It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.
But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.
This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.
Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:
Nick Chubb, So., Georgia
Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.
Leonard Fournette, So., LSU
Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.
Wide Receiver/Tight end
Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina
The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.
D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn
It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss
If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.
Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss
He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!
Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M
Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.
More to watch:
Who's the one player that each SEC team will miss the most from last season? That's the question we asked this week. On Tuesday, we looked at every team from the East. Now, it's time to set our sights on the West.
Alabama: WR Amari Cooper
How valuable was Cooper? The Heisman finalist accounted for over 40 percent of the team's receptions and receiving yards last season. He took the term "go-to target" to another level. Now it's up to a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters to replace him. Chris Black might be the most proven at this point, but there's a trio of sophomores-to-be -- ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims and Robert Foster -- that should all earn more minutes this fall. The talent is there, but it's going to take a team effort to fill the void left by Cooper. One guy can't do it alone.
Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers
The defense won't be the same without players such as Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, but Flowers will be especially missed because of the leadership he provided. Brandon Lewis backed up Flowers last season and therefore should be considered the front-runner to win the job, but he's had to sit out this spring due to injury. That's opened the door for Deatrich Wise to take over the defensive end spot opposite JaMichael Winston, and both Wise and Winston have made it a point to take on more of a leadership role with Flowers gone.
Auburn: C Reese Dismukes
As good as Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates played the past two seasons, Dismukes was the real MVP for this Auburn team. Fifty career starts, and every play started in his hands. The position itself might be overlooked by some, but it's a critical element to Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. That's why the coaches have moved former right tackle Austin Golson, arguably the best lineman on the roster, to center in hopes that he can pick up where Dismukes left off. He and Xavier Dampeer are battling for the starting job this spring.
LSU: OT La'el Collins
Fans are going to miss Collins and Vadal Alexander on the same side, mauling opponents in the run game. There wasn't a more formidable tackle-guard combination in the SEC last season. But Collins has moved on, and Alexander is moving from left guard to right tackle. Meanwhile, LSU's former right tackle, Jerald Hawkins, will be moving to the left side to replace Collins. At 6-foot-9, 309 pounds, he certainly looks the part. And he's already come out and said that left tackle feels like a natural position. But replacing Collins will be no easy task.
Mississippi State: LB Benardrick McKinney
You can't blame McKinney for leaving school early, not after the season he had. But it leaves a gaping hole on that defense. McKinney was not only the team's most productive linebacker, but he also served as the leader for the entire unit. However, the Mississippi State coaches are confident Richie Brown can be that guy. He finished sixth on the team in tackles last season and who can forget his memorable three-interception performance against Texas A&M? The Bulldogs will also get a boost this summer with the addition of freshman Leo Lewis.
Ole Miss: S Cody Prewitt
Senquez Golson put up the numbers last season, but Prewitt's play and leadership on the back end will be missed even more. He defined that Landsharks defense. To replace him, the Rebels are having to make some changes in the secondary. Senior-to-be Trae Elston is moving from strong safety to free safety where he'll take over for Prewitt, and cornerback Mike Hilton is moving to the now vacant strong safety position. C.J. Hampton is another guy who can play both safety spots and should have a bigger role as a sophomore next fall.
Texas A&M: WR Malcome Kennedy
The Aggies are loaded at wide receiver. Even with Kennedy graduating, they still have Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Edward Pope all coming back. But Kennedy provided the intangibles for this team last season. He was reliable. When the team needed a first down, he was there. When he sat out against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the team struggled with drops and lost both games. There are some things you just can't teach. The hope is that Kennedy set an example for the younger receivers heading into the 2015 season.
On Monday, we ranked the best bang-for-the-buck coaching values in college football. Today we look at the opposite end of the spectrum and discuss coaches who are overpaid, based on bloated salaries and a lack of results.
Note that some of the coaches below are still relatively new, but the money they’re making will rapidly increase expectations, which will lead to angst if those expectations aren’t met.
The estimated salary figures come from a combination of documents obtained by ESPN.com and the USA Today coaches’ salary database.
