Texas A&M Aggies: Les Miles

Now the real fun begins.

Mid-October is a time when teams start to separate themselves. Heading into Week 7 last season, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida were all in the top 20 of the AP poll. Then Georgia and Florida lost, starting a downward trend that neither could reverse. Meanwhile, Auburn improved to 5-1 and didn’t lose another game until the BCS National Championship.

What will happen on Oct. 11 of this year? Where should fans go to see the season-defining games?

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting our top destinations for each week of the season. So far, we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, Starkville, Tuscaloosa, Houston, Nashville and Norman, Okla. We’ve got six weeks down and eight to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 7:

Oct. 11
Alabama at Arkansas
Auburn at Mississippi State
LSU at Florida
Georgia at Missouri
Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Chattanooga at Tennessee
Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Ole Miss at Texas A&M

This week’s pick comes with purely selfish reasons. I missed out on experiencing the old Kyle Field, so I figure I need to visit the new one. Hopefully the press box will still sway along with the Aggie War Hymn. Whatever happens during the actual game is a bonus, pure and simple.

And what a bonus it should be. This game should be an offensive connoisseur’s dream. The officials can shut off the play clock. No defense required here.

Even with Johnny Manziel gone, I expect Texas A&M’s offense to be quite potent. People forget that Kevin Sumlin was a highly regarded offensive mind before Johnny Football. Nick Saban tried to hire him at LSU. Plus, Sumlin has plenty to work with this season, starting with the young wide receiver tandem of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. With Josh Reynolds and Kyrion Parker also in the mix, the Aggies have quite the formidable group of pass catchers. Throw in a running back group that goes three deep with Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams, and whoever starts under center should be in a good position to move the chains.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, has the same potential on offense, with a seasoned quarterback to lean on. Bo Wallace is the most experienced passer in the SEC today, and with Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram to throw to, he is primed for a big senior season. An offensive line minus three starters from a season ago is cause for concern, but by Week 7, there should be some chemistry there.

Therefore, even though I like Ole Miss’ defense with the Nkemdiche brothers, Cody Prewitt and Serderius Bryant, I’m looking for an offensive shootout come Oct. 11. If I’m going to the Lone Star State, I expect no less.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: LSU at Florida

Alex, you can have your shootout. I’d rather see a knock-down, drag-out fight in which the final score is 9-6. Call me old school. I love defense, and this year’s LSU-Florida game features two of the better defenses in the conference and a handful of potential first-round draft picks, including Dante Fowler Jr., Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Mills.

The two permanent cross-division rivals have not scored more than 23 points combined in their last two meetings, and this one should be no different.

The Gators will be battle-tested after back-to-back road games at Alabama and at Tennessee, but if they can get out of that with a split and start the season 4-1, you'd better believe that Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will be rocking. And why have it any other way in our first trip to the Swamp?

Can you imagine if Brandon Harris wins the job at LSU? That means the Tigers could have a true freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back, Leonard Fournette, starting in their backfield. Those two alone could be worth the price of admission, especially to see how they react to the raucous atmosphere. I guess that’s why you sign up to play in the SEC.

And if she’s not in Fayetteville, Ark., we might even see April Justin at the game. She’s the mother of Alabama star Landon Collins and Florida freshman Gerald Willis III, but deep down, she’s a die-hard LSU fan. Remember how happy she was when Willis picked the Gators on national TV? Exactly.

But let’s get back to the game. I expect both offenses to struggle. I expect there to be plenty of turnovers, and I expect it to come down to a last-minute field goal or a fake field goal, depending on how Les Miles is feeling that day. What more could you ask for?
We know a good idea when we see it. And with all apologies to our good friends at the Big Ten Blog, we’re going to steal one of theirs.

It’s time to plan your road trips.

Get your calendars out and your travel agents on the telephone. The football season is a few months away and you need to know where you’re going in the SEC from week to week.

This series, beginning today and then running every Monday for the next 13 weeks, will give you a rundown of the league’s action and we'll make our pick for the top one or two matchups.

So without further ado, let’s begin with Week 1 and a look at the schedule.

