As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

Texas A&M spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Texas A&M Aggies:

1. The O-line and running game are in good shape: These might be the two deepest areas on the squad. The Aggies have four solid scholarship running backs, and the offensive line depth was illustrated while starter Jarvis Harrison sat out with a shoulder injury, paving the way for Garrett Gramling and Joseph Cheek to work with the first team.

2. The defensive line depth will be better: The Aggies returned all the defensive linemen who contributed last season plus bring an influx of talent from the 2014 recruiting class. The unit needs as much help as possible, and they'll be able to rotate players this season in order to keep everyone fresh.

3. Terry Joseph's impact is felt: The Aggies have a new secondary coach, and by all accounts he's having an effect on the returning defensive backs. That's one area Texas A&M has to improve big time, and the potential is there with a lot of experience returning. Joseph is demanding and detail-oriented and so far has been impactful.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill? One of the original three quarterbacks competing for the job transferred (Matt Joeckel) leaving only two standing: Hill, a sophomore and Allen, a true freshman. Hill has the experience edge but got into some offseason trouble, Allen made big strides and has a big arm but still has learning to do. Winner will be named in mid-August.

2. Will the defense be significantly better? It can't get much worse than it was a season ago, when the Aggies ranked last or near-last in the SEC and in the bottom 30 nationally in most major defensive categories. They return nine defensive starters and are adding even more depth, but the level of play has to get better.

3. Who's the next big receiver? The Aggies have produced some top-notch receivers recently. Last season, Mike Evans emerged as one of the nation's best, Ryan Swope preceded him with a stellar record-breaking career at Texas A&M, and Jeff Fuller set plenty of school records himself before Swope. Who will follow in their footsteps at receiver?

One way-too-early prediction:

The offense will continue to be one of the country's best and the Aggies' record won't be drastically different from last season. Many might think that without Johnny Manziel, Evans and Jake Matthews that the Aggies will see a drop-off, but the continued influx of talent will keep A&M winning football games. There will be some growing pains, but another 9-4 season is very possible.

Top 5 takeaways from spring practice 

April, 29, 2014
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Spring football has mostly wrapped. If we have a fall as intriguing as this spring -- and I suspect we will with the arrival of the playoff system -- college football is in for quite a ride in 2014.

The spring highlights included Nebraska coach Bo Pelini lifting a cat like the mayor hoisting Punxsutawney Phil in "Groundhog Day" and the Heisman Trophy winner playing in a football scrimmage on a Saturday and closing a road baseball game the next day.

Here are my spring takeaways leading into the summer months. Take heart, college football fans: We're just four months from the kickoff between South Carolina and Texas A&M in Columbia.

1. Some programs' possible starting QBs have yet to arrive, including Alabama's

The reviews I have heard of Lane Kiffin's first spring were positive. They fit what I presumed to be true: Kiffin, in a very different role as a supporting cast member instead of the lead, would fit well within a highly respected mentor's system.

What's interesting in Kiffin's initial spring, important and useful as it might have been, is that it likely did not include Alabama's starting quarterback. FSU transfer Jacob Coker will arrive this summer, joining the race that to this point has featured Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman.
Florida has Florida State. Georgia has Georgia Tech. Kentucky has Louisville. And, of course, South Carolina has Clemson.

When it comes to the new SEC scheduling format starting in 2016, those four schools are already on board. Their annual rivalry games fulfill the league’s forthcoming requirement for a yearly nonconference game against an ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 school.

But for the rest of the teams around the league, there’s a void.

Sure, they can go year to year and rotate in nonconference opponents. But where’s the fun in that? Let’s create some new rivalries, and in the case of some programs, reignite old ones.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops and Nick Saban
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertThe spectacular salaries of college football coaches such as Bob Stoops, left, and Nick Saban are generated mostly by the labor of unpaid workers.
Alabama-Oklahoma: If FSU wasn’t already taken, the Noles would have been a perfect fit. The physical and philosophical proximity between programs is obvious. But looking elsewhere, Oklahoma might be a fun matchup. The Sugar Bowl has already created tons of tension on both sides with Sooners coaches delighting in calling out Nick Saban and the SEC.

