A year ago this March, Manny Diaz was facing a crossroads. The husband and father of three was turning 40. His family was settling into a new town. He was getting used to a new job. And in the midst of it all, he was asking himself a daunting question: “Who am I?”

Facing a life over the hill, he wasn’t sure what lay on the other side.

In secluded Ruston, Louisiana, he was starting over. Far from the bright lights of his former home at the University of Texas, he was getting used to being defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, a program that had gone 4-8 the previous season under new coach Skip Holtz.

It was a curious move, dropping down into Conference USA. According to reports, Diaz had bypassed several Power 5 programs who wanted him as a position coach. But Diaz wanted to remain a defensive coordinator. He needed to so he could figure out what had gone wrong.

“When you get knocked back like that, you have to look at yourself and say, ‘OK, who am I?’ and not, ‘What am I trying to be?’” Diaz told ESPN.com. “You had to find the ability to say who are you and what do you believe in. And if you ever get the opportunity again, you have to stay true to that.

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
John Albright/Icon SportswireAfter struggling at Texas, Manny Diaz bounced back with Louisiana Tech in 2014, leading a defense which led the country in turnovers.
“Because when all of the sudden that changed, you know it didn’t work. ... You sort of went and became this thing. It looked one way at every stop and then differently at this place. OK, why?”

It went back to fundamentals, he explained.

“One of the greatest things about college football is there’s a million ways to do it,” he said. “You watch every Saturday and there are so many stylistic ways that teams choose to win football games: power running, four-wide, the possibilities are endless. But you have to be one thing. You have to be committed to one thing. Teams that are committed to a plan generally play for shiny things at the end of the season.

“If you don’t have that, if you don’t have the trust, if you don’t have a staff that’s committed to each other, those teams always tend to scratch their head and wonder why they’re not winning more.

“Everyone would understand that intellectually, but when you’ve been through it, it changes you. It changes what you’re willing to compromise yourself on.”

Back to being part of what Diaz described as a staff of common ideals, he thrived. Louisiana Tech won nine games and led the country in turnovers gained (40).

Shortly after winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Diaz got a phone call. An old friend was on the line: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. In what had to conjure flashbacks of 2010, Mullen asked if he wanted to return to his former post as defensive coordinator. Diaz said yes.

“It’s not a fun lesson to learn,” Diaz said of his fall from Texas and subsequent revival at Louisiana Tech. “But it reinforces who you are and what you believe in.”

He added: “It’s always easy this time of year to write the article, Hey, here’s this coach who has this great scheme. There’s no great scheme. If there was a great scheme, we’d all do it. What it was [at Louisiana Tech] was we were all bought in and all committed. We all pointed the same direction.

“That’s what I wanted more than anything.”

When Diaz returned to Starkville, he was blown away. It had only been a few years since he left, but it was as if everything had changed.

“The first thing is walking in, there’s no building here the last time I was here,” he said. “The stadium isn’t the same as it was the last time. This program is not the same program it was in 2010, and there’s no doubt you sense a different expectation from the players.”

But at the same time, it was as if nothing was different. The principles Diaz holds so dear were still intact.

“The message has remained consistent as far as how we’re going to win, who we’re going to win with and what our plan is to get it done,” he said. “What’s further appealing to me is that it’s based on something sustainable and not a flash in the pan.

“We’re trying to build to a level that we’re a main contender in the SEC West.”

That will take some work given that a large chunk of the defense is gone from last season, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive linemen Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith. But even so, the cupboard isn’t bare.

Hoping that 2014’s “Pippens” become 2015’s “Jordans,” Diaz’s plan isn’t to overhaul the defense. As he said, “I’m just the conductor of the orchestra.”

But nonetheless, the expectations for both he and Mullen are ambitious. Because even after a record-breaking season in 2014, they want the bar set even higher.

“We’ve got to demand that we do better than we did,” Diaz said. “The reason is quite simple, because if you don’t then you’re really settling for being worse.

“Our players expect to show that our success here is expandable.”

It’s a tough task for a program that’s never won at a high level consistently, but at the same time there’s not a sense that success has changed Mullen’s beliefs. If it had, Diaz might not have come back.

He’s been through instability and he’s had enough of a lack of common direction. At 40 years old, he’s learned that you can’t waver on certain things.

