LSU's Jermauria Rasco and Ronald Martin will play together one final time in their college careers beyond next week's Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl -- when they compete in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 17.
Martin was a second-team All-SEC safety this season after ranking third on the team with 66 tackles and tying for the team lead with two interceptions and 10 passes defended. Easily his biggest play of the season was his game-saving interception at the goal line to clinch a win against then-unbeaten Ole Miss.
“He's really done a great job, been a great leader for us and played well and made plays -- made plays that were significant, certainly," LSU coach Les Miles said this week. “The interception against Ole Miss is something he'll remember for a lifetime."
While the statistics he compiled in his first season as a full-time starter were nice, Martin said he is just as proud of the leadership he displayed as the old man in the secondary. For instance, he heaped praise on freshman Jamal Adams for wanting to learn and said he took on a big brother role with his young position mate.
“That's the big thing, I was trying to be a leader for these guys this year and teach those young guys," Martin said. “Like I was saying about Jamal earlier, I really took that kid under my wing when he got here because I saw how hungry he was to want to play. So I took the time teaching him the plays, teaching him to try to get him prepared because I knew we were going to use him. So that's all I was trying to do, just do my part as a teammate."
Likewise, Rasco's value to the team is not adequately measured by simply looking over the stat sheet. The senior defensive end led the team with four sacks and eight quarterback hurries and is fifth with 63 tackles, but his knack for always being around the ball was a big factor in the Tigers' defensive improvement throughout the season.
“That's one thing that Coach Brick [Haley] preaches at practice," Rasco said. “That's one thing that has always been like that around here."
Rasco believes this was his best season at LSU, largely because he was finally healthy. He had surgery on injured shoulders in each of the previous two offseasons, but he was able to play full speed as a senior.
Now at the all-star game, he'll have a chance to show scouts that he can do more than just play defensive end should a pro team give him a shot.
“I feel like whether I'm on the ground or standing up, honestly I'm just ready to play ball," Rasco said. “After we finish up with Notre Dame, I'm just ready to have an opportunity to play ball. Wherever I'm at, I'm just going to take flight from there."
Showing some versatility during the week of practice might be necessary for Rasco. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he doesn't have prototypical size for an NFL defensive end. But he believes he could also play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and that his work dropping into coverage this season in the Tigers' “Bronco" package was good practice for that job.
“Coach Brick and [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they helped us out a lot trying to put a new wrinkle in there that would give us a chance to stand up and roam around a little bit and just bring a different look to the team and also help out the team," Rasco said.
What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?
I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...
Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!
1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.
2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.
3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.
4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.
5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!
Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.
On Monday and today, we looked at the freshmen who are in line to redshirt, as well as a couple who appeared in only a game or two. After focusing on the offense yesterday, today we turn to the defense.
DB JOHN BATTLE
Height/Weight: 6-1/186 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Three stars, No. 26 safety
2014 in review: Battle played in the Sam Houston State game, so he might not receive a redshirt. He doesn't seem to have settled into a permanent position yet after working at both cornerback and safety during the season. His versatility should be an asset, though, as he has worked at both positions and in the nickel and dime packages in practice.
Teammate's comments: "Battle, he's going to be good. He's a very talented young guy. He's going to help us a lot. I don't think they've figured out what position he's going to be playing permanently yet, but he's real talented. He can play safety and corner, so wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond decides to go with him, I think he's going to be great." -- senior safety Ronald Martin
CB RUSSELL GAGE
Height/Weight: 6-0/180 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Three stars, No. 57 athlete
2014 in review: Gage played against Sam Houston State and New Mexico State, so he will not receive a redshirt. But he worked at cornerback throughout the season and will be part of the competition at the position next season, particularly if the Tigers lose one or two of the regular corners after the season. Jalen Collins is mulling early entry to the NFL draft and sophomore Rashard Robinson's status for 2015 is unclear while he serves an indefinite suspension.
Teammate's comments: "He's doing pretty good. He's an athletic guy -- one of the most athletic guys that I see that we have on the team. He's just learning and continuing to get his technique right. Once he gets on the field, he's going to be a big-time player. I can already see it." -- sophomore cornerback Tre'Davious White
LB CLIFTON GARRETT
Height/Weight: 6-2/242 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 31 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 2 inside linebacker
2014 in review: Garrett actually played twice (against Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State), so he might not be in line to receive a redshirt. One of the highest-rated defensive prospects in LSU's signing class, Garrett will be in position to compete with sophomore Kendell Beckwith for playing time at middle linebacker in 2015.
Teammate's comments: "His future's going to be bright. He's just got to come along a little bit faster. He works hard and he's going to be a great player. When he learns to get the plays down and everything, be smart -- he's the Mike 'backer, so he's got to know all the keys and all that. When he gets all that down, he's going to be all right." -- junior weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander
DT TREY LEALAIMATAFAO
Height/Weight: 6-0/300 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 27 defensive tackle
2014 in review: LSU's coaches expected Lealaimatafao to contribute as a freshman, but a serious cut suffered during a summertime weight room incident delayed the freshman's progress. He will contend for playing time during spring practice and could be part of the rotation at tackle in 2015.
Teammate's comments: "For a guy to be so little, he's real powerful and he brings a lot to the table. [He and Travonte Valentine] are going to be the secret weapons for next year as long as they do what they have to do on and off the field." -- senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco
DT TRAVONTE VALENTINE
Height/Weight: 6-3/325 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 164 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 11 defensive tackle
2014 in review: Valentine was a late qualifier and his debut was delayed further while LSU worked to clear up the freshman's academic eligibility issues. He started practicing with the Tigers during the season, however, and he should be good to go during spring practice. The enormous defensive tackle would add a much-needed big body to the defensive tackle rotation if he's ready to play next fall.
Teammate's comments: "Tray Valentine, he's a true run stopper. He's got some juice in him in the pass rush. You'll see him in a game and you won't be expecting him to be able to move as good as he moves." -- Rasco
@jeremycrabtree Ole Miss CeCe Jefferson to add to an already great defense. And DeMarcus Lodge to go along with our other talented WR.— Joe Turnage (@Joe_T25) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree Florida- Bryon Cowart, CeCe, Ivey, Holland, Jordan Scarlett— Trenton Stowell (@tstowell24) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree b cowart Cece and dpayne come to auburn to make impact on defense— Tad tisdale (@TadTisdale) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree Ryan Davis at Kstate— darren mueller (@milkman2993) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree KSU - Kylan Johnson@shotime_kc— Wildcat_Jeff (@Snyder_cat) December 22, 2014
Today and tomorrow, we'll look at the freshmen who are in line to redshirt, as well as a couple who appeared in only a game or two. Today we begin with the players on offense.
OL GARRETT BRUMFIELD
Height/Weight: 6-4/309 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 54 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 1 offensive guard
2014 in review: The writing was on the wall when Brumfield and William Clapp signed in February in that LSU returned a wealth of experience along the line. Unless something catastrophic happened, they would most likely sit out the season and redshirt -- and that's what happened. Brumfield could be in line to play guard or center next season, particularly if one of the Tigers' underclassmen opt to enter the NFL draft.
Teammate's comments: "Brumfield is a very athletic guy. He kind of reminds me of Trai [Turner, a former LSU lineman and rookie with the Carolina Panthers] in a way. Clapp reminds me of maybe a little smaller P.J., if you remember [former LSU center] P.J. Lonergan. So those are two guys that played really good football at LSU, and they've gotten so much better from when they came in to now. I really like those guys. They're good guys and things like that, so they have a bright future." -- junior left guard Vadal Alexander
OL WILLIAM CLAPP
Height/Weight: 6-5/295 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 22 offensive guard
2014 in review: The son of former LSU captain Tommy Clapp worked behind veterans at guard and center during the season. Center might be where he eventually settles, however, with senior Elliott Porter completing his career and sophomore Ethan Pocic able to play multiple positions along the line.
