The target was already on Auburn entering this season after rising from the ashes a year ago to win the SEC championship and coming within an eyelash of winning the national title.

Now the Tigers have a few more obstacles to overcome.

Coach Gus Malzahn announced Friday to open practice that quarterback Nick Marshall and cornerback Jonathon Mincy would not start the opener against Arkansas after both encountered marijuana-related legal trouble this offseason. Both will play in the game, and it was a given that they were going to face some type of punishment.

The bigger blow Friday came with the news that starting left guard Alex Kozan, a preseason All-SEC selection, would miss the entire season after suffering a back injury while lifting weights this summer.

The Tigers have some depth in their offensive line, and the plan is to move Chad Slade from right guard to left guard and Avery Young into the starting lineup at right guard. Young started the last nine games a year ago at right tackle after stepping in for Patrick Miller.

So, obviously, there's no reason to panic at this point, but another injury in the offensive line would be real cause for alarm.

The last place any team wants to be losing starters, particularly all-conference performers, is the line of scrimmage. And that's a pair Auburn has lost now, including defensive end Carl Lawson before the start of preseason camp. Lawson underwent ACL surgery and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the season.

One of the keys to winning a championship is avoiding injuries. Equally important is having enough depth to overcome those injuries.

It's never ideal to have off-the-field issues either, although Auburn has enough veteran leaders on this team to remain focused and not get sidetracked. And you know this offense is going to be explosive.

Still, the landscape has changed. The Tigers won't sneak up on anybody this season, and the schedule is more treacherous than it was a year ago. The Western Division will be as rugged as it's ever been.

The ball bounced just right a couple of different times last season for Auburn, and that's not to diminish what a special season it was on the Plains.

But with preseason camp only one day old, there are warning signs that Year No. 2 under Malzahn could get tricky.

Auburn's Marshall, Mincy to sit

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn star quarterback Nick Marshall, who was cited by police for possession of marijuana last month, will not start Week 1 against Arkansas, according to coach Gus Malzahn.

Marshall burst on the scene last season with 1,976 passing yards and 26 total touchdowns, leading Auburn to an SEC title and a berth in the Vizio BCS National Championship.

Malzahn declined to say just how long Marshall would sit against Arkansas.

"I'm not ready to say that yet," he said.

Malzahn said that the inability to start is "part of the punishment."

"The rest is between us," he added.

In addition to Marshall, cornerback Jonathon Mincy will not start Week 1. The three-year starter was arrested and charged with second-degree marijuana possession in late June.

"I will say this: Nick Marshall is still our quarterback and Jonathon Mincy is still our cornerback," Malzahn said.

You can read the rest of this story here.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama wasn’t missing just three players to start fall camp on Friday.

In addition to announcing the suspensions of Brandon Ivory, Jarran Reed and Tim Williams, coach Nick Saban updated the status of two highly coveted signees who have not made it to campus.

“Two freshmen that are not here,” Saban said. “Bo Scarbrough, we have an appeal in place because he is very close to qualifying. That will take some time. We will have a plan here at his high school to try to do the things that he needs to do to finish and be able to qualify. And our goal is to get him here in January.

Montel McBride did not qualify and will be placed in junior college.”

McBride was one of six offensive linemen in the 2014 class. Multiple reports have the three-star prospect heading to Iowa Western Community College.

Scarbrough, on the other hand, was a much more highly regarded recruit. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound native of Northport, Alabama, was a five-star prospect and the No. 2 ranked athlete in his class, according to ESPN. He was the first to commit to the Crimson Tide from the 2014 class, which ranked No. 1 in the country.

Scarbrough, even if he had qualified, would have faced quite an uphill battle for playing time at running back, where T.J. Yeldon and his 2,343 career rushing yards are firmly atop the depth chart. Talented sophomore Derrick Henry, who scored two touchdowns and accounted for 161 total yards against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, is not far behind, and he’s trailed by junior Kenyan Drake, who had 694 yards on the ground and averaged 7.5 yards per carry last season. There’s also Jalston Fowler, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones in the mix.

