LSU Tigers: Nick Marshall

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU fans who watched Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne combine for 245 rushing yards might not believe it, but LSU linebacker Lamar Louis says it's true. If not for a sound game plan from defensive coordinator John Chavis, Auburn might have run for even more yards than it did in Saturday's 41-7 win over LSU.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU believes Auburn's Nick Marshall, who combined with Cameron Artis-Payne to rush for 245 yards, could've had an even bigger day if not for the Tigers' defensive game plan.
"We still believe in the game plan that we had for Auburn," Louis said. "We looked at film after the game and the game plan was correct. They just made some good plays, some good play calling and they got momentum and they ran with it.

"If you look at it, without the game plan that we had, Nick Marshall could have ran for a lot more yards if we didn't have certain things put into the scheme and whatnot. Besides a couple long runs by Artis-Payne, I think we did OK against him, too. But we're going to remain confident as a defense. We know we can stop the run."

Knowing they can do it and actually doing it are two different things. Thus far, the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) absolutely have not stopped the run -- which will be their No. 1 objective when they visit Florida (3-1, 2-1) on Saturday.

Chavis' defenses have long been known for their stinginess against running teams, relying on typically powerful defensive fronts to shut down opposing ground games. This season, however, LSU's turnover on the interior defensive line and players manning new roles at linebacker have left the Tigers vulnerable in the middle at times.

There were times when LSU linebackers were too slow to read and react properly, Louis said, and that led to big plays for opponents.

"When you're outside and you're reading the line and reading the backfield, you have to read it real fast," Louis said. "You don't want to leave a receiver wide open, but at the same time, you don't want to leave a gash in the line. That's something that weighs heavily a lot on outside backers and that's one of the downfalls of the outside backers."

Both Mississippi State and Auburn exploited those weaknesses with runs straight up the middle. For instance, Auburn rushed for 199 yards between the tackles -- 163 of which came before contact with a defender -- and broke eight runs of 10 yards or more.

It was the fourth time in six games that LSU surrendered at least 100 yards between the tackles. The Tigers' defense had only two such games in the entire 2013 season.

"I wouldn't say it's not embarrassing. Embarrassing is a word that comes to mind when you think about the run game and stopping the run," Louis said. "But like I said before, we still as a defense, we know what we can do. We've just got to play the calls that we're given. We trust Chief [Chavis] to give us the right game plan, give us the right call."

With a game against Florida and its somewhat-similar running game approaching, the question is whether the Tigers will improve. The Auburn game got out of hand early, but they made strides defending the run as the night progressed.

And let's be clear, while it is also a run-centric spread offense, Florida's is nowhere near as explosive as those of Mississippi State and Auburn. And the only similarity Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has to State's Dak Prescott or Auburn's Marshall is that he's also a somewhat-mobile quarterback.

"I heard he can run the ball pretty well," LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've just got to do a good job containing him and taking away all the running lanes."

Saturday's visit to The Swamp is a much more manageable challenge for the Tigers' defense, so long as it proves it can handle running backs Matt Jones (372 rushing yards, 93.0 per game) and Kelvin Taylor (144 yards, 36.0 ypg).

Faring better against against Florida will require more consistent play up front from the defensive line and then the Tigers must do a better job of making the tackle once they arrive at the ballcarrier.

"We were in position to make plays on defense and we didn't make them," safety Ronald Martin admitted.

Then it comes down to the mental part of playing defense that Louis described. Spread offenses work in part because they force defensive players to diagnose what is happening in front of them, rather than relying on brute force to overpower an opponent. The Tigers have been caught out of position a lot in their first two SEC games, and that can't happen if they are to handle Florida's running game better than they did Auburn's and State's.

"We've got to adjust to all these spread teams that we have now. I think that's what's transitioning from maybe the mid-2000 LSU teams until now," Louis said. "Long ago, if you could just play hard-nosed football and plug the holes, you're a great defense. But now you've got to account for the run and worry about the pass at the same time and all these teams being spread offenses, it's a little bit more tricky.

"I think that's what is [happening when] people are like, 'The dominant defenses are changing.' No, you still have the same players with the same capability. You just have a lot more mental aspect of the game is getting installed."

Three key factors in LSU-Auburn

October, 3, 2014
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Nick MarshallAP Photo/Butch DillContaining Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will be one of LSU's main tasks this week.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.

LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:

Who can run and who can stop it

Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.

Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.

Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.

On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.

Defending the zone read/QB run

Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.

Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.

It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.

LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.

The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.

Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.

Harris vs. Auburn pass defense

This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.

He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.

However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.

We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.

LSU's coverage issues exposed in loss

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Would the real LSU secondary please stand up?

Entering last Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the Tigers boasted arguably the nation’s most dominant defensive backfield. They hadn’t allowed a completion of more than 15 yards in the first three games. (Opponents were 0-for-17 on throws of at least 15 yards.) The Tigers had held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 11.2, which was the best among all FBS defenses.

Against Mississippi State and quarterback Dak Prescott, however, the Tigers were anything but dominant. Prescott hit a 25-yard completion on Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage and finished the night 4-for-8 on throws of 15-plus yards with an average of 20.6 yards per attempt.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott's ability to freelance outside the pocket gave the Tigers fits on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished with 570 yards of total offense, including 268 passing yards and two touchdowns by Prescott, which represented the highest yardage total allowed by an LSU defense since 2001.

“It doesn’t sit with none of us pretty good,” LSU safety Jalen Mills said after the game. “Going into practice, we kind of wish that we could skip Sunday and go straight to Monday. Going into practice, if you don’t want to practice on Monday and bring full intensity, don’t come out there at all."

No. 17 LSU (3-1) will most likely improve to 4-1 after a visit from New Mexico State (2-2) on Saturday, although oddly enough, the Aggies have the exact same passing yardage total (1,067 yards) through four games as Mississippi State. But defending quarterback Tyler Rogers (264 passing yards per game, nine touchdowns six interceptions), receiver Teldrick Morgan (116 receiving ypg, four TDs) and NMSU’s spread passing attack will be good practice for some of the SEC offenses the Tigers will face down the road.

Several of them will look to air it out against LSU, and the Tigers’ secondary for the first time looked vulnerable last weekend. Mississippi State had five pass plays that went at least 20 yards, although the good news for LSU is that only one of those completions was a downfield throw where a receiver beat man-to-man coverage. Even on that play -- a 26-yard back-shoulder completion to De’Runnya Wilson in the first quarter -- LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White provided tight coverage, but Prescott simply made a good throw to a receiver with a serious size advantage who made the stronger play for the ball.

One of the other long completions was a misdirection screen pass to H-back Malcolm Johnson, and two others -- a 44-yard pass to Wilson in front of safety Ronald Martin and a 21-yard connection with Jameon Lewis before cornerback Jalen Collins' big hit failed to dislodge the ball -- came against zone coverage.

The most painful completion of the night (a 74-yard touchdown pass to Lewis) came when Prescott extended the play by scrambling once the pocket collapsed. Bulldogs receivers Wilson and Lewis were both in Martin's zone along the sideline, and Martin broke toward Wilson instead of Lewis as Prescott started to throw. With the LSU safety out of the picture, Lewis caught the ball at the Mississippi State 45 and went untouched for a score that put State up 31-10 in the third quarter.

Prescott also proved that the Tigers needed extra practice on coverages when quarterbacks begin to improvise.

“When you’re in man-to-man and it’s a scramble drill, it’s quite easy because you can just lock on your man and just run whatever he runs,” White said. “But when we’re in a zone coverage and you’re forced to do a scramble drill, it’s quite tough. You’ve got to grab whoever’s in your zone.

“If two people are in your zone at the same time, it’s hard to cover two guys. That’s probably what happened on some of the scramble drills, so we were basically in zone coverage and two guys were in one guy’s zone.”

That doesn’t explain all of LSU’s coverage breakdowns, nor does it provide much solace with dual-threat quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Alabama’s Blake Sims and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace ahead on the schedule.

Those players will also be able to freelance with their feet once the pocket collapses, and if LSU’s secondary doesn’t solve its coverage issues between now and then, Prescott won’t be the last quarterback to make the Tigers look bad.

“We’re going to see a guy like him again -- probably not as big, but we’ll see a guy [with] probably the same kind of skill set that he has,” White said. “But it’s just a learning curve for us. We just want to move forward and just try to improve.”

That was a theme in LSU coach Les Miles' Monday press luncheon. Whether it was scheme, personnel or coaching, Miles said it was all under review this week as the Tigers attempt to correct their problems. On defense, one of their biggest concerns, both last Saturday and moving forward, is doing a better job against quarterbacks who can create while on the move.

“We recognize what just happened, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Miles said.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,133)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we’ve been to spots like Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma.

We’ve knocked out eight weeks of trips in all, which means we’ve got only six more to go. The clock is ticking. You know as soon as Halloween arrives, we’ve hit the home stretch.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best options for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Alabama at Tennessee
UAB at Arkansas
South Carolina at Auburn
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Ole Miss at LSU
Vanderbilt at Missouri

Alex Scarborough’s pick: South Carolina at Auburn

We’re eight weeks into our hypothetical season, so anything could have happened by now. But there’s a pretty good chance that this game will be a top-25 matchup with significant postseason implications.

Plus, it’s as good an East-West crossover game as you’ll find on the schedule. These two teams have met just five times since 2000, and three such contests were decided by 8 points or less.

It’s got a pretty good storyline to build around, too. Think about it: Steve Spurrier, the 69-year-old author of the Fun ‘N’ Gun, up against Gus Malzahn, the 48-year-old hurry-up no-huddle perfectionist. It’s the visor against the sweater vest. Well, they both wear visors, but still. In fact, there’s another storyline for you!

Outside of the head coaches and their fashion choices, the game on the field could be a good one as well.

The Auburn offense should be even better in 2014, with Nick Marshall progressing under center and D'haquille Williams added on the outside at receiver. The defense, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up, and should have some momentum after a relatively strong showing in the BCS National Championship Game.

South Carolina, despite losing Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, should match up well. Dylan Thompson has experience at quarterback, and he’s got plenty of weapons to work with. The receiving corps has some burners in Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper, and the running backs are led by an All-American candidate in Mike Davis. The secondary might be a major question mark on defense, but the linebackers are solid and the defensive line has some depth.

Edward Aschoff’s pick: Ole Miss at LSU

This might not be Alabama-Auburn or even Ole Miss-Mississippi State, but this is a very important and heated rivalry. Just ask Ole Miss fans what they think of LSU when it comes to singing the National Anthem. It's a rivalry that stretches as far back as 1894, with LSU holding a commanding 58-40-4 record.

But all-time records will mean absolutely nothing when these two meet. It's actually been one of the more fun SEC rivalries of late, as four of the last five games in this series have been decided by seven points or less. A year after losing a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge, the Rebels bounced back to shock LSU with a 27-24 win at home last season, so you know the Tigers will be looking for revenge inside of Death Valley.

This game has some exciting storylines, and we haven't even gotten to Week 1 of the regular season. Ole Miss is a dark horse to take the SEC West, while LSU is a relative unknown with so many questions on both sides of the ball. Who's going to be LSU's quarterback? Who's going to step up at wide receiver? What we do know is that Ole Miss should have a potent offense with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace back and some quality athletes at receiver and running back to take some pressure off of star receiver Laquon Treadwell. But can LSU's defense stop it?

The Tigers have some budding stars, especially in the secondary and at linebacker, but defensive line could be an issue. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have experience, but who's going to step up at tackle? Ole Miss is not a team that you don't want to struggle in rushing the passer against, and the Rebels plan to use their running backs even more in the passing game.

If Ole Miss is going to take the next step in its quest to becoming an elite SEC team, it needs to get wins like this one in hostile environments. If LSU wants to prove that it's still a contender in 2014, it needs to beat an up-and-coming, dangerous team like this. Drama, excitement and the possibility of a lot of points await in Tiger Stadium.

The West could be on the line for both teams when they meet, but so will the ultimate SEC tailgating challenge. Baton Rouge and Oxford own arguably the SEC's -- and nation's -- best tailgating spots, which means you're going to be in absolute heaven dining on gumbo under a tent with a chandelier.

Even if your team doesn't win, you'll eat well, and you'll see a pretty exciting game. Sign me up.
We're less than three months from the kickoff to the 2014 college football season, which means it's time to start examining every SEC team a little closer.

Today, we start unveiling our annual position rankings.

It's a task that seemingly gets harder every year, especially when so much is unknown and so much can change between now and the actual season.

We’ve talked to people we trust around the league in coming up with these rankings, but there are always going to be epic whiffs. For instance, Nick Marshall wasn't on a lot of people's radar at this point a year ago, and neither was Marshall's chief protector on the left side of the Auburn line -- Greg Robinson.

Anyway, we’ve based our 2014 rankings on having a true game-changer (or game-changers) at the position as well as having experience and depth. Past performance is weighted heavily, but we also take into account what help is on the way and project the impact newcomers will have.

After unveiling the position rankings each day, we’ll come back later in the day and rank the top players in the league at the various positions.

We'll start with the quarterback position.

1. Auburn: Marshall emerged from the junior college ranks last season to win the job and lead Auburn to the national championship game. He’s one of the most explosive athletes in the country at the quarterback position and an improved passer. Behind him, the Tigers also like sophomore Jeremy Johnson, who has a big arm and played some last season when Marshall was banged up. Junior Jonathan Wallace also returns after starting the final four games in 2012 as a true freshman.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDak Prescott showed signs of being a star at quarterback late last season for Mississippi State.
2. Mississippi State: Junior Dak Prescott could be poised for a breakout season after showing his vast potential in flashes a year ago and finishing with a bang. If he becomes a more polished passer, look out. Sophomore Damian Williams is another dual-threat guy who played in six games last season, while true freshman Nick Fitzgerald brings some depth to the position after enrolling early and going through the spring.

3. Ole Miss: Bo Wallace enters his senior season ranked second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). It’s always nice to have that kind of experience, and Wallace should also be healthier after playing through shoulder pain each of the last two seasons. It’s a three-man race for the backup job. DeVante Kincade is an exceptional athlete, Ryan Buchanan is more of a pocket passer. Both are redshirt freshmen. Don’t forget about 6-foot-3, 296-pound sophomore Jeremy Liggins, who originally signed with LSU before going to junior college. Liggins could be a beast in short-yardage situations.

4. Missouri: It’s Maty Mauk’s show now at Missouri after he filled in more than capably a year ago as a redshirt freshman for the injured James Franklin. Mauk has all the tools to have a big year. Junior Corbin Berkstresser also has starting experience after subbing for the injured Franklin two years ago, while redshirt freshman Eddie Printz split the second-team reps with Berkstresser this spring.

5. Alabama: Jacob Coker hasn’t played a down for Alabama. For that matter, he hasn’t participated in the first official practice with the Crimson Tide. But already he’s the heir apparent to AJ McCarron, and the Tide are counting on him coming in and being their quarterback in 2014. He played behind Jameis Winston at Florida State last season and is extremely gifted. If Coker takes a little longer to develop, Alabama will likely turn to senior Blake Sims, who still needs to prove that he can beat teams throwing the ball.

6. Florida: As last season illustrated, an injury at quarterback can be devastating. The Gators need Jeff Driskel to stay healthy and develop into the kind of do-it-all quarterback he was billed as coming out of high school. Now a fourth-year junior, Driskel would seem to be poised to take that step after breaking his leg in the third game a year ago. Tyler Murphy has transferred, which means redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris would be next in line if something happened to Driskel.

7. South Carolina: Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has experience on his side, not to mention a penchant for delivering in clutch situations. Now, with Connor Shaw gone, Thompson has to prove he can get it done on a weekly basis. The Gamecocks will be a little different with Thompson at quarterback. He’s a pocket passer and not nearly the runner Shaw was. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is the most talented of the Gamecocks’ backups, although third-year sophomore Brendan Nosovitch also returns.

8. Georgia: It’s hard to imagine a Georgia team without Aaron Murray under center. After four record-setting seasons in Athens, Murray has moved on, and fifth-year senior Hutson Mason gets his shot to lead the Bulldogs. He played at the end of last season after Murray injured his knee and has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. Redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey might be the Dawgs’ quarterback of the future, but third-year sophomore Faton Bauta had the more consistent spring of the two.

