Dallas Colleges: Dan Mullen
Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.
This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.
“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”
Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.
“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."
Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.
With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.
Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.
Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.
Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.
Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.
LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.
Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.
Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.
Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.
Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.
Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
It’s important to note that this is not purely a rank of who had the best class. You can go to ESPN’s class rankings for that information. Rather, this list took into account the state of each program and how it performed against expectations, hence Kentucky’s lofty standing.
No. 1: Alabama
Rundown: The class wasn’t just No. 1 overall, it was No. 1 by a mile. Alabama cleaned up with one-third of all the five-star prospects in the ESPN 300, the highest ranking of which was offensive tackle Cameron Robinson, who could challenge for immediate playing time as a freshman. Along those lines, coach Nick Saban and his staff didn’t just sign the best prospects, they signed those that fit the program’s needs. The offensive line class could be the best in Saban’s history, the cornerback class promises two future stars and quarterback David Cornwell helps expand the field of candidates to replace AJ McCarron.
Instant impact signee: Tony Brown won’t be the only five-star cornerback on campus, but he’ll be the first one there. The speedy track star enrolled in January and will compete in spring practice. With both starting cornerback spots open, he’ll have a chance to start right away.
No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain’t your grandfather’s Kentucky. It’s not your father’s or your older brother’s, either. Mark Stoops didn’t have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it’s here to play and win.
Instant impact signee: There’s opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats’ offense.
No. 3: Tennessee
Rundown: No program brought in more young talent than the Vols. All told, Tennessee signed 35 prospects, far more than any BCS-level program. Coach Butch Jones joked that he’ll have an all-freshman team next year, and with 11 ESPN 300 players in the class it’s not that farfetched an idea. Not only did Jones lock down in-state stars like Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd, he reached across borders and landed LaVon Pearson and Dillon Bates. Where his first recruiting class in 2013 was more about creating buzz, 2014 was about fulfilling a promise.
Instant impact signee: Jones and his staff are high on junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who enrolled at Tennessee early. Considering the Vols are completely reloading on the offensive line, the 6-7, 307-pound Blair will have the chance to step in and play from Day 1.
No. 4: LSU
Rundown: Les Miles was on the hook after losing several in-state stars to programs like Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida. Seeing Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Laurence Jones commit elsewhere cast LSU’s recruiting efforts in a bad light. But that all changed when Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, announced that he would be a Tiger. And on Wednesday, Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 wide receiver in the nation, followed suit. By the end of the day, 11 of the top 25 players in Louisiana ended up at LSU.
Instant impact signee: Fournette is the No. 1 overall prospect for a reason. He’s got all the physical tools and the mindset to play at the next level. Because of that he’s been compared favorably to former Sooner Adrian Peterson. With Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, Fournette can insert himself into the running back rotation right away.
No. 5: Texas A&M
Rundown: In 2012, Texas A&M signed the 15th best recruiting class in the country. In 2013, it joined the SEC and rose to eighth in the rankings. And on Wednesday, it completed that climb by finishing fourth. Kevin Sumlin and Co. signed an impressive 10 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 athlete and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Signing a pair of junior college offensive linemen -- Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor -- solidifies depth on a line moving on without Jake Matthews.
Instant impact signee: There’s no doubt Texas A&M needs help on the defense. Defensive end Myles Garrett's body is college-ready (6-5, 255 pounds) and he’s ripped to shreds. If he can pick up the defense and show he's capable of holding up against the run, he could play soon.
No. 6: Florida
Rundown: It’s the win coach Will Muschamp so desperately needed. Keeping together this class after one of the most disastrous seasons in program history was a remarkable feat. In all, Florida signed 13 ESPN 300 commitments, including seven players who rank among the top 10 nationally at their position. Even more impressive was that Muschamp sold Florida against some other top programs, flipping four-star Florida State quarterback commitment Treon Harris to cross the state to Gainesville.
Instant impact signee: Jalen Tabor has as good a chance as anyone to start at cornerback opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the former standout freshman whose footsteps he's trying to follow. Florida coaches are high on his talent and skill level, and of course, being an early enrollee helps.
No. 7: Georgia
Rundown: Mark Richt got his guy in Lorenzo Carter. Without him, the entire outlook of the class changes. While it wasn’t high on numbers -- 21 signees in all -- the quality of Georgia's class was impressive. Richt signed 11 ESPN 300 recruits, including the No. 2 and No. 7 running backs in the country. Four-star athlete Isaiah McKenzie was a big signee as well. He’s small in size (5-8), but his speed and quickness could translate to early playing time.