Saturday, Aug. 30
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (in Atlanta), Thursday, Aug. 28
Texas A&M at South Carolina -- Aug. 28
Temple at Vanderbilt -- Aug. 28
Alabama vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)
Arkansas at Auburn
Idaho at Florida
Clemson at Georgia
UT Martin at Kentucky
LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)
Southern Miss at Mississippi State
South Dakota State at Missouri
Utah State at Tennessee -- Sunday, Aug. 31

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Texas A&M at South Carolina

Welcome to the new SEC Network. And what a game it gets to kick things off.

Not only do we get to see the Head Ball Coach stalking the sideline for the Gamecocks once again, we get our first glimpse at Johnny Manziel’s heir apparent at quarterback -- whoever that may be. It might be unclear now who starts under center for the Aggies, but I’m giving coach Kevin Sumlin the benefit of the doubt. With promising receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, a stable of tailbacks led by Tra Carson and Trey Williams and a solid line that returns tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, the offense should be fine. The defense ... I’m not so sure. I was in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it wasn’t pretty.

South Carolina, on the other hand, will be without Jadeveon Clowney. But the defense under Lorenzo Ward should be fine. And, besides, the offense should be plenty of fun to watch. Dylan Thompson looks to be a capable replacement for Connor Shaw at quarterback, and he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with. Not only is Mike Davis back to 100 percent, he’s joined by an enviable group of running backs that include Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams. Receivers Pharoh Cooper and Shaq Roland weren’t household names last season, but watch out, because their stars are on the rise.

So while it’s tempting to skirt the rules, double-dip and spend a few days in Atlanta for Ole Miss-Boise State and Alabama-West Virginia, I’ll stick to the script and hope to land in Columbia for the SEC’s season opening game.

Edward Aschoff's pick: LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)

While I like your decision to go with the SEC opener, I have to shift gears and look at one of the three neutral-site games that features an SEC team taking on another member of the Power 5. The two games in Atlanta should be very fun to watch, but I’m going with LSU vs. Wisconsin down in Houston. These are the kinds of games I hope we will see more of starting in 2016, and this one has a lot of intrigue in the Lone Star State.

For starters, we really don’t know a ton about this LSU team. Are the Tigers rebuilding or reloading after another mass exodus from Baton Rouge? Who is going to be the starting quarterback? Will Terrence Magee hold things down at running back, or will we see more of newcomer Leonard Fournette? And what will be the identity of this new-look LSU defense?

The possibilities really are endless for the Tigers, but there are also plenty of questions for the Badgers as well. There’s yet another quarterback battle in Madison, but running back Melvin Gordon is still around, so you know the Tigers defense will be keying on him. Watching him go toe-to-toe with LSU’s fast and athletic defense should make plenty of people go, “Wow!”

I will say that while we are still unsure what this LSU team will look like this fall, we all know that Les Miles always has his guys ready to play in Week 1 in these kinds of games. Miles is 3-0 at LSU in season-opening, neutral-site games against power-conference opponents. The atmosphere won’t unnerve them, and neither will be the sight of Wisconsin’s jerseys.

With all the uncertainty surrounding both teams, I think we are in for a great punch-you-in-the-mouth opener to the 2014 season.

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.”
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
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Let's take a quick spin through the headlines from across the SEC:

Lunchtime links

February, 12, 2014
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Here's to hoping everyone in the Deep South is hunkered down and warm during this winter storm.
Now that signing day is over and the fax machine is allowed another 364 days of rest, it’s time to look back on who did the most on the recruiting trail in the SEC.

It’s important to note that this is not purely a rank of who had the best class. You can go to ESPN’s class rankings for that information. Rather, this list took into account the state of each program and how it performed against expectations, hence Kentucky’s lofty standing.

No. 1: Alabama
Rundown: The class wasn’t just No. 1 overall, it was No. 1 by a mile. Alabama cleaned up with one-third of all the five-star prospects in the ESPN 300, the highest ranking of which was offensive tackle Cameron Robinson, who could challenge for immediate playing time as a freshman. Along those lines, coach Nick Saban and his staff didn’t just sign the best prospects, they signed those that fit the program’s needs. The offensive line class could be the best in Saban’s history, the cornerback class promises two future stars and quarterback David Cornwell helps expand the field of candidates to replace AJ McCarron.

