NCF Nation: Auburn Tigers

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Who will the SEC’s next star be? It was the underlying theme at SEC media days as the coaches stole the spotlight, rather than the players, and there’s no doubt the conference lost some serious star power after last year, including one "Johnny Football." But to find the league’s next star, you must first ask yourself: What does it take to be a star?

Is it simply putting up big numbers in a conference loaded with talent? Do wins and losses matter? And how much does a player’s personality and charisma factor into his appeal?

If recent history is any indication, the latter plays a major role.

What do Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow have in common? They all won the Heisman Trophy, and they all had plenty of personality. Even Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, had a certain aura about him, a presence that captivated audiences nationwide.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/John BazemoreNick Marshall said winning games -- not the Heisman Trophy -- is his focus at Auburn.
The SEC’s next star doesn’t have that trait. He doesn’t have a money celebration or a Superman pose after he scores a touchdown. He’s not about to launch his Heisman campaign. He doesn’t even want to be in front of the camera. The only thing Auburn QB Nick Marshall wants to do is play football and win games.

“He’s not big on the spotlight,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He doesn't have to have the attention. He doesn't crave it, not that that's a bad thing, but he just likes to lay low, go about his business and do his thing. When it's game time, he likes to let it loose, let it rip and compete.”

It’s always been that way for Marshall. He didn’t grow up in the state of Texas or in a metropolis like Atlanta. As his high school coach, Mark Ledford, put it, “He grew up in a town [Pineview, Georgia] that’s got one caution light, and I’m not sure, really, it needs it.”

In high school, Marshall had a game where he threw six touchdowns to six different wide receivers, and he was happier for them than he was with what he did.

“That’s Nick,” Ledford said. “He’s never been one to reap all the glory.”

When Marshall arrived at Auburn last summer, he was a junior college quarterback with high expectations, but nobody knew anything about him other than his checkered past (in February 2012, he was dismissed by Georgia for violating team rules). In 2014, the expectations are even higher, yet Marshall himself is still a mystery.

“He’s not going to take the podium with a microphone stuck in his face and go try to be something that he’s not,” Ledford said. “What you’ve been getting with Nick, that’s about what you’re going to get.”

Auburn had planned to bring Marshall to media days, an opportunity to put their quarterback in the spotlight, but that fell through when he was pulled over just days before and given a citation for possession of marijuana.

An opportunity wasted. Instead of peeling layers back this offseason, more layers were added.

Now, as the 2014 season approaches, the usual suspects have already been mentioned for the Heisman Trophy -- names like Winston, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty. Some pundits have included Marshall’s name, but his odds are higher. He’s more of a dark horse candidate than a front-runner.

“It’s a matter of opinion,” Auburn assistant coach Dameyune Craig said. “You can look at what Jameis did last year as a [redshirt] freshman; he won a national championship. You can look at Nick Marshall and say this kid was a first-year starting quarterback that played defensive back and he took us to the national championship game in the toughest conference in the nation.

“So I don’t see why he wouldn’t be in that category, based on what he did and his production. He put up over 3,000 yards of total offense, accounted for a lot of touchdowns."

Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “You look at the people in the Heisman race, and they’re on winning teams. Nick just needs to lead us and keep winning. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.”

Marshall is not Newton, Tebow or Manziel. Marshall doesn’t embrace the spotlight as so many others before him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be the next star in the SEC. He might even be the next Heisman Trophy winner, but don’t ask him about it. That’s not his style.

“I'm not too worried about the Heisman,” Marshall told reporters earlier this month. “I'm trying to gain the trust of my teammates and my coaches, and then I'm just trying to go out there and win games.”
The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."
AUBURN, Ala. – The good news heading into the 2014 season was that Auburn returned four starters from an offensive line that served as the anchor for the top rushing team in college football a year ago. The Tigers averaged an impressive 328 yards per game on the ground.

The bad news, though, was that left tackle Greg Robinson, arguably the team’s best run blocker, was the one not returning. He left school early for the NFL.

Not to worry. Auburn had veterans Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller battling to replace Robinson this spring, and the potential drop-off seemed to be minimal. That was until head coach Gus Malzahn announced that All-SEC freshman guard Alex Kozan would miss the entire season with a back injury, an injury he suffered over the summer.

Now what? The offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team. All of a sudden, it was an area where coaches were moving bodies, scrambling to find the right combination, and there was little depth to work with.

