NCF Nation: Alabama Crimson Tide

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
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There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."
With the College Football Playoff finally here, we will be meticulously dissecting every game with any team anyone thinks could find itself in this year's final four.

People have voiced their concern about a playoff taking away the importance of every game. You guys can be scared, but I'm not. Games will still be big, and will affect the playoff. All that's happening now is that some early games might not end the season for some teams.

Oh, what a crime!

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and his Tigers face five key games this season that could alter their playoff hopes.
And honestly, we've seen teams lose in the middle of the season and still make it to the BCS national title game (I see you Alabama), so I think this is getting blown way out of proportion.

SEC teams vying for a playoff spot -- or two -- could likely get away with one loss, but you can never be too careful with the human element. Winning is still the goal.

There are going to be quite a few games that impact the playoff this season. Here are the top 10 games involving SEC teams that will affect the playoff (in order of appearance):

1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30: If Wisconsin is going to push itself past Big Ten favorites Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers need to start off fast with a win against LSU. The Tigers have questions on both sides of the ball, but people will be salivating over seeing the matchup between Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and LSU's incredibly athletic front seven. These are the games LSU coach Les Miles thrives in, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated.

2. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: A lot of people think the winner of this game will head back to Atlanta. The winner will also have a clearer path to the playoff and could serve as an early elimination game. Last season, we saw 71 points, 990 yards and just one turnover in the Bulldogs' thrilling win in Athens. This time, the game is in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have won two straight against the Dawgs.

3. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4: Even though Auburn lost this game last season, it changed the dynamic of the team's season. The fight and comeback they had in the second half injected an incredible amount of confidence into an Auburn team that ran all the way to the final BCS title game. Could this game have the same affect for either squad in 2014? With the upcoming schedules both of these teams have, a loss here could throw off their playoff plans.

4. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4: A lot of folks already have this game circled as the conference's first big upset of the season. And why not? Alabama might be the SEC favorite, but it's far from perfect and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback against an Ole Miss defense that has a fierce two-deep. A win for Ole Miss, which has its highest expectations in years, would propel the Rebels into the thick of playoff talk.

5. South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25: Another game involving the defending SEC champs, and this one will be very important for both teams. Each should be right at or near the top of their respective divisions just before the final month of the season, meaning this game is important for both the playoff and the SEC. Expect a lot of points with two teams that averaged more than 30 points a game last season and have some defensive unknowns. You want to enter November controlling your own destiny.

6. Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1: If both of are undefeated when the Tigers arrive in the Grove, this game will have major playoff implications. Even if they aren't, the SEC Western Division will still be on the line, and we all know the eventual SEC champion will be an almost lock to make it in the playoff. The playoff picture will be much clearer when these two meet, and as the season ticks down, you want to control your own destiny.

7. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: Of course this game will affect the playoff. It's Alabama-LSU! Ever since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, this game has been decided by less than 10 points six times. However, Alabama has won the past two by 21 points. Both of these teams will know a whole lot more about each other at this point in the season, and while Alabama could be at the top of the polls, LSU's young talent could become dangerous.

8. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 15: If South Carolina is going to make the playoff, the Gamecocks will need to win this game. We can't quite put our finger on Florida, but a loss to a bad Florida team isn't getting you any playoff love. But what if Florida is a contender in the East? Well, the division could be on the line, and it's going to be very hard for any team not playing in its conference title game to make the playoff.

9. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 15: We all know how last season's game ended. One bat down, and Auburn's Cinderella story is short-lived. You know the Dawgs have this game circled on their calendar. It's another game that could have SEC title implications, and of course that means it will affect the playoff with the season winding down. A loss for Auburn would likely end its playoff chances, while a win for a Georgia team in the East hunt would do wonders.

10. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The Iron Bowl changed the landscape of the BCS title game last season and we have no reason to believe it won't have an impact on this year's College Football Playoff. Remember the “Kick Six?” Well, you better believe Alabama does. The Crimson Tide gets its archrival at home this year and Saban is 8-1 at Alabama in revenge games. The loser of this game will be without bragging rights and a playoff spot.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
Derrick HenryAP Photo/AL.com, Vasha HuntDerrick Henry hopes to pick up where he left off at the end of last season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His dreadlocks were a little longer. They were brighter, too, turned yellow at the tail end of each strand, presumably by bleach. But beyond that, there wasn’t much different about Derrick Henry when he met with the media on Thursday night at Alabama.

If anything, he sounded more tired than usual.

“It was a good offseason,” the weary sophomore said. “Feel like I worked hard, progressed as a player, got in better condition just so I’d be ready for fall camp.”

Standing before him, you’d think he wasn’t the talk of college football. Henry’s 161-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was a revelation. It was the former five-star prospect’s “this is me” moment after doing relatively little during the regular season. He went from under the radar to a Heisman Trophy contender in the span of one night in New Orleans, running over and around would-be tacklers.

But if you were looking for Henry to feel as if he’d arrived, you were left wanting. He may be one of the biggest running backs in all of college football at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, but his ego on Thursday seemed nonexistent. He said all the right things -- “We’re excited for fall camp.” “We’re all working hard.” “I just make sure I’m on my P's and Q's.” -- and deferred to his teammates at all the right times.

Was he even aware of the hype surrounding him?

“I definitely tune it out. You’ve got to stay humble," he said.

Is there anything he wants to improve on?

“Everything," he said. "I just want to become a complete back.”

How about your 40-yard dash? Have you timed yourself?

“No, no, no.”

Maybe he didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire. Expectations are enormous as it is. People think he’s fast for his size already. Giving them an actual measurement would only prompt further discussion.

What's been lost in the Henry Hype Machine -- and what Henry himself seems to realize -- is that he hasn’t really done all that much up to this point. The starter ahead of him, T.J. Yeldon, has more than 2,000 career rushing yards. Kenyan Drake, who many assume will be the third back behind Yeldon and Henry, had 694 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Henry’s actual numbers as a freshman: 36 carries, 382 rushing yards, three touchdowns. He had one reception, which came against Oklahoma.

"I’d say I have a lot to prove," he said. "I don’t see I’ve done anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived or anything like that."

If Henry was willing to concede anything, it was that he feels more comfortable in the offense now. He was never asked to block or pass protect in high school, where he set the national record for career rushing yards. Now, he said, “I feel like I can catch the ball pretty well,” which is something new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is asking of all the running backs.

“I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," he said. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play.”

Last season he was nervous. He wasn’t relaxed enough and “letting it all come to me,” he said. Now he knows what he’s doing. Now he said he’s “playing fast.”

That should be a scary thought for the SEC. We all saw what Henry playing fast looked like against Oklahoma. If he can replicate that, he and Yeldon and Drake could form one of the best backfields in the country.

Just don’t expect any kind of riff there. Sharing carries won't be an issue, Henry said.

“Coach will make a decision on how he wants to play. Like I said, whenever I’m in, I’m going to go in there and execute a play, play fast, know what I’m saying?”

We do. But good luck telling that to the people who gave you 20/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Good luck telling that to the people saying you should start ahead of Yeldon and Drake. They see a completely different Derrick Henry than a season ago.
More than ever, the Power Five conferences are jockeying for the pole position as we get set for the first season of the College Football Playoff.

Each conference has its own pitch as to why it's the best conference in the country or has the toughest path to the title. Consider it an early dose of lobbying to the selection committee.

Do the math and at least one of the five conferences is going to be left out. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach has broken down each of the five leagues and done his best to separate the facts from the propaganda, the latter a word Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops used heading into last season to describe the SEC's so-called dominance from top to bottom.

Stoops took some heat from SEC diehards, but ended up getting last laugh: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31.

As Schlabach points out in his piece, the SEC obviously won more national titles than anybody during the BCS era, including seven straight before having that streak snapped by Florida State last season, but it wasn't like the SEC was ripping everybody else to shreds. From the start of the BCS era in 1998 to its end in 2013, SEC teams went .500 against Pac-12 teams during the regular season (13-13), were only slightly better than the Big Ten in bowl games (23-21) and had a losing record against Big 12 teams during the regular season (8-12).