1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Estimated 2015 salary: $4 million
Iowa fans are already rolling their eyes. They’ve heard all this before because they’ve seen their school handcuffed for years by the worst contract in college football. If not for a buyout that at one point would have pushed $20 million, Ferentz likely would have been out. No, he definitely would have been out. Instead, because of an unheard of 10-year deal he signed after the 2009 season, Iowa continues to pay top-10 money for a program that isn’t sniffing the top 10 in the polls. Coaches agree that Iowa isn’t the easiest place to win, but the resources and facilities are well above average and the division is the most winnable in the country. For $4 million per season, the Hawkeyes should get something more -- far more -- than Ferentz’s 6.8 victories a year since he signed the extension. As the buyout becomes more reasonable as the contract nears its 2020 completion, it’ll be interesting to see at what point the administration is willing to pull the trigger.
It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!
- Florida's offense isn't exactly moving at the most appropriate speed this spring, but while that side of the ball continues to fall behind the defense, Geoff Collins' group is just out there fired up and having fun.
- At South Carolina, there's no more delegating ball plays by the Head Ball Coach.
- Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell says he "feels great" nearly five months after his gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rebels' home loss to Auburn.
- Former Alabama tight end Brian Vogler hopes to see more pass-catching opportunities for tight end O.J. Howard with the Crimson Tide this season.
- New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn't plan to change the Bulldogs' offensive philosophy this year, but he is changing the terminology.
- Fast riser Dontavius Russell is in position to start on Auburn's defensive line this season.
- LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings says he feels his confidence and ability growing this spring.
- Texas A&M returned to practice on Tuesday. Here are some notes and here's a little of what coach Kevin Sumlin had to say about the day.
- Former coaches believe in new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades.
- Head coach Butch Jones said the host of injuries is the biggest setback for Tennessee's football team this spring.
Tweet of the day
— Christina Long (@christinalong99) March 24, 2015
One thing Texas A&M has been pretty successful with in recent years is left tackle. The last two NFL drafts saw an A&M left tackle get drafted in the top 10, and for the third straight season the Aggies will have to replace an All-SEC member at the most important position up front. (Other posts in the Offseason Spotlight series.)
Spotlight: Avery Gennesy, offensive tackle, 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, redshirt junior
2014 summary: Gennesy arrived in College Station last year as a junior college transfer but redshirted in 2014.
The skinny: The departure of All-SEC left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi means the Aggies must find someone new to protect quarterback Kyle Allen's blindside. While Gennesy had a solid juco career, he has yet to play a down of football at the FBS level. Now, can he be a starting left tackle in the SEC? He won't be handed the job, but it sounds like he's had a pretty good spring to this point and has a good chance to be the starter at left tackle this fall. It was smart to give Gennesy a chance to play two real seasons with the Aggies, rather than waste 2014 on a season in which he would have played primarily as a backup, but now Gennesy has to show he was worth waiting on. Having that juco experience will help him from a maturity standpoint and somewhat with the grind of upper-level football, and he's getting pushed by Germain Ifedi, who started 10 of 12 games at right tackle last season. Honestly, that will help both of them this offseason, which is great for the Aggies. One other thing to keep an eye on here is what changes -- if any -- are made for the offensive line, especially schematically, with new offensive line coach Dave Christensen overseeing the big uglies up front. Left tackle has been a position of prestige at A&M during Kevin Sumlin's tenure, so the Aggies won't accept any sort of drop off. And with a young quarterback, you simply can't have that. Gennesy has the size and, if his solid spring continues, A&M likely won't have an issue at the line's top position.
The plan this spring has been to work both Gennesy and Ifedi at the tackle spots, so in some form or fashion those two will most likely be the starters on the outside this fall. While Ifedi has wanted to move over to left tackle, Gennesy is built more naturally for left tackle, while Ifedi is more of a right tackle in the long run.
Alabama returned from a 10-day break from practice on Monday, and one of the Crimson Tide’s most intriguing players this spring worked at two different positions. Kenyan Drake, who broke his leg during a game last season, worked at both running back and at wide receiver during the media viewing periods on Monday. Drake flashed impressive rushing and receiving skills last season before suffering the devastating leg injury, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he took some practice reps at both spots. What might be a bit surprising is how quickly he’s already back on the field, roughly five months after the injury. If he returns to previous form by the time the season starts -- and those at Alabama seem optimistic that he will be -- his unique set of skills will make Lane Kiffin’s offense much more dangerous this fall.
Add another chapter to the John Chavis-LSU squabble. LSU’s legal team lobbed some grenades at Chavis -- the school’s former defensive coordinator -- and his new employer, Texas A&M, in response to his lawsuit claiming that he does not owe LSU a buyout. According to a story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, LSU’s response said that “Chavis happened to defect to Texas A&M to begin working for A&M before his service to LSU was complete. Notwithstanding the Aggies’ dire need for defensive help, Chavis could have defected to a college or professional team in any state, or even a foreign country.” Dang. “Dire need for defensive help?” Not that such a statement is false. A&M’s defense has been atrocious for the last couple of years. But this situation has officially gotten ugly, with Chavis claiming that LSU owes him back pay and LSU insisting that he violated terms of his contract by refusing to pay a $400,000 buyout when he bolted for A&M after last season. It’s going to make for an interesting subplot when these two programs meet in November.
Around the SEC
- With his team set to open spring practice today, Tennessee coach Butch Jones addressed the media on Monday to set the stage. Find the official transcript and video from the presser here.
- Sometimes 6-foot-7, 325-pound recruits don’t know their own strength. UGA offensive line commit Ben Cleveland accidentally crushed a glass bottle in his hand last week during science class, forcing him to get stitches that caused him to miss two prospect camps and time with his high school baseball team.
- Bryson Allen-Williams started at linebacker and moved to defensive end as a South Carolina freshman, but he’s back at linebacker for the Gamecocks this spring.
- Jonathan Jones says he won’t become complacent after earning All-SEC honors at cornerback for Auburn last season.
- Athlon’s Braden Gall delivers a spring breakdown for Florida.
Tweet of the day
When Peyton met Hulk... pic.twitter.com/Lufop5S7kF
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 23, 2015
It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?
In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.
It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.
I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.
Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.
- Georgia Bulldogs
- Auburn Tigers
- Alabama Crimson Tide
- Tennessee Volunteers
- Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Arkansas Razorbacks
- Ole Miss Rebels
- Missouri Tigers
- LSU Tigers
- Texas A&M Aggies
- Florida Gators
- South Carolina Gamecocks
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Vanderbilt Commodores
In Memphis, Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas
In Kansas City, Missouri
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee
No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State
In Jacksonville, Florida
No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU
In Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU
In Orlando, Florida
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn
In New Orleans
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas
In Arlington, Texas
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn
In Nashville, Tennessee
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn
The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.
But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.
Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).
The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.
After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
In Memphis, Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee
In Kansas City, Missouri
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss
No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas
In Jacksonville, Florida
No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M
In Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn
In Orlando, Florida
No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas
In New Orleans
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee
In Arlington, Texas
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn
In Nashville, Tennessee
No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn
There were 14 coordinating changes in the SEC this offseason. Only Alabama and Ole Miss didn't see any changes at their coordinator positions.
For the rest of the conference, new faces have shown up at these important positions. And with new faces in new places, you have plenty of questions for spring ball and beyond.
We aren't going to look at every new coordinator and smother you with questions for each of them, but we did come up with five big questions for the new guys as they dive deeper into spring practice.
Here are five burning questions for new SEC coordinators in 2015:
Can Doug Nussmeier build an offense at Florida?
I understand that this sounds like a broken record, but if Florida is going to do anything of interest during Jim McElwain's first year, the Gators have to find an offensive identity. Florida, which was known for offense for so long, has had a five-year drought on that side of the ball. You won't win a lot of games when the best you can do during that span is average 367.6 total yards of offense (2014), and the Gators haven't since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season. So Nussmeier and McElwain have to get this offensive ship righted in 2015. But they will be behind the eight ball with a youngster-driven quarterback battle, a very thin and relatively inexperienced offensive line, and a receiving corps lacking multiple proven playmakers.
Can Kevin Steele find a pass-rush at LSU?