Arkansas-Baylor: Call it a throwback to the old Southwest Conference. Arkansas, which didn’t join the SEC until 1992, has played more games against Baylor (69) than any school in its current conference. On top of that, the differences between Bret Bielema’s physical style and Art Briles’ free-flowing offensive scheme would be a joy to watch.

Auburn-Oregon: Recent history and playing styles dictates this matchup. Not only do we get a rematch of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, but it pits offenses that live to go fast. Maybe it could be a two-hand touch game in which whoever reaches 100 points first wins.

LSU-Notre Dame: We couldn’t make a list of nonconference matchups and leave Notre Dame off, could we? Pitting the Golden Domers against an SEC program would be appointment viewing. Make that program LSU and the opposing coach Les Miles, and television networks will scratch each other's eyes out to get the game.

Mississippi State-Texas Tech: The Bulldogs have shied away from high profile nonconference games in the past, loading up on the likes of Memphis, UAB and South Alabama. Well, it’s time to infuse a little spice into the schedule. Kliff Kingsbury is too cool to keep out of the SEC. His Red Raiders would be a good matchup with Mississippi State, which faced Texas Tech seven times from 1953-70.

Missouri-Kansas: Does this one really need to be explained? The Border War should have never gone away in the first place. Now is the perfect opportunity to save face and bring back a rivalry that goes all the way back to 1891.

Ole Miss-Miami: We’ve got to get ‘The U’ involved. Miami and Ole Miss have already played a few times in their history, with the Rebs holding a 2-1 series lead. But bigger than that, it would get the SEC back into South Florida on a permanent basis because Miami and Florida don’t have the common sense to do that already.

Tennessee-North Carolina: Even if most people don’t remember it, there’s history there. Tennessee and UNC have played 29 times, with the Vols holding a 20-8-1 advantage. Plus, even if your memory is short, you should recall the double overtime Music City Bowl from 2010 between the schools. If they can re-create that just once, it would make the rivalry worth it.

Texas A&M-Texas: See Missouri-Kansas. Don’t let conference affiliations ruin great rivalries. Texas A&M-Texas should have never been shelved in the first place. And while the UT administration might not see a reason to bring it back -- nor Texas A&M's leadership, for that matter -- surely both fan bases do.

Vanderbilt-Duke:Call it a private school showdown. The proximity is reasonable, the fan bases similar, and the rivalry could easily extend to the hard court. Plus, have you seen Derek Mason’s nonconference schedule this year? It needs help.
In their two seasons together at Texas A&M, Mike and Jake Matthews had distinct roles and personalities.

Jake was the cagey veteran, a quiet leader and productive offensive tackle who helped anchor one of the best units in the country. Mike was the up-and-coming center, the younger brother was a little bit louder and "rowdy," according to a teammate.

[+] EnlargeMike Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsAs his brother Jake heads off to the NFL, center Mike Matthews is preparing to lead what looks to be another strong line at Texas A&M.
Now that Jake Matthews is preparing for his professional career as a projected first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Mike Matthews continues to make significant strides as the Aggies' center, finding a comfort level as he enters his junior season.

"I think I'm just a lot more comfortable with this offense and the guys here," Mike Matthews said. "I just enjoy it, go out here every day, I'm not nervous. ... Now I feel comfortable with what I'm doing -- I feel confident."

He should. Having played only part-time as a freshman in 2012, the 2013 season was his first as a full-time starter. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin elected to have Mike Matthews serve as the backup center in his first season rather than redshirt behind then-senior Patrick Lewis so that Matthews would get a taste of SEC life: the travel, the opponents, the whole nine yards.

That helped prepare the younger Matthews for the starting role once Lewis graduated. While there were some bumps in the road in his sophomore season, he looks poised for a strong 2014 based on what Texas A&M offensive line coach B.J. Anderson saw in spring football.