Instant impact signee: Tony Brown won’t be the only five-star cornerback on campus, but he’ll be the first one there. The speedy track star enrolled in January and will compete in spring practice. With both starting cornerback spots open, he’ll have a chance to start right away.

No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain’t your grandfather’s Kentucky. It’s not your father’s or your older brother’s, either. Mark Stoops didn’t have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it’s here to play and win.

Instant impact signee: There’s opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats’ offense.

No. 3: Tennessee
Rundown: No program brought in more young talent than the Vols. All told, Tennessee signed 35 prospects, far more than any BCS-level program. Coach Butch Jones joked that he’ll have an all-freshman team next year, and with 11 ESPN 300 players in the class it’s not that farfetched an idea. Not only did Jones lock down in-state stars like Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd, he reached across borders and landed LaVon Pearson and Dillon Bates. Where his first recruiting class in 2013 was more about creating buzz, 2014 was about fulfilling a promise.

Instant impact signee: Jones and his staff are high on junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolled at Tennessee early. Considering the Vols are completely reloading on the offensive line, the 6-7, 307-pound Blair will have the chance to step in and play from Day 1.

No. 4: LSU
Rundown: Les Miles was on the hook after losing several in-state stars to programs like Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida. Seeing Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Laurence Jones commit elsewhere cast LSU’s recruiting efforts in a bad light. But that all changed when Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, announced that he would be a Tiger. And on Wednesday, Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation, followed suit. By the end of the day, 11 of the top 25 players in Louisiana ended up at LSU.

Instant impact signee: Fournette is the No. 1 overall prospect for a reason. He’s got all the physical tools and the mindset to play at the next level. Because of that he’s been compared favorably to former Sooner Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, Fournette can insert himself into the running back rotation right away.

No. 5: Texas A&M
Rundown: In 2012, Texas A&M signed the 15th best recruiting class in the country. In 2013, it joined the SEC and rose to eighth in the rankings. And on Wednesday, it completed that climb by finishing fourth. Kevin Sumlin and Co. signed an impressive 10 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 athlete and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Signing a pair of junior college offensive linemen -- Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor -- solidifies depth on a line moving on without Jake Matthews.

Instant impact signee: There’s no doubt Texas A&M needs help on the defense. Defensive end Myles Garrett's body is college-ready (6-5, 255 pounds) and he’s ripped to shreds. If he can pick up the defense and show he's capable of holding up against the run, he could play soon.

No. 6: Florida
Rundown: It’s the win coach Will Muschamp so desperately needed. Keeping together this class after one of the most disastrous seasons in program history was a remarkable feat. In all, Florida signed 13 ESPN 300 commitments, including seven players who rank among the top 10 nationally at their position. Even more impressive was that Muschamp sold Florida against some other top programs, flipping four-star Florida State quarterback commitment Treon Harris to cross the state to Gainesville.

Instant impact signee: Jalen Tabor has as good a chance as anyone to start at cornerback opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the former standout freshman whose footsteps he's trying to follow. Florida coaches are high on his talent and skill level, and of course, being an early enrollee helps.

No. 7: Georgia
Rundown: Mark Richt got his guy in Lorenzo Carter. Without him, the entire outlook of the class changes. While it wasn’t high on numbers -- 21 signees in all -- the quality of Georgia's class was impressive. Richt signed 11 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in the country. Four-star athlete Isaiah McKenzie was a big signee as well. He’s small in size (5-8), but his speed and quickness could translate to early playing time.

Instant impact signee: “That defense is going to be nasty,” Carter said. “And I plan on being a part of it.” With that, Georgia got a taste of the energy the No. 3-rated defensive end will bring to Athens. His ability as a pass-rusher will help the Bulldogs right away, and if he adds a few more pounds he could develop into an every-down lineman.

No. 8: Auburn
Rundown: It’s not always about who you sign, but who you miss. The loss of Rashaan Evans still stings a day later, but Auburn landed commitments from offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams to close out what was already an impressive class. In all, the Tigers have 12 signees in the ESPN 300 and two ranked in the ESPN JC 50. Despite losing Evans to the Tide, Auburn signed four of the state’s top 10 players, including its top-ranked player in the class, running back Racean Thomas.

