SEC: Robert Nkemdiche
OK, so we've gone over the fun and flashy offensive skill guys who put folks in the seats, and we've talked about the big uglies who protect those valuable commodities. Now, it's time to talk about the guys up front on the other side who want to make their offensive counterparts miserable.
As we continue to look at the best players in the SEC at different positions, we're checking out the SEC's best front-seven members. This league has always hung its hat on great defensive line play, and this season shouldn't be any different. And those linebackers ain't so bad either.
Here are the top players in the front seven in alphabetical order:
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee, So.
Tennessee had no problem playing a lot of freshmen last season, and it's a good thing the coaches decided to put Barnett on the field. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound punishing pass-rusher dominated up front for most of the 2014 season, finishing the year tied for fourth in the SEC in sacks (11) and second in tackles for loss (20.5). He set record-breaking numbers for a freshman at Tennessee, and the scary thing is he'll be older and wiser in 2015.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, So.
Another fabulous freshman, Garrett led the Aggies in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (14). He also had 53 tackles and 10 quarterback hurries. However, there is a bit of a knock on Garrett and that's the fact he only had three sacks in conference play. That's a legitimate gripe, but if you go back and watch tape, Garrett missed a handful of sacks in SEC play. It's not like he took plays off. He was still a valuable force off the edge for A&M, but he didn't always finish what he started. Expect that to change from the physical freak.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, Jr.
Defensive tackle isn't a glamorous position, but it is very important for any defense to be successful. Nkemdiche didn't have flashy stats last season (he only had two sacks and four tackles for loss), but it was tough to find a more disruptive interior lineman in 2014. The ultra athletic Nkemdiche flew around opposing backfields and directed a lot of plays to others. That's what makes him so special. He might not make the play, but he'll make sure someone does by forcing the offense to change direction, and he collapses the pocket with ease.
A'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama, Jr.
The future NFL defensive lineman can play both nose guard and defensive end in Alabama's 3-4 defensive scheme. He's another guy who didn't wow you with his stats last season, but he was incredibly disruptive up front. He only had 6.5 tackles for loss last season, but had 49 tackles and really started to kick things into gear during the final stretch of the season. Robinson's ability to play multiple positions up front makes him that much more valuable for Alabama.
Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, RSr.
Brothers led Missouri and ranked second in the SEC in total tackles (122) last season, averaging 8.7 tackles per game. He also tied for second in the league with 64 solo stops. The Will linebacker was even better in conference play, averaging 9.8 tackles per game. Brothers also had eight or more tackles in eight games last year and hit double-digit tackle numbers in six of those games. Brothers makes sure he's in or around every play, as he's totaled nearly 200 tackles in the past two seasons combined.
Carl Lawson, LB/DE, Auburn, RSo.
He might have missed all of the 2014 season with an ACL injury, but Lawson has a chance to be a very special player in Auburn's new Will Muschamp-coached defense. Especially when you think about him playing that hybrid linebacker/defensive end position that Muschamp covets. As a freshman, Lawson registered 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Lawson, who was the nation's No. 2 defensive end coming out of high school in 2013, has to be excited after watching film of Muschamp's last hybrid star Dante Fowler Jr., who had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss at Florida last season.
Reggie Ragland, Alabama, Sr.
The All-SEC selection could have dipped out early for the NFL, but decided to come back to Tuscaloosa, which is great news for the Crimson Tide. Ragland made a ton of plays all over the field for the Tide last season, ranking second on the team with 95 tackles. Forty-five of his tackles were solo, and he also had 10.5 tackles for loss. Ragland is the kind of linebacker who really challenges the offense to direct plays away from him, and he can cover so much ground with his speed and athleticism.
More to watch
It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.
The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.
That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.
So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.
In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."
In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.
More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.
Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.
Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.
Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.
"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.
The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.
"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."
Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.
Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.
If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.
Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.
The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.
Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.
Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.
Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.
Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.
And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.
Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.
There are sure to be more, too.
This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.
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.
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.
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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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:
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
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.
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:
WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn
CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama
OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina
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
OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State
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
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.
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.
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.