SEC: Robert Nkemdiche

It all starts up front. So if you’re looking ahead to project which teams will have the best defenses in the SEC next season, look no further than the defensive line. Because if they’re on, the linebackers and secondary will be better off for it.

It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:

1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.

2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.

3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.

4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.

5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.

6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.

7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.

9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.

10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.

11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.

13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.

14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.
The NFL scouting combine wrapped up Monday with the defensive backs going through the on-field workouts. As always, the SEC was well represented at the event. Former Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley put on a show while a trio of LSU defenders -- Kwon Alexander, Jalen Collins and Danielle Hunter -- proved just how athletic that defense was last season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIn his freshman season at LSU, Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Who's next? The SEC has plenty of athletes made for the combine, and we decided to look at which returning players will turn heads when it's their turn to go through the gauntlet.

LB Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt: Don't be so shocked a Vandy player made the list. Azubike is a freak athletically. He's 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and there's not an ounce of fat on his body. As a junior, he started off strong but injuries derailed his season down the stretch. The senior-to-be will look to finish his career on a high note and earn his invite to the combine.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama: Brown is one of four Crimson Tide football players who double up with track and field. He played sparingly as a freshman last fall, but the expectations are high for the former five-star defensive back. On the track, he's the team's fastest runner in the 60-meter hurdles, and he recently ran the 60-meter dash in 6.82 seconds.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Who else remembers that picture of Chubb showing off his vertical before a track and field event at his high school last May? If not, here you go. The guy looks like he could jump over a car. After a sensational freshman season, he'll be one of the more talked about athletes when it's his turn at the combine. Odds are he won't disappoint.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Chubb isn't the only freshman running back we can't wait to see at the combine. Fournette, the former No. 1 player in the country, has all the skills to put on a show when he goes and works out. He's big, fast, and there always seems to be a chip on his shoulder. It won't be any different at the combine.

DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Chiseled would be the best word to describe Garrett's physique. The freshman is a weight room freak and should put up big numbers on bench press. The scary part is he'll be just as impressive in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. There's a reason he broke the SEC freshman sack record, previously held by No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.

CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: 4.3 is the new 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and Hargreaves has a chance to run in that 4.3 range. A performance like that could solidify his stock as a top-10 pick in next year's draft, assuming he decides to leave early. And don't be surprised if the former high school track star clears 40 inches in the vertical jump.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: Everybody wants to see what Henry is going to do when he goes to the combine. Players that big (6-3, 241) aren't supposed to run that fast. Henry likely won't be among the fastest at his position, but he did run a 4.45 at the 2012 Nike SPARQ competition. Granted, it was on a faster surface, but still -- that's moving for a guy his size.

DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: To nobody's surprise, another former No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 makes this list. Nkemdiche has always been gifted athletically, and though he might not be as fast as his brother, his overall performance will certainly grab the media's attention at the combine. Simply put, he's the complete package.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: It's all in the name. Wouldn't it be great if the fastest 40 time came from a guy named Speedy? It could happen. Noil won the Nike SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013 with a 40 time of 4.46 seconds and a vertical jump of 44.1 inches. He also ran the shuttle in a blistering quick 3.87 seconds.

OT Braden Smith, Auburn: Former Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers was deemed the strongest man at the combine this year after he put up 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Per Auburn's strength coach, Smith can already put up at least 30 reps and he's still a freshman. Imagine what he'll be able to do in two-to-three years when it's his turn.

Honorable mention
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
Good luck finding a more talent-laden team than Ole Miss.

Think about it: Between Tony Conner, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, you're looking at four potential first-round picks in next year's NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Steve HelberOle Miss' hopes for a national title ride on the wild card that is Chad Kelly, who threw just 17 passes while at Clemson.
That's getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, but who else in the SEC has that kind of top-level talent? Sure, the roster is somewhat top heavy and the quarterback position is a bit of a mystery, but still. Having those kinds of players to build around is certainly advantageous.

So why can't Ole Miss make a run at another New Year's Six bowl or possibly reach the College Football Playoff? All of those stud recruits from the 2013 class will be juniors and the schedule isn't daunting relative to the rest of the SEC.

With Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State in Oxford the first two weeks of the season, whoever wins the job under center will have time to acclimate to the offense -- and by "acclimate" we mean get the ball to Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. If they get that down going to Alabama in Week 3 and emerge undefeated, would anyone not have Ole Miss in their top five nationally? After that, you'd be looking at a manageable four-game stretch of Vanderbilt, Florida, New Mexico State and Memphis.

If anything, the Landshark Defense should keep Ole Miss in games regardless of the situation on offense. Granted, there will be changes made without longtime starters Cody Prewitt, Senquez Golson and Serderius Bryant, but in all eight starters are back. C.J. Johnson will continue to provide a presence rushing the passer alongside Nkemdiche, and Mike Hilton and Trae Elston will team up with Conner to make for another stingy secondary.

Underclassmen like C.J. Hampton, Rod Taylor and Jordan Wilkins will be counted on more than ever, but with so much high-level talent surrounding them, the big picture is rosy for the Rebs.

What could go wrong

No team's fate in the SEC hangs in the balance more precariously than Ole Miss'.

If Chad Kelly plays well, the Rebs could compete for a national championship. If he doesn't, they could fall short of a New Year's Six bowl altogether.

And unfortunately for Freeze and Ole Miss, Kelly is a walking wild card who no one is sure will turn up on opening day. He was booted from Clemson, survived a season at a junior college and was promptly arrested in December, after all. Even Freeze admitted that his poor decisions "almost cost him" a spot on the team.

"I'm sure hoping and praying like heck that he doesn't embarrass our team, our university and myself," Freeze said. "But that is a possibility. That is certainly something I recognize and I will have to own."

And that comes before the 20-year-old has ever played a down in Oxford.

He may be talented. He may be the key to a title. But boy, is that a lot to swallow.

Besides, other than possessing a strong arm and eye-popping numbers from junior college, what do we really know about him? In his only season playing at Clemson he attempted 17 passes. Even if he stays on the field at Ole Miss, he could just as easily ride the bench as become a star.

Trading the ups and downs of Bo Wallace on the field for the mystery tour of Kelly off it could be a losing battle for Ole Miss long-term.
Some players flipped their commitments while other’s had memorable signing-day moments. Here is a closer look at the five most intriguing recruitments from the SEC.

SEC signing day roundtable: Coach under pressure

February, 10, 2015
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There is only one new face among SEC head coaches this year -- Florida’s Jim McElwain -- but a number of the league’s head honchos face increased pressure to perform in 2015.

Continuing this week’s SEC series of post-signing day roundtable discussions, today we’ll examine the conference coaches who are under pressure to make something happen after signing their newest class of recruits.

Edward Aschoff: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Year 4 of the Freeze era is beginning, and expectations are about to explode in Oxford. After being on the cusp of an SEC West title and a spot in the first College Football Playoff, Ole Miss now has to stay in the thick of the title hunts. While Freeze has been enormously successful during his time at Ole Miss, he has now signed three straight top-20 classes, and now the 2013 class (the crown jewel of Freeze’s tenure) will be all grown up. If the bulk of that class is going to bring a championship to Ole Miss, the time is now because the heavy hitters, like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, will likely head to the NFL after this coming season. There’s too much talent in Oxford for Ole Miss not to compete for a spot in Atlanta, and anything else will be considered a failure.

David Ching: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I was tempted to focus on Mark Richt or Les Miles because the natives seem to be getting restless at Georgia and LSU, but let’s go in a different direction. Mason probably needs to get more out of this 2015 class immediately than those two SEC veterans. Last season was a mess at Vandy, with the Commodores failing to put up a good fight in most of their nine losses. Their three wins came against UMass (by three points), Charleston Southern (by one) and Old Dominion (by 14), and they lost by an average of 18 points per game in SEC play. Now Mason enters his second season with two new coordinators (actually he’ll be his own defensive coordinator) and a recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 44 nationally, dead last in the SEC. Mason told reporters on signing day that he staked his reputation on the quality of this class, which is all well and good. But if the Commodores don’t start looking like a more competent team this fall, I’m not sure Mason’s reputation as a head coach will be too great.