Instant impact signee: Nobody is more qualified to step in and contribute than wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He’s the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he’s already on campus. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s go-to wide receiver by the start of next season.

No. 9: Ole Miss
Rundown: The class wasn’t filled with stars like the year before, but coach Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t let up in 2014. The Rebels went after more seasoned recruits, signing six players from either junior college, prep schools or delayed enrollment. Actually, this year’s class might end up having more depth than the previous year’s as 15 four-star recruits signed in 2014, compared to 12 four-star recruits and two five-star recruits in 2013. With players like Garrald McDowell and C.J. Hampton, there’s plenty to build around.

Instant impact signee: Ole Miss needed help on the offensive line and four-star Rod Taylor could be the man to give them a boost. The No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 300 and the Rebels’ highest ranked signee enrolled in school early and will compete in spring practice.

No. 10: South Carolina
Rundown: It wasn’t the most heralded class in Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina, but it didn’t lack talent, especially on defense where the Gamecocks signed four defensive linemen and four cornerbacks. Stealing defensive tackle Dexter Wideman from Florida State and nabbing cornerback Chris Lammons from Wisconsin’s sights was huge in moving South Carolina up from 27th in the class rankings to 19th.

Instant impact signee: He’ll no doubt add a few pounds to his 6-3, 250-pound frame, but no amount of weight will help Dante Sawyer's attempts to fill Jadeveon Clowney's sizable shoes at South Carolina. That’s not Sawyer’s job as a freshman, though. The four-star prospect should help the Gamecocks pass rush and is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end.

No. 11: Arkansas
Rundown: When I spoke to Bret Bielema during the season, he told me that he wasn’t going after guys based on their rankings. He wanted “his guys,” guys who fit his blue-collar system. And he did exactly that with six of his top eight signees coming on the offensive and defensive lines. Throw in Rafe Peavey, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback, and Arkansas’ got a good foundation to build upon.

Instant impact signee: With starting defensive tackle Byran Jones gone, the door is open for big Bijhon Jackson, who comes in at a hefty 6-2 and 330 pounds. The No. 6-ranked defensive tackle is one of three ESPN 300 member in Arkansas’ recruiting class.

No. 12: Mississippi State
Rundown: The Bulldogs’ 2014 signing class was on the small side with 23 signees, and it was planned that way. With so few seniors, coach Dan Mullen chose to be selective. Still, the class left something to be desired without a single player ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. It was good to see the Bulldogs get so many in-state recruits, but the furthest their reach went was to Texas, Alabama and Georgia. That said, Mississippi State fans will be glad to see that both of its ESPN 300 signees -- Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson -- were skill players on offense, an area in need of development.

Instant impact signee: There’s plenty of opportunity in the Bulldogs’ backfield now that LaDarius Perkins is off to the NFL. Enter Aeris Williams, a four-star prospect from Mississippi. With Dak Prescott at quarterback, Williams could make hay on the read-option.

No. 13: Missouri
Rundown: Maybe the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta didn’t amount to much on the recruiting trail. Maybe the thrilling Cotton Bowl win didn’t impress enough recruits either. Whatever it was, coach Gary Pinkel didn’t exactly make hay on signing day. Landing just two ESPN 300 commitments was underwhelming, as was the grand total of four four-star recruits. The signing of Andy Bauer, a four-star offensive tackle who was targeted by Alabama, does engender some hope. Still, as we watch Texas A&M take advantage of the bump it received in recruiting since joining the SEC, one has to wonder why Missouri hasn’t done the same.

Instant impact signee: Brandon Lee, the nation's No. 17 outside linebacker, comes in at a healthy 6-2 and 210 pounds. Given that two of the Tigers’ three starting linebackers were seniors last season, Lee will have a chance to come in and contribute right away.

No. 14: Vanderbilt
Rundown: With so little time to recruit, Derek Mason couldn’t put together the class he wanted. And with former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin poaching so many of his former recruits at Penn State, it only made matters worse. So don’t judge Mason’s first class and its two ESPN 300 signees too harshly. But do give him credit for convincing Nifae Lealao, the No. 20 defensive tackle, to come to Nashville. The four-star prospect is among the most highly rated recruits to ever sign with the Commodores.

