. They are talented enough to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, but they could just as easily end up in the Music City Bowl.

Where this team goes will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class. Between Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, LSU could have three true freshman starting on offense by the time the season opener rolls around.

Fournette might be the closest thing to a sure thing. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back was the No. 1 recruit in the country and has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was one of the top stories at SEC media days, and he has yet to record a carry. But can he handle the pressure and the rigors of a college football season? Can Harris and Dupre handle it? All three were playing high school football in Louisiana less than a year ago.

As for the defense, there are even more question marks. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Tre'Davious White are good players, potentially All-SEC, but what is the status of Jalen Mills after his arrest this offseason? Who will fill the big shoes left by Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson on the defensive line? Who are the leaders going to be?

This might be the toughest coaching job yet for Miles, but don’t be surprised if LSU is in the playoff conversation when it travels to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
12:00
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Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.

HOOVER, Ala. -- When you place a microphone in front of Les Miles, it's magical. You never know what the LSU head coach might say or which sound bite might go viral. The possibilities are seemingly endless for "The Mad Hatter."

Miles didn't disappoint when he stepped on the dais in Ballroom C of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham. His opening statement was more than 10 minutes long and more than 1,400 words. Here are the best quotes Miles provided.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
AP Photo/Butch DillLSU coach Les Miles is always good for a quote.
It's the gift that keeps on giving:

On the SEC Network: "I told commissioner [Mike] Slive in the last five minutes congratulations on Cox Cable picking up the SEC Network and the fact that there will be a bunch of people in Baton Rouge excited to watch the Tigers. I won't have to change my cable provider."

On his family vacation: "The Miles family, [daughter and Texas student] Smacker Miles, I took a vacation. I went to Austin, took my three children with me, so we had six, two parents and four children on that campus. It was miserable. I hated it. But it was great fun. I mean, it was not a beach, it was not sand, but it was my family, and that was the best. Manny is my eldest son. He's pitching and playing football. FIFA was on TV. He decided to pick up a soccer ball, called up a couple buddies, he was in a soccer game for four hours. Think about that, right? My [youngest daughter] Macy Miles is pitching in fast-pitch softball in Orlando, Florida, at the World Series. Certainly there's a lot of media there, as well. She's in a 10-and-under league. She has a 4-0 win as a pitcher, no hit. A very quality smasher's club that she faced this morning."

On why he disliked Austin: "Oh, no, no, no. It was just not vacation. I loved it. My daughter's doing wonderfully there. I enjoy the experience she's having, OK? But it was not a beach. There was no hotel that I walked out and jumped into the surf. But the great news is, as a family, we did some things we never would have done. I'm glad you asked this question [laughter]. Example: We rented bikes. It just happened to rain like hell. There was a bunch of hills down there. I want you to know something. As a father, I'm watching my kids going down this hill. I promise you, some of the experiences I had there, I'll not have again [laughter]."

On LSU's outlook this year: "I like us. I like us in every game."

On losing players early to the NFL draft: "Yeah, we'd like to have those guys back. I keep approaching the NFL on an opportunity for us to draft back some of our players that they take. Patrick Peterson, he'd have come back [smiling]."

On true freshman tailback Leonard Fournette: "I think it's exactly where he needs to be. He expects himself to be something very special. I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any." (You can read more on the high praise for Fournette here.)

On the College Football Playoff: "I think it's a quality attempt. I think the playoffs will eventually at some point in time expand. I think that the playoff will be equally kind to the SEC. The reason I say that is because there's just such quality competition here. The teams week in and week out are so prepared, so capable and talented. For them not to include one and possibly more in that playoff would be, I don't know, maybe shortsighted."

On recruiting the state of Texas as an SEC coach: "I think our conference is a conference of choice. I think there's an opportunity for the very best players to want to play in this conference. I'm also a coach that coached in the Big 12 Conference and recognized the great advantages of Texas, recognized the great advantages of the OUs in that conference. But you look at a high school athlete, you want to play against the very best; we can make that argument at the SEC."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
The Opening has become a breeding ground for future SEC players over the years. It started in 2011 as a football camp for the nation’s top recruits and has grown every year since. For those who haven’t heard of it or know little about it, here’s a fan’s guide to the event.

