LSU Tigers: Justin Hunter

With the season winding down, we figured we'd start looking to the future. Like, beyond bowl games future.

We are looking into our crystal ball to check out some of the SEC best who could declare for April's NFL draft early. We've talked to people around the league, those in the know at ESPN when it comes to the NFL draft, and came up with the top 10 underclassmen we feel are the best bets to come out and go the highest in next spring's draft.

Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. updated his Big Board Insider this week and featured 12 SEC players in his top 25. Ten were juniors.

We're going in alphabetical order, so here are 10 SEC underclassmen we feel have the highest draft stock:

[+] EnlargeJustin Hunter
Jim Brown/US PresswireTennessee receiver Justin Hunter has the potential to be a first-round pick in the NFL.
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee: Pro scouts have drooled over Hunter's natural ability and his breakaway speed. He was a little hesitant on his knee early after undergoing ACL surgery last year, but he's made nice strides as the season has progressed, catching 65 passes for 979 yards and eight touchdowns. He has four 100-plus-yard receiving games, and some think he could be a mid-first-round draft pick in April.

Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M: It's hard to find a better left tackle out there. Joeckel entered the season as a surefire first-round pick and has only helped his draft stock with an excellent junior season. He hasn't been rattled by the speed of opposing SEC ends, and has provided very good protection in the pass game. It sounds like he could be the first tackle off the board if he declares early.

Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: He was the SEC's top defender last season, and has been one of the nation's best pass-rushers the last two years. He really can do it all. He drops into coverage, stops the run and constantly harasses quarterbacks. He also never seems to lose energy. He's been banged up this season, but Kiper still has him No. 1 on his Big Board.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: The Aggies are really getting greedy with their tackles. Matthews has been excellent all season, and could play either right or left tackle in the NFL. He's very powerful and moves well up front. He could be a late first-round pick if he decides to come out.

Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama: He has had some struggles lately in coverage, which could hurt his stock, but he's so athletic and so physical that teams will be all over him if he opts to leave early for the NFL. He can play the run, has tremendous speed and has very good field intelligence. He's defended an SEC-high 16 passes this season.

Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: He might not be burning up the stat books this season, but he might be the nation's fastest pass-rusher. He has been extremely agressive all season against the pass and run. He has great length, and doesn't really have to take on many blocks because of his speed. He entered the season as an early first-round draft pick, and that still seems to be the case.

Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: It's hard to find anyone with the same on-field personality and energy. He might be bigger than Mingo, but he's chased down his fair share of running backs during his career. He has six sacks this season and 11 tackles for loss. He could have left early last year, but decided to stay and still has early first-round potential.

Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: Talk about really breaking out onto the national stage. He was excellent as an outside linebacker last season, but has been an absolute monster at defensive end in his first (and probably only) year in the SEC. He really adjusted to the new 4-3 scheme, and might have played himself into a top-10 pick. He has a team-high 74 tackles, leads the nation with 20 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 12.5 sacks.

Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: Some think he might be better suited for the NFL than Jones because of his speed, athleticism and instincts. He had a rusty start to his season after serving a four-game suspension, but he's been outstanding in recent weeks. He can make plays all over the field, and should be a first-rounder if he decides to leave school early.

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri: He is arguably Missouri's best player, regardless of position. He's constantly taking on double-teams, but figures out a way to blow them up. He leads Mizzou with 70 tackles, has 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He's quick and can disrupt both the run and pass. However, his recent suspension could make his draft stock fall some.

Keep an eye on ...

Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Has all the physical tools to be special in the NFL, but off-field issues could push him out of the first round.

Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida: Has been extremely disruptive all year up front for the Gators, and could hear his name called in the second round.

D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama: Has had a solid season, but he still needs to develop his game more, and there are more NFL-ready tackles ahead of him.

Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn: Was very productive last season, but has fallen a bit this season. Still has all the tools to be a top 40 pick in April.

Predictions: SEC Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:30
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Well, well, well. It looks like The Kid knows a little bit about what he’s yapping about these days.

After two weeks of having identical picks, we have some separation after I correctly picked that Florida would walk into Neyland Stadium and snatch a win away from the Vols. I thought the Gators would win because of their defense -- and that unit did just what I thought it would in the second half -- but I didn’t think Florida’s offense would step up like that. My goodness.

Talk about Rocky Bottom.

That’s exactly where Chris sits heading into Week 4 with a record of 31-4 (.886), which is one game behind my 32-3 (.914) record. We both missed on Kentucky losing to Western Kentucky last week, but the most important thing in my eyes is that I have a one-game lead, and I can tell that Chris is scrambling.