Instant impact signee: It isn’t just Jordan Matthews who's leaving. So is Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games last season. Enter three-star Rashad Canty. He’s not the most highly ranked recruit, but the 6-3, 201-pound receiver has the tools to make a push for reps early.

SEC's lunch links

February, 6, 2014
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The dust has finally settled on signing day. It was another year in which the SEC dominated the class rankings, and the league is hoping that will translate to championships. Read more about the future in Thursday’s lunch links.

Early Offer: Wooing Dupre 

January, 20, 2014
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Monday's offerings: The nation’s No. 1 receiver visited LSU over the weekend, but it’s just the first part of his tour throughout the Southeast this week; Derrick Griffin is back in Texas after a short stint at a prep school, and it will help him get back on the recruiting map; and Nebraska’s loss is Kansas State’s gain.

SEC's lunch links

December, 31, 2013
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The SEC bowl season kicked off Monday with a win by Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The league will now play five bowl games over the next two days so get caught up with the latest news and notes in the last lunch links of 2013.

Who has most to prove in SEC bowls?

December, 23, 2013
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In a week, the bowl season for the SEC will kick off when Ole Miss takes on Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.

It's the first of 10 postseason games involving SEC teams, culminating with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Who in the SEC has the most to prove this season in the bowl games? We’re talking head coaches, assistant coaches, players, teams and particular units on teams.

Here's a look:

Alabama: It's been a while since Alabama has played in a BCS bowl game when there wasn't a national championship at stake. Not that Alabama fans need to be reminded, but it was the 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl following a tough loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide looked uninspired from the start and were throttled 31-17 by Utah. This year, Oklahoma awaits in the Sugar Bowl, and that bitter loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl won't seem quite so bitter if the Crimson Tide can take care of business in the Big Easy.

Ole Miss' offense: The Rebels managed just one offensive touchdown in their last two games -- both losses -- after putting up big numbers all season long. They were in the red zone three times against Missouri and came away with a grand total of three points, and twice they were at the goal line. They get a chance against Georgia Tech to show what they genuinely are offensively, and you know quarterback Bo Wallace can't wait to get back onto the field after losing that fumble in overtime against Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel will likely end his college career against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Auburn's secondary: Talk about a tall order. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in pass defense this season, allowing an average of 260.2 yards per game. Now, they have to go up against Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin and a Florida State attack that has generated 40 touchdown passes.

Johnny Manziel: Johnny Football's last collegiate stand will come in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. He gets a chance to go out with a flourish after a pair of un-Johnny Football-like performances in his last two regular-season games.

Mike Davis: South Carolina's sophomore running back was one of the SEC's breakout stars with 1,134 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. But he was slowed by bruised ribs during the final few weeks of the season. He missed the Coastal Carolina game and was held to 76 rushing yards in the two games against Florida and Clemson. Davis should be back to full strength against Wisconsin and will be looking to upstage the Badgers' one-two rushing punch of Melvin Gordon and James White.

Les Miles: The Mad Hatter has had a lot of success at LSU, but the Tigers' last two postseason experiences haven't been particularly memorable. They collapsed against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season and were shut out against Alabama in the BCS National Championship two years ago. Nobody on the Bayou wants to see that bowl drought extend to three consecutive years.

Vanderbilt's fans: James Franklin has brought unprecedented success to Vanderbilt's program in the last two years, but the Commodores haven't necessarily been a commodity in the eyes of the bowls. The only way that's going to change is for the Commodores to keep winning and for their fans to turn out in force in Birmingham, Ala.

Missouri's defense: When last seen, Missouri was being shredded by Auburn to the tune of 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 SEC championship game loss. The hard part for the Tigers was that they had been stout defensively all season and went into that game allowing just 119 rushing yards per game. They get a chance for redemption in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against an Oklahoma State team that scored 38 or more points in five of its last six games.