Instant impact signee: “That defense is going to be nasty,” Carter said. “And I plan on being a part of it.” With that, Georgia got a taste of the energy the No. 3-rated defensive end will bring to Athens. His ability as a pass-rusher will help the Bulldogs right away, and if he adds a few more pounds he could develop into an every-down lineman.
No. 8: Auburn
Rundown: It’s not always about who you sign, but who you miss. The loss of Rashaan Evans still stings a day later, but Auburn landed commitments from offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams to close out what was already an impressive class. In all, the Tigers have 12 signees in the ESPN 300 and two ranked in the ESPN JC 50. Despite losing Evans to the Tide, Auburn signed four of the state’s top 10 players, including its top-ranked player in the class, running back Racean Thomas.
Instant impact signee: Nobody is more qualified to step in and contribute than wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He’s the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he’s already on campus. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the team’s go-to wide receiver by the start of next season.
No. 9: Ole Miss
Rundown: The class wasn’t filled with stars like the year before, but coach Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t let up in 2014. The Rebels went after more seasoned recruits, signing six players from either junior college, prep schools or delayed enrollment. Actually, this year’s class might end up having more depth than the previous year’s as 15 four-star recruits signed in 2014, compared to 12 four-star recruits and two five-star recruits in 2013. With players like Garrald McDowell and C.J. Hampton, there’s plenty to build around.
Instant impact signee: Ole Miss needed help on the offensive line and four-star Rod Taylor could be the man to give them a boost. The No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 300 and the Rebels’ highest ranked signee enrolled in school early and will compete in spring practice.
No. 10: South Carolina
Rundown: It wasn’t the most heralded class in Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina, but it didn’t lack talent, especially on defense where the Gamecocks signed four defensive linemen and four cornerbacks. Stealing defensive tackle Dexter Wideman from Florida State and nabbing cornerback Chris Lammons from Wisconsin’s sights was huge in moving South Carolina up from 27th in the class rankings to 19th.
Instant impact signee: He’ll no doubt add a few pounds to his 6-3, 250-pound frame, but no amount of weight will help Dante Sawyer's attempts to fill Jadeveon Clowney's sizable shoes at South Carolina. That’s not Sawyer’s job as a freshman, though. The four-star prospect should help the Gamecocks pass rush and is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end.
No. 11: Arkansas
Rundown: When I spoke to Bret Bielema during the season, he told me that he wasn’t going after guys based on their rankings. He wanted “his guys,” guys who fit his blue-collar system. And he did exactly that with six of his top eight signees coming on the offensive and defensive lines. Throw in Rafe Peavey, the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback, and Arkansas’ got a good foundation to build upon.
Instant impact signee: With starting defensive tackle Byran Jones gone, the door is open for big Bijhon Jackson, who comes in at a hefty 6-2 and 330 pounds. The No. 6-ranked defensive tackle is the only ESPN 300 member in Arkansas’ recruiting class.
No. 12: Mississippi State
Rundown: The Bulldogs’ 2014 signing class was on the small side with 23 signees, and it was planned that way. With so few seniors, coach Dan Mullen chose to be selective. Still, the class left something to be desired without a single player ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. It was good to see the Bulldogs get so many in-state recruits, but the furthest their reach went was to Texas, Alabama and Georgia. That said, Mississippi State fans will be glad to see that both of its ESPN 300 signees -- Jamoral Graham and Jesse Jackson -- were skill players on offense, an area in need of development.
Instant impact signee: There’s plenty of opportunity in the Bulldogs’ backfield now that LaDarius Perkins is off to the NFL. Enter Aeris Williams, a four-star prospect from Mississippi. With Dak Prescott at quarterback, Williams could make hay on the read-option.
No. 13: Missouri
Rundown: Maybe the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta didn’t amount to much on the recruiting trail. Maybe the thrilling Cotton Bowl win didn’t impress enough recruits either. Whatever it was, coach Gary Pinkel didn’t exactly make hay on signing day. Landing just two ESPN 300 commitments was underwhelming, as was the grand total of four four-star recruits. The signing of Andy Bauer, a four-star offensive tackle who was targeted by Alabama, does engender some hope. Still, as we watch Texas A&M take advantage of the bump it received in recruiting since joining the SEC, one has to wonder why Missouri hasn’t done the same.
Instant impact signee: Brandon Lee, the nation's No. 17 outside linebacker, comes in at a healthy 6-2 and 210 pounds. Given that two of the Tigers’ three starting linebackers were seniors last season, Lee will have a chance to come in and contribute right away.
