SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks

The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.

But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Todd Bennett/Getty ImagesMissouri center Evan Boehm has been providing a lift to the Tigers for years.

You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.

With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:

Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.

Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.

Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.

Five more to watch:

It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.

But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.

This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.

Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:

Running back

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb didn't just fill in when Todd Gurley couldn't go he emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick after rushing for 1,547 yards.

Nick Chubb, So., Georgia

Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.

Leonard Fournette, So., LSU

Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.

Wide Receiver/Tight end

Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina

The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.

D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn

It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.

Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss

If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)Laquon Treadwell is being held out of contact in the spring but is expected to be ready to go in the fall.

Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss

He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!


Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M

Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.

More to watch:

Who's the one player that each SEC team will miss the most from last season? That's the question we asked this week. On Tuesday, we looked at every team from the East. Now, it's time to set our sights on the West.

Alabama: WR Amari Cooper

How valuable was Cooper? The Heisman finalist accounted for over 40 percent of the team's receptions and receiving yards last season. He took the term "go-to target" to another level. Now it's up to a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters to replace him. Chris Black might be the most proven at this point, but there's a trio of sophomores-to-be -- ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims and Robert Foster -- that should all earn more minutes this fall. The talent is there, but it's going to take a team effort to fill the void left by Cooper. One guy can't do it alone.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Butch DillAmari Cooper leaves behind a group of talented, but young, receivers at Alabama to take his place.

Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers

The defense won't be the same without players such as Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, but Flowers will be especially missed because of the leadership he provided. Brandon Lewis backed up Flowers last season and therefore should be considered the front-runner to win the job, but he's had to sit out this spring due to injury. That's opened the door for Deatrich Wise to take over the defensive end spot opposite JaMichael Winston, and both Wise and Winston have made it a point to take on more of a leadership role with Flowers gone.

Auburn: C Reese Dismukes

As good as Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates played the past two seasons, Dismukes was the real MVP for this Auburn team. Fifty career starts, and every play started in his hands. The position itself might be overlooked by some, but it's a critical element to Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. That's why the coaches have moved former right tackle Austin Golson, arguably the best lineman on the roster, to center in hopes that he can pick up where Dismukes left off. He and Xavier Dampeer are battling for the starting job this spring.

LSU: OT La'el Collins

Fans are going to miss Collins and Vadal Alexander on the same side, mauling opponents in the run game. There wasn't a more formidable tackle-guard combination in the SEC last season. But Collins has moved on, and Alexander is moving from left guard to right tackle. Meanwhile, LSU's former right tackle, Jerald Hawkins, will be moving to the left side to replace Collins. At 6-foot-9, 309 pounds, he certainly looks the part. And he's already come out and said that left tackle feels like a natural position. But replacing Collins will be no easy task.

Mississippi State: LB Benardrick McKinney
You can't blame McKinney for leaving school early, not after the season he had. But it leaves a gaping hole on that defense. McKinney was not only the team's most productive linebacker, but he also served as the leader for the entire unit. However, the Mississippi State coaches are confident Richie Brown can be that guy. He finished sixth on the team in tackles last season and who can forget his memorable three-interception performance against Texas A&M? The Bulldogs will also get a boost this summer with the addition of freshman Leo Lewis.

Ole Miss: S Cody Prewitt

Senquez Golson put up the numbers last season, but Prewitt's play and leadership on the back end will be missed even more. He defined that Landsharks defense. To replace him, the Rebels are having to make some changes in the secondary. Senior-to-be Trae Elston is moving from strong safety to free safety where he'll take over for Prewitt, and cornerback Mike Hilton is moving to the now vacant strong safety position. C.J. Hampton is another guy who can play both safety spots and should have a bigger role as a sophomore next fall.

Texas A&M: WR Malcome Kennedy

The Aggies are loaded at wide receiver. Even with Kennedy graduating, they still have Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Edward Pope all coming back. But Kennedy provided the intangibles for this team last season. He was reliable. When the team needed a first down, he was there. When he sat out against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the team struggled with drops and lost both games. There are some things you just can't teach. The hope is that Kennedy set an example for the younger receivers heading into the 2015 season.

SEC morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25

It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!

Tweet of the day

It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?

In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.

It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.

I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.

Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs
  2. Auburn Tigers
  3. Alabama Crimson Tide
  4. Tennessee Volunteers
  5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
  6. Arkansas Razorbacks
  7. Ole Miss Rebels
  8. Missouri Tigers
  9. LSU Tigers
  10. Texas A&M Aggies
  11. Florida Gators
  12. South Carolina Gamecocks
  13. Kentucky Wildcats
  14. Vanderbilt Commodores
[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsVolunteers QB Joshua Dobbs has a bounty of talented pass-catchers to throw to in 2015.