Anthony Jennings and Hutson Mason: Fans are always wanting to know what the future looks like. Because of injuries to Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray, we'll get to see the future at quarterback at both LSU and Georgia in their respective bowl games. LSU's Jennings and Georgia's Mason have already shown that they have plenty of game, but the lights will be a little brighter in the postseason.

SEC's lunch links

December, 12, 2013
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We're a couple of weeks from an SEC team playing in an actual game, but there is still plenty to discuss. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league.

• Auburn's assistant coaches should join head coach Gus Malzahn in receiving raises in the near future. A USA Today salary database shows that Auburn's coaching salary pool is already the fifth biggest in the country.

• Speaking of that USA Today salary database, take a look. LSU and Alabama both rank ahead of Auburn on the list and eight of the top 12 are from the SEC.

• Former President George W. Bush sent a letter of support to Alabama kicker Cade Foster, whose missed kicks helped Auburn stay in the game and eventually upset the Crimson Tide.

• Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was announced as a regional coach of the year on Wednesday by the American Football Coaches Association.

• South Carolina is trying to strike the right balance in its bowl prep.

• The Advocate's Scott Rabalais writes that LSU's matchup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl is sexier than it's getting credit for.

• Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel thinks he's ready for the NFL, but says he hasn't made a decision yet about whether to enter the draft.

• Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell was named the conference's top freshman on Wednesday and will almost certainly make the SEC's All-Freshman team, which will be announced today.

• Ten SEC players were named to USA Today's All-America teams on Wednesday.

• Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell's season ended the way it started: with an injury.

• LSU coach Les Miles plans to watch his son (and some other prospects) at today's state championship games at the Louisiana Superdome.

• It has been a monster year for new Georgia recruiting prospect Nate Brown.

• Florida should have enviable backfield depth in 2014.

• Kentucky's big recruiting weekend is missing one who got away.

Sizing up the SEC resumes

December, 10, 2013
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Now that we’ve had a look at the final BCS standings for the 2013 season, it’s always worth going back and seeing who truly owns the strongest resume.

Records against ranked opponents at the time of the game provide some insight, but a better gauge is how a team fared against the top 25 in the final BCS standings, which takes into account the two human polls and the computer rankings.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn and Tre Mason went 4-1 against BCS top-25 foes, best in the SEC.
In the SEC, Auburn (4-1) had the best record this season against top-25 teams in the final BCS standings. South Carolina (3-1) was second.

In fact, the Gamecocks were the only team in the country this season with wins over three teams ranked in the top 15 of the final BCS standings.

Of the 10 teams playing in BCS bowls this season, counting the VIZIO BCS National Championship, four failed to record wins over top-15 teams in the final BCS standings: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and UCF.

In the last three seasons, LSU’s 10 victories over teams that finished in the top 25 of the final BCS standings are the most nationally. Alabama, South Carolina and Stanford each have nine wins over the last three seasons.

How does that compare to some other teams nationally during that same three-year span?

Notre Dame has seven wins, which is more than Oklahoma State (six), Clemson, Oregon and Wisconsin (five each), Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma (four each) and Texas (two).

Turning back to the SEC, if you extend it out over the last five seasons, Alabama (16-6) has the best record. LSU (14-11) is right behind the Crimson Tide.

They’re the only two SEC teams over the last five seasons with winning records against teams that finished in the top 25 of the final BCS standings.

Les Miles, during his career at LSU, is 27-18 against top-25 teams in the final BCS standings. Alabama’s Nick Saban is 19-10.

Here’s a look at how all 14 teams in the SEC have fared in the last five seasons against top 25 teams in the final BCS standings:

  • Alabama: 16-6 (.727)
  • LSU: 14-11 (.560)
  • Auburn: 13-13 (.500)
  • South Carolina: 10-10 (.500)
  • Arkansas: 7-17 (.292)
  • Missouri: 5-14 (.263)
  • Georgia: 6-17 (.261)
  • Florida: 6-18 (.250)
  • Texas A&M: 5-17 (.227)
  • Ole Miss: 3-20 (.130)
  • Vanderbilt: 1-15 (.063)
  • Kentucky: 1-16 (.059)
  • Tennessee: 1-21 (.045)
  • Mississippi State 0-24 (.000)

Aggies need work, time to excel in SEC

November, 25, 2013
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Many parts of Texas A&M's first two seasons in its new conference home, the SEC, have been dreamlike.

