SEC: Laremy Tunsil

SEC playoff tracker: Nov. 5

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5
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And then there were three. Well, technically there’s still six because crazier things have happened. But after Saturday's games, the SEC has three bona fide contenders for the College Football Playoff. Find out where they stand, along with the three teams still clinging to hope, in this week’s playoff tracker.

Mississippi State
Record: 8-0 (5-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Alabama

Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs keep cruising along. They will play their final nonconference gimme of the season this weekend against UT-Martin, providing an opportunity to get the starters off the field early ahead of next week’s showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Cause for concern: Last week’s narrow win against Arkansas provided evidence that Mississippi State can look awfully average if quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t 100 percent. He threw for a career-high 331 yards against the Razorbacks, but also tossed two interceptions and limped around the field for much of the game. The Bulldogs need him to stay healthy or that No. 1 ranking will be in jeopardy.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Alabama

-- David Ching

Auburn
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Georgia

Reason for optimism: It hasn't always been easy, but Auburn has navigated through the nation’s hardest schedule with just one loss. Trips to Georgia and Alabama remain, but win out and the Tigers are in the playoff. That’s all you can ask for at this point in the season. It doesn’t hurt that Georgia took a gigantic step backward on Saturday.

Cause for concern: Nick Marshall and this Auburn offense are clicking right now. The same can’t be said for the defense, though. The Tigers were lit up again Saturday at Ole Miss, and if not for two late turnovers, it might have cost them the game. They also committed a season-high 13 penalties for 145 yards against the Rebels.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: If Alabama loses at LSU this week, Auburn could lose the season finale in Tuscaloosa and still win the SEC West (assuming it wins its other remaining games). And it keeps the door open for a five-way tie. Who doesn't want that?

-- Greg Ostendorf

Alabama
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 5
Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After Ole Miss' loss to Auburn last weekend, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny. If they win out, they'll finish on top in the West and play in the SEC championship game. A trip to LSU won't be easy, but the remaining two games against ranked teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn -- both come at home.

Cause for concern: They don't call it Death Valley for nothing -- and the Tigers' record there after dark speaks for itself. If Alabama is going to prove it belongs in the playoff conversation, it has to survive this weekend's game at LSU.

Who they’ll be rooting for: If Kansas State beats TCU and Utah beats Oregon, Alabama's chief competition in the debate over the best one-loss team in college football will be much more manageable.

-- Alex Scarborough

Ole Miss
Record: 7-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Nov. 22 at Arkansas

Reason for optimism: After two losses, the Rebels’ hopes seem all but dashed. They didn’t drop too far in the rankings, so that’s a plus. But if Ole Miss is going to have any chance at the final four, the Rebels have to win out and win the SEC. Auburn needs to lose two more, while Alabama and LSU need to lose one, all of which is possible with Alabama playing Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State this month.

Cause for concern: Having two losses is damning at this point. The Rebels need help from teams that are on a roll, especially Auburn. Then there are injuries. Star receiver Laquon Treadwell (leg/ankle) and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (ankle) are out for the season, while left tackle Laremy Tunsil is dealing with a biceps pull.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over LSU

-- Edward Aschoff

LSU
Record: 7-2 (3-2)
Rank: No. 16
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Reason for optimism: During their three-game winning streak -- particularly in the last two games against Kentucky and Ole Miss -- the Tigers got back to playing traditional LSU football. They leaned heavily on the run and on a tough defense, earning two wins. After last weekend’s open date, they should be in good physical shape for Saturday’s showdown with Alabama.

Cause for concern: This is Alabama, which owns a three-game winning streak over the Tigers. LSU has to win to remain in the hunt for the SEC West title and for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers look much better lately, but they’ll need to play their best game of the season to beat the Crimson Tide.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Auburn

-- David Ching

Georgia
Record: 6-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 20
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 vs Auburn

Reason for optimism: This was supposed to be an easy jog to Atlanta for the Dawgs, but after getting routed by Florida, Georgia is now very much on the outside looking in. Georgia has to win out and win the SEC to have a chance. It also needs Missouri to lose one more, which could happen with Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas left on the schedule.

Cause for concern: Well, two losses appears to be the kiss of death, and Georgia lost to a relatively unimpressive Florida team. A trip to Kentucky and a home game with No. 3 Auburn loom. Also, Missouri ends the season playing three teams that have gone a combined 3-12 in SEC play.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Vanderbilt over Florida

-- Edward Aschoff
Ole Miss was up to its old turnover tricks on defense Saturday against LSU. The Rebels’ problem in the 10-7 loss was that they failed to capitalize on turnovers the way they normally do.

In fairness, the Rebels’ lone touchdown of the night did follow safety Cody Prewitt's fumble recovery in the Ole Miss end zone. But this was an Ole Miss club that's made opponents pay for their mistakes all season, entering the LSU game with an FBS-high 90 points off turnovers.

They won the turnover battle against the Tigers 4-1, but were otherwise unable to turn those takeaways into points.

“When you turn the ball over that many times, it’s rough,” LSU center Elliott Porter admitted. “But we got it done, thank you Lord.”

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesCody Prewitt and Ole Miss forced turnovers against LSU like they had all season, but the Rebels' offense was unable to turn them into points.
The Tigers can thank their increasingly hard-nosed defense as well, as Ole Miss didn’t accomplish much on offense after the other three turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal by LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye.

  • After Delahoussaye’s first-quarter miss gave Ole Miss the ball at the Rebels’ 20-yard line, they drove into LSU territory, but quarterback Bo Wallace threw incomplete to running back Jaylen Walton on fourth-and-2 at the LSU 30.
  • Following a second-quarter C.J. Johnson fumble recovery at the Ole Miss 48, the Rebels actually scored on a 34-yard I'Tavius Mathers run, but the touchdown came back on a holding penalty against tight end Nicholas Parker. Instead, the Rebels were forced to punt.
  • Senquez Golson intercepted LSU’s Anthony Jennings at the Ole Miss 49 in the third quarter, but Golson was then flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. The 15-yard penalty gave the Rebels first-and-25 at their own 34, and they went backward to their 29 before punting.
  • Finally, Mike Hilton intercepted a Jennings pass at the Ole Miss 35 in the fourth quarter. Afterward, the Rebels went three-and-out and punted to LSU again -- with the Tigers then launching the game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive.

This was not the opportunistic Ole Miss club that had taken the field each previous Saturday en route to a No. 3 national ranking, and Rebels coach Hugh Freeze admitted that he might have played it too conservatively since his defense had been so effective against LSU.

“The plan that we had certainly gave us a chance to win,” Freeze said of not using more up-tempo pace against the Tigers. “We had two touchdowns called back and had chances to score more points, and either we didn’t make the right call or we didn’t execute properly at times or LSU made good plays.

“So should we speed it up more? Maybe, but I still say that we had a chance to win in a hostile environment against a very good football team that’s playing really well right now had we made better calls, better plays at certain times.”

Freeze and Wallace said the Tiger Stadium crowd was a factor on Saturday, particularly during the period where Ole Miss was without two offensive line starters. Center Ben Still missed the game with a knee injury and was replaced by converted tackle Robert Conyers. When star left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed time in the second half with a biceps injury, normal fill-in Conyers was already at center, so the Rebels were forced to go with inexperienced redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin.

Ole Miss generated just 107 yards (36 on the ground) and went 2-for-10 on third down after halftime.

“Daronte’s [issue] was not physical as much as it was playing in that environment on a silent count was very, very late off the ball all three possessions,” Freeze said. “That cost us some negative plays. We’ve got to prepare him better and hopefully get some kids healthy where we can play kids that have been in those environments before.”

Freeze said Still and Tunsil are both “day-to-day” for Saturday’s game against No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC), and it’s clear the Rebels (7-1, 4-1) need them both. LSU overwhelmed their replacements at times on Saturday, and Auburn boasts one of the SEC’s better defensive fronts.

Obviously their presences in the starting lineup would make it easier for Wallace and the offense to attempt to force the issue more against Auburn than they did against LSU. Either way, that is the Ole Miss’ quarterback’s hope for Saturday.

“At lot of times when we’re throwing the ball right now, it’s third down. It’s easy when you know it’s coming, third-and-9, third-and-long,” Wallace said. “We’re staying in third-and-long so much when you know it’s coming, people get in their third-down defense and it’s hard obviously to convert three downs with as well as you can play third-down defense.

“So we have to get back to throwing the ball on first and second down and making plays like we did earlier in the season.”

At first glance: SEC Week 10

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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We could be on the verge of another Separation Saturday in the SEC’s respective division races. If division leaders Mississippi State and Georgia successfully dodge upset bids from Arkansas and Florida, they will inch closer toward a meeting in December with a conference championship at stake.

As we move into what should be an incredible November in the SEC, let’s take a quick glance at some of this week’s top storylines:

Game of the week: No. 4 Auburn at No. 7 Ole Miss

LSU’s 10-7 comeback win over Ole Miss last weekend knocked the Rebels from the ranks of the unbeaten, but this game still carries enormous SEC West implications for both one-loss clubs. The loser might not be mathematically eliminated, but it will certainly face an uphill climb -- particularly if Auburn loses since it still must go on the road to face No. 3 Alabama and No. 9 Georgia. The fascinating matchup here will be Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Auburn’s spread running game against a vaunted Ole Miss defense that just surrendered 264 rushing yards to LSU. The Rebels also took some physical lumps against LSU, with key players such as Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and All-America safety Cody Prewitt all missing time against LSU with injuries. If they don’t regroup quickly, the Rebels’ division hopes might be on life support by Sunday.

Player under pressure: Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill

He hasn’t been nearly "trill" enough lately. Nobody has at Texas A&M during an ugly three-game losing streak where the Aggies have lost to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama by a combined 142-51 margin. Hill’s numbers weren’t awful in that stretch -- he was 96-of-141 for 904 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions -- but the Aggies simply were not competitive in any of those games. Hill was a Heisman Trophy contender a month ago, but Kevin Sumlin and Jake Spavital might turn to freshman Kyle Allen if things don’t start turning around quickly. Hill desperately needs to get back on track Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe before the Aggies close the season against a gantlet of Auburn, Missouri and LSU.

Coach under the microscope: Florida’s Will Muschamp

Every indication seems to be that the end is near for Muschamp at Florida. But what happens if his Gators pull a huge upset against hated rival Georgia on Saturday? Is there a scenario where the Gators miraculously look like a different team coming out of their open date and show some progress to end the season? It might require a miracle for Muschamp to return as Florida’s head coach next season -- and that’s pretty much what it would be if the Gators snap their three-game losing streak against Georgia.

Storyline to watch: Todd Gurley and the NCAA

Georgia expects to hear back soon from the NCAA regarding Todd Gurley’s reinstatement request. The Bulldogs’ star sat out during wins against Missouri and Arkansas after accusations that he accepted money for autographing memorabilia jeopardized his eligibility. Gurley remains one of the SEC’s leading rushers with 773 yards in just five games, and Nick Chubb has been an outstanding replacement during Gurley’s absence, but the Bulldogs have to love their chances against Florida if the one-time Heisman Trophy front runner returns to the lineup on Saturday.

Intriguing matchup: Maty Mauk against Kentucky’s secondary

Missouri quarterback Mauk has been awful in SEC play -- he has completed 40 percent of his passes, averaged 98 passing yards per game and tossed two touchdowns against five interceptions in four conference games == which could make things interesting on Saturday. Kentucky doesn’t have the most imposing defense, but it boasts arguably the most improved secondary in the nation this season. The Wildcats have intercepted 13 passes in eight games after picking off just three throws in the entire 2013 season. If Mauk fails to raise his game on Saturday, the Wildcats might give the defending SEC East champs all they can handle.

SEC morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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1. You knew a statement was coming. On Monday, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley delivered a short message about the status of head coach Will Muschamp: "Our sole focus right now is supporting our coaching staff and players as they prepare for Georgia." There's not much reading between the lines to be done there, especially when you consider the brevity of the statement. But to give in and make a statement in the first place is a sure sign of where things stand. There are six more weeks left in the season. Are you going to issue one release per game the rest of the way? Maybe they'll grow in length as they "evaluate the season as it plays out," as Foley wrote. Maybe they'll become increasingly cryptic or employ a well-placed emoticon to lighten the mood. If you use a decoder, will it spell out the name of each week's leading candidate? Now that would be something. For now, though, we're left with a few throwaway sentences about what appears to be a lame duck coach.

2. I'll admit it, I wasn't very high on Georgia's prospects post-Todd Gurley. In fact, I didn't like the Bulldogs' chances before he was suspended indefinitely. But Mark Richt's squad has shown me something, and it's more than the uber-talented Nick Chubb that's impressed me. Instead, it's how the rest of the team has picked up their play. Hutson Mason has thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games. And the defense has found a way to create turnovers in bunches, picking off Missouri's Maty Mauk four times and Arkansas' Brandon Allen a pair of times. Leonard Floyd has been a beast rushing the passer and the rest of that front seven showed me something as it held down the Razorbacks' vaunted rushing game. Post-Gurley, Georgia's become a much more complete football team. If and/or when he comes back, he'll only make it better.

3. If there's been one area of Ole Miss' game that's concerned me, it's the offensive line. Though they've played much better than expected, the fact remains that there wasn't a lot of returning experience there from a season ago. Laremy Tunsil was someone you knew you could count on, but the rest was iffy. It turns out offensive coordinator Dan Werner found a good starting five after all, but now his depth will be put to the test as it looks like starting center Ben Still is questionable for the LSU game. As we all know, playing the Tigers in Baton Rouge is most often a battle in the trenches. Without his starting center, will Bo Wallace be as comfortable under center? And will an already limp running game take a step back? It's hard to say exactly, but the timing isn't ideal, that's for sure.

Tweet of the day

Midseason All-SEC team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The many members of the Greatest Show on Turf who were honored at halftime. OK, so maybe we weren't perfect with our preseason All-SEC team, but how can you blame us? There are always surprises, and at the midway point, this season has been no different. Just look at which teams are leading the conference. Who saw that coming?

So we at the SEC blog came together and updated our all-conference team. There were some carry-overs from the initial list, but there are also some new names, some names that might have gone under the radar before the season.

Without further ado, here's your midseason All-SEC team:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
No quarterback has been better in the SEC. Prescott has 2,089 total yards with 23 touchdowns and has taken down three straight top-10 opponents.
Preseason pick: Nick Marshall, Auburn

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDak Prescott has passed for 1,478 yards with 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions for the top-ranked Bulldogs. He's rushed for 576 yards and 8 scores and also has 35 receiving yards with a TD.
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
Suspension aside, Gurley has been the nation's best player. He still leads the SEC in yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and rushing touchdowns (eight).
Preseason pick: Gurley

RB: Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
Once known as the “Bowling Ball,” he's a certified wrecking ball with his bruising style. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Preseason pick: Mike Davis, South Carolina

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
There's been no more dominant wideout in the SEC than Alabama's junior from South Florida. More than half of Tide QB Blake Sims' completions have ended up in Cooper's hands.
Preseason pick: Cooper

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn
We all knew he was going to be good, but this good? The junior college transfer leads Auburn in receptions (31), yards (493) and touchdowns (five).
Preseason pick: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Engram didn't receive as much preseason publicity as some SEC tight ends, but has been the league's best so far with 18 receptions for 264 yards.
Preseason pick: O.J. Howard, Alabama

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
The senior has been solid, though not perfect, in his transition from right tackle to left tackle. He has done an overall fine job protecting Kenny Hill's blind side.
Preseason pick: Ogbuehi

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
South Carolina's season hasn't gone as planned but Cann, a fifth-year senior, has been a consistent force from his left guard spot.
Preseason pick: Cann

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
There's been a lot of shuffling up front, but Dismukes has been the constant. The senior has started 43 of Auburn's last 44 games, including all six this season.
Preseason pick: Dismukes

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State
One of the driving forces in State's running game, the former walk-on has started 18 straight games and filled in for suspended center Dillon Day against Texas A&M.
Preseason pick: Vadal Alexander, LSU

OT: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Bo Wallace has been Good Bo, not Bad Bo, because of his O-line. Tunsil has kept watch of Wallace's blind side and helped the Rebs to the second-best passing game in the SEC.
Preseason pick: La'el Collins, LSU

DEFENSE

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State
At one point, Smith was named the SEC's defensive lineman of the week for three straight weeks. He does it all for the Bulldogs' stout defensive front.
Preseason pick: Chris Jones, Mississippi State

[+] EnlargeSenquez Golson
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesSenquez Golson leads the SEC and is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri
Ranked second nationally in tackles for loss and third in sacks, Ray has been consistent. He has at least one TFL in every game and only one sackless game.
Preseason pick: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
The true freshman is living up to the hype that defined his recruitment. His 7.5 sacks are a school freshman record and only a half-sack behind the SEC freshman record.
Preseason pick: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
The statistics don't tell the story of the sophomore, who has been a disruptive force for the Rebels. Example: the pressure he put on Kenny Hill on Saturday to force a pick-six.
Preseason pick: Nkemdiche

