LSU Tigers: Tajh Boyd

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
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Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
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Ready or not, it's here. The start of the college football season is upon us with all of its promise and potential.

Throughout the SEC, there's a sense of new beginnings, of hope, of the fresh start so many programs have been longing for. Gus Malzahn will lead Auburn for the first time as its head coach, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones will coach their first games in the SEC at Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, and Mark Stoops will take the first steps in rebuilding a Kentucky program that's struggled historically.

Everyone is on an even keel today, but that all changes when the lines are painted and the football is teed up for the start of the season. So as you get ready for all that Week 1 has to offer, keep an eye on these few things:

1. Return of the champs: Alabama has all the ingredients to make another run at a national title. AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon are Heisman Trophy contenders, and the defense is once again littered with potential All-Americans. With a league-best 16 players chosen to the Coaches' Preseason All-SEC Team, there's no doubting the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But can Nick Saban fend off complacency again and help his team meet its full potential? That remains to be seen, though a season opener against Virginia Tech is a good place to start. The Hokies are a three-touchdown underdog that Alabama could easily overlook with a bye week and Texas A&M to follow. Will overconfidence get the best of the Tide? If UA comes out with anything less than 100 percent effort, that could signal trouble for the road ahead.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray will aim to lead Georgia past Clemson in the Bulldogs' opener.
2. An early title test for Georgia: Mark Richt's Bulldogs won't get a chance to test the waters before jumping in headlong this season, as Clemson awaits in Game 1. Never mind letting Aaron Murray and his talented tandem of tailbacks get their bearings, and never mind allowing the revamped defense to find its stride; Georgia will encounter its first obstacle on the road to the national championship right away. Tajh Boyd and the Tigers offense are prolific -- and dangerous -- averaging 512 yards per game a season ago, which was good enough for ninth in the country. And while there's no doubting Georgia's ability on offense, there are some serious questions on the other side of the ball. After all, 10 of the 22 players listed on Georgia's two-deep depth chart have never played a down of FBS football.

3. Can LSU's offense turn the corner?: There have been glimpses of potential, but LSU's offense has never reached its full potential under Les Miles. The defense has been great, sure, but when it's come to scoring points, the Tigers left something to be desired. Not having the right quarterback had something to do with that, though, but this season, that excuse and all others won't be enough as Zach Mettenberger enters his senior season under center and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron takes control. LSU will still line up and play power football, which it has always done well. The passing game, though, could use some spark, and Miles hopes Cameron is the guy to light that fire, starting with the season opener against TCU. Just because the Horned Frogs come from the defensively challenged Big 12 doesn't mean coach Gary Patterson's squad can't play ball. TCU has long been SEC-like on defense with playmakers like defensive lineman Devonte Fields and cornerback Jason Verrett. They'll get after Mettenberger and give LSU fans an early look at what the Tigers' offense is truly capable of.

4. Florida seeking playmakers: The Gators' woes on offense have been well documented. After all, Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver in almost a decade. Since Tim Tebow left, there hasn't been a lot of chomp to the Gators' bite. For all of Jeff Driskel's faults as a young quarterback, it was hard to figure out exactly who he was supposed to get the football to last season. There was no Percy Harvin to be found. While there doesn't appear to be an All-American brewing at wide receiver now, this season should be better. Losing Matt Jones for the season opener hurts, but it should give other players a chance to step up and make plays. With a date with in-state rival Miami looming, coming out with a bang against Toledo could serve as the springboard to bigger and better things in 2013.

5. Which Johnny Football will it be?: It's only Rice, but Johnny Manziel needs to come out and set the tone right away for what kind of season he hopes to have. The Aggies’ success depends on it. After an offseason filled with turmoil, it's time for all of College Station to turn the page. We've heard time and time again that it will get better when Manziel can put aside the distractions and focus solely on football. Now, he has to prove it. If he really is tired of the college life and ready to move on to the NFL, he'll have to show he's capable of handling the spotlight and performing on the football field. Veterans like Luke Luke Joeckel, Ryan Swope and Damontre Moore are gone. For better or worse, it's Manziel's team, and the pressure is on him now more than ever.

