SEC's lunch links

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
12:00
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So "How I Met Your Mother" got a little depressing, but we got a sneak peek of Godzilla during the Oscars so things are working out pretty well this month.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A brand-new version of LSU's football team will take the field this week for its first spring practice.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings will have to hold off talented newcomer Brandon Harris to hold onto LSU's QB job.
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to Saturday's first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.

We theorized that several freshmen (or redshirt freshmen) will win playing time this spring in Monday's first installment. Today we move onto prediction No. 2:

Anthony Jennings holds onto the quarterback job

Not saying this will be permanent. In fact, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see one of the other contenders push Jennings hard -- and maybe even out of the way -- during the season. But that might be too tall of an order over the next month.

After all, Jennings is the guy who elbowed his way onto the depth chart by enrolling early last year and playing well during the spring. Jennings is the guy who had already appeared in seven games last season when he played in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger against Arkansas. And Jennings is the guy who, with his team trailing the Razorbacks 27-24 and just 3:04 to play, drove the Tigers 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

If he never plays another down at LSU, Jennings' 49-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 to play was enough to secure a permanent spot in Tigers lore. But he still has three years of eligibility remaining -- and our bet is that he will be the first Tiger to line up under center in the 2014 opener against Wisconsin.

Granted, Jennings didn't do much to help his cause in his lone start, the Tigers' 21-14 win against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. He went 7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception, ran for 31 yards and a score and was sacked four times. In short, he looked like what he was: a freshman making his first college start.

To be fair, it was an awful day in Tampa -- cold, windy and damp. LSU's coaches clearly had no interest in relying on the freshman to sling it around, as evidenced by the Tigers running the ball on their first 12 offensive plays before Jennings attempted his first pass. And give Iowa credit, it fielded an outstanding defense -- the Hawkeyes finished sixth nationally in total defense (303.1 ypg) and ninth in scoring (18.9 ppg) -- that represented a tremendous challenge for a first-time starter.

That said, many LSU fans entered the offseason wondering whether Jennings deserved to be Mettenberger's successor after all, and Brandon Harris had signed with the Tigers and enrolled in January.

It seems clear that LSU's coaches want a dual-threat quarterback leading the offense -- former Tigers backup Stephen Rivers said as much when he announced plans to transfer -- and Jennings and Harris seem to be the players who can best fill that run-pass role. The majority of Jennings' offensive touches last season came on running plays before Mettenberger tore his ACL against Arkansas. And Harris was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect thanks to a combination of excellent passing skills and explosiveness as a runner from zone-read offensive looks.

Many LSU recruiting insiders believe Harris is the Tigers' quarterback of the future, but he's just a freshman preparing for his first spring camp. He has a lot to learn from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron before we predict that he'll leap past more experienced players like Rob Bolden and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig, much less Jennings.

Bolden has yet to play in two years at LSU after starting 17 games at Penn State in 2010 and 2011. Rettig, meanwhile, is coming off a redshirt season where he enrolled early alongside Jennings. But both players at least have a year under Cameron's guidance, which is more than Harris can say at this point.

Add up all of those factors and it seems as if Jennings carries a clear advantage into the spring. Now will he maintain that advantage throughout the next month and beyond the Tigers' spring game? Our crystal ball starts getting murky there, but we'll say yes for now. The other quarterbacks will certainly have their chances, and if Harris picks up Cameron's offense at a rapid pace, this race might be wide open once the Tigers open preseason camp in August.

SEC's lunch links

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
12:24
PM ET
Spring practice kicks off for four more teams in the SEC this week. Here’s a look at the latest news and notes around the league in today’s lunch links.

Top position classes: SEC 

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
9:00
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes in each conference. For the full series, click here.

Quarterback
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating uptempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A brand-new version of LSU's football team will take the field this week for its first spring practice.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to Saturday's first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.

Prediction: The freshmen will contend

Obviously this subject matter begins with early enrollees at quarterback, Brandon Harris, and safety, Edward Paris Jr. (whose position battles we discussed here and here). But there are multiple players coming off a 2013 redshirt whose names could figure prominently into the Tigers' spring competition.

We see many of them playing supporting roles once the season opens, and even leading roles in some cases. That will start with solid spring performances by the youngsters.

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural will get help at receiver from a group of freshmen.
Wide receiver and defensive line appear to be the two most likely position groups where a freshman might shine this spring. Since star juniors who accounted for the vast majority of snaps and production at those positions (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham at wideout and Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson at defensive tackle) have entered the NFL draft, LSU will turn to inexperienced reserves -- and quite possibly freshmen -- at those spots.

At receiver, sophomore Travin Dural (seven catches, 145 yards, two TDs last season) and senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two most experienced veterans, and we use that expression loosely. Three redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears -- will enter the mix this spring and one or two of them will almost certainly become valuable targets by August. For now, thin positional depth leaves the Tigers with no alternative, but that will change in the summer when freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn arrive. Don't be surprised if the redshirt freshmen who are already on campus make the depth chart appear much more solid by the end of spring practice.

The defensive tackles at least have Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss) and Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) back along with junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles). As with the wideouts, the Tigers have several freshman signees who could contribute immediately at tackle. But this spring we'll be watching redshirt freshmen Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain inside and Frank Herron either inside or out. Plenty of observers thought that trio -- or at least a portion of that trio -- would see the field last fall, but none did. LSU doesn't have that convenience this year following Johnson and Ferguson's departures.

Paris should have a chance to compete at safety, too, although there are several players with starting experience returning at what was an often volatile position group in 2013. It will help his cause that he's already on campus, but don't be surprised if this position battle extends beyond the spring and into the season once the other freshman signees -- led by Jamal Adams -- arrive in the summer.

Harris has LSU fans excited about the dual-threat aspect of his game, but he would need to have a ridiculous spring to jump all the way to the top of the depth chart. Anthony Jennings was an early enrollee last season and performed well enough that he claimed the backup spot behind Zach Mettenberger, and eventually replaced him when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas. Harris has the game to make a similar ascent -- eventually -- but it's only fair to temper one's expectations considering he's a freshman with two months on campus getting his first taste of running Cam Cameron's offense.

There are others -- including offensive linemen Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and quarterback Hayden Rettig -- who will also compete this spring to become the next Tigers who make a name for themselves as freshmen. That has quickly become a tradition among the Tigers, and we fully expect it to continue in 2014.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

Key spring position battles: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
9:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.

[+] EnlargeFehoko Fanaika
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThis will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika, who hopes to earn LSU's starting right guard spot.
Returning starters: Left tackle La'El Collins (second-team All-SEC and 12 starts in 2013), left guard Vadal Alexander (13 starts), center Elliott Porter (12 starts) and right tackle Jerald Hawkins (13 starts) are all back, helping the line rank among the most experienced position groups on the Tigers' roster.

Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.

Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.

Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.

What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.

Bradley Dale Peveto back at LSU

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
10:09
PM ET

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU says Bradley Dale Peveto is part of head coach Les Miles' staff again.

Peveto, whose hiring was announced Thursday, was the special teams coordinator and a defensive assistant on LSU's 2007-08 national championship team.

He then spent one season as a co-defensive coordinator, then left to take the head-coaching job at Northwestern State of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision. After four seasons with the Demons, Peveto spent last season as special teams coordinator at Kentucky.

Miles says he's pleased to have Peveto back, both for his knowledge of special teams and for his experience as a recruiter. Miles says Peveto's ties to Texas and Georgia will help LSU with recruiting in those states.

Peveto says he loves LSU's football tradition and compares rejoining the Tigers to coming home.


(Read full post)


Key spring position battles: Safety

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. – We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles and quarterbacks in the first three installments. Now let's look at the safeties. The Tigers never settled on a starter opposite now-departed senior Craig Loston last season.

