Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
11:40
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The last decade of SEC football has put the conference at the top of the college football world.

While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.

Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.

Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.

Here's what we came up with:

1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.

2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.

3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.

4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.

5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.

6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.

7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.

8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.

9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.

10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.

11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.

12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.

13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.

14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: WR/TE

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
11:30
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The SEC has been a breeding ground for big-time receivers over the last few years. Alabama’s Amari Cooper is projected as a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft, and look at the seasons Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews all had as rookies.

As we turn the page to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest at the wide receiver/tight end position? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season gets here, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Texas A&M: Even with the departure of Malcome Kennedy, the Aggies are loaded. Eight different wide receivers return who caught touchdown passes last season. Josh Reynolds was one of the league's top breakout players a year ago with 13 touchdown catches and earned second-team All-SEC honors from the AP. Edward Pope, like Reynolds, is a big target at 6-foot-4. Ricky Seals-Jones is even bigger at 6-5 and will be two years removed from his ACL tear, and Speedy Noil is the most explosive of the bunch.

2. Tennessee: The Vols have depth, experience and versatility. Marquez North is the most physically imposing of the group, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury. Teams won’t be able to concentrate on him, though, because Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Jason Croom are all back along with Josh Smith, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Sophomore Ethan Wolf has all the tools to be Tennessee’s next All-SEC tight end.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren't the same offensively last season after Laquon Treadwell broke his leg in the Auburn game. He’s working his way back, and if healthy, will be one of the top receivers in the league. Veterans Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo are back, while redshirt freshman Sammie Epps and transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow, who played at Washington in 2013, should be nice additions. Markell Pack was mostly a punt returner last season and is a candidate to take Vince Sanders’ spot. Don't forget about Evan Engram, either. He led all SEC tight ends with 662 receiving yards last season.

4. Mississippi State: This will be the most talented group of receivers Dan Mullen has had in Starkville, which is great news for returning senior quarterback Dak Prescott. It all starts with the 6-5, 225-pound De’Runnya Wilson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s most difficult matchups after making the switch from hoops to football. Fred Brown, Fred Ross and Joe Morrow are also back, and they combined to catch 11 touchdown passes last season. Speedy junior college signee Donald Gray is already on campus and looks like a natural in the slot. Darrion Hutcherson (6-7, 260) steps in at tight end after coming over from junior college a year ago.

5. LSU: The Tigers have the guys who can catch it and go get it. Finding somebody who can get the ball to them will be the trick. Junior Travin Dural was sensational at times a year ago and has averaged 20.5 yards per catch during his two seasons at LSU. Malachi Dupre has major star potential after catching five touchdown passes as a true freshman. John Diarse (redshirt freshman) and Trey Quinn (true freshman) were two other first-year players who contributed last season and round out a rotation capable of doing some real damage down the field. The Tigers did lose two senior tight ends.

6. Auburn: Sammie Coates might be gone, but that doesn’t mean Auburn will be hurting at receiver. Duke Williams’ decision to return for his senior season was a nice surprise, and he gives the Tigers one of the top go-to threats in the league. Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens are also back, and both have the kind of speed to stretch the field. The Tigers will be inexperienced at the tight end/H-back position with C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse gone. No returning scholarship player has played a snap at tight end.

7. Georgia: The X-factor of all X-factors is Malcolm Mitchell. Can he stay healthy? If he can avoid injuries, he has a chance to be one of the best deep threats in the league. It’s a similar story with Justin Scott-Wesley, who played in only six games last season. Look for dynamic return specialist Isaiah McKenzie to be more involved in the passing game, and holding onto prized freshman signee Terry Godwin was huge. He’ll play early. The Bulldogs’ tight end combo of Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome is the one of the best in the SEC.

8. South Carolina: The only reason the Gamecocks are this high is Pharoh Cooper. With Amari Cooper leaving early for the NFL, Pharoh Cooper returns as the best receiver in the SEC. He earned first-team All-SEC honors last season after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns. After Cooper, there are a bunch of unknowns. Four of the top five wide receivers from last year are gone. The Gamecocks think redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel could develop into a nice complement to Cooper, and tight end Jerell Adams is more talented than he has played and could be in store for a breakout senior season.

9. Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s top three pass-catchers from 2014 are gone, including record-setting Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper, who carried Alabama at times. With Cooper no longer around, look for tight end O.J. Howard to become a much more consistent threat in the passing game. Junior Chris Black will get his chance to shine. The same goes for third-year sophomore Robert Foster. The up-and-comer to watch is 6-4, 208-pound Cam Sims, who played some last season as a true freshman.

10. Arkansas: Just about all of Arkansas’ key figures in the passing game are back, but the Hogs need to find a way to be more explosive in 2015. Junior college signee Dominique Reed has the speed to fill that role. Hunter Henry returns as one of the best tight ends in the league. Senior Keon Hatcher is back after leading the Hogs in catches (43), yards (558) and touchdowns (six). Jared Cornelius showed flashes as a true freshman, and the two wild cards are sophomore Kendrick Edwards and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson, a pair of South Florida products.

11. Florida: The Gators haven’t had a receiver sniff first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches since Percy Harvin in 2008. So it has been a while since they’ve had a true difference-maker at receiver. Demarcus Robinson has a chance to blossom in Jim McElwain’s offense after catching seven touchdown passes a year ago. Tight end Jake McGee returns for his sixth season after getting a waiver from the NCAA. He’s a transfer from Virginia and led the Cavaliers with 43 catches in 2013. He broke his leg in the Gators' first game last season.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two of their most productive receivers from a year ago, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue. Ryan Timmons is back and is the most dynamic offensive threat on the team. He just needs to catch the ball more consistently. Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson both played as true freshmen last season, and each started multiple games and combined for 41 catches. Blake Bone also played as a true freshman. Early enrollee C.J. Conrad could be the answer at tight end. The Wildcats got very little production from that position last season.

13. Missouri: Ranking the Tigers this low probably isn't very wise when you consider the way they've continued to reload at receiver and the job receivers coach Pat Washington has done. He'll have his work cut out in 2015. Mizzou lost its top three wide receivers from a year ago. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White combined to catch 23 of the team’s 25 touchdown passes. The Tigers will be looking for Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore to grow up in a hurry as sophomores. It helps that starting tight end Sean Culkin is back.

14. Vanderbilt: It’s a big offseason for C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford as the Commodores search for a true No. 1 threat. Trent Sherfield has a chance to be the team’s best deep threat after playing some as a true freshman. In fairness, it was difficult to evaluate the Commodores at receiver last season because they played so many different quarterbacks. Ronald Monroe is a redshirt freshman to watch, and senior tight end Steven Scheu returns after tying for the team lead with four touchdown catches a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors.
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Paul Finebaum and SEC Network Analyst, Marcus Spears predict who will follow Alabama in the SEC West.
This week, ESPN counts down the most attractive coaching jobs in college football. There will inevitably be a number of SEC schools near the top, but that doesn’t mean every job in the conference is easy. As we kick off our three-day roundtable series, we ask the question: Which SEC job is the toughest?

Edward Aschoff: LSU

When you’re in such a talent-rich area of the country as the one in which the SEC finds itself, there are more than just a couple jobs with a ton of upside. I’m going with LSU. The state is overflowing with talent, and you can pluck guys from neighboring Texas and Mississippi. Les Miles has been one of the SEC’s best during his time in Baton Rouge, and a lot of that has to do with the top-tier, in-state players he’s been able to keep at home. It certainly helps there isn’t another in-state school LSU has to worry about on the recruiting front. LSU also has one of the country’s most passionate fan bases, and there’s no shortage of resources or money to help LSU stay on elite footing.

