LSU Tigers: Dak Prescott

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the first, second and fourth quarters last Saturday, Mississippi State’s offense converted just one out of nine third downs. But in the Bulldogs’ key third-quarter run – a stretch where they pushed their lead from 17-10 to 34-10 – State’s offense didn’t just convert on third down, it made some of its biggest plays of the entire game.

The Bulldogs converted four out of five of their third-down situations in that third quarter and averaged 30.8 yards per play. That included a pair of long touchdowns -- a 56-yard run by quarterback Dak Prescott and a 74-yard pass from Prescott to Jameon Lewis -- where the Bulldogs exploited huge holes in the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeJameon Lewis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU defenders say that many of Mississippi State's big plays last Saturday -- like Jameon Lewis' TD reception -- were the result of mental breakdowns.
“We had the momentum at the start of the third quarter,” LSU middle linebacker D.J. Welter said, referring to the Tigers’ defensive touchdown on the first play of the second half. “That kind of hurt us throughout the whole second half was not getting off the field on third down. And when they started moving the ball, it kind of got their momentum back and it really hurt us.”

We examined Mississippi State’s third-down success during the quarter in a post earlier this week. Today let’s look at it from an LSU perspective. Prescott’s improvisational skills and his running ability were key factors in several of those big plays, which is relevant since the Tigers will soon face other quarterbacks with similar run-pass ability.

If there is a silver lining to the many big plays LSU surrendered in the game, it’s that player after player insisted that their biggest problems against State – like aligning improperly or failing to make the proper pre-snap adjustments – were correctable mental errors instead of physical issues.

“I’m not taking anything away from Dak as a quarterback. The dude’s impressive, he’s a good athlete, you see him on film and he makes big plays,” Welter said. “But [if] we definitely played our techniques, it could have helped us out a lot in that game in not giving up those big busts that he had. When we gave it to him, he took it from us -- and give props for that -- but it definitely was a mistake in our technique.”

Take Prescott’s long touchdown run, for example. The Bulldogs spread out LSU’s defense with five receivers and Welter oddly lined up in a gap between right defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and right end Tashawn Bower, leaving nobody in the center of the field. When Prescott broke through a hole between defensive linemen Christian LaCouture and Deondre Clark, State’s quarterback needed only to break a tackle attempt by safety Jalen Mills in order to find himself with acres of running room on his way to the end zone.

On several of the Bulldogs’ other third-quarter conversions, defenders showed their concerns about State’s running game by either chasing Prescott or biting on run fakes, which created holes for the Bulldogs to exploit.

“Most of the key third downs, it wasn’t so much what they did, it was so much things that we didn’t do well,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “They played a great game – not to take things away from them – but if we just do the little things, the things that we’re taught to do, we don’t put ourselves in that position.”

Tiger Stadium’s legendary decibel level actually hurt, as well, the players said. There were times where it was so loud in the stadium that all of the defenders failed to hear the Tigers’ pre-snap calls. Several LSU defenders admitted that they must do a better job communicating between plays in order to prevent future busts.

“While it’s being so loud in our stadium, the loudest crowd out there, it’s kind of hard to be yelling at each other, so we’ve got to get our signals down pat so everybody’s on the same play before they snap the ball and get there faster,” defensive back Dwayne Thomas said.

This was LSU’s first big game in expanded Tiger Stadium, so perhaps some growing pains were inevitable as the defense adjusts to the noise created by 10,000 extra people in the stands. But while that might have been a factor, it’s hard to imagine that a home-field disadvantage was a major reason for so many defensive lapses.

With several high-scoring spread offenses fast approaching on the schedule, the Tigers must clean up their missed assignments, play tougher along the line of scrimmage and tackle more effectively in the future or this will not be their last rocky defensive outing. LSU has actually been effective on third down overall -- opponents have converted 16 of 57 attempts, with LSU's 28.1 percent conversion rate ranking fourth in the SEC -- but it probably can't afford to surrender so many big plays in those situations again.

“I feel like we could be a whole lot better all around as far as communicating, tackling, all that,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We’ve just got to get back to the old LSU way, being a dominant, dominant defense, and that starts in practice.”

LSU's coverage issues exposed in loss

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
11:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Would the real LSU secondary please stand up?

Entering last Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the Tigers boasted arguably the nation’s most dominant defensive backfield. They hadn’t allowed a completion of more than 15 yards in the first three games. (Opponents were 0-for-17 on throws of at least 15 yards.) The Tigers had held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 11.2, which was the best among all FBS defenses.

Against Mississippi State and quarterback Dak Prescott, however, the Tigers were anything but dominant. Prescott hit a 25-yard completion on Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage and finished the night 4-for-8 on throws of 15-plus yards with an average of 20.6 yards per attempt.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott's ability to freelance outside the pocket gave the Tigers fits on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished with 570 yards of total offense, including 268 passing yards and two touchdowns by Prescott, which represented the highest yardage total allowed by an LSU defense since 2001.

“It doesn’t sit with none of us pretty good,” LSU safety Jalen Mills said after the game. “Going into practice, we kind of wish that we could skip Sunday and go straight to Monday. Going into practice, if you don’t want to practice on Monday and bring full intensity, don’t come out there at all."

No. 17 LSU (3-1) will most likely improve to 4-1 after a visit from New Mexico State (2-2) on Saturday, although oddly enough, the Aggies have the exact same passing yardage total (1,067 yards) through four games as Mississippi State. But defending quarterback Tyler Rogers (264 passing yards per game, nine touchdowns six interceptions), receiver Teldrick Morgan (116 receiving ypg, four TDs) and NMSU’s spread passing attack will be good practice for some of the SEC offenses the Tigers will face down the road.

Several of them will look to air it out against LSU, and the Tigers’ secondary for the first time looked vulnerable last weekend. Mississippi State had five pass plays that went at least 20 yards, although the good news for LSU is that only one of those completions was a downfield throw where a receiver beat man-to-man coverage. Even on that play -- a 26-yard back-shoulder completion to De’Runnya Wilson in the first quarter -- LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White provided tight coverage, but Prescott simply made a good throw to a receiver with a serious size advantage who made the stronger play for the ball.

One of the other long completions was a misdirection screen pass to H-back Malcolm Johnson, and two others -- a 44-yard pass to Wilson in front of safety Ronald Martin and a 21-yard connection with Jameon Lewis before cornerback Jalen Collins' big hit failed to dislodge the ball -- came against zone coverage.

The most painful completion of the night (a 74-yard touchdown pass to Lewis) came when Prescott extended the play by scrambling once the pocket collapsed. Bulldogs receivers Wilson and Lewis were both in Martin's zone along the sideline, and Martin broke toward Wilson instead of Lewis as Prescott started to throw. With the LSU safety out of the picture, Lewis caught the ball at the Mississippi State 45 and went untouched for a score that put State up 31-10 in the third quarter.

Prescott also proved that the Tigers needed extra practice on coverages when quarterbacks begin to improvise.

“When you’re in man-to-man and it’s a scramble drill, it’s quite easy because you can just lock on your man and just run whatever he runs,” White said. “But when we’re in a zone coverage and you’re forced to do a scramble drill, it’s quite tough. You’ve got to grab whoever’s in your zone.

“If two people are in your zone at the same time, it’s hard to cover two guys. That’s probably what happened on some of the scramble drills, so we were basically in zone coverage and two guys were in one guy’s zone.”

That doesn’t explain all of LSU’s coverage breakdowns, nor does it provide much solace with dual-threat quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Alabama’s Blake Sims and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace ahead on the schedule.

Those players will also be able to freelance with their feet once the pocket collapses, and if LSU’s secondary doesn’t solve its coverage issues between now and then, Prescott won’t be the last quarterback to make the Tigers look bad.

“We’re going to see a guy like him again -- probably not as big, but we’ll see a guy [with] probably the same kind of skill set that he has,” White said. “But it’s just a learning curve for us. We just want to move forward and just try to improve.”

That was a theme in LSU coach Les Miles' Monday press luncheon. Whether it was scheme, personnel or coaching, Miles said it was all under review this week as the Tigers attempt to correct their problems. On defense, one of their biggest concerns, both last Saturday and moving forward, is doing a better job against quarterbacks who can create while on the move.

“We recognize what just happened, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Miles said.

Film review: Defending Dak Prescott

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
2:30
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s defense will face no shortage of dual-threat quarterbacks in SEC play, and it will attempt to contain one of the best -- Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott -- right out of the gates in Saturday’s conference opener.

Prescott is a dark-horse candidate in the Heisman Trophy race because of the multiple ways he can affect the game, as evidenced by last week’s win against South Alabama, when he threw a touchdown pass, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass on a trick play.

As a passer, Prescott (43-for-72, 696 yards, nine TDs, two INTs in 2014) is effective, but it’s his running ability that makes him especially scary. He is eighth in the SEC with an average of 91.0 rushing yards per game, and he’s averaging 6.8 yards per rushing attempt thus far.

