Now that the AP preaseason poll is out, we know exactly who will make up the College Football Playoff.

If only it were that easy.

History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss could be a threat to sneak out of the West.
As we dive into this poll, you'll see that most of the team everyone is talking about to be in the playoff at season's end are right at the top of the poll -- Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Only four teams can make it into the playoff, but most people have some sort of combination of these teams.

Good luck with that.

According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."

In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.

The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.

Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.

So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).

Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.

Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.

There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:

  • Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
  • Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
  • Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
  • LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.

Flying under the radar?

Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.
video

Chris Low and Cary Chow break down the latest in a handful of quarterback competitions in the SEC.

Drive Through: August 18th

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
12:14
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video

Your one stop shop for all things college football. Cary Chow is joined by Matt Fortuna and Tom VanHaaren to discuss the latest news surrounding Notre Dame, and Chris Low joins the show to talk SEC quarterback races.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson's job could have been awfully difficult this season if the wrong personalities existed within his running backs room at LSU.

Wilson -- the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach -- just bolstered his depth chart by adding the nation's top overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, plus Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,200 yards as a high school senior. If the other scholarship tailbacks on the roster, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, were jealous types, the dynamic in Wilson's meeting room could easily have turned poisonous.

Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite.

"They're so humble," Wilson said of Magee and Hilliard. "They've been so patient in their careers and they understand what it is to be a young pro and put themselves in position to embark on this senior year and have great success. So to have both of those guys here who are unselfish and lead our group is certainly positive for us."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertTerrence Magee is wearing the No. 18 jersey this season -- given to LSU's top leaders each fall -- in part because of his mentorship of young running backs like Leonard Fournette (7).
Even during spring practice, a few months before Fournette and Williams arrived on campus, Magee and Hilliard answered frequent questions about the new signees without balking. Despite the possibility that the Tigers' top back might become a freshman, the veterans immediately embraced the newcomers in an effort to get them ready for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

"I've been happy with that," Fournette said. "They're still teaching us, all the young running backs. Without them, we'd kind of be lost. Every day they teach us and we get better."

And they're happy to teach, Hilliard said, just as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did for him as a freshman in 2011.

"They were all brothers to us," Hilliard said. "They all took us underneath their wing and carried us."

The freshmen seem to be taking the right approach, as well.

"One thing I love about Darrel -- just like I love about Leonard -- I love his attitude," Magee said. "He might call me 20 times a day to ask me, ‘What do I do on this?' or 'What do I do on that?' He was blowing me up [the night before preseason camp opened]. But you like guys like that because they want to learn. For me, I want to teach him because I want to look back and say I was able to help that guy get to where he is today."

That's exactly the kind of selflessness those at LSU expected from Magee. The coaches handed him the No. 18 jersey for the season -- an honor that goes to one of the Tigers' top leaders each fall. And leadership is what he has shown toward Fournette, who might be the most heavily-hyped recruit in LSU history.

"You know when you meet someone and you know you're kind of alike? That's how it is with me and Terrence," Fournette said. "I enjoy being around him. He's another jokester. He likes to have fun and I think the brotherhood that we're creating, it's fun.

Fournette continued, "Without him I'd be lost. Every day he's taking his time after practice, he's coming by my house teaching me and telling me this is what this call means, this is what that call means. So that means a lot. I'm catching on faster outside of football practice with him helping me."

Magee and Hilliard aren't naïve about what the 2014 season holds. They know that despite rushing for a combined 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as Jeremy Hill's backups, they will probably touch the ball fewer times as the freshmen adapt to SEC football.

All of them envision some sort of backfield timeshare, as that has become a common feature of LSU's running game in recent seasons.

"I think all of us are going to get a lot of carries, a lot of play and contribute to the team," Williams predicted.

And that's just fine with Magee and Hilliard.

Some players view their senior seasons as a final chance to shine -- and show NFL scouts that they're worthy of becoming draft picks. LSU's senior backs certainly hold that mindset, but realize they can think that way without being selfish toward their young teammates.

"When things get hard and people question our team, when it's tough out there when we're practicing, [his predecessors wearing No. 18 were] the first guys to step up and just lead this team, show everybody how it's done. ‘Follow me. Watch me,' " Magee said. "I really admire that about those guys. Sometimes you have young guys and they're looking around and looking for somebody to follow. Each guy that I've seen wear that since I've been here, they got it."

He and Hilliard seem to have willing followers in the two freshman backs.

"I really don't think about [starting] because we're still learning and the veterans are teaching us," Fournette said. "I don't expect to come in and right away in the game and start. So I'm just following Kenny and Terrence."

Fortunately for LSU, and for the future of its running game, Magee and Hilliard seem to be two good players for a freshman to follow.

Steele: Projected SEC standings

August, 18, 2014
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With the season less than two weeks away, Phil Steele takes a crack at projecting the final standings for the SEC, along with records for each team.

Click here Insider for the full rundown of Steele's thoughts on who will finish where and why, but here's a sample: He likes Alabama in the West and Georgia in the East.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Rashard Robinson was in the middle of complimenting freshman receiver D.J. Chark when a reporter informed him that LSU coach Les Miles proclaimed Chark as possibly the fastest player on the team.

That's when Robinson's expression turned into a dismissive smirk.

"He's not the fastest," the sophomore cornerback said, shaking his head.

So who is?

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesRashard Robinson is one of at least four players who can claim to be LSU's fastest.
"I'm faster," Robinson chuckled. "[Or] Avery Peterson. But D.J., he's up there. He really is up there."

Since Miles made his initial statement about Chark's speed prior to preseason camp, he has revised his list of fastest Tigers a time or two. First it expanded to Chark and freshman tailback Leonard Fournette. Most recently, Miles said it could be any of at least four players.

After redshirt freshman receiver Peterson -- the younger brother of former LSU and current NFL speedster Patrick -- caught a touchdown pass in last Wednesday's scrimmage, Miles added Peterson to his list of candidates.

"It comes to mind that there are three fastest guys on our team right now and I just don't know which one really is the fastest guy on our team," Miles said. "So I think Leonard's pretty fast, I think Chark is pretty fast, I think Avery's pretty fast. I think I missed one. So maybe there's four fastest guys on the team."

Maybe it was Robinson that Miles was forgetting. Maybe it was freshman safety Jamal Adams, whom Chark included among the contenders. And it might have been someone like Travin Dural, who was a state-champion sprinter in high school.

On a roster that features as much athleticism as LSU's, it is no surprise that there is a contentious debate over which player is actually the fastest. For his part, Chark thinks Miles' initial assessment might actually be correct, but even he is willing to concede that the competition is close enough that the title could change hands frequently.

"Of course I feel like I'm going to win, but in reality it's all who gets the best takeoff at the start," Chark said, listing Robinson, Fournette and Adams as his top competition. "We have some pretty fast players here and I learned that from every day at workouts and sprints. We really have a fast team, so I think the fastest player is really who's having the best day that day."

Even Fournette, who outweighs the other contenders by at least 25 pounds, if not more?

"Yeah," Chark said, "Leonard can move."

SEC morning links

August, 18, 2014
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1. Another quarterback battle came to a resolution over the weekend as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin tabbed Kenny Hill to be the Aggies' starter when they open the season Aug. 28 vs. South Carolina at Williams Brice Stadium. It was Hill's "body of work" over the course of the competition that won him the job after he and true freshman Kyle Allen received virtually equal practice repetitions with the first and second team throughout the first two weeks of training camp. Sumlin noted that "Kyle needs to keep competing, and Kenny needs to continue competing at the level he's competing to stay where he is," and all indications are that it was a close competition and a tough decision for Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. But don't be fooled -- while Allen will continue to push Hill on the practice field and is only one play away from getting on the field, Sumlin has never been a two-quarterback guy who rotates players. Allen will likely see time when the Aggies take commanding leads in some of their nonconference games but Sumlin wants his quarterbacks to operate from a place of confidence and not looking over their shoulder. Sumlin has a long list of great college quarterbacks he has been around that reinforces that belief. The Aggies open with the Gamecocks but games against FCS foe Lamar, Rice and SMU follow so don't expect a quick trigger on Hill. The sophomore will get an opportunity to establish himself. Will the competition continue? Sure. But don't expect a revolving door here. Allen is staying confident, posting on Twitter "Don't count me out yet."

2. Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the starting quarterback job is not yet situated. After a scrimmage Saturday, Alabama coach Nick Saban said that Blake Sims is "playing a little faster right now" than transfer Jacob Coker. As a fifth-year senior who has been in the Crimson Tide's system compared to Coker, who just arrived this summer, that's understandable. But with the season opener approaching, eyes begin to zero in on every twist and turn of the race. Saban declined to disclose his two quarterbacks' statistics from the scrimmage and made it clear that the coaching staff is not going to make a decision until "someone clearly wins the job." That's the right approach. It's beneficial to establish some kind of deadline so that when game week arrives, your starter is taking the first-team snaps and you're not splitting reps and allow your starter to develop a rhythm, but if it's still pretty close taking more time makes sense.

3. Arkansas held an open-to-the-public scrimmage on Saturday and there was plenty to take away, from the performance of quarterback Brandon Allen, the establishment of a backup (Austin Allen), a big day for Korliss Marshall and a glimpse of freshman receiver Jojo Robinson's ability. But perhaps the most entertaining bit came before the scrimmage, when Bielema grabbed the microphone and reminded the crowd not to video record the practice. "If you see someone videotaping, tell them that ain't right," Bielema said. "Especially if they're wearing an Auburn shirt, knock the s--- out of them." Of course, the Razorbacks open the season against Auburn and Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn have some differing opinions, but there's nothing wrong with a little good fun in the form of a joke to get your home crowd fired up.

More from around the SEC:
Tweets of the weekend

BATON ROUGE, La. – Danielle Hunter led what LSU coach Les Miles described as a “dominant” effort by the Tigers’ defense in Saturday’s second preseason scrimmage.

The junior defensive end had nine tackles and four tackles for loss during the 120-play scrimmage at Tiger Stadium, with linebackers D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith and cornerback Rashard Robinson also drawing praise from Miles.

That said, Miles hesitated to declare a victor following the day’s competition, which featured multiple situational scenarios and special-teams work.

“It was nip and tuck,” Miles said. “It was difficult to move the ball and when we did, we had to earn it. They made us earn it. I thought it was really an even go, to be honest. Very physical. Big lines, defensive lines and offensive lines having at it.”

Following his pattern following previous scrimmages from the spring and earlier this week, Miles didn’t offer any specifics about his quarterbacks’ performances.

He said collectively they completed 20 of about 40 to 45 pass attempts and tossed three touchdowns. Miles wouldn’t say who caught the touchdowns, although he did say that nine different players caught a pass. He did reveal that freshman safety Austin Suits provided the day’s lone turnover, an interception.

The quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris still remains close, Miles said.

“There’s days where one quarterback shines a little bit more than the other quarterback. That’s something that everybody sees,” Miles said. “And then there’s those days where the other quarterback shines and the other guy can’t get out of his shadow. It’s just the way it is and it just takes time to put them in position and in situations enough to have them operate the offense so that you know really what it is you’re going to do with them.”

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette, who didn't participate on Wednesday, saw action in Saturday's scrimmage.
LSU’s four running backs all averaged about 14 carries, with the leading rusher going for about 60 yards and others finishing with 43 and 41 -- again, with no specifics on the players’ identities.

Freshman Leonard Fournette, who did not face full contact during Wednesday’s first scrimmage while nursing an injury, picked up a loose ball and “went a long way and certainly looked good” on a broken play against the scout team, Miles said. He also singled out senior Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams for their power running.

“I think Kenny Hilliard is poised to have a really big year,” Miles said. “And I think Darrel Williams is learning behind him, and I think Darrel Williams is going to be a very good back here.”

Freshman receiver Malachi Dupre did not compete in either scrimmage, but Miles said he expects the nation’s top 2014 wideout prospect to return on Monday -- which could benefit the Tigers with the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin less than two weeks away.

“We expect him to be back on Monday, and that’s really good news because there’s going to be some things that he can do that he’s done naturally in his life forever that we’ll want to use in this game,” Miles said.

The Tigers will scrimmage again on Tuesday, this time in preparation for the Wisconsin game instead of the ones versus ones work that dominated Saturday’s scrimmage.

While Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron were the starting defensive tackles on Saturday, junior Quentin Thomas -- once thought to be out for the season with a torn bicep -- might be nearing a return. He didn’t play on Saturday, but might actually be back in time for the Wisconsin scrimmage.

“I don’t know that he played in this one at all, but he was in position to,” Miles said. “He did some individual [drills] and kind of decided rather than to go live into this one, to hold him. So he’ll probably get that opportunity in what will be the middle-of-the-week Wisconsin scrimmage that we’ve got coming up.”

High five: Five items from Week 2

August, 15, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Each week during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five items from the Tigers’ second week of preseason camp:

1. Quinn, Chark getting ready at WR: Neither player was the No. 1 receiver prospect in the nation -- that was Malachi Dupre, who also signed with LSU in February but has been slowed recently by an undisclosed injury -- but freshmen Trey Quinn and D.J. Chark might be more prepared to contribute.

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural is among the group of players competing to be one of LSU's return men.
When asking LSU’s veteran receivers (or defensive backs) which freshmen have impressed them, it doesn’t take long before Quinn and Chark’s names arise. Especially Quinn’s. And don’t try to pigeonhole him as a possession receiver, either. The kid’s got good hands, yes, but he’s got the wheels and route-running ability to make plays all over the field. It sounds like we’ll see that happen sooner rather than later.

2. Good news at defensive tackle: LSU coach Les Miles named Frank Herron as a starting defensive tackle alongside Christian LaCouture once Quentin Thomas went down with an injury last week.

As it turns out, the Tigers might have both Herron and Thomas at their disposal at some point. Some within the program expected the worst when Thomas injured his arm in practice last week, but the team medical staff said he can rehabilitate the injury without surgery and might not miss the season after all.

Herron looked like was going to play a major role on the defensive line regardless, but it certainly won’t hurt for the Tigers to have their eldest veteran back in the fold. Miles said this week that he believes LSU has a potentially outstanding defensive line, and Thomas’ presence can only make it that much better.

3. Playing it coy about quarterbacks: If the Tigers are as disciplined on the field this fall as they are about discussing their quarterback competition, they’ll never commit a penalty. They’re definitely not tipping their hands when it comes to the QBs.

No matter who you ask, the general message is always the same: “Whoever the coaches choose, we can win with him. They’re both playing great right now. I don’t have a preference,” referring to quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Asked who threw the two touchdown passes in a scrimmage earlier this week, Miles replied, “A quarterback. I’m not going to share that if you don’t mind.”

This is nothing new. Miles pulled the same cloak-and-dagger routine in the spring, when he refused to reveal the quarterbacks’ passing stats after each of the Tigers’ scrimmages. Clearly this is just how Miles is going to handle it. With a tough opening matchup ahead against Wisconsin, there's no good reason to discourage one of the contenders yet.

4. Knowing their roles: LSU has established a reputation for playing freshmen -- and the Tigers will probably use somewhere around their normal 15 signees at some point this season.

But some Tigers newcomers display a mature understanding that this is probably not the fall where they make much of an impact.

Clifton Garrett -- one of the team’s highest-rated defensive signees -- showed that attitude, acknowledging that senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith are much better prepared to play at middle linebacker. So for now, he’s focusing on playing special teams and learning the intricacies of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ defense.

“I envision my role being a special teams kind of guy and just whenever coach feels like I’m able to get the plays down and everything, I’m going to be at [middle linebacker], so I’ve got to get the guys lined up,” Garrett said. “When Coach Chavis tells me I’m ready for that position, go out there and play on the field in primetime, then I’m going to do it and I want to be ready for that.”

Same with offensive lineman Jevonte Domond, who arrived from junior college just before the Tigers opened camp. This is probably a learning season, Domond acknowledged. The Tigers have a veteran offensive line and he still has three seasons of eligibility remaining, so the opportunity to learn LSU’s blocking schemes behind an established starter such as right tackle Jerald Hawkins will be incredibly valuable for him in 2015.

Plenty of LSU’s 2014 signees could make similar statements. Most recruits arrive and want to play immediately -- and some Tigers freshmen will do so this fall -- but it’s often good for them to bide their time behind experienced players without the pressure of learning in front of 102,000 people on fall Saturdays. It’s refreshing to see some newcomers possess the maturity to acknowledge that reality.