Sam Khan Jr.: Missouri

Nobody is going to confuse Mizzou with the Alabamas, Floridas and Ohio States of the world, but the job has potential. SEC membership means a lot to its newest members -- Missouri and Texas A&M -- and the Tigers have experienced on-field success quickly, with two SEC East Division titles. Gary Pinkel wins consistently in CoMo, even without high-ranking recruiting classes, but there are reasons to believe Missouri can be even better. The Tigers have signed five-star talent before (they signed Terry Beckner Jr., the No. 2 player in the ESPN 300, this month; Dorial Green-Beckham was the headliner of the 2012 class). The staff recruits its own state well and shows a good ability to unearth gems outside the state. The athletic department finances are in good shape: The Tigers were in the black in their first two SEC seasons, and Mizzou upgraded Faurot Field last year and is working on plans for a new football facility on the south side of the stadium. They have resources (see: Mizzou's helicopter), and the SEC East is in such flux right now, with no true dominant teams, so the potential for Missouri to put a strong foot forward in the coming years is there. They're off to a good start with their recent success.

Chris Low: Tennessee

Even though it might not rank among the top three or four jobs in the SEC, the Tennessee head coaching job is still one of the most attractive ones in college football. The Tennessee brand has endured nationally despite all of the down years over the last decade. The same goes for the Volunteers' rich tradition, and with the money that has been spent on facilities over the last couple of years, Tennessee can match up with anybody in the country when it comes to player amenities. The newly expanded football complex is a true Taj Mahal, and Neyland Stadium remains one of the most iconic venues in the country. Even though the state of Tennessee doesn't compare with some of the other SEC states in terms of sheer talent, the Nashville area is booming and producing more talented prospects than ever before. When Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer was fired following the 2008 season, he had gone to five SEC championship games in his previous 11 years. Everything's in place for Butch Jones to take the Vols and their rabid fanbase back to national prominence.

Greg Ostendorf: Texas A&M

There’s not much room to go up at Texas A&M -- not when the job is ranked among the top 15 nationally (No. 1-24 comes out Wednesday). But I believe it is on its way to becoming one of the premier jobs in college football, a top-five caliber job. Texas A&M will always have Texas to compete with, but its move to the SEC went a long way in leveling the playing field. Some might even argue the Aggies now have a slight advantage. The school is currently wrapping up $500 million in facilities renovations that include new locker rooms, training facilities, coaches' offices and a face-lift to Kyle Field. A&M is the only SEC school in the Lone Star State, which is an automatic sell in recruiting, not to mention its proximity to Louisiana. The SEC tradition isn’t there yet, but that will change over time. All the Aggies have to do is start winning. But with the right coach, they can not only win but win big.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: RB

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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One thing the SEC will never be short on is talented running backs. This league is consistently very deep at the position, and 2015 is no exception. The league is loaded with immediate star power and has a few youngsters waiting in the wings to really strut their stuff in 2015. Good luck defenses.

1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind them, the Hogs have some talented depth to keep any eye on, starting with redshirt freshman Juan Day and fullback Kody Walker, whom the coaches really like, and 2015 signee Rawleigh Williams III.

2. Georgia: There’s no debate right now that sophomore Nick Chubb returns as the SEC’s best running back. Actually, after rushing for 1,547 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts (all 100-yard performances), Chubb might be the nation’s best returning running back. Fellow sophomore Soachny Michel rushed for 410 yards and five touchdowns last year, and veteran Keith Marshall is almost back to full speed after dealing with injury yet again last year.

3. Alabama: Derrick Henry is one of the SEC’s best pure athletes and led the Crimson Tide in rushing last year (990) despite having 22 less carries than starter T.J. Yeldon. Henry is a bull and homerun threat, but the return of veteran Kenyan Drake (leg) will provide Alabama with the perfect complement in the backfield with his tremendous speed and elusiveness. The arrival of talented freshman Bo Scarbrough was a blessing with the transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the indefinite suspension of Tyren Jones.

4. Tennessee: There certainly is something special about sophomore Jalen Hurd, and it’s scary to think what he’ll learn/do in 2015. There’s little doubt that Hurd will surpass his 899 yards from last year. The Vols are pretty thin here, but the arrival of junior college transfer – and former Alabama running back – Alvin Kamara is a very welcomed one. The coaches think the shifty back could be special and should complement Hurd well. Tennessee also signed John Kelly.