Video: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd

January, 1, 2013
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Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd discusses the Tigers' thrilling 25-24 win over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Instant analysis: Clemson 25, LSU 24

December, 31, 2012
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ATLANTA -- In the battle for Death Valley and Tigers supremacy, No. 14 Clemson upset No. 8 LSU 25-24 on a last-second, 37-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro.

It was over when: Catanzaro nailed the 37-yard kick to cap a masterful 10-play, 60-yard drive by Clemson.

Game ball goes to: Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was unstoppable all night. Even with partner in crime Sammy Watkins out for basically the entire game with an ankle injury, he caught a game-high 13 passes for a game-high 190 yards and two touchdowns. His last touchdown cut LSU's late fourth-quarter lead to two points.

Stat of the game: Hopkins finished the night with the school record for single-season receiving yards (1,404).

Stat of game II: LSU linebacker Kevin Minter finished the game with 19 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a sack.

Stat of the game III: Clemson registered a season-high eight sacks against LSU.

Unsung heroes of the game: You can't really say that Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was an unsung hero, but he deserves some love after he threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns on 36-of-50 passing. He also ran the ball a game-high 29 times for a net gain of 22 yards and a touchdown. Defensive end Malliciah Goodman finished the game with three sacks, including a major one with LSU leading 24-16 with more than nine minutes left and driving in Clemson territory. The sack knocked LSU out of Clemson's side of the field.

What it means for Clemson: After a disappointing finish to the regular season, Clemson took down one of the SEC's best teams, as its offense put together spectacular back-to-back scoring drives, gutting LSU's defense along the way. It was also the first bowl win for Clemson since beating Kentucky 21-13 in the 2009 Music City Bowl.

What it means for LSU: The Tigers' defense totally collapsed on Clemson's final two drives of the game, allowing scoring drives of 77 and 60 yards. After controlling the game for most of the second half, the defense fell apart. Now, the Tigers will probably say goodbye to a good chunk of that defense, as a handful of underclassmen are expected to declare early for the NFL draft.

LSU keys: Stop Boyd, win turnovers, run 

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
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Three keys in the Chick-fil-A Bowl between No. 8 LSU and No. 14 Clemson today.

1. Tame Tajh?: Many see this as the big-time offense of Clemson, led by ACC Player of the Year Tajh Boyd, against LSU's rugged, SEC defense. But LSU has sprung a leak lately on pass defense, allowing each of its final three regular-season opponents to throw for more than 300 yards. Boyd threw for more than 3,500 yards for Clemson and has the added dimension of being able to run with the ball, a factor that might keep LSU's vaunted pass rush at bay as it focuses on containting Boyd instead of rushing him. If that's the case, can LSU's secondary cover big-play Clemson wideouts like 1,000-yard receiver DeAndre Hopkins?

2. Turning it over: LSU is eighth in the nation in both turnovers forced (31) and turnover margin. One way the Tigers can combat the Clemson pass efficiency is by forcing turnovers. Boyd has thrown 14 interceptions and LSU is known for game-changing turnovers. If Boyd can protect the ball it takes away a key element to LSU's defensive success.

3. On the run: One way to slow down Boyd is to keep him off the field. Although LSU's passing game surged in the last third of the season, LSU may want to call on its physical running game, led by emerging freshman star Jeremy Hill, to sustain drives, eat clock and keep Boyd and company off the field.

Tiger Tale: Craig Loston

December, 29, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player. We'll examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

Craig Loston, S, Junior

Craig Loston
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSafety Craig Loston was fifth on the LSU defense with 48 tackles and had three interceptions in 2012.
Accomplishments: Loston's biggest accomplishment this year is that he's stayed relatively healthy, something he hadn't been able to do in his first three years in Baton Rouge. Starting at strong safety, he finished the regular season with 48 tackles, fifth on the team, and was second on the team with three interceptions. He had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Mississippi State. As a run stopper, Loston brings a linebacker-like physicality.

Shortcomings: One might note that Loston has been "relatively" healthy this season, but hardly the picture of health. He's missed one game with injury and has been hobbled by others, continuing what has been a litany of health issues throughout his career. When a recurring toe injury bothers him, he can be a step slow in the secondary, although at full speed he's plenty fast enough.

Against Clemson: If Clemson tries to find a coverage weakness, they may test Loston and his mobility. If he's healthy after a month off, that could be a challenge he's up for. The way Clemson plays offense with Tajh Boyd spreading the field, Loston's going to have to step up his game, especially with Boyd's mobility making it difficult for the Tigers' pass rush.

