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.
With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.
LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.
You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.
“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”
And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.
Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”
In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.
He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.
“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”
In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.
“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”
That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.
Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.
Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.
“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”
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.
"Going into camp, that's what I was thinking about," senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. "Our linebackers are the strongest. They're the core of the defense. The secondary, they're real tight. And me personally, I feel like the D-line is the question mark right now."
Rasco's comments came a few days after the Tigers opened preseason camp earlier this month. The ensuing two weeks have reportedly been productive for the group -- as they needed to be.
Teams that win SEC titles usually dominate up front on defense, and even when they don't (see Auburn, 2010), they typically have at least one lineman who creates havoc in opponent backfields. Since 2000, only two SEC championship clubs (Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 2012) failed to have at least one defensive lineman make the coaches' All-SEC team at the end of the season.
Once junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both jumped for the NFL draft after last season, LSU lost its only obvious picks for postseason honors. Now it's up to Rasco and fellow end Danielle Hunter -- a combination that totaled just seven sacks a season ago -- and a host of inexperienced players in the middle to pick up the slack.
"We might not be the key, but we're a piece of the puzzle," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Greg Gilmore said. "We're all a piece of the puzzle and if we can fit in right, we can make it good for us."
Gilmore and his position mates are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Hunter seems poised for a breakout season and Rasco is now healthy after struggling with shoulder injuries earlier in his career. But the tackles are largely unknown to those who don't watch the Tigers practice each day.
Those who do continue to project confidence about the group's capabilities despite a lack of on-field experience.
"I think some of those young defensive linemen, Frank Herron and some of those guys whose names you don't know, are going to be very, very good players," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Sophomore Christian LaCouture played sparingly as a reserve last season, as did Quentin Thomas -- still working to return from a biceps injury suffered during camp -- and converted defensive end Lewis Neal. Then you have redshirt freshmen Gilmore, Herron and Maquedius Bain waiting for the chance to prove that the tackles aren't nearly the cause for concern that their lack of experience would indicate.
"They don't get enough credit, and they will. Their time comes," senior center Elliott Porter said. "Just like Ego, his time came [and he became a] second-round draft pick. The time comes. It's going to happen. You've got to open your eyes and see. You've got to open your eyes. We breed D-tackles around here, as you can see the last three or four years."
That is true -- LSU has placed eight defensive linemen in the NFL draft over the past four years -- but that has no impact on the present. When the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin on Aug. 30, they'll rely on multiple interior linemen who have yet to play a college game.
Of course, that's another LSU tradition of late.
"Coach Miles always says we play young guys, we play freshmen," Herron said. "So I'm ready to play and show the world what I've got. Playing next to Christian and Greg and Bain, it's been a blessing. Those guys show me new things each day and they're just telling me to keep pushing myself, keep going."
Herron and LaCouture have reportedly had good camps, but Hunter might be the top breakout candidate on the line. Good luck getting him to admit it, though. The junior defensive end -- who generated lots of attention when practice photos of his ripped physique made the rounds on social media early in preseason camp -- seems completely oblivious to outside attention, even after Miles credited him with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss after last Saturday's scrimmage.
"I didn't really hear all this about what Coach Miles said about me until this morning, when one of my teachers texted me saying I did well in the scrimmage. I didn't realize I did that well," Hunter said, adding, "I actually felt like during the scrimmage, I really didn't feel like I did so good."
If that's the case, LSU fans can't wait until Hunter's offseason focus on pass-rushing results in a sack or three and he actually feels good about a performance.
Nonetheless, the Tigers' defense has emphasized competition since the end of last season, when a strong finish generated some offseason momentum after what had been a sometimes-rocky fall. Things are looking good at linebacker and in the secondary, so if the line can prove Miles correct for being confident, the Tigers will once again become a defensive force within the SEC.
"The ceiling's so high," LaCouture said. "Looking at it, you don't know if you have a ceiling on it. We're full of potential and stuff like that, but potential's just a name. ... You have to know what you're doing."
2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.
3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.
More from around the SEC:
- An inside look at Missouri chancellor and former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin's book "The 100-Year Decision: Texas A&M and the SEC," that details the Aggies' big move.
- An excerpt from Lars Anderson's new book "The Storm and the Tide" which documents the tragic storm that swept through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27, 2011, and how Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide helped the town recover in the aftermath.
- A day in the life of Mississippi State strength coach Rick Court
- Interior line depth could be a boon for Missouri's defense.
- Auburn's Gabe Wright might be the Tigers' best defensive lineman but he still has unfinished business.
- LSU's Frank Herron looking to be a disruptive force.
Tuesday marked the first time that the 13th-ranked Tigers turned their attention to No. 14 Wisconsin during a scrimmage, so their similar methods made it easier for LSU to mimic what it will face on Aug. 30.
“We were able to accommodate both offense and defense to some extent exactly what Wisconsin would be like,” Miles said. “Our defense has the ability to kind of mimic, if you will, their defense. And our offense certainly is very similar.”
For the most part, LSU’s starting units went against the reserves in a scrimmage that lasted approximately 120 plays. Miles said the team avoided any serious injuries and that he remains impressed with the way John Chavis’ defense is performing.
“I thought that they tackled well and it was very difficult to get balls off,” Miles said. “But again, I think that that defense is pretty special.”
Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard -- whom Miles said ran for more than 100 yards -- and Terrence Magee also stood out.
“Kenny had a really good camp and today I’d have to say Kenny was a very special back, and I think [Magee] was a special back today, too,” Miles said. “It was really, really exciting to watch.”
As for the quarterback battle, Miles still didn’t offer any updates on where the battle stands between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings. He said the quarterbacks tossed three touchdowns and two interceptions, but didn’t specify whether Harris, Jennings or one of the walk-ons made those throws.
“I don’t know that there’s been separation from one from the other, but both provide a very high level of execution today,” Miles said of Harris and Jennings.
He did say that it’s possible that both Harris and Jennings will play against Wisconsin, adding that the coaching staff will probably inform the quarterback contenders of their starting decision at their Thursday meetings next week.
“I think there’s an opportunity to see both quarterbacks play,” Miles said. “... We have a full game week and several practices this week left, so I think I’ll wait before I describe exactly how we’d like to play these guys.”
Among the other updates that Miles provided after the scrimmage:
- Defensive tackle Quentin Thomas scrimmaged for the first time after he was once feared to be lost for the season with a biceps injury. “He’s got full range of motion, but he just needs a little bit of rehabilitation workout -- basically weight room and football,” Miles said.
- Freshman receiver Malachi Dupre participated for the first time after missing the first two scrimmages with an undisclosed injury. He “caught a couple balls” on Tuesday. “He’s beyond what was an early injury and he’s really just getting back to health,” Miles said. “I think he’ll maintain this opportunity to play from this point forward.”
- The Tigers worked on special teams on Tuesday and punter Jamie Keehn “punted the heck out of it.” Trent Domingue and Cameron Gamble “both kicked the ball extremely well” on kickoffs and Colby Delahoussaye also attempted a couple of field goals.
- A couple of position battles continue on the offensive line. Both Elliott Porter and Ethan Pocic worked at center on Tuesday and “Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game,” Miles said. At right guard, it’s still Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. Even if Fanaika does in fact lead for the starting spot, Washington appears to be one of the Tigers’ top reserves at multiple positions. “The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still ... both guys will play,” Miles said.
- Freshman defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine has still not arrived at LSU yet after a lengthy wait to earn academic eligibility. Valentine tweeted on Monday that he had been cleared to enroll, but Miles said there were still some administrative hurdles that the freshman must clear before he joins the team. “I think he shows up here, or has the opportunity to show up here, in the next two or three days,” Miles said.
"If you see the scene, it's pretty intense," said Neighbors, LSU's senior fullback. "This guy's talking a lot of smack to Spider-Man and the people in the stands have got makeshift saws and they're [acting like they are sawing their forearms]."
Fullbacks are often an unusual breed, but Neighbors seems particularly different from the normal SEC football player. He played ice hockey growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, until his junior year of high school. He said he listens to Limp Bizkit as his hype music before games. And he's currently sporting a shaved head and a mountain man beard to "just express myself in a different way."
A guy like that needs a good nickname, so it was fortunate he gained a little inspiration from the Macho Man several years back.
Neighbors started jokingly going by the nickname around friends such as Zach Mettenberger and Sam Montgomery during his freshman year, and it eventually made its way to the Tigers' strength and conditioning staff. One day Neighbors celebrated a particularly satisfying achievement in the weight room by doing the fans' sawing "Bone Saw" hand motion and the nickname spread to the point that it's now what he goes by among teammates.
"One day we were maxing out in the weight room and I was attempting 364 [pounds] on power cleans, so I did it and I dropped down and almost dropped the bar completely," Neighbors said. "But somehow I got my form back and I lifted it up and I [sawed my forearm], like the whole Bone Saw thing, and it just kind of stuck."
Not that it always feels like a positive thing -- for instance, when a teammate drops the nickname around a member of the opposite sex.
"When we're out and about and people say that, girls look at me like, 'What does that mean?' I'm just like, 'Uh, my name's Connor,'" Neighbors laughed.
Apparently when your nickname is Bone Saw, you can't choose when it applies. You're Bone Saw 24/7, for better or worse. Might as well make the best of it.
"I didn't think that it would get out to the media, but since it has, I'll embrace it," Neighbors said. "I like it a lot."
He joked that some LSU fans could even take the nickname to the next level, perhaps mimicking the fans surrounding the wrestling ring with signs and homemade cardboard saws during the movie scene.
"That'd be great," Neighbors said. "In the movie, the 'Macho Man' Randy Savage says, 'I've got you for three minutes. Three minutes of play time.' You've got to look it up. He's just talking smack the whole time. I guess people could just make signs or something, get the saws, I don't know."
In other words, get creative. When the subject is a guy who goes by Bone Saw, the possibilities are seemingly endless -- especially within the nutty confines of Tiger Stadium.
People have voiced their concern about a playoff taking away the importance of every game. You guys can be scared, but I'm not. Games will still be big, and will affect the playoff. All that's happening now is that some early games might not end the season for some teams.
Oh, what a crime!
SEC teams vying for a playoff spot -- or two -- could likely get away with one loss, but you can never be too careful with the human element. Winning is still the goal.
There are going to be quite a few games that impact the playoff this season. Here are the top 10 games involving SEC teams that will affect the playoff (in order of appearance):
1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30: If Wisconsin is going to push itself past Big Ten favorites Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers need to start off fast with a win against LSU. The Tigers have questions on both sides of the ball, but people will be salivating over seeing the matchup between Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and LSU's incredibly athletic front seven. These are the games LSU coach Les Miles thrives in, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated.
2. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: A lot of people think the winner of this game will head back to Atlanta. The winner will also have a clearer path to the playoff and could serve as an early elimination game. Last season, we saw 71 points, 990 yards and just one turnover in the Bulldogs' thrilling win in Athens. This time, the game is in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have won two straight against the Dawgs.
3. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4: Even though Auburn lost this game last season, it changed the dynamic of the team's season. The fight and comeback they had in the second half injected an incredible amount of confidence into an Auburn team that ran all the way to the final BCS title game. Could this game have the same affect for either squad in 2014? With the upcoming schedules both of these teams have, a loss here could throw off their playoff plans.
4. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4: A lot of folks already have this game circled as the conference's first big upset of the season. And why not? Alabama might be the SEC favorite, but it's far from perfect and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback against an Ole Miss defense that has a fierce two-deep. A win for Ole Miss, which has its highest expectations in years, would propel the Rebels into the thick of playoff talk.
5. South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25: Another game involving the defending SEC champs, and this one will be very important for both teams. Each should be right at or near the top of their respective divisions just before the final month of the season, meaning this game is important for both the playoff and the SEC. Expect a lot of points with two teams that averaged more than 30 points a game last season and have some defensive unknowns. You want to enter November controlling your own destiny.
6. Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1: If both of are undefeated when the Tigers arrive in the Grove, this game will have major playoff implications. Even if they aren't, the SEC Western Division will still be on the line, and we all know the eventual SEC champion will be an almost lock to make it in the playoff. The playoff picture will be much clearer when these two meet, and as the season ticks down, you want to control your own destiny.
7. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: Of course this game will affect the playoff. It's Alabama-LSU! Ever since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, this game has been decided by less than 10 points six times. However, Alabama has won the past two by 21 points. Both of these teams will know a whole lot more about each other at this point in the season, and while Alabama could be at the top of the polls, LSU's young talent could become dangerous.
8. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 15: If South Carolina is going to make the playoff, the Gamecocks will need to win this game. We can't quite put our finger on Florida, but a loss to a bad Florida team isn't getting you any playoff love. But what if Florida is a contender in the East? Well, the division could be on the line, and it's going to be very hard for any team not playing in its conference title game to make the playoff.
9. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 15: We all know how last season's game ended. One bat down, and Auburn's Cinderella story is short-lived. You know the Dawgs have this game circled on their calendar. It's another game that could have SEC title implications, and of course that means it will affect the playoff with the season winding down. A loss for Auburn would likely end its playoff chances, while a win for a Georgia team in the East hunt would do wonders.
10. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The Iron Bowl changed the landscape of the BCS title game last season and we have no reason to believe it won't have an impact on this year's College Football Playoff. Remember the “Kick Six?” Well, you better believe Alabama does. The Crimson Tide gets its archrival at home this year and Saban is 8-1 at Alabama in revenge games. The loser of this game will be without bragging rights and a playoff spot.
"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"
So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.
"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"
Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?
I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.
I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.
The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.
Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.
Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.
So, here is the actual data:
It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.
Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.
It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.
Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.
For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.
Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.
It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.
Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.
And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
Last season marked only the second time in Les' Miles nine seasons at LSU that the Tigers did not have a defensive back make the coaches' All-SEC team. And safety Eric Reid was the only Tiger picked in 2012, ending a streak of three straight seasons when LSU had two DBs make the all-conference squad.
White and Robinson, who along with safety Corey Thompson all made the preseason all-conference team picked at SEC media days, could help LSU end that dry spell. And not only that, the sophomore cornerbacks have the potential to become the top cornerback tandem in the SEC.
"Everybody was thinking that the DBU tradition really was gone, but it really hasn't," Robinson said. "We're here. Our time is now."
White and Robinson had wildly different experiences as freshmen in 2013.
One of the most heavily-recruited cornerbacks in the nation last year, White entered the starting lineup in Week 3 against Kent State and never left. He started 11 times, finished the season with 55 tackles and two interceptions and led the Tigers in both pass breakups (seven) and passes defended (nine).
Robinson, meanwhile, waited all summer to gain academic eligibility. He was finally cleared to enroll at LSU on the week of the opener against TCU, but played only a minor role for much of the season despite appearing in 12 games. He made an enormous splash in his first start, however, pestering Texas A&M's Mike Evans -- an eventual first-round NFL draft pick - throughout an afternoon when the Tigers held A&M's prolific offense to its worst point (10) and yardage (299) totals of the season.
"A lot of people really were thinking that it was probably not even going to be a great matchup, so I just had to go and show the world what I was capable of doing," Robinson said of the matchup against Evans.
Robinson finished the season with just 16 tackles and one interception, but gained a late foothold at cornerback, allowing Jalen Mills to shift to the injury-depleted safety position. That cleared the way for White and Robinson to team up as starting cornerbacks in two of the final three games, building upon a bond that started to form as high schoolers who camped together at LSU.
"I actually met Rashard at a 7-on-7 camp back going into my senior year of high school," White said. "We met there and he was a guy, we sort of chopped it up and talked a little bit. He was telling me that it was between LSU and a couple more schools, and I was already committed to LSU, so of course I tried to persuade him to come here."
White continued, "Once we came to camp, we saw the bond we had and the chemistry we had to be great together. So I think that played a role in him coming."
Not that they didn't run into some growing pains. Like most freshmen, they needed time to figure out LSU's defensive scheme and to adapt to the speed of the college game.
The Tigers' defensive statistics were OK -- LSU actually improved from 28th nationally in pass defense in 2012 (206 yards allowed per game) to 13th in 2013 (197.5) -- but anyone who watched LSU's defense play last season knows that it experienced its share of breakdowns in the secondary, especially early in the fall.
It was the first season since 2008 when LSU's defense had fewer interceptions (11) than touchdown passes allowed (15).
"It was [an issue] with all of us last year. Me and Rashard, too," White said. "It was confidence in knowing the scheme and knowing different concepts of the defense. So with that confidence in Year 2, we're more confident in everything and we don't have to think. We just play football."
Miles has recently singled out both players in post-practice comments -- White for his leadership skills and Robinson for his play in the secondary during Saturday's first full scrimmage -- so the arrow seems to be pointing upward for the duo.
"I think that they just can't wait for the fall, to be honest," Miles said. "I think they're looking forward to making the plays that they came to make."
If they successfully make those plays, the All-SEC team should once again feature at least a couple of LSU names in the secondary at the end of the season -- and the Tigers might once again have the best cornerback pairing in the league.
"I feel that we have a great chance of doing that, living up to that, with the help of our front seven," White said. "The pressure that it gets on the quarterback, that'll make our jobs so much easier."
Got your four teams picked for the inaugural College Football Playoff?