Teammate's comments: "[Brumfield and Clapp have] both been working great at guard and center. They switch back and forth with it. They practice at center one day and they go back to guard the next day. They're going at it. ...I believe there's a little competition between them two -- like they're young, but they're always trying to see who can get it in." -- sophomore right tackle Jerald Hawkins
WR TONY UPCHURCH
Height/Weight: 6-1/230 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 283 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 42 wide receiver
2014 in review: Of the four wide receivers LSU signed in February, Upchurch probably needed the most work. Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre contributed immediately and D.J. Chark also appeared in a handful of games. Upchurch needed time to slim down a bit and learn LSU's offense. He'll have to compete for playing time with a number of young wideouts in 2015.
Teammate's comments: "He's grown a lot. From the first time I met him in the summer to yesterday, he's grown a lot. He's matured a lot. He was real heavy when he first got here and he's losing weight. He's growing as a person on and off the field. He's not doing some of the things he was doing when he first got here. He's more focused on football." – sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural
TE JACORY WASHINGTON
Height/Weight: 6-5/221 pounds
ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 169 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 5 tight end (H)
2014 in review: As with the other offensive redshirts, Washington faced a logjam at his position when he arrived at LSU in the summer. The Tigers returned four tight ends who saw the field in 2013, plus they added junior college transfer Colin Jeter. Washington and the other young tight ends should have a much greater opportunity to play next season with seniors Logan Stokes and Travis Dickson completing their careers.
Teammate's comments: "I think Jacory's going to be a monster one day. He's big, tall, strong. Just coming here, they wanted him to put some size on and get used to the system and we had a lot of older guys in front of him, so they redshirted him. But it's definitely benefited him a lot. He looks a lot more comfortable out there at practice, especially blocking. I don't think he had ever blocked before he got here and he's actually going to be a very good blocker. Obviously y'all know about his receiving skills, so he's going to be very good." -- Stokes
On a day already anticipated as one to watch with the morning announcements of ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal, the Big 12 got its own version of a Christmas bonus with five major commitments by the end of the afternoon.
Jefferson and McNeal committed to Texas. ESPN 300 quarterback Jarrett Stidham committed to Baylor after recently decommitting from Texas Tech. ESPN 300 defensive end Ricky DeBerry and four-star safety Kahlil Haughton chose Oklahoma.
And better believe, it’s not over for the conference.
There are several players who could be additions to the growing number of Big 12 commitments. Here are five names to watch from now until national signing day in early February.
I have decomitted from Texas A&M and I will be releasing my top two schools around noon Saturday!— THEE MACK TRUCK (@DaylonMack) December 19, 2014
Just minutes ago, Mack followed through on his Friday tweet, releasing his top two teams.
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That's why LSU's senior fullback is less concerned about his positioning for the NFL draft than he is about finding a pro team that still uses players with his skillset in this era of wide-open offensive schemes.
His recently accepted invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game shows that scouts believe Neighbors has the makings of a pro fullback. But Neighbors is smart to hedge his bets on becoming an actual draft pick.
Since 2007, when a whopping nine fullbacks came off the board in the draft, the number of players drafted from Neighbors' position has dwindled. In each of the last three drafts, only three fullbacks have been selected. And in the last five years, a total of 16 fullbacks came off the board.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and NFLDraftScout.com both rate Neighbors as the No. 5 fullback prospect in the upcoming draft, which indicates that becoming a late-round pick or undrafted free agent might be Neighbors' most likely path to an NFL roster.
If he goes the undrafted free agent route, Neighbors will have to find a club that makes use of his position -- and he admits he has been paying attention to where he might be a good fit.
"Ever since I moved to the position, when I've watched football, I've seen that," Neighbors said. "I know that a lot of teams, they have a package for [fullbacks]. Not everyone, NFL teams, they don't really use it that often. ...
"Tennessee uses one. [Former LSU quarterback and current Titans rookie Zach Mettenberger is] trying to get me to go there. He's like, 'How awesome would it be?' if I was there. That would be tight," Neighbors continued. "I know Atlanta uses one. Green Bay, they use one -- and they give him the ball -- so that would be tight if I went there. I try not to worry about that stuff, though, because I can't determine the outcome except with my play."
His performances in the Senior Bowl practices can help. Scouts flock to observe the game-week practices each year in order to see many of the nation's top senior prospects go head to head. For a player with three career carries for 6 yards and 11 career receptions for 119 yards, this is a good chance for Neighbors to show them that he can handle the ball, as well as block and cover kicks.
"I heard it's a pretty intense week, so we'll see what happens," Neighbors said.
Neighbors has a first-hand source who can attest to that intensity. His dad, Wes, played in the Senior Bowl in 1987 after an All-SEC career at Alabama. His late grandfather Billy, a College Football Hall of Famer, was an All-American at Alabama and played in the game in 1962.
Since the Senior Bowl is played in Neighbors' home state of Alabama -- in Mobile -- friends and family won't have far to travel to see him become the third Neighbors to compete in the game. And Neighbors expects plenty of them to show up for his final college game.
"That's what my dad said," Neighbors said, "so I've got to play good so I don't embarrass anybody."
Duck Commander Independence Bowl
December 27, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why Miami wins: My question is: How motivated will this South Carolina team be? The same can be said for Miami, but the Hurricanes have Duke Johnson, arguably the best player on the field. Miami is 6-1 when it rushes for more than 125 yards. Don’t be surprised if Johnson reaches that number on his own. Miami 34, South Carolina 24 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why South Carolina wins: So the Gamecocks have one of the SEC’s worst defenses and let Clemson walk over them to end the season? Steve Spurrier and his crew are getting a few weeks to regroup and forget such a bad regular season. Plus, Miami lost five of its six games by 10 or more points, so just do the math. South Carolina 27, Miami 24 -- Edward Aschoff
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
December 29, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why West Virginia wins: Call me crazy, but I don't see bowl practice yielding a dramatic turnaround for Texas A&M. While I expect Kyle Allen and the offense to be fine, I don't know how that defense gets any better -- especially without a coordinator in place. In the end, Dana Holgorsen and Clint Trickett light up the Aggies' secondary and win. West Virginia 45, Texas A&M 35 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Texas A&M wins: Texas A&M was hard to figure this season. The Aggies were all over the place, pretty good one game and pretty bad the next. West Virginia likes to play hurry-up offense the way Texas A&M does, so get ready for a shootout. The Aggies still haven't proved that they're ready for prime time defensively, but will score enough points in this one that it won't matter. Texas A&M 45, West Virginia 38 -- Chris Low
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
December 29, 9 p.m., ESPN
Why Arkansas wins big: Which team led the SEC in points allowed per game for the month of November? Alabama? Ole Miss? Missouri? None of the above. It was the Razorbacks, who allowed an FBS-best 9.5 points per game. I just can’t see Tyrone Swoopes and the Longhorns bucking that trend in this one. Arkansas 28, Texas 10 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Texas keeps it close: This is a matchup of two teams that played better down the stretch. Texas won four of its last six games to reach bowl eligibility and played some decent defense along the way. I’m still going with Arkansas because of the way the Hogs finished the season, but I think Texas will make it interesting. Arkansas 21, Texas 14 -- David Ching
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
December 30, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why LSU wins big: Notre Dame has quarterback issues and LSU has a secondary that is one of the best nationally at defending the pass. If Leonard Fournette & Co. can run the ball the way they did on Thanksgiving against Texas A&M against Notre Dame's banged-up D, the Tigers should be able to cruise to a win. LSU 27, Notre Dame 17 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Notre Dame keeps it close: With the exception of Kentucky, LSU hasn’t blown out a Power 5 team all season. This team simply is not built for that. As bad as Notre Dame’s defense has played down the stretch -- and they have been bad -- the Fighting Irish will hang around. If only LSU had a quarterback. LSU 24, Notre Dame 21 -- Greg Ostendorf
December 30, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Louisville wins: Oh, the fun we’ll have with Todd Grantham facing his old team. Both Grantham and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo want a shot at each other, which means this one will be back-and-forth and plenty fun. Something tells me Bobby Petrino’s offense proves to be too much in the fourth, and a late Georgia turnover seals it. Louisville 27, Georgia 23 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Georgia wins: Sure, Todd Grantham knows this team well, but Mark Richt knows Grantham well, too. And if Georgia blocks up front as well as it has and Nick Chubb runs like he has been running, that's not easy to defend. The Bulldogs average 41 points per game for a reason; I suspect they're headed that way again. Georgia 41, Louisville 31 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
December 31, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why TCU wins big: TCU hasn’t seen anything like Ole Miss’ defense, which leads the nation by allowing 13.8 points per game. But I don’t think the Rebels will be able to shut down (or keep up with) Trevone Boykin and an explosive TCU offense that averages 46.8 ppg. Not without injured receiver Laquon Treadwell. TCU 40, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching
Why Ole Miss keeps it close: The popular storyline for the Peach Bowl is TCU's high-powered offense versus Ole Miss' talented Landshark defense. But let's not forget about Bo Wallace and the Rebels' offense. Even without Laquon Treadwell, I expect Ole Miss to put up enough points to make it a ballgame. TCU 42, Ole Miss 38 -- Alex Scarborough
Capital One Orange Bowl
December 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Georgia Tech wins: Georgia Tech's option offense is never a lot of fun to prepare for. The Bulldogs have had some extra time to get ready during the bowl practices, but will be without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left to take the Florida defensive coordinator job. The Yellow Jackets were an offensive machine the last month of the season, and that won't change in Miami. Georgia Tech 31, Mississippi State 30 -- Chris Low
Why Mississippi State wins: Generally when opponents have time to practice for Georgia Tech’s option offense, they fare well. Paul Johnson is 1-5 in bowl games since arriving at Tech in 2008. Although they’ll have to function without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, the Bulldogs will still get the job done. Mississippi State 28, Georgia Tech 21 -- David Ching
January 1, Noon ET, ESPN2
Why Auburn wins big: Wisconsin's strength is running the ball. While Auburn's defense leaves much to be desired, that's one area where they're decent, ranking 46th nationally in rushing yardage allowed. And though Barry Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach, I'll take Gus Malzahn over someone coaching his second game in eight years. Auburn 45, Wisconsin 28 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin keeps it close: Something tells me Melvin Gordon is going to go out with a bang. And, frankly, nothing I've seen from Auburn makes me believe it will be able to stop him. While the Tigers ultimately should win, Gordon and the Badgers will have enough success running the football to keep things close. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 30 -- Alex Scarborough
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
January 1, 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Why Missouri wins big: Forget the SEC championship game; there's still something about Missouri. Like last season, the Tigers continued to find ways to win. And when they lost in Atlanta in 2013, they went out and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. I expect more of the same this time around. Missouri 24, Minnesota 14 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Minnesota keeps it close: Weird things always happen during bowl season, and while Minnesota doesn’t exactly wow me, I think this game will be much closer than it should be. The Tigers still have an offense that can drag, while the Gophers are trying to win their first bowl game since 2004, which incidentally came against another SEC team (Alabama). I have a feeling this one will hurt our eyes at times. Missouri 23, Minnesota 21 -- Edward Aschoff
Allstate Sugar Bowl
College Football Playoff semifinal
January 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Alabama wins big: The last thing we remember is Ohio State blowing out Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, and Cardale Jones doing his best Troy Smith impersonation. I’m not sold. I think the young quarterback struggles against this stout Alabama defense. And good luck shutting out the Crimson Tide. That’s not happening with Lane Kiffin calling plays. Alabama has too many playmakers. Alabama 31, Ohio State 7 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Ohio State keeps it close: The Buckeyes didn't get here by being an average team. This is a really good team. Urban Meyer knows what to expect from a Saban-coached team thanks to his days in the SEC. Cardale Jones showed he can throw the ball well, and that's one thing Alabama had trouble defending in the Iron Bowl. Alabama 31, Ohio State 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.
January 2, 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Tennessee wins: On one sideline, you have Tennessee, which won three of its last four games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in years. On the other side, Iowa lost three of its last four. Iowa is better than its record, but I’m putting some faith in Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. Tennessee 23, Iowa 21 -- David Ching
Why Iowa wins: Butch Jones really appears to have Tennessee moving in the right direction. The Vols probably could -- and should -- have won a couple more games in 2014, but that's why Jones is building. And while there’s absolutely nothing flashy about anything that Iowa does on offense, I think the grinding nature of the Hawkeyes will eventually wear Tennessee’s line down. Expect a couple of costly turnovers from the Vols as well. Iowa 21, Tennessee 17 -- Edward Aschoff
January 3, Noon ET, ESPN
Why Florida wins: East Carolina is great at throwing the ball -- the Pirates are second nationally with 367.3 passing yards per game -- but Florida is equipped to defend that style of offense pretty effectively. It’s hard to know what to expect from a team playing with an interim coach, but I’ll give the Gators a slight edge. Florida 17, East Carolina 14 -- David Ching
Why East Carolina wins: The big question in this one: How genuinely excited is Florida to be in this game? East Carolina, on the other hand, would love to take home an SEC pelt and has the kind of high-scoring offense that could give the Gators' smothering defense trouble. Better days are ahead for Florida's program, but this won't be one of them. East Carolina 27, Florida 21 -- Chris Low
Greg Ostendorf: 89-23
Edward Aschoff: 87-25
David Ching: 86-26
Chris Low: 86-26
Sam Khan Jr.: 84-28
Alex Scarborough: 83-29
That’s nothing new for LSU’s coach, who has lost 17 underclassmen to the draft in the last two years, but he also knows the potential that will exist for his 2015 team if juniors like offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive backs Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills opt to return.
“I think that this team has the potential to play in championships and should the juniors recognize how close we are to being in the [College Football Playoff] that frankly this could be a great class for quite some time and a great team for quite some time,” Miles said this week.
Those upcoming decisions will be a major factor in whether LSU fulfills that potential next season. Miles said he has made and will make that point in further discussions with his underclassmen on whether another year in college would benefit them.
Earlier today, we examined each position on LSU’s offensive roster and which players have NFL decions to make. Now we turn to the defense:
Key departing seniors: Defensive end Jermauria Rasco (63 tackles, 4 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss)
Key draft-eligible player: Junior defensive end Danielle Hunter (64 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 12 TFL)
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 TFL), freshman defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (34 tackles, 1.5 TFL)
Comment: Hunter refused to discuss his draft situation on Wednesday, but there is good reason to believe that he can and will jump to the pros after the bowl game. If he and Rasco are both gone, the Tigers might lean heavily on Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema to provide a pass rush next season. The good news is that the tackle spot will be much better off in 2015 now that LaCouture and Godchaux have established themselves, with junior Quentin Thomas and a number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen (look out for Travonte Valentine) capable of grabbing some playing time for themselves.
Key departing seniors: D.J. Welter (35 tackles)
Key draft-eligible players: Junior Kwon Alexander (79 tackles, 7.5 TFL), junior Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL)
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Kendell Beckwith (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 6.5 TFL, INT)
Comment: This figures to be a strong position even if Alexander jumps to the pros. Asked whether he requested an evaluation from the NFL’s advisory committee, Alexander said, “One of the coaches told me to put it in. I just threw it in there, but I’m not worrying about that right now. I’m just trying to focus on this bowl game.” He had a strong first season at weakside linebacker, posting a team-high 79 tackles and earning second-team All-SEC honors, but could certainly boost his draft stock by returning. Starting strongside linebacker Louis figures to return, and Beckwith should be a star next year in his first full season as the starter in the middle. Plus, the Tigers will have regulars Deion Jones and Duke Riley back, and freshman Clifton Garrett will be coming off his redshirt season. With so much depth and talent returning, Alexander predicted that his position group next year can be “the best linebackers in the country.”
Key departing seniors: Safety Ronald Martin (66 tackles, 2 INT)
Key draft-eligible players: Junior cornerback Jalen Collins (33 tackles, INT), junior safety Jalen Mills (54 tackles, 3 TFL, INT), redshift sophomore defensive back Dwayne Thomas (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, INT)
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Safety) sophomore Rickey Jefferson (23 tackles, 2 INT), freshman Jamal Adams (56 tackles, 3 TFL), (cornerback) sophomore Tre'Davious White (32 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT)
Comment: Mills and Collins are both expected to explore their draft possibilities. Mills hasn’t spoken to reporters since the end of the season, and Collins said Wednesday that “I’ve thought about it a couple times, but I haven’t made any final decisions yet.” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rates Collins as the No. 8 draft-eligible cornerback prospect for 2015. Even if they both jump to the pros, the secondary should still be in good shape. Thomas and junior safety Corey Thompson will return from injury, while Adams, White and Jefferson have all established themselves as reliable contributors. Rashard Robinson is a wild card, as Miles hasn’t announced whether the suspended cornerback will be allowed back on the team. “I would hope that he might be here [next season],” Miles said earlier this week. If Robinson is gone permanently, the Tigers might have to rely on a freshman like Ed Paris, John Battle or Russell Gage.
Key departing seniors: None
Key draft-eligible players: Junior punter Jamie Keehn (45.0 yards per punt), junior snapper Reid Ferguson
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11-15 FG, 34-36 PAT, 67 points)
Comment: Keehn told reporters this week that he plans to return, so LSU’s kicking game should remain intact. In fact, there could be added competition next season now that freshman kicker Cameron Gamble has had time to settle in and possibly challenge Delahoussaye and sophomore Trent Domingue for opportunities on field goal/PAT and kickoffs.
“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”
The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.
Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:
Key departing seniors: None
Key draft-eligible players: None
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)
Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.
Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)
Key draft-eligible players: None
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)
Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)
Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)
Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.
Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika
Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic
Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”
LSU (8-4) and Notre Dame (7-5) stumbled down the stretch to land in Nashville, Tennessee, and set up their 11th all-time meeting -- the most between Notre Dame and any SEC program.
A bowl win will put a positive spin on a disappointing season for the Tigers or Fighting Irish. Here, LSU writer David Ching and Notre Dame writer Matt Fortuna discuss what a win would mean, as well as best- and worst-case scenarios for the two teams.
What a win would mean for LSU: From a bragging-rights perspective, a win on Dec. 30 would give LSU a winning record (the programs are currently 5-5 head-to-head) against the Fighting Irish. Obviously that would make for a nice historical footnote. As for its modern-day impact, the Tigers are hoping to repeat what happened the last time they met Notre Dame in a bowl. LSU’s 2006 team blasted Notre Dame to end that season and went on to win a BCS title the following year. LSU has some questions to answer this offseason -- particularly at quarterback -- but after enduring some growing pains with a young roster, the Tigers believe they can be playoff contenders next season. A win in Nashville would be a good way to kickstart the offseason.
What a win would mean for Notre Dame: A win over No. 23 LSU would easily be Notre Dame's best victory of the season. More importantly, it would stop the bleeding that comes with a season-ending four-game losing streak. The Irish need positive momentum going into next season, especially with so many familiar faces expected to return in 2015. A lot of that could go out the door if this same cast of characters enters riding a five-game slide and wondering how it all went south so fast following a 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking.
LSU’s best case for bowl: Minus the narrow margin of victory, a game like LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M would be ideal. The Tigers’ defense held a potent offense to just 228 total yards and their offensive scheme was perhaps the most ambitious it has been all year. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was outstanding on quarterback runs (he rushed for 119 yards) and completed passes to seven different teammates, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette was outstanding, and speedy receiver Travin Dural did some damage on jet sweeps. If LSU is to move back toward contender status in 2015, the offense has to be much more effective than it was this fall. Finishing the season with a productive outing against an underwhelming Notre Dame defense would do wonders for the young Tigers’ confidence.
Notre Dame’s best case for bowl: In a weird way, the best-case scenario for Notre Dame would be that Malik Zaire emerges as a star, carves up a really, really good LSU defense, runs the offense to a T and looks like the Irish's quarterback of the future. That is not to say that the Irish cannot win with Everett Golson, or that it would necessarily be good to see him struggle in any way, shape or form. But the fact of the matter is that the Irish have seen all that Golson can and cannot do throughout the course of this season, with his 22 turnovers -- all over the final nine games -- contributing largely to this losing skid. Zaire has yet to start or see meaningful action in a close game, and if he looks great against a great defense, the Irish may just know where to start when it comes to finding the right guy to lead their offense in 2015. The defense needs to play better, sure, but much of that unit's demise can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a litany of injuries. There are no excuses for the offense being as inconsistent as it has as of late, which means success from a fresh face could simplify things for this program moving forward.
LSU’s worst case for bowl: As with Notre Dame, another ugly outing on offense would be the wrong way to enter the offseason. Both teams have good reason to believe their defenses will be strong in 2015, but they need to figure out where they’re going at quarterback (in LSU’s case, is it going to be Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris?) and develop a dependable offensive identity. The power running game will continue to be LSU’s bread and butter, but another game where its quarterback struggles to make drive-extending completions won’t create much confidence that next season will be different for the Tigers’ offense.
Notre Dame’s worst case for bowl: If the Irish look listless on offense, and if neither quarterback can get things going against the Tigers' defense -- or worse, turns the ball over frequently -- it will be back to the drawing board for Brian Kelly and his offense, which would be entering Year 6 with still no answer at quarterback. Golson cannot afford another outing like his last month of work, and Zaire cannot botch his first major opportunity to make a public statement and to show he is capable of answering the bell with the spotlight on him.
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
The job belonged to Anthony Jennings for all but one game this fall – a blowout loss at Auburn – but freshman Brandon Harris hasn’t been able to push past the inconsistent sophomore.
While LSU’s defense rebounded from an awful start to eventually lead the SEC in total defense at 305.8 yards allowed per game, the quarterback issues plagued the offense for most of the season, and Cam Cameron’s attack was frustratingly unproductive as a result.
It remains the leading storyline of the season as LSU (8-4, 4-4 SEC) prepares to conclude the season against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Here is a recap of the Tigers’ season to this point:
Best win: Rival Ole Miss came to Tigers Stadium undefeated and ranked third nationally, but the Rebels left with a disappointing 10-7 loss. Tight end Logan Stokes scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard catch late in the fourth quarter – Stokes’ only catch of the season – and senior safety Ronald Martin sealed the win with an interception at the goal line with 2 seconds remaining. The win briefly reignited LSU’s hopes of sneaking back into the SEC West race, although an overtime loss to Alabama in its next game snuffed out those aspirations.
Worst loss: A 41-7 loss at Auburn was the ugliest, but the Tigers’ most painful defeat was probably its 20-13 overtime loss to Alabama. LSU was in position to upset the eventual SEC champs, grabbing a 13-10 lead on a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds to play. But Alabama drove for the game-tying field goal in the final minute and then won the game with a touchdown pass from Blake Sims to DeAndrew White in overtime. That gave the Crimson Tide, LSU’s bitter rival, its fourth consecutive win in the series.
Player of the year: La'el Collins. Although he could have entered the draft after last season like teammates Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill, Collins returned and almost certainly improved his draft stock. The senior left tackle won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker and generally dominated opponents while becoming LSU’s only first-team All-SEC selection. A three-year starter at LSU, Collins will leave an enormous hole on the left side of the line in 2015.
Breakout player: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Travin Dural probably deserves mention here, too, after leading the team with 758 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but we have to go with Fournette. The freshman running back – formerly the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect – flashed moments of brilliance and carried the Tigers to narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. The SEC All-Freshman team member leads the team with 891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 126.8 all-purpose yards per game. It wasn’t enough to maintain a Heisman Trophy campaign like some expected, but it was a solid debut effort.
Play of the year: We have to go with Fournette’s touchdown run against Texas A&M where he evoked memories of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by running over Aggies safety Howard Matthews on his way to the end zone. LSU fans can only hope it was another sign of great things to come.
While Fournette’s powerful run takes the cake, Dural’s school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State deserves a mention, too. The speedy wideout’s catch from Jennings was a heck of a first offensive play in the Tigers’ home opener at expanded Tiger Stadium.
2015 outlook: As has been the case in several recent seasons, LSU’s success in 2015 might hinge on which underclassmen decide to enter the draft. The Tigers have been hit hard by the draft lately and might lose a handful of draft-eligible players again this year. Four of LSU’s starting offensive linemen are eligible to enter the draft, as are defensive backs Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins and linebacker Kwon Alexander. This was a young team that should improve next year, and the Tigers could be Western Division contenders if the draft hit isn’t too painful and a consistent quarterback emerges.
Intriguing SEC bowl games
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State