LSU Tigers: Darian Claiborne

Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

SEC helps A&M, LSU rekindle rivalry

November, 22, 2013
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How long has it been since Texas A&M traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to play LSU at Tiger Stadium? Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin offers perspective.

"It's a little bit different for our current players than maybe it is for our former students or our fans," Sumlin said. "That was [19] years ago. Guys like [starting middle linebacker] Darian Claiborne, shoot, they couldn't even walk the last time we went to Tiger Stadium."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin will take Texas A&M back to Death Valley for the first time in 19 years.
To be exact, Sept. 3, 1994, was the previous trip the Aggies made to Death Valley. Texas A&M won 18-13, and the teams played the next season at Kyle Field, a 33-17 win for the Aggies.

The 1995 battle was the last of 10 straight and the teams didn't meet again until the Cotton Bowl brought them together in 2010. The major shifts that shook up college football because of conference realignment have broken up many rivalries, but in this particular case, it rekindled an old one, with the Aggies and Tigers becoming conference mates in the SEC West Division.

LSU and Texas A&M have a long history together; the Tigers lead the all-time series 28-20-3. Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, who coached in seven of those battles, called it a “great rivalry.”

"I think over the years it's been a natural thing because the closeness of the two states and the environment," said Slocum, who was born in Louisiana and coached high school football in that state, but grew up in Orange, Texas, virtually on the Texas/Louisiana border. "There were so many people, particularly in Southeast Texas and in Houston in the oil industry that had Louisiana ties. And if you went into southeastern Louisiana and down to New Orleans, again, because of the oil industry, there were a lot of people with Texas ties.”

It was a bit of baptism by fire for former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo. When the teams met in 1995, it was DiNardo's first game as the Tigers' coach. And he had the unenviable task of coaching the season opener at raucous Kyle Field.

"I don't know that anybody wants to open up at A&M when you take over a job," DiNardo said with a laugh.

"I really didn't know much about it. I was in the Southeast for four years at Vanderbilt, then I went to LSU. When you first take over a job, there's so many things that you have to do that honestly, you don't pay much attention to your first opponent until it's close up.

"I did have an appreciation for the rivalry. It was a great setting and a good game."

The teams' first meeting dates to 1899 and the teams played sporadically until 1942, which began a series of seven straight years that the teams played. They met annually from 1960 to 1975, then not again until 1986, which started a string of eight consecutive matchups.

The teams were to continue playing through at least the 1997 season, but LSU chose not to play the final two games that were part of a 10-year contract that began in the 1988 season.

[+] EnlargeDiNardo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGerry DiNardo's first taste of the rivalry came in his first-ever game as LSU's coach.
DiNardo suspects that the SEC expansion that turned the conference into a 12-team league and split it into two divisions in 1992 was a big factor in ending the rivalry at that time.

"When the SEC went to two six-team divisions, everybody thought they were all going to kill one another," DiNardo said. "I was at Vanderbilt the first year we had that and I'm sitting in the coaches' meetings and coaches were saying, 'We will never win another national championship game.'

"Alabama won it that year and obviously, the rest is history. Just the opposite happened."

Now the teams share the same division and will see each other annually. With Texas A&M not playing longtime rival Texas -- its former Southwest Conference and Big 12 Conference mate -- for the foreseeable future, it could be LSU that emerges as the Aggies' traditional Thanksgiving weekend rival. The teams are scheduled to play on Thanksgiving in 2014.

"I am ecstatic about LSU and being able to play on Thursday of Thanksgiving," Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman said when the SEC schedule was announced in August. "To be able to play LSU just makes a natural rivalry, the proximity and everything else."

There also should be some familiarity with players on each side, as LSU recruits Texas and Texas A&M recruits Louisiana. As long as Sumlin and Les Miles are coaching, that will continue. But for it to develop as a rivalry, the teams might have to play each other a few more times consecutively and it won't hurt if both teams are successful -- as they are right now, with both in the top 25 of the BCS standings -- when those meetings occur.

"For our fans, it has the potential [to become a rivalry]," Sumlin said. " . . . I've got a feeling that as soon as we try to get into Tiger Stadium tomorrow at about 12:30, they'll figure out what kind of atmosphere we're playing in and what kind of rivalry it is."