Five storylines: LSU vs. Clemson 

December, 28, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU wanted to be in Atlanta in the postseason, just not in this game.

The Tigers will play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday, the third time the Tigers will play in the Atlanta bowl game in Les Miles' eight seasons as head coach.

No. 8 LSU (10-2) came within a late touchdown by Alabama in a 21-17 loss from having had the chance to play in Atlanta for the SEC championship and possibly a trip to the national championship game. Instead, the Tigers will play in the league's No. 5 bowl (No. 6 when the almost inevitable second SEC team in the BCS is figured in), albeit in a good matchup against No. 14 Clemson (10-2).

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Tiger Tale: Sam Montgomery

December, 20, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player. We'll examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

Sam Montgomery, DE, Junior

Accomplishments: Part of one of the most-feared pass rushes in college football, Montomery led LSU in sacks with seven. This came after a sophomore season in which he was an All-American with nine sacks. A character on and off the field, Montgomery gets crowds going with his sack celebrations and is a fun quote in the locker room. He'll likely take that act to the NFL after this season, considering he's generally projected to go somewhere in the middle of the first round of the draft.

Shortcomings: For all the hype surrounding Sonic Sam and LSU's defensive line in general, Montgomery actually saw his production go down during his junior season. He didn't always collapse pockets. Many of his sacks were of the second-effort variety and he sometimes gets out of position in the running game. Combined with Barkevious Mingo, he was supposed to be part of one of the top defensive end tandems in college football. But they combined for only 11 sacks, a figure many thought both would approach individually.

Against Clemson: Montgomery and the Tigers defensive line will have to step up against Clemson's high-powered passing game. If Tajh Boyd is able to sit back in the pocket, he'll likely be able to pick LSU's secondary apart; if they can pressure him, however, Boyd tends to rattle easily and could struggle. Montgomery is going to need to have a big game in what will likely be his last college football game.

Tiger Tale: Barkevious Mingo

December, 19, 2012
12/19/12
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player. We'll examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

Barkevious Mingo, DE, Junior

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireDespite his size, Barkevious Mingo has been on of the SEC's most productive pass rushers.
Accomplishments: One of the most feared pass rushers in the SEC, Mingo has done well despite smallish size for a major college defensive end. He still consistently brought pressure up the field grabbing a team-high 12 quarterback hurries. He also had 33 tackles and finished the year in position to be a top-10 NFL draft pick if he chooses to leave school after the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Shortcomings: Despite the reputation, Mingo's production was a bit disappointing. He had just four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He applied pressure, as his quarterback hurries suggest, but often he would just miss a bit play. He's small for an end and part of the reason his draft stock remains high is many believe he'll be much better as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, rather than his current role as an end in a 4-3.

Against Clemson: Mingo's ability to put pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd will be a key for LSU’s defensive approach. Mingo and the LSU defensive front can't allow Boyd to get good looks down the field, otherwise the ACC Player of the Year might pick the young Tigers' secondary apart. In what could be his last game, Mingo's going to have to bring it.

 

 

Tiger Tale: Jeremy Hill

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player and examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

Jeremy Hill, RB, Freshman

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertIn a crowded backfield full of talented runners, Jeremy Hill emerged as a star in his freshman season.
Accomplishments: For the season's first six games, Hill was a talented back of the future, not playing in the first two games, then playing sparingly in the next four. That changed in Week 7 when Hill rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a win over South Carolina. He never looked back. The USC breakout started a string of three straight 100-yard rushing games. By season's end, he led LSU with 631 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 130 carries.

Shortcomings: With his mix of fullback size (6-foot-2 and a listed weight of 225 pounds that seems like a low estimate), deceptive speed and football instincts, it's hard to think of many shortcomings that won't get dealt with as he gets more experienced. One area where Hill did not because LSU's primary running back option was on passing downs where Spencer Ware was the Tigers' best pass blocker and best receiver coming out of the backfield.

Against Clemson: LSU will likely play some ball control to keep Clemson's high-powered offense off the field, and that's where Hill can make an impact on the game. If the Tigers can build a lead going into the fourth quarter, look for a steady diet of the powerful Hill, along with Ware and Kenny Hilliard, to try to wear down the Clemson defense and minimize the time Tajh Boyd might have to work his passing magic.