You should have heard our conversation after his alma mater let the Gators off the hook Saturday. The mental games for him started when Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter both dropped those key second-half passes for the Vols. They just fueled his realization that he'd leave the weekend a game behind The Kid.

It’s funny how he has time to take jabs at my love for soccer (the world’s most popular sport, I might add), but doesn’t have the time to remember that defense wins championships. Going with offense last week was a true gaffe by the vet.

For the sake of competition, I hope he has learned his lesson.

On to the picks:

OLE MISS AT TULANE

Edward Aschoff: The Rebels are coming off quite the blowout loss to Texas, in which the defense was totally overmatched. The Rebels face one of the nation's worst offenses, so the outcome will be much different. ... Ole Miss 31, Tulane 14

Chris Low: Ole Miss’ defense is reeling following the Texas stampede last weekend. The good news for the Rebels is that Tulane has been anemic offensively in its first two outings. … Ole Miss 31, Tulane 13

FLORIDA ATLANTIC AT ALABAMA

Edward Aschoff: The only real question for Alabama is whether the defense can pitch its third straight shutout. One will get past this defense. ... Alabama 45, Florida Atlantic 3

Chris Low: One of these days, the Crimson Tide are going to have a game where somebody comes within 40 points of them again. But it won’t be this one. … Alabama 56, Florida Atlantic 3

SOUTH ALABAMA AT MISSISSIPPI STATE

Edward Aschoff: The Bulldogs got caught sleeping a little bit in last week's win against Troy, but expect to see a little more life out of Mississippi State this weekend. ... Mississippi State 45, South Alabama 14

Chris Low: The Sun Belt Conference tour continues for Mississippi State, although this one is at home. The Bulldogs need to play better after playing just well enough to survive last week at Troy. … Mississippi State 38, South Alabama 10

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE AT TEXAS A&M

Edward Aschoff: We saw a good bit of offense and points from the Aggies last week, and they shouldn't have a problem keeping that up Saturday. ... Texas A&M 51, South Carolina State 7

Chris Low: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel already has established himself as one of the most exciting players in the SEC. Look for him to roll up Xbox numbers for the second straight week. … Texas A&M 45, South Carolina State 14

AKRON AT TENNESSEE

Edward Aschoff: The Vols have to move on from last week's loss to Florida. Getting the offense back on track against the Zips is the best way to do that. ... Tennessee 45, Akron 14

Chris Low: A lot of air came out of the Vols’ Big Orange balloon last weekend following their collapse in the second half against Florida. They ought to have this one in hand well before the second half. … Tennessee 42, Akron 17

KENTUCKY AT FLORIDA

Edward Aschoff: The Gators are brimming with confidence after back-to-back road wins, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said he wanted to hang 50 on the Cats. He'll come close. ... Florida 45, Kentucky 10

Chris Low: Kentucky has snapped a couple of long losing streaks over the past two years against Tennessee and South Carolina, but the drought against Florida will grow to 26 in a row Saturday. … Florida 38, Kentucky 14

LSU AT AUBURN

Edward Aschoff: LSU has quietly been one of the most impressive teams in the country, while Auburn barely got by Louisiana-Monroe. Auburn has too many questions remaining to hang with the other Tigers. ... LSU 38, Auburn 10

Chris Low: The battle of the Tigers has been one of the most entertaining rivalries in the SEC over the past decade, but a more physical and more talented LSU team is poised to make it two blowouts in a row. … LSU 31, Auburn 13

RUTGERS AT ARKANSAS

Edward Aschoff: The Razorbacks are at a real low point right now, while Rutgers is riding a three-game winning streak. Tyler Wilson is still questionable and Rutgers' running game is much improved. That's bad news for the Hogs. ... Rutgers 24, Arkansas 20

Chris Low: With or without Tyler Wilson, the Hogs have to figure out a way to stop somebody. They’ve given up 110 points in three games, but the bleeding stops Saturday. … Arkansas 34, Rutgers 21

VANDERBILT AT GEORGIA

Edward Aschoff: Last year's game had a very dramatic ending, both in the game and after it. The Commodores are fired up for this one, but Georgia just has more going for it all around. ... Georgia 31, Vanderbilt 14

Chris Low: The game last year ended with James Franklin and Todd Grantham going nose-to-nose. That little dust-up will ensure that the Bulldogs don’t sleepwalk into this game. … Georgia 35, Vanderbilt 14

MISSOURI AT SOUTH CAROLINA

Edward Aschoff: Both teams have banged-up quarterbacks, and while both could play, we aren't sure how long either will be in. This one will come down to line play, and South Carolina has the advantage both ways. ... South Carolina 27, Missouri 20