"Mike has total control of the offense," Anderson said. "He's got as much freedom as any center I've ever coached. He's got it all. He can change whatever he wants to change and I trust him that much. Guys around him trust him."

For the Aggies, that's huge. In their uptempo, no-huddle offense, communication is critical, especially when it comes to protection calls for the offensive line. Anderson said Matthews can handle that responsibility well and on top of it, he continues to be a high-energy presence in all facets of the program.

"He's doing exactly what we need him to do," Anderson said. "He's really a leader for us up front. Great energy guy, outspoken guy, he brings the juice to practice, brings the juice to the game, brings the juice to the meetings. He's a big piece of that puzzle."

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound (depending on the day) Matthews is one of four returning starters on the Aggies' offensive line. Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guards Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi join him to bring plenty of experience as the Aggies look to match or exceed their performance from a season ago.

"I think just approach every day like it's our last day," Matthews said. "Go out there and work hard, not take any plays off. I think if we do that, we're going to have a good chance to be just as good as last year."

While Anderson praises Matthews' physical strength, he continues his effort to keep his weight up. Matthews hovered around 283 pounds during spring practice.

"You can get him up, but then he'll go into [the weight room] with [strength and conditioning coach] Larry Jackson and Larry will run him and lift him and do that stuff, and next time he weighs in, he'll be down," Anderson said. "The key is don't get too focused on the weight because he's one of the strongest -- if not the strongest guys -- in my room. He plays with great leverage. We're going to keep working on the weight, but we're not chasing number. He's very effective at the weight he's at."

Anderson said Matthews' energy is contagious to those around him and it's helpful. Since he arrived on campus, Jake Matthews has noted Mike's constant chatter, but as he continues to develop into a leader for the Aggies, it's a safe bet that those around him are listening and enjoying it.

"It's a job, but at the same time, you don't want to come in here and hate it," Mike Matthews said. "You want to have fun and on the field, [so I'm] just being loud and making noise and getting guys to run up to the ball after every play and staying on guys. That way we can have high energy."

The SEC traditionalists can take solace.

The eight-game league schedule will remain in place, as well as the permanent cross-divisional foes. That means Alabama and Tennessee will continue to play every year along with Auburn and Georgia, two of the SEC’s most tradition-rich rivalries.

For those of us who've been entrenched in this league for decades or more, saving those rivalries certainly makes sense.

But not at the cost of creating competitive disadvantages and denying players and fans the opportunity to face (or see) every team in the league at least once in a four-year span.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Hubbard, Jeoffrey Pagan, Landon Collins
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe Alabama-Tennessee cross-divisional rivalry will remain a yearly fixture in the SEC.
In that regard, the presidents and chancellors got it wrong.

It’s a fact that whatever scheduling format the SEC settled on wasn’t going to please everyone. A few wanted a nine-game league schedule, others weren't crazy about permanent foes, and there were some who liked it exactly the way it is.

Ultimately, a nine-game league schedule would allow for the most flexibility, the most balance and still give teams a chance to go out and play a marquee nonconference game.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said it best at the SEC spring meetings in May 2013.

“I think we need to play 10 quality games because our fans are going to get tired [of going to games with lesser opponents],” Battle said.

When’s the last time the fans really mattered?

As SEC commissioner Mike Slive noted Sunday, tradition matters in this league. And he’s right. It does.

But the landscape has also changed dramatically in this league over the last 20 years.

Since the days of Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Archie Manning, the SEC has added four new teams. South Carolina-Missouri is now a conference game. So is Arkansas-Texas A&M.

The league has been split into two divisions with a title game between the two divisional winners determining the champion. Teams wear gray jerseys, black jerseys ... even specially themed jerseys.

And occasionally, a team that doesn't even win its division has been known to win the national championship.

College football has changed, and if Alabama and Tennessee don't play every year, it’s not going to ruin everything that is sacred about the SEC.

Alabama and Florida, two of the heavyweights in this league, have played all of six times in the regular season since the league split and expanded in 1992. What about Auburn and Tennessee? That game was once a fixture. It would be nice to see Georgia and Alabama play more often in the regular season than once every blue moon. The same goes for Auburn and Florida.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles and LSU will continue to play Florida every year, a fact that could create scheduling imbalance within the SEC.
Beat up on Les Miles all you want. But given the way Tennessee has struggled much of the last decade, Alabama playing Tennessee every year isn't quite the same as LSU playing Florida every year.

This league has always been cyclical, and at some point, it’s reasonable to think that cycle will turn back. But LSU athletic director Joe Alleva has a point, no matter who he might have ticked off with his comments Sunday night.

“I’m disappointed that the leadership of our conference doesn’t understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions,” Alleva told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting. In our league, we share the money and expenses equally, but we don’t share our opponents equally.”

It’s worth noting that LSU’s opposition to playing Florida every year has been much more boisterous than Florida’s in having to face LSU every year. In fact, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley likes having a big-gate opponent such as LSU coming to the Swamp every other year.

So, again, different strokes for different folks.

Alleva’s assertion that schools voted for their own “self-interest” over “competitive balance” can’t be argued. Sure, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are content with playing each other every year. The same goes for Kentucky and Mississippi State. Why trade one of those schools for an Alabama, Georgia or LSU every couple of years if you don’t have to?

Something says there’s also a tinge of self-interest in Alleva’s concerns. Just a smidge, maybe.

At the end of the day, if the league was determined to stick with eight conference games, the fairest way to have structured it would have been to adopt a 6-0-2 format -- six divisional opponents and two rotating cross-divisional opponents.

But as that wise (young) sage, Steve Spurrier, said, “There’s nothing fair about college football.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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Spring football has come to a close in the SEC with two teams -- Arkansas and Kentucky -- hosting their spring games over the weekend. Today's lunch links include recaps of each, as well as plenty of talk about the SEC's scheduling announcement.

Once again, the SEC knows what it's doing when it comes to protecting its product.

Sunday's announcement from the league that teams will continue to play eight conference games while adding an annual nonconference game against a power conference is another good idea, as the SEC gets ready to enter the college football playoff era.

With the new playoff committee taking strength of schedule into consideration when deciding on the four teams that will make up the playoff, SEC commissioner Mike Slive wanted to take appropriate measures to make sure his league has every opportunity to fill one, or even two, of the spots. It doesn't matter that the SEC has won seven of the past eight BCS national titles, the committee's job will be to be as thorough as possible when selecting teams. Slive -- and the rest of his SEC partners -- made sure strength of schedule wasn't an issue.

[+] EnlargeFlorida St vs Florida
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsSEC teams such as Florida (FSU) and South Carolina (Clemson) already have huge games annually with a team in another power conference.
“The concept of strength of schedule is based on an entire 12-game schedule, a combination of both conference games together with nonconference games," Slive said in a release Sunday. "Given the strength of our conference schedule supplemented by at least one major nonconference game, our teams will boast of a strong résumé of opponents each and every year.”

Translation: We aren't going to be left out.

I think it's pretty safe to say that way more often than not, the SEC is going to get its conference champion in the four-team playoff. Its past speaks for itself, making it very hard to keep the champ from earning a shot at winning the national title. But we also know that nothing is a given in this world, so the league acted.

This will now (thankfully) take away one of those cupcake games used to pad stats and force all 14 teams to step out of their comfort zone each season to face a tougher out-of-conference opponent. It not only makes teams' résumés stronger, it makes for a much better product for fans and players.

The addition of a stronger nonconference foe means the SEC didn't have to worry about a nine-game conference schedule. Another good move.

While playing nine makes the league that much tougher and allows players to see every school in the league during a four-year career, it makes winning the SEC, well, that much tougher. And this is a product that isn't broken. The SEC went to the final eight BCS title games, all with only eight conference games during the regular season.