Auburn isn't worried, and this is why.

The rock

Robinson might have been the strongest and most talented offensive lineman from last year. Kozan made a compelling case as the smartest. But nobody meant more to that line than its center, Reese Dismukes.

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes is the experienced anchor of the Auburn offensive line at center.
Every play began with the ball in his hands. Whether it was calling out signals, pushing back opposing defensive tackles or simply snapping the ball, Dismukes was the epitome of dependable. He’s started 37 games in the past three seasons, and he returns as the centerpiece, responsible for holding the line together.

“The continuity has really improved there,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told reporters Sunday. “And having your rock at center helps because he makes all the calls; he kind of makes things go. So having Reese there, I think, helped keep that glue there as well.”

There’s no question that Dismukes is smart – he rivals Kozan in that area – and he’s always been quick, but as he heads into his final season with the Tigers, position coach J.B. Grimes says he’s a different player physically. He’s as strong as he’s ever been.

So while there have been changes made up front, the rock is still there.

Mr. Versatility

Losing Robinson hurt, but Auburn had two capable players ready to step in at left tackle. But when it was discovered that Kozan would miss the entire season, there wasn’t a player or players waiting in line to take over, at least none with any real experience.

Fortunately, Auburn prepared for this scenario in the spring,well before Kozan ever got hurt. The staff moved Avery Young, its projected starter at right tackle, inside and gave him some reps at guard. At the time, it was meant as a precaution. Now, Young is slotted at guard with Coleman and Miller starting at the two tackle spots.

The biggest difference between tackle and guard?

“[Avery] is now about six inches away from a guy that has to choke himself to sleep every night,” Grimes said. “When you’re a tackle, you’re a little bit further away from that dude. There’s more banging down inside than there is outside. That’s just something you’ve got to get accustomed to, and he’ll be fine.”

Dismukes, who now plays next to Young, says the 6-foot-6, 315-pound junior already is starting to be a little more physical.

Though he still has work left to do, Young's versatility has allowed for Auburn to put its best five offensive linemen on the field at the same time.

The up-and-comer

The starting five is set. It’s an experienced unit that’s played together before. The problem isn’t with that group. The problem will be if one of those five were to miss any time. With Kozan already out, the Tigers can’t afford to lose another offensive lineman.

However, the coaches can sleep easier at night knowing that it’s only a matter of time before freshman Braden Smith, a.k.a. the Hulk, is ready to play.

“He’s ultra-talented,” Malzahn said. “He’s everything we thought when we recruited him. It’s just a matter of learning the offense and little details. But if you say, ‘Block the guy in front of you,’ he’s going to block the guy in front of him.

“He’s still learning, but he’s a very smart young man. There are a lot of similarities to when Greg Robinson was a freshman.”

Smith is currently penciled behind Coleman at left tackle, where he’s worked exclusively during fall camp, but he can pretty much play anywhere up front if needed.

He’s the next big thing for Auburn, though his number might be called earlier than expected.

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.
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.
video Alabama has a new offensive coordinator. Texas A&M has a new guy calling plays, too. So does Florida.

Georgia, on the other hand, has a new defensive coordinator at the helm. As does Arkansas, which has a new secondary coach and defensive line coach as well.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has an new staff from top to bottom.

Continuity is certainly not a strong point among SEC coaching staffs. Barring another last-minute transaction, 24 coaches will hold new positions in the conference this season. All but four SEC programs made it through the spring and summer unscathed.

Auburn, somehow, was one of those fortunate four that includes Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gus Malzahn retained his entire coaching staff from last year's SEC championship team.
It’s surprising when you consider the usual chain of events in college football, and it’s a simple formula: have success, win a bunch of games, watch as your coaching staff gets poached. Just look at Jeremy Pruitt. He won a third national championship at Alabama in 2012 and parlayed it into a job as defensive coordinator at Florida State. Then the Seminoles won the title in 2013 and he turned that into a move to Georgia.

The basic premise is this: You won something. You must be doing something different. Let’s hire you and see what exactly that is.

So how did Auburn keep offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee? As one of the architects of Gus Malzahn’s pedal-to-the-metal offense, there must have been other opportunities. But he stayed. And Dameyune Craig? The co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach has head coach written all over him. He’s worked under both Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, and is known as one of the best recruiters in the country. But he stayed, too.