“As you go through this, you get hardened,” Diaz said of his career. “You understand the things you can’t compromise on. You understand the importance of accountability. You understand the importance of toughness. But more than anything you have to understand the idea of trust. To me, a defense can’t be a defense without trust.”

Images: Fans enjoy rare SEC snowstorm

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
Though much of the rest of the country is sick and tired of this snowy and frigid winter, a decent amount of snow is still a rare and often cherished experience in SEC country. So let's take a look at how that conference's fans enjoyed Wednesday's weather.

We'll start in Mississippi, where the average winter snowfall total is about a half-inch.

And this being the always-passionate SEC, the snowmen across the South were of course adorned with team colors ... Even Alabama got hit ... And on Rocky Top, some students at Tennessee snuck into Neyland Stadium and had a late-night snowball fight for the second straight year. Luckily, unlike last time, no arrests were made during this one.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: OL

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
The SEC is still won in the trenches so the teams with good offensive line play will likely do well for themselves. As we look ahead to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest up front? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season arrives, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.

2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.

3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.

4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.

6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.

7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.

11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.

12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
It’s not easy to start at quarterback as a true freshman. College football is a fast-moving game with a lot of information to process quickly, not to mention the pressure of leading a program in front of up to and over 100,000 fans at times. In the Class of 2016, there are a few prospects who will have an opportunity to come in and compete from Day One.

Here are five who stand out above the rest.

SEC morning links

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
1. Snow continued to hit the Southeast on Wednesday and with it came a flurry of coaching hires in the SEC. The most notable was at Arkansas where the Razorbacks hired Jemal Singleton as the new running backs' coach. Singleton, formerly at Oklahoma State, will replace Joel Thomas, who left for the same job with the New Orleans Saints. It's not a bad gig for Singleton who walks into what many consider the best backfield in the conference with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Elsewhere, Alabama brought back a familiar name in Freddie Roach. The former Crimson Tide linebacker left his job at South Alabama to take on an unspecified role at Alabama. And LSU made a pair of moves, hiring Ryan Pugh as a graduate assistant and Blaine Gautier as an offensive assistant. Pugh made 45 starts at center for Auburn from 2007-2010.

2. Speaking of new hires, Barry Odom will have the difficult challenge of trying to replace former Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel this season. Odom, a Mizzou graduate, spoke to the local media before Tuesday's basketball game. The big takeaway? He's not looking to “reinvent” the defense. Odom ran a 3-4 scheme at Memphis last year, but he says the Tigers will still run a base 4-3 with variations of a 3-4. That's common these days in college football. He was also asked about his contract, which hasn't been released yet, but evidently it's still being worked out with the school. “I'm working happily every day,” Odom said when asked about it.

3. Earlier in the week, we saw where Vanderbilt is trying out a new technology this spring where the players will have a GPS device inserted into their shoulder pads. Pretty cool, right? Well, Tennessee has come up with a pretty good idea of their own. No, the Vols aren't going all high-tech this spring. Instead, they are introducing “Fourth-and-1 Wednesday,” a weekly class designed to arm players with the knowledge of right from wrong. It will be taught by head coach Butch Jones, Vol for Life coordinator Antone Davis and assistant strength coach Ike Brown. Where's the name come from? Jones wants his players to treat situations off the field with the same focus and attention to detail as they'd treat fourth-and-1 in a game.

Around the SEC
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Aggies learn to 'dress for success'

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like hundreds of other NFL hopefuls, Texas A&M product Cedric Ogbuehi attended sports' most-publicized job interview, the league's scouting combine, throughout the last week.

An end-of-season injury prevented him from participating in most workouts, but there was still the opportunity to meet and interview with potential employers.

[+] EnlargeEric Hyman, Germain Ifedi, Mike Matthews
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNTexas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, who hatched a "dress for success" seminar as part of a life skills programs for athletes, instructs Germain Ifedi and Mike Matthews on the finer points of tying a necktie.
Around this time a year ago, Ogbuehi showed off his tie-tying skills to his teammates while participating in a life skills program the school operates to educate athletes on important lessons they'll use in the real world.

Earlier this month, as Ogbuehi did last year, dozens of Texas A&M athletes learned how to "dress for success."

