SEC: Tennessee Volunteers

Top sleeper commits: SEC 

December, 19, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent it takes more than just those top-rated prospects to have success. Rosters are built largely with prospects which enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key. Every year we see prospects that flew under the radar but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we've come across many players who show promise and are great additions based on their upside for development and/or scheme fit.

Here are five commitments in the SEC that we feel are unheralded, but great additions worth keeping an eye on.

SEC morning links

December, 19, 2014
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1. After freshman running back Jalen Hurd was arrested by citation for underage drinking earlier this month, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that Hurd was disciplined internally. According to a police report, police found a car with its lights on in a university dorm parking garage with an unconscious male inside. The man wasn't identified. It was a dumb mistake by a young player, and it sounds like Jones and his staff have or will take care of the up-and-coming standout for the Vols. Whether he'll miss any time in the Taxslayer Bowl against Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida, is unknown, but Jones did say that Hurd's arrest won't affect his status with the team.

2. Ole Miss will say goodbye to one of the school's most accomplished quarterbacks after the Rebels' Peach Bowl clash with No. 6 TCU in Atlanta on New Year's Eve. That quarterback is Bo Wallace, who as embattled as he has been has a chance to pass Eli Manning on the all-time wins list at Ole Miss, and he could be the first quarterback in school history to start and win three bowl games. That means that the Rebels will break in a new quarterback in 2015. You have three relatively inexperienced and inconsistent quarterbacks in Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade and Jeremy Liggins. They'll all compete for that starting spot this spring, but they now have solid competition coming in junior college national champion Chad Kelly, who started his career at Clemson. The arrival of Kelly has ignited a little bit of a fire under those young quarterbacks during bowl prep week. Competition breeds excellence, right?

3. Texas A&M is still looking for a new defensive coordinator and will also be looking for a new offensive line coach. Coach Kevin Sumlin announced Thursday that offensive line coach B.J. Anderson won't return and won’t coach against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29. A line that was mostly dominant through the first two years of the Aggies' move to the SEC fell off considerably in 2014. Not having as talented a quarterback as Johnny Manziel under center didn't help, but the Aggies gave up 25 sacks and 61 tackles for loss. Also, don't forget that wide receivers coach David Beaty took the head-coaching job at Kansas. That leaves three openings for Sumlin to fill, but he said he's closer to making a decision on his next defensive coordinator and that the process has "picked up speed." So let the rumors fly! At least we know Will Muschamp won't be taking his talent to College Station ... well, not as wearing Aggies colors.

Tennessee season review

December, 18, 2014
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The excitement is back at Tennessee, and an invitation to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl was the icing on the cake. As offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian put it, you’re doing something right if you have the opportunity to play in January.

After narrowly missing the postseason last season, the Volunteers won three of their last four games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010. The next step will be learning how to finish and win some of those close games, but this program is clearly headed in the right direction under head coach Butch Jones.

Best win: Trailing 42-28 with five minutes to go at South Carolina, Tennessee’s season hung in the balance. A loss would cripple the chance of making a bowl game. With the odds stacked against them, the Volunteers rallied back to tie it in the final seconds of regulation, thanks to an 9-yard touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs to Jason Croom, and freshman Aaron Medley won it in overtime with a 32-yard field goal. It was a turning point for Tennessee, and it was also a coming out party for Dobbs. The sophomore quarterback threw for 301 yards, rushed for 166 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Worst loss: Tennessee wasn’t expected to beat Florida, but when the Volunteers dominated that game for three quarters only to give up a 9-0 lead in the final 15 minutes, it felt like the better team lost. Time and time again, Tennessee had opportunities to put the Gators away but failed to do it. Then Florida brought in Treon Harris at quarterback, and it provided just enough of a spark to squeak past the Vols. It was an ugly game and a crushing defeat.