I've long contended that the grind of the SEC is what makes the league so difficult, and it's a grind I think will once again ensure that everybody finishes with at least one conference loss this season. Still, there's no denying that Tennessee's struggles the last several years and Florida losing 21 games over the last four seasons has watered down the East. But, then, look at what South Carolina and Vanderbilt have done the last three seasons, and Missouri went to the SEC championship game in just its second year in the league.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue with Schlabach's assessment, that the SEC's best teams might be great every season, but its overall record against the other Power Five conferences suggests it might not be as dominant as we believed.

Can't wait to see how all this "propaganda" plays out in the playoff era.
Now that we've checked out the quarterbacks I think could reach 3,000 passing yards and the guys who could hit 1,000 yards rushing, it's time to see what this season's crop of receivers is all about.

Who can reach the 1,000-yard club?

Last season, four receivers made it to the 1,000-yard club -- Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (1,477 yards), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (1,394 yards) and LSU's Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,152 yards). All four of those guys are gone. Actually, the SEC lost eight of its top 10 receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsLaquon Treadwell scored five receiving touchdowns in his freshman season at Ole Miss.
There are still some talented pass-catchers lurking in the league, so I'm going to go with three 1,000-yard receivers. Here are the guys I think have the best chance of getting to that number (in order):

1. Amari Cooper, Alabama: One of the nation's best receivers, Cooper wasn't at his best and wasn't 100 percent healthy last season, but he still managed 736 receiving yards. He's playing at a faster level now and is tougher, which means he'll have no trouble crossing the 1,000-yard mark this fall.

2. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: He learned a ton from Donte Moncrief and still caught more passes than him in 2013. Treadwell is a physical specimen and is already the most athletic person when he steps out on the field. As the No. 1 guy in Oxford, he'll easily surpass the 608 yards he had last season.

3. Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: He was so close to 1,000 yards and probably would have made it into triple digits if he didn't have to work with multiple quarterbacks all season. Lewis is still developing his game, but he's the perfect playmaker for Mississippi State's spread offense.

4. Sammie Coates, Auburn: Talk about coming out of nowhere. Coates was a real unknown before last season and somehow wound up with 902 yards. He's a deep threat and someone who isn't afraid to make plays over the middle. Getting pushed more by other players might cut into his numbers, though.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia: If Mitchell is healthy, he's one of the most athletic and talented receivers that this league has to offer. A knee injury cost him just about all of his 2013 season, and he's already have complications with his knee this fall. But if he's out there and ready to go, he'll be fun to watch.

6. Marquez North, Tennessee: In a struggling passing game, North finished the 2013 season with 496 yards. He's so much better than that, and he's playing like it this fall. He's added some needed weight and is understanding his role more and running his routes better.

7. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Another player who basically saw the 2013 season from the sideline, don't sleep on Seals-Jones. He was one of the nation's best recruits a couple of years ago and when he's at full speed, Seals-Jones can really fly. He'll make tons of plays inside and out.

8. D'haquille Williams, Auburn: The junior college transfer could be really special. He has all the talent to make a ton of plays in such a wide open offense. Williams will push Coates all season for the role as the Tigers' No. 1 target.

9. Shaq Roland, South Carolina: Dealing with the hype that came with him out of high school hasn't been easy, but the thought out of Columbia is that this could be a big season for Roland. He can stretch the field and is great in space.

SEC 1,000-yard rushers for 2014

August, 12, 2014
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On Monday, we checked out the SEC quarterbacks who could hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2014. After so many good quarterbacks left the league after the 2013 season, I went with four making it to 3,000.

Next up, we're looking at the folks who like running the ball. This is where the SEC could really strike gold this fall. There are a plethora of talented running backs returning in 2014 who could really wear down some of those stout defensive fronts around the league.