The seminar, which aimed to teach athletes how to dress professionally when they enter the workforce, is part of a program hatched by athletic director Eric Hyman and his wife, Pauline. The pair started it in its current form roughly 15 years ago when Eric was at TCU.

"We're trying to give them that little bit of an edge," Eric Hyman said. "We've been doing parts of this for a long time, 15, 20 years."

The seminars, which are mandatory once a year for A&M athletes and cover different topics, are meant to help them transition from college to life. Aggies football players were among the dozens of athletes (all juniors) who received a crash course on what types of suits to wear, how to care for them and how to tie a necktie, with representatives from a local men's dress clothes retailer offering the knowledge.

It was an eye-opening experience for some of them.

"For one, I learned how to tie a tie," cornerback De'Vante Harris said. "That was my first time ever trying. I was pretty successful."

Offensive lineman Mike Matthews said he always had his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, tie his neckties for him. But Mike said his dad taught him how to do it during the NFL draft, when Mike's brother Jake was being drafted. Still, the seminar served as a memory jog for Mike, who doesn't often wear ties.

"I learned it for about a week and then I forgot it because I didn't have to tie a tie for a while," Matthews said.

Quarterback Conner McQueen was one of the handful who did have experience with tie knots. The way he learned?

"YouTube," McQueen said.

Before that, McQueen relied on sales clerks.

"Whenever I purchased ties before, I always asked the people at Dillard's or Macy's, as soon as I purchased it, to tie it for me and just loosen it a little bit," McQueen said. "When I got home, I just put it on a hanger so I don't ever have to tie it."

It's not just about dressing professionally. While "dress for success" is for junior athletes, Hyman said the Aggies conduct mandatory seminars for freshmen (discussing consequences of their actions), sophomores (an etiquette dinner to learn how to eat properly) and seniors (networking and job interview skills are taught).

Some schools teach these things in a classroom setting, but Pauline Hyman thought a more hands-on approach would be more effective.

"What I began to learn along the way is that we talk about this stuff, so it came to me, instead of trying to lecture about this in a classroom, why don't we have an etiquette dinner? Why don't we have a dress for success?" she said. "Let them see it, be interactive, have fun. It was sort of evolved into, 'How's the best way to get his message across?'"

The Hymans said feedback over the years has been positive from several who claimed they wouldn't have otherwise obtained those skills.

An added plus for the athletes: The NCAA's Division I student assistance fund allows the school to provide a suit or dress for each of the attendees so they have one for formal events or job interviews.

"It's been phenomenal," Eric Hyman said. "We get a wide cross-section of people from different socioeconomic levels. This is how we'll help support them. They begin to learn the value of having a suit. Some of them don't have one, but now they all will have one."

And one of Hyman's favorite memories came in 2014 from a former Aggies offensive lineman and soon-to-be NFL draft pick.

"We had a tie-tying contest [last year] and Ogbuehi won the contest," Hyman said. "He was so happy that he won it. ... He took great pride in it and told some of his offensive linemen that he won the tie-tying contest. You try to make it a little fun."
Auburn and Texas A&M aren’t all that different. Both programs play in the ultra-competitive SEC West. Both have passionate fan bases supporting them every week. Both just opened up their checkbooks to hire two of the more respected defensive coordinators in the game. Both are located in small college towns.

Yet both have in-state rivals that happen to rank No. 1 and No. 2 in ESPN’s countdown of most desirable jobs in college football.

Now, let’s say both jobs came open today. Which is the more desirable?

That’s the question we asked for this week’s Take Two. Don’t worry, Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin aren’t going anywhere. But if both jobs were indeed available right now, which would be the more attractive option to potential suitors, Auburn or Texas A&M?

Greg Ostendorf: Three years ago, I would have taken the Texas A&M job, no questions asked. The school was about to enter the SEC, and the opportunities were endless. Auburn, meanwhile, had just finished watching its in-state rival win another national championship.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn won an SEC title in his first year at Auburn.
But Malzahn changed the narrative. He wasn’t afraid of Nick Saban and Alabama. He helped beat Saban once in 2010 as the offensive coordinator, and he returned to do it again as head coach in 2013. In both years, Auburn went on to win the SEC and play in the BCS championship game, something Texas A&M never did during that era. In fact, the Aggies haven’t won a conference title since 1998. Are they really ready to win the SEC?