9. Tennessee: The Vols have three quarterbacks returning who have started games for them, but there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the position after redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson decided to leave the program following the spring. Senior Justin Worley was solid before an injury ended his season a year ago, and Josh Dobbs was then forced into action as a true freshman. With better playmakers around him, Worley could end up being one of the surprises of the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Brandon Harris might be LSU's starting quarterback by the time the Tigers get into the heart of SEC play.
10. LSU: True freshman Brandon Harris was good enough this spring that several on the Bayou think he will be the Tigers’ starter at some point this season. Sophomore Anthony Jennings filled in at the end of last season when Zach Mettenberger was injured and might be the odds-on favorite to open the 2014 season as the starter. Either way, the Tigers will be lean on experience at the quarterback position.

11. Vanderbilt: Preseason camp should be interesting for the Commodores, especially with Stephen Rivers transferring in from LSU and being eligible to play right away. It was already a close race between third-year sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette started in three games late last season, including the win at Florida and the BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Houston.

12. Texas A&M: Life after Johnny Manziel won’t be easy, but Kevin Sumlin has proven that his offenses can score points with different styles of quarterbacks. Sophomore Kenny Hill is probably the guy to beat despite his off-the-field issues this spring. True freshman Kyle Allen also has a big future ahead of him, but it might be asking a bit much for him to take the reins right out of the gate on the road against South Carolina. With Matt Joeckel transferring, the Aggies will be short on experience.

13. Arkansas: In his defense, Brandon Allen was injured for much of last season and did his best to gut it out. Now a junior, Allen needs to stay healthy and could use some help from his receivers. He’s backed up by his younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, and true freshman Rafe Peavey. The Hogs need to be a better passing team, period, this season, and that’s not just on the quarterbacks.

14. Kentucky: Sophomore Patrick Towles was once the forgotten man at Kentucky. But after redshirting last season, he enters preseason practice as the Wildcats’ likely starter. Towles shortened his release and was one of the team’s most improved players this spring. No matter who wins the job, he won’t have much in the way of experience. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker are the other two in mix after Jalen Whitlow transferred.

Preseason accolades in the SEC

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
4:00
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The SEC's 14 football sports information directors have offered their prognostications for the 2014 season as part of AL.com's annual SEC spring football report, and there were some interesting choices.

Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was selected as the league's Most Valuable Player, and Marshall was also picked as the SEC's top Heisman Trophy candidate.

South Carolina offensive guard A.J. Cann was tabbed as the league's most underrated player, and it's tough to argue with that choice.

The best passer in the SEC next season, according to the SID's, will be Missouri's Maty Mauk. Marshall was second.

Also of note, Texas A&M's Jarvis Harrison was picked as the top offensive lineman, which will raise a few eyebrows around the league. One of Harrison's teammates, tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, has been mentioned as a top-5 pick in next year's NFL draft.

Below is the entire rundown:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

TOP HEISMAN CANDIDATE

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

MOST VERSATILE

Christion Jones, Alabama

Next: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia

MOST UNDERRATED

OL A.J. Cann, South Carolina

Next: QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

BEST ATHLETE

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: WR/KR Christion Jones, Alabama

BEST LEADER

LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Next: LB Curt Maggitt, Tennessee

BEST OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Alvin Dupree, Kentucky

Next: Kwon Alexander, LSU

BEST INSIDE LINEBACKER

Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Next: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

BEST DEFENSIVE LINEMAN

Dante Fowler, Florida

Next: Trey Flowers, Arkansas

BEST CORNERBACK

Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

Next: Jalen Mills, LSU

BEST SAFETY

Landon Collins, Alabama

Next: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

BEST OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

Jarvis Harrison, Texas A&M

Next: Reese Dismukes, Auburn

BEST RECEIVER

Amari Cooper, Alabama

Next: Sammie Coates, Auburn

BEST RUNNER

Todd Gurley, Georgia

Next: Mike Davis, South Carolina

BEST BLOCKING BACK

Jalston Fowler, Alabama

Next: Mike Davis, South Carolina

BEST PASSER

Maty Mauk, Missouri

Next: Nick Marshall, Auburn

BEST KICK RETURNER

Christion Jones, Alabama

Next: Andre Dubose, Florida

BEST PLACEKICKER

Marshall Morgan, Georgia

Next: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU

BEST PUNTER

Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

Next: Devon Bell, Mississippi State

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.
We’ve officially hit the home stretch in our season-long road trip as the calendar turns to October.

