SEC: LSU Tigers

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Fullback is a disappearing position in the NFL. Connor Neighbors understands this reality.

That's why LSU's senior fullback is less concerned about his positioning for the NFL draft than he is about finding a pro team that still uses players with his skillset in this era of wide-open offensive schemes.

[+] EnlargeConnor Neighbors
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisLSU's Connor Neighbors is hoping a trip to the Senior Bowl in his home state of Alabama can help match him with an NFL team in need of a fullback.
"I don't really care about the draft," Neighbors said. "If I get drafted, that's fine. I just want to have a chance to play on a team. And I'm a football player, too. I can play special teams. I can do all that stuff. So as long as I have a chance and I seize the opportunity and make a team, that's all I really care about."

His recently accepted invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game shows that scouts believe Neighbors has the makings of a pro fullback. But Neighbors is smart to hedge his bets on becoming an actual draft pick.

Since 2007, when a whopping nine fullbacks came off the board in the draft, the number of players drafted from Neighbors' position has dwindled. In each of the last three drafts, only three fullbacks have been selected. And in the last five years, a total of 16 fullbacks came off the board.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and NFLDraftScout.com both rate Neighbors as the No. 5 fullback prospect in the upcoming draft, which indicates that becoming a late-round pick or undrafted free agent might be Neighbors' most likely path to an NFL roster.

If he goes the undrafted free agent route, Neighbors will have to find a club that makes use of his position -- and he admits he has been paying attention to where he might be a good fit.

"Ever since I moved to the position, when I've watched football, I've seen that," Neighbors said. "I know that a lot of teams, they have a package for [fullbacks]. Not everyone, NFL teams, they don't really use it that often. ...

"Tennessee uses one. [Former LSU quarterback and current Titans rookie Zach Mettenberger is] trying to get me to go there. He's like, 'How awesome would it be?' if I was there. That would be tight," Neighbors continued. "I know Atlanta uses one. Green Bay, they use one -- and they give him the ball -- so that would be tight if I went there. I try not to worry about that stuff, though, because I can't determine the outcome except with my play."

His performances in the Senior Bowl practices can help. Scouts flock to observe the game-week practices each year in order to see many of the nation's top senior prospects go head to head. For a player with three career carries for 6 yards and 11 career receptions for 119 yards, this is a good chance for Neighbors to show them that he can handle the ball, as well as block and cover kicks.

"I heard it's a pretty intense week, so we'll see what happens," Neighbors said.

Neighbors has a first-hand source who can attest to that intensity. His dad, Wes, played in the Senior Bowl in 1987 after an All-SEC career at Alabama. His late grandfather Billy, a College Football Hall of Famer, was an All-American at Alabama and played in the game in 1962.

Since the Senior Bowl is played in Neighbors' home state of Alabama -- in Mobile -- friends and family won't have far to travel to see him become the third Neighbors to compete in the game. And Neighbors expects plenty of them to show up for his final college game.

"That's what my dad said," Neighbors said, "so I've got to play good so I don't embarrass anybody."
Les Miles said his discussions with the players haven’t gone beyond the informal stage yet, but he knows that a number of LSU players are weighing the possibility of entering the NFL draft after the season.

That’s nothing new for LSU’s coach, who has lost 17 underclassmen to the draft in the last two years, but he also knows the potential that will exist for his 2015 team if juniors like offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive backs Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills opt to return.

“I think that this team has the potential to play in championships and should the juniors recognize how close we are to being in the [College Football Playoff] that frankly this could be a great class for quite some time and a great team for quite some time,” Miles said this week.

Those upcoming decisions will be a major factor in whether LSU fulfills that potential next season. Miles said he has made and will make that point in further discussions with his underclassmen on whether another year in college would benefit them.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoJalen Mills is one of several LSU draft-eligible defenders with a decision to make.
“It’s just basically revealing simple statistics about conference opponents and guys that are going to have senior quarterbacks and teams that are going to lose this and lose that, whereas we’re really in pretty good shape should we return our junior class,” Miles said.

Earlier today, we examined each position on LSU’s offensive roster and which players have NFL decions to make. Now we turn to the defense:

DEFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Defensive end Jermauria Rasco (63 tackles, 4 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss)

Key draft-eligible player: Junior defensive end Danielle Hunter (64 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 12 TFL)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 TFL), freshman defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (34 tackles, 1.5 TFL)

Comment: Hunter refused to discuss his draft situation on Wednesday, but there is good reason to believe that he can and will jump to the pros after the bowl game. If he and Rasco are both gone, the Tigers might lean heavily on Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema to provide a pass rush next season. The good news is that the tackle spot will be much better off in 2015 now that LaCouture and Godchaux have established themselves, with junior Quentin Thomas and a number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen (look out for Travonte Valentine) capable of grabbing some playing time for themselves.