Some might say Auburn is at a disadvantage because they have to play Alabama every year, but I disagree. There’s not a better game in college football than the Iron Bowl. Win or lose, recruits want to be a part of that. Texas A&M had that when it played Texas annually, but the Aggies no longer have a game of that magnitude. Who is their big rival in the SEC?

I realize that Texas A&M is located in a prime spot for recruiting, but so is Auburn. The Tigers pull kids from Georgia every year, and if the addition of Will Muschamp proved anything, it’s that they can go down to Florida and have success. The state of Alabama isn’t too shabby, either. It’s produced 10 first-round draft picks in the last five years. And while it’s never easy to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide for an in-state recruit, Texas A&M has to deal with the likes of Texas, TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech for in-state prospects.

One more note on recruiting: Auburn is about to install the largest video board in college football, topping the current largest at – you guessed it – Texas A&M. That, along with a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility, relatively new dorms for the players and a brand new wellness kitchen, makes it easier for coaches to entice potential recruits to Auburn.

But at the end of the day it starts with winning, and that’s something the Tigers have been able to do more of over the last decade than Texas A&M. Whether it was Malzahn, Gene Chizik or Tommy Tuberville, the coaches on the Plains have simply fared better on the field.

Sam Khan: Trying to choose between these two programs is largely an exercise in splitting hairs, in my opinion. They’re quite similar and both have a lot of positives working in their favor.

Auburn has proved it can compete at a championship level, no doubt. Texas A&M still needs to do that, but when it comes to resources, few can match what the Aggies have.

[+] EnlargeKyle Field
AP Photo/College Station Eagle/Sam CraftThe $485 million redevelopment of Kyle Field is scheduled to be finished this year.
When Texas A&M was in the Big 12, it was a good job, but I’m not sure I would have called it a premier job. The SEC changed everything for the Aggies. The coffers are full and it shows in Texas A&M’s investment in improving football facilities.

Since 2012, the Aggies have completed a $9 million football weight room project, a $4 million renovation to the lobby of their football complex, added a $12 million nutrition center for athletes and they’re in the final phase of a $16 million project in which the locker rooms and training facilities were vastly upgraded last year with the coaches' offices, the final piece of the puzzle, currently being improved.

That doesn’t even factor in the $485 million redevelopment of Kyle Field, scheduled for completion this year. That’s $526 million in facilities upgrades in the last three years. They pay their coaches at an elite level (see: Sumlin and John Chavis). Whatever resources the Aggies need are there.

The recruiting base Texas A&M has to draw from is one of the best in the country. You don’t have to venture far from College Station to find elite talent. There’s plenty of it in Houston, Dallas and East Texas, and Texas high school football players are among the finest in the country. The Aggies have also shown the ability to go into Louisiana and pluck talent, and they’ve shown the ability to recruit on a national level as well. Being the only SEC school in the Lone Star State is a key selling point for the Texas A&M coaching staff.

Fan support is impressive. Kyle Field is routinely packed, and that’s not likely to change.

Auburn has Alabama to deal with in its state, and as long as Saban is there, the Crimson Tide aren’t going anywhere. The Texas-Texas A&M dynamic is certainly unique and the Longhorns were in control of the state for a long time. But based upon on-field and recruiting results since A&M joined the SEC, the Aggies have the upper hand over the Longhorns at the moment. If Texas A&M can make some significant strides forward this year and next and become a true SEC West title contender, they can remain in a position of power in their state and perhaps strengthen that stance.

Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

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

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

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

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

Here's what we came up with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC pre-spring position rankings: WR/TE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Vanderbilt: It’s a big offseason for C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford as the Commodores search for a true No. 1 threat. Trent Sherfield has a chance to be the team’s best deep threat after playing some as a true freshman. In fairness, it was difficult to evaluate the Commodores at receiver last season because they played so many different quarterbacks. Ronald Monroe is a redshirt freshman to watch, and senior tight end Steven Scheu returns after tying for the team lead with four touchdown catches a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors.
All week we've counted down the top coaching jobs in college football. Today, that countdown comes to an end. It's time to take a look at some of the surprises when it comes to SEC jobs:

Edward Aschoff: South Carolina in the top 25

The fact that Steve Spurrier has won 84 games in his 10 seasons at South Carolina is almost absurd, when you consider South Carolina’s history. The Gamecocks are now a legit SEC East contender every season. However, I’m not sure South Carolina is a top-20 job, let alone a top-25 job, nationally, even though South Carolina comes in at No. 19 on our list. The tradition really rests on recent events. The facilities are improving, but they don’t exactly challenge the best of the SEC, and while the state of South Carolina has some underrated talent, it’s in short supply. There’s Clemson to battle, and then you have to fend off bigger schools looking to poach the few elite guys. Being in the SEC East helps, and that fan base is amazingly loyal, but I’m just not sure this job is better than those at Miami, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Sam Khan Jr.: Mississippi State as high as No. 34

I was mildly surprised to see Mississippi State as high as No. 34 in the rankings, but I think that's a testament to what Dan Mullen has accomplished and the commitment the Bulldogs have shown to improving facilities, with renovations to Davis Wade Stadium and a new football complex that opened in 2013. Starkville isn't close to a major city, so recruiting can be a challenge, but Mullen's staff proved it can recruit highly regarded prospects and also develop overlooked players. Being in the SEC West with Alabama, Auburn and LSU is a challenge, but this season Mississippi State showed it can hang with those schools. That recent success makes the job more appealing than it was, say, five years ago.

Chris Low: South Carolina in the top 20

Seeing the South Carolina head-coaching job crack the top 20 nationally was surprising. Having grown up in that state, I've always felt that job had potential. But let’s be honest: Nobody had won consistently there until Spurrier came along, and it took him five years to win more than eight games in a season. Spurrier has raised the national profile of that program to heights few could have envisioned, and he’s also raised expectations. The Gamecocks dipped to seven wins this past season, and judging by the outcry of some of the fans, you’d never know they were coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons. The facilities are improving but still don’t compare to the top rung of the SEC. The high school football in the state is underrated, but the state itself is small, which means the Gamecocks have to share top prospects with Clemson and several other neighboring schools. Before Spurrier arrived, South Carolina had won more than nine games in a season only once in school history. That’s become the standard now -- maybe even more than that -- which could make the job a monster for the coach (and coaches) who follow Spurrier.

Greg Ostendorf: Florida at No. 2 in the SEC

Honestly, the ESPN panel that put together the rankings did a pretty solid job, but I’m not so sure Florida is the second-best job in the SEC. Don’t get me wrong: Florida is a great job. Both Spurrier and Urban Meyer have proven that in the past. But when the Gators aren’t winning, there’s a pretty short leash on the head coach. Just ask Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Jeremy Foley, the athletic director, has high expectations, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s not necessarily that way at other SEC schools, such as Georgia and LSU. Unlike Georgia and LSU, who essentially have the state to themselves, Florida has to compete with Florida State -- and to a lesser extent, Miami -- on the recruiting trail. When Alabama was looking for a coach eight years ago, it hit a home run with Nick Saban. If Florida is really the conference’s second-best job, don’t you think it could’ve landed a bigger name than Jim McElwain? He could be great, but he’s not yet on the same level as a Bob Stoops or even a Hugh Freeze.

Five programs in need of a 2016 QB 

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
Quarterbacks are committing earlier and earlier in the recruiting process. With 16 of the 27 signal-callers in the ESPN Junior 300 already having given verbal pledges, there is increased pressure to get a top quarterback in the fold early. While some programs are set in 2016 or for the future at the vital position, several programs face the task of having to sign a potential difference maker at the position in the 2016 class.

Here are five programs that must sign a difference maker in 2016, and some of those are well on the way.

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SEC morning links

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
Hope everyone is staying warm as winter makes its presence felt in SEC country. While you're bundling up, here's some reading material in the form of today's SEC morning links: Tweets of the day
When Casey Marriott and her mother were going over the guest list for her upcoming wedding, Marriott decided to have a little fun with it. She invited the likes of Nick Saban, Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, Peyton Manning and even Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Little did she know that Saban, the first A-list celebrity she thought to invite, would actually respond to the invitation.