Sam Khan Jr.: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
I think Travis Haney said it best Insider that Sumlin must begin to reap the fruits of the recruiting labor he and his staff have put in over the last three years. The Aggies' classes ranked eighth, fourth and 12th nationally in Sumlin's first three full recruiting cycles, and the team now enters its fourth year in the SEC. He made significant coaching staff changes (including paying a pretty penny for former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis), and overall the Aggies have recruited better than any team in their own state -- which is talent-rich -- since Sumlin has been there. It's time for the recruiting hauls to translate to the standings.

Chris Low: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
As it turns out, the sky didn't fall at Kentucky after the Wildcats lost six commitments in a span of eight days leading up to signing day. Thanks to some hustle by Stoops and his staff, Kentucky was able to plug some of the gaps late and finish with the nation's 43rd-ranked class. The problem was that Stoops reeled in the 20th-ranked class the year before, so expectations were lofty. As Stoops enters his third season at Kentucky -- with a brand-new contract that will pay him an average of $3.57 million per year -- expectations will be equally high on the field. Kentucky will be aiming for its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats looked like they were on their way in 2014 after starting out 5-1, but wound up losing their last six games.

Greg Ostendorf: Jim McElwain, Florida
All things considered, McElwain deserves credit for this class. He took over two months before signing day and closed with a top-20 class that included five-star prospects Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. But this class had a chance to be more than solid. It had the potential to be great. Florida missed on a number of homegrown prospects, including Byron Cowart and Jeff Holland, who both decided to leave home to play at Auburn for the man McElwain replaced. The first-year coach deserves a pass for this class, but he can’t keep letting the top players out of the state. Losing battles to Florida State is one thing. Losing battles to Will Muschamp and Auburn is another.

Alex Scarborough: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
The great thing about Steve Spurrier is that you can take him at his word. But this time I think his openness hurt him. By telling reporters he thought he'd stay at South Carolina 2-3 more years, he had to turn some recruits off. I mean, who would commit to a program knowing the head coach wouldn't be there the whole way through? Though his 31-man signing class was solid, coming in at No. 21 overall in the country, it was what was missing that Gamecocks fans should find troubling -- most notably, four-star defensive players Damon Arnette and Arden Key, who both decommitted heading down the stretch. While you have to appreciate Spurrier’s honest assessment of himself, reading a head coach say this has to be jarring: "I don't think I did a very good job of maybe going full-speed as much as we needed as it turned out."

Derek Tyson: Butch Jones, Tennessee
After two top-five recruiting classes in a row, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones now has the talent on his roster to make a move in the SEC East. With Josh Dobbs showing promise last season and several other freshmen having standout years, including Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., the talent is in place to have a big season on the field this year. Another 7-6 season could have Tennessee fans getting a little restless.
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OXFORD, Miss. -- Just like every other coach, Hugh Freeze stood in front of the media on national signing day and discussed his 2015 recruiting class. He said it might be the best class, top to bottom, since he has been at Ole Miss. He called the mid-year group a home run.

That’s all fine and dandy, but it didn’t hide the fact it was a disappointing finish for the Rebels. The fans were hoping for more.

Maybe it was because the memory of signing day two years ago was still fresh in their minds. The day started with Robert Nkemdiche choosing Ole Miss and by the time it was over, fellow ESPN 300 stars Laremy Tunsil, Tony Conner and Austin Golson had followed suit.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesOle Miss' Hugh Freeze wouldn't object to an early signing period, but he's just not sure what it would look like.
Or maybe it was the sting of losing two longtime commitments, offensive tackle Drew Richmond and linebacker Leo Lewis, in the final weeks leading up to signing day. Both players were ranked among the top five nationally at their position, and both would have been cornerstone pieces for the Rebels in the future.

Freeze made sure to touch on that, too, when he addressed the media on Wednesday.

“I have kind of had that on my soap box this morning with our coaches,” he said. “We have created a media frenzy around this circus, and so many more people have become involved in the recruiting process. The kids are genuine and nice and want to communicate with every staff. Every staff is good at recruiting. The last one that is on the phone with them sometimes has them confused and leaning that way. As long as they are taking those calls, there are possibilities.”

The number of recruits to switch their commitments in the final weeks has seemingly increased every year, and this year was no different.

