A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."
Pick a word, any word.

That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.

Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/Athens Banner-HeraldGeorgia coach Mark Richt describes his team as 'wow.'
Of the 65 coaches, “hungry” was the most common description. Nine coaches went with it, making a “hungry” team the modern-day equivalent of the “taking it one game at a time” cliché. Four coaches used “unproven,” another four “experienced” and three said “young.” Two coaches each used “redemption,” “committed,” “improved” or “youthful."

In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.

Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.

SEC

Alabama’s Nick Saban: Untested
Arkansas’ Bret Bielema: Motivated
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn: Experienced
Florida’s Will Muschamp: Hungry
Georgia’s Mark Richt: Wow
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: Improved
LSU’s Les Miles: Unknown
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: Hungry
Missouri’s Gary Pinkel: Confident
Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze: Relentless
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: Decent
Tennessee’s Butch Jones: Committed
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin: Eager
Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason: Audacious

Grading each SEC QB situation

August, 21, 2014
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Last year was possibly the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks. From Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron to Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, the conference was loaded with a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champ, school record-holders and NFL draft picks. Things are a little different this year. Outside of Auburn, most schools are dealing with major questions under center. Where do things stand as the season gets ready to kick off? Here's a look at how things went last year, what to watch for this year and a projected grade for how each team's quarterbacks will do in 2014.

The Established Star


(Read full post)


Iman Marshall hasn't said much when it comes to recruiting, constantly maintaining that he is wide open to the process and without any favorites. On Thursday, the No. 8 overall prospect and No.1 player in the West region took a significant step toward shedding some light on his recruiting situation, tweeting out the schools he will officially visit before making his decision. Of course, as always with recruiting, Marshall still provided for some grey area.

After announcing that he'd be listing his five official visits, Marshall tweeted six schools, as Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas all made the list. The five-star prospect offered a little clarity, saying he is town between Oklahoma and Texas, then asked the fan bases of those two schools to help him decide which to see for his fifth visit.

What does Leonard Fournette bring to LSU?

August, 21, 2014
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AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette ran for 7,619 yards and scored 88 rushing TDs in his high school career
In January, LSU landed the top recruit in the ESPN 300, running back Leonard Fournette. The New Orleans product was the first running back to top our rankings since Joe McKnight in 2007.

Fournette should be relied upon right away after the team lost lead back Jeremy Hill, who was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by Cincinnati. Last season Hill ran for 1,401 yards while averaging a school-record 6.9 yards per carry (minimum 200 carries). However, given Fournette’s size, speed and pedigree, he should be able to step right in to fill Hill’s role, even as a true freshman.

Examining Fournette’s Role
Fournette’s upside was described this way by RecruitingNation.com. “If he can land in a downhill, two-back offense, we see big-time production at the next level.”

If that description is accurate, Fournette landed in the right place. No BCS-AQ (automatic qualifying) team ran more often in a two-back set than LSU last season.

LSU was also fourth among BCS-AQ teams in rushing yards between the tackles (136.4 yards per game).

Hill excelled in LSU’s downhill running scheme. He led all BCS-AQ backs, averaging 105.9 yards per game in two-back sets, and his average of 7.9 yards per carry between the tackles led BCS-AQ backs (minimum 50 carries).

With Hill gone, 203 carries have been freed up, with Fournette expected to take the majority of them. Physically, the two are very similar. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, the freshman is listed at one inch shorter and six pounds lighter than Hill. Yet Fournette has elite speed to go with that size. Last year, he ran a 10.68-second 100-meter dash to win Louisiana’s 4A regional title.

How Successful Can He Be?
Fournette will have help in the trenches. LSU returns four starters from an offensive line that carved big holes up the middle. Last season, the Tigers’ average of 3.9 yards before contact per carry on designed runs between the tackles was second-best among BCS-AQ teams.

Les Miles isn’t afraid to use freshmen running backs either. Two years ago, Hill led the team in rushing and set a school freshman record in touchdowns with 12. As the schedule got tougher, Miles rode his freshman more. In LSU’s last seven games – five against ranked opponents - Hill averaged 19.5 carries per game.

LSU did not sign a single running back in last year’s recruiting class primarily because of its pursuit of Fournette, so the Tigers should ride their freshman heavily. Over the last two seasons, four different SEC freshmen have rushed for 1,000 yards.

Only one Tiger freshman has rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, Justin Vincent in 2003. That year, Vincent was named most valuable player of LSU’s BCS Championship Game victory over Oklahoma. LSU hopes that Fournette can have a similar impact this season.

"We decided not to take a tailback," LSU head coach Les Miles said at his signing day press conference in February. "We will need a great one, one of those guys who has great speed, and ball skills and can run with power, and I'm thinking of him right now."

SEC preseason recruiting report card 

August, 21, 2014
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video
The SEC has a total of 237 verbal commitments. An incredible 82 prospects who are committed to SEC schools are ranked in the ESPN 300. Alabama leads the way with 16 ESPN 300 commits, but all 14 schools in the conference have at least one ESPN 300 commit. To say the SEC is off to a hot start would be quite an understatement. Six schools in the SEC have 20 or more commits as compared to the Big Ten who currently has no teams that have 20 commitments. Six SEC schools -- South Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and LSU -- are ranked in the top 10 of the class rankings. Here is a closer look at how the SEC is doing heading in to the season.


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Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette have been waiting for this opportunity since well before they became roommates at LSU this summer.

With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.
“We’ve talked about this since before we got here, just dreaming it up, texting all the time during the season and hearing about him breaking every record and doing this and that,” Harris said of Fournette, the only player ever to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. “So nothing surprises me, what he does.”

LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.

You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.

“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”

And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.

Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”

In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.

He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.

“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”

In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.

“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”

That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.

Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.

Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.

“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”

SEC morning links

August, 21, 2014
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1. Talk to any SEC athletic director about priorities during football season and fans’ in-game experience inevitably arises in the conversation. With so many games available now on TV – which you can watch for free, from the comfort of home, in high definition – SEC schools researched the areas of greatest concern to fans. They found that availability of concessions and restroom conditions were the top issues, and other concerns include cell service and video production. The SEC reported that 12 schools have upgraded their concessions before this season and at least eight are working on improving restroom and/or cell service. Those changes won’t necessarily be the deciding factor in whether most fans attend a game, but in this day and age, schools recognize that they must provide as many fan amenities as possible because there are so many entertainment options available.

2. This might be too much for even the most even-tempered Auburn fan to turn down. Deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famous Toomer’s Oaks in downtown Auburn, has agreed to appear at a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, where fans can dunk him in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face. The event will help raise funds for “Roses From Linda,” which helps family members visit terminally ill patients before they die. Updyke’s wife, Elva, said he told charity organizers “they can do whatever they want to him if it will raise money for kids.” So get your pitching arms warmed up, Auburn fans. You’ve got about a month.

3. Speaking of the Iron Bowl, hey, whaddya know? The Auburn-Alabama game is college football’s hottest ticket on the secondary market, according to this story from Forbes. The median price is only $535 a pop. No big deal. Also included in the top 10 are six other games that feature SEC teams (Alabama-LSU, Florida-Alabama, Clemson-Georgia, LSU-Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia). None of those games hold a candle to the top single-game ticket price from last preseason, however. At this time last year, Alabama-Texas A&M tickets were going for an average of $744 on the secondary market.

More from the SEC
Tweet of the day

 
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has speed and athleticism in spades within its linebacking corps and a secondary that appears ready for a breakout season. The biggest unknown on the Tigers' defense -- a line that has little experience and only marginal productivity -- might be the biggest factor in whether LSU returns to its dominant form on D.

"Going into camp, that's what I was thinking about," senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. "Our linebackers are the strongest. They're the core of the defense. The secondary, they're real tight. And me personally, I feel like the D-line is the question mark right now."

Rasco's comments came a few days after the Tigers opened preseason camp earlier this month. The ensuing two weeks have reportedly been productive for the group -- as they needed to be.

Teams that win SEC titles usually dominate up front on defense, and even when they don't (see Auburn, 2010), they typically have at least one lineman who creates havoc in opponent backfields. Since 2000, only two SEC championship clubs (Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 2012) failed to have at least one defensive lineman make the coaches' All-SEC team at the end of the season.

Once junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both jumped for the NFL draft after last season, LSU lost its only obvious picks for postseason honors. Now it's up to Rasco and fellow end Danielle Hunter -- a combination that totaled just seven sacks a season ago -- and a host of inexperienced players in the middle to pick up the slack.

"We might not be the key, but we're a piece of the puzzle," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Greg Gilmore said. "We're all a piece of the puzzle and if we can fit in right, we can make it good for us."

Gilmore and his position mates are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Hunter seems poised for a breakout season and Rasco is now healthy after struggling with shoulder injuries earlier in his career. But the tackles are largely unknown to those who don't watch the Tigers practice each day.

Those who do continue to project confidence about the group's capabilities despite a lack of on-field experience.

"I think some of those young defensive linemen, Frank Herron and some of those guys whose names you don't know, are going to be very, very good players," LSU coach Les Miles said.

Sophomore Christian LaCouture played sparingly as a reserve last season, as did Quentin Thomas -- still working to return from a biceps injury suffered during camp -- and converted defensive end Lewis Neal. Then you have redshirt freshmen Gilmore, Herron and Maquedius Bain waiting for the chance to prove that the tackles aren't nearly the cause for concern that their lack of experience would indicate.

"They don't get enough credit, and they will. Their time comes," senior center Elliott Porter said. "Just like Ego, his time came [and he became a] second-round draft pick. The time comes. It's going to happen. You've got to open your eyes and see. You've got to open your eyes. We breed D-tackles around here, as you can see the last three or four years."

That is true -- LSU has placed eight defensive linemen in the NFL draft over the past four years -- but that has no impact on the present. When the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin on Aug. 30, they'll rely on multiple interior linemen who have yet to play a college game.

Of course, that's another LSU tradition of late.

"Coach Miles always says we play young guys, we play freshmen," Herron said. "So I'm ready to play and show the world what I've got. Playing next to Christian and Greg and Bain, it's been a blessing. Those guys show me new things each day and they're just telling me to keep pushing myself, keep going."

Herron and LaCouture have reportedly had good camps, but Hunter might be the top breakout candidate on the line. Good luck getting him to admit it, though. The junior defensive end -- who generated lots of attention when practice photos of his ripped physique made the rounds on social media early in preseason camp -- seems completely oblivious to outside attention, even after Miles credited him with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss after last Saturday's scrimmage.

"I didn't really hear all this about what Coach Miles said about me until this morning, when one of my teachers texted me saying I did well in the scrimmage. I didn't realize I did that well," Hunter said, adding, "I actually felt like during the scrimmage, I really didn't feel like I did so good."

If that's the case, LSU fans can't wait until Hunter's offseason focus on pass-rushing results in a sack or three and he actually feels good about a performance.

Nonetheless, the Tigers' defense has emphasized competition since the end of last season, when a strong finish generated some offseason momentum after what had been a sometimes-rocky fall. Things are looking good at linebacker and in the secondary, so if the line can prove Miles correct for being confident, the Tigers will once again become a defensive force within the SEC.

"The ceiling's so high," LaCouture said. "Looking at it, you don't know if you have a ceiling on it. We're full of potential and stuff like that, but potential's just a name. ... You have to know what you're doing."
video

Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso discuss the biggest storylines heading into the 2014 college football season.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
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1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

More from around the SEC:
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's scrimmage on Tuesday was particularly useful, Tigers coach Les Miles said, because his team plays such a similar style to opening opponent Wisconsin.

Tuesday marked the first time that the 13th-ranked Tigers turned their attention to No. 14 Wisconsin during a scrimmage, so their similar methods made it easier for LSU to mimic what it will face on Aug. 30.

“We were able to accommodate both offense and defense to some extent exactly what Wisconsin would be like,” Miles said. “Our defense has the ability to kind of mimic, if you will, their defense. And our offense certainly is very similar.”

For the most part, LSU’s starting units went against the reserves in a scrimmage that lasted approximately 120 plays. Miles said the team avoided any serious injuries and that he remains impressed with the way John Chavis’ defense is performing.

“I thought that they tackled well and it was very difficult to get balls off,” Miles said. “But again, I think that that defense is pretty special.”

Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard -- whom Miles said ran for more than 100 yards -- and Terrence Magee also stood out.

“Kenny had a really good camp and today I’d have to say Kenny was a very special back, and I think [Magee] was a special back today, too,” Miles said. “It was really, really exciting to watch.”

As for the quarterback battle, Miles still didn’t offer any updates on where the battle stands between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings. He said the quarterbacks tossed three touchdowns and two interceptions, but didn’t specify whether Harris, Jennings or one of the walk-ons made those throws.

“I don’t know that there’s been separation from one from the other, but both provide a very high level of execution today,” Miles said of Harris and Jennings.