Last year, eight players (including a quarterback) rushed for at least 1,000 yards:
The league lost four of those players, but it shouldn't have a problem replacing them. As for how many players will hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, I'm going with nine:

1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: Even with the nagging injuries he's dealt with in his past, Gurley enters the 2014 as arguably the nation's best running back. After sitting out a month last season, Gurley still rushed for 989 yards and 6 yards per carry. He has that rare combination of size, strength and explosion.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon will once again be a key cog in Alabama's offense this fall.
 2. Yeldon: He's the only back in Alabama history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two years on campus. There are a lot of offensive weapons for Alabama to work with this fall, but Yeldon's breakaway speed and grinding ability make him a back to be reckoned with.

3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Yeldon might be the starter, but Henry will get plenty of carries this fall. Alabama is no stranger to having multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and with a new quarterback coming in, expect Nick Saban to give his backs the ball as much as possible. This freak, tank-like athlete should blow past last year's 382 yards.

4. Davis: He's one of the toughest, most explosive backs around. Somehow, Davis' legs never seem to stop moving when he gets going. He finished with 1,183 yards and had seven games in which he rushed for more 100 yards or more in 2013.

5. Tra Carson, Texas A&M: He only rushed for 329 yards last year, but now that he's the lead back for the Aggies, he'll be asked to do more than just be a short-yardage guy. Carson has home-run speed, a ton of strength and is tough to bring down in space.

6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: You might not have noticed the fact that he barely missed the 1,000-yard mark last year by 100 yards because of Arkansas' forgettable season, but Williams is the real deal. He's strong, fast and tough. Arkansas will use more than one back, but that won't stop Williams from reaching 1,000 yards.

7. Leonard Fournette, LSU: The freshman version of Michael Jordan, Fournette will have every opportunity to hit 1,000 yards. He wasn't the nation's No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class for nothing. Fournette has everything you'd want in a feature back, and he'll immediately make an impact for the Tigers.

8. Collins: He'll continue to battle Williams for carries this fall, but that won't be a problem. He dropped off a little after a fast start last season, but he still became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004.

9. Marshall: Yes, he's working to throw more and become more confident in the passing game, but Marshall knows that his legs are his bread and butter. As long as Gus Malzahn is running the zone-read, Marshall will continue to pile up rushing yards.

10. Cameron Artis-Payne/Corey Grant, Auburn: The Tigers aren't afraid to use multiple backs. Both of these guys ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last fall behind Tre Mason. One of these guys could be the lead back, or they'll work together. Either way, Auburn will be deadly on the ground.

11. Kelvin Taylor, Florida: The sophomore is faster, leaner and more agile this year after rushing for 508 yards last fall. He's still a handful to bring down and the hope in Gainesville is that Kurt Roper's offense opens up the running game even more.

12. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: He's an incredibly explosive back, who could be primed for a breakout season this fall. With his strength and speed, he should have no problem surpassing the 685 yards he had last year.

13. Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: A wrecking ball in a smaller package, Robinson is finally taking over as the Bulldogs' lead back. Behind LaDarius Perkins last fall, Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.

14. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards last season, but his coaches would like him to throw the ball a little bit more this fall. You just can't take the runner out of the player, so Prescott could still push for 1,000 yards.

What you need to know about CFB's Top 16

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
8:30
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videoHave you watched the video headlining this post? If not, check it out. Because if you weren't ready for college football already, you will be then.

But who are we kidding? Of course you're ready for college football. After seven grueling offseason months, actual games are almost here.

So with just 16 days left until Texas A&M and South Carolina kick things off on the SEC Network, @ESPNStatsInfo has compiled a few things you should know about each of the top 16 teams in ESPN's preseason Power Rankings.