Ranking the SEC's bowls

December, 13, 2012
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The bowl season is getting closer and closer, and as we all prepare for what truly is the most wonderful time of year, it's time to rank the nine bowl games that involve SEC teams.

This month, ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach took the time to rank all 35 bowl games. We only have nine to discuss here, but some are very intriguing matchups.

Here's how the SEC's slate of bowls ranks from top to bottom:

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama are one win away from another national title.
1. Discover BCS National Championship: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama (Jan. 7: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Sun Life Stadium, Miami) -- Two quintessential blue-collar football teams will smash into each other for the national championship. This game also features two of the most respected/hated football programs of all-time. People from all over will be disgusted with themselves for having to root for either squad in a game where some big hits and bruises will be given out.

2. AT&T Cotton Bowl: No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma (Jan. 4: Fox, 8 p.m. ET, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas) -- The scoreboard inside Jerry's World better have brand new bulbs, because there are going to be a lot of points in this one. The Aggies will be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who accepted the head-coaching job at Texas Tech, but Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and his group of playmakers will be ready -- and rested. Both teams are averaging more than 500 yards and 40 points a game.

3. Chick-fil-A Bowl: No. 8 LSU vs. No. 14 Clemson (Dec. 31: ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome, Atlanta) -- One stout defense takes on one of the nation's flashiest offenses. The only thing is that LSU currently has some real bite on offense, so that Clemson defense better make adjustments after giving up 444 yards and 27 points in a home loss to South Carolina. Oh, and if Tajh Boyd thought Jadeveon Clowney was a handful, he now has to face Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo coming at him from the outside.

4. Allstate Sugar Bowl: No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida (Jan. 2: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans) -- Some people are turning their noses up at this game, but there are a lot of fun storylines. This is a huge bowl for the Cardinals, and coach Charlie Strong was once the Gators' defensive coordinator. Teddy Bridgewater was also recruited by Florida. We've also learned that Florida's offense can be pretty tough when healthy, and a month off should have the Gators in proper form.

5. Outback Bowl: No. 10 South Carolina vs. No. 18 Michigan (Jan. 1: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.) -- Clowney and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor get another mobile quarterback to chase around. Michigan had major issues with the last SEC team it played, and this South Carolina defense is a little more aggressive than the Alabama one that made the Wolverines' offense relatively obsolete in Arlington this year.

6. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Northwestern (Jan. 1, ESPN2, 12 p.m. ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- At first, I wasn't thrilled about this game, considering how the Bulldogs ended the season. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this team will be fired up to prove people that its better than its 1-4 finish to the regular season. Plus, Mississippi State is going for its second nine-win season in four years, something this program has never done.

7. Capital One Bowl: No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 16 Nebraska (Jan. 1: ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.) -- On the surface, this looks like a very fun matchup. But you have to wonder how both of these teams are feeling after they lost in their respective conference title games. The Bulldogs were literally a play away from the national championship, while the Huskers missed out on the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio because of a blowout loss to Wisconsin. Both teams expected a much bigger bowl at season's end and could be a little down heading into this one.

8. BBVA Compass Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Ole Miss (Jan. 5: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.) -- So both teams are 6-6 and barely made the bowl cut. They're in the postseason, and both showed a lot of fight this year. Both are also averaging more than 400 yards of offense a game. Pitt took Notre Dame to the wire in triple overtime and owns the nation's No. 16 defense, which means the Rebels' offense will have to keep up its high-flying routine if it wants its first bowl win since 2009.

9. Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt (Dec. 31: ESPN, noon ET, LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.) -- For starters, I'm opposed to any team having to play in its own city for a bowl game unless its a BCS bowl. The Commodores ended the season on a six-game winning streak, while NC State's season ended with the Wolfpack losing three of five and seeing head coach Tom O'Brien get fired. Dana Bible will be coaching in his place.

For LSU, Chick-fil-A has BCS feel

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
7:30
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- All told, it seems most around LSU feel pleased to go the Chick-fil-A bowl.

Now, it's about getting the fans excited too.