This year is no different in terms of SEC participation as 37 of the 162 invitees have already committed to SEC schools.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMILandon Collins starred at The Opening before becoming a star for Alabama at safety.
SEC commitments by school

Alabama: 10
Texas A&M: 7
Georgia: 5
Florida: 4
LSU: 3
Mississippi State: 2
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 2
Kentucky: 1
Missouri: 1

The event will be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and gives you a chance to see the future of your school. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the past participants to come through who are now making noise on Saturdays in the SEC.

Vadal Alexander (2011): If there were any doubts about Alexander before The Opening, he answered them with his performance. He rarely got beat in the one-on-one drills and used his strength to overpower opposing defensive linemen. It was that same strength that helped him early at LSU, and he’s expected to start up front for the third straight season. He and left tackle La'El Collins form a menacing tandem on the left side for the Tigers.

Landon Collins (2011): Collins stole the show at the inaugural camp. He won the SPARQ national championship with a high score of 143.76 and was a beast all week in the 7-on-7 competition. He didn’t make the type of impact he was hoping for as a freshman at Alabama, but he emerged last season with 69 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles forced. He’s one of the top safeties in the country and projected to be a first-round draft pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III (2012): The week didn’t last long for Hargreaves, who injured his ankle on the first day, but he did run a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 4.1 shuttle before bowing out. That speed and athleticism was evident this past season, as the Florida freshman emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. He finished with 38 tackles, three interceptions, and was among the league leaders in passes defended with 14.

O.J. Howard (2012): Tight ends don’t typically stand out at The Opening, but Howard isn’t your typical tight end. He measured in at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and dominated 7-on-7 play with his combination of size and speed. Unlike teammate and fellow Opening alum Derrick Henry, Howard endured a slow start to his Alabama career, but the expectations are high heading into this season.

Laquon Treadwell (2012): Treadwell might not have tested as well as some of his peers, but once he got on the field, he caught everything thrown his way. He showed the ability to make a catch under duress in traffic, and if the ball was in his vicinity, he was coming down with it. That held true at Ole Miss, where he led all SEC freshman with 72 receptions and finished with 608 yards and five touchdowns.

Most important game: LSU

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
3:30
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We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at LSU.

Most important game: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Key players: Let's start with the offensive line, where the Tigers return four starters and expect to have a solid group, led by tackle La'el Collins and guard Vadal Alexander. They'll have to do better against Alabama's front line than they did last year in giving up four sacks. LSU's ground game also must be better than last season, when the Tide outgained the Tigers 193-43 in rushing yards. Running back Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard have the experience, but touted true freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, could very well take over as the starter by November.

No matter who is toting the rock, the biggest key for LSU will be the play of its new quarterback, regardless of whether it's sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. Neither has played in a game of this magnitude, but there won't be time for jitters. Alabama's reloaded defense will be more than capable of stuffing the run and putting all the pressure on LSU's young signal-caller, whoever it is, to make a difference through the air. The Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL from their wide receiving corps, but Travin Dural and John Diarse have the skills to rise to the occasion. LSU also signed two of the top three wideouts in the 2014 class -- Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.

On defense, the Tigers have few question marks at linebacker and in the secondary but must regroup on the line, where they had an uncharacteristic 9.5 sacks last season. End Jermauria Rasco had one of them against Alabama, but it was the only sack of the game for LSU. With only two other tackles for loss in that game, the Tigers simply didn't generate enough pressure. Rasco and fellow starter Danielle Hunter will have the usual challenge against Alabama's O-line, which returns three starters and loads of talent. LSU could certainly use more of a push from its defensive tackles, where youngsters like Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain have the talent to emerge this fall.