In Memphis, Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee

No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU


In Charlotte, North Carolina

No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU

In Orlando, Florida

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee

In Houston

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson is sure to surpass his 436 total yards passing from last season.

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas


In Arlington, Texas

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn

The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.

But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.

Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).

The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.

After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:

  1. Auburn
  2. Georgia
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Arkansas
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Texas A&M
  9. Missouri
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Florida
  13. Kentucky
  14. Vanderbilt


In Memphis, Tennessee

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry looks to build on a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M


In Charlotte, North Carolina

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWill Muschamp takes over an Auburn passing defense that was ranked 86th in yards per game allowed last season.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn

In Orlando, Florida

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee


In Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn

SEC morning links

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20

Don't worry if your bracket is busted today. No one had UAB and Georgia State advancing, not even the President of the United States. And really, if you do better than President Barack Obama's bracket, isn't that enough?

  • They're not quite the odd couple but they're certainly from different backgrounds. Nonetheless, Florida quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris have formed a friendship in the midst of competition. Harris has the leg up after starting a few games last year, but Grier says, "It was a blessing, just getting a year to work on my body, work on the mental side of the game and still getting to travel and see everything. I think it helped me overall."
  • It's only spring practice, but at Mississippi State there's a depth chart. With so many holes to fill from last year's squad, it's an interesting glimpse into how the Bulldogs might look in 2015.
  • Sometimes rules have unintended consequences. Former Auburn Tiger Khari Harding knows that all too well. The linebacker transferred from Auburn to Tulsa so he could be closer to his father, who is battling cancer. But the hardship waiver that used to exist for such family circumstances is no longer as the NCAA removed the provision that would allow for immediate eligibility. Here's to hoping that treatment goes well and Khari is able to play in front of his father in 2016.
  • All 32 NFL teams were in attendance for Missouri's pro day. The headliner, of course, was stud pass-rusher Shane Ray. But if Ray felt any pressure, he had a swarm of family there to support him.
  • It starts with defense, obviously, but Texas A&M has more to do than hope John Chavis can work his magic. Here are the five biggest issues facing the Aggies this spring.
  • Really, what does Jonathan Williams have left to prove? Bret Bielema doesn't seem to think there's much, which is why he's using the same tactic he did a year ago with Trey Flowers by sitting Williams out of live scrimmages during the spring. Without Williams or Alex Collins, who is recovering from an appendectomy, there's plenty of carries to go around.

Like any politician, football coaches have their talking points. If you listen to enough news conferences and conduct enough interviews, you will learn how to spot them.

Even Bret Bielema, who so often strays off course to argue for change regarding the pace of play in college football, has a theme he wants to get across about Arkansas. This year’s involves a different way of looking at last season’s 7-6 finish: "It’s not a landing point, it’s a launching point."

[+] EnlargeHunter Henry
AP Photo/April L. BrownTight end Hunter Henry is among the reasons Bret Bielema is excited about Arkansas' offense.

"It’s something I think can launch this program into the highest level of success," he told late last week.

But how do they get there? How does Arkansas go from a team on the rise to a team competing for conference titles?

Bielema, who said players are just now beginning to see that "Two plus two really is four," believes that consistently beating good teams is the key.

Beating LSU 17-0 was the first step. Throttling Ole Miss 30-0 served as reinforcement. And taking care of Texas to end the season? That might have been the biggest eye-opener of all about where Arkansas is headed.

"To beat Texas 31-7 and take a knee three times at the 1-yard line because we could, that instilled a mentality in our guys and a level of confidence," Bielema said.

Adding to that confidence is the addition of new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, who gave up a head coaching job at Central Michigan to join Arkansas’ staff.

According to Bielema, Enos’ impact has already been felt by simplifying an offense Bielema thought "got a little wordy" and was "hard for our players to play early and play fast."

"Dan has a little confidence, a little swagger," Bielema said. "He walks in a room and you can feel. The kids feel the energy. It reminds me a lot of the transition we had a year ago when I brought [defensive coordinator] Robb Smith in. It was an uttering and oozing of confidence; it’s a good thing."

With two 1,000-yard rushers returning (Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins), a fifth-year quarterback with loads of starting experience (Brandon Allen), and a tight end who is arguably the best in the conference (Hunter Henry), there is plenty to feel confident about? The play at receiver, which has been uninspiring recently, should only get better. Senior Keon Hatcher, the team’s leading pass-catcher, closed last season with touchdowns in three consecutive games.

But, staying true to his roots, the thing that excites Bielema most is the guys on offense who play with their hands in the dirt.