Without Ivory and Reed, Alabama is in a bigger pickle. Ivory was one of only five returning starters on the defense after starting all 13 games at nose guard last season. And Reed, a junior college transfer, was expected to push for reps at the same position. Now the incumbent is Darren Lake, who played in all 13 games last season and mustered only 15 tackles, none of which resulted in a loss.

To balance the good with the bad, Alabama welcomed back corner Eddie Jackson to the practice field only a few months after tearing his ACL during spring practice.

The sophomore, who started four games last season, wore a brace to protect his surgically repaired knee.

Jackson is on a “pitch count,” according to Saban, but he prefaced his comments by saying that Jackson had a successful rehab this summer and is is doing “really, really well."

“With these guys, it's always about how much can they do before they start to get sore or before they start to break down relative to where they are,” he said. “We'd like to just not push the envelope too far that we get to that point. We're going to kind of keep him on a pitch count that will gradually increase and see when he gets back to 100 percent.

“Eddie took all the tests and passed them, so straight-line running is not the issue. It's cutting, changing direction, doing those kinds of things and see what issues those things create. But we're very encouraged with where he's at."

SEC lunchtime links

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When Auburn opens fall camp this afternoon, it will do so with a reminder of their former teammate, Philip Lutzenkirchen.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M begins preseason training camp today. In about four weeks, they'll take the field at South Carolina to open the 2014 season. Here are some things to watch throughout camp:

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
1. The quarterback battle: Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? That's the question that has been asked and will continue to be until coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital make a decision on who the starting quarterback will be on Aug. 28 at South Carolina. Hill, a sophomore, has slightly more experience after seeing some playing time in a backup role last season. Allen, the true freshman, enrolled early in January to catch up. Allen had a solid spring, as did Hill until an arrest for public intoxication caused him to miss the final two scrimmages and the final week of spring practice. But both players were told they were on even footing entering summer 7-on-7 workouts. How much each has progressed in the past three months will be displayed early on in training camp. Expect a decision midway through August.

2. Defensive line depth: The Aggies lost two starting defensive linemen for off-the-field reasons: defensive end Gavin Stansbury (left team for personal reasons) and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden (dismissed after two arrests). For a team that struggled to stop the run last season, that doesn't help as the unit tries to find the quality depth necessary to succeed in the SEC. Fortunately for the Aggies, they get two players who missed spring football because of injuries back for training camp -- sophomore defensive ends Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom saw playing time last season. There are also several veterans (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Tyrell Taylor) and youngsters (Hardreck Walker, Justin Manning, Zaycoven Henderson) not to mention a few incoming recruits to help the unit, but the Aggies have to find answers quick to improve on a disastrous 2013.

3. Safety play: Sumlin hasn't been shy about saying it and it's true: the Aggies have to get better play from their safeties. They return three players who started last season -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt. Matthews got positive reviews from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder in the spring. Keep an eye on Devonta Burns, who saw time in the spring at safety and nickel cornerback, as someone who could be in the mix. And an influx of 2014 recruits could help here as well.

4. Fabulous freshmen: The Aggies' 2014 class was a top-five haul for a reason. They brought in some big-time talent, so don't be surprised if some of those freshmen make waves quickly in camp. Receiver Speedy Noil already impressed in the spring and will look to build on that this month. Five-star defensive end Myles Garrett is the highest-ranked player nationally the Aggies have signed since Reggie McNeal in the 2002 class. With depth concerns on the defensive line and Garrett's college-ready physique, it's safe to say he'll find a way on the field in short order. Henderson, who was an early enrollee, likely figures into the rotation at defensive tackle. And of course, all eyes are on Allen at quarterback to see if he can win the starting job.

5. Right side of the O-line: Sophomore Germain Ifedi, who started all of 2013 at right guard, saw much time at right tackle during spring drills and is listed as the starter there heading into camp. If that holds, the battle on the offensive line -- a unit that returns four of five starters -- will likely be at right guard where Joseph Cheek saw first-team action and junior college transfer Jermaine Eluemunor saw second-team work in spring. Veteran guard and starter Jarvis Harrison, who missed spring because of shoulder surgery, should be ready to go at left guard. He has a capable backup behind him in Garrett Gramling, who started two games last season and saw virtually all the first-team work at left guard this spring. Left tackle (Cedric Ogbuehi) and center (Mike Matthews) is set in stone.

A few other notes:

" Redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Davis, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge in his hometown of Rosenberg, Texas, last month, is still serving an indefinite suspension. Sumlin said on Wednesday that Davis still has some things to do internally in order to get back in the team's good graces.

" Sumlin noted that every one of the class of 2014 recruits is qualified academically and on campus. Kealvin "Tank" Davis, the Aggies' offensive tackle recruit from Garland (Texas) Lakeview Centennial, was the last player Texas A&M was waiting on in that regard and he arrived on campus Wednesday and will be ready to go. This is the second consecutive year the Aggies have not lost a signee to qualification issues (the 2013 class only had one player who didn't make it to campus, Kohl Stewart, who was a first-round pick in the MLB draft).

" The Aggies will practice in helmets only Friday and Saturday, have meetings only on Sunday (no practice), helmets and shoulder pads on Monday and Tuesday and they'll have their first full-padded practice on Wednesday. Thursday will be their first two-a-day practice followed by a single practice on Aug. 8, then a scrimmage on Aug. 9.
Fall camp is upon us with Mississippi State kicking things off Thursday and Auburn and Alabama getting underway Friday.

That means, of course, that the offseason is officially over. It’s been fun and depressing and mesmerizing all at once.

Let's take a look back:

Arrests galore

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Patrick Green/Icon SMITexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has had to deal with offseason incidents involving five players.
Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin tried to make the argument that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch. This week he told reporters, “Everything gets lumped into one big bucket. That’s tough.” The problem, of course, is that it’s not one bad apple -- or two or three or four. Five Aggies were arrested, including Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden. Alabama, on the other hand, had four players get in hot water, including Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed, who were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. And at Georgia, the hits keep coming. It was bad enough when Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were dismissed, then Jonathan Taylor was booted after being charged with aggravated assault.

Nick Marshall cited for pot -- but he’ll be a better passer

Auburn’s talented quarterback nearly went the length of the offseason without trouble. With another few weeks and another expectedly solid season, he might have been able to put to rest the talk of his dismissal from Georgia. He might have simply been Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall -- no asterisk, no footnote about his off-the-field trouble. Instead of talking about his improvements as a passer, becoming more accurate and comfortable in the offense and more technically sound, the discussion has turned to his mental makeup, whether he’ll be suspended and what this all means for Auburn’s hopes of repeating as SEC champs after being cited by police for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Head Ball Coach wins ‘talking season’

Really, we could just link to a story about what Steve Spurrier said at SEC media days and be done with this. Or we could link to what he said later about Clemson coach Dabo Swinney being from Pluto. Or we could simply call up Spurrier, ask for his thoughts on, say, LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, press record and play the tape back for you. Spurrier is the annual grand champion of the offseason, or what he likes to call “talking season.” Among a field of college coaches who are often stuffy and close to the vest, the Head Ball Coach speaks his mind, shows off his wit and seems to generally enjoy the spotlight.

Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette for Heisman

Boy, do expectations run rampant from February to July. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think T.J. Yeldon and Terrence Magee didn’t exist. If you listened to the Internet, you’d think Alabama's Henry ran for 10,000 yards last season, literally crashing through brick walls and requiring an entire SWAT team to tackle him, instead of looking at the stat sheet that reads no career starts and no games with double-digit carries. But that’s what a Sugar Bowl with 161 all-purpose yards will do for you. If that kind of hype bothers you, hold on because the Leonard Fournette show has arrived in full force at LSU. The former No. 1 overall recruit has been compared with Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson. He’s a Heisman Trophy contender, if you ask the right people. Oh, and he’s also a college freshman who only recently arrived at on campus.

Tempo debate won’t go away

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas coach Bret Bielema won't give up the up-tempo debate.
You remember the back-and-forth between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema last year, when Bielema alleged that up-tempo offenses were a health concern. Malzahn asked if that was a joke and Bielema fired back, saying he wasn’t a comedian. That seemed serious at the time. Well, maybe the joke’s on us because this debate just won’t go away. The tabled 10-second proposal has further stoked the flames. Bielema further dug a hole for himself when he brought the death of a Cal football player into the debate, then argued to Sports Illustrated that players with sickle-cell traits are the most at risk. So, as you might have guessed, there was more back-and-forth and at one point during SEC media days. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called the safety issue straight-up “fiction.” Oh, joy. A healthy debate is one thing, but to go on and on about an issue that isn’t even able to go to a vote seems ludicrous.

The force is with Chris Conley

On the bright side, hopefully Georgia wideout Chris Conley’s “Star Wars” films keep on coming. His first trailer for “Retribution” was a huge hit, and apparently he has a second film already in the works. At a time where athletes’ rights and off-the-field behavior dominate our headlines, it’s refreshing to see a football player do something totally original and totally unrelated to the game he plays, all while doing well in school. In a game that’s become much more big business than unadulterated fun, it's great to see an athlete do something he loves and be celebrated for it.

It’s still the SEC vs. the world

You’d think that the year the SEC finally failed to win the national championship would be the year the league would stop absorbing so many shots from the rest of its Power 5 conference brethren. But you’d be wrong. The SEC is still the target of almost every major talking point in college football, from scheduling to the playoff to recruiting tactics. Every conference media days involved some jab at the SEC. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops gloated about the SEC falling back to earth, in his mind solidifying his comments about the bottom half of the league being overrated. But oddly, in the same breath he boasted about Oklahoma's strength of schedule, propping up a Tennessee program that hasn’t finished a season above .500 since 2009. How does that work? But Stoops wasn’t alone. Everyone took a shot and everyone did it for the same reason: lobbying for the playoff. With four spots and five major conferences, everyone is looking to throw someone under the bus.

Top SEC players: Nos. 5-1

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Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. Our top-25 countdown ends here and now with our best five players in the SEC entering the 2014 season.

5. Landon Collins, S, Alabama Crimson Tide
It was only a matter of time before Collins became one of the league’s best DBs. The former five-star recruit had to wait his turn, but when he got his chance as a sophomore, he jumped at the opportunity. Despite switching back and forth between free and strong safety and not starting the first four games of the season, he filled up the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended.

4. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida Gators
Cornerback is one of those positions that’s supposed to take time to master. You have to learn the various coverages and physically mature to handle more experienced receivers. But Hargreaves defied convention last season, quickly becoming the top on-ball defender in the SEC by season’s end with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. "At the end of the day, he has some natural instincts that others of us don't have," his coach, Will Muschamp, explained.

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide
We didn’t see Cooper’s best until late in 2013. By the time his foot injury healed, he tweaked his knee, and without full mobility, he wasn’t his usual elusive self. But in the final six games, he looked more like the Cooper we saw burst onto the scene as a true freshman, catching 30 passes for 507 yards and three touchdowns. Now fully healthy and armed with an offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who loves to highlight his playmakers, Cooper’s stock could soar even higher as a junior.

2. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M Aggies
There’s got to be something in the water in College Station, Texas. The way the Aggies keep producing NFL-caliber offensive tackles defies any other explanation. First, it was Luke Joeckel. Then, it was Jake Matthews. Now, it’s Ogbuehi, who made himself a potential first-round pick at right tackle last season before deciding to return for his senior year and a shot at playing left tackle, the O-line’s biggest money position. You'd be hard pressed to find an offensive lineman who has a better blend of size, strength and athleticism than Ogbuehi.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Coaches, players and sports writers can agree on at least one thing: Gurley is a beast. At SEC media days, nearly every player surveyed by ESPN called Georgia’s lead tailback the most intimidating player to tackle in the league. Reporters, meanwhile, made Gurley a first-team All-SEC choice, awarding him the second-most votes overall. If he can stay healthy, he’s the league's best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. With 2,374 yards in the past two seasons, only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah has more career rushing yards entering 2014.
The SEC facilities arms race is never ending. Texas A&M's most recent project is evidence of that fact.

The Aggies just completed a massive renovation of the first floor of the Bright Football Complex, where the football team is headquartered, and the project includes some sparkling new locker rooms that resemble a nightclub as much as it does a football facility. The 36,000-square foot renovation, which includes a barbershop and flatscreen televisions in the mirrors, is part of a $32 million improvement of the Bright Complex.