Florida StateESPN Illustration
1. Florida State Seminoles

  • Florida State will almost assuredly be No. 1 when the AP preseason poll is released Sunday. FSU has been ranked preseason No. 1 five times in school history. The last time? The Seminoles won the national championship in 1999.
  • Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston threw 40 touchdown passes last season, most by any freshman in FBS history.
  • The Noles outscored their opponents by 39.5 points per game last season, the best differential for any FBS team since Houston bested opponents by 39.9 in 1989.
AlabamaESPN Illustration
2. Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Since the bowl era began in 1936, Alabama has won 10 national titles, most of any FBS team.
  • The Crimson Tide have been in the preseason top 5 each of the last five years, tying the longest streak in school history (1978-1982). Expect that record to be broken when the AP poll is released this weekend.
  • The Crimson Tide continues to dominate in recruiting, Alabama signed five of the ESPN Recruiting Nation's 15 five-star recruits in the 2014 class, most by any FBS school.
OklahomaESPN Illustration
3. Oklahoma Sooners

  • Oklahoma has gone 14 seasons without losing consecutive regular-season games.
  • Since Bob Stoops took over as head coach in 1999, OU has never gone longer than two years without winning a Big 12 championship. Baylor is the league's defending champ.
  • The Sooners have been ranked in the AP preseason top 10 in 13 of the last 14 seasons -- and are expected to be once again this season.
OregonESPN Illustration
4. Oregon Ducks

  • Oregon joins Alabama, Nebraska and LSU as the only teams to win at least nine games in each of the past five seasons.
  • Ducks' quarterback Marcus Mariota led FBS with an 89.5 Total QBR in 2013. His 88.7 career-QBR is the best of any QB since 2005
  • Mariota has thrown a touchdown in 26 consecutive games. Only Marshall’s Rakeem Cato has a longer active streak (32).
AuburnESPN Illustration
5. Auburn Tigers

  • Auburn, which finished 12-2 in 2013, has won 10-plus games in back-to-back seasons just once in school history (1988-1989).
  • If the Tigers begin the season in the AP top 5, it'll mark the first time that's happened since 2006.
  • No quarterback finished the season hotter than Nick Marshall, whose 88.3 total QBR in the final eight games was the best in FBS during that span.
Ohio StateESPN Illustration
6. Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Quarterback Braxton Miller is 11 wins away from passing Art Schlichter as the winningest quarterback in Buckeyes’ history.
  • The last eight times Ohio State has been ranked in the preseason top 6, the Buckeyes have finished the season somewhere inside the top 12.
  • OSU gained at least five yards on 55 percent of its carries last season, the highest percentage in the nation.
Michigan StateESPN Illustration
7. Michigan State Spartans

  • Last season, Michigan State’s defense allowed opponents to complete a mere 23.4 percent of their passes of 15-plus yards, best in the nation.
  • Running back Jeremy Langford has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of his last nine games, and averaged 61 rushing yards after contact last season.
  • In the last 14 times the Spartans have been ranked in the preseason, they’ve finished the year unranked 12 times.
UCLAESPN Illustration
8. UCLA Bruins

  • In 2013, Myles Jack became the first player in Pac-12 history to win Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.
  • Quarterback Brett Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his passes in 2013, the highest percentage of any returning quarterback in the Big 5 conferences.
  • On the flip side, Hundley has been sacked 87 times the last two seasons, 17 more than any other FBS player.
South CarolinaESPN Illustration
9. South Carolina Gamecocks

  • The Gamecocks have started and finished in the AP top 12 in each of the last three years.
  • South Carolina lost Jadeveon Clowney to the NFL, but the Gamecocks had a better defensive rating in the three years prior to Clowney than they had in three years with him.
  • South Carolina finished last season ranked fourth in the AP poll, its best ranking in school history.
StanfordESPN Illustration
10. Stanford Cardinal

  • Stanford will appear in the preseason rankings for the fourth straight year, tying the best streak in school history (1969-1972).
  • Quarterback Kevin Hogan has posted an .842 win percentage as Stanford’s starting quarterback, including a 10-1 mark against AP top-25 opponents.
  • The Cardinal has finished in the Top 11 in each of the last four seasons.
BaylorESPN Illustration
11. Baylor Bears

  • Baylor averaged 52.4 points per game last season, third-most in modern college football history.
  • In 2013, the Bears' offense scored 60 touchdowns in drives lasting less than two minutes -- nine more than any team has over the last 10 seasons.
  • Baylor hasn’t been ranked in the AP preseason poll since 1986. That will change come Sunday.
GeorgiaESPN Illustration
12. Georgia Bulldogs