So turn down the air conditioning and pack a light jacket for the night games.

The leaves won’t be the only things changing colors around this time, though. Contenders and pretenders will begin to separate themselves as we get into the meat of the conference schedule.

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got five weeks down and nine more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 6:

Oct. 4
Alabama at Ole Miss
LSU at Auburn
Florida at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Georgia
South Carolina at Kentucky
Texas A&M at Mississippi State

Alex Scarborough’s pick: LSU at Auburn

Nothing approaches Alabama and the Iron Bowl when you’re talking about Auburn’s most significant rivalry game. But Auburn’s annual matchup with LSU is darn close. When these Tigers hook up, it’s appointment viewing.

I'm talking about the 1988 earthquake game. I'm talking about 1996, when a fire broke out. I'm talking abut 2004, when John Vaughn needed two shots at a game-winning extra point. And I'm definitely talking the 2006 slugfest that was one of the best displays of SEC defense in recent memory.

A 10-point game? Yeah, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Not as long as Gus Malzahn is putting the pedal to the metal offensively at Auburn.

But this year’s Auburn-LSU game is appealing for that same reason: It pits one of the most prolific offenses in college football against one of the most physical defenses. Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense like to get out in open space and run. John Chavis wants his LSU defense to hit you in the teeth and suffocate you with speed. It’s strength vs. strength.

Man is it fun to watch when both teams are clicking, too. And at a venue such as Jordan-Hare Stadium in early October, you can’t ask for much more.

David Ching’s pick: Alabama at Ole Miss

You’ve made a good pick there, Alex. The craziest game I’ve attended was the 1994 LSU-Auburn game, when Auburn rallied to a miraculous win by returning three interceptions for touchdowns. That series probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves nationally, considering how many ridiculous things have happened when they’ve met in the last couple decades.

At any rate, I nearly allowed nostalgia to overcome me with my pick, which would have led me to select Florida-Tennessee. I’m a child of the early 1990s and there was no more important annual SEC rivalry in those days than when Phil Fulmer’s Vols took on Steve Spurrier’s Gators. For that reason alone, I’d enjoy watching those teams meet at Neyland Stadium, simply to soak in a bit of that history.

But both of those teams missed out on the postseason last year, and even if I think at least one of them -- if not both -- will return to bowl contention this season, Alabama-Ole Miss feels like it will be a more appealing game this fall.

Ole Miss’ solid 2013 recruiting class is coming of age, and the Rebels might be good enough to challenge the Crimson Tide -- particularly because this game will be played in Oxford, Mississippi. Second, there’s the lure of The Grove and the sights and sounds that come with tailgating around campus.

I’ve covered a couple of games in Oxford but haven’t been able to enjoy all that Oxford has to offer. If I’m picking a game to attend for fun, the social aspect would definitely figure into the equation as I choose what might also be a key game in the SEC West race.
It’s Day 2 of ESPN.com’s May Madness, and the field of 16 contenders for the first ever College Football Playoff was cut in half. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 each had at least one team advance, but only Alabama and Auburn remain from the SEC.

The other four teams -- Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- each had a fatal flaw that prevented them from moving on.

So what helped Alabama and Auburn make the cut? The quarterbacks.

Jacob Coker has only been on Alabama’s campus for only two weeks and has yet to throw to a receiver, but as he goes, so goes the Crimson Tide’s offense. And he has the bloodlines and résumé to be very successful.

Meanwhile, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is a little more established, but his best is yet to come. Now that he’s been through a winter and a spring practice, he’s more comfortable with the offense and the expectations are even higher.

Will we see a rematch of the Iron Bowl in the first ever College Football Playoff? We’ll find out Wednesday when the field gets cut to four.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
11:30
AM ET

Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

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