Chris Low: It’s Columbia versus Columbia. It’s also one banged-up quarterback versus another banged-up quarterback. The difference will be a South Carolina defensive line that takes over in the second half. … South Carolina 27, Missouri 21

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
10:15
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We're heading into Week 3 in the SEC, so here's what to watch:

1. Quarterback health: The statuses of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and South Carolina's Connor Shaw are still unknown. Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, while Shaw is still nursing a bruised shoulder from Week 1. For the Gamecocks, losing Shaw for the second straight week won't really hurt South Carolina's offense. It was just fine without him against East Carolina. However, Arkansas isn't in the same position. Brandon Allen completed just 6 of 20 passes against Louisiana-Monroe in place of Wilson. Not having Wilson will make Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama that much tougher for the Razorbacks.

[+] EnlargeJohn L. Smith
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonCoach John L. Smith and his Razorbacks face a formidable foe in No. 1 Alabama this week.
2. Arkansas' defense: Speaking of the Razorbacks, what has happened to that defense? It was supposed to be more aggressive and more disciplined under Paul Haynes. We saw neither in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe, as the Razorbacks blew a 21-point lead. The defense was shredded against a lesser opponent and now has to play one of the most balanced attacks in the SEC. Last year, Alabama wore down this defense. If Arkansas is going to pick itself up, it has to play much tougher than it has in the first two games. Alabama has far more talent than Arkansas' first opponents and has the capability to really beat this unit down.

3. Tennessee’s passing game vs. Florida’s secondary: This game always comes down to the running game, but the difference this time will be Tennessee's passing game against Florida’s secondary. The Gators are loaded with talent back there and made tremendous strides during the second half of the Texas A&M game, while Tennessee might have the best passing game in the SEC, led by quarterback Tyler Bray. The matchups between Justin Hunter and Marcus Roberson and Cordarrelle Patterson and Loucheiz Purifoy should be great. Zach Rogers is another deep threat the Gators have to be careful about, but Matt Elam has the ability to take the deep ball away for Florida. Should be fun.

4. Must-wins: Both Auburn and Vanderbilt are 0-2 and are coming off tough losses. The Commodores blew a halftime lead at Northwestern, while Auburn was overmatched across the board at Mississippi State. The Tigers are struggling with or without the ball this season, and that's a major concern. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier has to get going, and he's facing the team that just knocked off Arkansas. Vandy just can't get anything going on offense. The explosion we expected to see has been mostly absent through two games and the Commodores have to generate some sort of offensive momentum this weekend against Presbyterian.

5. Mississippi State keeping its edge: Now that Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs have gotten over the hump of beating a West opponent not named Ole Miss, the Bulldogs can’t get complacent. That was just one win, and this team has far bigger goals than just beating Auburn. With the schedule Mississippi State has, it’s very possible the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Alabama game at the end of October. But this team has to focus on Troy and come out strong against a team that won’t be a pushover.

6. Showdown in the Grove: It’s been a long time since a game in Oxford got attention like Saturday’s showdown with Texas has been receiving. It’s eerily similar to the 2003 game with Eli Manning and LSU, although there isn’t hatred in the air. The Grove is gonna be poppin’ and Oxford is expected to double in size. There’s more confidence around that town because Ole Miss is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. The talent difference between Ole Miss and Texas is obvious, but the Rebels have some momentum and some conviction. Can the Rebels stop that burnt orange wave coming to town?

7. The newbie's returns: Missouri and Texas A&M got a nice taste of what life will be like in the SEC last weekend. Now, it's time for both teams to regroup. Both teams lost a lot of steam in the second half, which was expected. Missouri has the challenge of playing Arizona State and its high-flying offense. The Sun Devils have averaged 54 points through two games, averaging 532 offensive yards in the process. The Tigers got into a shootout with Arizona State last year, but can they handle another one after that physical loss to Georgia? The Aggies are taking on SMU in Dallas, and are also recovering from a tough loss to Florida. This is a game where Texas A&M should try to get more out of its running game, which has to generate more production up the middle.

8. Mettenberger’s arm: Through the first two games of the season, we’ve been anxiously waiting to see what Zach Mettenberger could really do in LSU’s offense. So far, he’s yet to eclipse the 200-yard passing mark in a game and has just two touchdowns -- pedestrian numbers compared to what everyone expected. But the Tigers have utilized their running game flawlessly and haven’t needed to send the ball downfield much. Saturday, that should change. It’s time to unleash Mettenberger and get him going more in the offense before LSU gets into conference play.