5. LSU: Leonard Fournette took a little longer to develop than Chubb, but there’s no denying his ability, strength and athleticism. Fournette finished his freshman year with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, but should be even better in 2015. Sophomore Darrel Williams (302 yards) is a fan favorite, but depth is on the unproven side. LSU did sign three running backs this year, including two ESPN 300 members.

6. Auburn: The Tigers lost two productive seniors, including SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, but sophomore Roc Thomas could be a special talent. However, keep an eye on Jovon Robinson, who was the nation’s No. 1 juco running back. He rushed for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, and might be the favorite to start. Peyton Barber is another solid option returning, but in Gus Malzahn’s system, any running back can be uber-successful.

7. Missouri: Russell Hansbroughh is one of the league’s best and had a breakout year in 2014 with his 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. His role will increase even more with the departure of Marcus Murphy. The Tigers then have some unproven parts though. Freshman Ish Witter ran for 101 yards last year, and Morgan Steward could be the No. 2 back if he can successfully return from last year’s hip injury. Youngster Trevon Walters is a speedster, and the Tigers finally got JUCO Chase Abbington on campus.

8. Texas A&M: Trey Williams’ somewhat surprising depature to the NFL leaves a hole at running back, but Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are back. Carson, who led the team with 581 rushing yards last year, should be the feature back, but Brandon Williams has a lot of potential; he just needs to put everything together. The coaches are also excited about sophomore James White, who played sparingly last year, but can do a little bit of everything at running back.

9. South Carolina: Mike Davis’ departure hurts, but the Gamecocks are in good hands with former walk-on Brandon Wilds taking over the lead back role. The senior has 1,277 career rushing yards, including gaining 570 last year. Redshirt sophomore David Williams has caught the eyes of his coaches after his reserve role in 2014. Maybe this is the season senior Shon Carson, who has shown flashes in the past, can finally contribute more, too.

10. Florida: The Gators lost their best running back in Matt Jones to the NFL draft, but it’s time for junior Kelvin Taylor prove that he can be a leader and an every-down back for the Gators. He has just one 100-yard game in two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Adam Lane showed some promise with his 109-yard bowl performance, and you have to wonder if undersized Brandon Powell will stay at running back. Freshman Jordan Scarlett could see immediate playing time this fall.

11. Mississippi State: Bowling ball Josh Robinson is gone, but the there’s certainly some depth to work with in Starkville. However, no one there is quite sure who is going to be the lead back or if things will operate by committee. Ashton Shumpert played well down the stretch last year, but impressions out of practice were that freshman Aeris Williams might have been the best of them all. Like Shumpert, Brandon Holloway also rushed for nearly 300 yards last year.

12. Kentucky: The loss of Braylon Heard to the NFL early didn’t help, but this position was in need of some major work anyway. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp were OK last year, but the Wildcats need them to be much better this fall. The two combined for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Mikel Horton rushed for 302 yards last year, so he’ll definitely be in the mix, too.

13. Vanderbilt: Sophomore Ralph Webb almost ran for 1,000 yards last year, and might be the Commodores’ best offensive threat. However, the Dores will need more than just Webb to get the running game going, and right now that’s a problem with only two other returning backs. Sophomore Dallas Rivers is the only other back returning with any sort of real production (218 yards). Vandy will have to get their two incoming freshman ready immediately.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren’t great here last year to begin with. Ole Miss ranked 74th nationally in rushing and Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Bigger back Jordan Wilkins needs to be more productive than his 361 yards from last year. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodsonhave transferred, leaving Ole Miss thin here. A lot will be expected – and likely needed -- from freshman Eric Swinney.
The NFL scouting combine wrapped up Monday with the defensive backs going through the on-field workouts. As always, the SEC was well represented at the event. Former Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley put on a show while a trio of LSU defenders -- Kwon Alexander, Jalen Collins and Danielle Hunter -- proved just how athletic that defense was last season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIn his freshman season at LSU, Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Who's next? The SEC has plenty of athletes made for the combine, and we decided to look at which returning players will turn heads when it's their turn to go through the gauntlet.

LB Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt: Don't be so shocked a Vandy player made the list. Azubike is a freak athletically. He's 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and there's not an ounce of fat on his body. As a junior, he started off strong but injuries derailed his season down the stretch. The senior-to-be will look to finish his career on a high note and earn his invite to the combine.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama: Brown is one of four Crimson Tide football players who double up with track and field. He played sparingly as a freshman last fall, but the expectations are high for the former five-star defensive back. On the track, he's the team's fastest runner in the 60-meter hurdles, and he recently ran the 60-meter dash in 6.82 seconds.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Who else remembers that picture of Chubb showing off his vertical before a track and field event at his high school last May? If not, here you go. The guy looks like he could jump over a car. After a sensational freshman season, he'll be one of the more talked about athletes when it's his turn at the combine. Odds are he won't disappoint.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Chubb isn't the only freshman running back we can't wait to see at the combine. Fournette, the former No. 1 player in the country, has all the skills to put on a show when he goes and works out. He's big, fast, and there always seems to be a chip on his shoulder. It won't be any different at the combine.

DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Chiseled would be the best word to describe Garrett's physique. The freshman is a weight room freak and should put up big numbers on bench press. The scary part is he'll be just as impressive in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. There's a reason he broke the SEC freshman sack record, previously held by No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.

CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: 4.3 is the new 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and Hargreaves has a chance to run in that 4.3 range. A performance like that could solidify his stock as a top-10 pick in next year's draft, assuming he decides to leave early. And don't be surprised if the former high school track star clears 40 inches in the vertical jump.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: Everybody wants to see what Henry is going to do when he goes to the combine. Players that big (6-3, 241) aren't supposed to run that fast. Henry likely won't be among the fastest at his position, but he did run a 4.45 at the 2012 Nike SPARQ competition. Granted, it was on a faster surface, but still -- that's moving for a guy his size.

DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: To nobody's surprise, another former No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 makes this list. Nkemdiche has always been gifted athletically, and though he might not be as fast as his brother, his overall performance will certainly grab the media's attention at the combine. Simply put, he's the complete package.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: It's all in the name. Wouldn't it be great if the fastest 40 time came from a guy named Speedy? It could happen. Noil won the Nike SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013 with a 40 time of 4.46 seconds and a vertical jump of 44.1 inches. He also ran the shuttle in a blistering quick 3.87 seconds.

OT Braden Smith, Auburn: Former Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers was deemed the strongest man at the combine this year after he put up 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Per Auburn's strength coach, Smith can already put up at least 30 reps and he's still a freshman. Imagine what he'll be able to do in two-to-three years when it's his turn.

Honorable mention
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.
Even Kevin Sumlin knows this is a make-or-break season for him at Texas A&M. The talent is certainly there to win big, and as he told ESPN’s Travis Haney, “You’d think it would start to pay off this year.”

If it does, watch out, because the issue all along hasn’t been whether the Aggies are good enough, it’s whether they will play well enough.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsKevin Sumlin hopes his defense will improve in 2015 with the addition of DC John Chavis.
 That’s splitting hairs, of course, but when you begin to combine talent (four straight top-15 recruiting classes) with experience (Kyle Allen, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Myles Garrett will be sophomores) and better coaching (hello, new defensive coordinator John Chavis), you have the right recipe for improvement.

Besides, just how much growth is needed for A&M to reach a New Year’s Six bowl anyway? Despite its perception as a “promising” program, it has produced, too, averaging 9.3 wins per season since 2012. Inching forward into the double-digit win territory would likely be enough to make it to one of the top six bowls.

With the most productive offense in the SEC the past three seasons (517.4 yards per game), the only thing left to do is discover what defense is and how to play it. After all, over that same period A&M had the league’s worst defense to overcome (438.9 yards per game).

Enter Chavis, whose résumé all but guarantees better numbers. During his six seasons as LSU’s defensive coordinator, the Tigers had the fifth-best defense in the country, allowing an average of 309.6 yards per game.

The defensive talent in College Station and Baton Rouge isn’t the same, granted, but they’re not miles apart necessarily. Just look at Garrett, who is already one of the league’s premiere pass-rushers. If he can get some help from five-star freshman defensive tackle Daylon Mack and No. 11-ranked defensive end James Lockhart, you could see a ripple effect on defense from the trenches back to the secondary.

Any improvement on defense, however slight, would be a welcome sight for Sumlin.

If that happens and the talent at A&M finally starts paying off on both sides of the ball, look for the Aggies to make their presence known.

What could go wrong

Texas A&M’s defense has been bad of late. Horrifically bad, in fact. So bad you might wonder whether there’s a culture of bad defense in College Station.

If that’s the case, Chavis has his work cut out for him. Because even though there is talent there to work with, he might spend his entire first year there trying to break bad habits.

It’s the thing every Texas A&M fan must hate to hear, but it could be true yet again: The Aggies might be a year away.

When you’re the 101st-ranked defense in the nation since 2012, you have a long ways to go and not a long time to get there.

And besides, even if the defense does improve, we don’t know who Sumlin will start at QB. It might be Allen, who went 2-2 as a starter after Kenny Hill was suspended. Or maybe it’s blue-chip freshman Kyler Murray, who could wind up bypassing A&M altogether if a professional baseball team throws enough money at him.

Noil is a spectacular talent and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Seals-Jones emerges, but with a question mark at QB, an offensive line replacing two senior starters and veteran tight end Cameron Clear off to the NFL, spring practice could be very interesting.

Everything could very well come together in 2015, but there are a lot of dominos that must fall before A&M is considered a New Year’s Six team just yet.
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National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert lists some incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact at the next level.

Ultimate ESPN 300: Who's next? 

February, 20, 2015
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It’s never too early to look ahead to next year. Here are seven prospects in the 2015 class who could make their mark in future editions of the Ultimate ESPN 300.

DT Daylon Mack (Texas A&M): Last year it was DE Myles Garrett who made a splash for the Aggies, and Mack is expected to do the same in 2015. While Texas A&M returns some quality young defensive tackles, none has Mack's combination of explosive power and quickness plus the ability to be a disruptive force in the backfield.

S Derwin James (FSU):
Some players flipped their commitments while other’s had memorable signing-day moments. Here is a closer look at the five most intriguing recruitments from the SEC.


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Ultimate ESPN 300: Top surprises in the SEC 

February, 17, 2015
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When the Ultimate ESPN 300 was released on Monday, there were some noticeable surprises. Some players shot to near the top of the list early on in their careers, while other players weren’t ranked high coming out of college but now appear on this prestigious list. Here’s a closer look at some of the top surprises in the SEC.


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ESPN Ultimate 300 Newcomers

February, 16, 2015
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National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert shares the top new addition to the ESPN Ultimate 300 and which arrival surprised him most.
COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- The Pylon 7-on-7 2015 tournament at Cocoa Beach High drew many of the top prospects in Florida and beyond in the 2016, 2017 and even 2018 classes Saturday. More than 15 skill players in the ESPN Junior 300 competed throughout the day, including nationally-recruited juniors such as Trayvon Mullen, Dredrick Snelson and quarterback Ervin “Woody” Barrett.

Here is the latest on several Sunshine State prospects.

Eli Stove, WR
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 80


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Roquan Smith to announce Friday 

February, 11, 2015
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The recruitment of ESPN 300 linebacker Roquan Smith will officially come to an end Friday. The four-star prospect, ranked No. 29 overall in the 2015 class, committed to UCLA live on ESPNU on national signing day, but did not sign a letter of intent with the after word that Bruins defensive coordinator and primary recruiter Jeff Ulbrich was likely headed to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

In the days following his commitment and subsequent backing off his verbal pledge, the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game outside linebacker did speak with all four schools that were recruiting him. Smith has taken the time since signing day to think about a decision, and he's now prepared to announce.

Smith will choose between Georgia, Michigan, Texas A&M and UCLA, but the Peach State star says not all four are currently under consideration.


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Zwerneman previews Texas A&M season
Paul Finebaum and Brent Zwerneman look at Texas A&M's schedule and 2015 football season.
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