Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough
Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf
Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan
Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough
D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf
Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan
De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough
O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough
Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf
Football season is finally here. When South Carolina and Texas A&M kick it off tonight (6 ET, SEC Network), the SEC will be back in full swing.
With that in mind, it's time to make some game picks. Each week during the season, our SEC reporters will pick each game on the slate, and we'll highlight the biggest battles and the ones that generated the most disagreement.
Why South Carolina will win: The Gamecocks have a lot of firepower and experience coming back on offense, while the Aggies still have a lot of questions on defense. Texas A&M should put some points up with its own potent group of playmakers, but South Carolina's defense will force QB Kenny Hill into some late mistakes. Feeding RB Mike Davis the ball in the fourth should help put this one away. -- Edward Aschoff
Why Alabama will win: Despite the attention on Alabama's quarterbacks, nearly the only thing that makes this one interesting is how the Crimson Tide's retooled pass rush and secondary will fare against QB Clint Trickett and the West Virginia offense. Whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims under center for Alabama, expect him to hand it off plenty and for the Tide to have their way against a Mountaineers defense that finished 101st nationally in total defense last season by allowing 455 yards per game. -- David Ching
Why Georgia will win: Hey, the Bulldogs might make fans nervous with their defense, especially with that incredibly unproven secondary, but the offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with QB Hutson Mason taking over. Clemson's defense has improved, but there are just too many good working parts on Georgia's offense. I have a feeling that some pounding from RB Todd Gurley and a major play from LB Leonard Floyd will get the job done for Georgia on Saturday.
-- Edward Aschoff
Why LSU will win: The Tigers are 9-0 in season openers under coach Les Miles, including four games against ranked opponents and six away from Tiger Stadium. Wisconsin is good in season openers, too (16 straight to LSU's 11), but Houston's proximity to Louisiana and the large number of Tigers fans expected at NRG Stadium should give LSU a slight boost. These teams are similar, but LSU's experienced offensive line against Wisconsin's inexperienced defensive front gives the Tigers a slight edge. -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin will win: If this game were in November, LSU would be in better position. But given that the Tigers lost every key piece on offense (QB, RB, both WRs), it may be too much to ask them to go on the road this early against a top-25 team. Wisconsin may not have experience at QB, but it has one of the best tailbacks in the country in Melvin Gordon and an offensive line that could be special with four returning starters. -- Alex Scarborough
Why Tennessee will win: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained. Coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers will play as many as 30 freshmen in this one, so there are sure to be mistakes. Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home. -- Jeff Barlis
Why Utah State will win: This isn't your typical mid-major opponent. The Aggies won nine games last season despite not having Keeton for the second half of the season. Keeton is back, and this is the perfect game to jump-start his Heisman campaign. Tennessee is still a program on the rise, but with no returning starters up front and up to 30 freshmen expected to play, there are just too many question marks. -- Greg Ostendorf
More consensus picks: Ole Miss over Boise State, Vanderbilt over Temple, Florida over Idaho, Auburn over Arkansas, Kentucky over UT Martin, Missouri over South Dakota State, Mississippi State over Southern Miss.
With a handful of reporters surrounding him, South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson deadpanned one of the best jokes of this year's SEC media days.
Asked about the lack of superstars in the conference this season, given the departure of players like Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, Thompson didn't miss a beat.
"Yeah, they said Clowney had 1,000 people out there waiting on him [last year]. I think I had three," Thompson said. "So I'm closely behind."
Four hours later, Texas A&M punter Drew Kaser sat in the very corner that Manziel did a year prior. Manziel's appearance drew hordes of media members, and those who didn't hustle to his corner were left standing on the outskirts, barely able to catch a glimpse or hear the words coming from the Heisman Trophy winner's mouth, much less get the opportunity to ask a question.
Kaser's crowd last month was a fraction of the size, and the ability to walk up to the table, look the Ray Guy Award finalist in the eye and actually ask a question was much more feasible. Kaser's teammate, cornerback Deshazor Everett, summed it up best.
"I love the guy to death," Everett said of Manziel, "but the cameras follow him."