  • This will be the 12th straight year Georgia is ranked in the AP preseason poll (2002 was the last time the Bulldogs were unranked heading into the season).
  • Todd Gurley set a UGA freshman running back record with 17 rushing touchdowns in 2012 and followed it up with 10 more touchdowns in 2013.
  • Georgia was one of six teams last season to pass for at least 4,000 yards and rush for at least 2,000. Those six teams averaged 10.5 wins. UGA won eight.
LSUESPN Illustration
13. LSU Tigers

  • LSU has had 18 players drafted by the NFL in the last two seasons, including a nation-high nine in 2014.
  • The Tigers have been ranked in the AP preseason poll in each of the last 12 years and are a virtual lock for No. 13.
  • LSU signed running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
USCESPN Illustration
14. USC Trojans

  • USC won four BCS bowls with Steve Sarkisian as an assistant coach. He returns this year as head coach.
  • In 2013, USC’s quarterbacks threw six interceptions in the first five games but finished the year strong, only throwing three picks in the last nine games.
  • The Trojans return Nelson Agholor, who is the nation’s second-leading punt returner and contributed 56 catches and 1,444 all-purpose yards last season.
Notre DameESPN Illustration
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

  • Notre Dame welcomes back quarterback Everett Golson, who has been gone for 19 months, but owns a perfect 11-0 regular season record with the Fighting Irish.
  • The Irish have 21 wins in the past two seasons, the most in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93 under Lou Holtz
  • Six of the last nine times Notre Dame has been ranked in the preseason, it has finished the season unranked.
ClemsonESPN Illustration
16. Clemson Tigers

  • Quarterback Cole Stoudt replaces Tajh Boyd, who won 32 games for the Tigers, tying him as the winningest quarterback in school history.
  • Clemson returns all four of its starting defensive linemen, who combined to record 28 sacks in 2013, fifth-most among Power Five conference teams.
  • In each of the last two years, Clemson has begun and finished the season ranked. Prior to 2012, the Tigers hadn’t been ranked to start the year since 2000.

Video: Alabama All-Access

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
4:52
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video
Go inside training camp at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide are trying to get back to the top of the college football world.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- University of Alabama defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson sprained his knee on Sunday and is “day to day,” according to coach Nick Saban.

“It’s not surgical,” Saban said. “It’s probably going to take a few days before we get him back out there, maybe a week or so.”

Robinson played in every game and started two contests as a true freshman last season, racking up 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound former four-star prospect was a first-team All-SEC selection by the media in July.

“We’re going to be pretty cautious with this kind of thing, especially with his position because it’s not easy to function as an inside player if you have a sprained knee,” Saban said.

On Thursday, Alabama welcomed defensive tackles Brandon Ivory and Jarran Reed back into the fold. The two were suspended at the start of camp for violation of team rules. Ivory, a senior who started every game last season, was seen practicing without pads on Thursday.

The good news for Alabama is that if there is any position where it can absorb personnel loss, it’s the defensive line. Jonathan Allen, Korren Kirven, Darren Lake and Dee Liner all saw the field last season, with Allen playing in all 13 games as a true freshman. Dalvin Tomlinson, who would have been Alabama’s third defensive end last season had he not had surgery on his knee, is back. Then there’s the 2014 class that includes five-star Da’Shawn Hand, former Freshman All-SEC selection D.J. Pettway and 330-pound rookie Joshua Frazier.

“We thought that the defensive line was an area where we had pretty good depth coming in with the guys we recruited,” Saban said. “But it’s provided an opportunity to create more reps for some of the younger players. Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway; those guys have gotten a ton of reps. It’s allowed Josh Frazier to get a ton of reps, who is just a freshman, as an inside player. Darren Lake, Korren Kirven, a lot of guys.

“We obviously need to get some of these bigger guys back so we can be a little more solid inside. But I think it’s always good that young players get a lot of reps.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- You don’t hire Lane Kiffin without igniting certain expectations. There’s his baggage, of course, but there’s also the enduring sense that the former USC and Tennessee head coach still has a trick up his sleeve, that somewhere beyond the headlines there’s the former coordinator who helped the Trojans to a 23-3 record and the most productive offense in college football from 2005-06.

Nick Saban remembered that Lane Kiffin when he offered him the job of Alabama’s next offensive coordinator. He remembered the Lane Kiffin who brought a depleted Tennessee Vols team into Tuscaloosa in 2009 and nearly beat the eventual national champions. He remembered the Lane Kiffin he tried to hire away from USC three years earlier.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin knows he doesn't need to overhaul Alabama's offense.
So what will this reincarnation of Lane Kiffin bring? The coordinator with a gift for coaxing the best out of his players or the head coach who was fired after three-and-a-half underwhelming years of guiding USC?

Everything is set up for him to succeed at Alabama. There’s the matter of finding two new starters on the offensive line and picking a quarterback, of course, but there’s also a wealth of talent across the board. Amari Cooper may be the best receiver in the country, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry could be the scariest duo of tailbacks in the SEC and tight end O.J. Howard has the potential to be an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators to game plan for.

Kiffin, for his part, seems to understand what he’s walked into. And rather than trying to rebuild his reputation by putting his stamp on Alabama, he’s doing the wise thing and trying not to do too much.

“As far as the offense, the last thing we'd want to do is come in and change a bunch of stuff,” he said. “As I mentioned before, it's a great offensive staff that's been together here. Had a great run here last year on offense, the number of players had great success last year. Really just coming in and looking at some things, very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games.”

That, in a nutshell, is Kiffin’s job description. He’s the caretaker of Alabama’s offense now.

Because, make no mistake, this is not his offense. It wasn’t Doug Nussmeier’s or Jim McElwain’s either. Saban is the architect of the run-oriented, pro-style attack Alabama won three national championships with. He may not call the plays himself, but, as Nussmeier put it when he was hired in 2012, “This is Alabama’s offense.”

Kiffin is instead tasked with making the most of it: more explosive plays, more of a vertical passing game, a more even and consistent run-pass balance. He must get the most out of Cooper, pull the right strings with a deep group of running backs and make Howard a more complete player.

“The last thing I want to do here is focus on what they do really well,” Kiffin explained. “That’s our challenge here this fall: Let’s focus on what you haven’t done so well and not what you’ve done. We know what you can do, let’s bring your game up.”

If Kiffin can do that -- if he can do that even a little bit -- Alabama will be in good shape. There’s plenty of talent in Tuscaloosa. There’s a proven system in place as well. Kiffin doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Saban did that for him. He simply needs to get the wheel to spin a little faster.

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
11:45
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

Center(s) of attention in the SEC

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
1:00
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There are always debates this time of year as we anticipate the start of another college football season.

Who’s the favorite to win the national championship?

Which is the strongest conference?

Who’s the Heisman Trophy front-runner?

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes was a finalist for the Rimington Award last season and is joined by 10 other SEC centers in this year's Rimington watch list.
What’s not up for debate, at least with regard to the SEC, is that the league has never been this talented or this deep at the center position entering a season.

Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.

Talk about being the center of attention.

And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.

If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.

“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.

“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”

Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.

They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.

“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”

Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.

Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.

“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”

Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.

“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.

Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.

But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.

Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.

Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.

“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”

They love their hair, too.

Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.

Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.

“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.

“It’s an honor to be among them.”

And even better to be front and center.
Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty ImagesKirby Smart knows his Alabama defense must improve against uptempo offenses.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin is beginning to understand. He referenced the word “process” -- Nick Saban’s beloved “process” -- twice during a 15-minute news conference on Sunday. And maybe more importantly, he seemed to understand the role of assistants under Saban, which is to be seen and not heard.

Kirby Smart has been familiar with “the process” for quite some time now. He practically grew up in it, cutting his teeth under Saban for the past nine seasons at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. In that time he has never ruffled feathers, never said much of anything to make headlines. Every year he has quietly gone about the business of molding one of the best defenses in college football.