It has included top-10 rankings, a Heisman Trophy, historic wins, huge crowds, big television ratings and, at times, the eyes of the college football world.

But on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., the Aggies were dealt a dose of cold, harsh reality during a 34-10 loss to LSU in what were, well, cold and harsh conditions. Life in the SEC is tough. For everyone.

Texas A&M's success in the nation's premier conference came much more quickly than people outside College Station anticipated and even faster than some wearing maroon-colored glasses could have pictured. Coming off a 7-6 season in its final Big 12 Conference campaign, it was widely thought the Aggies would, as Kevin Sumlin has said before, "get their brains kicked in."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin has fashioned winning records in Texas A&M's first two seasons in the SEC, but will he stick around for the long haul?
That didn't happen. The Aggies went 11-2 in their first season in the league, beat No. 1 Alabama and took home sports' most prestigious individual award, the Heisman Trophy, which went to quarterback Johnny Manziel.

And even though there remained a window of hope this season for attaining a berth to a BCS bowl for the first time since 1998 and potentially a second Heisman for Manziel, LSU ended those hopes emphatically on Saturday.

It helped illustrate two points: (1) The Aggies still have a ways to go to reach the level of the league's very best programs, and (2) once you get to the top, it's hard to stay there.

Take LSU as an example. The Tigers have been consistently among the SEC elite for the last decade-plus. They've won four SEC championships since the turn of the century (2001, 2003, 2007, 2011) and two BCS national championships (2003 and 2007). But the Tigers currently have the same 2013 record as the Aggies (8-3), the team they just beat.

Two weeks prior to Saturday, LSU was beaten and battered at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. The second half of the Crimson Tide's 38-17 win, and in particular the fourth quarter, was intriguing to watch as the Tide asserted its will on both sides of the football.

That was done to a program that's 92-24 in the Les Miles era.

Florida (4-7), is by all accounts, a mess right now. Florida was in the Sugar Bowl last season and was ranked No. 3 before taking a beating from Louisville. It's also a program with two BCS national titles in the last decade (2006 and 2008).

Building a program that succeeds at the level of Alabama and LSU takes time. It takes talent and years of strong recruiting classes. It takes stability in the coaching staff.

Early in their SEC membership, the Aggies are taking steps in that direction. The work on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, to turn it into a 102,500-seat palace, is under way and scheduled for completion in time for the 2015 season. The Aggies had the country's eighth-ranked recruiting class in the 2013 cycle, and they currently have the sixth-ranked class in 2014.

After a strong debut season in Aggieland, Texas A&M took care of head coach Kevin Sumlin with a raise to take his annually salary to $3.1 million, so that commitment is in place. Whether Sumlin, whose name is thrown around for other jobs almost annually, chooses to stay or make another move is another matter, but if he chooses to remain at A&M the potential for a power program under his watch appears to be there.

As for the current squad, Saturday's result and the Aggies' losses to Alabama and Auburn earlier this season have made a few things evident. The depth and experience needed on defense for consistent SEC success is not present yet. The Aggies are recruiting heavily on the defensive line, but it will take time for those players to be ready to contribute. The way Alabama, Auburn and LSU were able to run the ball (not to mention several other teams) when they had to shows the need for growth there.

The offense, while usually productive in its first two SEC seasons and even in the losses to the Tide and Auburn, can still improve. Even with a one-of-a-kind player like Manziel, who can mask deficiencies with his playmaking ability, the Aggies weren't able to fool LSU, a team with speed at all three levels on defense and a well-respected defensive coordinator, John Chavis. And Manziel likely won't be around next year, so the Aggies will have to progress with another quarterback, whether it's one of the current backups, Matt Joeckel or Kenny Hill, or incoming ESPN 300 recruit Kyle Allen.

It's not a given that all of those things will work out. Fortunes can change fast in this league, as Auburn and Florida have shown us this year. But regardless of how the Aggies end this season, they've had two winning campaigns to start their membership in the SEC. Dreams of BCS bowls, SEC championships and national championships apparently have to wait. In this league, it takes time.

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