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One thing you can say about the track performances of Louisiana's top prospects in football this season is: Well, they had good football seasons.

The Louisiana state high school track and field meet at LSU's Bernie Moore Stadium wasn't kind to many of the state's top football players, who struggled with either injuries or "off" weekends.

The big exception was Malachi Dupre, who swept the Class 2A jump events -- the long jump, triple jump and high jump -- and was named outstanding field performer. He was joined by several players off the Patriots football team who dominated the 2A meet.

For others, it was a painful weekend. The nation's top Class of 2014 football prospect, Leonard Fournette, had to withdraw from several events after pulling up injured in the Class 4A 4x200 relay. Jeryl Brazil won the 3A 100, but pulled up injured in the 200.

Here are the Louisiana football prospects who placed in the Louisiana state meet:

Long jump: Donald Gage (Houston signee), Zachary, 24-1 3/4 (5A champion); Speedy Noil, Karr, 23-6 (third in 4A); Malachi Dupre, River Ridge John Curtis, 23-5 3/4 (2A champion); D'Vante Dotson, Baton Rouge University, 22-6 1/4 (Second in 2A); Jazz Ferguson, Bains West Feliciana, 21-81/2 (fifth in 3A)

Triple jump: Dupre, 44-2 1/4 (2A champion)

High jump: Dupre, 6-6 (2A champion)

Shot put: Anthony Taylor (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 60-4 (2A champion); David Elias (UL-Monroe signee), Geismar Dutchtown, 56-10 1/4 (5A champion); Eric Thomas (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 56-0 (third in 2A); Hakim Gray, 54-6 (Louisiana Tech signee), North DeSoto, 54-6 (3A champion); Darian Claiborne (Texas A&M signee), Port Allen, 52-11 1/4 (third in 3A); RaeJuan Marbley, Destrehan, 50-8 1/4 (fifth in 5A)

Discus: Anthony Taylor (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 16-1 (2A champion); Duke Riley (LSU signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 150-8 (Second in 2A)

Javelin: Darian Claiborne (Texas A&M signee), Port Allen, 180-0 (second in 3A)

100: Sherman Badie (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 10.59 (second in 2A); Richard Allen (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 10.63 (third in 2A); Jeryl Brazil (LSU signee), Loranger, 10.64 (3A champion); Rashid Bonnette, Loreauville, 10.92 (fourth in 2A)

200: Richard Allen (Tulane signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 21.76 (second in 2A); Terrence Alexander, River Ridge John Curtis, 21.92 (third in 2A); D'Vante Dotson, Baton Rouge University, 22.56 (fifth in 2A); Eugene Brazley (Ole Miss signee), New Orleans Carver, 22.64 (sixth in 2A)

110 high hurdles: Duke Riley (LSU signee), River Ridge John Curtis, 14.70 (second in 2A)
BATON ROUGE, La. -- How deep is the football talent in Louisiana?

Consider this: Every football bowl subdivision (FBS) conference in the nation has had a least two Louisiana players sign letters of intent with its member schools for the 2013 recruiting cycle, according to the ESPN database of recruits.


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Thanksgiving brings prime-time matchups 

November, 21, 2012
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In the Louisiana High School Athletic Association football playoffs, Thanksgiving weekend is the time the state's football playoffs shift gears. With each of the five classes down to eight teams, the quarterfinals usually give football fans plenty of intriguing matchups for fans after Black Friday shopping is done.

This year, fans will miss some top prospects. Jeryl Brazil's Loranger team was upset by Jennings last week while Darian Claiborne's Port Allen team was knocked off by Brusly, spoiling a would-be Brazil-Claiborne showdown in Class 3A.

But most of the state's best players are still alive, some in potentially tight matchups Friday. Here are the best ones.

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As Louisiana's high school football playoffs reach their second week, the matchups get better in the five classes, each whittled down to a field of 16 remaining teams, many who feature some of the state's top prospects. In Class 5A, West Monroe and Scott/Acadiana meet in a matchup of traditional powers. In 4A, Neville meets Breaux Bridge in a rematch of an epic semifinal matchup last year. Here are the top games involving major prospects this week: Class 5A

No. 16 Geismar/Dutchtown (8-2) at No. 1 Metairie/Rummel (10-0): Dutchtown has plenty of talent, including Mississippi State commit Shelby Christy at wide reciever. It was surprising to see the Griffons slip to the No. 16 seed. It's a tough draw for the top-seeded Raiders, led by dual-threat quarterback Damian Williams, who sports a Kansas State offer.