"[The offensive line] is going to be a huge, huge asset to our program," he said. "We have our best pass-pro play over to our left tackle spot, Denver Kirkland. We moved Dan Skipper from left to right; he’s in a good battle with Brian Wallace for that right tackle spot. We have Sebastian Tretola at left guard, which puts two of better players right next to each other to play a little left-handed football. Frank Ragnow we moved from second-string center to first-string right guard. He looks great. He’s put on 30 pounds in the last few months and still has less than 10 percent body fat and runs like a deer."

He later added: "I think O-line and tight end play could be at a high here, one of the best we’ve had."

The defense will have to adjust without Trey Flowers and Darius Philon up front, and Martrell Spraight at linebacker, but that does little to dissuade Bielema’s excitement.

"Offensively, it’s going to be a lot of fun to sit back and watch these guys work," he said.

For a program that lost nine games and was one of only 17 teams at the FBS level with 30 or fewer touchdowns in 2013, that’s progress.

But, according to Bielema, that progress isn’t complete. It’s what he’ll preach all spring and summer and on into the fall.

Whether his words turn into action, either on the field with his own team or off of it regarding pace of play, remains to be seen. But as Steve Spurrier and so many other coaches describe it, this is Talking Season. You have to say something.

Sadly, college football's version of the NCAA tournament doesn't reach anywhere near 64 teams. There's no 5-12 matchup to roll the dice on. There's no play-in game to whet your appetite.

But that doesn't mean there can't be a Cinderella on the gridiron.

Teams can come out of nowhere to reach the big game. It happens all the time. Remember when Boise State toppled Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl? Only two years ago, Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-2 and in Pasadena, California for the BCS National Championship Game. You could even argue that Ohio State winning the playoff after losing both its starting quarterbacks and barely beating out a Big 12 team to get in was something of a fairy tale.

So the question becomes who will be 2015's Cinderellas? Does the shoe fit anywhere in the SEC?

Tennessee: As one SEC coach told me recently, "Tennessee, where were they two years ago?" The answer, of course, was nowhere. Phillip Fulmer was long gone. The ghost of Lane Kiffin still hung somewhere over Rocky Top. And Derek Dooley was still a favorite punching bag. Butch Jones was only getting started and in 2013 he and the Vols finished with an unspectacular 5-7 record. Now, they're on the cusp. They're still young, granted, but after reaching and winning a bowl game with almost no experience on either the offensive or defensive lines last season, you have to recognize there's potential there. In a lackluster SEC East, the road to Atlanta isn't exactly treacherous. Win there and you're likely in the playoff. From there, it's all about the roll of the dice.

Arkansas: The same question that SEC coach had about Tennessee two years ago applies to Arkansas as well. Houston Nutt was long gone. The ghost of Bobby Petrino still hung somewhere over Razorback Stadium. And John L. Smith was still a favorite punching bag. In 2013, Bret Bielema was only getting started. The Hogs went winless in the SEC and people questioned whether Bielema's brand of smash-mouth football from Wisconsin could work at Arkansas. Now that message has changed after the team took an almost inexplicable jump forward. Despite a difficult schedule, Arkansas won eight games, including a bowl win over Texas. Their road to Atlanta is more difficult in the West against the likes of Alabama and LSU, but with a veteran quarterback and two of the best running backs in the country, there's a formula there that could lead to even more success.

Texas A&M: Don't picture John Chavis wearing a glass slipper. Instead imagine him as the glass slipper. Stay with me here because Chavis is the key. If he can work the same magic he did building LSU into a defensive powerhouse at Texas A&M, then the sky's the limit. There's talent there with players like Myles Garrett and Daylon Mack. And on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin has an embarrassment of riches. One top-ranked quarterback will win the job, whether that's Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray. Whoever is under center will then have a couple potential stars at receiver in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. If the offense keeps putting up points like it has in the past and Chavis brings the defense out from the dumps, then the Aggies could make some noise in 2015.

The state of Florida is generally loaded with playmakers at wide receiver. In fact, over the last five years, the state has produced at least eight ESPN 300 prospects in every class. This year’s group of wide receivers just might top them all. An astounding 15 wideouts from the Sunshine State are listed in the ESPN Junior 300. It’s the deepest wide receiver class to come out of Florida in recent memory.

SEC morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19

It's tournament time. Before you call in sick for work (wink, wink), how about we take a quick look around the SEC?

Tweet of the day

There goes Steve Spurrier hatin' again ...

Despite being only a sophomore in high school, Jack Anderson has already developed into one of the top offensive linemen in Texas and could easily become the top line target in the nation for the 2017 class.

