Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson still has yet to list his favorite schools but will take an unofficial visit to Athens to watch Georgia take on Clemson next Saturday.
“I’m going to Georgia-Clemson next weekend,” Jefferson said. “That will actually be my first game at Georgia. I heard between the hedges is pretty wild, so I’m just looking to go get a good experience -- have a good time, see some good football.”
The Established Star
Nick Marshall, Auburn Tigers
2013 in review: Marshall made a huge splash in his first season as the Tigers' starter, rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and passing for another 1,976 yards and 14 scores as Auburn stunned the college football world by reaching the BCS championship game. He also completed one of the most memorable plays in Auburn football history when his tipped pass to Ricardo Louis went for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to beat Georgia.
What to watch: One of the Tigers' big points of emphasis since the end of last season has been improving the passing game. Marshall and the rushing attack are lethal, but there were times Marshall was simply not accurate enough when the Tigers desperately needed a completion. If he shows in the opener against Arkansas that he's more than just a runner who can occasionally pull a rabbit out of his hat with one of his highlight-reel completions, Marshall might actually contend for the Heisman.
Projected 2014 grade: A
Click here for 13 more SEC QB breakdowns from David Ching.
In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.
In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.
Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
- Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)[+] EnlargeStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's defensive line will have many holes to fill with Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles gone.
- Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)
- Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU)
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama)
- Dominique Easley (Florida)
- Kony Ealy (Missouri)
- Tre Mason (Auburn)
- Mike Evans (Texas A&M)
- Greg Robinson (Auburn)
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.
That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.
The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.
Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.
For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.
Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.
Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.
Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.
Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.
Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
Some might say dramatically.
Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.
What's that really mean?
Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.
Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.
He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.
"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."
Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.
His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.
What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.
All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.
Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.
"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."
Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.
"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."
Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.
"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."
With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.
In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.
"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."
The Gators feasted on steaks and played some games, but the real winners of the night were these four players who sang the Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way."
After the festivities came to a close, Muschamp accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from his former boss, Nick Saban. Muschamp issued the challenge to his assistant coaches as well as three of his former players -- Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Matt Elam.
On Thursday, three of those coaches -- offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, offensive line coach Mike Summers and wide receivers coach Chris Leak -- accepted the challenge and paid it forward.
That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.
Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.
In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.
Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.
Alabama’s Nick Saban: Untested
Arkansas’ Bret Bielema: Motivated
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn: Experienced
Florida’s Will Muschamp: Hungry
Georgia’s Mark Richt: Wow
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: Improved
LSU’s Les Miles: Unknown
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: Hungry
Missouri’s Gary Pinkel: Confident
Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze: Relentless
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: Decent
Tennessee’s Butch Jones: Committed
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin: Eager
Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason: Audacious
Last year was possibly the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks. From Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron to Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, the conference was loaded with a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champ, school record-holders and NFL draft picks. Things are a little different this year. Outside of Auburn, most schools are dealing with major questions under center. Where do things stand as the season gets ready to kick off? Here's a look at how things went last year, what to watch for this year and a projected grade for how each team's quarterbacks will do in 2014.
The Established Star
That part is over for the Florida Gators, who now shift into preparations for Week 1 opponent Idaho.
UF held its 16th and final preseason practice on Wednesday, and in recent days the Gators' depth chart has begun to take shape.
"We'll sort through the depth chart of guys we can count on moving forward, and guys that need to get more reps, and guys whose reps will dwindle," coach Will Muschamp said. "I mean, that's just part of it.
"Your tape is your résumé. The guys that are producing and playing well and doing it the way we want to do it, those are the guys that'll play."
Muschamp listed his biggest concerns, and they haven't changed much throughout the last two weeks.
Florida needs to develop depth behind its starters on both lines. The offensive line is the bigger concern. Roderick Johnson and Trip Thurman have emerged as reliable backups, but that still only gives UF seven linemen it can count on.
"We need to have eight or nine," Muschamp said. "That's a critical issue."
As of now, Florida is turning to juco transfer Drew Sarvary to be the backup center and Antonio Riles to play guard on the second unit. Riles was a defensive lineman until he changed positions late in the spring.
The issue on Florida's defensive line is mainly a matter of experience, as young players such as Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley will be pressed into duty. Ivie is the only player of the three who has ever taken a snap for the Gators.
Still, Muschamp is bullish on their potential.
"Jay-nard Bostwick is a guy that’s improved tremendously," he said. "We really worked on his lower-body flexibility. He’s really made some big strides. I think Caleb Brantley has made some strides. Joey Ivie has made some strides."
Another large concern is at backup quarterback. The Gators are planning to turn starter Jeff Driskel loose in the running game, and with his history of injuries, the need for a backup is greater than ever.
The candidates are Skyler Mornhinweg, a third-year sophomore who started the final three games of last season; true freshman Will Grier, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice; and true freshman Treon Harris, who arrived in the summer.
Mornhinweg is more of a pocket passer, while Grier and Harris are more athletic and can run the ball.
Muschamp has said Florida will play its backup QB in the first game. He also said he wouldn't want to rotate quarterbacks.
"I'd rather name a guy and go with it," he said. "I think it's hard, especially with an inexperienced player. They need to get as many reps as possible."
While UF coaches haven't seen any of their backup QBs separate themselves, there is a sense of urgency as the team is days away from its first game week.
"It’s obviously getting close to decision-making time," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said on Tuesday, "but I also think it’s a fluid thing that can change at any time just because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
"So obviously we've got to start on who’s going to spend the time getting the two reps as much as possible."
A handful of other jobs remain up for grabs, such as placekicker and punter. Nowhere is the competition more wide open than in the secondary, where Florida is very young and inexperienced.
"Still no separation in the secondary other than Vernon [Hargreaves III] and Keanu [Neal]," Muschamp said of his top cornerback and top safety, respectively. "Got some guys who have done some decent things, we just have to be more consistent."
With just over a week before kickoff, the clock is ticking on UF's final decisions.
The SEC has a total of 237 verbal commitments. An incredible 82 prospects who are committed to SEC schools are ranked in the ESPN 300. Alabama leads the way with 16 ESPN 300 commits, but all 14 schools in the conference have at least one ESPN 300 commit. To say the SEC is off to a hot start would be quite an understatement. Six schools in the SEC have 20 or more commits as compared to the Big Ten who currently has no teams that have 20 commitments. Six SEC schools -- South Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and LSU -- are ranked in the top 10 of the class rankings. Here is a closer look at how the SEC is doing heading in to the season.
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We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!
The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:
QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.
RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.
RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.
WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.
WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.
TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.
OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.
C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.
OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.
OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.
DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.
DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.
DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.
DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.
LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.
LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.
LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.
CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.
S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.
S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.
CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.
K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.
P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.
KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
2. This might be too much for even the most even-tempered Auburn fan to turn down. Deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famous Toomer’s Oaks in downtown Auburn, has agreed to appear at a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, where fans can dunk him in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face. The event will help raise funds for “Roses From Linda,” which helps family members visit terminally ill patients before they die. Updyke’s wife, Elva, said he told charity organizers “they can do whatever they want to him if it will raise money for kids.” So get your pitching arms warmed up, Auburn fans. You’ve got about a month.
3. Speaking of the Iron Bowl, hey, whaddya know? The Auburn-Alabama game is college football’s hottest ticket on the secondary market, according to this story from Forbes. The median price is only $535 a pop. No big deal. Also included in the top 10 are six other games that feature SEC teams (Alabama-LSU, Florida-Alabama, Clemson-Georgia, LSU-Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia). None of those games hold a candle to the top single-game ticket price from last preseason, however. At this time last year, Alabama-Texas A&M tickets were going for an average of $744 on the secondary market.
More from the SEC
- The Senior Bowl released a list of more than 350 players on its watch list for the 2015 all-star game. The list includes 74 seniors from SEC schools.
- The Columbia Daily Tribune’s David Morrison goes through the numbers from Missouri’s first two scrimmages.
- The Lexington Herald-Leader’s John Clay writes that now that Kentucky has settled on its quarterback, the key for the Wildcats’ fortunes is developing a better defense.
- South Carolina’s new $3 million practice fields are nearing completion and should be ready for the Gamecocks to use by midseason.
- On his radio show Wednesday night, LSU coach Les Miles said versatile sophomore Ethan Pocic might just be the Tigers’ starting center against Wisconsin and that both Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will probably play at quarterback in the opener.
- Georgia receiver Jonathon Rumph knows this is his last season to make something of himself as a college player.
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SEC Storied: The Believer - Birthday
6:00 PM ET 21 Texas A&M 9 South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State 18 Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU