LSU Tigers: Vinnie Sunseri

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:


1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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The temperature is heating up in some locales in the SEC and cooling down in others:

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel is one of the reasons SEC offenses are humming and its defenses are suffering.
SEC offenses: We’ve played three weeks of football, and half the SEC teams are ranked in the top 38 nationally in total offense. No, that’s not a typo. We’re talking offense here, not defense. Not only that, but 10 of the 14 teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. They’re not all rolling up these numbers against lesser competition, either. Alabama and Texas A&M combined for 91 points, 1,196 yards and 62 first downs in their 49-42 classic on Saturday in College Station. In the season opener, we saw Ole Miss defeat Vanderbilt in a wild 39-35 game. Georgia lost 38-35 to Clemson in its opener and came back the next week and beat South Carolina 41-30 in a game that featured 990 yards of total offense. Even LSU is getting into the act. Yep, the same LSU that didn't finish better than ninth in the SEC in passing offense the last four years. The Tigers have thrown it only 70 times in their first three games but are fifth in the league in passing offense (269.3 yards per game). More importantly, they’re making big plays downfield. They’re averaging 11.5 yards per attempt, which is second in the league behind only Georgia. Of course, with all this offense, the SEC’s defensive numbers have taken a hit. Only four teams are in the top 40 nationally in total defense -- Florida (No. 3), Arkansas (No. 6), LSU (No. 10) and Ole Miss (No. 35).

HOT

Arkansas running back Alex Collins: Not even Herschel Walker rushed for 100 yards in each of his first three games, so Collins is in rarefied air. He rushed for 115 yards in the win over Southern Miss on Saturday, becoming the first freshman in SEC history to rush for 100 yards in each of his first three games. The last freshman to do it nationally was Adrian Peterson in 2004. Collins’ backfield mate, sophomore Jonathan Williams, has also gained 100 yards each of the first three weeks.

NOT

Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon's eardrums: After scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run right before the half, Yeldon was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he gave the old double throat slash and went all Manziel on us with the “money fingers.” Alabama coach Nick Saban then proceeded to go off on Yeldon, who’s probably still having a hard time hearing out of that ear.

HOT

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger: He leads the SEC in passing efficiency and has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions through the Tigers’ first three games. His nine touchdown passes through three games are the most in school history. What’s more, at this point a year ago, Mettenberger had four touchdown passes and two interceptions.

NOT

Butch Jones’ road debut: At least Tennessee won’t have to face Oregon again anytime soon. Jones’ first road game as the Vols’ coach produced their worst beating in modern history. The 59-14 drubbing could have been worse, but the Ducks mercifully took their foot off the gas pedal late in the third quarter. It was a reminder that Oregon is off-the-charts good and Tennessee still has a long way to go before being ready to swim in those waters.

HOT

[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsOdell Beckham (3) and Jarvis Landry have been the SEC's best receiving tandem so far.
Big-time receivers: It’s hard to beat the lineup of receivers in the SEC. Take your pick. Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Alabama’s Amari Cooper are as good as it gets. But what about Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief? And something says Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham is just getting started. But in terms of combos, LSU’s Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry have combined for 10 touchdowns this season.

NOT

Targeting penalties: Thankfully, the ejection of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on Saturday was overturned by replay, but the 15-yard penalty stuck. It shouldn't have been a penalty; Clinton-Dix was clearly trying to make a play on the ball and there just happened to be some helmet-to-helmet contact. No wonder the coaches hate the rule given how subjective it is.

HOT

Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri: There was some concern about Sunseri's ability to cover, and that’s still not his forte. But the guy is a football player. He has played in two games this season and has two interception returns for touchdowns. There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, and Sunseri always seems to be in the right places at the right times.

NOT

South Carolina’s special teams: The Gamecocks almost made enough special-teams gaffes to let Vanderbilt really make things interesting there at the end last weekend. They’re getting nothing out of their kickoff return game, and Shon Carson fumbled two (losing one) against the Commodores. South Carolina also had a punt go off a player’s heel that set up one of Vanderbilt’s late touchdowns and helped the Commodores rally.

FREEZER BURN

Texas A&M’s defense: Technically, Johnny Manziel is correct. Texas A&M isn't out of the SEC or national championship race. The Aggies will need some help, but Alabama has proven the last two years that a one-loss SEC team (not even a one-loss SEC champion) can rebound to win it all. So with some help, the Aggies can still work their way back onto the guest list for the Vizio BCS National Championship. But where they’re really going to need help is on defense. They’ve got to get better -- and get better in a hurry -- on that side of the ball, or it’s not going to matter how many mesmerizing plays Manziel makes on offense. Having to score 40-plus points every week to win has a way of catching up to you. The Aggies got all their players back on defense against Alabama except for safety Floyd Raven, and while it’s true that playing with different combinations can torment a defense, the Aggies’ problem so far has been that they don’t do anything particularly well on defense and have looked unsound at times through the first three games. We’ll see what kinds of strides the Aggies can make on D, but they’re clearly missing some of the playmakers who helped them play extremely well down the stretch last year.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

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