“Our motto or theme last year was ‘Together,’ and that's how we did it,” Malzahn said at SEC media days. “Players, coaches, administrators -- we did it together.”

And somehow they stayed together. Now they’re reaping the rewards.

“We have our entire staff back for the second year, which I think is huge,” Malzahn said. “Same offense, same defense, same terminology.”

As defensive backs coach Melvin Smith put it: “Continuity is everything.”

“It really means a lot,” he said. “There’s nothing like being together.”

Rodney Garner, who was the longest-tenured coach at Georgia before joining Malzahn in Auburn last season, enjoys going to practice every day knowing what he’s going to get. In fact, he said that the staff might “know each other too well.” But knowing one another’s strengths and weaknesses is a good thing, he said.

When Garner puts his defensive linemen against J.B. Grimes’ offensive line, he knows they're going to make each other better.

“We’re joined at the hip,” Garner said. “For me to be good, I have to go against J.B. He has to help me sharpen my skills.

“Kids see that, ‘Hey, this staff is together. It’s a cohesive group.’ We’re on one accord.'"

That pays off in recruiting.

As Garner explained, selling recruits 4-5 years from now is all about showing stability.

“We want to build the program on a solid foundation that’s not going to be up and down,” he said. “Hopefully, people are going to see a steady climb.”

Grimes has seen all types of staffs in his 30 years coaching college football. Every coach at this level is good at what they do, he said. But, as he put it, “When you have a revolving door of assistant coaches ... it affects you in recruiting.”

“When you have continuity, you have that same coach walking in that high school knowing where the lunch lady is; he knows where the guidance counselor is,” he said. “There aren’t bad coaches in the SEC, but when you get that revolving door in recruiting, that’s when it has a negative impact.”

Today, Auburn is solidly in the top 10 of ESPN’s class rankings with 19 commitments, seven of whom rank among the top 300 recruits in the country.

“We know what each other wants,” Grimes said. “They know what I’m looking for in an offensive lineman. I know what Rodney Garner wants in his D-line, so I’m not going to waste his time bringing him a kid to show him that I know he’s not going to like. ... I’m not going to bring Melvin Smith a 5-foot-8 corner to look at. He doesn’t want that kind of guy. I know that.”

And knowing is sometimes half the battle.
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
Aug 12
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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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s never easy to replace the SEC’s leading rusher, but Auburn doesn’t have just one guy to replace Tre Mason. It has five.

“We have some really good cards,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “When you’re playing cards, it’s nice to have some good ones to play, and we’ve got some good players. Now it’s just our jobs to figure out how to use these cards we have.”

As expected, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack in the Tigers’ backfield hierarchy. The two have been around the longest and they know the offense, so when the time comes for Gus Malzahn to name a starter, expect one of the two seniors’ names to be called.

However, that doesn’t mean you can just write off the freshman trio. Regardless of whether or not they start, Peyton Barber, Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway are all capable of contributing right away.

“I think all three of them are talented,” Malzahn told reporters Saturday. “And that’s the main thing. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Are you talented enough to play?’ If they’re talented enough to play, then (come) all the little things. Who’s coachable? Who will protect that football? That’s what’s on my mind. Who’s going to protect the football, especially being young?

“Hopefully, we’ll give them enough chances during fall camp to show who can do that, who can execute our offense and who we can count on.”

Barber is a year ahead of the other two after redshirting last season. He turned heads this spring and was primed for a breakout performance at A-day, but a foot injury on his first carry forced him to miss the rest of the game. A missed opportunity, no doubt, but he’s back now and ready to compete.

Thomas arrived this summer, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s handled himself through the first week and a half of fall camp.

“He’s done well,” Horton said. “The thing that’s really been impressive is his knowledge of the game. He’s really a good learner and has made very few mental mistakes.

“We’ve put him in scrimmages and walked away. I think sometimes you can get up there and coach them every play, whisper every play, and we haven’t done that. We’ve thrown him in the fire, and he’s done really well with that.”

Of the three freshmen, Thomas was the most highly regarded coming out of high school. He was ranked No. 28 overall in the 2014 ESPN 300 and was named Mr. Football in the state of Alabama. When it came time to talk goals with Malzahn, the Auburn coach went as far as to say he wants to get Thomas a Heisman Trophy before he leaves Auburn.

“I’m just trying to learn a lot,” Thomas said in April. “I want to get in the system and be a dynamic playmaker.”

Pettway, the other incoming freshman, might not be as decorated as Thomas, but he’s impressed the coaching staff to this point and also has an opportunity to be in the mix.

As Horton alluded to earlier, it’s now time for the coaches to figure out how to best use this talented group of running backs. Who starts? Who plays? How do you get all five backs involved?

“It’s a great problem,” Horton said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, and unfortunately I’m old enough to have had this happen to me, is you have five guys that you think are really good and next thing you know, two of them are out for the season, one of them is out with a hamstring for two weeks and you’re down to two.

“You better have depth in this league because I do know this: Those guys are going to get hit.”

Auburn will likely name a starter in the coming weeks, but this backfield isn’t strong because of just one running back. It’s strong because of all five backs, freshmen included, and all five need to be ready in case the coaches decide to play their card.

What you need to know about CFB's Top 16

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
8:30
AM ET
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.

Center(s) of attention in the SEC

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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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.

Auburn Tigers season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
10:30
AM ET
video » More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Auburn Tigers:

2013 record: 12-2, lost to Florida State in the BCS National Championship

Final grade for 2013 season: What a season it was for Gus Malzahn. He takes over in December after Auburn finished 3-9 the year before and leads the Tigers to 12 wins and an SEC championship and comes a play or two away from winning the national championship. How about that for a debut? The only reason it’s not an A-plus is because of the loss to Florida State, but an A seems more than deserving.

Key losses: RB Tre Mason, HB Jay Prosch, OT Greg Robinson, DT Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, CB Chris Davis, S Ryan White

Key returnees: QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, C Reese Dismukes, OL Avery Young, DT Gabe Wright, LB Cassanova McKinzy, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesExpect Nick Marshall to be even better this season after dazzling in his first season as Auburn's starter in 2013.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Nick Marshall, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, WR Sammie Coates, WR Ricardo Louis, WR D'haquille Williams, TE C.J. Uzomah, LT Shon Coleman, LG Chad Slade, C Reese Dismukes, RG Avery Young, RT Patrick Miller, DE LaDarius Owens, DT Gabe Wright, DT Montravius Adams, DE Elijah Daniel, MLB Cassanova McKinzy, WLB Kris Frost, Star Robenson Therezie, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead, S Derrick Moncrief, CB Jonathan Jones

Instant-impact newcomers: RB Roc Thomas, WR D'haquille Williams, OL Braden Smith, DL DaVonte Lambert, LB Tre Williams, S Derrick Moncrief

Breakout player: If you can count on anything with Malzahn running the offense, count on him having a productive running back. He had Ben Tate when he was offensive coordinator on the Plains, and last season Mason led the SEC in rushing. Next up is Artis-Payne. The former junior college transfer hasn’t won the starting job yet, but he seems to have a leg up in the competition and showed flashes last season, rushing for 610 yards and six touchdowns. He’s a bruiser but has quick feet to complement his size.

Most important game: The easy answer is Alabama because, well, it’s the Iron Bowl. But a visit from LSU in early October could set the tone for the rest of the season. Auburn has beaten LSU only once in the past seven years, and though the Tigers still made the BCS title game after an early loss to LSU last season, this year’s team can’t afford the same result. The second half of the schedule is brutal, and it’s crucial that Auburn gets through the first half unscathed.

Biggest question mark: What’s life going to be without Alex Kozan and Carl Lawson? Kozan is expected to miss the entire season with a back injury, and Lawson could miss the majority of it recovering from ACL surgery. Both players had All-SEC potential, and their losses cannot be understated. Auburn has capable bodies to fill in on both the offensive and defensive lines, but the production will still take a hit. Can the offensive line block the way it did a year ago without one of its top interior linemen? Can the defensive line get pressure on the quarterback without its top pass rusher?

Upset special: A nonconference road trip to Manhattan, Kansas? On a Thursday night? That just screams upset. Auburn has an extra week to prepare for the game, but don’t sleep on Kansas State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches’ poll. They have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett and a solid quarterback in Jake Waters. This is a huge test early in the season for Auburn, and did I mention it’s on a Thursday night?

Key stat: If Jeremy Johnson starts against Arkansas, he will become the eighth different quarterback to start the season opener for Auburn in as many seasons. The last Auburn quarterback to start back-to-back season openers was Brandon Cox in 2006 and 2007.

They said it: “Last year, we snuck [up] on some people. This year, we’re going to be circled, and we told our players that. We’re going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. Really, that’s where you want your program to be. Last year at this time, we were just trying to get it back to that point, and we did that. Obviously, we’re disappointed we came up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, but we’re extremely motivated from a players’ standpoint and from a coaches’ standpoint moving forward.” -- Head coach Gus Malzahn, at SEC media days in July.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 9.2 wins

Bovada over/under: 9

Our take: Despite losing two first-round draft picks and the SEC’s leading rusher, this season's Auburn team might actually be more talented than last year’s squad. Marshall is back at quarterback, Malzahn said this might be the most talented group of wide receivers he’s ever had on the Plains, and the defense is deeper than it was a year ago. The problem is the schedule. The Tigers travel to both Georgia and Alabama, and there’s a four-game stretch beginning the last weekend in October that’s as rigorous as you’ll see in college football. Auburn would love to duplicate what it did last season, but don’t be surprised if the Tigers have two losses heading into the Iron Bowl. Nine wins seems about right for this team.
It's the Season, as in singular. There can be only one, which means along the way we had to make some some gargantuan choices.

This is what we set out to determine -- one great season by an individual that can be considered the best in the history of all 128 FBS schools. ESPN.com writers and editors, in consultation with sports information directors, settled on one player for each school.

As you would imagine in the SEC, there were some incredibly close calls. These are the top three, and we'd like your help to see if we got it right.


Auburn

Cam Newton, quarterback, 2010
SportsNation

Who had the best season in Auburn history?

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    46%
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    54%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,700)

Newton played just one season at Auburn, and boy, was it epic. He won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the BCS National Championship. His numbers were eye-popping: 4,369 yards of total offense, 51 touchdowns to lead the nation, 1,473 yards rushing to lead the SEC. It was, quite simply, one of the most dominant individual efforts in NCAA history.

Bo Jackson, running back, 1985
Twenty-five years before Newton, Jackson became a legend at Auburn with his intoxicating blend of speed, power and grace. He won the Heisman Trophy after running for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry, which at the time was the best in SEC history. Jackson was recently named the greatest athlete of all time by ESPN Sport Science.


Tennessee

SportsNation

Who had the best season in Tennessee history?

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    77%
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    23%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,177)

Peyton Manning, quarterback, 1997
Few question Manning's place as the greatest Vol of all time. Heck, they even renamed one of the roads leading to Neyland Stadium, changing it to "Peyton Manning Pass." He surprised many by returning to Tennessee for his senior year and delivered an SEC championship after a 10-1 season. He threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns, which earned him the runner-up spot to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in the Heisman Trophy voting. Manning was, however, a consensus first-team All-American and won plenty of hardware after his memorable final season at Tennessee, including the Maxwell Award, the Davey O'Brien Award and the Johnny Unitas Award.

Reggie White, defensive end, 1983
Before he became known as the "Minister of Defense," White was a relentless, dominating defensive end for the Volunteers. After a subpar junior year (by his standards), White was a force of nature in his final season wearing Tennessee orange. He set the school's single-season record with 15 sacks, and also had nine tackles-for-loss and an interception. White recorded 100 tackles, including 72 solo stops -- ridiculous numbers for a lineman. He was named the SEC Player of the Year, a Lombardi Award finalist and was a consensus All-American.


Ole Miss

SportsNation

Who had the best season in Ole Miss history?

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    40%
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    60%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,958)

Eli Manning, quarterback, 2003
Manning holds most of the Ole Miss passing records, but his senior season stands above the rest. He threw for a school-record 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns in leading the Rebels to a 10-3 record, a share of the SEC West crown and a Cotton Bowl victory. He was a first-team All-American and racked up several honors, including SEC Player of the Year, the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best all-around player, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

Archie Manning, quarterback, 1969
The patriarch of the first family of Southern football, Archie Manning is revered in his home state. He held several of the school records that were eventually broken by son Eli. In his junior season, Archie was named SEC Player of the Year after throwing for 1,762 yards and nine touchdowns. He also ran for 502 yards and led the SEC with 14 rushing TDs. Manning won the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy, given annually to the college football player of the year. He also earned All-America and All-SEC honors and came in fourth in the 1969 Heisman Trophy voting.

You can also vote on who had the best individual season in college football history. Stay tuned throughout the week as we narrow the list from 16 to one.

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