LSU Tigers: Johnny Manziel
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
There are already two games on the schedule this season -- between TCU and LSU, and Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. What else would I like to see?
Let me start by saying that renewing the Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas rivalries are a given. I'm omitting those matchups, but I'd love to see them.
Let's get started:
Oklahoma State vs. Alabama: OSU narrowly missed out on playing for the national title back in 2011, and both are among their conference favorites again in 2013. When the BCS "snubbed" the Pokes after the 2011 regular season, OSU coach Mike Gundy half-jokingly suggested these two play for the right to play LSU in the title game. It would be fun to see this one finally played out on the field.
Baylor vs. LSU: Straight up offense vs. defense. That's the Big 12 vs. SEC debate at its heart. Baylor just might be the Big 12's best offense, and LSU will put together another strong defense. These are the matchups we want to see. The Big 12 has faltered on the big stage, helping the SEC stretch its run of national titles, but seeing Bryce Petty sling it around against an athletic defense would be a lot of fun.
Texas vs. Arkansas: Arkansas' exit from the Southwest Conference helped usher in the birth of the Big 12 after the SWC crumbled. Texas has bigger rivals like Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but these two played some of the greatest games in college football history, and as an Arkansas native, I've seen up close how much Razorbacks fans detest the Longhorns to this day. The result would be a great game and a hyped atmosphere.
TCU vs. Texas A&M: Texas A&M fans take exception to the idea that TCU was an on-field "upgrade" over the Aggies in the Big 12. The Aggies largely struggled in the Big 12 after some early success and a Big 12 title under R.C. Slocum. Since leaving for the SEC, the Aggies have gone nowhere but up, and ended 2012 as the hottest team in college football. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel has a Heisman Trophy. Could he shred the Frogs? Want to prove TCU is not an upgrade? Beat TCU on the field.
Kansas State vs. Florida: Kansas State is perpetually underrated and wins with a bunch of junior college guys, and high school players overlooked by major programs. Florida won big under Urban Meyer, but has been largely overrated since Meyer left and was whacked by Louisville to end 2012. The Gators would be suiting up an army of recruiting stars, but could Bill Snyder, the Manhattan Magician, grab a win for the Big 12?
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
It's hard to get an LSU ticket, home or away. Not only does Tiger Nation support the Tigers at home, Tigers fans gobble up their allotments for most road games.
Given that, what will be the toughest and most popular tickets for LSU fans in 2013 and why? Let's take a look.
1. Alabama (Nov. 9 at Tuscaloosa): LSU-Alabama is the new Ohio State-Michigan or Notre Dame-USC.
We know the game will have championship implications most years. In 2011, it was a preview of the national championship game. In 2012, Alabama's late rally in Tiger Stadium was the difference between the Tide going to the SEC championship game and national title game, instead of LSU.
While the Tigers are likely to be out of the preseason top 10 this year, LSU-Bama games have taken on too much meaning for this year's game to see a dramatic drop in interest.
2. Texas A&M (Nov. 23 at Tiger Stadium): This will be the Aggies' first trip to LSU for an SEC game and it will be LSU fans' chance to see a reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, in action in their stadium.
This will be the third time this has happened at LSU since 2009. Tim Tebow, two years removed from his Heisman, came to Baton Rouge in 2009 (Florida won 13-3) and Mark Ingram came in 2010 the year after he won his Heisman (LSU won, 24-21).
3. TCU (Aug. 31 at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas): It's not only a season opener for an LSU with a lot of question marks, it's also an opener against a big-name opponent on a national stage.
Will John Chavis be able to rebuild the defense? Is Cam Cameron's influence on the offense something that's profound?
TCU is a good enough opening opponent that we'll get those questions addressed rather quickly, adding intrigue to the opening wekend.
4. Florida (Oct. 12 at Tiger Stadium): Last year's SEC Sugar Bowl representative is one of the two teams, along with Alabama, that defeated LSU last year.
This game might have special meaning for the offense. In the 14-6 loss at the Swamp in 2012, the offense was at its most anemic, managing just eight first downs (three via penalty) while going 1-for-13 on third down. It was this kind of performance that led to the hiring of Cameron in the offseason.
The rematch will tell us a lot about whether the hiring has made a difference.
5. Georgia (Sept. 28 at Athens, Ga.): TCU will take LSU away from Tiger Stadium to start the season and while it's a neutral site game, Cowboy Stadium might favor the team from nearby Fort Worth.
That said, the first real road game for the Tigers will be Between the Hedges in Athens, where the Bulldogs (and not Florida) will be defending their SEC East title.
The interesting story angle of that day? It will be the return of former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger, now an LSU Tiger star, to Athens.
Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.
But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.
No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.
Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.
The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.
A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.
Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:
The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.
The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.
Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.
Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.
Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.
The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.
Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.
And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Start date: March 16
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- Battling complacency: Alabama is gearing up for yet another title defense. Will complacency finally rear its ugly head? Not if Nick Saban has anything to do with it. The head coach will no doubt remind players of the targets on their backs and what little they've accomplished as presently constituted.
- Opening up the passing game: The return of AJ McCarron, coupled with a talented, deep crop of receivers, could mean a more wide-open passing game in Tuscaloosa. If true freshman tight end O.J. Howard develops as some expect, the offense could become even more dynamic.
Johnny Manziel appropriately capped things off in our countdown to No. 1, so it's time to take a closer look at how things played out in our rankings. Remember, we could only put 25 players on our list. I wasn't a math major, but I'm pretty sure you can't squeeze 30 players into a list made up of 25. Trust me, we wanted to, but we just couldn't figure out a way to do it.
When ranking players, we looked at stats, progress through the season, impact, and importance to their team on and off the field.
Some very good players were left off the list ... but we'll get to that later. For now, let's see a breakdown of our countdown:
Texas A&M: 4
Mississippi State: 1
South Carolina: 1
It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEven South Carolina's Steve Spurrier concedes that Alabama has been college football's best team in big games in recent seasons.
Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.
“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”
That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.
It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.
Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.
Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.
Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.
Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.
If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.
The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will certainly have high hopes in 2013 with Aaron Murray returning to lead the offense.
One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.
Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.
Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.
The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.
If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.
This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.
There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.
This time a year ago, Damontre Moore, Dee Milliner, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Matthews, Tre Mason, Ace Sanders and Manziel weren’t exactly household names.
We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.
From Justin in St. Louis: When do you think people will finally realize that Zach Mettenberger is a good QB? In all the games I watched this season, when he was protected, he was on it. Also, when he's on, he's on. Example: Second half of the Alabama game.
Gary Laney: I also like Mettenberger Justin and will get called a homer by some for saying that. I do think there were issues with the passing game, but they were mostly systemic and sometimes resulted in Mettenberger's flaws sticking out more and made him sometimes take blame for things that weren't necessarily his fault.
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What can we expect in the SEC in 2013?
Let me look into my crystal ball and give you a few bold predictions to write down in ink. OK, maybe in pencil:
The SEC will make it eight in a row: Yep, the SEC will run its streak to eight straight national championships, leaving the rest of college football to wonder whether it should create its own league. Who’s it going to be? We can’t give everything away this early.
Everybody will predict the SEC’s streak will end: This is the surest bet out there. Get ready to hear all the pundits spouting off about how the SEC’s run is finally coming to an end. Promises, promises.
Alabama won’t go unbeaten: It won’t be the end of the world for the Crimson Tide, who lost a game each of the past two seasons and still managed to win the national championship. Getting through the SEC gantlet unscathed simply doesn’t happen very often.
Kim Klement/USA TODAYJadeveon Clowney will be a force to contend with next season.
Manziel-mania: Where do we start with Johnny Football? For one, he will lead the SEC in rushing again even though defenses will do everything they can to keep him in the pocket, and he will be the most must-see player in college football. But we're not ready to jump out there and predict that he will win a second straight Heisman Trophy. At least, not yet. There's a reason only one person has done that.
Auburn bounces back: Gus Malzahn has hired a first-rate staff on the Plains, and the Tigers aren’t lacking for talent. Look for them to bounce back and win eight games next season.
Record-setting Murray: Now that he’s coming back for his senior season, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will obliterate just about every SEC career passing record. Murray has 10,091 passing yards. The record is 11,528, held by Georgia’s David Greene. Murray has 95 touchdown passes. The record of 114 is held by Florida’s Danny Wuerffel. Murray has 696 completions. The record is 895, held by Florida’s Chris Leak. The one record Murray won’t challenge is career interceptions. He has 32 entering the 2013 season, but Georgia’s Zeke Bratkowski threw 68 picks from 1951 to '53.
South Carolina’s starting quarterback: Good luck with that one. Connor Shaw will miss the spring because of foot surgery, and Dylan Thompson was clutch against Clemson and then against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Something says the Head Ball Coach will find a way to play them both. Just a hunch.
Bayou Blues: Nobody is predicting that LSU will fall completely off the radar next season. There’s too much young talent in the program, and Les Miles’ track record of consistency speaks for itself. But with a killer schedule and 10 underclassmen leaving early for the NFL draft, the Tigers will fail to win 10 games for the first time since 2009.
Going bowling: We predicted a second straight bowl appearance for Vanderbilt this time a year ago and heard a few snickers around the league. Who’s laughing now? The Commodores will make it three straight bowl appearances in 2013.
Breaking out: If you’re looking for some of the top breakout players in the league next season, keep an eye on Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, Vanderbilt offensive tackle Wesley Johnson, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Alabama noseguard Darren Lake, LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams.
Some were obvious. Some weren’t so obvious.
Either way, it was another banner season for the SEC, which produced its seventh consecutive national championship and became the first conference in history to have five of the top 10 teams -- 1. Alabama, T-5. Georgia, T-5. Texas A&M, 8. South Carolina and 9. Florida -- in the final rankings.
Sit back and enjoy.
Alabama’s repeat: Rebounding from a November home loss to Texas A&M, Alabama became the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to repeat as national champions with a 42-14 battering of previously unbeaten Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. The Crimson Tide mauled the Irish physically and scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. The game was over by the time the second quarter began, and Alabama’s historic run had officially become a dynasty. The Crimson Tide won their third outright national title in four years, the first school to accomplish that feat since Notre Dame in the late 1940s.
John David Mercer/US PresswireJohnny Manziel was at his finest in Texas A&M's upset of Alabama.
Mosley’s tip: Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley got just enough fingers on the football to deflect Aaron Murray’s pass in the final seconds of the SEC championship game. The ball careened into the hands of Georgia receiver Chris Conley, who slipped to the turf at the Alabama 5-yard line as time expired. Alabama survived 32-28 and earned the right to play for another national championship in one of the most exciting SEC championship games in history.
Clowney’s hit: They’re referring to it as simply “The Hit” in South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ all-world sophomore defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith, sending both Smith’s helmet and the ball flying. Clowney snatched the ball up with his left hand in one of those plays that becomes even more jaw dropping every time you see it.
Miles’ outburst: LSU coach Les Miles has been must-see TV for a long time now. But do yourself a favor and go relive his “What a game!” performance during his news conference following LSU’s 41-35 victory over Ole Miss. An emotional Miles even dropped an F-bomb and then implored fans to thank the "spectacular group" of LSU players with this memorable line: “You go find them, throw your arms around them and give them a big kiss on the mouth ... if you're a girl."
Screen to Yeldon: With Tiger Stadium roaring, Alabama awakened offensively in the final minutes, and quarterback AJ McCarron led the Crimson Tide on a game-winning drive that was capped by a 28-yard screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for a touchdown with 51 seconds to play. McCarron was 1-for-7 for 0 yards in the second half before that final drive, which allowed Alabama to escape 21-17.
Franklin’s hug: Vanderbilt’s 38-24 win over North Carolina State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl earned the Commodores their first nine-win season since 1915. Afterward, a Vanderbilt fan made his way into the news conference and thanked second-year coach James Franklin for what he’d done for the program. Franklin stopped the news conference, gave the fan a big hug and told him thanks for sticking with the Commodores. “You’re due for this,” Franklin exclaimed.
Support for Lattimore: No moment was more tear jerking, and yet, heartwarming than the injury to South Carolina star tailback Marcus Lattimore this season. Sadly, Lattimore blew his knee out for the second straight season in the 38-35 win over Tennessee. As he lay on the field in pain after going down with the injury, players, coaches and support personnel from both teams surrounded Lattimore on the field in a touching show of support. It's the kind of thing you rarely, if ever, see on a football field and says volumes about the universal respect Lattimore has as a player and as a person.
Jones' strip: Great players make great plays, and Jarvis Jones' strip of Florida tight end Jordan Reed was the play that sent Georgia to the SEC championship game for the second straight year and kept Florida at home despite a huge turnaround for the Gators this season. Reed was motoring for the end zone with just over two minutes to play in Jacksonville, but Jones was able to punch the ball loose inside the 5, and the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone. It was one of two forced fumbles for Jones, who also had three sacks in the 17-9 win.
Ole Miss' resurgence: The Rebels entered the season with a 14-game SEC losing streak. But under the guidance of first-year coach Hugh Freeze, they scrapped their way to a 7-6 season, which included a resounding 41-24 win over rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale after three straight losses to the Bulldogs. The Rebels then followed that up with a 38-17 rout of Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Hotty Toddy!
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will be among the favorites to win the national title again next season.
2. The SEC's dominance is still being challenged: Even though Alabama brought home the SEC's seventh straight BCS title, the SEC's perception is still being challenged. Social media has been buzzing with chants of "overrated" directed toward the SEC because Mississippi State, LSU and Florida all fell flat in their bowl games. Mississippi State lost by 14 to Northwestern, LSU lost to Clemson on a last-second field goal and Florida was run ragged by Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heading into bowl season, Florida and LSU weren't expected to lose, but they got away from their ground games and paid for it dearly. Still, the SEC went 6-3 (.667) in bowl games, including Texas A&M's 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Georgia and South Carolina downing Big Ten teams. Only the WAC (2-0) and C-USA (4-1) had better winning percentages, and neither had nearly as many bowl teams. So is the SEC down? Well, while the SEC took a couple of bad losses in bowl season, seven teams finished the year in the Associated Press Top 25, including five in the top 10. The Big Ten and Big 12 had losing bowl records, the Pac-12 went 4-4 and the ACC was 4-2. So, if the SEC is overrated, what are the other conferences?
3. Florida's offensive issues are still a major problem: All season, we wondered what we'd see from Florida's offense. However, for 11 games, even if the offense came up short, the Gators found ways to win. Against Louisville, the Gators went in reverse and never got right again. Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six on the first possession, and the offense imploded from there. Mike Gillislee, who was easily Florida's best offensive weapon, carried the ball just nine times. The Gators panicked, but when they had to pass, they couldn't.
This has to be a major concern for the Gators going forward, because Gillislee is graduating and tight end Jordan Reed declared for the NFL draft. Driskel has to find some major help in the passing game this spring/summer, or Florida's offense will get pummeled again. Driskel's health is now a major concern because backup Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving the Gators with no experience behind Driskel.
4. More eyes will be on Ole Miss ... and Vanderbilt: Before the season, no one gave Ole Miss a chance at the postseason -- or even five wins -- but the Rebels went out and had a tremendous first year under Hugh Freeze. If not for a couple of horrendous second halves, the Rebels might have won eight games during the regular season. After a dominating performance in their BBVA Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, the Rebels could be looking at a spot in preseason Top 25 polls. Most of this team, including what could be a stellar recruiting class, will be in Oxford next fall, so expectations will be much higher.
The same can be said about James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. After a historic nine-win season that ended with a commanding bowl win over NC State, the Commodores will be expected to keep up this act after being even better in Year 2 of the Franklin era. Vandy will lose some talent up front defensively, and Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will be gone, but a host of playmakers will return, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
5. Johnny Football's legend just keeps growing: After Texas A&M lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, Johnny Manziel's field maturity was really going to be judged in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against the Sooners. Well, all he did without one of his best mentors was set a bowl record for total yards (516) in the Aggies' rout inside Jerry's World. Manziel zigged and zagged as though Kingsbury was feeding him info through an earpiece. People don't understand how much Kingsbury helped Manziel with his composure during games, but Manziel did just fine without him. It shows how much he's grown during his Heisman year. Things will be different next season with some key players also missing on offense, but to see Manziel play like that without Kingsbury has to be very encouraging for Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Aggies' coaching staff.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
Jalen Collins, CB, Freshman
Accomplishments: Technically not a starter, Collins played like one in his redshirt freshman season, taking on the nickelback role in a season where he had 28 tackles, two interceptions and six passes broken up to finish tied for second on the team with eight passes defended. It was good enough to get him on the SEC all-freshman team despite having just one actual start, against Texas A&M. In that game, he picked off eventual Heiman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Shortcomings: When Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team in August, Collins looked to be the guy to take the starting spot at cornerback, but he was passed for the starting job by true freshman Jalen Mills. Like many members of the LSU secondary, he was beat some late in the season as the Tigers went up against some of the more prolific passing offenses they faced.
Against Clemson: Don't be surprised if Collins doesn't get his second start. Clemson likes to spread the field and LSU looked vulnerable late in the season against good passing attacks. So it wouldn't surprise if Clemson comes out with four or five wide receivers and Collins isn't out there for LSU's first defensive snap instead of a linebacker. Either way, he figures to play a lot, and get tested often, against pass-happy Clemson.
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:
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama are one win away from another national title.
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.