South Carolina and Texas A&M will meet to kick off the new college football season Thursday night (6 ET, SEC Network) and a new chapter in their respective histories, one with megastars in the rearview mirror. New faces are in their places, ready to generate their own nationwide buzz.
But such prominent personalities aren't easy to forget.
The buildup to the 2013 season for both teams reached a fever pitch. Texas A&M found itself in the spotlight for two reasons.
Will they be better? And if so, by how much?
After a disastrous 2013, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is confident that improvement is on the horizon. He might not flatly state it, but witness the bounce in his step at practice, the energy in his voice and it’s easy to surmise that Snyder is looking forward to Year 3 in Aggieland.
His unit’s first test, which comes against No. 9 South Carolina and a stout running game powered by one of the nation’s best running backs, Mike Davis, is first on the horizon. Stopping the run was one of the Aggies’ biggest challenges last year, as they ranked last in the SEC and 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31).
Snyder isn’t interested in talking up expectations or why he might be confident No. 21 Texas A&M can improve in that area.
“Well, we’ll see when we get there,” Snyder said. “Talk is cheap. We’ll all know that night at the end of the game.”
Indeed they will.
No matter the measure, the Aggies were bad on defense last year. They were last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), yards per carry (5.38), first downs allowed per game (23.4) and red zone efficiency (71.4 percent) in addition to the aforementioned run defense. In every one of those categories, they were worse than 100th nationally.
“We weren't playing Snyder defense,” senior cornerback Deshazor Everett said last month. “He sets us up to make plays. All we have to do is do what he tells us to, and we weren't doing that last year. So if we come back this year and we're doing what we did this spring, we're going to be a good defense.”
Youth and inexperience were the heart of the issues for the Aggies. Difficulties the defense had included simply getting lined up correctly, fitting the correct gaps and identifying their correct assignments. Earlier this month linebackers coach Mark Hagen called the difference “night and day” when it comes to the defense’s communication and ability to accomplish the basics.
Whether that will translate to the field when the Aggies take on a South Carolina team that averaged 198.4 rushing yards per game last season remains to be seen. The players seem optimistic, though.
“It’s been a completely different mentality,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “Last year was unacceptable. There’s just been so much growth in the last year and so much growth in leadership.”
Added speed and athleticism are among the sources of optimism for the Aggies. So is increased depth, particularly along the defensive line. The 2014 recruiting class included six defensive linemen, four of whom are on the initial two-deep and will see action early, including highly regarded defensive end recruit Myles Garrett, the No. 4 overall player in last year’s class.
Snyder is careful not to heap too much praise on Garrett, but the buzz surrounding training camp made it clear that the true freshman will be a factor. Teammates have been more effusive in their praise of Garrett.
"I have never really seen anything like him,” Mastrogiovanni said. “In the weight room he's already one of the top three strongest guys as a true freshman. He's fast, he's long, he gets to the quarterback just about every play. I think teams are going to have a very hard time blocking him this year.”
There will be plenty of youth on the field this season as well. Snyder estimated that seven true freshmen will see the field on Thursday. Last season the Aggies had a dozen freshman (redshirt or true) in their two deep. But unlike last season, the Aggies are able to be strategic with how and where they are placed.
“We'll try to do our best as we sub and get them in that they're in next to an older guy,” Snyder said. “These guys won't go in unless an older guy is beside them. We didn't have that luxury last year, we just had to play them all together.”
The questions linger and won’t stop until the Aggies take the field. And Snyder’s waiting for them to be answered with results instead of words.
2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.
3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.
Around the SEC
- Newcomer Derrick Moncrief is living out family’s dream after long road to Auburn.
- Primetime opportunity: Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell excited for season opener.
- Rise of Pharoh: Coaches seek smart usage of South Carolina's versatile star.
- First-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has confidence in his starting quarterback.
2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.
3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.
Around the SEC
- Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen is still traveling the road to redemption.
- After missing most of last season, Keith Marshall is Georgia’s forgotten offensive star.
- No word yet: LSU’s starting quarterback still a mystery as game week begins.
- Smelling upset: Here is a list of Texas A&M's keys to victory against South Carolina.
Life After Clowney, Manziel
6:00 PM ET 21 Texas A&M 9 South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State 18 Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU