SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

SEC morning links

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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Plenty of recruiting news flying across the wire on Wednesday, which was signing day for midterm junior college prospects. Several SEC teams did well in inking JUCOs, led by Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn, three teams that were considered "winners" in Wednesday's junior college sweepstakes. Another SEC winner in recruiting on Wednesday was Texas A&M after it landed ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk, the No. 30 overall player in the ESPN 300. The Aggies have done well in the state of Arizona, where Kirk is from, recently, landing quarterback Kyle Allen (now the Aggies' starter) and defensive end Qualen Cunningham (who played as a true freshman) in the 2014 class. Kirk, who brings a strong skill set to College Station, Texas, will be able to join his good buddy Allen in the Aggies' offense next fall.

The Football Writers Association of America released its All-America team and there is plenty of SEC representation on it, including six members on the first team (Amari Cooper, Reese Dismukes, Shane Ray, Benardrick McKinney, Landon Collins and Senquez Golson. The SEC got seven total players on the two teams. On Tuesday, The Associated Press All-America teams were released and the SEC got 15 players across the three squads.

Kentucky had a void to fill at offensive coordinator when Neal Brown left the Wildcats to become the head coach at Troy and it looks like Mark Stoops has his man. Several reports point to West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson as Stoops' pick to replace Brown at the position. It ensures some continuity for the Wildcats, who ran the well-known Air Raid offense under Brown the last two seasons. Dawson is also an Air Raid disciple, having worked under Dana Holgorsen. At West Virginia, Holgorsen was the playcaller, but Dawson has been in the offense long enough to be well-versed in it so the transition to handling those duties at Kentucky should be smooth. West Virginia averaged 502 offensive yards per game (11th nationally) while Kentucky averaged 384.5 yards per game (75th).

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day
This wasn’t the Mississippi State paper tiger of two years ago where the Bulldogs went 7-0 before falling completely off the rails. This was different. Though State would ultimately lose two games down the stretch to fall out of the playoff hunt, it should do nothing to diminish the accomplishment of having reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history.

Best win: There were a few to choose from, but how do you forget your first? Going on the road to LSU and beating the Tigers was special. It sent a message that Mississippi State was a real contender. It also introduced college football to Dak Prescott, who stiff-armed his way to 373 total yards of offense.

Worst loss: Losing at Alabama was almost understandable. But laying down against Ole Miss? That was unforgivable. The Rebs no longer had their best player and were coming off a 30-0 beatdown at the hands of Arkansas. They had nothing to play for while the Bulldogs still had playoff hopes to cling to. So how do you explain a 14-point loss? You can’t. Mississippi State had the momentum and the motivation but ultimately laid down in Oxford.

Player of the year: He may not have ended up with a trip to New York City, but for much of the season Prescott was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound athlete was the face of the Bulldogs, and with good reason. Even with a poor end to the regular season, he finished with 37 total touchdowns and just shy of 3,000 yards passing.

Breakout player: Josh Robinson wasn’t even guaranteed the starting job. If he wanted, coach Dan Mullen could have turned to either Nick Griffin, Brandon Holloway or Ashton Shumpert at running back instead. But Robinson wouldn’t be denied. The same back who rushed for only 459 yards as a sophomore, flourished as a junior, running for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Play of the year: They call him a bowling ball, but Robinson showed off a great set of hands with this 47-yard reception.

video 2015 outlook: A lot depends on the draft as Robinson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney both have a chance to play in the NFL. But even so, Mississippi State will lose a large chunk of its nucleus with as many as 15 players on the two-deep depth chart set to graduate. The return of Prescott and wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson will help, but there’s a chance that some members of Mississippi State’s 2015 recruiting class, which ranks 11th in the country according to ESPN, could be called on to fill the coffers as freshmen.
The Associated Press announced its three-team list of All-Americans for the 2014 season on Tuesday, and the SEC is represented by 15 players, including four on the first team.

A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.

All good there.

But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.

Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).

Four players for only three spots ...

Hey, there's always next season.

Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:

FIRST TEAM

Offense

WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn

Defense

CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama

SECOND TEAM

Offense

OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina

Defense

DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama

THIRD TEAM

Offense

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State

SEC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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New Florida coach Jim McElwain made his first staff hire on Tuesday when he tabbed Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins as the Gators' new man at that position. Nicknamed the "Minister of Mayhem," Collins will bring his "swag chalice" and aggressive style to Gainesville as the Gators begin a new era. It could provide some awkwardness leading up to the bowl game as some believed McElwain would retain interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who was Will Muschamp's defensive coordinator, while Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted that he wishes his coaches would leave for head coaching positions, not "lateral positions." Regardless, Collins guided Mississippi State to the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and No. 1 in red zone defense; now he'll have better access to high-level talent and the Florida recruiting base that could help him have even more success as he joins the Gators.

Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.

There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.

Around the SEC
The “Swag Chalice” is coming to Florida.

Geoff Collins is leaving Mississippi State to take over as the Gators' defensive coordinator, and he is bringing an abundance of confidence and personality, which should pay off for a program that has lacked both of late. The “Minister of Mayhem” is also taking with him a colorful goblet to house his endless stream of Diet Mountain Dew and 5-Hour Energy drinks.

The 43-year-old assistant is more than charisma and kitsch, though. He is also regarded as a good recruiter and an even better developer of talent. Since joining coach Dan Mullen’s staff at Mississippi State in 2011, he has helped send five Bulldogs defensive players through the NFL draft, including first-round pick Fletcher Cox and second-rounders Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. According to ESPN, none of the three were regarded as top-25 recruits at their respective positions entering college.

Before you think Collins can’t recruit at the high level Florida is accustomed to, remember he spent a year working in Nick Saban’s recruiting operation at Alabama. As the Crimson Tide’s director of player personnel in 2007, Collins was on the ground floor of what has become one of the most successful recruiting programs in college football, with back-to-back-to-back No. 1-ranked signing classes.

So, yes, Collins is a wonderful hire for first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain.

Beyond his recruiting chops, Collins adds instant credibility to the defense. He will bring energy to the unit, which should get used to the idea of having its every movement tracked by a clever metric called “Juice Points,” which measures a player’s “juice” on a given play. It’s somewhat cliché, but players respond to it and are more apt to be aggressive, as evidenced by Mississippi State ranking second in the SEC in sacks and tied for third in interceptions during the regular season. Tony Hughes, a former fellow assistant coach at State, said, “Geoff is a 21st-century, cutting-edge coordinator that thinks out of the box.”

And that’s exactly what Florida needs. It needs a self-described “psycho” to help breathe new life into a program that felt stagnant and lacking in confidence under former coach Will Muschamp.

In fact, a little bit of change might be the only missing ingredient. Because talent isn’t Florida’s issue. The unit that ranked second in total defense in the SEC this season will return standouts Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Bryan Cox Jr. in 2015.

They will have to get used to life without Coach Boom, but the move from Muschamp to Collins shouldn’t mean a defense that’s any less enthusiastic. It might actually get crazier.
Now that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has strutted away with the Heisman Trophy in an utter landslide, it's time to look into the future to see who could be up for that bronze beauty next year.

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

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

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

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

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

SEC morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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1. Sometimes you’re just at a loss of words. That’s how I felt when I found out that Auburn freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed early Sunday morning. I knew Mitchell well from when I covered recruiting, and I remember talking to him on signing day. He and high school teammate Stephen Roberts were excited to start their next chapter at Auburn. Now, as Jay G. Tate wrote, Mitchell is gone "far too soon." Tragedy has become all too familiar on the Plains as Mitchell becomes the latest casualty, joining former football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, who were shot and killed at the same apartment complex as Mitchell in 2012, and more recently Philip Lutzenkirchen, who died in a car accident before this season.

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2. On a lighter note, Auburn snagged Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator this weekend, making him the highest paid assistant coach in college football. Why pay so much for a defensive coach when the SEC, and football in general, is more about how many points you score? Because a good defense is still necessary to win a championship, and the price of playing good defense is going up. The thought of Muschamp teaming up with Gus Malzahn is scary for opposing SEC teams. It’s not so different from what Alabama did last offseason, hiring Lane Kiffin to join forces with Nick Saban. Look how that turned out. And how about next year’s Iron Bowl? Malzahn and Muschamp vs. Saban and Kiffin? Sign me up.

3. Amari Cooper might have finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting Saturday, but the Alabama wide receiver won over some fans with his humility and specifically the story he told about his childhood. His family didn’t have a car growing up, so they had to walk about three miles to the store to get groceries. From AL.com’s story:
Cooper remembered telling his mom he was too tired to make the walk there and back one day. When she returned, marks lined [her] arms where she carried all the bags a few miles home.

"It was just an example of how hard she worked, her getting off work so late or working so hard all ready," Cooper said. "She sacrificed for us. You want to know how much somebody loves you, just look at how much they sacrifice."

3a. And speaking of the Heisman Trophy, is it too early to start looking at the 2015 favorites? USA Today put out its top 10 contenders, which included two from the SEC -- Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Georgia running back Nick Chubb. Prescott, who might still leave early for the NFL, flirted with the Heisman this season, and Chubb earned Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC for his performance in place of Todd Gurley.

All-SEC team debates

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

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

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

Sims vs. Prescott at QB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

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

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

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL TEAMS

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

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

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

SEC morning links

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

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

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

Around the SEC

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

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

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

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

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Ranking the SEC bowl games

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1. Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

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

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

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

3. Belk Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville

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

4. Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

7. Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Arkansas vs. Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee vs. Iowa

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

12. Birmingham Bowl: Florida vs. East Carolina

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

SEC morning links

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

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

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

Around the SEC
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The runs by Mississippi State and Georgia Tech to a New Year's Six bowl game have seemingly come out of nowhere. Both programs' coaches were under heavy scrutiny last season. Both programs entered 2014 as afterthoughts in their respective conferences. But the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami will provide a great opportunity for one of these teams to end the season with a signature win on Dec. 31.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMississippi State coach Dan Mullen's only losses this season were to ranked teams -- Bama and Ole Miss.
So who's done more with less this season? SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf and ACC reporter Matt Fortuna debate about Dan Mullen and Paul Johnson -- both of whom won league coach of the year awards in 2014.

Ostendorf says Mullen: It's not easy to win at Mississippi State. Before this season, the program had just two 10-win seasons, and the Bulldogs have been playing football since the early 1900s. Ironically, the first time they won 10 games (1940) was the last time they played in the Orange Bowl. And now it's all come back full circle -- thanks to Mullen.

He's turned Mississippi State, a perennial doormat for other SEC teams over the years, into a legitimate contender. And to think, just last season the Bulldogs had to rally against rival Ole Miss to become bowl-eligible. If they lost that game, there's a chance Mullen might have been gone. Now he's one of the top candidates for coach of the year, and the only way he's leaving is if he takes a promotion and leaves for a bigger program.

Don't get me wrong. I like Johnson. I like that he's stuck to his offense despite the criticism over the years. But Mississippi State's offense ranks top 10 nationally in yards per game, and not one starter was ranked in the ESPN 150 recruiting rankings.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. Thanks to Mullen's tutelage, he was one of the SEC's best players this season. He threw for 2,996 yards and rushed for 939 yards and was tops in the conference with 37 total touchdowns.

The same goes for running back Josh Robinson, a two-star recruit in high school, and wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson, who was a better basketball prospect than he was a football prospect. The Bulldogs' roster is littered with players who weren't given a chance by other SEC programs, and now those same players are knocking off the league's top teams.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
AP Photo/David TulisCoach Paul Johnson guided the No. 12 Yellow Jackets to a 10-3 overall record this season.
And that might be the difference between Mullen and Johnson. Georgia Tech had a great season and nearly took down Florida State in the ACC title game, but Mississippi State won 10 games playing in the SEC West, arguably the best conference in college football. The Bulldogs beat teams such as Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M when nobody gave them a chance.

Fortuna says Johnson: It's not always so easy to win at Georgia Tech, either. Just ask Johnson, who was candid last offseason in saying that the tone in the Atlanta area surrounding his program was often too negative. Sure, the Yellow Jackets are going to their 18th straight bowl game this season, but there always seems to be a ceiling with them. Heck, in a summer poll on ESPN.com, 55 percent of voters said that "something needs to change around the program." And those fans were given two other choices in the poll, not just one.

Moreover, Johnson lost more than a dozen non-senior players this offseason for a variety of reasons. That, coupled with no wins over rival Georgia since a victory in Johnson's 2008 debut, made for a cloud of uncertainty around Georgia Tech entering 2014. The Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the preseason ACC media poll.

Instead, Johnson gave his critics one more shove to the side, earning a four-year contract extension in the process.

Mullen may not have had an ESPN 150 recruit on his offense, but he has company: Johnson did not, either. (Nor did he on defense.) All the Jackets did was finish second nationally in rushing (333.62 yards per game), a further testament to Johnson's system -- regardless of the recruiting obstacles, academic or otherwise, that may hamstring him in the crowded, fertile Atlanta area.

He brushed off the sudden departure of starting quarterback Vad Lee, who would've been the only ESPN 150 recruit on this roster, and helped turn a redshirt sophomore, Justin Thomas, into one of the most efficient signal-callers in the country. He overcame stretches without go-to backs such as Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins. His defense overcame its flaws by making big plays, forcing 27 turnovers, which was tied for 16th nationally.

As good as some of those wins by Mississippi State looked at the time, they dimmed considerably once everyone's body of work was complete: Auburn finished ranked 19th, LSU 23rd and Texas A&M unranked. Georgia Tech closed the season by beating No. 17 Clemson and by winning at No. 13 Georgia. Reigning national champion Florida State had to play arguably its most complete game of the season to finally fend off the Jackets in the ACC title game. And the Seminoles won by just two points.

Mississippi State, of course, was last seen losing to rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, an indignity that, in the eyes of some, will cast this otherwise remarkable campaign in an entirely different light.

With both overachieving teams entering this finale off a loss, perhaps we will get a definitive answer to this question between the Bulldogs and Jackets when the dust settles on the Sun Life Stadium field, right around the time the ball drops to close 2014.
If you see a giant orange running around Mississippi State’s campus this week, don’t be alarmed. It’s just Obie, the Capital One Orange Bowl mascot.

On Sunday, the Bulldogs were selected to play in the New Year’s Six bowl, where they will face Georgia Tech Dec. 31. To help promote the game, Obie made the trip up from Miami to Starkville to hang out with students and fans.

On his trip, Obie got a chance to see some of the Mississippi State players ...

Meet Bully, the Mississippi State mascot ...

And even break it down a little bit.

Who wants to have the better 2015?

That’s the essential question facing Mississippi State and Ole Miss, as the two teams who, at one time, had playoff aspirations must now must turn their attention to bowls that neither saw coming. They’re not bad bowls, mind you, but they’re not where they’d hoped to be only a few weeks ago.

So better to think of New Years Eve as the beginning of another push toward the playoff, rather than the last leg of a 2014 campaign that left both camps wanting.

“Guys get a feel for the future,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen of the extra practices bowl games allow. “There are guys [who] were kind of in redshirt-mode this year or backup mode where they’re not involved. This is kind of a reminder, when I pull out the seniors and call up the first and second-team defense, offense or special teams, those guys are now in that rotation.”

And there are a lot of those seniors to be replaced, as many as 15 in the two-deep depth chart. There’s also the possibility that linebacker Benardrick McKinney and running back Josh Robinson turn pro a year early.

Said Mullen, “It’s a huge wake-up call for those guys in the sense of urgency they need to have in practice ... for their future.”

Mullen joked that the Bulldogs would “party like it’s 1941” -- the last time the program went to the Capital One Orange Bowl. But as exciting as the return trip to Florida and the opportunity to play Georgia Tech might be, what’s really at stake is momentum.

Last year, coming off a thrilling win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State pounded Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Dak Prescott emerged as a playmaker at quarterback, the defense began winning the line of scrimmage more frequently and that forward progress carried over into the next season when the team got off to a 9-0 start for the first time in program history.

Maybe now, coming off two losses in their past three games, a strong finish is even more vital for the Bulldogs’ hopes of moving forward.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, doesn’t need to establish momentum as much as retain it. The Rebs, who looked down in the dumps after losing to Arkansas, 30-0, turned it around on the final day of the regular season by knocking Mississippi State out of playoff contention with a 31-17 win in Oxford.

Now coach Hugh Freeze and his staff must prepare for another playoff hopeful in TCU. The Horned Frogs, feeling snubbed from the final round of four, should come out for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl with something to prove.

“It's a bit ironic [TCU coach Gary Patterson is] brining in one of the top offenses and we're bringing in a top defense,” Freeze said. “He's the guru on the defensive side I've wanted to learn from."

Ole Miss’ offense has been humming all season long, but next year’s outlook is in doubt with quarterback Bo Wallace set to graduate.

That means it’s up to freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to make a push during bowl prep. If they don’t use those practices to make an impression, Freeze could look outside the program to find his QB of 2015.

Meanwhile, coordinator Dave Womack should already be looking to retool the Landshark defense for next season when Serderius Bryant, DT Shackelford, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt will have all moved on.

Given the way Feeze and his staff have recruited the past few years, there’s plenty on talent on campus to reload on. But until we see it in action, as we might against TCU, how good Ole Miss’ defense will be in 2015 is unknown.

While it’s right to want to finish the 2014 season, what lies ahead is more important than the final score.

The Orange and Peach Bowls should be fun, but for two teams in Mississippi State and Ole Miss that have come within earshot of the playoff, it’s about gearing up for the next run.

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