Saban and his wife, Terry, sent back the RSVP last week, checking the box marked “will celebrate from afar” and even added a handwritten note. On Monday, Marriott received another item in the mail -- a photo of the Sabans signed by both Nick and Terry.

“It was really cool,” Marriott said. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Nick. His first year at Alabama was my first year, so he’s kind of like ‘Father Alabama’ to me. I’ve always wanted to meet him, but it’s hard to meet Nick Saban. He’s a busy guy.

“This just shows that he is a good guy, and he will do things for his fans.”

Not only did Saban respond to the wedding invitation, he turned his RSVP in on time, something that half of the guests have yet to do, according to Marriott.

The wedding itself is next month and while Saban won’t be there, former Crimson Tide player Ali Sharrief, a close friend of Marriott’s, is expected to attend.

Alabama begins spring practice on March 13.
Now that the NFL combine has come to a close, it's time for all these NFL hopefuls to turn their attention to more training and then eventually the NFL draft itself. It's a long way out, but now that all the poking and prodding is done, we might as well take a quick look back at the top performers from the few days in Indianapolis.

The SEC has a very good and very storied history with the NFL draft and it's likely that exceptional relation should continue in 2015. Thanks to the combine, we got to see some SEC studs really get to show out before they tackle their individual pro days. There were also a few guys who really helped their prospective draft status by showing out in Indy. Here are a few guys who made impressive statements and might have improved their draft stock in the process:

Justin Coleman, CB, Tennessee He finished in the top 10 among all defensive backs in the vertical jump (37.5 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 3 inches) and bench press of 225 pounds (20 reps). He also topped everyone at the combine by finishing the three-cone drill in 6.61 seconds and placed in the top-10 overall in both the 20-yards shuffle (3.98) and 60-yards shuffle (11.21).

Chris Conley, WR, Georgia: Well, it's pretty clear Conley was eating right and doing a few box jumps while making his homemade "Star Wars" movie. Conley might have redefined the word "freak" during his incredibly impressive athletic showing at the combine. Conley registered the third-best 40 time by a wide receiver (4.35), but he set records by a wide receiver with a 45-inch vertical and a broad jump of 11 feet, 7 inches. He also did 18 reps of 225 pounds.

Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky: Talk about someone's draft stock shooting through the roof. Dupree came in as a possible first-round draft pick and left Indy solidifying that projection. He blew scouts away with his blazing 4.56 40 time, a broad jump of 11 feet, 5 inches and a 42-inch vertical jump. A groin injury kept him from participating in combine drills, but his athleticism was certainly showcased.

Senquez Golson, CB, Ole Miss: Heading into the draft, people wondered if Golson's height -- or lack thereof -- would hurt him at the next level. That's yet to be seen, but what we actually saw at the combine was a pretty impressive showing during defensive back drills. Golson didn't really blow scouts away with the more athletic drills. Golson ran a 4.46 40 and repped 225 15 times, but where he really impressed was in the field drills. He was one of the best during the "gauntlet" drill, showing off his quick feet and solid hands.

Mitch Morse, OG, Missouri: He might not have all the measurables scouts want, but Morse showed some athleticism and strength over the weekend. He ranked second overall with 36 reps of 225 and showed solid quickness with a 20-yard shuttle time of 4.50, which ranked third among offensive linemen and a three-cone drill time of 7.60. Morse is already a pretty versatile lineman, so his numbers from the weekend can only help him come April.

Jermaine Whitehead, S, Auburn: Landon Collins is the unquestioned top safety prospect in the draft, but Whitehead had an impressive day in Indy. While his 4.59 40 wasn't great, he finished in the top for safeties in the vertical (37 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches), three-cone drill (6.95) and 20-yard shuttle (4.11). The thing about Whitehead is that he's a relative unknown in this draft. He entered the combine as a possible undrafted, free-agent prospect, but might have helped creep into the draft with his numbers. Maybe not, but Whitehead impressed.
After LSU went to Jacksonville, Florida and plucked five-star cornerback Kevin Toliver II for the 2015 class, the Tigers have struck again for 2016. LSU has landed ESPN Junior 300 cornerback prospect Saivion Smith in its 2016 class, making him the Tigers' fifth ESPN Junior 300 verbal, which includes Sunshine State quarterback Feleipe’ Franks.

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