Yesterday we combed through the ESPN Stats & Information group's preseason predictions for SEC teams which established Alabama as the leading contender to win the conference championship.

The data -- based on the group's preseason Football Power Index -- uses statistical analysis to predict teams' win totals (overall and in conference play), chances of going undefeated, individual game results and point differentials, among other categories. Think of it as our own little version of preseason Vegas odds.

In yesterday's post, we focused on the big picture, breaking down the Stats & Information's predicted win totals and chances of winning the SEC and divisions for each team. Today we'll take a closer look at the predictions for each team's individual games.

In addition to conference play, we'll also focus on at least one key nonconference game per team since there are so many premium games featuring SEC clubs this season.

Most play at least one marquee nonconference game, often at a neutral site (like LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-West Virginia and Ole Miss-Boise State). Tennessee and Auburn are taking ambitious midseason road trips to Oklahoma and Kansas State, respectively. Some SEC teams face two top-tier nonconference opponents (Georgia hosts Clemson and Georgia Tech) or will travel to face a tough traditional opponent (Kentucky to Louisville and Florida to Florida State). And some should be ashamed of themselves. (They know who they are).

Let's see what the numbers say:

Alabama
Nonconference: The Crimson Tide is predicted to have a 94.1 percent chance of beating West Virginia in the opener, winning by a predicted 20.0-point differential.
Otherwise: Alabama has at least a 64.5 percent chance of victory in every game except LSU (57.5 percent, 2.9-point win differential) and Auburn (57.8, 3.0). The Tide is predicted to win by at least 10.1 points in every game except Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M (7.9) and Ole Miss (5.7).

Arkansas
Nonconference: The Razorbacks have a 34.2 percent chance of victory against Texas Tech, which is favored to win by 6.3 points on Sept. 13 in Lubbock.
Otherwise: Arkansas has better than a 50 percent predicted chance of victory in three games: Nicholls State, Northern Illinois and UAB. It's an underdog in every SEC game, with its low being a 9.2 percent chance to win the opener at Auburn, which is a 20.6-point favorite in that game.

Auburn
Nonconference: The Tigers have an 81.0 percent chance to win the Sept. 18 visit to Kansas State and are predicted to win by 13.5 points.
Otherwise: Auburn is favored in every game except the rematch of last season's memorable Iron Bowl. Auburn has a 42.2 percent chance at Alabama but has at least a 60 percent chance in every game except Alabama and Georgia (54.4, 1.7). Among the highlights are predicted wins against LSU (73.2, 9.6), Mississippi State (60.0, 3.9) and Texas A&M (69.9, 8.1).

Florida
Nonconference: The Gators are a heavy underdog against defending national champion Florida State, which the Stats & Information group says has the best chance to go unbeaten of any team in the nation. Florida has an 8.9 percent chance of victory on Nov. 29 in Tallahassee and is a 20.8-point underdog.
Otherwise: Florida has at least a 50 percent chance to win seven games, but there are several that look like they could go either way. Florida is a double-digit underdog against Alabama (20.7, 12.6) and FSU. Key games include what is essentially a toss-up against LSU (49.9, 0.1-point underdog), South Carolina (45.6, 1.7-point underdog), Georgia (35.7, 4.7-point underdog), Tennessee (64.1, 5.6-point favorite) and Missouri (67.7, 7.1-point favorite).

Georgia
Nonconference: The Bulldogs are the favorites against both Clemson (63.4 percent, 5.3 points) and Georgia Tech (84.9, 16.0) in the opening and closing games of the regular season.
Otherwise: Georgia has at least a 63.4 percent chance of winning every game except its visit to South Carolina (41.1, 3.5) and Auburn (45.6, 1.7). The Bulldogs are favored by double digits against Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Charleston Southern, Troy, Tennessee and Vanderbilt and are a 9.3-point favorite at Arkansas.

Kentucky
Nonconference: Kentucky has a 37.8 percent chance of winning at Louisville on Nov. 29 and is a 4.8-point underdog.
Otherwise: The Wildcats are favored against UT-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe. They have no better than a 37.8-percent (Louisville) or 37.9-percent (Tennessee) chance in any other game according to ESPN's predictions. Kentucky is a double-digit underdog against Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Florida, is a 9.6-point underdog against Mississippi State and a 9.7-underdog against Missouri.

LSU
Nonconference: LSU has a 63.7 percent chance of beating Wisconsin by a predicted 4.5-point differential in the opener.
Otherwise: Like Florida, there are a handful of games that could go either way for LSU. As previously mentioned, the Oct. 11 visit to Gainesville is essentially a toss-up, with LSU enjoying a 50.1 percent chance to win by only a 0.1-point margin. The Tigers have at least a 60.3 percent chance of winning the other seven games where it is the favorite. LSU is the underdog against Auburn (26.8, 9.6), Texas A&M (38.0, 4.7) and Alabama (42.5, 2.9).

Mississippi State
Nonconference: Mississippi State is a huge favorite in its first three games (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama), including a 98.7 percent chance of victory against USM, by a predicted 20.6 points.
Otherwise: The Bulldogs are underdogs in four SEC games: LSU (39.7, 4.0), Auburn (40.0, 3.9), Alabama (25.5, 10.1) and Ole Miss (47.0, 1.2). They're a narrow favorite against Texas A&M (52.4, 0.9).

Missouri
Nonconference: The Tigers are favored in all four nonconference games, with the closest predicted to be wins against Central Florida (69.4, 7.8) and Indiana (63.7, 5.4).
Otherwise: Missouri is the favorite in eight games overall, while it's an underdog against South Carolina (21.9, 12.0), Georgia (36.6, 5.3), Florida (32.3, 7.1) and Texas A&M (22.2, 11.8). It's a small favorite against Tennessee (54.5, 1.7).

Ole Miss
Nonconference: The Rebels are a comfortable favorite (79.6 percent) to beat Boise State by a projected 10.6 points in the opener.
Otherwise: Ole Miss has at least a 77.7 percent chance of victory and is predicted to win by at least 10.6 points in each of the first four games (Boise State, Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette and Memphis) but is an underdog in four of the next five -- Alabama (35.5, 5.7), Texas A&M (31.2, 7.6), LSU (34.7, 6.1) and Auburn (35.0, 5.9). The Egg Bowl looks like another toss-up, with Ole Miss slightly favored (53.0, 1.2) over Mississippi State.

South Carolina
Nonconference: Although it has controlled the series lately, South Carolina is a narrow underdog on Nov. 29 at Clemson (47.5, 1.0).
Otherwise: The Gamecocks are favored in 10 games, although there could be some close ones, starting with Texas A&M (58.6, 3.4), Georgia (58.9, 3.5) and Florida (54.4, 1.7). In addition to Clemson, South Carolina is an underdog at Auburn (30.4, 7.9) on Oct. 25.

Tennessee
Nonconference: Tennessee is a huge underdog in its Sept. 13 visit to Oklahoma (13.0, 17.4).
Otherwise: The Volunteers are favored in five games, but its chances of victory are 21.0 percent of less against Oklahoma, Georgia (14.0), Ole Miss (21.0), Alabama (16.8) and South Carolina (13.7). The Vols are a narrow underdog against Missouri (45.5, 1.7) and a narrow favorite against Vanderbilt (56.7, 2.6).

Texas A&M
Nonconference: The Aggies have at least a 91.5 percent chance of victory in each of their four nonconference games (Lamar, Rice, SMU, Louisiana-Monroe), with the closest projected to be SMU (91.5, 21.2).
Otherwise: Texas A&M is an underdog against South Carolina (41.4, 3.4), Mississippi State (47.6, 0.9), Alabama (30.5, 7.9) and Auburn (30.1, 8.1). It's the favorite to beat LSU (62.0, 4.7) in the regular-season finale at Kyle Field.

Vanderbilt
Nonconference: The Commodores are favored to win all four nonconference games (Temple, UMass, Old Dominion, Charleston Southern), with the closest projected to be against Old Dominion (65.2, 6.0).
Otherwise: Vandy is an underdog in every SEC game. The worst odds are against Mississippi State (9.5, 20.2) and Georgia (7.4, 22.4). The closest are Tennessee (43.3, 2.6) and Kentucky (31.3, 7.5).

 
The annual SEC media days begin Monday, which means we are in for another preseason circus in Hoover, Alabama.

It also means we are that much closer to the start of fall camp and the college football season. I wonder if any fan base will dwarf the Alabama fans who'll be lined up inside the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel. Probably not. That's Tide turf, and everyone knows it.

Media days run from July 14-17. The SEC's official website, ESPN, ESPNU and WatchESPN will have continuous coverage of all the festivities.

MONDAY

Session I: 12–3:30 p.m. ET

Commissioner Mike Slive

Auburn
Session II: 3:40–6:40 p.m. ET

Florida
Vanderbilt
TUESDAY

Session I: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. ET

South Carolina
Mississippi State
Session II: 2–5 p.m. ET

Texas A&M
Tennessee
WEDNESDAY

Session I: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. ET

Steve Shaw (SEC coordinator of officials) / Justin Connolly (ESPN Senior Vice President of College Networks)

Missouri
Session II: 2–5 p.m. ET

LSU
Arkansas
THURSDAY

Session I: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. ET

Georgia
Ole Miss
Session II: 1–4 p.m. ET

Alabama
Kentucky
Today's college football award watch lists are all about the kickers.

The lists for both the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation's top place-kicker, and the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the top punter, were released Wednesday. Players from SEC schools are in the mix for both awards with the conference claiming three of the 30 names on the list for the Groza Award and three of the 25 for the Guy Award.

Texas A&M's Drew Kaser is back on the list for the Guy Award after finishing as one of three finalists last season, when he averaged 47.4 yards per punt. Georgia's Marshall Morgan was one of 20 semifinalists for the Groza last season after leading SEC kickers in scoring at 10.3 points per game and making 22 of 24 field-goal tries.

Here is a rundown of the SEC names on the lists:

Groza
Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
Marshall Morgan, Georgia

Guy
Taylor Hudson, Vanderbilt
Sam Irwin-Hill, Arkansas
Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

SEC lunchtime links

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
12:00
PM ET
How about that World Cup match yesterday? Germany 7, Brazil 1. As our esteemed colleague Chris Low tweeted yesterday -- he just started his own Twitter account, so follow him here -- “And we thought the defenses were down in the SEC last season.”
Auburn is the favorite to win every game this season except the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers have only the fourth-best odds of winning the SEC title for a second straight season. This according to the preseason projections that ESPN’s Stats and Information team released on Tuesday.

Using its preseason Football Power Index as a guide, the Stats and Information group’s projections covered a wide range of categories including likelihood of going undefeated, odds of winning conference and division titles, likelihood of winning individual games and projected win totals.

The data showed Florida State as a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion, with the Seminoles having a 40 percent chance of going undefeated and at least an 87 percent chance of winning each of its games. The next-closest team, Oregon, has a 13 percent chance of going undefeated.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kansas (projection of 3.3 wins), Purdue (3.6), Wake Forest (3.6) and California (3.8) are the teams from the Big Five conferences that are projected to win the fewest games.

The projections covered every FBS program, but we’re here to discuss the SEC, where -- surprise, surprise -- Alabama is the favorite to hoist the conference championship trophy in Atlanta. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has a 23 percent chance to win the conference title according to ESPN’s projections, leading South Carolina (17 percent), Georgia (17) and Auburn (16), which was certainly a much bigger underdog at this point a season ago.

Obviously Gus Malzahn's 2013 club proved that things can change a great deal between July and December -- and the Stats and Information group’s projections will be updated throughout the season -- but here’s where each SEC team sits for now, a little less than a month away from the start of preseason practice.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide is projected to win 9.9 games and has a 4 percent chance of going undefeated. In addition to its 22.6 percent chance of winning the SEC, Alabama has a 38 percent chance of winning the SEC West. Alabama is the favorite in every game and has at least a 64.5 percent chance of winning all but the LSU (57.5) and Auburn (57.8) games.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks play the SEC’s toughest schedule (No. 4 in the nation) and are projected to win 4.9 games. They have a 0 percent chance to win the conference title and a 0.01 percent chance of winning the West. In individual games, however, Arkansas is favored to win only against UAB (96.8 percent chance of a win), Nicholls State (96.7) and Northern Illinois (71.7).

Auburn: The only other team in the nation’s top 10 in strength of schedule (the Tigers are 10th), Auburn is projected to win 9.2 games. They have a 1 percent chance of going undefeated, a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 26.7 percent chance of winning the West. The Tigers have at least a 60 percent chance to win every game except Alabama (42.2) and Georgia (54.4).

Florida: Projected to win 7.6 games, Florida has a 6.2 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC East. The Gators are favored in seven games and underdogs against LSU (49.9), South Carolina (45.6), Georgia (35.7), Alabama (20.7) and Florida State (8.9).

Georgia: Oddly enough, while South Carolina has a slightly better chance of winning the SEC according to ESPN’s projections, Georgia has a small edge over the Gamecocks with a projection of 9.1 wins. The Bulldogs have a 17.1 percent chance of winning the conference and a 37.5 percent chance of winning the East. They have at least at 63.4 percent chance of beating every opponent except South Carolina (41.1) and Auburn (45.6).

Kentucky: ESPN’s projections have Kentucky making a step forward in Year 2 under Mark Stoops, winning 5.5 games this fall. The Wildcats have a 0.03 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.09 percent chance of winning the East. They are favored to beat Tennessee-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe, but there next-best chance of winning is 37.9 percent against Tennessee.

LSU: Les Miles’ Tigers are projected to win 8.0 games, with a 4.6 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. However, the Tigers are favored in nine games -- all but Auburn (26.8), Texas A&M (38.0) and Alabama (42.5).

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are projected to win 8.5 games, with a 4.7 percent chance of winning the conference and 9.7 percent chance of winning the West. Mississippi State is favored in eight games -- all but Ole Miss (47.0), Auburn (40.0), LSU (39.7) and Alabama (25.5).

Missouri: Projected to win 7.0 games, Missouri has a 2.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 7.1 percent chance of representing the East in Atlanta for a second straight season. The Tigers are favored in eight games and underdogs against Georgia (36.6), Florida (32.3), Texas A&M (22.2) and South Carolina (21.9).

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze’s club is projected to win 7.7 games and has a 2.9 percent chance of winning the conference and a 6.5 percent chance of winning the West. The Rebels are favored in eight games and are underdogs against Alabama (35.5), Auburn (35.0), LSU (34.7) and Texas A&M (31.2).

South Carolina: The Gamecocks are projected to win 8.9 games, have a 17.9 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 37.2 percent chance of winning the East. South Carolina is favored in all games except Clemson (47.5) and Auburn (30.4).

Tennessee: Projected to win 5.4 games, Butch Jones’ Volunteers have a 0.02 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.1 percent chance of winning the East. The Vols are favored to win five games: Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Texas A&M: The Aggies are projected to win 8.3 games and have a 4.8 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. Texas A&M is favored in eight games and is an underdog against Mississippi State (47.6), South Carolina (41.4), Alabama (30.5) and Auburn (30.1).

Vanderbilt: The James Franklin-less Commodores are projected to drop to 4.9 wins under first-year coach Derek Mason. They have a 0 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.02 percent chance of winning the East. Vandy is favored against UMass, Charleston Southern, Temple and Old Dominion.

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- One of the many NFL players on hand at The Opening this week is former LSU All-American safety Tyrann Mathieu.

While Mathieu is most known for his two seasons with the Tigers and as an Arizona Cardinals defensive back, he played high school football at New Orleans St. Augustine, the same high school that produced 2014 No. 1 recruit and current LSU freshman Leonard Fournette.

Mathieu
"I grew up with him," Mathieu said. "I know his dad real well. He could never play park ball, he was always bigger than everybody else. So the parents would always say he's too big, they would write letters to the state. He couldn't play football so he always had to play what we called all-star football. They travel the state and play football."

It's not just that Fournette was big, but it was his natural strength that impressed Mathieu.

"I knew he was a grown man when I was in the 12th grade and he was in the 8th grade, he was always bigger than me and he (punched me in the chest) and it hurt a little bit. I didn't know if he was playing or serious because it hurt that bad. He has always been strong,"

Mathieu believes Fournette will not struggle with expectations that are already bordering on the unrealistic.

"I think he's hungry. I think he has what I didn't have, he has a great support system already. They've always been a great support system for him. (He believes in himself and the people around him believe in him. The thing is, he can't get down. I had great years at LSU, but every time I played Alabama I wasn't the same guy. So you're going to have bad games but you just can't down about it."

Now in a position to give younger players advice to help them not make the same mistakes he did, Mathieu recently had a conversation with Fournette about dealing the distractions and walked away impressed.

"I already told him," Mathieu said. "It's going to be a lot of hype, the girls. You're wearing the No. 7, they don't just let anybody wear No. 7. I told him to just stay balanced through it all, don't get too high or low. He's going to be all right."
video
Cornerback Xavier Lewis has recommitted to LSU. Below, see what the Louisiana prospect adds to the Tigers' class:

Another day, another two college football award watch lists arrive.

Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.

The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:

Mackey
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn

Rimington
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina

SEC lunchtime links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:00
PM ET
SEC media days will be in full swing by this time next week. But if baseball and the World Cup won't provide your sports fix until then, check out coverage of The Opening and Elite 11 on ESPNU and ESPN.com. (Like this story that features several future SEC quarterbacks.)

" Two more college football award watch lists will debut today: those for the Mackey Award (best tight end) and Rimington Trophy (best center). Check out the lists as they update on the National College Football Awards Association website.

" The NCAA on Monday suggested new safety guidelines that would limit teams to two full-contact practices per week during the season.

" Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason considered a transfer when he was stuck behind Aaron Murray on the depth chart. But that was nothing compared to what his coach, Mark Richt, faced as a player at Miami. Richt discussed that 1982 logjam at quarterback -- when he was a teammate of Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar -- in a story for the Buffalo News.

" Mock-up magazine covers, cereal boxes, movie posters and more. All of those items are included in how college programs are getting creative with their recruiting pitches to high school prospects.

" Sean Lester of the Dallas Morning News examines Texas A&M's depth chart at receiver and tight end and projects the starters.

" Five more freshman signees started classes in South Carolina's second summer semester on Monday, bringing the total of 2014 Gamecock signees who have enrolled to 15.

" Ole Miss safety Anthony Alford is enjoying success in limited work as a minor league baseball player. In his five games with the Toronto Blue Jays' Class-A affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts, he batted .320.

" Among those participating at The Opening in Oregon are arguably the top prospect in the state of Kentucky -- running back Damien Harris -- and many other players whom Kentucky's football program is recruiting.

" Athlon Sports polled 15 national college football media members on which programs have the best stadiums and game-day atmospheres. LSU's Tiger Stadium was the runaway winner, and five SEC programs ranked in the top 8.

" In its list of the 25 most important figures in Alabama's 2014 season, AL.com turns today to new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

" The Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley lists his top 10 nonconference games of the upcoming season.
LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. -- The top-ranked prospect in the ESPN 300 at The Opening is offensive tackle Martez Ivey. The No. 2-ranked prospect overall began the recruiting process openly favoring the nearby Florida Gators.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video
While recruiting remains a marathon and not a sprint, recent trends have shown that it is never too early to look ahead. With the release of the ESPN Junior 300 it is a perfect time to see which programs are having early success. With roughly 10 percent of the prospects in the ESPN Junior 300 committed well over a year and a half before national signing day for the Class of 2016, plenty is still to be determined. Here are five programs, in alphabetical order, standing out early for the 2016 class:


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.

CFB Future Power Rankings

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
3:18
PM ET

CFB Future Power Ranks10 future stars | Chat wrap | 2013 FPR

It's Insider's second go-round projecting college football's next three years in our Future Power Rankings.

What did we learn from our first edition? For one, teams can make a substantive move in just a year's time. Just look at Auburn, which jumped from 23rd to fifth after a run to the championship game. USC, now with coaching stability, made the biggest leap (25th to sixth). Oklahoma, UCLA, FSU and Baylor were among other risers, and you'll soon read why.

On the other side, we were high a year ago on Florida and Michigan. Oops. The Gators' injury-plagued 4-8 season dropped them from No. 4 to No. 14, while the Wolverines, who lost five of their last six games, fell from fifth to 20th. We know Will Muschamp's job is in danger, but is that an omen for Brady Hoke's future in Ann Arbor?

Alabama is again our No. 1 team, but with two losses to end the season, its lead shrank. Is that a subtle signal that the Tide might have peaked under Nick Saban?

We'll examine those topics and more in the Future Power Rankings.

Here's how we compiled it: Our panel -- myself, Brad Edwards, Brock Huard, Tom Luginbill and Mark Schlabach -- provided 1-10 ratings in five different categories that we found to be comprehensive in determining current positioning, as well as a projection for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Here are the top 25 college football teams over the next three years:


  • 1
Alabama Crimson Tide
SEC FPR RANK: 1

The bar graphs reflect the average points given by the voters for each category. Category averages are weighted by importance to generate overall score.

Coaching: Saban did not receive a perfect 10, as he did a year ago. Maybe the one panelist who gave him a nine dinged him for how he managed the final second of the Iron Bowl.

But seriously, Saban is still well ahead of No. 2 Urban Meyer (9.2) and No. 3 Bill Snyder (9.0). (Have to appreciate that Snyder gets that kind of love, even if K-State didn't break the Top 25.)

Edwards thinks 2014 is a big year for Saban because it will show whether he can adapt his defense to better handle tempo offenses. Look at how Saban's defenses mightily struggled last year against not only Texas A&M, but also Auburn and Oklahoma.

"You put them all together and you realize, 'You know what, Alabama might have an issue with this,'" Edwards said. "I happen to believe Saban and [defensive coordinator] Kirby Smart have done enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let's see what they can come up with this year before I decide the dynasty is over. Saban is now recruiting to find those types of players [to defend tempo offenses]."

As for the best coach in the state?

"I want to see Gus Malzahn beat Nick Saban one more time before I say he's a better coach," Edwards said, "which is a conclusion a lot of people are already making."

Current talent: There are more positional questions than in the past few years, especially the offensive line and cornerback spots. Rival coaches are even rumbling about it. "I don't know about them," one SEC coordinator said. But do not be fooled for an instant into thinking the Tide have suddenly become as barren as a bachelor's refrigerator in terms of talent.

Bama still has the top running back group in the country with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who was a bright spot in the otherwise drab Sugar Bowl performance. The time could be now for LB Reuben Foster and FS Landon Collins to shine on defense. MLB Trey DePriest will be the defense's rock.

And what about QB Jake Coker? His old coach at FSU, Jimbo Fisher, believes Coker is capable, which is why Coker nearly beat out last year's Heisman Trophy winner to start at FSU.

Recruiting: This is why Alabama earned association with the word "dynasty" -- it started winning almost every major recruiting battle, and the program became the closest thing there is on the planet to the NFL's minor league system. It has not dipped, and there's no reason to believe it will as long as Saban is around; he will not let it slide.

Title path:  It's going to happen, and it could happen this year: The SEC is going to knock itself out of the playoff. The strength of the top half of the league could turn out to be a bad thing in some seasons.

The Tide are regularly part of a kickoff game of some kind, playing the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech or West Virginia, but the nonconference slate is typically manageable. The conference schedule always works for and against the SEC. For the Tide, Auburn is the new-slash-old menace.

The rating suggests that it isn't the ideal road to the playoff, but it should not be preventive for a power program such as Alabama.

Program power: Like the coaching category, Bama still received four 10s and a nine. The takeaway: It's hard to remain perfect.

"We all know that every dynasty comes to an end, but when you look back on every dynasty, you know where the turning point was," Edwards said. Will we say it was the Iron Bowl and Sugar Bowl, perhaps? "I think what you have is a lot of people trying to be the first one to predict the end of the dynasty," Edwards said. "They want to be the ones to say they didn't miss it. I think they're jumping the gun a little bit."

Which is why Alabama is still No. 1. But one program is making up ground in a hurry ...


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

No. 14 CB Xavier Lewis Recommits to LSU
LSU added the nation's No. 34 overall prospect - again. Xavier Lewis explained his decision to verbally commit to the Tigers after decommitting from the class in February.Tags: Xavier Lewis, LSU Tigers, East Saint John, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Nike's The Opening
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31