LINEBACKER

Key departing seniors: D.J. Welter (35 tackles)

Key draft-eligible players: Junior Kwon Alexander (79 tackles, 7.5 TFL), junior Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Kendell Beckwith (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 6.5 TFL, INT)

Comment: This figures to be a strong position even if Alexander jumps to the pros. Asked whether he requested an evaluation from the NFL’s advisory committee, Alexander said, “One of the coaches told me to put it in. I just threw it in there, but I’m not worrying about that right now. I’m just trying to focus on this bowl game.” He had a strong first season at weakside linebacker, posting a team-high 79 tackles and earning second-team All-SEC honors, but could certainly boost his draft stock by returning. Starting strongside linebacker Louis figures to return, and Beckwith should be a star next year in his first full season as the starter in the middle. Plus, the Tigers will have regulars Deion Jones and Duke Riley back, and freshman Clifton Garrett will be coming off his redshirt season. With so much depth and talent returning, Alexander predicted that his position group next year can be “the best linebackers in the country.”

SECONDARY

Key departing seniors: Safety Ronald Martin (66 tackles, 2 INT)

Key draft-eligible players: Junior cornerback Jalen Collins (33 tackles, INT), junior safety Jalen Mills (54 tackles, 3 TFL, INT), redshift sophomore defensive back Dwayne Thomas (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, INT)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Safety) sophomore Rickey Jefferson (23 tackles, 2 INT), freshman Jamal Adams (56 tackles, 3 TFL), (cornerback) sophomore Tre'Davious White (32 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT)

Comment: Mills and Collins are both expected to explore their draft possibilities. Mills hasn’t spoken to reporters since the end of the season, and Collins said Wednesday that “I’ve thought about it a couple times, but I haven’t made any final decisions yet.” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rates Collins as the No. 8 draft-eligible cornerback prospect for 2015. Even if they both jump to the pros, the secondary should still be in good shape. Thomas and junior safety Corey Thompson will return from injury, while Adams, White and Jefferson have all established themselves as reliable contributors. Rashard Robinson is a wild card, as Miles hasn’t announced whether the suspended cornerback will be allowed back on the team. “I would hope that he might be here [next season],” Miles said earlier this week. If Robinson is gone permanently, the Tigers might have to rely on a freshman like Ed Paris, John Battle or Russell Gage.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: Junior punter Jamie Keehn (45.0 yards per punt), junior snapper Reid Ferguson

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11-15 FG, 34-36 PAT, 67 points)

Comment: Keehn told reporters this week that he plans to return, so LSU’s kicking game should remain intact. In fact, there could be added competition next season now that freshman kicker Cameron Gamble has had time to settle in and possibly challenge Delahoussaye and sophomore Trent Domingue for opportunities on field goal/PAT and kickoffs.

Draft could impact LSU offense in 2015

December, 18, 2014
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Connor Neighbors will be long gone by then, but LSU’s senior fullback believes the Tigers have championship potential in 2015 -- as long as the roster doesn’t take too hard of a hit from the NFL draft.

“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”

The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.

Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:

[+] EnlargeJerald Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertKeeping Jerald Hawkins would go a long way in stabilizing LSU's offensive line next season.
QUARTERBACK

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)

Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.

RUNNING BACK

Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)

Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)

Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)

Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika

Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic

Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”
When LSU and Notre Dame were ranked in the top 10 at points earlier in the season, nobody would have predicted that they would eventually meet in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. And yet here we are.

LSU (8-4) and Notre Dame (7-5) stumbled down the stretch to land in Nashville, Tennessee, and set up their 11th all-time meeting -- the most between Notre Dame and any SEC program.

A bowl win will put a positive spin on a disappointing season for the Tigers or Fighting Irish. Here, LSU writer David Ching and Notre Dame writer Matt Fortuna discuss what a win would mean, as well as best- and worst-case scenarios for the two teams.

What a win would mean for LSU: From a bragging-rights perspective, a win on Dec. 30 would give LSU a winning record (the programs are currently 5-5 head-to-head) against the Fighting Irish. Obviously that would make for a nice historical footnote. As for its modern-day impact, the Tigers are hoping to repeat what happened the last time they met Notre Dame in a bowl. LSU’s 2006 team blasted Notre Dame to end that season and went on to win a BCS title the following year. LSU has some questions to answer this offseason -- particularly at quarterback -- but after enduring some growing pains with a young roster, the Tigers believe they can be playoff contenders next season. A win in Nashville would be a good way to kickstart the offseason.

What a win would mean for Notre Dame: A win over No. 23 LSU would easily be Notre Dame's best victory of the season. More importantly, it would stop the bleeding that comes with a season-ending four-game losing streak. The Irish need positive momentum going into next season, especially with so many familiar faces expected to return in 2015. A lot of that could go out the door if this same cast of characters enters riding a five-game slide and wondering how it all went south so fast following a 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking.

LSU’s best case for bowl: Minus the narrow margin of victory, a game like LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M would be ideal. The Tigers’ defense held a potent offense to just 228 total yards and their offensive scheme was perhaps the most ambitious it has been all year. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was outstanding on quarterback runs (he rushed for 119 yards) and completed passes to seven different teammates, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette was outstanding, and speedy receiver Travin Dural did some damage on jet sweeps. If LSU is to move back toward contender status in 2015, the offense has to be much more effective than it was this fall. Finishing the season with a productive outing against an underwhelming Notre Dame defense would do wonders for the young Tigers’ confidence.

Notre Dame’s best case for bowl: In a weird way, the best-case scenario for Notre Dame would be that Malik Zaire emerges as a star, carves up a really, really good LSU defense, runs the offense to a T and looks like the Irish's quarterback of the future. That is not to say that the Irish cannot win with Everett Golson, or that it would necessarily be good to see him struggle in any way, shape or form. But the fact of the matter is that the Irish have seen all that Golson can and cannot do throughout the course of this season, with his 22 turnovers -- all over the final nine games -- contributing largely to this losing skid. Zaire has yet to start or see meaningful action in a close game, and if he looks great against a great defense, the Irish may just know where to start when it comes to finding the right guy to lead their offense in 2015. The defense needs to play better, sure, but much of that unit's demise can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a litany of injuries. There are no excuses for the offense being as inconsistent as it has as of late, which means success from a fresh face could simplify things for this program moving forward.

LSU’s worst case for bowl: As with Notre Dame, another ugly outing on offense would be the wrong way to enter the offseason. Both teams have good reason to believe their defenses will be strong in 2015, but they need to figure out where they’re going at quarterback (in LSU’s case, is it going to be Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris?) and develop a dependable offensive identity. The power running game will continue to be LSU’s bread and butter, but another game where its quarterback struggles to make drive-extending completions won’t create much confidence that next season will be different for the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame’s worst case for bowl: If the Irish look listless on offense, and if neither quarterback can get things going against the Tigers' defense -- or worse, turns the ball over frequently -- it will be back to the drawing board for Brian Kelly and his offense, which would be entering Year 6 with still no answer at quarterback. Golson cannot afford another outing like his last month of work, and Zaire cannot botch his first major opportunity to make a public statement and to show he is capable of answering the bell with the spotlight on him.

LSU Tigers season review

December, 17, 2014
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LSU will enter 2015 with the same glaring question that faced the Tigers entering a roller coaster 2014 season: Who will be the starting quarterback?

The job belonged to Anthony Jennings for all but one game this fall – a blowout loss at Auburn – but freshman Brandon Harris hasn’t been able to push past the inconsistent sophomore.

While LSU’s defense rebounded from an awful start to eventually lead the SEC in total defense at 305.8 yards allowed per game, the quarterback issues plagued the offense for most of the season, and Cam Cameron’s attack was frustratingly unproductive as a result.

It remains the leading storyline of the season as LSU (8-4, 4-4 SEC) prepares to conclude the season against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

Here is a recap of the Tigers’ season to this point:

Best win: Rival Ole Miss came to Tigers Stadium undefeated and ranked third nationally, but the Rebels left with a disappointing 10-7 loss. Tight end Logan Stokes scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard catch late in the fourth quarter – Stokes’ only catch of the season – and senior safety Ronald Martin sealed the win with an interception at the goal line with 2 seconds remaining. The win briefly reignited LSU’s hopes of sneaking back into the SEC West race, although an overtime loss to Alabama in its next game snuffed out those aspirations.

Worst loss: A 41-7 loss at Auburn was the ugliest, but the Tigers’ most painful defeat was probably its 20-13 overtime loss to Alabama. LSU was in position to upset the eventual SEC champs, grabbing a 13-10 lead on a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds to play. But Alabama drove for the game-tying field goal in the final minute and then won the game with a touchdown pass from Blake Sims to DeAndrew White in overtime. That gave the Crimson Tide, LSU’s bitter rival, its fourth consecutive win in the series.

Player of the year: La'el Collins. Although he could have entered the draft after last season like teammates Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill, Collins returned and almost certainly improved his draft stock. The senior left tackle won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker and generally dominated opponents while becoming LSU’s only first-team All-SEC selection. A three-year starter at LSU, Collins will leave an enormous hole on the left side of the line in 2015.

Breakout player: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Travin Dural probably deserves mention here, too, after leading the team with 758 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but we have to go with Fournette. The freshman running back – formerly the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect – flashed moments of brilliance and carried the Tigers to narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. The SEC All-Freshman team member leads the team with 891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 126.8 all-purpose yards per game. It wasn’t enough to maintain a Heisman Trophy campaign like some expected, but it was a solid debut effort.

