SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

On defense, the front seven needs a good secondary just like the secondary needs a good front seven. It’s a team effort. Earlier today, we broke down the SEC’s best front-seven defenders, and there were some good ones. But now it’s time to take a look at the back end.

Whether it’s pulling down interceptions, breaking up passes or wreaking havoc in the backfield, this group can do it all. One look at this list and SEC quarterbacks should be concerned heading into the 2015 season. Good luck trying to throw against some of these guys.

So without further ado, here are the league’s top defensive backs, listed in alphabetical order:

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss, Jr.: With Cody Prewitt moving on, it might have made sense to move Conner back to a more natural safety role, but the coaches love him at the nickelback or “Husky” position, where he was named second-team All-SEC by the AP last year. Conner is more physical than most defensive backs, which makes him great in run support. He led the Rebels last year with nine tackles for loss. But he still has the ability to cover, too. Most forget that on his first college play, he came down with an interception.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves III became one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC from the moment he walked on the Florida campus.

Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida, Jr.: There’s not a better cornerback in the SEC and there might not be a better one in the country. Hargreaves has finished among the conference leaders in passes broken up the last two seasons, and that’s with most quarterbacks opting not to throw in his direction. The All-SEC first-team selection will likely get more of that same treatment this fall, but it won’t be easy with Jalen Tabor emerging at the other cornerback spot and Brian Poole (see below) manning the nickelback position.

Jonathan Jones, CB, Auburn, Jr.: Auburn’s secondary took a lot of heat for its awful play late last season and rightfully so, but without Jones, it could’ve been much worse. The junior finished with 12 pass break-ups, one shy of the SEC lead, and was second in the conference with six interceptions. Given the lack of a pass rush, those numbers are remarkable. This season, it should be easier for Jones with Will Muschamp as the new defensive coordinator and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson returning from injury.

Jalen Mills, S, LSU, Sr.: It shouldn’t come as a shock that LSU has arguably the league’s best safety, but it was a mild surprise when Mills opted to return for his senior year. Sure, 2014 was a down year for Mills, who finished with just one interception and no sacks, but the talent was still there. Some have already tabbed him as a first-round pick in 2016. For now, the former cornerback-turned-safety will be asked to take on a bigger role in the LSU secondary with the departures of Jalen Collins and Ronald Martin.

Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee, Jr.: Sutton emerged on the scene as a freshman, doing a little bit of everything for the Volunteers’ defense, and he followed that up with a sensational sophomore campaign. The former three-star recruit started all 13 games, finished tied for the SEC lead with 13 pass break-ups and returned a punt for a touchdown in the victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt. If Sutton continues on the path he’s on now, it won’t be long before he’s considered one of the best defensive backs in college football.

Five more to watch

When Chris Jones first set foot on Mississippi State’s campus back in 2013, he was a sight to see. At 6-foot-6 and 280 or so pounds, he looked nothing like a true freshman. He didn’t play like one, either, posting a team-high 10 quarterback hurries that season.

But Jones was raw. A former basketball player who came to the gridiron late, he leaned heavily on his considerable talent. His maturity, admittedly, wasn’t all there.

“The time, the effort, the coaching,” he said, “I feel like I could have done a lot of things differently.”

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
Robert Smith/Icon SportswireChris Jones has worked on developing a mindset of being desperate to be great.

Now a junior feeling as if the time has flown by, he says he's ready.

On a defensive line that lost veteran leaders such as Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones and Preston Smith, he needs to be.

“It’s changed my whole attitude because right now I’m with the first-team,” he explained. “And when you’re with the first team, it’s about setting the standard. The first guy out there, you have to set the bar and raise it high enough for the younger guys to look up to that so they know what level of intensity to play.”

But for Mississippi State’s defense to thrive, Jones needs to do more than step out of his comfort zone of leading by example to be a “big brother” figure to others. For the Bulldogs to be great, he has to realize the potential he showed as a freshman to be one of the best linemen in the conference, if not the country.

“Our expectations of him are extremely high,” said coach Dan Mullen. “He came in freshman year with a bunch of hype. He had a good year, and then really learned, though. ... Last year, he was out there and people knew who he was. I think he hit a little bit of that, ‘Hey, it’s my sophomore year and I’m trying to figure it all out.’ So we expect him to be a big-time playmaker on the front for us and really jump into that starting role, claim that starting role and be one of the top playmakers in the front seven.”

It’s a conversation Mullen said he and Jones have already had this spring. The theme of that talk: desperation.

“We had a guy a couple of years ago named Fletcher Cox and Fletcher was desperate to be great,” Mullen said, referencing the former All-SEC lineman turned first-round draft pick. “He had a ridiculous amount of talent, but he also had that desperateness. He only wanted to be in college for three years and go to the NFL, and he was desperate. And it showed in his demeanor and his attitude and how he took care of business, whether it was in the weight room, on the practice field, in the classroom.

“For Chris, it’s important for him when he realizes and reaches that desperateness, the sky’s the limit because he has a tremendous amount of potential. He’s a great worker, a great kid, but there is that separation point to me who is working hard and doing things right and the guy that’s desperate to be great. When he hits that point, he’s going to take off to another whole level.”

Jones says he’s there, ready and willing to be great.

After ballooning to 318 pounds as a sophomore, he’s back down to what he says is his ideal playing weight of close to 280, where he was as a freshman. He’ll be playing a new role, too. Rather than staying at defensive tackle for one game and then defensive end for another, he says new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has been moving him around more and plans to use him at either position from snap to snap.

It’s the same defense as before, Jones says, but with some different schemes.

Whether it’s the same Jones as before remains to be seen.

“It has to be a mindset,” he said of bringing that desperate attitude to the playing field day in and day out. “It has to be something you choose and are willing to do.”

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

Alabama: WR Amari Cooper

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

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

Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers

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

Auburn: C Reese Dismukes

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

LSU: OT La'el Collins

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

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

Ole Miss: S Cody Prewitt

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

Texas A&M: WR Malcome Kennedy

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

SEC morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
9:00
AM ET

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

Tweet of the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRST ROUND

In Memphis, Tennessee

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

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

In Kansas City, Missouri

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

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

In Jacksonville, Florida

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

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

SECOND ROUND

In Charlotte, North Carolina

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

In Orlando, Florida

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

In Houston

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

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

In New Orleans

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

SEMIFINALS

In Arlington, Texas

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

In Nashville, Tennessee

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

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRST ROUND

In Memphis, Tennessee

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

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

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

In Kansas City, Missouri

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

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

In Jacksonville, Florida

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

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

SECOND ROUND

In Charlotte, North Carolina

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

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

In Orlando, Florida

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

In Houston

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

In New Orleans

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

FINAL FOUR

In Arlington, Texas

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

In Nashville, Tennessee

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

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

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

SEC morning links

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20
9:00
AM ET

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

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

It’s not Running Back U, but give Mississippi State some credit for producing solid backs under coach Dan Mullen. This next projected starter follows a lineage of 1,000-yard rushers Josh Robinson, LaDarius Perkins, Vick Ballard and Anthony Dixon. (Other posts in the Offseason Spotlight series.)

Ashton Shumpert
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsAshton Shumpert averaged 5.8 yards per carry in limited action last season.

Spotlight: Running back Ashton Shumpert, 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, junior

2014 summary: He was overshadowed be "The Bowling Ball," aka Josh Robinson. But Shumpert was no slouch as a sophomore, coming off the bench in 12 games to carry the ball 47 times. He found the end zone twice and posted a healthy 5.8 yards per carry average. While it’s a small sample size to choose from, it's worth noting that it’s similar to Robinson’s line when he was a backup in 2013 when he had three touchdowns and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

The skinny: It can’t just be Dak Prescott running the football. If the second half of last year proved anything, it’s that with his health wore down. More than 200 carries will do that to you, even if you’re 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. So Shumpert needs to be the guy to take the pressure off Prescott in the running game. At a sturdy 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, he has the ability to run between the tackles. And even though he doesn’t have excellent top-end speed, he has the quickness to bounce outside the tackles and pick up big gains, much like his predecessor, Robinson. If he can continue to average more than 5 yards a carry and execute the read-option with Prescott effectively, then Mississippi State’s offense will continue to hum. If not, he could be out of a job, or worse the Bulldogs could be out of a complement to their star quarterback.

Schedule: Eyeing rain in the forecast for Wednesday, Mississippi State moved up the first day of practice to Tuesday. Thirteen more practices will lead into the big day, the Bulldogs’ spring game on April 18.

What’s new: In a word, “Expectations.” Coach Dan Mullen had to scratch and claw his way to the top of the SEC, and for a time last season he got Mississippi State there. For five weeks, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1. They fizzled out toward the end and finished No. 11 in the AP poll, but now the question becomes how players and coaches handle success, and whether they can rediscover the edge that allowed a team low on blue-chip prospects to compete in the uber-talented SEC West.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/AP PhotoDak Prescott returns after accounting for 41 TDs last season.

On the mend: There was something off about Dak Prescott the second half of the season. He was injured. It happened somewhere around the Kentucky game, when he was spotted afterward wearing a protective boot. His numbers after that game took a downturn as he played through the pain. Now back to 100 percent -- save a few bumps and bruises after a spring break assault -- -- and a year older in the system, it will be interesting to see the former Heisman Trophy candidate's development.

New faces: The defense will have a different look in 2015, and not just because of the return of Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator. No, the depth on that side of the ball will be tested, too, as many of last year’s key contributors have either graduated or moved on to the NFL. Because of that, pay attention to two freshmen: ESPN’s No. 2 safety Jamal Peters and No. 2 linebacker Leo Lewis. The two highest ranking signees in Mississippi State’s 2015 Class have a chance to play early with Benardrick McKinney spot at inside linebacker vacated and Jay Hughes no longer roaming the field in the secondary.

Question marks: As we just mentioned, the defense will be tested. And offensively, someone must step up to replace Josh Robinson’s production at running back. But the real concern should be up front, where the offensive line isn’t quite facing a full-blown rebuild, but something very close with senior starters Dillon Day, Blaine Clausell and Ben Beckwith all gone. If Martinas Rankin, ESPN’s No. 1 junior college offensive tackle, can make an immediate impact and reserve lineman Jamaal Clayborn can emerge as a viable starter, it would go a long way in settling things on the line.

Key battle: No one is going to be handed the starting job at running back. Among Ashton Shumpert, Aeris Williams and Brandon Holloway, Mullen has the luxury of engaging in an open competition. Shumpert, a junior who finished fourth on the team in rushing last year, is the frontrunner to replace Robinson. At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, he has the between-the-tackles style Mullen likes. But so does Williams, who redshirted last season after being named Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi.

Breaking out: Remember when you didn’t know who Preston Smith was? For three years, he hardly registered. But then came his senior season and then came the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award for three consecutive weeks. In the end, he was named First-Team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. Now his replacement, Ryan Brown, is trying to re-create the same senior jump. The 6-6, 262-pound defensive end played all 13 games last year and had a respectable 3.5 sacks.

Don’t forget about: It wasn’t the way De'Runnya Wilson wanted to start his spring, riding a bike while his coach figured out what to do with him. But the talented wideout was arrested on drug charges late last week and put himself in this predicament. If he can find his way out, he has the chance to become one of the league’s top receivers. Last year he finished fourth in the SEC in receiving touchdowns (9), and he did that mostly on pure talent. The 6-5 prospect came late to football and is just now scratching the surface on what he’s capable of.

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March, 18, 2015
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1. What is going on in Starkville? Last Thursday, offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins was arrested on a simple assault warrant. But now, according to a report from SB Nation, it looks like the wrong player might have been arrested. The report shows two affidavits from the victim accusing Brandon Bryant and Grant Harris of assault, not Jenkins. Mississippi State released a statement Tuesday refuting the report, though it’s still unclear what happened. Head coach Dan Mullen, who addressed the media after practice, said they are still investigating the situation and would handle all team discipline internally. This latest incident comes on the heels of the spring break attack involving quarterback Dak Prescott, and the arrest of wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. Clearly, this is not the way the Bulldogs wanted to begin spring practice.

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

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

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March, 16, 2015
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It’s March, and we all know what that means. It’s time for the Big Dance. Five teams from the SEC made this year’s field including an undefeated Kentucky squad looking to make history. For those filling out brackets at home, my early Final Four picks are those Wildcats along with Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa State. But that’s likely to change over the next three days. Since we focus mostly on football here, I thought it would be interesting to see what seed each SEC football team would have gotten had there been a 68-team tournament. This is according to the Massey composite rankings and comes as of Dec. 6, 2014, before the bowl games.

1: Alabama
2: Ole Miss, Mississippi State
3: Georgia, Auburn
5: Missouri, LSU
7: Arkansas
8: Texas A&M
9: Florida
10: Tennessee
12: South Carolina
16: Kentucky (play-in game)

Assuming the SEC wouldn’t play each other in the first round, some of the better early-round matchups would have included Arkansas (7) versus Duke (10) or Texas A&M (8) versus Notre Dame (9). And how about Alabama and Penn State meeting up in a potential 1-16 matchup?

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March, 13, 2015
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The SEC has a new commissioner. On Thursday, the conference announced that Greg Sankey will replace Mike Slive beginning Aug. 1. Sankey has been Slive’s right-hand man for the past 12 years, so the decision didn’t come as a huge surprise, but for those who don’t know the new SEC commissioner, this article is for you.

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I for one am very happy to see a playoff at the FBS level. More games, more drama, more fun.

Yes, I'd like to see more games, but that's for another day.

For now, the talk is on four games and what -- if anything -- can be done around those four games to make the College Football Playoff better. All week, esteemed colleague Heather Dinich has been diving deeper into the playoff, getting thoughts and opinions from various voices around college football. If you haven't read any of her pieces, you should because they're very insightful.

[+] Enlarge2009 Alabama
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe SEC championship game is too important to too many ever to go away.
On Wednesday, she tackled the subject of conference championship games and how they inevitably cut both ways for conferences. We certainly saw it last year with the Big 12 -- hello, Baylor and TCU -- and the Big Ten -- you're welcome Ohio State -- we've seen it in the past, and we'll likely see it for as long as postseason play is available in college football.

And while conference title games remain for leagues with at least 12 teams (get with it Big 12!), this does beg the question of whether conferences should consider or reconsider having league championships at the end of the regular season. As Dinich writes, the ACC and Big 12 have already petitioned the NCAA to loosen its restrictions on conference championship games, so maybe the consideration of change for some could be on the horizon.There's certainly a risk-reward factor that fluctuates depending on the conference. The Big 12 found out the hard way last year, but if things had worked out a little differently outside of the conference's own realm, the league would have looked great without a title game.

So should the SEC even entertain the thought of ever dumping its title game?

Uh, that notion should be met with an emphatic, no. Sorry, NO!

The SEC championship game means too much to the conference, it's too successful, and some might argue that it has become the second-biggest game in the country outside of the national championship game. If you look at the SEC's success during the BCS era, which included that run of seven straight national championships, the SEC title game has played a major part in the league's success.

Just look at 2006 and 2007. Florida's win over Arkansas in Atlanta in 2006 vaulted the No. 4 Gators past Michigan in the polls and into the BCS title game against Ohio State -- a game the Gators cruised in. A year later, 10-2 LSU beat No. 14 Tennessee in the title game to move from No. 7 to No. 2 and eventually faced -- and beat -- Ohio State in the national championship.

Now, both teams needed some help, but without the SEC championship, we probably aren't discussing either team.

Fourth-ranked Florida benefited from the SEC title game again in 2008 with a win over No. 1 Alabama to make it another national championship before Alabama reversed fates with the Gators a year later. (Although without an SEC title game, the Gators and Tide would probably have played each other in the national championship in 2009). And if either Georgia or Missouri had won in Atlanta in 2012 and 2013, respectively, those teams, especially Georgia, would have had a great argument for a spot in the eventual BCS national championship game.

Yes, the SEC has been hurt by the title game in the past -- 2001 with No. 2 Tennessee losing to LSU immediately comes to mind -- but the reward far outweighs the risk for the SEC. And even more now with the league failing to win the last two national championships.

The league might have been able to get away with its name and its brand a little more during its improbable title run, but going 0-2 in as many seasons will put even more emphasis on conference title games from the playoff committee. The SEC likely wouldn't lose a ton of points in the committee's mind without a conference championship, but it certainly doesn't lose any with one.

It's better safe than sorry for the SEC, and the league has benefited too much from creating the conference championship. While other conferences contemplate both sides, the SEC should stick to what has helped it be so successful for more than a decade.
The 2014 season marked only the third time since 2000 that the SEC champion didn't have at least one defensive lineman who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.

The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.

That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.

So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezTexas A&M freshman Myles Garrett finished second in the SEC with 11.5 sacks.
Alabama's Nick Saban has been a head coach in both the SEC and Big Ten and scouted players from all conferences while coaching the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."

In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.

More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.

Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.

Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.

Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.

"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.

The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.

"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."

Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.

Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.

If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.

Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.

The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.

Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.

Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.

Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.

Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.

And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.

Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.

There are sure to be more, too.

This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.

SEC morning links

March, 12, 2015
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1. I think all of us assume the Alabama quarterback job will come down to Jake Coker versus the young trio of former ESPN 300 signal callers already on campus. But have we forgotten about Alec Morris, the one who’s been around the longest? Blake Sims was the veteran last year, and he wound up winning the job. And speaking of Sims, the former Crimson Tide star believes Morris is "going to factor big-time" in the much-anticipated position battle. We’ll all get our first look this Friday when Alabama opens spring practice, and though it will be front and center, the quarterback competition isn’t the only storyline headed into practice. There are plenty of other question marks facing the defending SEC champs this spring.

2. You probably don’t know every single athletic director in the SEC. I’m not even sure I do. But that doesn’t take away from how important they are to a football program. And that is why Missouri fans have to be ecstatic to hear Gary Pinkel’s endorsement for Mack Rhoades, the school’s new athletic director, especially considering Pinkel has had the same boss since he was hired in 2001. The two have already spoken, and you can bet the south end zone improvements at Faurot Field were brought up in conversation. For more on Rhoades and what he brings to Missouri, be sure to read this column from Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It sure sounds like they found the right man for the job in Columbia.

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