SEC: Auburn Tigers

AUBURN, Ala. – It was a tale of two halves for No. 6 Auburn, both with their quarterbacks and with their defense.

In the first half, quarterback Jeremy Johnson took advantage of his opportunity and threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns. The defense, on the other hand, didn’t look so good. Arkansas rushed for 151 yards in the first half and put up 21 points.

In the second half, Gus Malzahn turned to Nick Marshall at quarterback, and the defense shut down the Razorbacks as Auburn rolled to a 45-21 victory.

The rise of Duke

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We heard all offseason about junior college wide receiver D'haquille Williams or “Duke” as he’s referred to around Auburn. Well, he didn’t disappoint in his debut. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound phenom finished with nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown, but it was a play late in the first quarter that really showed off his athleticism. Williams blew past the defense on a post route, caught the ball in stride and nearly took it to the house.

Williams: “I just stuck it to the outside, he bit on it a little bit, and that gave me enough room to catch the ball and go with it. When I was running, I was just looking to the end zone, thinking I was going to score. Something told me to look back, and when I looked back, he was coming. I tried to stiff arm him, but when I got shoestring tackled, I was like, ‘No way.’”

Johnson: “I actually thought he was going to score, but once I saw him start running, I was just like, ‘Yep, he ain’t that fast.’ He’s got to lose a couple pounds.”

Marshall returns

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Johnson made people forget about Marshall in the first half, going 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but it was Auburn’s No. 1 quarterback who led the offense onto the field to start the second half. Once he was out there, it didn’t take long for Marshall to shows flashes of last season. The senior capped his first drive with a nifty 19-yard touchdown run on a classic zone-read play. The play, along with Marshall’s return, energized the whole team.

Malzahn: “It was just a certain way they were playing us, and they were kind of keying on our running back. We got a couple good blocks at the point of attack, and it opened up. Avery Young made a really good open-field block on the safety and allowed Nick to score.”

Auburn center Reese Dismukes: “I saw Nick run it in, and I did the whole Bruce Pearl -- ‘He’s back!’ It was good to see him get in there and rush for a touchdown.”

Pivotal pick-six

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Auburn’s defense was gashed in the first half, and with the game still very much in doubt, the Tigers needed a play. Jermaine Whitehead delivered. The senior safety intercepted Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-21. The errant pass was caused by Robenson Therezie, who blitzed up the middle and hit Allen just as he let go of the ball. It turned out to be a backbreaker for the Razorbacks.

Whitehead: “We were in a zero blitz, and Robenson Therezie got a push on the quarterback along with the rest of the D-line. He hit the quarterback, the ball came out wobbly, and it was in the air forever. When it finally decided to come down, I saw a lot of room, saw all of the D-line ready to make blocks. They cracked on some people. I can’t wait to watch it on film.”

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:
Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
There’s been no more talked about storyline in the SEC this offseason than the conference's lack of name recognition at quarterback. But are we making too big a deal of the lack of experience? Hugh Freeze, who boasts the most seasoned quarterback in the league in senior Bo Wallace, seems to think so. He told ESPN, “Too much is made of that. Last year at this point, who talked about Nick Marshall? Nobody. Who talked about Johnny Manziel before his first year? Nobody.”

Numbers never lie

Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.

[+] EnlargeManziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesQuarterbacks come to college more prepared than ever to step in as freshmen and succeed.
All told, since the 2000-01 season there have been 12 inexperienced quarterbacks (fewer than six career starts entering the season) who have appeared in the BCS title game.

Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.

Remember your history

There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.

The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.

Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.

McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.

Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.

QBs aren’t young anymore

There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.

The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.

With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.

Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.

Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.

“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."

He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”

Let the vet have his shot

Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.

At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.

At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.

But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.

You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."

Impact freshmen from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough

Breakout players from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
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Every year there are a handful of players who break out and become stars in the SEC. Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall are two of the more obvious ones recently, but it doesn’t always have to be a quarterback. Just look at what Michael Sam did last season at Missouri. Who will this be this year’s breakout star? We predict five who could take that next step.

D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan

De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough

O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough

Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

More from around the SEC:
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SEC morning links

August, 27, 2014
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1. The college football season is just a day away, and what better way to kick things off than with a premier matchup in the SEC between South Carolina and Texas A&M. In fact, it’s just one of many intriguing games during the first weekend. Feel blessed. In 2004, the best SEC game from the opening weekend was No. 3 LSU against a mediocre Oregon State team. Matchups like Alabama-Utah State or Georgia-Georgia Southern were more the norm. But let's get back to this season. Athlon Sports previewed the top five college football games of Week 1, and four of the five included SEC teams. LSU-Wisconsin is at the top of my list just because I have no idea what to expect from the Tigers.

2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.

3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.

Around the SEC
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Video: Auburn's Week 1 QB plan

August, 26, 2014
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ESPN.com reporters Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss Auburn's quarterback plan for Week 1.
AUBURN, Ala. -- If you don't follow Auburn football or if you didn't happen to catch the Tigers in action against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last season, then there's a chance you don't know who Jeremy Johnson is. That's OK. You will.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson says he's ready to play football -- whether he's starting or not.
Johnson is currently the Tigers' backup quarterback behind Nick Marshall. The sophomore will be introduced to the SEC on Saturday when he will start -- or is expected to start -- the season opener against Arkansas in lieu of Marshall's marijuana citation this offseason. Both quarterbacks are expected to play, but it will easily be the biggest start of Johnson's life.

Nervous? Not Johnson.

"Football is football, and I'm a football player," he said. "That's why I'm here.”

The Auburn coaches aren't worried either. Although he hasn't officially named Johnson the starter for Saturday, head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC media days that his backup quarterback could start for the majority of teams in college football. There are a few schools in the SEC who would love to have the 6-foot-5, 230-pound signal-caller right now.

In some areas, he's as good if not better than Marshall.

"Jeremy has a great upside,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He has a big arm, lots of talent, throws a great ball. He's pretty athletic. He's big. He's got a lot of positives.”

But just because Johnson should be starting the season opener Saturday, it doesn't mean that he's going to take the quarterback job and run with it. This is still Marshall's team, and he knows that. That's why when he was facing the media during fall camp, he all but guaranteed his teammate and direct competitor would win the Heisman Trophy. After all, he had a front-row seat last season as Marshall led Auburn to the BCS title game.

"He led us to the national championship, and we were 13 seconds away,” Johnson said. "This year he better at passing, better at running, better at making reads. He's become a leader on this team, and I've never seen him so amped at practice every day the way he is, the way he comes out. So I know for a fact he'll win the Heisman."

Don't forget Johnson's name, though, because his time is coming. At this time next season, Marshall will have graduated and the starting quarterback job will be Johnson's for the taking.

The former ESPN 300 recruit gained some experience last season when he started two games as a true freshman and threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns, but the next step in his development process will be to start and play against SEC competition.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, that opportunity will likely come Saturday.

"It's going to really help him,” Johnson's high school coach Billy Gresham said. "Any time you get a chance to get your second-team quarterback in versus an SEC opponent is always good. He had some good, polished reps last year, but it wasn't the level that Auburn and the SEC are going to play week in, week out.

"Now he gets to test his skills, his knowledge and not only just play well, but manage the offense and the lead the offense on drives. It will be a great test for him.”

After Saturday, Johnson will be better prepared to step in if needed this season, and it will only make him a better quarterback for when it's his turn next year.

"Everybody has their time come, and I'm just waiting on my time,” he said.

Recruiting changing in up-tempo era 

August, 25, 2014
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The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.

With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
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1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

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Who’s next? That’s the question asked by so many college football fans this time of year. Who’s the next star going to be? For some fans, they’re more excited to see the incoming freshmen for the first time rather than the players who are already on campus.

It’s no different at Auburn, where Gus Malzahn and his staff signed a top-10 recruiting class this past February in their first full year together. Now it’s time to take the field, and Malzahn believes a handful of newcomers, true freshmen included, could play when the Tigers open the season at home against Arkansas.

Over the weekend, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee echoed Malzahn’s thoughts and praised the incoming freshmen.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with our freshman class on the offensive side of the ball,” Lashlee said. “I feel like all those guys are what we thought they were or maybe even more.”

Here’s a look at five freshmen on offense who either impressed during fall camp or have a chance to play this season.

Note: This is true freshmen only, which is why junior college transfer D'haquille Williams isn’t on the list.

[+] EnlargeBraden Smith
Courtesy of IntersportBraden Smith's strength and versatility is already making an impact at Auburn.
RB Racean Thomas: Thomas was the highest-ranked recruit in Auburn’s 2014 class, and despite a crowded backfield, he has the best chance to play early. Thomas, who arrived in the summer, impressed the coaches during camp and should only get better as the year goes on. Fellow freshman running back Kamryn Pettway also had a good camp, but Thomas is the name to know. Don’t be surprised if he’s the lead back by the end of the season.

OT Braden Smith: Lashlee refers to him as the Hulk; Reese Dismukes thinks he looks more like Ivan Drago from "Rocky IV." Regardless of what you call him, Smith is a physical specimen. He might be one of the strongest players on the team, and he’s just a freshman. He’s currently taking reps behind Shon Coleman at left tackle, but he can play anywhere and provides a safety valve for the Tigers up front.

HB Jakell Mitchell: It’s been little more than a year since Mitchell tore his ACL, forcing him to miss his senior high school season, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance in fall camp. He’s blown away the coaches with his athleticism, and though he still needs to add weight, he gives Auburn a different look at the H-back position.

WR Stanton Truitt: Unlike the other freshmen on this list, Truitt had the luxury of arriving in January and going through spring practice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he plays a position in which Auburn is loaded. However, there’s a good chance the 5-foot-9, 175-pound dynamo still will find his way onto the field, possibly as a return man.

QB Sean White: Is White going to play this year? The coaches sure hope not. They want to redshirt him, if possible. So why is he on this list? Simple: He was one of the top freshman performers in fall camp and did enough that Malzahn named him the No. 3 quarterback behind Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. White clearly has a bright future.
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Who will the SEC’s next star be? It was the underlying theme at SEC media days as the coaches stole the spotlight, rather than the players, and there’s no doubt the conference lost some serious star power after last year, including one "Johnny Football." But to find the league’s next star, you must first ask yourself: What does it take to be a star?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.

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