This season, however, could be his most challenging.

Alabama lost its leader at middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley; three-quarters of the secondary is gone, including first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and veterans Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will be missed on the defensive line. With such little experience and the question of solving uptempo offenses still perplexing the Alabama brain trust, there’s a lot to watch for.

“In terms of the defense this year, really excited about the group that we’ve got to work with,” Smart said at the outset of media day Sunday. “They’re full of energy, a lot of young guys out there competing. Obviously we’ve got to show some improvement, especially after the last two games last year.”

Those last two games against Auburn and Oklahoma were the tipping point. There were holes to be found before then, but you had to look long and hard to find them. Auburn, however, put the Tide’s defensive blemishes under a microscope, pushing the pace and outflanking the defense to the tune of 296 yards rushing. And to prove that was no fluke, Oklahoma went uptempo and exploited the secondary for 429 yards through the air, handing Alabama back-to-back losses to end the season for the first time since 2008.

To spin that into a positive, Smart said there “seems to be a little bit of a chip-on-their-shoulder type attitude,” and despite being a young defense, he sees “more depth at a lot of positions we didn’t have last year.”

“That’s key in college football these days -- having depth, playing more players, keeping guys fresh,” he said.

It’s also key to defending uptempo offenses, where shuffling in fresh legs is vital to keep up with the pace of play. Alabama looked a step slow against Auburn in the fourth quarter, and it meant the end to a perfect season and a shot at a third straight national championship.

“It’s definitely challenging because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well.”

We won’t know whether Smart and Saban have the answers against uptempo offenses until we see how the season unfolds. But even this early into fall camp, we can glimpse where the strengths of Alabama’s defenses lie. And despite Saban’s best efforts to tamp down the hype machine this spring, it’s up front where 320-pound sophomore A’Shawn Robinson anchors the line.

“You’re sitting there with [Dalvin Tomlinson] back, [D.J. Pettway] back ... then this group of freshmen that just got here," Smart said, referencing a rookie class that includes Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith. "So if those guys grow and continue to get better, that can be the strength of the team.

“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year.”

Inside linebacker is one spot where Alabama could use more depth. Outside of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, there aren’t many true inside linebackers with experience on the roster. That means playing more rookies and cross-training outside linebackers to shift inside, Smart said.

But the real concern for Alabama isn’t the front seven. The back end of the defense is still a lingering question mark. Both starting corners must be replaced, and there’s no word yet on who will settle in at safety opposite Landon Collins.

Smart called it a “unique situation” at safety in that he lost two players to the draft, yet he has some experience returning in Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, his two “older statesmen.” Then there’s Geno Smith, who transitioned from corner to safety last season and is “just starting to feel comfortable there.”

“At corner, we’ve got some of the same guys back from last year,” Smart said. “We’ve also got some big, young, new guys. So it’s hard to tell right now. They’ve got good athletic ability, and we hope to be better at that position.”

Is Smart happy with his depth at corner?

“You talk about depth, you’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, making reference to Bradley Sylve starting against Kentucky and Cyrus Jones’ time in relief of the oft-injured Deion Belue. “I can’t say I’m happy or disappointed."

If Eddie Jackson can come back from injury, he could be a big boost. Despite tearing his ACL this spring, he has been able to participate in fall camp, albeit while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Then there’s Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, Alabama’s pair of five-star prospects from the 2014 class. Both are on campus and expected to contribute right away.

“As far as Tony, he’s done a great job so far; you know he enrolled mid-year,” Smart said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s very conscientious. He’s always up here watching football. He’s a little bit of a football junkie. That makes him a better player because he really competes.”

If you were looking for Smart to tip his hand and say Brown would start, you were left somewhat disappointed. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything Alabama’s veteran defensive coordinator would commit to, other than the usual enthusiasm about his group moving forward.

Smart's defense may be better this season. It may answer all those questions at linebacker and cornerback and safety, and return Alabama to its status as the best in college football. But it’s not for Smart to say. He just works the process and sees what happens.

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