Play of the year: We have to go with Fournette’s touchdown run against Texas A&M where he evoked memories of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by running over Aggies safety Howard Matthews on his way to the end zone. LSU fans can only hope it was another sign of great things to come.

video

While Fournette’s powerful run takes the cake, Dural’s school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State deserves a mention, too. The speedy wideout’s catch from Jennings was a heck of a first offensive play in the Tigers’ home opener at expanded Tiger Stadium.

video 2015 outlook: As has been the case in several recent seasons, LSU’s success in 2015 might hinge on which underclassmen decide to enter the draft. The Tigers have been hit hard by the draft lately and might lose a handful of draft-eligible players again this year. Four of LSU’s starting offensive linemen are eligible to enter the draft, as are defensive backs Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins and linebacker Kwon Alexander. This was a young team that should improve next year, and the Tigers could be Western Division contenders if the draft hit isn’t too painful and a consistent quarterback emerges.
Now that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has strutted away with the Heisman Trophy in an utter landslide, it's time to look into the future to see who could be up for that bronze beauty next year.

What's that? We haven't gotten to bowl season? Santa hasn't even come to fill our stockings?

Pssssh! It's never too early for some prognostication that has nothing to do with the current season. And looking ahead to the Heisman is so much fun.

So who could be in the mix for a trip to Times Square next December? I think the SEC has a few candidates to keep an eye on. Too bad Todd Gurley isn't returning, because he would be at the top of this list. In fact, if he didn't deal with that NCAA suspension or lose his season to an ACL injury, Gurley might have won the Heisman over Mariota. But that's a story for another day.

Also, Heisman finalist Amari Cooper isn't on our list because he would be crazy not to bolt to the NFL.

Here's our very early list of possible SEC Heisman candidates in 2015:
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: This hinges on Prescott's NFL prospects. He is awaiting his draft grade, but if Prescott isn't projected to go in the first or second round, expect him to come back for his senior year. Prescott was an early Heisman front-runner in 2014, but his numbers fell in the final month of the season. Still, if he returns, he will be a favorite from the SEC after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014: total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9), touchdowns responsible for (37), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (2,996), passing yards per game (249.7), 200-yard passing games (11), passing touchdowns (24), passing efficiency (151.3) and rushing yards by a quarterback (939).
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: With Gurley sidelined for the second half of the season, Chubb took off. Already impressing everyone when he came in to relieve Gurley, Chubb finished the season with seven straight 100-yard games (all starts), was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged a league-high 6.9 yards per carry. Chubb is explosive and powerful with his runs, and his vision is incredible.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Another special sophomore-to-be to keep an eye on, Fournette needed some time to really get going. But when he did, he was usually the best player on the field. He finished the season with 891 yards and capped the season with 146 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a dominating performance against Texas A&M. Avert your eyes, Aggies! Fournette is a special talent who will be doing a lot more of this in the next couple of years.
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Before his season was cut short by a devastating ankle injury against Auburn, Treadwell was one of the SEC's best overall players. With Cooper most likely jetting for the NFL, Treadwell will return as the SEC's best receiver in 2015. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Treadwell, who has incredible athleticism, led the Rebels with 48 catches. He finished with 632 yards and five touchdowns.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Though he didn't have the season most -- including me -- expected, Henry is a freak of an athlete capable of having a special season. If he is the lead guy in Alabama's backfield next fall, he should compete for the title of best running back in the SEC and improve on the 895 yards and 10 touchdowns he had while splitting carries this fall.
  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The bowling ball had a fantastic season in Starkville, rushing for 1,128 yards (third in the SEC) and 11 touchdowns. Robinson was at the top of the SEC's rushing chart for most of the season and rushed for at least 100 yards four times. His numbers fell off during the final portion of the season, but Robinson is a big-play machine. Small in stature, he is a bull of a runner with a knack for tossing defenders off him or slipping out of their grasp for extra yards.
The NFL could claim these guys:
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: He leads Alabama with 932 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns, but he could take his game to the next level. He wasn't completely healthy this season, but his vision and ball security improved a lot in 2014.
  • D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: He missed two games but still led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Another top-tier athlete, Williams made a ton of clutch plays for Auburn this fall. But with his incredible athleticism and size, he's very much a candidate to leave early.
Keep an eye on:
  • Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M: He had only 559 receiving yards and five touchdowns, but when you are regularly making plays like this, people better be on the lookout for you. Noil is a supreme athlete who will grow with more time in the Aggies' offense.

All-SEC team debates

December, 12, 2014
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Obviously when you take the opinions of six people -- in this case, our group of SEC writers -- we aren’t going to agree about everything. Such was the case this week when we assembled our picks for the SEC blog’s all-conference team.

Some picks were easy. For instance, Alabama’s Amari Cooper might have been the easiest choice for All-SEC wide receiver in history. Others, not so much.

Here are some of the places where we were split on a decision or where we made a somewhat surprising omission, plus a couple of guys who we feel confident will make our team in the future -- possibly as soon as next season:

Sims vs. Prescott at QB

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBlake Sims consistently stepped up in crucial moments for the Crimson Tide over the second half of the season.
Alex Scarborough: There’s little doubt in my mind that Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott is the more talented quarterback. He’s got the stronger arm and generally has more polish than Alabama’s Blake Sims. But that’s not the point. This isn’t the NFL. This is college football, where players like Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow can have stellar careers without possessing All-Pro tools.

With that in mind, my selection for All-SEC QB was simple. It was Sims over Prescott -- by a mile.

That’s no knock on Prescott. Personally, I love watching him play. But when his Heisman Trophy campaign waned after Mississippi State reached No. 1 in the polls, he went sideways. Throwing out games against FCS Tennessee-Martin and woefully pathetic Vanderbilt, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the second half of the season.

Sims, meanwhile, was stellar in the biggest moments of the second half, whether it was the overtime affair in Death Valley, his 15-play drive against Mississippi State that Nick Saban ranked as one of the best in school history, or the end the regular season where he bounced back from three interceptions against Auburn to lead five consecutive touchdown drives.

If you need production, consider this: Sims ranks first or second in the SEC in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. His Adjusted QBR (88.4) ranks second in the country, trailing only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. With 3,250 yards passing, he surpassed AJ McCarron for the school record in a single season.

David Ching: Let’s use a fancy-pants baseball statistic here: Wins Above Replacement Player. That stat assigns a number value to a player, reflecting the wins he individually added to his team’s total compared to what an average player would add in the same circumstances.

For instance, Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw led MLB this season with an 8.0 WARP, meaning that simply having Kershaw on the team gave the Los Angeles Dodgers eight wins more than they would have had with a replacement-level player (like a minor leaguer).

I’ll get to the point. If there was such a thing as WARP in college football, Prescott would be a mile ahead of Sims. There isn’t even much of a debate in my mind.

Sims had a good season, and was even great at times, but he also plays for a team that is stocked with future NFL talent. By far the biggest reason that Mississippi State was in the playoff conversation until the end of the season was that Prescott is the Bulldogs’ quarterback.

This is a guy who’s probably going to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 once bowl season is over, plus he’s already thrown 24 touchdowns, caught one scoring pass and run for 13 more. I’m eminently confident that if the two players switched teams, Alabama would still be where it is in the national hierarchy. Could State say the same? I don’t think so.

Where’s Cedric Ogbuehi? Texas A&M’s 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle has a strong chance to be a first-round pick. In fact, he’s currently No. 11 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board Insider and considering his athleticism, it seems to be a safe bet he’ll perform well at the NFL scouting combine and improve his draft stock. However, 2014 wasn’t quite the home run that many were expecting from Ogbuehi when he made the move from right tackle in 2013 to left tackle this season.

Ogbuehi was inconsistent at times and didn’t always appear comfortable at left tackle. It’s a position he didn’t play in college before this season, so some transition was to be expected, especially with footwork when switching from the right side to the left as an offensive lineman. He had his moments when he looked the part, but others, like this one vs. Robert Nkemdiche or this one vs. Kwon Alexander where he didn’t.

He moved back to right tackle for a few games as the Aggies tried to manage without starting right tackle Germain Ifedi, who missed time because of an injury and Ogbuehi looked more comfortable there, though even at that position, Missouri’s Markus Golden gave Ogbuehi all he could handle when the Tigers came to town. Overall, it just didn’t feel like a first-team All-SEC season for the future pro. (Sam Khan Jr.)

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette didn't have the Heisman-worthy season some were projecting, but expect him to be in the conversation in 2015.
Wait until next year, offense: Prior to the season, Leonard Fournette was generating Heisman Trophy buzz before he had even played a single down in college. Our bet is that the LSU freshman is a much bigger factor in that conversation next year. This season, he had some quiet games, as most freshmen do, but he also carried the Tigers’ offense in narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. It hasn’t been a Heisman-caliber season by any means, but Fournette can still post a 1,000-yard season if he rushes for 109 yards against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. That would still be a heck of a debut season, and more than enough reason to expect big things from Fournette next fall. (David Ching)

Wait until next year, defense: Myles Garrett is a star. There’s no doubt about that. In most leagues, he probably makes first-team all-conference with the season he put together. But this is the SEC, with a lot of great defensive linemen, so Garrett -- while excellent this season -- must wait. The Texas A&M true freshman defensive end had 11 sacks this year, which ties him for second in the conference with Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt, but Garret compiled eight of those against the following opponents: Lamar, Rice and Louisiana-Monroe. The sacks still count, but they aren’t as impressive as they would have been if more had come during SEC play. Garrett did pick up a sack against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, all teams with quality offensive lines, so that is noteworthy. And had he not got injured against Auburn after being yanked to the ground by Shon Coleman, Garrett might have had a stronger finish (he missed the Missouri game because of the injury, though he did return to play against LSU). Garrett earned deserved honors by making it onto both the Associated Press and coaches All-SEC second teams and if he continues to improve at his current rate, you can bet he’ll be a first-teamer across the board at this time next season. (Sam Khan Jr.)

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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Now that the Associated Press and the league coaches have spoken and cast their votes for their All-SEC teams, it's time for us to get in on the fun.

We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.

RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.

RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.

OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.

OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.

All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.

DEFENSE

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.

DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.

S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.

K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.

KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.

SEC morning links

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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1. The postseason recognition keeps rolling in for Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Missouri’s Shane Ray. They were among five SEC players (along with Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio and J.K Scott and Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson) named to USA Today’s first-team All-America roster on Thursday. Three more SEC players (LSU’s La’el Collins, Alabama’s Landon Collins and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) made the second team. Cooper and Ray have already won multiple All-SEC and conference offensive and defensive player of the year awards, respectively. On Saturday, Cooper will learn whether he won the biggest award in the sport, the Heisman Trophy. He’s up against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Cooper and Ray are both considered to rank among the NFL’s top draft prospects, should they skip their final seasons of eligibility. Ray’s big season pushed him up draft boards, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin recently said he expects Cooper to enter the draft, where he would likely be the first receiver selected.

2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.

3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.

Around the SEC

" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.

" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.

" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.

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Which SEC bowl team will benefit most?

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
2:00
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video
ESPN SEC reporters Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss which two SEC teams will benefit the most from the extra practice time and playing in a bowl game.
Terrence Magee, Kenny HilliardAP Photo, Icon SportswireTerrence Magee (18) and Kenny Hilliard (27) hope to turn some heads next month during the East-West Shrine Game.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Terrence Magee recently learned that LSU’s bowl appearance would actually not be his final college game.

“It was a few weeks ago,” Magee said of when he learned that he had been invited to participate in the East-West Shrine Game, an all-star game for college seniors. “Coach Frank [Wilson, LSU’s running backs coach] pulled me aside and told me, and then I got the thing in the mail.”

The all-star game – which will be played Jan. 17 in St. Petersburg, Florida – announced at the end of November that Magee and fellow LSU running back Kenny Hilliard had both accepted invitations to participate. In doing so, they will try to add to the remarkable success rate for Tigers tailbacks who attempt to make a living in the NFL.

Since Les Miles took over as coach in 2005, all but one LSU tailback who stayed on the team long enough to become draft eligible – 5-foot-6 Shyrone Carey’s height hurt his cause in the 2006 draft – has spent at least one season on an NFL roster.

The fact that some of them never handled an enormous workload in college, much like Magee and Hilliard, hasn’t seemed to matter.

Alfred Blue’s college career high for rushing was 539 yards in 2011 and yet he has nearly eclipsed that total this season as a rookie with the Houston Texans (457 yards in 13 games, including a 156-yard effort against Cleveland). Keiland Williams’ high was 478 yards in 2007 and he spent multiple seasons in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. And Richard Murphy also bounced around the NFL for more than a year despite never rushing for more than 230 yards (2007) in a season at LSU.

That bodes well for Magee and Hilliard, who have been role players throughout their time at LSU. While neither player seems likely to become an early-round draft pick, they can use their time in the all-star practices and subsequent draft workouts to give themselves a chance to join their fellow Tigers in the pros.

“[I want to] just go out there and show that I’m an every-down back,” Magee said. “Show that I can pass block, catch the ball out of the backfield and run the ball in between the tackles, as well as outside. Basically the same things that I’ve been doing here.”

That versatility will be Magee’s greatest asset as a prospect. Although he was a secondary option behind Jeremy Hill last season and Leonard Fournette this fall, Magee still contributed in a variety of ways. He’s second on the team with 545 rushing yards and third with 16 receptions for 162 yards. He also contributes on multiple special-teams units, which is a huge bonus for a player battling to make a 53-man NFL roster.

Hilliard, meanwhile, is more in the mold of the prototypical NFL power back, and he has plenty of tread left on the tires. His 87 carries in 10 games this season are a career high, and he’ll need to play in LSU’s Music City Bowl matchup against Notre Dame in order to set a new career high for rushing yardage (he has 431 yards, just shy of his 464 yards in 2012).

As of Sunday, Hilliard’s status for the bowl game was still undetermined, after he missed most of the last three games with a shoulder injury suffered on the opening drive of an overtime loss to Alabama.

“I don’t know that he will or won’t [play], but I think the time of the bowl gives us a chance,” Miles said Sunday night.

Regardless of whether he plays against the Fighting Irish, Hilliard has already displayed a skill set that would fit on a pro roster, even if he never became a full-fledged star in college. Same for Magee.

If they do the things that they’ve done at LSU during all-star practices and in the pro workouts that follow, history shows that they have a good shot to make it with an NFL club.

“I’m not going to go there and change anything that I’ve been doing here,” Magee said of his approach to all-star practices. “You know, go out there and show them the same things that I’ve been doing here at LSU.”
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LSU Tigers

SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
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1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- As far as Jalen Collins is concerned, it wasn't until the Ole Miss game that LSU's secondary became great again.

[+] EnlargeJamal Adams
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJamal Adams could be among a host of LSU defensive backs who earn All-SEC attention in 2015.
Considering how the Tigers lead the SEC in total defense (and rank eighth nationally, allowing 305.8 yards per game), are first nationally in pass efficiency defense (98.7) and fourth in passing yards allowed (162.3), the junior cornerback is making a strong statement when he opines that it wasn't until Game 9 that LSU's secondary truly clicked.

"I feel like the Ole Miss game was kind of where we made a statement saying that we're for real," said Collins, the junior cornerback whose defense limited Ole Miss to 313 total yards in LSU's 10-7 win. "Just the way that we played and came out every series, every snap and tried to stop them. They're a great offense and we held them to well under their average for the year."

The Tigers did that to a lot of opposing offenses this season, especially after their 41-7 loss at Auburn on Oct. 4. Auburn and Mississippi State both ripped holes in LSU's reconstructed defensive front early in the season, and complemented the run with a handful of big plays in the passing game, but once the Tigers' front seven settled in, LSU's overall defensive results started to improve.

In the second half of the season, only three defenses (Clemson, Central Florida and Penn State) allowed fewer yards per game than LSU's 273.8 and no defense in the country surrendered fewer touchdowns than LSU's 10.

The Tigers capped the season by holding Texas A&M to 228 total yards and 144 passing yards -- among the Aggies' worst performances in either category this season -- with Collins clinching the victory by intercepting a Kyle Allen pass on A&M's final play.

"I feel like we got better every game," Collins said. "Going into camp, [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond was hard on us and made sure we prepared. And every week we tried to get in some extra work, tried to make sure our communication was good so we were prepared for whoever we were facing. I feel like we did a lot."

It was a far cry from the problems that the 2013 secondary experienced, with multiple opponents lighting up LSU's pass defense early in the season before freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson grabbed starting roles.

Robinson was suspended twice in 2014, and his future status seems to be in jeopardy since he has been indefinitely suspended for the past three games, but White and Collins formed a consistent combination at cornerback.

And at safety, despite missing Corey Thompson for the entire season and Dwayne Thomas for most of it, the combination of Ronald Martin, Jalen Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams was formidable.

Although All-SEC pick Martin is a senior and juniors Mills and Collins will have the opportunity to join him in the NFL draft pool if they opt to forgo their final seasons of eligibility -- Collins confirmed Sunday that he submitted his name to be evaluated as a possible early entrant into the draft -- the returning players should help LSU's secondary rank among the nation's best again in 2015.

As White and Robinson did the season before, true freshman Adams started to come into his own toward the end of the season. He started two of the last three games and is now tied for sixth on the team with 56 tackles.

"It definitely slowed down," Adams said after matching his career high with eight tackles against A&M. "Each game, I'm trying to get better, trying to help the team out and each day we're getting better and better as a team."

Depending on who returns next season, Adams could be among a handful of LSU defensive backs who earn All-SEC attention in 2015. Entering his junior season, White will be a no-brainer, and several other Tigers veterans have flashed the skills to join him in the upper echelon of SEC DBs.

"The way that we came to work this past year and just kind of shed that light on the younger guys, everybody's having another year under their belt," Collins said, looking ahead to next season. "It'll just be that much more exciting to see what we can do and how good we can be."

Ranking the SEC bowl games

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
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1. Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

This game is the top one for obvious reasons, primarily, it’s the one bowl game involving the SEC that has real stakes -- the winner goes to the national championship game. If the College Football Playoff semifinal wasn’t strong enough for you, it matches two of the most well-known head coaches in the game right now, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Those two did battle before when Meyer was at Florida, so the reunion should be plenty compelling.

2. Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU

This is the only other SEC bowl that matches up two top-10 teams. TCU was one of the teams left at the altar by the selection committee, so it’s probable that the Horned Frogs would like to stomp a highly-regarded SEC team to make a statement. Ole Miss has had an impressive season and can secure only its seventh 10-win campaign in school history and its third since 1971.

3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville

It’s the Grantham Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s current team (Louisville) takes on his previous team (Georgia). It’s a safe bet he’d like to have his unit excel en route to a Cardinal win. The Cardinal defense is sixth nationally in yards per game allowed (293.2) but it’ll get tested by the Georgia running game, led by freshman sensation Nick Chubb (1,281 yards), who leads Georgia’s 12th-ranked rushing attack (255 yards per game).

4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

You have two of the nation’s top rushing teams as well as two pretty good running backs in this one. There’s the nation’s top individual rusher, Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards) against Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482) who leads the SEC. Wisconsin averages a whopping 314 rushing yards per game, third in the nation while Auburn posts a hefty 258.5 (11th).

5. AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia

If you like scoring, you’ll enjoy this one. Both teams average more than 33 points per game and they each throw it around a lot, averaging more than 300 passing yards per game. There are familiar faces on the coaching staffs as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked for Kevin Sumlin for two seasons at Houston and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked for Holgorsen at Oklahoma State and West Virginia before going to A&M. It’s Air Raid everywhere.

6. Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

He wasn’t a Heisman finalist but Dak Prescott was in the Heisman conversation for much of the season. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see Prescott and his partner-in-crime, running back Josh Robinson, who is aptly nicknamed “Bowling ball.” Georgia Tech is worth a watch for traditionalists, as the Yellow Jackets run the triple option well: just ask Georgia (who they beat in overtime) or Florida State (a team they stayed step-for-step with for much of the night).

7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas

Long live the Southwest Conference. This is a throwback battle if there ever was one. These teams are both in the top 30 nationally in defense, each allowing fewer than 350 yards per game. The job Bret Bielema has done to get the Razorbacks to a bowl this season is noteworthy, while Charlie Strong seems to be laying the foundation for future success at Texas. Also, Strong has history in Arkansas -- he was born in Batesville and played for Central Arkansas. He said Tuesday this will be the first time he’ll root against the Hogs.

8. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU vs. Notre Dame

Considering the profile of these two programs, you wouldn’t expect this game to be this far down the list. While the two teams have strong histories, this season hasn’t been stellar for either. There’s plenty of intrigue, though, from getting to see LSU’s star freshmen (Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, etc.) to the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly has opened up competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. For what it’s worth, Les Miles said bowl prep will also be an important evaluation time for his quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

9. Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota

This one may not have the sizzle on the surface but it matches two quality teams, both ranked in the Top 25. Missouri features two of the league’s best pass-rushers, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Those two are worth watching alone, even if the Tigers’ offense isn’t always. Minnesota features one of the nation’s top rushers, running back David Cobb, who is ninth in rushing yards this season (1,548).

10. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina vs. Miami

This game could become a feeding frenzy for Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is 12th in the country in rushing yards (1,520). South Carolina allows 214.4 rushing yards per game, 107th nationally. But the Gamecocks can score plenty of points, they average 33.3. Keep an eye on Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic receiver and returner who can do it all, including pass, and has 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns this season.

11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa

Tennessee is thrilled to be in a bowl. You might even say they’re happy. It’s the first time in a bowl since 2010 for the Volunteers. There’s still a long way to go to get this proud program back to where it wants to be but they’re moving in the right direction. The Vols have a ton of talented freshmen on the roster who played key roles this season and sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who came on strong late in the season, seems to have a bright future in Knoxville.

12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina

Any time you go into a game with an interim coach, it’s not ideal. That’s what the Gators have to do after firing Will Muschamp. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach. For Florida fans, this is a chance to scout a future opponent -- the Gators and Pirates meet Sept. 12 next season. East Carolina brings a high-powered offense led by quarterback Shane Carden, who is second nationally in passing yards (4,309). That should be a good test for a talented Florida defense. The continued development of true freshman quarterback Treon Harris is also worth keeping an eye on.

SEC morning links

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
8:00
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1. The coaching carousel is heating up and while Auburn looks close to replacing one assistant coach, it might be on the verge of losing another. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has emerged as a candidate for the head coaching job at Tulsa. Lashlee's current boss, Gus Malzahn, spent two years on staff at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008. The school has already interviewed Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital for the opening. Meanwhile, Travis Haney reported that Auburn is the favorite Insider to land former Florida coach Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator. Muschamp, who is currently in the Caribbean on vacation, has also been targeted by South Carolina and Texas A&M for the same position.

2. Lashlee isn't the only offensive coordinator in Alabama making headlines. In what some considered an upset, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin did not win the Frank Broyles Award on Tuesday. The award, which honors the nation's top assistant coach, went to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman instead. However, Kiffin was in attendance and spoke publicly for the first time since the beginning of fall practice. He was quite entertaining, too, when talking about his boss Nick Saban. What does Saban say tell him on the sideline? “Hey Lane, I love you so much,” Kiffin joked. “Thank you so much for coming here. Can you please stop throwing the ball so much and just run it a few more times please.” Maybe that's why Saban has kept his offensive coordinator off-limits to the media this season.

3. More honors were given out Tuesday. A day after releasing its All-SEC team, the Associated Press named Amari Cooper the conference's offensive player of the year and Shane Ray the defensive player of the year. Ray became the second straight Missouri player to win the award, joining last year's recipient Michael Sam. The league's coaches also put out their All-SEC team Tuesday, and it looked similar to the AP. Dak Prescott was voted first-team quarterback ahead of Blake Sims, and names like Cooper, Ray, and Landon Collins were all on the list as well. In all, 12 of the 14 SEC teams had at least one player on the first team. Stay tuned this week as we at the SEC blog will be releasing our All-SEC first team on Friday.

Around the SEC
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