He did say that it’s possible that both Harris and Jennings will play against Wisconsin, adding that the coaching staff will probably inform the quarterback contenders of their starting decision at their Thursday meetings next week.

“I think there’s an opportunity to see both quarterbacks play,” Miles said. “... We have a full game week and several practices this week left, so I think I’ll wait before I describe exactly how we’d like to play these guys.”

Among the other updates that Miles provided after the scrimmage:
  • Defensive tackle Quentin Thomas scrimmaged for the first time after he was once feared to be lost for the season with a biceps injury. “He’s got full range of motion, but he just needs a little bit of rehabilitation workout -- basically weight room and football,” Miles said.
  • Freshman receiver Malachi Dupre participated for the first time after missing the first two scrimmages with an undisclosed injury. He “caught a couple balls” on Tuesday. “He’s beyond what was an early injury and he’s really just getting back to health,” Miles said. “I think he’ll maintain this opportunity to play from this point forward.”
  • The Tigers worked on special teams on Tuesday and punter Jamie Keehn “punted the heck out of it.” Trent Domingue and Cameron Gamble “both kicked the ball extremely well” on kickoffs and Colby Delahoussaye also attempted a couple of field goals.
  • A couple of position battles continue on the offensive line. Both Elliott Porter and Ethan Pocic worked at center on Tuesday and “Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game,” Miles said. At right guard, it’s still Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. Even if Fanaika does in fact lead for the starting spot, Washington appears to be one of the Tigers’ top reserves at multiple positions. “The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still ... both guys will play,” Miles said.
  • Freshman defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine has still not arrived at LSU yet after a lengthy wait to earn academic eligibility. Valentine tweeted on Monday that he had been cleared to enroll, but Miles said there were still some administrative hurdles that the freshman must clear before he joins the team. “I think he shows up here, or has the opportunity to show up here, in the next two or three days,” Miles said.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A good fullback deserves a good nickname, and you won't find one much better than that of LSU's Connor Neighbors: Bone Saw.

[+] EnlargeConnor Neighbors
David Ching/ESPNIt's easy to identify LSU senior fullback Connor "Bone Saw" Neighbors among a crowd -- just look for the beard.
For those unfamiliar with superhero movies, Bone Saw was a character played by the professional wrestler "Macho Man" Randy Savage in "Spider-Man" starring Tobey Maguire. In their scene, Maguire's character used his Spidey powers to beat Savage's character in a wrestling match to the dismay of Bone Saw's many rabid fans gathered around the ring. (To get a better visual, find it on YouTube.)

"If you see the scene, it's pretty intense," said Neighbors, LSU's senior fullback. "This guy's talking a lot of smack to Spider-Man and the people in the stands have got makeshift saws and they're [acting like they are sawing their forearms]."

Fullbacks are often an unusual breed, but Neighbors seems particularly different from the normal SEC football player. He played ice hockey growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, until his junior year of high school. He said he listens to Limp Bizkit as his hype music before games. And he's currently sporting a shaved head and a mountain man beard to "just express myself in a different way."

A guy like that needs a good nickname, so it was fortunate he gained a little inspiration from the Macho Man several years back.

Neighbors started jokingly going by the nickname around friends such as Zach Mettenberger and Sam Montgomery during his freshman year, and it eventually made its way to the Tigers' strength and conditioning staff. One day Neighbors celebrated a particularly satisfying achievement in the weight room by doing the fans' sawing "Bone Saw" hand motion and the nickname spread to the point that it's now what he goes by among teammates.

"One day we were maxing out in the weight room and I was attempting 364 [pounds] on power cleans, so I did it and I dropped down and almost dropped the bar completely," Neighbors said. "But somehow I got my form back and I lifted it up and I [sawed my forearm], like the whole Bone Saw thing, and it just kind of stuck."

Not that it always feels like a positive thing -- for instance, when a teammate drops the nickname around a member of the opposite sex.

"When we're out and about and people say that, girls look at me like, 'What does that mean?' I'm just like, 'Uh, my name's Connor,'" Neighbors laughed.

Apparently when your nickname is Bone Saw, you can't choose when it applies. You're Bone Saw 24/7, for better or worse. Might as well make the best of it.

"I didn't think that it would get out to the media, but since it has, I'll embrace it," Neighbors said. "I like it a lot."

He joked that some LSU fans could even take the nickname to the next level, perhaps mimicking the fans surrounding the wrestling ring with signs and homemade cardboard saws during the movie scene.

"That'd be great," Neighbors said. "In the movie, the 'Macho Man' Randy Savage says, 'I've got you for three minutes. Three minutes of play time.' You've got to look it up. He's just talking smack the whole time. I guess people could just make signs or something, get the saws, I don't know."

In other words, get creative. When the subject is a guy who goes by Bone Saw, the possibilities are seemingly endless -- especially within the nutty confines of Tiger Stadium.
With the College Football Playoff finally here, we will be meticulously dissecting every game with any team anyone thinks could find itself in this year's final four.

People have voiced their concern about a playoff taking away the importance of every game. You guys can be scared, but I'm not. Games will still be big, and will affect the playoff. All that's happening now is that some early games might not end the season for some teams.

Oh, what a crime!

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and his Tigers face five key games this season that could alter their playoff hopes.
And honestly, we've seen teams lose in the middle of the season and still make it to the BCS national title game (I see you Alabama), so I think this is getting blown way out of proportion.

SEC teams vying for a playoff spot -- or two -- could likely get away with one loss, but you can never be too careful with the human element. Winning is still the goal.

There are going to be quite a few games that impact the playoff this season. Here are the top 10 games involving SEC teams that will affect the playoff (in order of appearance):

1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30: If Wisconsin is going to push itself past Big Ten favorites Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers need to start off fast with a win against LSU. The Tigers have questions on both sides of the ball, but people will be salivating over seeing the matchup between Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and LSU's incredibly athletic front seven. These are the games LSU coach Les Miles thrives in, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated.

2. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: A lot of people think the winner of this game will head back to Atlanta. The winner will also have a clearer path to the playoff and could serve as an early elimination game. Last season, we saw 71 points, 990 yards and just one turnover in the Bulldogs' thrilling win in Athens. This time, the game is in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have won two straight against the Dawgs.

3. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4: Even though Auburn lost this game last season, it changed the dynamic of the team's season. The fight and comeback they had in the second half injected an incredible amount of confidence into an Auburn team that ran all the way to the final BCS title game. Could this game have the same affect for either squad in 2014? With the upcoming schedules both of these teams have, a loss here could throw off their playoff plans.

4. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4: A lot of folks already have this game circled as the conference's first big upset of the season. And why not? Alabama might be the SEC favorite, but it's far from perfect and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback against an Ole Miss defense that has a fierce two-deep. A win for Ole Miss, which has its highest expectations in years, would propel the Rebels into the thick of playoff talk.

5. South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25: Another game involving the defending SEC champs, and this one will be very important for both teams. Each should be right at or near the top of their respective divisions just before the final month of the season, meaning this game is important for both the playoff and the SEC. Expect a lot of points with two teams that averaged more than 30 points a game last season and have some defensive unknowns. You want to enter November controlling your own destiny.

6. Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1: If both of are undefeated when the Tigers arrive in the Grove, this game will have major playoff implications. Even if they aren't, the SEC Western Division will still be on the line, and we all know the eventual SEC champion will be an almost lock to make it in the playoff. The playoff picture will be much clearer when these two meet, and as the season ticks down, you want to control your own destiny.

7. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: Of course this game will affect the playoff. It's Alabama-LSU! Ever since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, this game has been decided by less than 10 points six times. However, Alabama has won the past two by 21 points. Both of these teams will know a whole lot more about each other at this point in the season, and while Alabama could be at the top of the polls, LSU's young talent could become dangerous.

8. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 15: If South Carolina is going to make the playoff, the Gamecocks will need to win this game. We can't quite put our finger on Florida, but a loss to a bad Florida team isn't getting you any playoff love. But what if Florida is a contender in the East? Well, the division could be on the line, and it's going to be very hard for any team not playing in its conference title game to make the playoff.

9. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 15: We all know how last season's game ended. One bat down, and Auburn's Cinderella story is short-lived. You know the Dawgs have this game circled on their calendar. It's another game that could have SEC title implications, and of course that means it will affect the playoff with the season winding down. A loss for Auburn would likely end its playoff chances, while a win for a Georgia team in the East hunt would do wonders.

10. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The Iron Bowl changed the landscape of the BCS title game last season and we have no reason to believe it won't have an impact on this year's College Football Playoff. Remember the “Kick Six?” Well, you better believe Alabama does. The Crimson Tide gets its archrival at home this year and Saban is 8-1 at Alabama in revenge games. The loser of this game will be without bragging rights and a playoff spot.

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