LSU Tigers: Jameis Winston

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Who has most to prove in SEC bowls?

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
2:00
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In a week, the bowl season for the SEC will kick off when Ole Miss takes on Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.

It's the first of 10 postseason games involving SEC teams, culminating with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Who in the SEC has the most to prove this season in the bowl games? We’re talking head coaches, assistant coaches, players, teams and particular units on teams.

Here's a look:

Alabama: It's been a while since Alabama has played in a BCS bowl game when there wasn't a national championship at stake. Not that Alabama fans need to be reminded, but it was the 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl following a tough loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide looked uninspired from the start and were throttled 31-17 by Utah. This year, Oklahoma awaits in the Sugar Bowl, and that bitter loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl won't seem quite so bitter if the Crimson Tide can take care of business in the Big Easy.

Ole Miss' offense: The Rebels managed just one offensive touchdown in their last two games -- both losses -- after putting up big numbers all season long. They were in the red zone three times against Missouri and came away with a grand total of three points, and twice they were at the goal line. They get a chance against Georgia Tech to show what they genuinely are offensively, and you know quarterback Bo Wallace can't wait to get back onto the field after losing that fumble in overtime against Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel will likely end his college career against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Auburn's secondary: Talk about a tall order. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in pass defense this season, allowing an average of 260.2 yards per game. Now, they have to go up against Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin and a Florida State attack that has generated 40 touchdown passes.

Johnny Manziel: Johnny Football's last collegiate stand will come in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. He gets a chance to go out with a flourish after a pair of un-Johnny Football-like performances in his last two regular-season games.

Mike Davis: South Carolina's sophomore running back was one of the SEC's breakout stars with 1,134 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. But he was slowed by bruised ribs during the final few weeks of the season. He missed the Coastal Carolina game and was held to 76 rushing yards in the two games against Florida and Clemson. Davis should be back to full strength against Wisconsin and will be looking to upstage the Badgers' one-two rushing punch of Melvin Gordon and James White.

Les Miles: The Mad Hatter has had a lot of success at LSU, but the Tigers' last two postseason experiences haven't been particularly memorable. They collapsed against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season and were shut out against Alabama in the BCS National Championship two years ago. Nobody on the Bayou wants to see that bowl drought extend to three consecutive years.

Vanderbilt's fans: James Franklin has brought unprecedented success to Vanderbilt's program in the last two years, but the Commodores haven't necessarily been a commodity in the eyes of the bowls. The only way that's going to change is for the Commodores to keep winning and for their fans to turn out in force in Birmingham, Ala.

Missouri's defense: When last seen, Missouri was being shredded by Auburn to the tune of 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 SEC championship game loss. The hard part for the Tigers was that they had been stout defensively all season and went into that game allowing just 119 rushing yards per game. They get a chance for redemption in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against an Oklahoma State team that scored 38 or more points in five of its last six games.

Anthony Jennings and Hutson Mason: Fans are always wanting to know what the future looks like. Because of injuries to Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray, we'll get to see the future at quarterback at both LSU and Georgia in their respective bowl games. LSU's Jennings and Georgia's Mason have already shown that they have plenty of game, but the lights will be a little brighter in the postseason.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
12:05
PM ET
We're still 11 days from the first bowls, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about them. Here's some bowl chatter – and some other stuff – from across the SEC.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
10:00
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All eyes were on Saturday's Alabama-LSU showdown, but there were plenty of storylines to take away from the rest of the conference, as well. Here are five things we learned from Week 11 in the SEC.