5. Kick return competition continues: The Tigers reportedly worked on kickoff returns in Wednesday’s first team scrimmage and will likely practice them again in Saturday’s first full scrimmage. But it’s difficult to predict who will handle kicks when the Tigers open the season Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.

Receiver Travin Dural said he’s practicing as a punt returner and kickoff returner and listed Tre'Davious White, Jamal Adams, Leonard Fournette, Quinn and Dupre among the other contenders. Dural said it’s difficult to detect a pecking order yet, however.

“As I see it, whoever lines up first gets the first punt or whoever gets there first gets the first kickoff,” Dural said. “There isn’t really a set order. It isn’t set in stone who’s the punt returner or who’s the kick returner.”

That could be a fun competition to watch over the next couple of weeks, as the players Dural listed have the skills to continue the LSU tradition of excellent return men.
Now that we've taken the time to look at offensive players who could pile on the stats in 2014, it's time to take a look at the defenders who make this league so scary.

Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.

Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.

This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.

Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is looking to build off of his strong freshman season.
1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: During his first year at Georgia, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 QB hurries. He explodes off the line and is a beast for linemen to handle. He could be the SEC's best pass-rusher in 2014.

2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.

5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.

7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.

8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.

9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.

10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.

Freshman defenders could claim roles

August, 14, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- He’s not a native-born Louisianan -- in fact, he’s 900 miles from his Illinois home -- but LSU freshman Clifton Garrett said he gets chills when he thinks about his first Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

“It’s going to be heart throbbing for me,” Garrett said. “I’m going to be extremely excited and adrenaline is going to be rushing. I can’t wait for it. I get a chill just thinking about it. I watch the hype videos and everything and it’s crazy.”

As ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker and No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Garrett seems bound for college stardom. That might not happen immediately, however. Not with veterans D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith ahead of him on the depth chart and not with the bulk of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme still to learn.

[+] EnlargeJamal Adams
Miller Safrit/ESPNESPN 300 safety Jamal Adams is one of several freshman defensive backs looking to make an immediate impact at LSU.
“There’s positions that are easier to play when you take into consideration athletic ability, experience,” Chavis said. “It’s a lot tougher to walk in and play tougher than it is to, say, play corner from an experience standpoint. Those guys don’t have as much to learn, but obviously they have to be better athletes. It’s a lot easier to get a freshman corner ready to play than it is to get a freshman linebacker, or as far as that goes because of the physicality, a freshman defensive lineman.”

Garrett himself seems ready to accept a season as a contributor on special teams, with occasional spot duty at linebacker, while he learns behind the veterans. But there are still several freshmen who have a chance to contribute immediately on Chavis’ defense. And as the Tigers’ veteran coordinator indicated, some of them -- a group that includes cornerback Ed Paris and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle -- reside in the secondary.

Paris, ESPN’s No. 50 overall prospect, got a head start on the others by enrolling at LSU in January and participating in spring practice. He was listed as a second-team cornerback behind Rashard Robinson on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart.

“It helped me a lot. I learned it all in like a major way,” Paris said of his spring experience. “Because learning the playbook is extremely hard [as are] just learning [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond’s terminology and seeing things and just trying to stay key on my techniques.”

Adams -- LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 safety on the ESPN 300 -- might be on the field in multiple capacities. He’s in the mix for one of the Tigers’ kick return jobs, plus he could contribute in the base defense or in the Tigers’ nickel or dime packages.

“I feel like I can fit in with those guys,” Adams said of the veterans in the secondary. “I feel like I can help that group of guys, but I’m definitely not going to rush anything. I’m just going to keep working hard and my playing time is going to speak for myself on the field.”

And Battle’s versatility will someday come in handy. Sophomore Dwayne Thomas said he and Jalen Mills have been encouraging Battle to learn every position in the secondary, just as they have. That might not happen immediately, but Battle said he and the other freshman safeties should carve out a niche once they figure out their positions.

“It’s going to be fun,” Battle said. “Once we learn the plays, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”

That was a common theme among LSU’s defensive newcomers, who all seemed to recognize they still have a lot to learn. Many of them were sought-after recruits who are unaccustomed to sitting on the bench, but they know they must prove themselves worthy of playing time beyond special teams.