Why change that? Why beat up your title contender even more?

A nine-game conference slate would mean that the SEC champion would play 10 conference games before the playoff. That's a lot of wear and tear on your prized fighter.

What will have to be looked at on a more consistent basis is the rotation of the one non-division opponent for teams. It's clear that in the past few years there hasn't been much balance in that department, and LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who sees Florida every year as the Tigers' permanent crossover opponent, isn't happy:

"I'm disappointed in the fact that the leadership of our conference doesn't understand the competitive advantage permanent partners give to certain institutions," Alleva told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Sunday. "I tried to bring that up very strongly at the meeting today. In our league we share the money and expenses equally, but we don't share our opponents equally.

"Since 2000 LSU has played Florida and Georgia 19 times and Alabama has played them eight times. That is a competitive disadvantage. There are a lot of other examples."

We have to remember that this is a cyclical sport, but I think you'll start seeing the league pay attention to this more when assigning the rotating team.

Overall, the SEC got it right with its new scheduling format, as it prepares for life outside of the BCS.

Honestly, Steve Spurrier said, there’s a truth in college football that after six decades in the game he fully acknowledges: It’s not fair.

After discussing the merits of an early signing period -- “I’ve never been for that” -- and the tabled 10-second rule -- “If you don’t like somebody using the no-huddle offense, you should use a no-huddle defense” -- the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks was asked what’s next for the game.

“I don’t know what’s next,” Spurrier told ESPN earlier this spring. “We talked about not having a common opponent, but the commissioner [Mike Slive] wants Alabama and Tennessee to keep playing each other. ... That’s not really fair for LSU or Florida, I don’t think, because they’re annually two of the best in the conference.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sees no easy solution to the issue of equitable schedules in the SEC.
And this brings Spurrier to his own cold, hard truth. In typical Spurrier fashion, there was some dry wit to it.

“There’s nothing fair about college football. You know that, don’t you?” he asked. “If it was fair, Alabama would have to sit out a year of recruiting. They’ve had the No. 1 class five out of six years. That’s like giving an NFL team the first five picks in the first and second round every year -- almost.

“And some teams play eight home games.”

Spurrier noted how Texas A&M and Auburn both played eight home games last season. Florida, he said, played only six, along with Georgia. South Carolina, meanwhile, hosted seven home games.

He's well aware of Florida's schedule, which includes Florida State as an annual nonconference opponent.

“To me, Florida’s got the toughest schedule of any of us,” he said. “That’s a tough deal for Coach [Will] Muschamp. He can’t complain about it and can’t say anything about it, but I’ll say something: He’s got the toughest schedule in the conference with only six home games. They’ve got Alabama and LSU next year. Did you know that? That’s brutal.”

It’s not fair, Spurrier said, but that’s how it fell. South Carolina will get Texas A&M and Auburn from the SEC West, which won’t be easy. And that’s on top of the annual rivalry game against ACC power Clemson.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, rotates Kentucky and Vanderbilt in from the SEC East. The Bulldogs’ big nonconference opponent is Southern Miss, which has won exactly one game in the past two seasons.

“It’s not exactly fair by any means,” Spurrier said. “But that’s the way we’ve always done it. We can still fill the ballparks and the interest is at an all-time high. We’ll worry about that fairness later on.

“In college football, you are whatever your schedule is. Nobody gave a dang last year that Texas A&M, their four out-of-conference games were Texas El Paso, Sam Houston State, SMU and Rice. That was their four out-of-conference games, and I think all four of them were at home. ... They gave up Texas to pick up Sam Houston State, and nobody said a word about that.”

Don’t worry, South Carolina-Clemson isn’t going anywhere. “I would not do it,” Spurrier said of even considering taking Clemson off the schedule.