Player of the year: Of the 11 ESPN 300 signees in the 2014 class, Derek Barnett would not have been the first choice as a player of the year candidate, but the freshman was dominant this season. He was second in the SEC in tackles for loss (20.5), trailing only Missouri’s Shane Ray who had 21. He finished with 69 total tackles, 10 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries. And he played his best against the top competition, recording 18 tackles for loss and all 10 sacks in Tennessee’s eight SEC games. He will be a force for years to come.

Breakout player: Barnett fits this category, too, but he was just one of many breakout players on this team. The next best option is running back Jalen Hurd, who started from Day 1 and finished with 777 yards rushing, 217 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Freshmen typically hit a wall late in the season, but not Hurd. He seemed to get better as the season went on, and two of his best games came down the stretch. He rushed for a career-best 125 yards in the win against South Carolina and followed that up with 118 yards the next week vs. Kentucky.

Play of the year: Tennessee would have never been in position to tie the game at South Carolina if not for an incredible fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter. The Vols trailed by 14 at the time, and on 4th-and-6, Hurd caught a short pass from Dobbs, spun away from a tackle, juked another defender and sprinted into the end zone.

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2015 outlook: It’s hard not to get excited about this team in 2015. Tennessee played 23 true freshmen this season, more than any other FBS team. The Volunteers return all but one starter on offense, and potentially eight starters on the defense. They also have another top 10 recruiting class coming in next year, with nine ESPN 300 recruits already committed. With the SEC East down, it’s not out of the question to say that Tennessee could make a run at the division and possibly reach Atlanta for the conference championship game. The schedule won’t be easy with road trips to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but this team is tested. This season, they won at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt and nearly upset Georgia on the road. The Vols are on their way back to the top. Next year might be the year.
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A flurry of commitments and decommitments has led to considerable movement in the latest class rankings update. Several top-10 programs added ESPN 300 prospects, including Tennessee, which picked up top-10 ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols already have a class that features a talented group of defensive linemen, and have now added a big, powerful inside linebacker that can develop into a tough downhill run-stopper. Butch Jones now has Tennessee in contention for a second-straight top-five finish.

Outside the top 10, USC landed a verbal from in-state tight end Tyler Petite, a tall, lengthy prospect with the size, speed and leaping ability to potentially create mismatches as a receiving target at the position. After landing the former Duke commit, USC's class features eight ESPN 300 prospects.

Ole Miss also saw a move up in the rankings with a pair of additions. The Rebels landed ESPN Junior College 50 QB Chad Kelly, a player who is physically gifted enough to be a strong candidate to replace QB Bo Wallace, a one-time junior college transfer himself. Ole Miss, who not sits at No. 17, also landed ESPN 300 OT Michael Howard. He is a lean OL prospect that needs to fill out, but is an athletic and tenacious player and with development could end up being a real strong pick-up out of Florida for the Rebels.

Inside the rankings

Coach Art Briles has had two very distinct luxuries when it comes to recruiting in today's complicated landscape -- recruiting in the shadows and recruiting without pressure. Both are actually in many ways, one in the same. As Briles has built this program, he's been able to do it his way without public pressure or booster interference because early on, nobody thought it could be done and nobody cared.

This staff was able to go after who they wanted, on their own timetable and without much scrutiny. In today's recruiting world, that's a huge luxury. Players like Levi Norwood, Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese, who was a late qualifier, were all bypassed by other Power 5 programs, but nobody even noticed Baylor signed them or griped, "who are these guys" on signing day.

As a result, prospects like these were brought along at a normal pace and developed properly by the coaching staff. Redshirting the bulk of the classes for the first few years has also been huge for the Bears. The challenge going forward will be dealing with increased program exposure and expectation level which almost always brings with it increased recruiting scrutiny from boosters and fans alike. But the Bears don??t need to change a thing.



To see the full class rankings, click here.

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 SEC is known for its defensive line talent, with dozens of NFL linemen having played for one of the conference’s 14 schools. But this was an uncommonly productive season for the league’s freshman pass-rushers, even by the SEC’s lofty standards.

Two true freshmen – Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett – earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league’s coaches and media, and several others enjoyed productive debut seasons in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Garrett set an SEC record for freshmen with 11 sacks this season, but Barnett might have been not just the conference’s best freshman defensive lineman -- he might have been the SEC’s best defensive lineman, period.

[+] EnlargeDerek Barnett
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee freshman Derek Barnett ranks third in the nation in tackles for loss.
Missouri’s Shane Ray won the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year awards from both the coaches and media, and he is the conference’s only player whose numbers stand up against Barnett's. Ray led the SEC with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 13 games, although six of his sacks and 9.5 of his tackles for loss came against Missouri’s weak nonconference opposition. Barnett made all 10 of his sacks against SEC opponents, as well as 18 of his 20.5 tackles for loss.

Barnett is the only freshman to rank among the national top 30 in tackles for loss (he’s third) and Ole Miss freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is the only freshman in the national top 50 in forced fumbles (he’s tied for 29th with three). Garrett (tied for sixth with 11), Barnett (tied for 16th with 10) and Haynes (tied for 43rd with 7.5) are three of the only four freshmen to rank in the national top 50 in sacks.

Haynes did not post the ridiculous numbers that Garrett and Barnett did, but he was the best pass-rusher on a powerful Ole Miss defense. He led the Rebels in sacks, quarterback hurries (eight), and forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with a host of teammates with one fumble recovery.

Those three were the headliners, but they are not the only freshman pass rushers who appear destined for SEC stardom. Here are three more freshmen who could strike fear into quarterbacks’ hearts next season:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Arguably the biggest recruit in Georgia’s 2014 class, Carter didn’t start for the first time until Game 9 against Kentucky. But he made the most of that opportunity wotj nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. The Freshman All-SEC honoree started the last four games and figures to become a major impact player in 2015.

OLB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Earning playing time as a freshman on Alabama’s talented front seven is difficult, but Evans contributed as a role player. He made 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack thanks to impressive speed and a high motor. Once he gets an opportunity to play more, he’s going to be a regular visitor into opponents’ backfields.

DE Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: The SEC’s coaches saw enough from Hand in limited action to name him to their Freshman All-SEC team. One of the nation’s most coveted recruits in 2014, Hand recorded just seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss as a reserve on Alabama’s deep defensive line. Rest assured, his time is coming.

 
ESPN 300 defensive end D'Andre Walker got a little creative when he decided to announce his top three list of schools Friday morning.

Walker used YouTube and a holiday app called Elf Yourself to create a festive video to announce Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn are his final three schools.

Walker is the 19th-ranked defensive end and the 241st-ranked player overall in the ESPN 300.

SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
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1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

Tweet of the day

Ranking the SEC bowl games

December, 10, 2014
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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

December, 10, 2014
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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
Tweet of the day
On Monday, we wrote about Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M as they all get ready for their upcoming bowl games. Earlier Tuesday, we looked at the two Mississippi schools as they prepare for their New Year’s Six bowl games. Now it’s time to look at the other four bowl-eligible SEC teams and their matchups.

Duck Commander Independence Bowl, Dec. 27
South Carolina vs. Miami

Initial thoughts: Before the season, nobody could’ve predicted South Carolina would end up in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks had aspirations of winning the SEC East and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll head to Shreveport, Louisiana, to face a Miami team that has lost three straight. It’s not the ideal destination for the Head Ball Coach, but at least it’s a bowl game.

Key for South Carolina offense: Stay balanced. The Gamecocks have been unstoppable on offense at times this season. Dylan Thompson leads the SEC with 3,280 passing yards, and Pharoh Cooper is second only to Amari Cooper with 966 receiving yards. Those two will hook up early and often, but it’s important to get Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the ground game going. Their backfield is too talented not to.

Key for South Carolina defense: It won’t be easy, considering they haven’t stopped anybody all season, but the Gamecocks have to find a way to stop Duke Johnson. The Miami running back has 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards the last two games, so he’ll be primed to turn that trend around and finish the season on a high note. If he gets going, this one could quickly turn into a shootout.