Beware before you turn in your final list, because teams always come out of nowhere. For instance, Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri all finished in the top five of the final polls last season -- and weren't even ranked to start the season.
Conversely, the team starting the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll hasn't finished higher than No. 7 the past four years.
None of us has a crystal ball, but we do have a road map of sorts -- the games that will shape who gets in and who gets left out this season when the selection committee unveils the first football version of the Final Four.
Here are 10 games to mark on your calendar:
LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Aug. 30
Right out of the gate, we get a game between two teams just outside the top 10 in the preseason polls who are talented enough to state their case come selection time for the College Football Playoff. And check out Wisconsin's schedule. If Melvin Gordon and the Badgers can get past the Tigers in the opener, the only other nationally ranked team (in the preseason) they face is Nebraska at home on Nov. 15. They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season.
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6
If only it were that easy.
History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.
Good luck with that.
According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."
In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.
The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.
Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.
So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).
Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.
Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.
There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:
- Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
- Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
- Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
- LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.
Flying under the radar?
Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.
Wilson -- the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach -- just bolstered his depth chart by adding the nation's top overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, plus Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,200 yards as a high school senior. If the other scholarship tailbacks on the roster, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, were jealous types, the dynamic in Wilson's meeting room could easily have turned poisonous.
Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite.
"They're so humble," Wilson said of Magee and Hilliard. "They've been so patient in their careers and they understand what it is to be a young pro and put themselves in position to embark on this senior year and have great success. So to have both of those guys here who are unselfish and lead our group is certainly positive for us."
"I've been happy with that," Fournette said. "They're still teaching us, all the young running backs. Without them, we'd kind of be lost. Every day they teach us and we get better."
And they're happy to teach, Hilliard said, just as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did for him as a freshman in 2011.
"They were all brothers to us," Hilliard said. "They all took us underneath their wing and carried us."
The freshmen seem to be taking the right approach, as well.
"One thing I love about Darrel -- just like I love about Leonard -- I love his attitude," Magee said. "He might call me 20 times a day to ask me, ‘What do I do on this?' or 'What do I do on that?' He was blowing me up [the night before preseason camp opened]. But you like guys like that because they want to learn. For me, I want to teach him because I want to look back and say I was able to help that guy get to where he is today."
That's exactly the kind of selflessness those at LSU expected from Magee. The coaches handed him the No. 18 jersey for the season -- an honor that goes to one of the Tigers' top leaders each fall. And leadership is what he has shown toward Fournette, who might be the most heavily-hyped recruit in LSU history.
"You know when you meet someone and you know you're kind of alike? That's how it is with me and Terrence," Fournette said. "I enjoy being around him. He's another jokester. He likes to have fun and I think the brotherhood that we're creating, it's fun.
Fournette continued, "Without him I'd be lost. Every day he's taking his time after practice, he's coming by my house teaching me and telling me this is what this call means, this is what that call means. So that means a lot. I'm catching on faster outside of football practice with him helping me."
Magee and Hilliard aren't naïve about what the 2014 season holds. They know that despite rushing for a combined 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as Jeremy Hill's backups, they will probably touch the ball fewer times as the freshmen adapt to SEC football.
All of them envision some sort of backfield timeshare, as that has become a common feature of LSU's running game in recent seasons.
"I think all of us are going to get a lot of carries, a lot of play and contribute to the team," Williams predicted.
And that's just fine with Magee and Hilliard.
Some players view their senior seasons as a final chance to shine -- and show NFL scouts that they're worthy of becoming draft picks. LSU's senior backs certainly hold that mindset, but realize they can think that way without being selfish toward their young teammates.
"When things get hard and people question our team, when it's tough out there when we're practicing, [his predecessors wearing No. 18 were] the first guys to step up and just lead this team, show everybody how it's done. ‘Follow me. Watch me,' " Magee said. "I really admire that about those guys. Sometimes you have young guys and they're looking around and looking for somebody to follow. Each guy that I've seen wear that since I've been here, they got it."
He and Hilliard seem to have willing followers in the two freshman backs.
"I really don't think about [starting] because we're still learning and the veterans are teaching us," Fournette said. "I don't expect to come in and right away in the game and start. So I'm just following Kenny and Terrence."
Fortunately for LSU, and for the future of its running game, Magee and Hilliard seem to be two good players for a freshman to follow.
Biggest Storylines For 2014
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 West Virginia 2 Alabama 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 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