Why it matters: We could have easily chosen Auburn to be LSU's most important game of 2014, since LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last season. But the most important game -- and rivalry -- remains with Alabama. Maintaining an edge over Auburn is important, but LSU-Alabama continues to be one of the nation's biggest annual games. The Tide are the standard against which LSU measures itself, and vice versa. These schools also love recruiting in each other's territory, so the Tigers can't afford to slip. Last season saw LSU lose to Bama for the second straight season. The Tigers lost two fumbles, two turnovers on downs and basically let the game get out of hand in the second half, losing 38-17. It was the the most points LSU had given up in the rivalry since 1947. This year, LSU will face Alabama in Baton Rouge, presumably under the lights of Tiger Stadium. With both teams breaking in new QBs and several new players on defense, there's a chance this game won't have the national title implications it usually does. But it's a safe bet the SEC West race will loom large. All that aside, this is a down-and-dirty Southern grudge match. It's the Hatfields and McCoys of the SEC. The Tigers simply can't afford to lose a third straight game to their most-heated rival.

SEC's lunch links

July, 2, 2014
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The World Cup run by the USMNT is over, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. His 16 saves were a World Cup record, and there’s now talk that he could be the greatest goalie in history. Personally, I think he would’ve made a great safety, but clearly he made the right choice with soccer.



No, thank you Tim Howard. Now on to Wednesday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 1, 2014
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The USMNT is back in action on Tuesday against Belgium. Winner moves on to the quarterfinals. Loser goes home. Are you ready? Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is ready.

Watch the game here: United States vs Belgium, 4 p.m. ET

In the meantime, get your American football fix in with Tuesday’s SEC lunch links.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

SEC lunch links

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

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

Another impressive SEC winning streak is therefore still alive. This is ninth straight year that an SEC school has won a national title in football, men’s basketball or baseball.
Les Miles never ceases to amaze, well, anyone.

His quirky antics and enthusiasm bring a smile to your face, while you can't help but be impressed by some of the ways he and his teams pull out victories. There is no exact science to Miles, but love him or hate him, he's entertaining.

Now, apparently, he's a baller in the miniature golf world.

We've seen plenty of celebrations by LSU's national championship-winning coach, but this one deserves a spot atop Miles' list.


And let's not act like that was an easy putt for the Mad Hatter. There were distractions all around Miles, from the Madonna song playing in the background to him being asked question after question before he can even try to sink what looks like a putt that's a little more than a yard from the hole. Somehow he concentrates on the hole while talking about how Tiger Woods is his favorite golfer and he even checks the direction of the wind.

I'm no world-class golfer, but I don't think you need to know wind direction when it comes to sinking a short putt-putt ... putt. But the whole thing is glorious, and so is Miles. It's hard to hear and understand everything Miles is saying during the video, but there's a reference to his grip and someone makes fun of how slow he's playing. He really does pull a Sergio Garcia with his stalling and practice shots.

But in the end, he sinks the putt and drops his immaculate putter to the sound of cheers, while raising his Popeye arms and modestly chanting, "I can't help it. I can't help it."

Miles really has never been able to help it, and for that, we love him. We also love all these other classic and glorious videos Miles and been a part of.

How about his emotional postgame rant about the importance of his seniors after LSU's thrilling 41-35 win over rival Ole Miss in 2012? He gushes over them, calls his own college career "a flop," curses, and tells people to hug his seniors and "give them a big kiss on the mouth, if you're a girl." In a word: Brilliant.


Remember when he wasn't happy about the "hammer and nail" analogy used after last year's win over Florida? Of course you do.

Miles also wants tough quarterbacks at his school.

Last spring, he helped start one of the best Harlem Shake videos of all time with some amazing dance moves. If you were trying to forget those things, I'm so sorry, but this is just too magnificent.



This spring, he kissed a pig ...


He also wants you to know that Columbus Day and St. Patty's Day are two different days.

But with Miles, it always comes back to his, uh, taste in grass ...


We salute you, Les Miles.
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