What a win would mean: Looking back, most people won’t remember if South Carolina won or lost this game. The coaches will probably tell you the extra practice time is just as important as, if not more important than, the game itself. Still, it’d be nice to send Thompson off with a win in his final game.

AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas

Initial thoughts: Everybody was hoping to see Texas vs. Texas A&M in this game, and it almost happened, but Arkansas is not a bad consolation prize. The two teams were longtime rivals in the Southwest Conference, and this will be the 78th meeting between them. It brings you back to the days when Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal were manning opposite sidelines. Now we get Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong, two coaches rebuilding their respective programs.

Key for Arkansas offense: The Razorbacks got away from the run a little bit in the second half against Missouri, and it cost them. Expect Bielema to go right back to it in this one, using his tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins early and often against the Longhorns. Health will also be a factor. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be 100 percent, and he’ll get tight end AJ Derby back for this game.

Key for Arkansas defense: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, if not the nation. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon have 24 tackles for loss between them, and linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles on the season. Needless to say, the Razorbacks should be able to wreak havoc in the backfield and keep Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes contained. The key will be not letting Swoopes beat them deep.

What a win would mean: It’s the next step in the rebuilding process. Arkansas proved it was competitive with every team in the SEC West, and back-to-back wins over LSU and Ole Miss validated this team. Now the Razorbacks have a chance to win their bowl game and gain some momentum heading into next season.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1
Missouri vs. Minnesota

Initial thoughts: Raise your hand if you had this Citrus Bowl matchup pegged before the season. No hands? Exactly. Missouri made it all the way to the SEC championship game, and after a loss to Alabama, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Tigers get snubbed again. Not this year. Instead, they were rewarded for a terrific season. The matchup might not be sexy, but the Citrus Bowl is the top SEC bowl game after the New Year’s Six. And it’s in Florida.

Key for Missouri offense: Is Maty Mauk just not the quarterback everybody thought he was? At times, he looks great. But more times than not, he’s been erratic and inconsistent this season. The running game has stepped up behind Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, but Mauk has to play better. He’s only a sophomore, and this is a perfect opportunity to play well and get his confidence back before next season.

Key for Missouri defense: Shane Ray will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Missouri defensive end still has one game left with the Tigers -- and don’t think he won’t be motivated after getting ejected in the first half against Alabama. It’s also the final game for fellow defensive end Markus Golden, and it’s the last chance we get to see the two together. Sacks, however, will be hard to come by against the Gophers, who are primarily a running team.

What a win would mean: All Missouri wants is a little respect. After all, this team has won the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, a win over Minnesota will do little to help that, but it would look much better than a loss. The Tigers typically play well in the postseason, winning four of their last six bowl games.

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa

Initial thoughts: Most people thought Tennessee would stay in state and play in either the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the SEC rewarded the Volunteers by sending them down to Florida for their bowl game. And why not? They finished the season on a high note, winning three of their last four games to become bowl eligible. It’s no surprise head coach Butch Jones was given a contract extension and raise earlier this week.

Key for Tennessee offense: How will the offensive line hold up against Iowa? It’s been the Achilles’ heel all season, but it’s a group that’s improved every game. It’s important they create room for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs off his back. And speaking of Dobbs, he’s one to keep an eye on. He’s struggled his last two games, but he has the talent to have a big day against the Hawkeyes.

Key for Tennessee defense: Third down for what? Inspired by the Lil’ Jon song, the Vols’ defense has been very good on third down this season, allowing a 35 percent conversion rate to opponents. As a whole, this unit is best when it’s getting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the secondary. Tennessee is among the SEC leaders in sacks (35) and interceptions (15), which is bad news for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.

What a win would mean: The goal this season was to play in a bowl game. This Tennessee team reached that goal. For most of the players, it will be their first bowl game, but they’re not satisfied with just playing in one. They want to win. There’s already talk of the Volunteers making a run at the SEC East next season. It starts Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
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With Alabama winning the SEC championship on Saturday and the college football playoff now set, SEC schools can now turn their focus to recruiting. Despite there being only one game this weekend, there was still a bunch of recruiting news from around the SEC. There was a couple of big commitments, a few decommitments, a big decision date was announced and some important in-home visits. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.


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SEC morning links

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
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1. Monday was a pretty good day for Alabama wide receivers, past and present. Julio Jones finished with 11 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Green Bay on Monday Night Football, and Amari Cooper was named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Cooper, who leads the SEC with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, becomes the first wide receiver to be invited to New York City since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. Most believe he’ll be battling it out with Melvin Gordon for runner-up as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the favorite to win the award, but at least he’s a lock for the Biletkinoff Award, right? For a closer look at all three Heisman finalists, click here.



2. With the playoff news and bowl selections, Jim McElwain’s introductory press conference at Florida got lost in the news Sunday, but here’s a look back. He was charming, funny, and while he doesn’t have a nickname for his offense just yet, he did say that “it will be a blast.” That should be music to the ears of Florida fans. Some might be a little skeptical, but others believe he’s the SEC's next superstar coach and the right fit in Gainesville. The Gators will play in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3, and though McElwain isn’t allowed to coach the team, he plans to be there for the game and watch bowl practices to evaluate the players. He’s also keeping busy on the recruiting trail, putting together what could be a significant first class.

3. The Associated Press released its All-SEC team on Monday. A couple things stood out. First, I was a tad surprised Dak Prescott edged out Blake Sims as the first-team quarterback. Both had sensational seasons, but I just felt like Sims played better in bigger games, especially down the stretch. Also, the only three unanimous selections were Cooper, Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson and Alabama safety Landon Collins. Those three names didn’t surprise me, but I thought there’d be more than three unanimous picks. As for the numbers, Alabama led the way with nine players making the list, including six on the first team. Ole Miss, who had five first-team selections, was second with six All-SEC players in all.

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SEC morning links

December, 8, 2014
Dec 8
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1. The four-team field for the first-ever College Football Playoff is set. Did the committee get it right? The Big 12 might disagree, but ESPN’s Ivan Maisel believes they did get it right. And who’s to complain? The matchups are fantastic. The SEC will go in with Alabama as its only representative, but the Crimson Tide did get the No. 1 seed. Their opponent in the first semifinal game? None other than Nick Saban’s old nemesis Urban Meyer and his Ohio State team. How great is that? It hasn’t been that long since the two were on top of the SEC, battling it out for supremacy every year. Some say Saban was the reason Meyer left Florida after the 2010 season. Either way, he’s back now.

2. The playoff is great, but that’s just the beginning. The new way of bowl selections might have been confusing, but it worked. There are plenty of intriguing matchups for SEC teams beginning with Ole Miss-TCU and Mississippi State-Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve as a part of the New Year's Six bowl games. Dan Mullen will return to Miami for the first time since he won the national championship there in 2007 with Florida, and in an unlikely matchup, the Rebels face a TCU team that has to be upset after getting snubbed from the top four. Other bowl games that jumped out to me included Auburn-Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, LSU-Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, and Arkansas-Texas in the Texas Bowl.

3. The only “loser” in the SEC from Sunday’s bowl selections was Georgia. The Bulldogs didn’t end up in the Sunshine State like many predicted they would. Instead, they will make the short three-hour drive to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. However, the SEC and ACC had to know what they were doing when they paired Georgia up with Louisville. For one, Todd Grantham will face his former team. The Louisville defensive coordinator held the same position at Georgia for four seasons under Mark Richt. The Cardinals also have a pair of former Bulldogs, Josh Harvery-Clemson and Shaq Wiggins. Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin reached out to Wiggins on Sunday, tweeting “see ya over the holidays big dawg!” This should be fun.

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SEC bowl projections: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
Dec 7
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Today we finally get to put an end to the speculation, as college football's postseason picture will become clear this afternoon.

We knew the SEC would get one team into the inaugural College Football Playoff when Alabama beat Missouri on Saturday. Nailing down the destinations for the conference's other 11 bowl-eligible teams is much more difficult.

Here are our best guesses in the final hours before we will know for sure:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Arkansas
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Georgia
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina

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