That run-pass combination will be tough to defend, as LSU coach Les Miles is well aware. Miles called Prescott “as good of a player as there is in his position in our conference.”

Let’s take a look at some of the issues LSU must contend with in defending Mississippi State’s quarterback:

RUNS WITH POWER

The multidimensional quarterbacks LSU will face down the road are more from the finesse mold -- think Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace -- than the power mold. Like previous SEC stars Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, the 230-pound Prescott is content to run over tacklers instead of around them.

“I don't know exactly how fast he is, but he carves through the ground very quickly, and when you go to tackle him, you better hit him hard,” Miles said. ”You’d better take him off his feet because he's just a big, physical kid.”

Florida fans might recognize this Tebow-style play from Dan Mullen’s time as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. In last season’s South Carolina game, Prescott takes a shotgun snap, follows a block from running back LaDarius Perkins, and plows between left guard and left tackle for a 1-yard touchdown.

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We could pull any number of short-yardage Prescott clips as visual evidence that there’s more to the Tebow comparison than their matching No. 15 jerseys. Most defenders failed to drag either of them down with arm tackles.

BREAKING FROM POCKET

In addition to power, Prescott runs with impressive speed. Check out this 28-yard touchdown scramble from last season’s LSU game.

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LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco destroys left tackle Charles Siddoway with a spin move and has a clear shot at Prescott, but the Mississippi State quarterback steps forward into the pocket and slips between Ego Ferguson and Danielle Hunter into the open field. Then it becomes a footrace, and he sprints away from linebacker D.J. Welter for a first-quarter touchdown.

LSU’s defensive front seven will certainly have its hands full trying to contain Prescott once he scrambles after initially dropping back to pass.

“It looks like he’s got even bigger since last year, but we’re ready to play physical and run fast. That’s basically what we have to do to prepare for him,” LSU outside linebacker Lamar Louis said.

RUNNING GAME IS DANGEROUS

Prescott’s running ability -- and Mississippi State’s running game in general -- makes defenses that sell out to stop the run susceptible to the occasional big passing play.

Take this 35-yard touchdown pass to Fred Ross from the 2014 opener against Southern Miss. When cornerback Jomez Applewhite abandons Ross to blitz off the edge, Prescott easily hits Ross several yards away from safety Emmanuel Johnson, who is slow in coverage after Prescott fakes a handoff in the backfield. All Ross has to do is make a wide-open catch and break a Johnson tackle attempt at the 5 and he’s in the end zone.

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The threat of Prescott runs and similar run fakes will test LSU’s defensive discipline. If Prescott catches defensive backs looking into the backfield like this, a big play for State might follow.

PRESSURING HIS THROWS

No quarterback likes to throw under pressure. Prescott is not a pro-style passer, but he’s capable of making some impressive throws if he has time to survey the field.

Here’s a pass to Fred Brown from last week’s win against South Alabama that Prescott completes despite cornerback Montell Garner's attempt to disrupt Brown’s route by holding him. Prescott places the ball perfectly over safety Roman Buchanan for a 36-yard gain.

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Earlier in the South Alabama game, Prescott has plenty of time to zip a 15-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Malcolm Johnson where safety Terrell Brigham has no chance to deflect or intercept the pass.

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Thus, LSU’s pass rushers know it will be incumbent on them to keep Prescott in the pocket and make him uncomfortable when he attempts to throw.

“With them having a really good offensive line, we have to make sure that we just attack the line of scrimmage and make sure that we stay in our gaps and clog the holes” LSU defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Prescott has handled the blitz fairly well -- he has five touchdown passes and no interceptions against five or more pass rushers -- although his Total QBR against the blitz is just 48.5. He’ll definitely face extra rushers Saturday, like when defensive back Dwayne Thomas blitzes from LSU’s “Mustang” package.

Regardless of who applies the pressure, the Tigers' rushers will greatly help their cause if they get a hand in Prescott’s line of vision. Take this throw from last season’s 59-26 win in Starkville. Hunter gets in Prescott’s face before he overthrows Jameon Lewis, and Tre'Davious White intercepts the bad throw at the Mississippi State 45. His 40-yard return to the 5 sets up Jeremy Hill's touchdown run on the next play that essentially puts away the LSU win.

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HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
We're less than three months from the kickoff to the 2014 college football season, which means it's time to start examining every SEC team a little closer.

Today, we start unveiling our annual position rankings.

It's a task that seemingly gets harder every year, especially when so much is unknown and so much can change between now and the actual season.