But while we’re talking about schedules, who does have it worst? South Carolina's schedule is no cakewalk, but Spurrier might be right that Florida’s is a proverbial murderer’s row. Here’s a look at the three toughest and three easiest schedules in the SEC in 2014:

Three toughest

  • [+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
    Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWith an annually tough schedule, it's no wonder that Florida coach Will Muschamp typically looks exasperated on the sideline.
    Florida: It’s going to be an uphill climb from last year’s 4-8 debacle. Florida draws the two toughest crossover games of anyone with Alabama and LSU, and then has to close the regular season on the road at defending national champion Florida State. Mix in games at Tennessee, at a neutral site against Georgia and at home against South Carolina, and the Gators’ schedule is just as brutal as Spurrier described.
  • Tennessee: You think someone at Tennessee would have seen Oregon come off the schedule and decided to make things a little easier this season. Nope. As if Butch Jones wasn’t getting enough favors with Utah State and Arkansas State, the Vols scheduled Oklahoma. And that’s just the first three games of the season.
  • Auburn: The way the Tigers start the season with Arkansas and San Jose State at home isn’t going to knock your socks off. But playing Kansas State on its home turf isn’t something many SEC schools would even consider. If Gus Malzahn hopes to reach the SEC title game again, not only will he have to go through a Louisiana Tech team that won nine games two seasons ago, but he’ll also have to face South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in the final six weeks of the regular season.
Three easiest

  • Vanderbilt: Nonconference games against Temple (4-7), U-Mass (1-11), a new FBS program in Old Dominion and FCS Charleston Southern shouldn't provide the stiffest of competition for a Vanderbilt team looking to rebuild under new coach Derek Mason.
  • Alabama: To be fair, the Crimson Tide scheduled West Virginia when things were looking up for the Mountaineers. But after a 4-8 record last year, a neutral-site game in Atlanta should favor Alabama by three touchdowns or more. Mix in nonconference games against Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina, and it spells a cakewalk. Crossover games against four-win Florida and five-win Tennessee don't appear to be much of a challenge, either.
  • Mississippi State: The stars have aligned for coach Dan Mullen as his Bulldogs have three winnable nonconference games (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama) before going to LSU. Getting Texas A&M and Auburn at home is a huge boost, as are crossover games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
[+] EnlargeSEC Logo
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesBeginning in 2016, SEC teams must play one opponent per season from the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten or ACC.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The SEC chose not to stray too far from tradition as it announced Sunday night that longstanding non-divisional rivalries would remain a fixture of the league's eight-game conference schedule.

However, in a twist focused on improving strength of schedule, the SEC will begin mandating that each program incorporate an annual nonconference game against a power conference team starting in 2016.

Historical rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia survived the chopping block as the SEC voted to keep an eight-game conference schedule that will include six games against division opponents and two games against non-division opponents.

"The most important thing to me for Auburn was to keep the Auburn-Georgia rivalry," said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. "Then after that, I always look at what is best for the Southeastern Conference. We all agree that playing the eight games in the 6-1-1 format was the best thing for our league."

One of the non-division opponents will be a permanent annual rivalry game. Others include: Arkansas


(Read full post)


Editor's note: This week we'll take a brief look at Texas A&M players who surprised us with their performances during spring practice, which wrapped up for the Aggies earlier this month.

One position that saw plenty of competition during spring football and will continue to when preseason training camp begins for Texas A&M is wide receiver.

Three of last year's four starters are gone (Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart) meaning there are a lot of receptions and yards up for grabs. The aforementioned trio of receivers combined for 171 receptions and 2,838 receiving yards last season.

The Aggies have recruited receivers heavily in recent recruiting classes, meaning there's plenty of talented bodies available, though many are unproven. The lack of veteran receivers (Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starter) means even incoming recruits have a chance to fight for a job. While much of the focus in that area was on five-star prospect Speedy Noil, another receiver also enrolled early with him, one who was much less heralded as a recruit: Joshua Reynolds.

"He's been good," coach Kevin Sumlin said in late March. "He's got a real upside to him since he's got three years [of eligibility remaining]. He's a little bit like Derel Walker in that he's long, probably a little bit longer than Derel. He's got great ball skills, can run and has real soft hands."

Reynolds was the definition of an under-the-radar prospect. He wasn't heavily recruited coming out of high school and opted to spend a year at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. He received much more attention there and signed with the Aggies as a mid-term enrollee.

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound prospect wasted little time this spring getting quality practice time, including reps with the first team at times. And like Sumlin said, he reminds the Aggies of Walker, who was also a junior college transfer and was second on the team in receiving yards last season with 818 while hauling in 51 catches, scoring five touchdowns.

"Huge catch radius," A&M receivers coach David Beaty said. "I think this guy's path is going to remind us a lot of Derel Walker....He's got good acceleration and he is long. He might have the longest arms I've ever seen."

The one thing Reynolds will have to continue to improve on is maintaining a solid weight. Sumlin noted his slight frame, and though Reynolds did add some weight this spring, he'll have to maintain it going into the fall. If he does, don't be surprised if Reynolds gets on the field and contributes to the high-powered Texas A&M offense.

"This summer's going to be big for him," Sumlin said. "He was pretty slight in junior college like Derel was when he first got here and now, he's gained seven or eight pounds with strength and conditioning and the nutrition center has really helped him. The summer's going to be big for him to carry that weight and continue his progress and learning what we're doing but also being physical and being the kind of guy we need. He's got a real chance to help us next fall."
video

In a conversation with ESPN's Antonietta Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton discusses prospects who could commit in May and breaks down the momentum building at Penn State.

Getting to know Kendall Sheffield 

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
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video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

HOUSTON -- It says a lot when you can walk around various athletic events wearing a shirt that reads “Speed kills,” and nobody questions or contradicts you.

This is the fortunate life of ESPN 300 cornerback Kendall Sheffield. In his world, speed does kill. As does size. And physicality. And overall athleticism. When those individual skill sets work together for him on the football field, it usually isn’t good news for an opposing receiver.


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Editor's note: This week we'll take a brief look at Texas A&M players who surprised us with their performances during spring practice, which wrapped up for the Aggies earlier this month.

Building depth and raising the talent level on the defensive line is one of the most important tasks for Texas A&M in its hopes to find long-term success in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeZaycoven Henderson
Max Olson/ESPNWith better conditioning, Zaycoven Henderson will be a valuable freshman contributor for Texas A&M.
The last two recruiting classes have seen particular focus on defensive linemen, especially the 2014 group, which included five defensive linemen. Four of them arrive in the summer but one enrolled early and participated in spring football: tackle Zaycoven Henderson.

The four-star prospect, who was ranked 36th nationally at his position in the 2014 recruiting class, showed quickly that he's ready to contribute, making waves throughout spring football.

"That guy is very, very strong," junior defensive end Julien Obioha said of Henderson. "He has meat and potatoes. Henderson is just a strong guy. Strong, fast, athletic -- whatever is good about a D-lineman, Henderson has right now."

At 6-foot-1, 310 pounds, Henderson brings good size to his position. The freshman showed his eagerness to learn and improve, but he will have to get into better football playing shape, according to defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

"He's a little bit out of shape," Snyder said. "He does have a big rear end and he's a plugger in the middle. When he's fresh, he's not bad. ... Right now he's three plays and he's done. He's going to bring some beef up front for us."

With strength and conditioning being a focal point in the summer, it stands to reason that Henderson will show up to preseason training camp in August in improved shape. If he continues to progress, he could give the Aggies another viable option at defensive tackle as they look to improve a defense that struggled significantly in 2013.

ESPN 300 RB reopens recruitment 

April, 23, 2014
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Texas A&M's highly ranked recruiting class took a hit on Wednesday as one longtime recruit decided to evaluate new options.

ESPN 300 running back Rodney Anderson said on Wednesday evening that he is reopening his recruitment to look at some new schools.


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