Richmond signed with Tennessee. Lewis signed with Mississippi State. ESPN 300 defensive end Arden Key flipped from South Carolina to LSU in the days leading up to signing day, and Van Jefferson, a longtime Georgia commitment, flipped to Ole Miss in late January and nearly switched again before ultimately signing with the Rebels. That's just the SEC.

And how about Kentucky? After losing six straight games to finish the season, the Wildcats had nine players decommit from their 2015 class. It was no wonder third-year coach Mark Stoops was calling for an early signing period.

But he wasn’t alone.

“I have always been in favor of it,” Freeze said. “Always. The only problem is, I do not know if any of us could ever agree on what it looks like. But, I think an early signing period in some form or fashion would be good.

“I actually like the idea someone had of as soon as someone commits, having them sign the paper. So you will know right away who is really committed. Then we can save a lot of time and money in the last six weeks on the ones who really are.”

It looks easy in principle, but just like adding a ninth conference game, good luck getting all the SEC coaches to agree on it. When would the early signing period be? Before the season? During the season? What about the kids? Is it fair to make them sign early before they have looked at all their options? There are a lot of variables involved.

In the meantime, Freeze says he plans to revisit the entire recruiting process, including the idea of letting committed guys take visits to other schools. Maybe Richmond and/or Lewis would have signed with Ole Miss if not for visits taken to other schools. Or maybe not.

The important thing for Freeze now is that he has a group of 22 signees who will be the future of Ole Miss football. And he’s happy with that group … even if he missed on a few.

“You always lose some when you are battling for the best,” he said. “Every school does. We had a few of those, but we also won many battles of kids who really want to be at Ole Miss, in this program, and representing this great university. I am excited to get to work with them.”
It’s always fun to look into the history books to see how certain players lived up to their rankings. With signing day fewer than 24 hours away, here’s a look at the last five No. 1 and where I think they would rank stacked up against each other.


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At one point, both TCU and Ole Miss were inside the top four of the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings. But the Rebels couldn't survive a rugged SEC West schedule. And the Horned Frogs couldn't hold off the Big Ten champion Buckeyes in the final rankings.

Still, both programs have the consolation of playing in a big-time bowl matchup in Atlanta. And a win in the Peach Bowl would give the Horned Frogs or Rebels plenty of momentum going into 2015.

SEC reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down this New Year's Eve showdown:

[+] EnlargeAaron Green
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsEstablishing the ground game with Aaron Green will be important for TCU against Mississippi.
How TCU can control the game: The Rebels have a phenomenal secondary, so it’s imperative that TCU gets Aaron Green and the run game rolling early to open up opportunities for quarterback Trevone Boykin downfield. On the other side of the ball, TCU can also help its offense by giving it short fields. The Horned Frogs finished the regular season second in the country in turnovers forced. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, meanwhile, has a penchant for tossing interceptions at inopportune times. If the Horned Frogs can force Wallace into mistakes, they can take command of this game behind an explosive offense that capitalizes off turnovers as efficiently as any in the country. -- Trotter

How Ole Miss can control the game: Let's face it, TCU hasn't seen a defense quite like Ole Miss.' Boykin probably doesn't know what a Landshark is. He'll find out in the SEC-friendly waters of Atlanta. The last time Ole Miss was there, its secondary came up with four interceptions against Boise State. To stop Boykin and stay in control of the game, the Rebels will need a similar output from Senquez Golson, Cody Prewitt and Co. And it all starts up front. If Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson are able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and get into the face of Boykin, the entire outlook changes. A turnover here or there and Ole Miss will be in good shape. -- Scarborough

TCU’s X-factor: TCU’s safeties notoriously have a nose for the ball. Free safety Chris Hackett led the Big 12 in interceptions this season. Strong safety Sam Carter was second in the league last season in interceptions. Both are All-Big 12 performers. And both will be reading Wallace’s eyes to see if they can produce that critical game-changing defensive play. -- Trotter

Ole Miss' X-factor: All the talk is going to be about TCU's high-flying offense versus Ole Miss' Landshark defense, and rightfully so. But don't sleep on Wallace and the Rebels' offense, which has plenty of firepower. Despite the loss of Laquon Treadwell, Wallace isn't without big-time targets at receiver. The one to pay the most attention to is Cody Core. If you watched Ole Miss' season-opener against Boise State, you should recognize the 6-foot-3 junior. He's the one who went off for 110 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the regular season with 530 receiving yards and six touchdowns, and could be Wallace's top target close to the end zone. -- Scarborough

What a win would mean for the Horned Frogs: For obvious reasons, TCU was disappointed it did not qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff. But with a win against Ole Miss, that disappointment will quickly transform into anticipation for 2015. With Boykin and nine other starters back offensively, the Horned Frogs will open next season on the short list of viable national title contenders. A bowl win against a quality opponent like Ole Miss would give the Horned Frogs momentum, too, heading into a season that could be even more special than the 2014 one was. -- Trotter

What a win would mean for the Rebels: The whole season could have gone downhill after that heartbreaking loss to Auburn on Nov. 1. And for a moment it did. Without much hope of reaching the playoff and without its best player, Treadwell, Ole Miss was dominated in a 3-0 loss to Arkansas. But something changed the following week. Showing some pride with the Egg Bowl at stake, the Rebels beat then-No. 4 Mississippi State by 14 points. With another win, Ole Miss would make history with the first 10-win season since 2003. -- Scarborough

Ole Miss season review

December, 18, 2014
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With a bowl win, No. 9 Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3 SEC) will finish the season with 10 wins for the first time since 2003. Thanks to the nation's best scoring defense (13.8 points allowed per game and 18 touchdowns allowed), the Rebels spent the latter part of the season on the cusp of both the SEC Western Division race and the playoff race.

The Rebels were the lone blemish on No. 1 Alabama's schedule, and Ole Miss ended No. 7 Mississippi State's SEC and playoff hopes with a 31-17 win at home to close the regular season. There were plenty of high points to the Rebels' season, including rising as high as third in the AP Poll and fourth in the College Football Playoff, but the Rebels also suffered a crushing 30-0 loss at Arkansas and lost top receiver Laquon Treadwell to a season-ending leg injury in the closing minutes of the loss to Auburn.

Even though Ole Miss missed out on ifs first ever trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, the Rebels retained coach Hugh Freeze for the foreseeable future and have a quality foundation to work with and build on for the coming years.

Best win: While the win over archrival Mississippi State ended the Bulldogs’ championship hopes, that 23-17 home win over Alabama was the one that really put the Rebels on the college football map. Those are the games that Ole Miss has historically suffered in, but the Rebels went toe-to-toe with the Tide, a team they'd lost 10 straight to, and came away with an upset that sent shockwaves throughout the college football world and stood as an historic moment for the state of Mississippi. Behind 251 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Bo Wallace and a perfectly timed, late-game interception by cornerback Senquez Golson, the Rebels took down then-No. 3 Alabama and watched their fans storm the field and take the goal posts through the Grove and to the Square.

Worst loss: A couple weeks after losing Treadwell in an absolute heartbreaker at home to Auburn, the Rebels went to Fayetteville and got pounded 30-0 by an Arkansas team that entered the game winning one of its last 18 SEC games. Now, this Hogs team proved to be better this season, but the Rebels were equipped with more talent on both sides of the ball and were still dominated for four quarters. Early turnovers put Ole Miss down 17-0 after just one quarter, and the Rebels finished the game with six turnovers, including two interceptions by Wallace in the end zone. The loss officially knocked Ole Miss out of the SEC and playoff races.

Player of year: After three years of mostly up-and-down play, Golson proved to be one of the nation’s best cover corners – if not the best. Golson led the SEC and ranked second nationally with nine interceptions and returned one of those for a touchdown. He also tied for first in the SEC with 17 passes defended. Golson transformed into a player who was able to frustrate plenty of quarterbacks this season by taking his entire side of the field away and probably dropped a few more interceptions. Golson also sealed Ole Miss’ historic win over Alabama with a last-second interception in the end zone.

Breakout player: Ole Miss’ defensive line was filled with talent this year, but freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes proved to be the Rebels’ best pass-rusher. The frosh finished the regular season playing in every game, making three starts, and leading the team with 7.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. He ranked second in the SEC in forced fumbles and tied for seventh in sacks. Haynes, who showed that he could excel as both a speed and power rusher off the edge for the Rebels, also had 29 total tackles on the season. He’s certainly a youngster with a very bright future.

Play(s) of year: Yeah, I’m cheating here, and I just don’t care. Golson’s interception was fantastic, agile and perfectly timed. It was a toe-tapping, back-of-the-end zone interception of Alabama’s Blake Sims with 37 seconds left. It happened so fast that it was actually called an incomplete pass at first, before it was ruled a catch after a review. Then there was running back Jaylen Walton’s jaw-dropping, reverse-field, ankle-breaking, 91-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the Rebels’ win over Mississippi State that pretty much ended the Bulldogs’ chances of a comeback by making it 24-10.

2015 outlook: With Freeze coming back, along with a solid cast of characters on both sides of the ball, 2015 could set up to be a special year for the Rebels. The defense will lose Golson and two-time All-American safety Cody Prewitt, but the defensive line is in good hands with Robert Nkemdiche returning, and the linebacker unit has some exciting, young talent coming back. The offense, however, has to find a consistent running game and a replacement for Wallace, who started all three years he was at Ole Miss. Replacing Wallace is the biggest obstacle for the Rebels, as their backups got some in-game reps this year, but lack any sort of consistency. Having Treadwell returning from his injury will be huge for whichever quarterback takes over.

Fifteen from SEC named AP All-Americans

December, 17, 2014
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The Associated Press announced its three-team list of All-Americans for the 2014 season on Tuesday, and the SEC is represented by 15 players, including four on the first team.

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

All good there.

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

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

Four players for only three spots ...

Hey, there's always next season.

Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:

FIRST TEAM

Offense

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

Defense

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

SECOND TEAM

Offense

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

Defense

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

THIRD TEAM

Offense

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

SEC morning links

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

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

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

Around the SEC

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

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

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

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

Tweet of the day
The news of Hugh Freeze signing an extension to stay as Ole Miss' coach for the foreseeable future is incredibly good news for a program that has regained national relevancy under his watch.

It isn't easy to win at a place like Ole Miss, which had been buried in mediocrity before Freeze arrived and still has to play six games in the SEC West. But as Freeze shifts his complete focus to recruiting and an eventual bowl game, he'll do so with a 24-14 record in three seasons and the Rebels' first nine-win season since 2003.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesHugh Freeze has a 24-14 record in three seasons at Ole Miss and has led the Rebels to three straight bowl games.
In a season in which the SEC West devoured itself, the Rebels went 3-2 against opponents ranked at the time (all in the division) and beat the current No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the country. It was the first time since 1969 they had beaten two top-five teams in a single season.

Because of Freeze's success and his incredibly warm personality, along with a fan base that has totally embraced its native son, there's real enthusiasm for a program that hasn't won an SEC title since 1963 and has never been to Atlanta to play in the SEC championship game.

Freeze's team spent a couple of weeks in the College Football Playoff discussion and he has done a phenomenal job recruiting at a school that isn't used to the collection of athletes Freeze has lured to Oxford. Freeze's historic 2013 recruiting class, which featured the No. 1 overall player (defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche), the No. 1 wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), is maturing beautifully. Along with tight end Evan Engram, arguably the best at his position in the SEC, and safety Tony Conner, this class has a legitimate championship formula with Freeze returning in 2015.

By all accounts, he'll add to a star-studded foundation with what appears to be exceptional 2015 and 2016 classes. With future NFL players littering his lineup now and in the future, Freeze has ensured that Ole Miss won't be a pushover with him in charge. He could have bolted for a bigger job, but he has unfinished business at Ole Miss he wanted to see through.

And after the coaching job he did and the adjustments he made in 2014, it would be unwise to think Freeze can't have Ole Miss competing for championships.

We all knew the offensive genius Freeze was -- and his Rebels are averaging 443.3 yards per game -- but the development on defense was even more impressive. A season after giving up nearly 24 points per game, Ole Miss leads the nation in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and touchdowns allowed (18). Ole Miss is allowing just 321.2 yards per game in the process.

There were heartbreaking defeats at the hands of LSU and Auburn. There was a 30-point blowout at Arkansas and the loss of Treadwell for the season. Somehow, Freeze rallied his team to flog the playoff hopes of archrival Mississippi State over the weekend, improving Freeze's record against the Bulldogs to 2-1. The relationship he has with his players and the respect his players have for him are two major reasons why Freeze and Ole Miss are in this position today.

Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year at Ole Miss, but he soon will be discussing his third bowl game with the Rebels and might end up talking about his third straight bowl win.

Before Freeze arrived in Oxford via Arkansas State and the high school football circuit, the Rebels had gone an embarrassing 6-18, with 14 straight SEC losses, in the final two seasons of Houston Nutt's tenure in Oxford.

Freeze, who grew up in Independence, barely an hour outside of Oxford, inherited a program spiraling on and off the field but has it in great position for the present and future. His success at Ole Miss is why his name was linked to the coaching vacancy at Florida. It's a testament to not only him, but his staff and his players and what they've accomplished.

It won't be easy for Freeze to sustain the success he has had with the Rebels, but he has come this far in just three years. Imagine what he could do with time.

Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss primer

November, 28, 2014
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This year's Egg Bowl has enormous stakes, and Ole Miss is looking to derail everything rival Mississippi State has worked so hard for.

[+] EnlargeDaVonte Lambert
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMississippi State's best bet against a now exposed Ole Miss defense is to feed running back Josh Robinson the ball.
The fourth-ranked Bulldogs must win to stay in the College Football Playoff race, and a win coupled with an Alabama loss would send them to Atlanta for the SEC championship.

The Grove will be buzzing for the biggest event in the state.

Mississippi State's key to victory: Run, run, run the ball and wear down that Ole Miss defense. The Rebels' once-vaunted defense has been exposed in recent weeks, especially against the run. In losses to LSU, Auburn and Arkansas, Ole Miss gave up an average of 223.7 rushing yards per game. Now, the Rebels have to stop bowling ball running back Josh Robinson, who enters the weekend with 1,084 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Just feed Robinson the rock because he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Oh, and the Bulldogs also have dual-threat QB Dak Prescott, who is seventh in the SEC with 891 rushing yards and has 12 rushing touchdowns.

Ole Miss' key to victory: Force Prescott to make mistakes. The Achilles heel of the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner has been taking care of the football. For as good as Prescott has been at carving up defenses, he's turned the ball over too many times in recent weeks, including throwing three interceptions in the loss to Alabama. With Ole Miss' offense banged up and missing star Laquon Treadwell, the Rebels need to work with a short field against the Bulldogs. Ole Miss' defense has been excellent at forcing turnovers, as the Rebels have an SEC-high 28 takeaways.

Mississippi State's X-factor: While the Bulldogs will likely try to cram the ball down the Rebels' throats this weekend with their run attack, keep an eye on wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's been relatively quiet in the last few weeks, but if the Rebels key in on the run too much, look for Prescott to try and find his favorite physical deep threat in key situations. Big plays from Wilson should open the running game up even more.

Ole Miss' X-factor: Stopping the run is going to be important for the Rebels, and big ol' defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche can help out a bunch in that area. His stats haven't been gaudy, but he's been incredibly disruptive this year. The Rebels are likely going to come out in bigger packages to combat Mississippi State's run attack, and Nkemdiche will be a big part of that right in the middle of that line. He'll also be expected to make an impact against the pass to put pressure on Prescott.

Playoff impact: The stakes have never been higher for the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl. A win keeps Mississippi State's College Football Playoff hopes alive. A loss, and the Bulldogs are out of it. Even better, if the Bulldogs win and Alabama loses to Auburn, Mississippi State will go to the SEC title game and the Bulldogs will be guaranteed a spot in the playoff.

SEC morning links

November, 11, 2014
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In case you haven't heard, Todd Gurley is back. The Georgia running back returns to the lineup from a four-game suspension stemming from an autograph investigation. Make no mistake, even with Nick Chubb's success in his absence, Gurley is starting, per Mark Richt. If you're excited about Gurley's return (even if you're not) this hype video should get the juices flowing. Gurley's return creates an interesting situation for the Bulldogs though. There's one football, but several talented running backs: Gurley, Chubb and Sony Michel. It's a good problem to have if you're Richt.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.

Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.

Around the SEC
Tweets of the day

At first glance: SEC Week 10

October, 27, 2014
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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.

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