9. Lattimore’s workload: If Steve Spurrier wanted to push Marcus Lattimore anymore last week, he would have. But the Head Ball Coach gave his workhorse a bit of a rest against East Carolina, running him just 13 times. Maybe Spurrier just wanted to get his new quarterback, Dylan Thompson, a chance to show his stuff in place of Shaw. But as Lattimore continues to return from his knee injury, he’ll need to get more reps and get more comfortable on the field before league play revs up. UAB should provide him the opportunity to do that.

10. Florida’s winning streak: The Gators have had Tennessee’s number for seven straight years now. Not since Dallas Baker’s infamous slap in Knoxville have the Vols bested Florida. This might be Tennessee’s best shot since. There’s no question that this is the best and most complete Vols team Derek Dooley has had. The Vols have cruised through the first two weeks, while Florida’s offense stumbles in with a lot of uncertainty concerning the passing game. Florida might have the edge on defense, but Tennessee’s offense knows how to put up points. Is this the year Tennessee finally gets the Gator off its back?

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:15
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It's here.

After hundreds of days of having to watch and follow inferior sports, take up new hobbies and do extra cute things with your better half just to pass the time, we are finally here.

It's college football season, again! The helmets are perfectly shined. The jerseys are hung so neatly and ironed so sweetly. You've gone to the store in advance to prep for the artery-bursting feast that awaits this weekend. Some are even lucky enough to be tailgating as we speak!

Cue up the bands, the grills and the fryers and the big-screen TVs. It's football season, and here's what to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is one of three star running backs to keep an eye on this weekend.
1. Running backs return: If not for Texas A&M’s game getting postponed, we’d get to see three elite running backs returning to the field after injuries cut their 2011 seasons short. Christine Michael's debut will have to wait, but we’ll still get to see how South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis do with the ball in their hands. When they’re 100 percent, it’s hard to find two better running backs out there.

2. Quarterback battles: Florida and Ole Miss still don’t know who their starting quarterbacks will be. Florida coach Will Muschamp said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will alternate quarters to start Saturday’s game, while Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze anticipates playing both Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti in the opener. This could be the final round of competition at both schools.

3. Questionable offensive lines: So many offensive lines have questions entering the fall. Keep an eye on Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Auburn and Georgia are working in a few new parts, while Florida is hoping most of the parts from last year’s line have improved. Mizzou has all sorts of injury issues and Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy are just hoping to stay healthy because depth is an issue for all three.

(Read full post)

Ranking the SEC tight ends

July, 13, 2012
7/13/12
7:05
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Now that we've ranked the top 10 wide receivers, it's time to check out the top tight ends.

Past rankings
Here are our top 10 SEC tight ends:

[+] EnlargePhilip Lutzenkirchen
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesPhilip Lutzenkirchen will be Auburn's go-to guy for game-winning scores this season.
1. Chris Gragg, Sr., Arkansas: Gragg is a big, fast target who can cause mismatches for defenders. He has great hands and with the loss of three NFL wide receivers he'll be one of Tyler Wilson's top targets this fall. Expect him to improve on his 41 catches and 518 yards from last year.

2. Philip Lutzenkirchen, Sr., Auburn: He only caught 24 passes last year, but seven of those catches went for touchdowns. He's a big-time threat in the red zone and is a solid blocker as well. The addition of fullback Jay Prosch will give Lutzenkirchen a chance to be even more active in the receiving game.

3. Jordan Reed, Jr., Florida: There's no doubt that Reed is extremely athletic, but he can lose focus at times on the field. Still, when he's on the ball, he can make plenty of plays. He's the Gators' top returning receiving target and with two young quarterbacks throwing this year, Reed has the chance to rack up receptions as a close-to-the-line safety net.

4. Mychal Rivera, Sr., Tennessee: Rivera is a very reliable and consistent weapon for the Vols. Even with Justin Hunter coming back and Cordarrelle Patterson jumping into the receiving mix, Rivera might not see his production drop too much if Tyler Bray can stay health. This team will throw it around as much as possible.

5. Michael Williams, Sr., Alabama: Williams only caught 17 passes last year, but there were a couple more proven players around him. This time around, his experience will be valued more by quarterback AJ McCarron. He's a solid player and can be a beast on the field, so the coaches are expecting to get a lot more out of him this fall.

6. Malcolm Johnson, So., Mississippi State: He was once a receiver, but has now found a home at tight end. He averaged 18.7 yards on his 11 catches last year and scored three touchdowns. The Bulldogs have a lot of receiving options, but Johnson should have plenty of chances to improve on last year's production.