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Try to find a better linebacker who can blitz, clog the run, cover and play sideline-to-sideline as well as McKinney. He has a team-high 41 tackles with three sacks.
Preseason pick: McKinney

LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
With four sacks, the Bulldogs' chief pass-rusher hasn't had a truly dominant game yet, but he typically draws the most attention among UGA's pack of sack artists.
Preseason pick: Floyd

LB Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
It has taken him four years, but Dickson is finally having that breakthrough season. The senior leads Alabama with seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
Preseason pick: Ramik Wilson, Georgia

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Tied for second in the SEC with six pass breakups, Hargreaves is rarely tested due to his terrific instincts, great range and solid tackling ability.
Preseason pick: Hargreaves

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
One of the SEC's best cover corners with an SEC-leading five interceptions (second nationally). He's tied for first in the SEC with eight passes defended.
Preseason pick: Tre'Davious White, LSU

S: Landon Collins, Alabama
It's hard to imagine where Bama's defense would be without Collins, who sealed Saturday's win with an interception. The talented junior leads the Tide in tackles and passes defended.
Preseason pick: Collins

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
He may not lead his team in interceptions, but Prewitt is possibly the Rebs best defensive player. The veteran safety has 3.5 tackles for loss, two picks and 32 total tackles.
Preseason pick: Prewitt

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
Fry leads the SEC with 10 field goals made and a conversion rate over 90 percent. The sophomore has a long of 45 yards and is perfect on 25 PATs.
Preseason pick: Marshall Morgan, Georgia

P: JK Scott, Alabama
Looking for Alabama's first-half MVP? Look no further than Scott, a lanky true freshman with a big leg. Forget leading the SEC, Scott ranks sixth in the country in yards per punt (46.7).
Preseason pick: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

KR/PR: Quan Bray, Auburn
The senior might not have lived up to his potential as a wide receiver, but he's making an impact in the return game. Bray leads the SEC, averaging 25 yards per punt return.
Preseason pick: Christion Jones, Alabama
Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country, at least according to the latest coaches' poll.

[+] EnlargeSaban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and the Crimson Tide will play at the No. 11-ranked Ole Miss Rebels in Week 6.
Through four games, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have done nothing to not deserve their spot atop the college football world.

Forget Jake Coker and forget being a game manager, Blake Sims has developed into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks. The hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator hasn't signaled the end times, it's brought about a renaissance replete with screen passes, misdirection and even the use of the hurry-up, no-huddle.

After fumbling about against West Virginia in the season opener, Alabama's defense has returned to form. If it weren't for four turnovers, Florida wouldn't have scored a single point in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made the Gators look inept as Jeff Driskel struggled to complete 9 of his 28 pass attempts.

Alabama has developed into a complete football team these past few weeks. Even the punting and place kicking have been better than expected.

But now comes the real fun.

Now comes Ole Miss.

Whatever we think we know about Alabama will be challenged Saturday when the Crimson Tide have their first true road test against the No. 11-ranked team in the country. Oxford, Mississippi, may be a picturesque college town that prides itself on never losing the party, but what awaits Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium won't be so friendly. Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche want to knock off the No. 1 team in the land, not serve it sweet tea and barbecue.

How will Sims hold up under that type of pressure? He's played well so far, tossing eight touchdowns to two interceptions. Among quarterbacks with at least two starts, he ranks third nationally with an adjusted QBR of 89.4. But he hasn't played in a raucous road environment yet, and he hasn't faced a defense that's as good top to bottom as Ole Miss'. The Nkemdiche brothers can get after you. So can C.J. Johnson and D.T. Shackelford. And if you try throwing into that secondary, don't expect the ball back. Senquez Golson leads the SEC with three interceptions this season and Cody Prewitt led the league with six picks last season.

Speaking of defense, what do we really know about Alabama's? The Crimson Tide barely survived West Virginia Week 1, and in subsequent games they haven't really been put to the test. Florida was supposed to be a measuring stick, but we saw how that played out.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, should give Alabama everything it can handle. Wallace may be up and down as a passer, but when he's hot, he can really sling it. He's elusive in the pocket and knows Hugh Freeze's offense like the back of his hand. Plus, he's protected by an offensive line that stars one of the best tackles in the SEC in Laremy Tunsil.

Alabama's secondary won't be able to sleepwalk by the Rebs. Treadwell is one of the most productive receivers in the country and Evan Engram is a constant mismatch at tight end. And that's not to mention Cody Core and Vince Sanders, who are difficult to account for in their own right. If you're Saban, you're worried because your top cornerback is generously listed at 5-foot-10, your second-best cornerback, Eddie Jackson, has health concerns, and your third-best cornerback, Tony Brown, is a true freshman.

And all that goes without saying how Alabama has continued to struggle against the hurry-up, no-huddle. Go back and look at Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia; it hasn't been pretty.

Meanwhile, Freeze just so happens to be one of the leading experts on uptempo offense. And unlike last season's game, he's probably going to make sure his signals aren't so obvious.

If Alabama wants to remain the No. 1 team in the country, it will have to prove it against Ole Miss.

From the play of Sims to the offensive line to the secondary to the defense as a whole, there won't be one phase of the game where the Crimson Tide won't be tested on Saturday.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
OXFORD, Miss. – Before Ole Miss' historic 2013 recruiting class came together, No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche had a question for his eventual teammates.

Instead of joining a powerhouse such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU, why not start something special for the future? Why not help build something special?

On Feb. 6, 2013, the seeds for success were planted as the Rebels signed the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, adding the No. 1 receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), the No. 2 safety (Tony Conner) and the No. 1 junior college defensive tackle (Lavon Hooks) to a haul that included the grand prize of Nkemdiche.

"I wanted to make history," Nkemdiche said. "We're going to say we helped bring this program to where it is now. It'll be like we brought this up. We sat through all the 'Ole Miss is nothing' [talk], and we still did what we had to do to bring it up."

For years, that talk has dominated the Ole Miss narrative. Success has been sporadic and short-lived in Oxford. Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title since 1963 and has endured 19 losing seasons since claiming the national championship in 1962.

This recruiting class not only provided the Rebels with immediate field help, it gave a fan base hope. Coach Hugh Freeze's legacy and the perception of the entire program rests with this class.

That's quite the burden for a group of players still waiting to jump into their 20s, but that's how important and how good this class is.

"It's a lot of pressure, but we're going to humble ourselves," Tunsil said. "We're going to lead the team, we're going to take care of the team."

It didn't take long for this group to earn respect, as older players naturally drifted toward them. Some expected them to come in and push their high school weight around, but that didn't happen. For the most part, they sat and listened. They watched and learned. Then, when they were asked to perform, they impressed, even through the development process.

"We always wanted to do extra work," said Treadwell, who led the Rebels with 72 receptions as a freshman. "We took it upon ourselves to push everybody and make sure we're always working and trying to fix something that's wrong.

"It's a cool feeling, but I think with the way [we] work, they have no choice. Summer workouts, I'm always trying to push everybody, trying to be out front and give it my all on every play. It carries over when they see it in film. It's like, ‘Well, he's doing it right, so if he's telling me something, I'm sure he knows what's going on.'"

The core of this class lies in Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil. All three were heavy contributors last year, with Treadwell and Tunsil making the biggest impacts. Treadwell was named the SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches, and he started 12 games. Tunsil started nine games at left tackle and was a second-team All-SEC selection.

Nkemdiche struggled to consistently showcase the dominance that made him such a special high school player, and he registered two sacks and eight tackles for loss. But with his mind and body in better shape -- and a move to defensive tackle -- Nkemdiche is primed for a big second season.

Those are the stars, but there are plenty of other important parts to this class. Conner collected 66 tackles in 12 starts last season and has All-SEC written all over him, while tight end Evan Engram was one of Ole Miss' best offensive weapons (21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns) through eight games. Ankle surgery ended Engram's season after that, but he was still named a second-team All-SEC member.

Freeze also hopes to see more development this year from a few pieces that could be crucial to the future. He has his eye on running backs Jordan Wilkins and Kailo Moore, and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who Freeze has pegged as a breakout candidate. The quarterback of the future could also lie in Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade.

"The big thing that you would hope from them is that they're maturing mentally as young men on and off the field and understanding how to handle the grind more than they did when they first arrived," Freeze said of his sophomores. "That to me is the next step in their sophomore year."

Tunsil said the goal of this class is to bring a national championship back to Oxford. He and his classmates want it now. That might be a little premature, but that sort of thinking has been infectious throughout the team, and it has these sophomores eager to continue what they think will be an extraordinary journey.

"It's great that we could trust one another to do something special, and it's happening right before our eyes," Nkemdiche said. "After this huge year we're going to have, they're going to know we came for a purpose."

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

Top SEC players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
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As we get set to open fall camps around the SEC, we're counting down the conference's Top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

15. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
It’s unusual for a true freshman offensive tackle to start in the SEC. And it’s highly irregular for him to dominate. That is what Tunsil did for a good portion of last season, surrendering just one sack all fall while making nine starts. As if his second-team All-SEC designation in 2013 didn’t make this clear, Tunsil is a special talent -- and his rise will only continue now that he has a full season under his belt.

14. A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina
NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Cann second among senior offensive guard prospects to watch in next year’s draft Insider [Insider], noting that Cann’s pairing with left tackle Corey Robinson should give the Gamecocks one of the best left sides in college football. South Carolina hasn’t produced many NFL-caliber offensive linemen in recent years, but this Gamecocks line will be an exception, and Cann’s veteran presence will be one of the leading reasons for that change.

13. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Speaking of Kiper’s 2015 prospect rankings, he has the 6-foot-5, 245-pound McKinney first among underclassman inside linebackers to watch this season Insider [Insider]. The redshirt junior ranks among the SEC’s top breakout candidates after racking up 173 tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss in his first two seasons. The Bulldogs are a popular dark-horse pick in the SEC West thanks in part to what could be a feisty defense with McKinney as one of its top playmakers.

12. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss
After becoming the first Rebels safety in 40 years to be named a first-team All-American, Prewitt will accomplish something truly historic if he’s able to go back-to-back. He clearly has the skill set to do it after leading the SEC and ranking seventh nationally with six interceptions in 2013. Prewitt possesses not only the ball skills that produced all those picks but also a hard-hitting style that makes him one of the SEC’s top all-around defensive backs.

11. La'el Collins, OT, LSU
The versatile Collins returned for his senior season to prove himself as a left tackle -- he shifted there last season after starting every game at left guard as a sophomore -- and Tigers coach Les Miles predicted that he will do just that. Collins will combine with mammoth left guard Vadal Alexander to give LSU a dominant run-blocking combination on the left side -- an advantage that freshman Leonard Fournette and his backfield mates probably can’t wait to exploit.
Now that you've seen the media's preseason All-SEC team, and Chris' ballot, it's time to see what I cooked up after a week of fun in Hoover, Ala.:

OFFENSE
QB: Nick Marshall, Auburn
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
RB: Derrick Henry, Alabama
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
TE: O.J. Howard, Alabama
OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Corey Robinson, South Carolina
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn

DEFENSE
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIALISTS
PK: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Andre Debose, Florida
AP: Christion Jones, Alabama

East
1. South Carolina
2. Florida
3. Georgia
4. Missouri
5. Tennessee
6. Vanderbilt
7. Kentucky

West
1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. Ole Miss
4. Mississippi State
5. LSU
6. Texas A&M
7. Arkansas

SEC Champion
Alabama
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
Another day, another college football watch list.

The 2014 Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list debuted Thursday, along with the 2014 Outland Trophy watch list.

The SEC made its presence known again by ranking second out of all the major conferences with 16 players on the Nagurski watch list. The Nagurski Trophy is given out annually to college football's top defensive player.

The SEC led the nation with 19 players on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Eighty-one players make up the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, and 64 are on the Outland Trophy's watch list.

The SEC players who made each list:

Nagurski
Outland
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today, we take a look at Ole Miss.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs Auburn

Key players: Every time you think about this Ole Miss team, you usually always come back to quarterback Bo Wallace. He's had his issues with injury and inconsistency since he arrived in Oxford. But he and Ole Miss' staff are hoping this season is different. For the first time in years, Wallace's shoulder isn't bothering him, which should help with the velocity and accuracy of his passes. Against a very athletic Auburn front, Wallace will have to be at his best when it comes to managing plays out of the backfield.