LSU coach Les Miles said during a Wednesday news conference that the Chick-fil-A bowl game -- between his No. 8 Tigers and No. 14 Clemson in a matchup of 10-2 teams -- is one of the better bowl pairings of the season. He added that with several players from the area, Atlanta is a place where his guys "love to play" and that Clemson is an opponent they can embrace.

And both Miles and athletic director Joe Alleva seemed to endorse Chick-fil-A Bowl CEO Gary Stokan's claims that their bowl is "BCS without the letters" and is consistently rated as one of the top three or four bowls in terms of how it's run -- regardless of where it is in the bowl pecking order.

Stokan seemed to find the talk of possible fan apathy quite obscure.

He said they are expecting their 17th straight Chick-fil-A Bowl sellout, the second longest streak of bowl sellouts behind the Rose Bowl. He said the bowl could sell out by Dec. 17. The New Year's Eve game has little competition for sports TV audience and he said LSU's 2005 win over Miami is one of the highest rated games in ESPN television history.

If there's dissatisfaction with LSU's bowl placement, you didn't see it Wednesday. Alleva and Miles seemed pleased enough and the big winner is the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which managed to land a 10-game winner from the SEC despite being sixth in the pecking order. One late touchdown by Alabama was all that kept LSU from winning the SEC West, playing for the SEC championship and possibly for the national championship.

"We are ecstatic to have LSU," Stokan said.

If he has his way, Atlanta will become a frequent home of national title contenders.

The city is making a bid to host semifinal and national championship games starting in 2014 when college football goes to a four-team playoff. Atlanta is close to getting a new stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, a 20-year-old former Olympic Games venue in good condition but already the 10th-oldest in the NFL. With its facilities, its city and its ambition, The Chick-fil-A bowl already doesn't feel like a bowl that would only get the No. 5 or No. 6 team in the SEC.

(Read full post)

Tiger Tale: QB Zach Mettenberger

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
9:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player. We'll examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

LSU/Alabama
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireAfter a slow start, Zach Mettenberger got the LSU passing offense in gear.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, Junior

Accomplishments: After spending two-thirds of the season adjusting to being a starting SEC quarterback while his receivers matured and the offensive line re-invented itself, Mettenberger played his best football down the stretch, passing for 1,070 yards in the Tigers' last four games, 90 yards a game more than what he threw for in the Tigers' first eight games. A strong-armed 6-foot-5, Mettenberger always looked the part, but he finally had production to match late in the season, finishing with 2,489 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Shortcomings: In an era where more and more teams are finding ways to take advantage of mobile quarterbacks (see Johnny Manziel's Heisman candidacy), Mettenberger is an old-school pocket passer who took 26 sacks. When he takes sacks, he tends to cough it up, with a team-high five fumbles (three lost) on the season. For all the yardage he threw for in the last third of the season, he still only tossed four touchdowns in those games, a pace barely better than what he was doing before.

Against Clemson: With Tajh Boyd on the other side, Mettenberger may be called upon again to do more than manage games. LSU's pass defense gave up yards and points when they played some of the SEC's better passing offenses late in the season. That could mean a shootout where, like the Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss games, he'll be called on to throw 30-plus passes for more than 250 yards for his team to win.

Tiger Tale: LB Lamin Barrow

December, 6, 2012
12/06/12
12:26
PM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we'll take a daily look at a key LSU player. We'll examine how he has done and what his challenges are for the Clemson game.

Lamin Barrow, LB, Junior

Accomplishments: Won a battle for the weakside linebacker spot in the spring and hasn't looked back, his 92 tackles ranking second on the team to Kevin Minter. While Minter gained more attention, Barrow's steady play helped the linebackers become a strength of the Tigers defense. He also had 5.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

Shortcomings: While it's hard to find much to complain about from either Minter or Barrow, it is noted that the Tigers did not stop the run well in either of its losses, at Florida and to Alabama. While there has been much trepidation around LSU for what has been an exploited pass defense lately, it remains true that in the only two games the Tigers lost, they allowed opponents to have their two best rushing days this season against LSU.

Against Clemson: While the focus on defense will be on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and the Tigers' high-powered passing attack, it's up to Barrow and LSU's defensive front to make Clemson one-dimensional. If Barrow has a good game and LSU stops the run, it would propel Barrow into a leadership role on defense next season, especially considering what seems like Minter's imminent departure to the NFL after this season.

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