The Tigers seem to grow pass-rushers on trees down in Baton Rouge, but LSU ranked 103rd nationally in sacks last season (19) and hasn't had a player register double-digit quarterback hurries since Barkevious Mingo had 12 in 2012. No player has recorded more than four sacks since Sam Montgomery's eight in 2012. So Steele, the new defensive coordinator, who was kind of a perplexing hire to begin with, will have to team up with defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to find a consistent pass-rusher to help sustain LSU's place near the top of the defensive statistics in the SEC. We know the Tigers return one of league's best secondaries and a wildly athletic group of linebackers, but the play up front will be very important for Steele to keep this defense going. Replacing Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter off the edges is Step 1, but developing guys like Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark, Lewis Neal, and Sione Teuhema is the key.
Will John Chavis and Will Muschamp revive their new respective defenses?
We all know the capability of both teams' offenses, but the defenses have been horrendous of late. Last season, Auburn and Texas A&M both finished the season ranking in the bottom half of the SEC in all the major defensive categories, and the Aggies again owned the worst total defense in the SEC, allowing 450.8 yards per game. With the offensive talent returning, Auburn has a chance to compete for more than just the SEC West this fall, but if that defense doesn't improve, don't count on it. The Aggies could also be a threat in the West because of their offense, but, like Auburn, another bad year of defense will make that null and void. Both coaches are considered defensive geniuses and were major upgrades at their new jobs. Muschamp might not have been a great head coach at Florida, but his defenses ranked no worse than 15th nationally during his four years. Chavis was the only defensive coordinator to consistently shut down A&M's offenses, so it only made sense that he was brought on board.
Who is Mike DeBord, and can he make Tennessee's offense potent?
Though DeBord has 30 years of coaching experience, he spent the past two years in administration at Michigan. So it's been a couple of years since he's been hands-on with coaching. Now, DeBord has the task of making Tennessee's offense potent in 2015. What's working in his favor is having starting quarterback Josh Dobbs, star running back Jalen Hurd, and top receivers Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, and Marquez North back. That's great, but these guys were around last season and the Vols ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in all major offensive categories. If Tennessee is going to make a run in the SEC, the offense has to be more consistent. The hope is that age will play a part, but DeBord also has to take hold of the development part. We just really don't know a ton about him.
Will the whole co-coordinator thing work at South Carolina?
Steve Spurrier said there would be coaching changes, so he added long-time NFL assistant Jon Hoke to co-run the defense with embattled coordinator Lorenzo Ward. After ranking fifth in the SEC in total defense in 2013, the Gamecocks dropped to 13th in 2014, allowing 432.7 yards per game and a league-high 6.2 yards per play. The tackling was deplorable for most of the season, and closing out halves and games was a struggle, as the Gamecocks gave up 231 points in the second and fourth quarters. Hoke has an impressive track record -- and SEC experience -- but what's going to change as far as how the defense is run? The first step is to strengthen the front seven, especially the defensive line. South Carolina was last in the SEC and tied for 119th nationally with 14 sacks last season. That begins with improvement from end Gerald Dixon, who led the Gamecocks with two sacks last season. How these coaches mesh with each other and their players will be interesting to watch.
Sadly, college football's version of the NCAA tournament doesn't reach anywhere near 64 teams. There's no 5-12 matchup to roll the dice on. There's no play-in game to whet your appetite.
But that doesn't mean there can't be a Cinderella on the gridiron.
Teams can come out of nowhere to reach the big game. It happens all the time. Remember when Boise State toppled Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl? Only two years ago, Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-2 and in Pasadena, California for the BCS National Championship Game. You could even argue that Ohio State winning the playoff after losing both its starting quarterbacks and barely beating out a Big 12 team to get in was something of a fairy tale.
So the question becomes who will be 2015's Cinderellas? Does the shoe fit anywhere in the SEC?
Tennessee: As one SEC coach told me recently, "Tennessee, where were they two years ago?" The answer, of course, was nowhere. Phillip Fulmer was long gone. The ghost of Lane Kiffin still hung somewhere over Rocky Top. And Derek Dooley was still a favorite punching bag. Butch Jones was only getting started and in 2013 he and the Vols finished with an unspectacular 5-7 record. Now, they're on the cusp. They're still young, granted, but after reaching and winning a bowl game with almost no experience on either the offensive or defensive lines last season, you have to recognize there's potential there. In a lackluster SEC East, the road to Atlanta isn't exactly treacherous. Win there and you're likely in the playoff. From there, it's all about the roll of the dice.
Arkansas: The same question that SEC coach had about Tennessee two years ago applies to Arkansas as well. Houston Nutt was long gone. The ghost of Bobby Petrino still hung somewhere over Razorback Stadium. And John L. Smith was still a favorite punching bag. In 2013, Bret Bielema was only getting started. The Hogs went winless in the SEC and people questioned whether Bielema's brand of smash-mouth football from Wisconsin could work at Arkansas. Now that message has changed after the team took an almost inexplicable jump forward. Despite a difficult schedule, Arkansas won eight games, including a bowl win over Texas. Their road to Atlanta is more difficult in the West against the likes of Alabama and LSU, but with a veteran quarterback and two of the best running backs in the country, there's a formula there that could lead to even more success.
Texas A&M: Don't picture John Chavis wearing a glass slipper. Instead imagine him as the glass slipper. Stay with me here because Chavis is the key. If he can work the same magic he did building LSU into a defensive powerhouse at Texas A&M, then the sky's the limit. There's talent there with players like Myles Garrett and Daylon Mack. And on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin has an embarrassment of riches. One top-ranked quarterback will win the job, whether that's Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray. Whoever is under center will then have a couple potential stars at receiver in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. If the offense keeps putting up points like it has in the past and Chavis brings the defense out from the dumps, then the Aggies could make some noise in 2015.
2017 Jack Anderson shows he's maybe most heavily recruited OL in class going 2-for-3 against star DT Rashard Lawrence pic.twitter.com/NPJu9Rnvg6— Jeremy Crabtree (@jeremycrabtree) March 15, 2015
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
On Nov. 24, 2011, Texas kicker Justin Tucker booted a 40-yard field goal at Texas A&M to win the 118th game in the state’s oldest rivalry. It was expected to possibly be the last matchup in one of college football’s top rivalries. The University of Texas was set to launch the Longhorn Network, much to the dismay of the Aggies, who were on their way to joining the SEC.
Three seasons later, it remains to be seen whether the Aggies and Longhorns will renew the series that was the most-watched game on an annual basis in the Lone Star State. While talk surrounding the loss of the game centered around its effects on the fans, alumni and universities, it also removed a game that had showcased football in the state.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
The nation's No. 1-ranked offensive tackle made a first visit to someone other than the Aggies since committing in February, making the short trip north to take a look at the Oklahoma Sooners. As it turns out, that will be just one of many hurdles the Aggies have to clear to sign the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game selection.
"Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, UCLA and USC are coming at me hard,” Said Little. "And Auburn and Florida, too. The first week of June, I’m going to take visits to the Southeast. I’ll go to Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and some other schools like that. Then in the middle of the summer I’m going to go to the West Coast to see USC, UCLA and Stanford. I want to try and get up to Ohio State, too."
Little, who lists the Aggies and Bruins as the schools he talks to the most, says building a relationship with new offensive line coach Dave Christensen is going to be key for keeping his commitment to Texas A&M.
"[A&M] is telling me to just be patient. They have a new O-line coach, so we have to build a good connection. I just have to get to know him, because I think we have only talked a couple of times. I need to get to know him a little more."
For Texas A&M fans hoping or expecting Little to make a final declaration by the end of the summer, that is unlikely to happen.
"I will probably have a true final decision after my senior season. Probably at the beginning of January."
Following the Nike Opening Dallas Regional on Sunday, Little was one of 13 players invited to the The Opening to be held July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters.
Quick take: There are a couple of key factors to look at with the recruitment of Little. First is his relationship with teammate and class of 2015 Texas A&M signee Kyler Murray. Murray is a pied piper of sorts on the recruiting trail, and this is certainly true when speaking about Little. As long as Murray shows up on campus and suits up for the Aggies, and does not choose to go the MLB route if selected in the first round of the June draft, Texas A&M stands a good chance to sign Little. Should Murray end up going to MLB, and Little does not feel comfortable with his relationships with the Aggies' offensive staff, then all bets are off.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Recruits Miss Lone Star Showdown
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt