SEC: Ole Miss Rebels
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.
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
The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.
But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.
You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.
With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:
Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.
Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.
Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.
Five more to watch:
OXFORD, Miss. -- For those hoping to see Ole Miss make a decision on its quarterback this spring, it’s not going to happen. Head coach Hugh Freeze admitted Tuesday that he expects the competition to drag on through fall camp.
"We're charting every single throw, and it's really close between all three,” Freeze said. “It really depends on the day. Ryan has had his great days, Kincade has done well at times, and so has Chad. We'll compile it all after this week and look at it again, but it's really close."
Despite never playing a down for the Rebels, Kelly entered the spring as the early favorite to win the job. He put up ridiculous numbers last year at East Mississippi Community College, and he was the No. 4 quarterback coming out of high school, ranked No. 84 overall in the ESPN 300.
Through the first two weeks of practice, Kelly has yet to disappoint. He's impressed his coaches and teammates with that raw ability, but Freeze says there are times when things are moving a little fast for him. He’s still struggling to pick up the playbook and the terminology, especially when the offense decides to go hurry-up.
The other major hurdle for Kelly was staying out of trouble off the field, but he’s been a model citizen since he arrived on campus in January.
"I'm really pleased with everything he's done to this point,” Freeze said. “It's a process. I'm very aware that any of these young men can make a decision that is wrong. He's got very little rope to do that with, but I’m real pleased with him to this point. He studies film. He's a competitor. He's a team guy. That's been my experience thus far."
Fellow competitors Buchanan and Kincade have also been complementary of Kelly this spring and even welcomed him into the “brotherhood,” but they’re not ready to hand him the starting job just yet. They’re still fighting hard every day in practice, knowing they’re still in the mix.
"It’s up to the coaches,” Buchanan said. “I know I have to make the most out of every single snap, every single series and do the best that I can."
"Every day, you have to bring it, no matter where you are,” added Kincade. “Anywhere you go, it's going to be a competition. You have to bring your 'A' game every time you're on the field."
The good news for all three quarterbacks is that star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell is back and running routes again. He’s not expected to go full contact until fall camp, but his presence has been a welcome sight at practice.
However, with good news typically comes bad news, and in this case, a slew of injuries to the offensive line and wide receiver group has held back the No. 1 offense and made it difficult to evaluate the quarterback position. Freeze listed about eight offensive linemen who are out and not expected to return this spring.
The Rebels will scrimmage this Saturday with the annual Grove Bowl in two weeks.
It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.
But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.
This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.
Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:
Nick Chubb, So., Georgia
Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.
Leonard Fournette, So., LSU
Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.
Wide Receiver/Tight end
Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina
The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.
D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn
It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss
If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.
Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss
He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!
Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M
Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.
More to watch:
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.
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.
It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!
- Florida's offense isn't exactly moving at the most appropriate speed this spring, but while that side of the ball continues to fall behind the defense, Geoff Collins' group is just out there fired up and having fun.
- At South Carolina, there's no more delegating ball plays by the Head Ball Coach.
- Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell says he "feels great" nearly five months after his gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rebels' home loss to Auburn.
- Former Alabama tight end Brian Vogler hopes to see more pass-catching opportunities for tight end O.J. Howard with the Crimson Tide this season.
- New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn't plan to change the Bulldogs' offensive philosophy this year, but he is changing the terminology.
- Fast riser Dontavius Russell is in position to start on Auburn's defensive line this season.
- LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings says he feels his confidence and ability growing this spring.
- Texas A&M returned to practice on Tuesday. Here are some notes and here's a little of what coach Kevin Sumlin had to say about the day.
- Former coaches believe in new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades.
- Head coach Butch Jones said the host of injuries is the biggest setback for Tennessee's football team this spring.
Tweet of the day
— Christina Long (@christinalong99) March 24, 2015
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.
- Georgia Bulldogs
- Auburn Tigers
- Alabama Crimson Tide
- Tennessee Volunteers
- Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Arkansas Razorbacks
- Ole Miss Rebels
- Missouri Tigers
- LSU Tigers
- Texas A&M Aggies
- Florida Gators
- South Carolina Gamecocks
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Vanderbilt Commodores
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
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
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
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
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:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
In Memphis, Tennessee
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
In Charlotte, North Carolina
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
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
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
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
Can you guess the last time a tight end finished among the top 10 receivers in the SEC? It was Aaron Hernandez in 2009 when the Florida junior hauled in 68 catches for 850 yards and five touchdowns. Evan Engram has a chance to buck that trend this season at Ole Miss. (Other posts in the Offseason Spotlight series.)
Spotlight: Tight end Evan Engram, 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, junior
2014 summary: Engram wasn’t as highly touted as some of his teammates in that heralded 2013 recruiting class, but he’s emerged as one of the SEC’s best tight ends. As a sophomore, he had 38 receptions for 662 yards, doubling his yardage total from the year before. His touchdowns (2) regressed, but he still earned first-team All-SEC honors from both the coaches and the Associated Press. When star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell went down late in the season with a broken leg, it was Engram who stepped up in his absence. Engram caught five passes for a career-high 176 yards in the Rebels’ Egg Bowl win over rival Mississippi State.
The skinny: At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Engram is not your typical old-school tight end. He struggles when it comes to blocking, but he more than makes up for it with his athleticism and hands. And that seems to be the way the position is going in both college and the NFL. Think Hernandez (before his legal troubles), Jimmy Graham or more recently Jordan Reed, the former Florida tight end who now plays for the Washington Redskins. Engram has a chance to follow that route to the next level if he continues on the path he’s on. This spring, there might not be a more important player on the Ole Miss roster. With Treadwell still out, Engram should serve as the team’s No. 1 target and therefore play a major role in the current quarterback battle. He’ll have an opportunity to develop chemistry with junior college transfer Chad Kelly, the early favorite to win the job, because a tight end is always a new quarterback’s best friend. Treadwell is expected to be back in time for the season, but that shouldn’t take away too much from Engram’s production. The two have a chance to form one of the top receiving duos in the SEC next season and both could finish among the top 10 in receiving.
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.
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.
Kelly, who is the 20-year-old nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, has met trouble before and if he isn't careful, he'll meet it again. Remember, before the fight and the counts of resisting arrest, Kelly was kicked off Clemson's football team after arguing with coaches during the Tigers' spring game. He's young, he's an athlete, and he's in college, but these stories are nothing new, and it's up to Kelly to decide if he wants to be a turnaround story or just another negative statistic.
But last season's improvements and the incoming hype will mean nothing if Kelly can't get things together off the field. He knows it, and his coach certainly knows it. It's no secret that Kelly's recent brush with the law almost cost him his opportunity at Ole Miss, and Freeze made it clear on national signing day that he does have some concerns about Kelly away from the actual sport of football:
"I do think he has some redeeming qualities that hopefully we can put some structure around so that he will be able to rewrite his story in a positive way. I just hope he won't embarrass our team, our university and myself. But, that is a possibility. That is something I know and recognize and will have to own. We have great support. I run everything by our administration. I know they trust my judgment. I trust the coaches that I have put around him and hopefully we can help him succeed."
Freeze isn't naive, but he isn't giving up on Kelly. How many chances will Kelly be given now? That's yet to be seen, but you can bet that Freeze, who returns a team that could yet again be in the thick of the SEC race this fall, won't be so forgiving of another slip-up. Freeze has done a great job of cleaning up the Rebels' off-field issues, and if he wants to keep that reputation going, he'll have to take swift, harsh action if Kelly messes up again.
Freeze took a chance on Kelly because he clearly believes in both his talents and a possible turnaround. Yes, it was a big risk, but the Rebels are hoping it turns into a big reward. That's all up to Kelly and how he handles returning to a college town that has plenty of distractions and plenty of trouble outlets, especially for a big-time quarterback. But, hey, plenty of quarterbacks have survived SEC college towns. In fact, they do it every day, so Kelly just has to sit back, enjoy his new home and immerse himself in football.
For now, we haven't heard much from Kelly, and that's a good thing for the Rebels. And if you need a refresher for how easy it is for any college athlete to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just look at what happened to Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and a couple of his teammates.
Rebels fan should rest easy because Kelly is spending his Spring Break in Haiti with Freeze on a volunteer humanitarian mission. Ole Miss returns to spring practice next week, where all eyes will be on Kelly and his throwing mates for the next few weeks.
Today our SEC writers take a look at some of the most intriguing quarterback battles that will take place within the conference this spring and beyond.
Alex Scarborough: Georgia
Call me crazy, but who wins the job is irrelevant. What matters is that either Jacob Park or Brice Ramsey secures the position early and sets the tone for the rest of the season, because the last thing Georgia needs is a QB controversy. There’s so much going for the offense already. There’s Nick Chubb, the only running back in college football that could make you forget Todd Gurley. There’s Malcolm Mitchell, a top talent at receiver if he can stay healthy. And there’s the O-line, which could be the best in the SEC with four starters back. So whoever starts under center will have plenty to work with. Now it’s only a matter of settling on the best option.
Chris Low: Texas A&M
There's not much drama this spring in the Texas A&M quarterback camp. It's sophomore Kyle Allen and ... well, that's it. Kenny Hill transferred after being all the rage in Aggieland to start last season, but Allen was the one who finished the season at quarterback, going 3-2 as the starter. He's got a big arm and showed uncanny presence in the pocket for a true freshman. But it would be premature to pencil in the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen as Texas A&M's starter in 2015. Kyler Murray is slated to be on campus this summer, and he arrives as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country -- assuming he doesn't opt for pro baseball. There's some thought that Murray could be a first-round selection in June's baseball draft. If so, he's got another big decision to make after picking Texas A&M over Texas in a fierce recruiting battle. Stay tuned because the real drama surrounding the Aggies' quarterback job will heat up this summer.
David Ching: Ole Miss
Ole Miss is intriguing not so much because of the on-field competition, but because of Chad Kelly's presence in the position battle. I suppose it’s the tabloid element of the story that interests me. Prior to his arrest following a bar fight late last year, Kelly was already viewed as a wild card because of his unceremonious exit from Clemson. Hugh Freeze stood by the junior college transfer -- Kelly led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA title last year, passing for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions -- saying Kelly deserves a second chance. But can Kelly keep his act together and also outperform Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade? It will be fascinating to watch it play out.
Edward Aschoff: LSU
The Tigers are in desperate need of competent play at quarterback, and just about everyone will be keeping a close eye on Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris. No one has any clue which way this one will go. You have Jennings, who basically limped his way through 2014, and Harris, who arrived as a star recruit but couldn’t stay on the field. Both have shown flashes -- maybe Harris a bit more -- but both were wildly inconsistent and have a long way to go with their development. However, if one can stand out and transform into a legitimate passing threat, LSU’s offense -- and entire team -- could be dangerous in 2015.
Greg Ostendorf: Florida
Don’t underestimate this battle. This could be a career-defining decision for Jim McElwain in just his first year at Florida. Fans are tired of subpar quarterback play, and that’s part of the reason McElwain was hired in the first place. On one side, Treon Harris came in and gave the Gators a spark last season. He’s a true dual-threat guy who has more game experience. On the other side, there’s Will Grier, the former ESPN 300 signal-caller who better fits what McElwain wants to do on offense. Both will be given an equal shot at the job, and I don’t expect a starter to be named until the fall. But what makes it so intriguing and why I think it’s the most intriguing battle in the SEC is McElwain. He has a proven track record with quarterbacks, and both Harris and Grier will benefit from his arrival. Who will benefit the most?
Sam Khan Jr.: Alabama
Alabama’s quarterback battle fascinates me in large part because of how it played out a season ago. Jake Coker transferred into the program during the offseason and before he even stepped foot on campus, there seemed to be widespread speculation that he was the successor to AJ McCarron. Then an interesting thing happened -- the battle played out, Blake Sims eventually won the job and had an impressive season. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin were methodical in that process, so I expect that to be the case again. Coker’s certainly the favorite again this year and has the experience edge, being a senior and the only one out of the group that includes himself, Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to have thrown a collegiate pass. That said, he has thrown only 10 more passes against SEC competition than his competitors, so while he has an experience edge, it’s not an overwhelming one.
- John Chavis got the opportunity to address his pending legal issues on Thursday, not that Texas A&M’s new defensive coordinator went into much detail about the legal wrangling over whether he owes LSU a buyout after joining Kevin Sumlin’s coaching staff in January. The gruff veteran coach immediately shot down questions about the subject when asked about the issue following Thursday’s practice. (Here’s video of Chavis’ interview). The longtime SEC assistant was very complimentary of Texas A&M and the resources at the program’s disposal in his first media appearance. But he clearly didn’t want to discuss the lawsuit, which has been a bitter subject over the last week -- particularly in Baton Rouge. It’s an unusual story even by the always-dramatic SEC’s standards. If you haven’t been keeping up, here is an SB Nation recap of the issue.
- Ole Miss wrapped up this week’s batch of NFL pro days on Thursday by hosting scouts in Oxford. The big story was how All-America safety Cody Prewitt improved upon the disappointing 40-yard dash time he ran at the NFL combine, and he wasn’t the only Rebel who potentially made himself some money. According to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, cornerback Senquez Golson and little-known defensive end Carlos Thompson also helped their causes with impressive performances in Thursday’s workouts.
- Continuity was the key word as Butch Jones brought on Mike DeBord as his new offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
- SI.com’s Zac Ellis lists the big question facing each SEC program entering spring practice.
- With LSU preparing to open spring practice on Saturday, Geaux247’s Shea Dixon lists five Tigers freshmen -- including early enrollees Kevin Toliver II and David Ducre -- to watch this spring.
- Kentucky expects a jolt from 18 players who redshirted last season when it opens spring practice on Saturday.
- What are the positions of strength and positions of need for Missouri as the Tigers prepare to open spring pratice?
- Auburn opens spring practice next week. Here is a look at the Tigers’ crew of wide receivers.
- TideSports.com looks at the linebackers at Alabama, which must replace two starters at the position, ahead of spring practice.
Heard 'Bama's Nick Saban speak today at a seminar on leadership. Incredible. If he recruits me, I'm going. Doesn't matter where.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 5, 2015
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal from the NCAA Rules Committee that would reduce the number of yards offensive linemen can move downfield on a pass play from 3 to 1 yard.
"It’s going to change the way we do things, those of us who are run-pass offenses, and when you look around college football right now, that’s a lot of us," Malzahn said. "You’re always looking for ways to be creative, and I don’t think you should ever change the rules to take creativity out of the game unless it’s a safety issue. This is not a safety issue.
Last year, a 10-second rule designed to slow the pace of play offensively was proposed by the NCAA Rules Committee, but it was tabled before it ever got to the oversight panel.
Malzahn and Freeze are among a group of coaches nationally who have asked Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, the rules committee chairman, to also table this proposal and make it a point of emphasis this season among officials.
"I understand those coaches who are upset when a lineman is 5 or 6 yards downfield and the quarterback pulls up and throws a pass," Freeze said. "That’s a penalty and should be called. Throw the flag, but don’t penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."
Malzahn and Freeze are among several coaches nationally who use the “pop pass,” which is a play-action pass that many of the spread teams use to make it look like a run, particularly on a zone-read play, and then throw it. One of the most obvious examples of a “pop pass” was Nick Marshall’s touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to tie the Alabama game two years ago, which was then won by the Tigers on Chris Davis’ Kick-Six.
Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials, said the new rule would stipulate that an offensive lineman could still be 3 yards downfield as long as he was engaged with a defender, but that offensive linemen would no longer be able to free release beyond 1 yard and a team legally throw a pass.
"This will hurt the high school coaches, too, because a lot of those guys are running the same stuff," Malzahn said. "Those of us coaching in college who came from high school understand how important this is and how much it will change the game.
"Scoring will be down. You’re not going to see teams scoring as many points, and when it’s getting harder all the time to get fans to come to games, is that something that college football wants?"
Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials, maintains that the proposal has support from both offensive and defensive coaches and that one offensive-minded coach even commented to him, "We have to play defense, too."
Redding added that the changes the committee are sending to the oversight panel are good for the game and that he supports them.
The split among FBS coaches on whether to change the rule, according to Redding, was about 50-50. The rules committee gathered input from coaches via a survey, but Malzahn said only a small sampling of coaches ever send those back.
"Part of the problem is that they do those surveys in January, right in the middle of recruiting, and a lot of us don’t have time to think,” Malzahn said. “Whatever happens, we need to come up with a better system on how to go about doing this."
- Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
- Former South Carolina receiver Sidney Rice, who said he has suffered at least 10 concussions since age 8, announced plans to donate his brain to medical research after his death.
- Kentucky's quarterback competition took a hit when Reese Phillips ruptured an Achilles' tendon on Wednesday, leaving the Wildcats with just two healthy scholarship quarterbacks for the time being. UK officials said Phillips should be able to return this fall, however.
- Sean Patterson, formerly an offensive quality control assistant at LSU, is now associate director for recruiting operations at Ole Miss, where his younger brother Shea is committed to play quarterback next year.
- TideSports.com's Aaron Suttles examines who might pick up the slack at receiver for Alabama now that Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are out of the picture.
- According to Georgia coach Mark Richt, the Bulldogs will open spring practice with options 1A, 1B and 1C at quarterback in Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.
- The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison looks at Missouri's 21 redshirt freshmen and early enrollees and projects which players have the best opportunity to help the Tigers in 2015.
Asked whether he would allow TB Nick Chubb to be tackled to the ground during spring drills, #UGA coach Mark Richt said, "if they can."— AJC UGA (@ChipTowersAJC) March 4, 2015