We’ve talked to people we trust around the league in coming up with these rankings, but there are always going to be epic whiffs. For instance, Nick Marshall wasn't on a lot of people's radar at this point a year ago, and neither was Marshall's chief protector on the left side of the Auburn line -- Greg Robinson.

Anyway, we’ve based our 2014 rankings on having a true game-changer (or game-changers) at the position as well as having experience and depth. Past performance is weighted heavily, but we also take into account what help is on the way and project the impact newcomers will have.

After unveiling the position rankings each day, we’ll come back later in the day and rank the top players in the league at the various positions.

We'll start with the quarterback position.

1. Auburn: Marshall emerged from the junior college ranks last season to win the job and lead Auburn to the national championship game. He’s one of the most explosive athletes in the country at the quarterback position and an improved passer. Behind him, the Tigers also like sophomore Jeremy Johnson, who has a big arm and played some last season when Marshall was banged up. Junior Jonathan Wallace also returns after starting the final four games in 2012 as a true freshman.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDak Prescott showed signs of being a star at quarterback late last season for Mississippi State.
2. Mississippi State: Junior Dak Prescott could be poised for a breakout season after showing his vast potential in flashes a year ago and finishing with a bang. If he becomes a more polished passer, look out. Sophomore Damian Williams is another dual-threat guy who played in six games last season, while true freshman Nick Fitzgerald brings some depth to the position after enrolling early and going through the spring.

3. Ole Miss: Bo Wallace enters his senior season ranked second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). It’s always nice to have that kind of experience, and Wallace should also be healthier after playing through shoulder pain each of the last two seasons. It’s a three-man race for the backup job. DeVante Kincade is an exceptional athlete, Ryan Buchanan is more of a pocket passer. Both are redshirt freshmen. Don’t forget about 6-foot-3, 296-pound sophomore Jeremy Liggins, who originally signed with LSU before going to junior college. Liggins could be a beast in short-yardage situations.

4. Missouri: It’s Maty Mauk’s show now at Missouri after he filled in more than capably a year ago as a redshirt freshman for the injured James Franklin. Mauk has all the tools to have a big year. Junior Corbin Berkstresser also has starting experience after subbing for the injured Franklin two years ago, while redshirt freshman Eddie Printz split the second-team reps with Berkstresser this spring.

5. Alabama: Jacob Coker hasn’t played a down for Alabama. For that matter, he hasn’t participated in the first official practice with the Crimson Tide. But already he’s the heir apparent to AJ McCarron, and the Tide are counting on him coming in and being their quarterback in 2014. He played behind Jameis Winston at Florida State last season and is extremely gifted. If Coker takes a little longer to develop, Alabama will likely turn to senior Blake Sims, who still needs to prove that he can beat teams throwing the ball.

6. Florida: As last season illustrated, an injury at quarterback can be devastating. The Gators need Jeff Driskel to stay healthy and develop into the kind of do-it-all quarterback he was billed as coming out of high school. Now a fourth-year junior, Driskel would seem to be poised to take that step after breaking his leg in the third game a year ago. Tyler Murphy has transferred, which means redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris would be next in line if something happened to Driskel.

7. South Carolina: Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has experience on his side, not to mention a penchant for delivering in clutch situations. Now, with Connor Shaw gone, Thompson has to prove he can get it done on a weekly basis. The Gamecocks will be a little different with Thompson at quarterback. He’s a pocket passer and not nearly the runner Shaw was. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is the most talented of the Gamecocks’ backups, although third-year sophomore Brendan Nosovitch also returns.

8. Georgia: It’s hard to imagine a Georgia team without Aaron Murray under center. After four record-setting seasons in Athens, Murray has moved on, and fifth-year senior Hutson Mason gets his shot to lead the Bulldogs. He played at the end of last season after Murray injured his knee and has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. Redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey might be the Dawgs’ quarterback of the future, but third-year sophomore Faton Bauta had the more consistent spring of the two.

9. Tennessee: The Vols have three quarterbacks returning who have started games for them, but there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the position after redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson decided to leave the program following the spring. Senior Justin Worley was solid before an injury ended his season a year ago, and Josh Dobbs was then forced into action as a true freshman. With better playmakers around him, Worley could end up being one of the surprises of the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Brandon Harris might be LSU's starting quarterback by the time the Tigers get into the heart of SEC play.
10. LSU: True freshman Brandon Harris was good enough this spring that several on the Bayou think he will be the Tigers’ starter at some point this season. Sophomore Anthony Jennings filled in at the end of last season when Zach Mettenberger was injured and might be the odds-on favorite to open the 2014 season as the starter. Either way, the Tigers will be lean on experience at the quarterback position.

11. Vanderbilt: Preseason camp should be interesting for the Commodores, especially with Stephen Rivers transferring in from LSU and being eligible to play right away. It was already a close race between third-year sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette started in three games late last season, including the win at Florida and the BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Houston.

12. Texas A&M: Life after Johnny Manziel won’t be easy, but Kevin Sumlin has proven that his offenses can score points with different styles of quarterbacks. Sophomore Kenny Hill is probably the guy to beat despite his off-the-field issues this spring. True freshman Kyle Allen also has a big future ahead of him, but it might be asking a bit much for him to take the reins right out of the gate on the road against South Carolina. With Matt Joeckel transferring, the Aggies will be short on experience.

13. Arkansas: In his defense, Brandon Allen was injured for much of last season and did his best to gut it out. Now a junior, Allen needs to stay healthy and could use some help from his receivers. He’s backed up by his younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, and true freshman Rafe Peavey. The Hogs need to be a better passing team, period, this season, and that’s not just on the quarterbacks.

14. Kentucky: Sophomore Patrick Towles was once the forgotten man at Kentucky. But after redshirting last season, he enters preseason practice as the Wildcats’ likely starter. Towles shortened his release and was one of the team’s most improved players this spring. No matter who wins the job, he won’t have much in the way of experience. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker are the other two in mix after Jalen Whitlow transferred.

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.
By now we should have our legs about us. No more early season mistakes. Make sure the cooler is stocked, the oil has been changed and the GPS is fully updated.

If you’re just now getting on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the season by plotting out the top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Houston, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. Three weeks down, 11 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 4:

Sept. 20
Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Florida at Alabama
Northern Illinois at Arkansas
Troy at Georgia
Mississippi State at LSU
Indiana at Missouri
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Texas A&M at SMU

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Mississippi State at LSU

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDak Prescott and the Bulldogs will get their first tough test of the season when they visit LSU on Sept. 20.
Expect the hype for this game to be considerable. Mississippi State, barring a considerable collapse, should enter Baton Rouge, La., undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. If LSU survives its season opener against Wisconsin, it will be in the same boat.

With a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers on offense and a deep, veteran defense, the Bulldogs are a team worth keeping an eye on. The momentum Mississippi State gained from beating Ole Miss and Rice to end last season was huge. In a wide-open West, Mississippi State is in as good a position as any to make it to Atlanta, especially with its schedule. Early season games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama should be a breeze. In fact, I’d be concerned about playing down to the level of competition.

LSU will be a considerable obstacle, however.

Against LSU, we’ll see if Mississippi State is for real. Against a John Chavis-Les Miles defense, we’ll see just how good Dak Prescott is and how far Dan Mullen’s offense has come.

Along those same lines, we'll learn a lot about LSU's retooled defense and its overhauled offense, which features exactly zero returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

This game should be a good one. And the fact that it will be played in the renovated Tiger Stadium only makes it that much more appealing. If it’s not a night game, and I don’t get to hear the P.A. announcer say, “It’s Saturday night in Death Valley,” I’ll be thoroughly disappointed. There’s not a better environment in all of college football, for my money.

Sam Khan’s pick: Florida at Alabama

After Florida's rough 2013 season, this game at first glance might not have much appeal. That's fair, but both teams are likely to head into this one unbeaten. It will be the Crimson Tide's conference opener after nonconference tilts against West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi, while Florida has dates with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Florida's offense can't be as inept as it was last season, right? Kurt Roper's arrival as offensive coordinator should help the Gators improve vastly in that area and help quarterback Jeff Driskel make significant progress. The defense should be fine. Overall, as long as the Gators can avoid the rash of injuries they encountered last season, things are looking up for a sizeable leap in the wide-open SEC East standings.

Alabama is Alabama and will be one of the favorites to take the SEC title once again. But Florida -- if the Gators are playing well defensively -- will provide a good test for the new Crimson Tide quarterback, whether it be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or someone else. The Tide have a new offensive coordinator, too -- Lane Kiffin -- and there will be plenty of eyes watching to see how the offense develops under Kiffin.

If the Crimson Tide roll to an easy victory, it will probably come as no surprise. But as we saw last season with the Gators' fall and Auburn and Missouri's rise, things can change quickly, even in the span of one year. Alabama is likely to be a heavy favorite, but if the Gators get off to a good start and show signs of life during their early season slate, it should provide some intrigue in the buildup to this early season conference clash.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
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The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
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Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss
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.

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.

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