SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Ball security in the SEC

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Turnovers are the great equalizer in football.

Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.

Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.

Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.

By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.

In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.

Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).

Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.

1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27

SEC lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Finish your taxes on time? Then sit back and enjoy Wednesday’s lunch links.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One look at Mississippi State center Dillon Day, and you get why he’s been put in the position he’s in.

The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day's perseverance is paying off for Mississippi State.
Strap a helmet and pads on him, and Day displays ferocious features on the football field. He’s intimidating to look at and just plain scary when he gets going.

In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.

But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.

“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”

For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.

The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.

But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.

“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.

The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.

But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.

Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.

“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”

Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.

It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.

“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”

Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.

So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.

“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.

“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”
We mistakenly left out Mississippi State earlier Monday when recapping the SEC spring games, so here's a quick review:

Mississippi State: Dan Mullen, heading into his sixth season at Mississippi State, said this was the Bulldogs' best spring since he has been in Starkville, and they put a wrap on that spring with the Maroon edging the White 41-38 on Evan Sobiesk's 28-yard field goal as time expired. A crowd of 21,710 showed up at Davis Wade Stadium, as quarterback Dak Prescott finished 7-of-9 for 131 yards with one touchdown passing and one touchdown rushing. Sophomore receiver Fred Brown was the big star offensively with 10 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Damian Williams had 347 passing yards for the White and four touchdowns. Two of his touchdowns went to Brown. The Bulldogs should be deep and talented on defense in the fall. They return 19 of the 22 players from their defensive two-deep a year ago. For more on Mississippi State's spring game, go to the Bulldogs' official web site.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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Spring games galore this weekend! Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be in action on Saturday. But news isn't just on the field; there's plenty off the field, too:

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
When asked by reporters about his freshman season, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche said he could’ve done better. Auburn's Carl Lawson echoed the same tune this spring, telling the media he was “a little disappointed” with his performance last fall. Both players played the majority of the season and both made an impact, but that wasn’t enough in their eyes.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn DE Carl Lawson said it took some time to adjust to the college game last fall.
The two premier defensive end prospects were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 coming out of high school. Nkemdiche followed his brother to Ole Miss, and Lawson stuck to his original commitment to Auburn despite a coaching change after the season. The expectations were high before either one ever stepped foot on campus.

Once they did, it didn’t take long for them to realize they weren’t in high school anymore.

“There were times I got double-teamed, triple-teamed,” Nkemdiche said. “[Teams] tried to come at me with different things, get me out of the game. It was more than I expected.”

“[I was disappointed] in how long it took me to adjust to the college game,” Lawson added.

In 11 games, Nkemdiche made 34 tackles, including eight for a loss, and had two sacks. Lawson played in all 14 games and finished with 20 tackles, 7.5 for loss and was second on the team with four sacks. Those would be impressive numbers by most first-year player standards, but not these two. They strive to be great.

Regardless of any stats, the experience gained from playing last season was invaluable.

“I don't think you can measure it,” Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. “The experience coaches talk about it all the time -- game experience -- especially for [Nkemdiche] in the SEC, to come in and really play a whole season in front of those crowds, in the bowl game and doing everything that he did, I just think that he's going to be that much better this year.”

That experience has shown this spring. Physically, both Nkemdiche and Lawson were ready, but it took time to understand the defense and its various schemes and assignments and know what to do in certain situations. Now, as they go through their first spring, they’re beginning to adapt to the intricacies of the college game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche expects more from himself heading into his second season at Ole Miss.
“Having knowledge of the offense and defense allows you not to waste as much energy,” Lawson said. “If you’re all over the place, you’re wasting energy and you’re putting your time and effort in the wrong direction. Once I have a better understanding of what I’m doing, the game [will] come easier to me.”

The game must be coming to easier to Lawson because he has been one of the stars for Auburn through the first three weeks of spring practice.

“We have high expectations for Carl, coming off the season he had,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can just tell he's a lot more confident out there and trying to be a leader by example.”

The same can be said for Nkemdiche, who wrapped up the spring on Saturday with the Rebels’ annual Grove Bowl.

Kiffin believes both Nkemdiche and Lawson, as well as Mississippi State sophomore-to-be Chris Jones, are primed for breakout seasons in 2014. Jones posted similar numbers to the other two, as he finished with with 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last fall.

“I think your biggest improvement comes in your second year from your first year,” Kiffin said. “For all three of those guys, they're all physically mature. When you watched all three of them play last year, they all struggled a little bit with technique here and there, but they're all clearly very, very good football players.

“I think this year you'll see all three of them playing with great technique and making plays all over the field.”

That’s good news for Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, but not so much for the new, inexperienced quarterbacks in the SEC.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
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LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When Dan Mullen first took over as Mississippi State’s head coach before the 2009 season, the goal was very simple: Make it to bowl games.

For a program that lacked the historical success of the SEC’s big boys, a bowl game here and there was something Mississippi State was more than happy with.

But those were simpler times in Starkville.

Now, as Mullen enters his sixth season with the Bulldogs, just becoming bowl eligible isn’t good enough. When you make it to four straight, it’s time to take the next step, and the overwhelming feeling around the program is that the time is now for Mississippi State.

“When we got here, we talked about winning a championship,” Mullen told ESPN.com last week. “And guys thought that was good talk and was something they wanted to do, but they weren’t sure that it could [happen]. There’s still that hesitation of 'Well, it sounds great, but how real is it?'

“You look at this team, and our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year.”

And this isn’t just an up-and-coming team puffing smoke about the place. This is a team that returns 20 of 22 defenders who were on last season’s bowl roster. It has a potential All-SEC quarterback and lost five total starters from a 2013 team that finished on a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over archrival Ole Miss and a bowl blowout of Rice.

When Mullen approached his team shortly after the Bulldogs’ 44-7 drubbing of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he found an anxious group. Players wanted back on the field. The months before spring practice were too long, and they couldn’t even comprehend the thought of not smashing into someone not dressed in maroon for another nine months.

The momentum this team got from the tail end of the 2013 season has fueled players like no other season has, veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. Center Dillon Day said there’s a lot more trust throughout the roster with the improved depth at just about every position.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Mullen says Mississippi State has big goals this season: "Our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year."
There’s a familiarity within this team that has players salivating over improving on a 7-6 season that brought Mullen one win away from tying for second all-time at Mississippi State. The theme of this spring is gaining even more ground on the perceived SEC front-runners.

“We aren’t really given a shot with those types of teams, but this year I definitely feel like we’re going to be a factor to deal with,” Day said. “We definitely can beat those teams.

“This year, we have all the factors; we have every position filled up.”

Mullen understands that confidence alone won’t take the Bulldogs to their second SEC title game. Games have to be played and wins have to appear. Mullen might own the program’s highest winning percentage for a coach (36-28, .563) since the late Darrell Royal in 1954-55 (.600), but he has yet to even sniff the SEC West crown.

During his impressive 9-4 season in his second year, he finished just 4-4 in SEC play. He hasn’t eclipsed that many conference wins in a season since and has had losing conference records three times.

Mullen has had four straight winning seasons but hasn’t hit the double-digit mark for wins. On paper, the Bulldogs are a blip on the SEC’s radar, but to Mullen, he’s seen growth, development and an incredibly inspired team.

For a program littered with former two- and three-star high school prospects, the Bulldogs could prove to be a formidable opponent this season with so much experience coming back. Mullen sees it, players see it and fans are expecting more wins in the treacherous SEC West.

“I want those expectations,” Mullen said. “I want our fans to have those expectations; I want our people to have those expectations. I like it on the national level, having those expectations.”

It’s hard not to blame the Bulldogs’ for being confident. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who has already earned the dark-horse Heisman moniker from national pundits, ended last year with two very gutty performances against Ole Miss and Rice and returns his top-five receiving targets, including senior Jameon Lewis, who registered 923 receiving yards last year.

Running back LaDarius Perkins is gone, but Mullen said he’s pleased with the talent and depth he has at running back, which starts with potential breakout candidate Josh Robinson.

Then there’s that defense that finished 2013 fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally in total defense. The Bulldogs, which lost just two defensive starters from last year, held their final four opponents to 20 or fewer points and allowed an average of 296.3 yards during that span.

Mississippi State won’t get much real national championship talk, but the SEC title isn’t out of the question. With the unknowns surging throughout the league, the Bulldogs are set up to rub shoulders with and maybe push around the SEC’s elite.

“I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said. “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.”


Video: Mississippi State DL Chris Jones

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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video
Edward Aschoff talks to Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones about his development and the Bulldogs' defensive improvements.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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We hope you're grabbing a late lunch and can catch up on the goings on around the SEC. Unfortunately we slept in a bit -- we blame the weekend's fantastic college basketball action -- and we're running just a touch behind. So without further delay, here's some reading material for your day.

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
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While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.

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