No. 9 Monroe/Ouachita Parish (9-2) at No. 25 Ruston (6-5): The Monroe area, which won three of last year's five state championships last season, showed its toughness again last week when Ruston upset No. 8 seed South Lafourche, creating an all-Northeast Louisiana second-round match. Ouachita features three-star receiver and Washington commit Caleb Tucker at linebacker and Taijuan Thomas and 2014 ESPN Watch List member Cameron Sims at wide receiver.

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Games to watch for Louisiana recruits 

November, 1, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Saturday will be a who's who of Louisiana's top prospects in one place when LSU hosts Alabama at Tiger Stadium.

The night before, the state's best high school players will be scattered throughout the state, closing their regular seasons, many playing games with strong district-championship and postseason ramifications. Here are the best games involving players headed for major college programs:

Geismar Dutchtown (7-1) vs. Baton Rouge Catholic (6-2): The championship will be on the line in District 5-5A, which includes the largest city and suburban schools on the south side of Baton Rouge. Dutchtown, the alma mater of LSU's Eric Reid and Alabama's Eddie Lacy and Landon Collins, has another SEC-level recruit in Mississippi State commit Shelby Christy.

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Games to watch for Louisiana recruits 

October, 25, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The dream prospect matchups of the non-district schedules are over, and now Louisiana's top teams and top prospects are coming down the home stretch of their regular seasons.

That doesn't necessarily make for compelling blue chip vs. blue chip matchups, but what you have are a lot of top prospects playing big games for their teams this weekend. With LSU off, here are games LSU fans might want to check out around the state this weekend:

New Orleans/St. Augustine (6-2) at Metairie/East Jefferson (6-1): When you think of high school football, you think of "Friday Night Lights." There haven't been many Friday nights this year for St. Augustine and RB Leonard Fournette in urban New Orleans, where a scarcity of stadiums has had the Purple Knights playing many Thursday and Saturday game. This week, the Friday lights will shine on Fournette, one of the top players in the 2014 class, when St. Augustine heads to suburban Metairie for a huge District 10-4A game.

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Hurst taken off LSU depth chart 

October, 17, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- If LSU offensive tackle Alex Hurst is to return to LSU any time soon, you wouldn't know it from the depth chart.

Hurst no longer appears on the depth chart released Tuesday by LSU. Freshman Vadal Alexander is listed at the starter at right tackle, and sophomore Elliott Porter, also the backup center, is listed as the second-team right tackle.

Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, who started at left tackle last week after Hurst left the team for undisclosed personal reasons, is listed as the starter at left tackle, backed up by junior Chris Davenport.

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If you followed LSU football in the 1990's, or have at least done your homework in the Tigers' recent run of success, you know there's a lot more to this new SEC series than initially comes to mind. The Tigers and Aggies have played a surprising 50 all-time games -- more total meetings than LSU has with SEC rivals Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and obviously Missouri.

Anyone with a basic understanding of geography also understands the recruiting implications of the two schools' proximity. It's no surprise that LSU's success in recruiting the eastern part of Texas in the past decade has coincided with 12 seasons where Texas A&M failed to notch double digit wins or claim a division or conference championship.

"I certainly know that we enjoy very much going into Texas, and we think Texas is a great place to recruit," coach Les Miles said. "They understand the style of play we have here at LSU, and they enjoy being a part of it."

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Welcome to Houston, LSU.

Ok, that's a bit dramatic. Anyone who has been paying attention to LSU football during its run of dominance this past decade knows that Houston has been a big factor in that success.

Brandon Lafell, Michael Brockers, Terrence Toliver, Danny McCray, Jarrett Lee -- all are LSU alums in the NFL, and all came from Houston or its outlying area. This year, starting safety Craig Loston and slot receiver Russell Shepard hail from Houston. Seventeen Texas-based players are on the Tigers' roster going into fall camp, and eight of them come from the Houston area.

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