Alabama still king: For the first 30 minutes, it looked like it was going to be another epic clash between the Tide and the Tigers. However, the nation's No. 1 team imposed its will in the second half and rolled to a 38-17 victory. AJ McCarron threw three touchdown passes; T.J. Yeldon rushed for 133 yards and two scores, and the defense held LSU to 43 yards on the ground, sacking quarterback Zach Mettenberger four times. It was the first challenging game the Tide have played in more than a month, and it proved why they are still the No. 1 team. On a weekend when Oregon suffered its first loss, Alabama not only remained unbeaten but showed why it's the favorite to win a third consecutive national championship.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Dave MartinWith three touchdown passes against LSU, is AJ McCarron finally hearing some Heisman buzz?
Heisman hopefuls: With another solid performance in a big game, is it time we put McCarron back in the Heisman trophy race? It's safe to say that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has emerged as the front-runner after the weekend, but McCarron certainly helped himself against LSU. And don't forget about Johnny Manziel, last year's Heisman winner. The Texas A&M quarterback put up more ridiculous numbers Saturday, throwing for 446 yards and five touchdowns at home against Mississippi State. Manziel is on pace to surpass his numbers from last year, but the Aggies' loss to Alabama early in the season could influence voters. Both McCarron and Manziel have marquee games still left to pad their resumes.

Year of the Tiger: Who would've guessed Auburn and Missouri would be No. 2 and No. 3 in the SEC, chasing down Alabama? Both Tigers teams have had terrific seasons, and they continued Saturday with impressive road wins. Ninth-ranked Auburn went to Tennessee and blew out a Volunteers team that had been dangerous at home. Quarterback Nick Marshall rushed for 214 yards and two scores as the SEC's top-rushing offense put up 444 yards on the ground. Missouri also took care of business against a struggling Kentucky team. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit, caught seven passes for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams should remain in the top 10 when the BCS standings come out Sunday.

Trouble in Gainesville: Florida's season went from bad to worse Saturday. The Gators, who have been decimated by injuries, were on a three-game losing streak but hopeful they could turn it around at home against Vanderbilt. It didn't happen. Despite giving up nearly twice as many yards, the Commodores knocked off Florida 34-17 for their first win in Gainesville since 1945. The Gators turned the ball over four times. What does this mean for head coach Will Muschamp? He should get a pass because of all the injuries, but this is the type of loss that could lead to unemployment. Florida now has to win at South Carolina or at home against Florida State just to reach a bowl game.

Gaining momentum: It seems like a long time since Ole Miss lost those three consecutive games to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. The Rebels have quietly righted the ship, and they have a legitimate chance to win out. On Saturday, they looked impressive in a 34-24 win over Arkansas. Quarterback Bo Wallace finished 26-of-33 and threw for a career-high 407 yards. The win made Ole Miss bowl eligible for the second straight year under coach Hugh Freeze, but this team wants more. They want to finish with nine wins and play in a New Year's Day bowl game. That means the Rebels will have to upset Missouri at home in two weeks and finish the season with a win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. Neither is out of the question.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Malachi Dupre is the nation’s most coveted receiver, and Florida State is going out of its way to make sure he knows he’s wanted; Washington will use Seattle as a big lure with recruits visiting this weekend for the Oregon game; South Carolina is expected to add one of the nation’s top guards on Friday.

ESPNU Signing Day Times

January, 31, 2012
1/31/12
4:00
PM ET
ESPNU's national signing day coverage kicks off at 9 a.m. ET. Here's the list of the announcements and time for some of the top prospects.

NOTE: Bold names are announcements, all others are interviews.

ESPNU Signing Day Times

January, 30, 2012
1/30/12
12:11
PM ET
ESPNU's national signing day coverage kicks off at 9 a.m. ET. Here's the list of the announcements and time for some of the top prospects.

NOTE: Bold names are announcements, all others are interviews.

Thursday's episode of RecruitingNation

January, 19, 2012
1/19/12
2:51
PM ET
Tune in to ESPNU at 5:30 p.m. ET today for RecruitingNation. Tom Luginbill, Craig Haubert and national and local writers from RecruitingNation break down the latest recruiting news from across the country.

Thursday's show will look at the impact on Gunner Kiel’s decision to attend Notre Dame, what the pledge does for the Irish and where does LSU go now at quarterback? There will also be analysis on Mario Edwards’ decision to eliminate Texas from consideration on Thursday, what Jameis Winston is going to do and how Oklahoma is going do to recover from losing one of its best recruiters.

Luginbill and Haubert will also review the new ESPNU 150 rankings that were released on Thursday and highlight some of the big risers and fallers.

The broadcast can also be seen on WatchESPN.

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LSU coach Les Miles addressed the media about how the Tigers are bouncing back and preparing for Texas A&M.
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