SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
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1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day

With Dak Prescott entrenched as the starter and Damian Williams a decently experienced backup, Mississippi State's quarterback spot looked fine.

With Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, there were plenty of wideouts to draw from.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day and the rest of the Bulldogs' O-line will have to overcome adversity to win SEC games.
And with Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams all available, the running back position looked fine, too.

But if there was one area where Mississippi State needed to stay healthy, it was the offensive line. Depth, coach Dan Mullen pointed out late last week, was a major point of concern.

"That's the one position during the season that we can't afford any injuries," he said.

It turned out to be an auspicious statement. On Monday, we learned that projected starting right tackle Damien Robinson tore his ACL and will miss the season.

The Bulldogs were banged up enough as it was with starting guards Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith missing practice time during fall camp. Throw in the noticeable absence of Gabe Jackson, and it's hard to imagine what the Mississippi State offensive line looks like in Starkville today.

Now the second-string linemen Mullen was hoping he wouldn't have to call on until next season are suddenly being put to the test earlier than expected. "They're growing and they're growing quickly," Mullen said last Friday. But will they progress enough between now and the start of the season?

"They're going to be the huge group of inexperienced players that you'd love the opportunity to slowly build them in instead of having to throw them into the fire immediately," Mullen said.

Look for Justin Senior and Rufus Warren, two inexperienced reserves, to be the top candidates to replace Damien at right tackle. Mullen, when reached Tuesday morning, said there's also the possibility of moving a tackle to guard and working with different combinations on the interior of the line.

The good news is that there are 11 days until the opener and the first three weeks of the season don't look to be a huge challenge with non-conference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. That means there's plenty of time for whoever wins the job to get comfortable enough in the offense before SEC play begins Week 4 at LSU.

Dillon Day, a three-year starter and Rimington Trophy watch list center, said he's looking forward to the run up to the season. Before Damien Robinson went down, Day said he was feeling good about the numbers on the offensive line.

"I've seen good things already," Day said. "Guys have been rotating in that haven't played, like Devon [Desper]. That was a big thing to have not just five guys but eight guys that can play.

"We have a lot of depth that can play now. That's a big thing, getting new guys in there and letting them play with the ones. And so far everyone has done really well with that."

With Damien Robinson out, that depth will be tested. And like any inexperienced player, we won't know how they'll perform until the pressure is on during a game situation.

If Mississippi State is going to finally break through in the SEC West, the offensive line is going to have to drive the train. Without them, the depth at receiver and running back is meaningless. Without them, Prescott could get banged up and his dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign could fall off the tracks.

There's a lot to like about the Bulldogs this year. The only question was how the O-line would hold up, and so far it's not off to a good start.

SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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1. Kentucky settled its quarterback race on Monday when coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomore Patrick Towles will be the Wildcats' starter. It's a nice story, because Towles redshirted last season and competed for the starting job twice before and lost. Instead of transferring, Towles continued to work and battled his way to the top of the depth chart. Not an easy thing to do in the winner-starts-loser-transfers trend that seems to be increasing among college football quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Towles was even able to fend off highly-regarded true freshman Drew Barker, a prize recruit in the Wildcats' 2014 class. No word yet from Stoops whether Barker will redshirt this season, but regardless, former Wildcat great Tim Couch has sage advice for the young Barker: "It’s how you handle that year that is really going to determine the rest of your career."

2. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks are wearing knee braces in hopes of preventing injuries. It's not common to see healthy quarterbacks who haven't had knee injuries wear them and Vanderbilt's signal-callers did not engage in this practice in the 16 years that head trainer Tom Bossung has been there. After losing two quarterbacks to knee injuries last season, though, the Commodores decided to make the move. They're different from the offensive linemen's knee braces, but thumbs up to the Commodores training staff on the move. While it may not prevent all knee injuries, the decision to do it moving forward should help. It has become so common among offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend among quarterbacks across the nation.

3. Alabama brought in its fourth motivational speaker of fall camp, welcoming former Fresno State basketball star Chris Herren to campus on Monday. Herren got a positive response from the Crimson Tide players. Preceding Herren in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during training camp was former NFL player and current league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, former NBA star Antoine Walker and well-renowned motivational speaker Eric Thomas. This is certainly not uncommon; plenty of programs bring in guest speakers or motivational speakers to get messages across to players. Still, it's beneficial because when you recruit at the level Alabama does, you bring in dozens of highly-regarded players who have been told often how good they are. Getting messages from people who have been through ups and downs like Herren or Walker or someone like Vincent who has played at the highest level of football as these players undoubtedly hope to, they can impart valuable wisdom and provide a different voice other than the coaches who are barking at them every day. Sometimes that different voice can have an effect.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day
 
Things got weird at Mississippi State this week. Or maybe this is what they mean when they call their town Starkvegas.

Either way, have we got a treat for you.

You think Dak Prescott was a talent before? Wait until you see him stick his arm inside a cow. Yes, you're reading that right.

Every year the Cattleman's Association has a steak dinner for the football team, and after the meal they have live cows, horses and a hay bale tossing competition. This year, social media shed some light on the situation.

The worst part about it? Prescott's teammates saying "Deeper! Deeper! Put your tattoos in it!"

No thanks.



The best part about the day on the ranch? Defensive lineman Nick James doing his part to "save America."



But because this is nominally a sports blog, we should include some competition. There was hay bale tossing competition, remember?

One of the joys of coaching at the college level is seeing some of the less-talked-about guys succeed.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen got to experience that firsthand when he awarded walk-on sophomore linebacker DeAndre Ward a scholarship in front of the team Sunday. Click here to see the video.

Ward, who played against Alabama and in the bowl game against Rice last season, was obviously surprised when Mullen handed him an envelope to open in front of everyone. The team erupted when Ward realized what was in his hands.

That was true happiness for a guy people around the program say is one of the hardest workers out there and pushes everyone around him -- verbally and with his play in practice. It's no wonder he was named the camp's walk-on MVP.

When you get to the end of the video, check out the hug between Ward and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. That was really powerful. I don't care who you root for, moments like that have to touch your heart.
Now that the AP preaseason poll is out, we know exactly who will make up the College Football Playoff.

If only it were that easy.

History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss could be a threat to sneak out of the West.
As we dive into this poll, you'll see that most of the team everyone is talking about to be in the playoff at season's end are right at the top of the poll -- Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Only four teams can make it into the playoff, but most people have some sort of combination of these teams.

Good luck with that.

According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."

In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.

The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.

Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.

So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).

Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.

Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.

There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:

  • Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
  • Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
  • Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
  • LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.

Flying under the radar?

Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.
 

A different kind of bus showed up to Starkville, Mississippi, this week. No, it wasn't ESPN's Bus Blitz road trip. This was Jerome Bettis, the Super Bowl-winning running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers who goes by "The Bus."

"A couple of you guys are probably looking at me thinking you can take me," Bettis told the surprised Mississippi State players. "Let's get that off the table right now.[Bernardrick] McKinney, let's not even think about that. I got paid a lot of money to make a whole lot of people bigger than you hurt."

Thankfully, McKinney and none of his teammates tried to take him down. Good luck to the poor souls who ever try.

Instead of breaking tackles and scoring touchdowns, Bettis spoke to the Bulldogs about what it takes to be a champion.
To finish out our week-long look at the players poised to be at the top of the stat charts at their respective positions, we're checking out the guys picked to man the skies.

Who will be able to snag five or more interceptions in the SEC in 2014? Well, last year, the league had four players -- Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt (six interceptions), Missouri's E.J. Gaines (five), Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler (five) and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley (five). This year, I'm going to go with five.

Here are the guys with the best chance of reaching five or more interceptions in 2014:

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Considered one of the nation's best cornerbacks, Hargreaves is the league's best cover man. He led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended last year.

2. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss: He led the SEC with six interceptions last year, but thinks he left a few more out there in 2013. Prewitt is a legitimate ball hawk and moves around the field so much that he'll have no problem finding the ball a lot again this fall.

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss' Cody Prewitt led the conference last season with six interceptions.
3. Taveze Calhoun, CB, Mississippi State: The long, rangy Calhoun can move all over for the Bulldogs as well. He has a nose for the ball and is an elite cover corner. He'll nab more than the three interceptions he had last season.

4. Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Collins can do just about everything on the field. He takes away the deep ball, can play in the box and is actually very good in coverage. As the seasoned guy in Alabama's secondary, he'll find his way to the ball even more this season.

5. Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU: Another elite player in man-to-man situations, White led LSU with nine passes defended, but had just two interceptions in 2013. For as much as he likes to be around the ball, expect both of those numbers to increase in 2014.

6. Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: He bounced back from a season-ending injury in 2012 with a monster year last season. He was tied for fifth in the SEC with four interceptions in 2013 and should be even better this fall at finding the ball in the air.

7. Jonathan Mincy, CB, Auburn: With Mincy moving to boundary corner this fall, he should be even more of a headache for quarterbacks looking to go deep on the outside. He's another player who just knows how to find the ball. Mincy led the Tigers and was second in the SEC with 15 passes defended and had one interception.

8. Jamerson Love, CB, Mississippi State: Throwing on the Bulldogs could be a mistake for opponents most of the time this fall. With Calhoun on one side and Love on the other, expect a lot of takeaways. Love defended 10 passes and had three interceptions last year.

9. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Extremely athletic, fast and versatile, Conner finds ways to move all over the field for the Rebels. He defended only seven passes and snagged one interception last year, but he'll be an even bigger threat with teams trying to shy away from Prewitt.

10. Deshazor Everett, CB, Texas A&M: A struggling Aggies defense did produce a pretty solid player in Everett last season. He can play both corner and safety, which means his instincts will frustrate plenty of quarterbacks. Last year, he defended nine passes and grabbed two interceptions.

11. Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina: He might not line up in the secondary like the rest of the guys on this list, but Moore has ways of getting himself involved in a lot of plays during games. He covers so much ground for a linebacker and actually led the Gamecocks with four interceptions last year.
As we count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the official start of the 2014 college football season, we're also gearing up for our first trip through the College Football Playoff.

Yes, after waaaaay too many years of being stubborn and different, this beloved sport is finally getting a playoff system to determine its national champion at the end of the year.

Better late than never.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMIThere's strong support among SEC players such as La'el Collins for the new College Football Playoff, but they have different ideas on how big it should get.
There's a 13-member playoff committee, revolving playoff sites and newfound excitement attached to the playoff. Fans, coaches, media members and school administrators have all weighed in on the pros and cons of the College Football Playoff, but we haven't really heard a lot from the players who will actually be partaking in the playoff and throwing their bodies around a couple of more times each season.

What do the players think of it? Are four teams enough? Should it expand? What effect will it have on players' bodies and academics? What about travel for their families and friends? Do they want the playoff at all?

Over the past month, we asked players around the conference to weigh in on the playoff and give us their thoughts on the playoff.

Enough teams?

You were hard-pressed to find a player who didn't agree with FBS football adopting a playoff system. So with that out of the way, we asked players whether they thought four games was enough. The majority were happy with that number.

  • “I think it’s perfect -- a four-team playoff. You get right to the point. If you lose, you go home and there’s two more teams [left]. There it is, it’s simple.” -- LSU OT La'el Collins. (However, when asked about his thoughts on expanding it, Collins said it "would be cool, too.")
  • “I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do it, but I think that’s a good amount of games. You don’t want to be playing too many in the playoff because then guys’ bodies would be shot and coaches after the season wouldn’t have time to go out and recruit [as much]. They would lose out on a lot of recruiting opportunities.” -- Florida QB Jeff Driskel
  • “Four is plenty right now. ... Right now, four is what it is and I’m happy that that’s what it is. If they end up changing it, then I’ll be happy also." -- Tennessee C Mack Crowder
  • “It’ll be just like high school again, I guess. It’s just one more game. I think everybody will be fine.” -- Georgia RB Todd Gurley
  • “Four teams is better than two, so it’s a good start.” -- Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi

What if the playoff were to expand to eight or 16 teams?

  • “That might be too much because it’s a hard game already. Playing all those games, there would definitely be more injuries. Four is fine, eight could be cool too, but I don’t think 16 would be smart.” -- Ogbuehi
  • "That would probably be a little too much.” -- Gurley
  • “As players, we don’t think about it like that. We think of it as some players are going to go on and play in the NFL where there are 16 games on top of a playoff and a Super Bowl -- mind you that some of those guys play in a wild-card game. By the time they finish, it’s like 20-something games.” -- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.

What about your life away from football? Wouldn't an expanded playoff eat into your family time during the holidays and conflict with finals?

  • “Fans don’t think about that. Fans don’t think about us spending time with our families or finishing out our classes with good grades. That’s something that they have to take into consideration.” -- Driskel
Travel

A playoff, whether it has four teams or 16, means more travel for players, fans and family members. That means more money out of people's pockets when it comes to transportation -- which is more than likely going to be by plane -- food, lodging, and miscellaneous. And that's just for one game.

Let's face it, some people are going to have to decide between going to the semifinal game or the national championship.

  • “Not every family can make that trip. The fact that there are more games and both are immensely huge games could make it difficult on a lot of families [to plan travel]. I could see that happening. ... It’s not necessarily something that we thought about. But when we look at the schedule and we know how that’s going to play out, then some people have to start thinking about that, and some more than others.” -- Georgia WR Chris Conley
  • “It’s definitely a concern. It’s something that guys’ families are going to have to start preparing themselves now.” -- Collins
  • “You can watch us on TV. As long as we win, that’s all that matters.” -- Fowler

Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier thinks players and families should be helped out with travel.

  • “They have to do that now because most of them don’t have enough money to make all those trips. That’s why I think we should give the players and the parents expense money -- $200 to the player, $200 to the parents. Every time we play, here’s $400 of expense money.”
Injury concern?

More games mean more chances for injuries. That's just science. So are players concerned about wearing down?

  • “I just see it as more games, and I love playing games. You can get hurt literally at any point in the season. At the end of the season, some guys are going to be completely healthy, some guys are gonna be beat up." -- Crowder
  • “That’s the sacrifice you make, but it all pays off in the end.” -- Collins
  • “It’s a lot of games, but it’s something that you have to prep yourself up for and prepare yourself to just go. You’re going to have aches and injuries, and things like that, but if you want to win it takes hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears.” -- Fowler

For now, players will go through the motions of the season before they sniff what life in the playoff will be like. It's worked at all other levels of sport, and now Division 1 football is getting in on the act. All these questions and concerns will be approached head-on in the months to come, and we'll see how players' opinions on the playoff change.
More than ever, the Power Five conferences are jockeying for the pole position as we get set for the first season of the College Football Playoff.

Each conference has its own pitch as to why it's the best conference in the country or has the toughest path to the title. Consider it an early dose of lobbying to the selection committee.

Do the math and at least one of the five conferences is going to be left out. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach has broken down each of the five leagues and done his best to separate the facts from the propaganda, the latter a word Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops used heading into last season to describe the SEC's so-called dominance from top to bottom.

Stoops took some heat from SEC diehards, but ended up getting last laugh: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31.

As Schlabach points out in his piece, the SEC obviously won more national titles than anybody during the BCS era, including seven straight before having that streak snapped by Florida State last season, but it wasn't like the SEC was ripping everybody else to shreds. From the start of the BCS era in 1998 to its end in 2013, SEC teams went .500 against Pac-12 teams during the regular season (13-13), were only slightly better than the Big Ten in bowl games (23-21) and had a losing record against Big 12 teams during the regular season (8-12).

I've long contended that the grind of the SEC is what makes the league so difficult, and it's a grind I think will once again ensure that everybody finishes with at least one conference loss this season. Still, there's no denying that Tennessee's struggles the last several years and Florida losing 21 games over the last four seasons has watered down the East. But, then, look at what South Carolina and Vanderbilt have done the last three seasons, and Missouri went to the SEC championship game in just its second year in the league.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue with Schlabach's assessment, that the SEC's best teams might be great every season, but its overall record against the other Power Five conferences suggests it might not be as dominant as we believed.

Can't wait to see how all this "propaganda" plays out in the playoff era.
Now that we've checked out the quarterbacks I think could reach 3,000 passing yards and the guys who could hit 1,000 yards rushing, it's time to see what this season's crop of receivers is all about.

Who can reach the 1,000-yard club?

Last season, four receivers made it to the 1,000-yard club -- Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (1,477 yards), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (1,394 yards) and LSU's Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,152 yards). All four of those guys are gone. Actually, the SEC lost eight of its top 10 receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsLaquon Treadwell scored five receiving touchdowns in his freshman season at Ole Miss.
There are still some talented pass-catchers lurking in the league, so I'm going to go with three 1,000-yard receivers. Here are the guys I think have the best chance of getting to that number (in order):

1. Amari Cooper, Alabama: One of the nation's best receivers, Cooper wasn't at his best and wasn't 100 percent healthy last season, but he still managed 736 receiving yards. He's playing at a faster level now and is tougher, which means he'll have no trouble crossing the 1,000-yard mark this fall.

2. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: He learned a ton from Donte Moncrief and still caught more passes than him in 2013. Treadwell is a physical specimen and is already the most athletic person when he steps out on the field. As the No. 1 guy in Oxford, he'll easily surpass the 608 yards he had last season.

3. Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: He was so close to 1,000 yards and probably would have made it into triple digits if he didn't have to work with multiple quarterbacks all season. Lewis is still developing his game, but he's the perfect playmaker for Mississippi State's spread offense.

4. Sammie Coates, Auburn: Talk about coming out of nowhere. Coates was a real unknown before last season and somehow wound up with 902 yards. He's a deep threat and someone who isn't afraid to make plays over the middle. Getting pushed more by other players might cut into his numbers, though.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia: If Mitchell is healthy, he's one of the most athletic and talented receivers that this league has to offer. A knee injury cost him just about all of his 2013 season, and he's already have complications with his knee this fall. But if he's out there and ready to go, he'll be fun to watch.

6. Marquez North, Tennessee: In a struggling passing game, North finished the 2013 season with 496 yards. He's so much better than that, and he's playing like it this fall. He's added some needed weight and is understanding his role more and running his routes better.

7. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Another player who basically saw the 2013 season from the sideline, don't sleep on Seals-Jones. He was one of the nation's best recruits a couple of years ago and when he's at full speed, Seals-Jones can really fly. He'll make tons of plays inside and out.

8. D'haquille Williams, Auburn: The junior college transfer could be really special. He has all the talent to make a ton of plays in such a wide open offense. Williams will push Coates all season for the role as the Tigers' No. 1 target.

9. Shaq Roland, South Carolina: Dealing with the hype that came with him out of high school hasn't been easy, but the thought out of Columbia is that this could be a big season for Roland. He can stretch the field and is great in space.

Mississippi State season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
10:30
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video

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC). Beat Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Final grade for 2013 season: The Bulldogs had a very subpar start to the season and looked out of bowl contention after beginning November 0-3, getting outscored 105-64 in the process. But after finishing the regular season 2-0, including an overtime win over archrival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs trounced Rice in their bowl game, giving them a C for the season.

Key losses: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, OL Charles Siddoway, DT Denico Autry, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDak Prescott ended 2013 with a bang and could emerge as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.
Key returnees: QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, WR Jameon Lewis, WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, OL Blaine Clausell, C Dillon Day, DT Chris Jones, DT Kaleb Eulls, DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love, CB Taveze Calhoun

Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas

Breakout player: Receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall, but I'm going to go with Robinson. The compact, 5-foot-9, 215-pound wrecking ball of a player could be very, very fun to watch this fall. He's spent two years learning from Vick Ballard and Perkins and is primed to have a big year for the Bulldogs. He can grind out yards between the tackles and has excellent speed to get to the outside and make plays in space.

Key position battle: The Bulldogs will have quite the fight on their hands at right tackle. Senior Damien Robinson arrived as a highly-billed recruit, but has yet to live up to that label. It's now or never for him, but he'll have to compete with sophomore Justin Senior, who the coaches are pretty excited about. However, if neither works out veteran Justin Malone, who is coming back from a season-ending foot injury, could move from right guard to right tackle. That wouldn't be ideal for the Bulldogs.

Most important game: If Mississippi State is really going to turn the corner and actually compete for the SEC Western Division title, the Bulldogs have to get a win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, have better depth than coach Dan Mullen knows what to do with, and won't be afraid of a trip to Tiger Stadium. With that said, this is a must-win if this team is going to have a chance at making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers are an enigma this season, but could be dangerous down the stretch. Getting them early is huge, and the Bulldogs have to take full advantage of that.

Biggest question mark: While right tackle is a concern for the Bulldogs, finding some consistency in field-goal kicking would be nice. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk combined to go an unflattering 9-for-20 on field-goal attempts last season. They were a combined 1-for-6 from 40-plus yards out and each had a kicked blocked in 2013. Transfer J.J. McGrath will compete for the starting job, but he's a ways behind Sobiesk at this point. Still, Sobiesk still has a long way to go in the consistency department.

Upset special: Again, in order for Mississippi State to take the next step as a program, the Bulldogs need to beat one of the league's best. After Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 4, the Bulldogs host reigning SEC champion Auburn. And the Tigers could be pretty fatigued after a game against LSU. Talk about the perfect time to take one from Auburn. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Auburn last season after Nick Marshall orchestrated a late, game-winning touchdown drive. You better believe revenge will be on the Bulldogs' minds.

Key stat: What Mullen has done in five seasons at Mississippi State has been impressive, but he has struggled against ranked opponents. In the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have gone 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls.

They said it: “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency. I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.” -- Mullen

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: This is the deepest team Mullen has had at Mississippi State. The offense can run and pass for days with the weapons and experience coming back, while the defense is loaded with underrated talent. The schedule isn't too daunting with an incredibly easy nonconference slate and Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Having to go to Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss isn't ideal, but if the Bulldogs can take two from that road trio, they'll be in contention for the West title. The Bulldogs will challenge for the division and finish the regular season 9-3.

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