Returning starters: None. (No full-time starters, anyway.)

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills started at safety in the Outback Bowl.
Departures: Loston was one of the team's defensive leaders when healthy. He started 10 games, registering 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and tying for the team lead with three interceptions. The Tigers also lost Micah Eugene, who started twice early last season before leaving the program in December.

Returning reserves: Jalen Mills (67 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, three INTs) slid over from his cornerback position to start in the Tigers' Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. That was his first start at safety, but don't be surprised if he stays there, at least part time. The Tigers worked with seven starting combinations at safety last year, and the other players with starting experience – Corey Thompson (23 tackles, 0.5 TFLs), Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one INT) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles, 0.5 TFLs) – are all back.

Newcomers: Early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. – ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety – is the first member of LSU's star-studded group of safety signees to get a crack at winning some playing time. He is on campus for spring practice, and that might help him win some playing time in the fall. The other new safeties – No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 pick Devin Voorhies and three-star prospect John Battle IV – will get a chance to prove themselves after they arrive in the summer.

What to watch: This position group dealt with regular turnover last fall, so LSU's coaching staff certainly will be looking to develop more consistency at safety starting this spring. Mills' presence could help stabilize the group a bit, but the Tigers need to establish two starters and a solid depth chart at some point. They don't necessarily have to see that happen during the spring, but it would certainly help if position coach Corey Raymond is able to begin narrowing his options after the spring game.

Key spring position battles: QB

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
9:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU so let's take a look at five position battles worth watching.

We covered the wide receivers and defensive tackles in the first two installments. Now let's look at quarterback, where the Tigers must replace Zach Mettenberger, who as a senior enjoyed one of the best single seasons for a passer in school history.

Returning starters: None

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports Anthony Jennings is the favorite for LSU's starting QB job.
Departures: Mettenberger (192-for-296, 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013) seems like a surefire bet to be an early to middle-round NFL draft pick in May thanks to his combination of size (6-foot-5) and a tremendously strong throwing arm. Reserve Stephen Rivers left the program, announcing last week that he plans to transfer once he graduates and will immediately be eligible to play somewhere else next fall.

Returning reserves: If anything positive came out of Mettenberger's season-ending knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, it's that his absence allowed freshman Anthony Jennings to gain some valuable experience. Jennings entered the Nov. 29 game against the rival Razorbacks and led the Tigers on a game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes -- a possession that he capped with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural. Jennings (13-29, 181 yards, one TD, one INT in 2013) earned his first start in the bowl win against Iowa, although that was hardly an impressive performance. Rising senior Rob Bolden also returns -- although he has not appeared in a game. Bolden, however, did appear in 20 games at Penn State before transferring south, passing for 2,045 yards, seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions with the Nittany Lions.

Newcomers: Hayden Rettig – ESPN's No. 17 pocket passer and No. 217 overall prospect in 2013 -- enrolled early last year before redshirting in the fall. He and the others will be joined by exciting freshman Brandon Harris – ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect -- who enrolled last month in order to compete in spring practice.

What to watch: This will perhaps become the most-watched LSU spring position battle. Quarterback generally attracts the most attention since it's the most important position on the field. LSU's coaches have made it clear that Jennings is the man to beat here, even if his lone start against Iowa (7-19, 82 yards, one interception) left a lot to be desired. He and Harris both have the run-pass skills that the coaching staff likes so the competition between them could continue through this season and into the next few fall seasons. If Harris struggles this spring and fails to mount much of a challenge in August, he could be staring at a redshirt season while Rettig or Bolden tries to wrestle the starting job away from Jennings. It definitely looks like his job to lose at this point.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
10:30
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.

Key spring position battles: DT

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
9:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. – We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We started Monday with the wide receivers and move today to the defensive tackles, who must replace both starters from a season ago. Here are some players worth watching in what might be the most important position battle on the team this year:

Returning starters: None

Departures: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, three sacks) and Ego Ferguson (40 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, one sack) played the vast majority of important downs last fall, but both players opted to enter the 2014 NFL draft.

Returning reserves: Freshman Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one sack) earned immediate playing time last season after enrolling early, but he and then-sophomore Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) were the only reserves who contributed much behind the starters. Mickey Johnson played in four games and recorded three tackles while being plagued by injuries. The rising junior will be one of the oldest players in the mix this fall.

Newcomers: This could be a group worth watching. Not only are there some promising linemen who are coming off redshirt seasons -- including Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and possibly Frank Herron, who last season was listed as a defensive end -- but the Tigers also signed three recruits earlier this month who could potentially be plug-and-play candidates in the fall. Signing day was big in that regard as Travonte Valentine (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) announced that he would sign with LSU over hometown Miami, Trey Lealaimatafao (6-0, 300) revealed that he would join the Tigers and Davon Godchaux (6-4, 271) stuck with his LSU commitment after making some late visits to other campuses. Getting all three was huge. They won't arrive until the summer, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to the players who have spent at least a season on campus. But very few of the contenders at tackle have much -- if any -- on-field experience. The rookies will get a chance to win some playing time.

What to watch: The exciting thing about this group is that it almost certainly has a bright future. There is plentiful talent and depth here. The question is whether the group can perform well enough this fall to live up to LSU's exceptional tradition up front. Johnson and Ferguson are just the latest Tigers whose size and athleticism made them appealing defensive tackle prospects for the NFL. But the group is in rebuilding mode, searching for the right combination of starters -- and perhaps a few more reserves -- to slide into what was a fairly thin rotation a year ago. It seems like a safe bet that LaCouture and Thomas will figure into the mix, but how many of the young guys will prove that they deserve playing time? And can they steal a starting spot from one of the more established players? The developments in spring practice will help answer that question -- and it would be helpful if at least a couple of them make some good things happen in the next few weeks in order to develop some continuity heading into summer workouts and preseason practice.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:00
PM ET
Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.

Key spring position battles: WR

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We begin today with the wide receivers, which lost two phenomenal players and a senior, essentially forcing the group to start from scratch this spring. Here are some players worth watching:

[+] EnlargeQuantavius Leslie
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsQuantavius Leslie could play a bigger role for the Tigers in 2014.
Returning starters: None

Departures: Juniors Jarvis Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs) both joined a small group of LSU receivers who recorded 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Both players opted after the season to enter the NFL draft. Senior Kadron Boone (7-129, 2 TDs) played in every game and was the team's fifth-leading receiver last fall.

Returning reserves: Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) and Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two returning players who caught at least one pass a season ago.

Newcomers: Among the names to watch this spring might be John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears, all of whom redshirted last fall after arriving as four-star prospects in the Class of 2013. Diarse looked like he might play as a freshman during preseason camp before suffering an injury that sent him to redshirt land. Same with Peterson and his broken ankle. But those are all players who could immediately jump into the mix alongside the slightly more experienced Dural and Leslie and become regulars in the receiving rotation.

What to watch: With the departures of Landry and Beckham, LSU loses 72 percent of its receiving yardage from the 2013 season. The Tigers lose almost all of their on-field experience at the position. Dural is best remembered for his game-winning touchdown catch against Arkansas and his only other scoring grab against Alabama. Otherwise this position completely lacks on-field production. With a star-studded crop of recruits set to arrive in the summer -- ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre, No. 3 Trey Quinn and ESPN 300 wideouts D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch -- competition at this position will extend well into August. But spring will be a key time for the redshirt freshmen, and the returning veterans for that matter, to prove that they won't simply be pushed aside when the newcomers arrive. With a new quarterback entering the starting lineup, LSU needs this group to make significant progress in the next few months to prevent the offense from becoming too one-dimensional.

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