What will help him is the fact that he has one of the SEC's freakiest athletes at wide receiver in sophomore Laquon Treadwell. With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell will have even more on his plate. The good news is that the's more than capable of dealing with all that responsibility and attention. After all, he led Ole Miss with 72 receptions last year. Treadwell won't be on his own, though.

Keep an eye on receivers Vince Sanders and Quincy Adeboyejo; Hugh Freeze believes they could have breakout seasons this fall. Add in tight end Evan Engram, and the Rebels should have a formidable passing attack against a more seasoned secondary.

One way to make sure that passing game goes well is for left tackle Laremy Tunsil to protect Wallace. Whether Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson is healthy or not might not matter with the talent the Tigers have up front, so Tunsil will be pretty busy. So will defensive end C.J. Johnson, who brings back the pass-rushing dynamic the Rebels lost when he left last season with a season-ending leg injury. If you want to stop Auburn's offense, you have to get to the quarterback and disrupt the zone-read. That will be Johnson's job.

Containing Auburn's running backs will be very important, too, meaning defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche will have to clog things up front, and safety Cody Prewitt will have to play more in the box, while also watching quarterback Nick Marshall's arm. He should get help from fellow safeties Trae Elston and Tony Conner in that department, along with linebacker Serderius Bryant, who can act like a spy against Marshall.

Why it matters: Freeze said this spring that he didn't think he'd be prepared to talk about bowl games until his third year with the Rebels. Well, that went out the window when he took Ole Miss bowling in his first year. He did it again last year, and now has even higher expectations in Year 3. Ole Miss has some depth issues along its offensive line and at receiver, but there is enough overall talent for the Rebels to make a legitimate run at the SEC West title. That's why getting a victory over reigning SEC champ Auburn is so important. If the Rebels are going to take that next step as a program, they need a win like this. Take down one of the big boys and you'll get real respect in this league. A win such as could unload momentum for the Rebels and it will be crucial for their race in the West.

Second-year stars: Ole Miss

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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Ole Miss has no shortage of standouts who are entering their sophomore seasons. After landing one of the nation’s best recruiting classes in 2013, the Rebels were able to see the fruits of their recruiting trail labor early with several players contributing right away last season.

There are several worthy candidates to choose from for today’s second-year stars installment, even as we look for someone who might not be right at the forefront of our brains, like freshman All-Americans Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell.

[+] EnlargeEvan Engram
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing five games due to injury, Evan Engram had 21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns last fall.
Class recap: Ole Miss had the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class in 2013, and so far it seems like the high ranking was warranted. The Rebels' top four recruits in the class -- Tunsil, Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner -- all were named freshman All-Americans and were picked for the SEC coaches All-Freshman team. Even more players from that class are poised for increased roles this fall.

Second-year star: TE Evan Engram (6-foot-3, 217 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Engram was an under-the-radar prospect out of Georgia in the 2013 class, holding offers from the likes of Wake Forest, Ohio and South Alabama prior to earning an offer and eventually committing to Ole Miss. A three-star prospect, Engram was ranked 27th nationally among tight ends and 132nd overall in Georgia.

2013 in review: If not for a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss five games late in the season, Engram could have been headed for a freshman All-American spot himself (he still received honorable mention and was a second-team All-SEC freshman pick by the Associated Press). He finished with 21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns. The three scores are a school record for an Ole Miss freshman.

2014 potential: If he can stay healthy this season, the breakout potential is there. His size and ability is a nice fit for the Rebels’ offense, and with receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan -- two of Ole Miss’ three leading receivers last season -- now in the NFL, there are more catches to go around. Engram is among a group of other young pass catchers like Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo, Cody Core and Collins Moore who will be looked upon to take on bigger roles. If Engram’s early-season success last fall is any indication, he’ll find success sooner rather than later.

Also watch for: Obviously, Tunsil, Treadwell, Conner and Nkemdiche are all looking to build on strong freshman seasons, so expect each of the four to improve as sophomores and continue playing prominent roles for the Rebels. As for some other less-heralded possibilities, Adeboyejo is one to watch. A three-star prospect out of Texas high school power Cedar Hill, Adeboyejo (7 catches, 81 yards, 1 TD) did get some playing time last season as a true freshman and has nice size (6-3, 189). Another three-star prospect from the 2013 class, Derrick Jones (27 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 pass breakups), played in nine games and made four starts as a cornerback last season and is certainly one to watch as a potential breakout player.

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