“It’s definitely a humbling aspect, but it’s definitely a motivational thing, as well,” Garrett said. “Being one of the young guys, the underdog, you have to come in and kind of prove yourself to all the older guys.”

Most of LSU’s freshmen seem to have that attitude, sophomore safety Rickey Jefferson said, which has impressed the veterans.

“Most of the class, honestly, had their head on straight. I don’t really recall one guy that’s like a knucklehead or anything like that,” Jefferson said. “Most of them handle their business. They’ve really got it going on, so I have to give that to them.”

Nonetheless, this probably will not be a season where LSU’s freshman defenders dominate the headlines. Its offensive newcomers are getting much of the attention right now, and for good reason. The Tigers must replace 76 percent of their offensive production from last season, after all, and it’s entirely possible that freshmen will pick up some of that slack.

But quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette, and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn aren’t the only LSU freshmen set to make their mark in 2014. Several freshmen on defense, particularly those in the secondary, could play roles on scrimmage downs this season.

“These guys are pretty good,” said Mills, a former Freshman All-American. “They kind of remind me of the defensive back class that came in when I was a freshman. We were hungry and we wanted to go out there and get the starting job that next day, so it’s just good competition.”
As we count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the official start of the 2014 college football season, we're also gearing up for our first trip through the College Football Playoff.

Yes, after waaaaay too many years of being stubborn and different, this beloved sport is finally getting a playoff system to determine its national champion at the end of the year.

Better late than never.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMIThere's strong support among SEC players such as La'el Collins for the new College Football Playoff, but they have different ideas on how big it should get.
There's a 13-member playoff committee, revolving playoff sites and newfound excitement attached to the playoff. Fans, coaches, media members and school administrators have all weighed in on the pros and cons of the College Football Playoff, but we haven't really heard a lot from the players who will actually be partaking in the playoff and throwing their bodies around a couple of more times each season.

What do the players think of it? Are four teams enough? Should it expand? What effect will it have on players' bodies and academics? What about travel for their families and friends? Do they want the playoff at all?

Over the past month, we asked players around the conference to weigh in on the playoff and give us their thoughts on the playoff.

Enough teams?

You were hard-pressed to find a player who didn't agree with FBS football adopting a playoff system. So with that out of the way, we asked players whether they thought four games was enough. The majority were happy with that number.

  • “I think it’s perfect -- a four-team playoff. You get right to the point. If you lose, you go home and there’s two more teams [left]. There it is, it’s simple.” -- LSU OT La'el Collins. (However, when asked about his thoughts on expanding it, Collins said it "would be cool, too.")
  • “I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do it, but I think that’s a good amount of games. You don’t want to be playing too many in the playoff because then guys’ bodies would be shot and coaches after the season wouldn’t have time to go out and recruit [as much]. They would lose out on a lot of recruiting opportunities.” -- Florida QB Jeff Driskel
  • “Four is plenty right now. ... Right now, four is what it is and I’m happy that that’s what it is. If they end up changing it, then I’ll be happy also." -- Tennessee C Mack Crowder
  • “It’ll be just like high school again, I guess. It’s just one more game. I think everybody will be fine.” -- Georgia RB Todd Gurley
  • “Four teams is better than two, so it’s a good start.” -- Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi

What if the playoff were to expand to eight or 16 teams?

  • “That might be too much because it’s a hard game already. Playing all those games, there would definitely be more injuries. Four is fine, eight could be cool too, but I don’t think 16 would be smart.” -- Ogbuehi
  • "That would probably be a little too much.” -- Gurley
  • “As players, we don’t think about it like that. We think of it as some players are going to go on and play in the NFL where there are 16 games on top of a playoff and a Super Bowl -- mind you that some of those guys play in a wild-card game. By the time they finish, it’s like 20-something games.” -- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.

What about your life away from football? Wouldn't an expanded playoff eat into your family time during the holidays and conflict with finals?

  • “Fans don’t think about that. Fans don’t think about us spending time with our families or finishing out our classes with good grades. That’s something that they have to take into consideration.” -- Driskel
Travel

A playoff, whether it has four teams or 16, means more travel for players, fans and family members. That means more money out of people's pockets when it comes to transportation -- which is more than likely going to be by plane -- food, lodging, and miscellaneous. And that's just for one game.

Let's face it, some people are going to have to decide between going to the semifinal game or the national championship.

  • “Not every family can make that trip. The fact that there are more games and both are immensely huge games could make it difficult on a lot of families [to plan travel]. I could see that happening. ... It’s not necessarily something that we thought about. But when we look at the schedule and we know how that’s going to play out, then some people have to start thinking about that, and some more than others.” -- Georgia WR Chris Conley
  • “It’s definitely a concern. It’s something that guys’ families are going to have to start preparing themselves now.” -- Collins
  • “You can watch us on TV. As long as we win, that’s all that matters.” -- Fowler

Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier thinks players and families should be helped out with travel.

  • “They have to do that now because most of them don’t have enough money to make all those trips. That’s why I think we should give the players and the parents expense money -- $200 to the player, $200 to the parents. Every time we play, here’s $400 of expense money.”
Injury concern?

More games mean more chances for injuries. That's just science. So are players concerned about wearing down?

  • “I just see it as more games, and I love playing games. You can get hurt literally at any point in the season. At the end of the season, some guys are going to be completely healthy, some guys are gonna be beat up." -- Crowder
  • “That’s the sacrifice you make, but it all pays off in the end.” -- Collins
  • “It’s a lot of games, but it’s something that you have to prep yourself up for and prepare yourself to just go. You’re going to have aches and injuries, and things like that, but if you want to win it takes hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears.” -- Fowler

For now, players will go through the motions of the season before they sniff what life in the playoff will be like. It's worked at all other levels of sport, and now Division 1 football is getting in on the act. All these questions and concerns will be approached head-on in the months to come, and we'll see how players' opinions on the playoff change.

SEC morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
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1. If you think Nick Saban is leaving Alabama for the NFL, don't hold your breath. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told AL.com recently that Saban's next stop will be TV, maybe even adjacent to him on the set of ESPN. Saban is no stranger to the camera. He's been on College GameDay countless times, and he served as a guest analyst for ESPN during last year's BCS national championship coverage. That got me thinking. What other SEC coaches would be good on TV? The first one that comes to mind is the always-entertaining Les Miles. If he had his own show, people would watch. I also think Steve Spurrier would be fantastic as an analyst because of his candor. He was great on set with Saban during ESPN's recent carwash. Will Muschamp could provide that fiery on-air personality, and Dan Mullen could be fun, too.

2. Speaking of SEC coaches, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was the latest to take the ice bucket challenge. He and his entire team had ice water dumped on their heads Wednesday to help raise awareness for ALS, a disease that took the life of Adam Deacon's mother. Deacon is a junior offensive lineman at Arkansas. Afterward, Bielema and his team challenged athletic director Jeff Long, ESPN personalities Paul Finebaum and Joe Tessitore, and college football teams across the nation to complete the challenge and donate to the ALS association. Earlier this week, NHL player Paul Bissonnette took the ice bucket challenge to new heights, literally.

3. We're nearly two weeks into fall camp, and it's about that time when coaches start making decisions on key position battles. At Tennessee, it sounds like Butch Jones might be on the verge of naming his starting quarterback. The candidates include senior Justin Worley and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. All three started at least one game last year, and all three have shown progress through the early stages of fall camp. Across the state, Derek Mason is in no hurry to name his starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, but the competition was cut in half this week. Only three signal callers remain.

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More around the SEC

 
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles didn’t offer many specifics about LSU’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday -- particularly about which quarterbacks completed the two touchdown passes -- but the Tigers’ coach described the 26-play scrimmage as “pretty productive.”

Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.

“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles said that QBs Anthony Jennings, left, and Brandon Harris are both grasping LSU's offense.
He made similar comments about wide receiver Dupre, who already missed a couple of practice days with an undisclosed injury.

“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.

He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.

“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.

“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”

Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.

“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”

Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”

Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.

Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.

“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”

Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.

“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”

But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.

“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”

Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.

“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.

Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.

“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”

LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”
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.”

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Thursday, 8/28
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