The new Lohman Center lobby inside of Bright, which cost $4 million, and the R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center ($12 million), where the athletes eat, were completed last year. The other $16 million is allotted for the new locker rooms, training rooms and meeting rooms (seen below) as well as the third-floor coaches offices, which will begin renovation next February with a scheduled July 2015 completion.

Here's a brief video tour of the finished product:

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The locker room itself is large and the lockers have a sleek design:

And there is a barbershop inside the locker room. No, I'm not joking:

TVs in the bathroom mirrors? TVs in the bathroom mirrors.

Here is a look at the "wet area" where players have a hot tub (that reaches over 100 degrees) and a cold tub (that dips into the low-50s):

The positional meeting rooms were renovated as well:

So was the training room:

Here's a look at the reconstructed Hagner Auditorium, where team meetings happen:

Needless to say, the reaction from the Texas A&M players is one of amazement. Junior punter Drew Kaser:

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It may be the first time in seven years that the SEC does not boast the defending champion of college football, but the league still maintains the most teams in the Amway Coaches Poll with seven of the Top 25. The next closest conference was the Pac-12 with six.

Alabama, coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2008, was ranked No. 2 behind defending champ Florida State. Auburn, fresh off an SEC championship, came in at No. 5.

Neither the Crimson Tide nor the Tigers received a first-place vote from the coaches surveyed, which included Bret Bielema, Les Miles, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, and Kevin Sumlin of the SEC. The Seminoles, on the other hand, garnered 56 of the 62 total first-place votes.

South Carolina (9), Georgia (12), LSU (13), Ole Miss (19) and Texas A&M (20) also made the Top 25 from the SEC, which saw its total selections in the preseason Top 25 poll rise from six to seven this year. However, the SEC saw its numbers in the top 10 drop from five to three.

Missouri led all teams not in the Top 25 in votes received with 126. Mississippi State (74) and Arkansas (1) were also listed as having received votes in the preseason poll.

Low: 'Talking season' reaches new heights

July, 31, 2014
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Maybe it's already playoff posturing, but this time of year it's refreshing to see coaches acting more like fans and taking shots at each other. Click here for the rest of Chris Low's story about coaches trading barbs in the offseason.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 31, 2014
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You hear that?

No, it's not the sound of former LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson making it rain with his new $70 million contract extension.

That sound you hear is another kind of excitement.

Football is here. Sort of.

Fall camp in the SEC gets going this afternoon at Mississippi State and will kick off at Auburn and Alabama tomorrow.

So, to celebrate, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban took his players out on the lake. Enjoy.

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Now back to your regularly scheduled programming and a look around the rest of the conference.
  • "Everything gets lumped into one bucket," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin lamented. The Aggies have had a tough offseason and Sumlin believes his players' off-field problems have been judged somewhat unfairly. (An aside, coach: It's not a saying but it should be, "The police blotter don't lie.")
  • Tough news for former Alabama defensive lineman Jesse Williams. The Seattle Seahawk, fresh off an entire rookie season spent on the injured reserve list, was carted off of the practice field with a leg injury. The Monstar, as he likes to be called, has a history of knee problems. Here's to a speedy recovery for the lovable Aussie.
  • Tennessee is not necessarily lacking for talent. The problem for the Vols is that the majority of it resides in its freshman class. A veteran star in his own right, linebacker C.J. Johnson said you need to have the "right mindset" to play early. With a whopping 35 players in the 2014 signing class, the law of averages seems to favor at least a few possessing the ability to contribute as rookies, right?
  • Wait, so Auburn got a commitment from Jeremy Johnson yesterday? No, it's not the same guy who already backs up Nick Marshall at quarterback. Unfortunately for our purposes the younger Johnson is a baseball player. But that doesn't mean he doesn't think toting the pigskin is out of the question. "Maybe Auburn was interested in me (for football) for some time, but I lost contact," he told Al.com. "I'm not sure. If they need a kick/punt returner, I specialize in that."
  • South Carolina signed five cornerbacks in its 2014 class. But before Wednesday, only two had been cleared by the NCAA to get on campus. Well, good news for the Gamecocks: Chris Lammon and Wesley Green, two of their top four overall prospects, according to ESPN, are good to go, according to coach Steve Spurrier.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Last year's season-opener should have been a moment of triumph for Jay Hughes. His unranked Mississippi State Bulldogs went into Reliant Stadium in Houston against the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys with something to prove. Down three starters in the secondary, including two NFL-caliber cornerbacks, it was thought that the game would devolve into a shootout that favored the air-it-out Cowboys offense, which had averaged 547 yards and 45.7 points per game the season prior.