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SEC morning links

March, 18, 2015
Mar 18

1. What is going on in Starkville? Last Thursday, offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins was arrested on a simple assault warrant. But now, according to a report from SB Nation, it looks like the wrong player might have been arrested. The report shows two affidavits from the victim accusing Brandon Bryant and Grant Harris of assault, not Jenkins. Mississippi State released a statement Tuesday refuting the report, though it’s still unclear what happened. Head coach Dan Mullen, who addressed the media after practice, said they are still investigating the situation and would handle all team discipline internally. This latest incident comes on the heels of the spring break attack involving quarterback Dak Prescott, and the arrest of wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. Clearly, this is not the way the Bulldogs wanted to begin spring practice.

2. SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina also kicked off spring practice Tuesday. The Bulldogs got their first taste of new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and the only notable difference between him and his predecessor Mike Bobo? “He’s a lot nicer.” That was according to All-SEC running back Nick Chubb. Meanwhile, there was a new sense of urgency at South Carolina’s first practice after last season’s disappointing 7-6 finish, and the attitude impressed head coach Steve Spurrier. “There’s not a sense of ‘We’re pretty good,’ let’s put it that way,” Spurrier said. And similar to Schottenheimer at Georgia, new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke brought a new scheme and energy to the Gamecocks practice.

3. The sports world is still stunned by Chris Borland's decision to retire. The San Francisco 49ers linebacker just finished his rookie season and had star written all over him. What does this mean for the future of the sport? Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who recruited and coached Borland while at Wisconsin, has been concerned about player safety for years. He had a chance to say “I told you so” this week but instead used it as a platform to drive his point home. “We have an obligation to do what’s right,” he said. “I can’t understand how some guys can’t see that.” As Matt Hayes of the Sporting News writes, maybe it’s time that we start taking Bielema a little more seriously, regardless of which side you’re on when it comes to hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. After all, player safety should be the No. 1 concern.

Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Let me start out by wishing everybody a happy St. Patrick's Day. I hope you all remembered to wear green today. Now let's get to the links.

1. Florida held its first practice of the spring Monday, and with it came the official start to the Jim McElwain era. There was a newfound energy among the players, but that didn’t change the fact that there were still more questions than answers after practice was over. It’s always that way this time of year, and a new coach only adds more intrigue. Who is going to be the starting quarterback? How will the offense look under McElwain? How does the defense replace a star like Dante Fowler Jr.? You get the picture. But it was clear that finding a quarterback is at the top of McElwain’s to-do list. Redshirt freshman Will Grier took the first snap in Monday’s practice, but don’t read much into that. McElwain didn’t even notice who took it, or at least that is what he says. Either way, it should be a fun battle to watch in the coming weeks.

2. The Gators weren’t the only SEC team to kick off spring practice on Monday. Across the conference, Bret Bielema and his upstart Arkansas team got back on the field for the first time since knocking off Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The Razorbacks are going through their own changes this spring with the addition of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and learning the terminology was priority No. 1 the first day. Meanwhile, the defense is in search of playmakers after losing so much production from a season ago, and it didn’t take long to figure out that redshirt freshman defensive back Santos Ramirez can be one of those impact players. He’s drawn rave reviews from the coaches since he first stepped on campus.

Around the SEC

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Offseason spotlight: Arkansas

March, 16, 2015
Mar 16

After losing the likes of Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, and Martrell Spaight on defense, Arkansas is in need of somebody to step up and provide leadership for this group. Brooks Ellis, a returning starter at linebacker, might just be the best candidate to do that next fall.

Spotlight: Linebacker Brooks Ellis, 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, junior

[+] EnlargeBrooks Ellis
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLinebacker Brooks Ellis, 51, moves to the weak side this season.

2014 summary: Ellis moved into a full-time starting role at middle linebacker and finished second on the team in tackles (72) despite missing two games because of injury. The in-state product also had 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles for a Razorbacks defense that was as good as anybody in the country down the stretch. His best game came in a 17-10 loss to then No. 1 Mississippi State. Ellis finished with a career-high 12 tackles, and notched his first career interception against the Bulldogs.

The skinny: This spring, Ellis is moving from middle to weakside linebacker and filling the void left by Spaight, the SEC’s leading tackler. For Arkansas, it gives fellow junior Josh Williams a chance to start in the middle. For Ellis, it’s an opportunity to showcase his versatility and play a position that allows him to blitz more and make more plays. Just look at what Spaight did last season from the weak side. He finished with 128 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and two forced fumbles, earning All-SEC honors for his efforts. Now he’s projected to go as high as the fourth round in the upcoming NFL draft. Ellis is no dummy. He saw the season Spaight had and has therefore embraced the position change. And just because he’s moving to the weak side doesn’t mean he won’t still be the leader of this defense and the one making the calls. That is another challenge he’s looking forward to in the fall. If the Arkansas defense wants to match the success it had a season ago, it needs to start with Ellis.