7. Justice Cunningham, Sr., South Carolina: He'll continue to have Rory Anderson playing on the other side of him, but Cunningham's a bigger, more experienced target in the Gamecocks' passing game and will likely get more looks this fall with Alshon Jeffery gone. He's a solid blocker and will even line up as a fullback in two-back sets.

8. Chase Clement, Sr., LSU: He's on the John Mackey watch list, but has just nine career catches, with seven coming last season as a backup. Clement will be used to block often, which is needed with a team that runs the ball as much as LSU does. And with an offense that's expected to be more pass-friendly, Clement could see the ball thrown his way more often.

9. Nehemiah Hicks, Jr., Texas A&M: The Aggies have three tight ends they can use in their offense, but Hicks might be the most gifted of the bunch. He started seven games last year and is coming off of shoulder surgery, but if he's healthy he'll be a nice looking target for whichever quarterback takes the field for A&M this fall.

10. Jamal Mosley, Sr., Ole Miss: While he only caught 12 passes last year, Mosley is expected to be used more often in Ole Miss' new spread offense. He's another one of those more athletic tight ends and should help the Rebels with their depth issues in the passing game.
Earlier, we ranked all 14 SEC wide receiver/tight end groups. We're splitting receivers and tight ends up just to make things a little more fun and to create a little more discussion.

Past rankings:
Here are our top 10 SEC wide receivers:

[+] EnlargeCobi Hamilton
Beth Hall/US PresswireCobi Hamilton should be among the top returning receivers in the SEC.
1. Cobi Hamilton, Sr., Arkansas: He's now the primary receiver in Fayetteville and might one of the most physically gifted receivers in the league. Hamilton, who is big, fast and moves well in space, developed some pretty good chemistry with quarterback Tyler Wilson this spring and should be on his way to his first 1,000-yard season.

2. Justin Hunter, Jr., Tennessee: Yes, his teammate was second in the league in receiving, but a healthy Hunter is arguably the league's best deep threat and he's incredibly athletic. He should be 100 percent this fall after tearing his ACL last year, and showed some pretty good flashes of being close to normal this spring. He has averaged 22.1 yards on just 33 career catches.

3. Da'Rick Rogers, Jr., Tennessee: There's no question that Rogers has elite receiving talent, but his off-field behavior has been repeatedly questioned. He was second in the SEC with 1,040 receiving yards and had nine touchdowns, but his production could be cut into by Hunter. Still, when he's focused he's one of the best out there.

4. Ryan Swope, Sr., Texas A&M: Swope was third in the Big 12 in receiving (1,207 yards) last year and could have easily left for the NFL draft. Kevin Sumlin said Swope was his top recruit in his first class and he'll be the centerpiece of the Aggies' passing game. Having a proven vet like Swope will only make A&M's young quarterbacks more comfortable.

5. Emory Blake, Sr., Auburn: He might be one of the more underrated players in the SEC. He isn't the biggest wideout, but he isn't afraid of contact, and he actually likes it. He's a burner as well. He was Auburn's most consistent receiving threat last year, registering 613 yards and 17 yards per catch.

6. Odell Beckham Jr., So., LSU: He challenged Malcolm Mitchell for top rookie receiver last year, hauling in 41 catches and was extremely consistent for the Tigers. He can stretch the field with his speed, but isn't afraid to go over the middle and get physical with opposing defensive backs.

7. Tavarres King, Sr., Georgia: Old Faithful could see his production increase depending on where Mitchell lines up more. King was sixth in the SEC in receiving last year and capped things off with record day against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, where he grabbed six passes for 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown.

8. Jordan Matthews, Jr., Vanderbilt: Matthews was expected to have a breakout year in 2011 and he didn't disappoint. He racked up 778 yards and averaged an SEC-best 19 yards per catch along the way. Matthews is a big, physical receiver and can run right by defenders.

9. Malcolm Mitchell, So., Georgia: Mitchell would be much higher, but we just aren't sure how much offense he'll play this fall. He moved to corner this spring to help with depth and should start the season there as well, but coach Mark Richt has said that he would like to play Mitchell 50-50 this season. When he's at receiver, he's Georgia's top offensive weapon.

10. Donte Moncrief, So., Ole Miss: He really was the Rebels' best offensive player last year, catching 31 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns, and would have started for a few teams in this league. He's very excited about Hugh Freeze's spread offense, and thinks he'll be even more effective with all the space he expects to have in the new scheme.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

(Read full post)

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Drive Through: SEC West Dominance
With four teams in the top 10, the SEC West is dominating the college football landscape early in the season. Following Mississippi State's win over LSU, we look at where the Tigers now fall in the race and who the frontrunner in the division is.
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