[+] EnlargeJay Hughes
Marvin Gentry/USA Today SportsJay Hughes, who has recovered from last year's season-ending injury, says the Bulldogs have the talent to make some noise in the SEC this season.
Hughes heard "all the negative things about the secondary," he said toward the end of fall camp. He also heard one Cowboys player say that, "Sometimes those SEC defenses lose their breath" against up-tempo offenses like theirs. He heard it all, and showed up anyways, ready for his first full season as a starter at safety. And for two series, it looked like Hughes and his defense would have the last laugh.

But with a second straight three-and-out in sight, Hughes stepped in front of a pass from Clint Chelf, knocked down the ball and immediately fell to one knee. He could have been stepped on or fallen awkwardly; you couldn't tell from the television replay. Writhing on the turf, he grabbed his right heel, and after a minute or so, tried to get to the sideline under his own power but couldn't. With the support of two trainers, he limped out of the frame. He had a torn ACL. His season was over.

It was hard for everyone on the team to see Hughes go down like that. Veteran linebacker Bernardrick McKinney described it as a "very emotional time for Jay." He had a decision to make: Either ask "Why me?" or "What can I do?" He chose the latter.

"I knew the moment I got hurt I still had to be there for my teammates," Hughes said. "I was still going to meetings, still going to special teams meetings, all while I was doing my rehab."

After a couple of road trips spent recuperating at home in Starkville, Mississippi, he decided enough was enough. He was going to the Texas A&M game to be a part of his team no matter what.

"I said, 'I'm going to pack my bags. I'm going to go with my boys this week,'" he said. "I'm on the sideline with crutches and a boot. I'm there saying, 'I don't need no crutches.'"

As the lone member of the Juice Boys in College Station that day -- the group whose "role is to keep the crowd going" is made of primarily scout team players who don't usually travel to away games -- he wrapped two towels together in order to better stand out. And he did, especially to his teammates.

"That means a lot," McKinney said. "He has a lot of heart. He pushes us even when he's hurt. He was at every game trying to push us up, even in the bad times telling us, 'We got it.'"

Despite losing the opener to Oklahoma State, 21-3, and dropping five of the next nine games, Mississippi State rallied to win three straight and finish 7-6 overall.

Instead of entering this season with a bleak outlook and a lack of experience on defense, there's hope and optimism and depth on both sides of the ball. The secondary alone returns three starters -- not including Hughes, who wasn't able to fully participate in spring practice but will be 100 percent in time for fall camp, which begins Thursday.

"I'm back, so let's go," Hughes said. "It's time. Let's do it.

"I'm hungry. I'm ready to eat. It's really good to be back on the field."

"Him coming back made his life complete again," McKinney said. "He's a hard worker. He's getting the safeties right. He's back running full-speed."

Coach Dan Mullen called Hughes a "great young man, worker and leader" on defense.

"It is a huge lift for all of our guys to have him back," he said.

Even quarterback Dak Prescott has noticed.

"They're all following Jay's lead," he said. "When you have a guy like that to look up to, it's fantastic."

If Hughes is setting the tone, it might be best described as "Championship or bust."

After so many years of running in the middle of the pack of the SEC West, Mississippi State feels this season is its best chance to reach Atlanta. Alabama and LSU have new quarterbacks, and Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have a promising offense with Prescott under center, a defense loaded with depth and young talent such as rising star Chris Jones, and a schedule that sets up favorably with no real challenges out of conference and an SEC East rotation that includes Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

"It's almost like we know, man," Hughes said of the team's hunger to win a championship. "It's almost like we know. We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers and the experience we have on the field. And with that, it's all up to us.

"We have the talent, we have the numbers, now what are we going to do?"

Expectations have risen among coaches, fans, family and "even ourselves," Hughes said. After the way last season went down and the promise that lies ahead, Hughes isn't ready to waste the opportunity.

"It's really serious right now," he said. "I tell my guys as soon as you step in this building, nothing else matters. You get that look in your eyes, and let's go, let's work."

Top SEC players: Nos. 10-6

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Our top 25 countdown of the SEC's best 25 players for 2014 continues with selections 10-6.

10. Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: Like any true freshman, Jones was inconsistent at times last year. But it was obvious the talent was there. He had 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, and maybe his most impressive stat was the 10 quarterback hurries. He proved to be a nightmare for opposing signal-callers. This fall, the true sophomore is bigger, stronger and more experienced. The sky's the limit for the former star recruit.

9. Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn: After briefly flirting with the NFL, Dismukes felt he had unfinished business at Auburn and returned to school for his senior year. The veteran, who has started 37 games over the past three seasons, has been through the good times and the bad during his time on the Plains. He hopes to end his career on a high note, anchoring one of the best offensive lines in all of college football.

8. A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama: Fellow freshmen Jones and Robert Nkemdiche stole the headlines heading into last year but Robinson outplayed both, finishing with 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Nobody's sleeping on him this year. Robinson has yet to turn 20, though he looks closer to 40, and he'll be counted on to make plays up front for a Crimson Tide defense that struggled down the stretch a year ago.

7. Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida: It was a disappointing season for the Gators last year, but Fowler was one of the only bright spots for this team. The sophomore, who played all over the defense, led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and three fumbles forced. This could be his last year in Gainesville -- he's a projected top-10 draft pick -- and his play will be critical if Florida wants to rebound and contend in a wide-open SEC East.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: This will be the first time since Gus Malzahn has been at Auburn, both as head coach and offensive coordinator, that he has a quarterback returning. The question is, can Marshall take that next step? He's reportedly improved his throwing ability, and despite his recent citation, teammates claim he's become more of a leader this offseason. If he can stay healthy and stay out of trouble, he has the talent to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Best cross-conference recruiting battles 

July, 31, 2014
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Some recruits get attention from all over the country. Whether it’s their prowess or proximity to multiple teams, top prospects will have schools from multiple conferences pursuing them. ESPN.com’s conference recruiting reporters look at five players in the recently updated ESPN 300 who have different conferences after them and have recruiting battles that could carry throughout the fall.

NOTE: For battles with multiple teams, reporters chose reported leaders or best fits.

For all those people fretting that a playoff in college football would somehow water down the regular season, I offer up the blockbuster weekend of Sept. 3. 2016.

Yes, it’s still a couple of years away and we’re supposed to be focusing on what’s right in front of us. But, geez, that Saturday to open the 2016 season could very well provide the most attractive lineup of nonconference games on one day that we’ve ever seen.

For that, at least in large part, we all have the College Football Playoff to thank.

Some of the matchups were already set or in the process of being set. But the real impetus in beefing up all these nonconference schedules was that a playoff was coming.

And, now, with a selection committee holding the keys to those coveted four playoff spots, we’re going to be in store for some terrific nonconference showdowns in the regular season for years to come. Simply, teams that don’t play and win those types of games are going to be on the outside looking in, which makes the regular season as important as ever.

My only knock on that weekend to kick off the 2016 season is that there are too many good games. I want to watch them all.

We’ve all been clamoring for an Alabama-USCmatchup. Well, we’re finally going to get it in Arlington, Texas to open that season.

And if you like your football Southern style, Clemson at Auburn has a nice ring to it. Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist, once said that Clemson was Auburn with a lake. In a lot of ways, they’re virtual clones of each other right down to their break-neck style of offense. Even more enticing, this is a home-and-home series with Auburn traveling to Clemson the next year.

There won’t be a more unique game that weekend than LSU facing Wisconsin in historic Lambeau Field. Perhaps we’ll get to see Les Miles perform the “Lambeau Leap” if the Tigers win.

Have the remote control ready because we also get UCLA at Texas A&M, Notre Dame at Texas and BYU Cougars at Arizona (in Glendale, Ariz.).

That’s just the first weekend, too.

A week later, Tennessee and Virginia Tech will “trade paint” at Bristol Motor Speedway. And two weeks later, Ohio State travels to Oklahoma and Oregon visits Nebraska.

So much for opening the college football season with a tune-up … or two.

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