No. 14: Vanderbilt
Rundown: With so little time to recruit, Derek Mason couldn’t put together the class he wanted. And with former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin poaching so many of his former recruits at Penn State, it only made matters worse. So don’t judge Mason’s first class and its two ESPN 300 signees too harshly. But do give him credit for convincing Nifae Lealao, the No. 20 defensive tackle, to come to Nashville. The four-star prospect is among the most highly rated recruits to ever sign with the Commodores.
Instant impact signee: It isn’t just Jordan Matthews who's leaving. So is Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games last season. Enter three-star Rashad Canty. He’s not the most highly ranked recruit, but the 6-3, 201-pound receiver has the tools to make a push for reps early.
1. Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 1): When you beat the No. 1 team in the country, then thump the No. 5 team 59-42 to win the SEC championship and get a spot in the Vizio BCS National Championship, your résumé really speaks for itself. Auburn is the hottest team in the country. Behind RB Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Tigers have the nation's best running game (335.7 yards per game) and a wave of momentum to ride out to Pasadena, Calif., to take on No. 1 Florida State.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 3): While the Crimson Tide won't be playing for a third straight national championship, they are still one of the best teams in the country. The Allstate Sugar Bowl waits for the Tide, but if the playoffs started this season, Alabama would be right back in the title hunt and might be the favorite to win it all.
3. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2; LW: 4): The Gamecocks ended the season by winning five in a row. They were in the BCS hunt until Alabama lost, but their Capital One Bowl matchup with Wisconsin should be a fun one. Here's hoping that the long layoff helps DE Jadeveon Clowney heal for what will likely be his final game in a South Carolina uniform.
4. Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers went to Atlanta with the nation's 14th-best rushing defense (second in the SEC) and left giving up an SEC title game-record 545 rushing yards. Missouri's defense looked far from sturdy against Auburn, but Mizzou still had a very successful season. A year ago, the team was sulking after a five-win season. Now, Missouri has 11 wins and is playing in the AT&T Cotton Bowl after possibly being a win away from the BCS title game.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): It was an up-and-down season in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers pulled off two big, late-season wins, including a blowout against QB Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies. In the Outback Bowl, LSU will be without QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. But the future looks bright for freshman Anthony Jennings, who orchestrated a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): This wasn't the ending Manziel wanted. While he hasn't officially declared early for the NFL draft, it's a foregone conclusion that his days in College Station are numbered. After another successful statistical season, Manziel is headed back to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but two straight poor performances in losses to end the regular season could keep him from winning the award for a second straight year.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 7): If any team wants to complain about its bowl game, it's the Commodores. After finishing the season on a four-game winning streak and beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same year, Vandy is headed to the BBVA Compass Bowl. It was another great season for coach James Franklin and his team, and you better believe this team will be motivated against Houston.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3, SEC; LW: 8): The Bulldogs had wins over South Carolina and LSU, but losing QB Aaron Murray to an ACL injury and dropping games to Mizzou and Vandy in consecutive weeks really put a damper on the season. The defense still has a lot of kinks to work out going forward, but surrendered 400-plus yards only twice in November after allowing 400 or more in four of the first five games of the season. And back-to-back bowl games against Nebraska is head-scratching to say the least.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 9): A season that started on the rocks ended with two must-wins and a bowl berth. Dan Mullen's hot seat suddenly feels cooler, and the Bulldogs even got some love in the postseason by unexpectedly jumping into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Rice. Mississippi State clawed its way back to the postseason and should have a lot of fire in Memphis.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): The end of the season wasn't great for the Rebels, but this program has come a long way under Hugh Freeze. In his first two seasons, Ole Miss has made back-to-back bowl trips. Last season, the Rebels were a surprise team in Birmingham. This year, Ole Miss is headed to Nashville, where Rebels fans will flock. It'll be fun to watch that spread offense take on Georgia Tech's triple option.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): Butch Jones wasn't able to pull a Gus Malzahn in his first season, but he brought some enthusiasm back to a program looking to rediscover its pride. There won't be a bowl game for the Vols, but this is the time for Jones and his staff to hit the recruiting road hard. Tennessee already has the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, but now it's all about keeping that class together and building for the future.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): It's going to be a long offseason in Gainesville after the Gators missed out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and had their first losing season since 1979. Things will be uncomfortable and toxic between coach Will Muschamp and the fan base, but he can't let that seep into his program or have it affect his football team. With no bowl prep, Muschamp's first order of business is to keep his recruiting class intact -- especially the offensive weapons -- and get those prospects to Gainesville.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): The Razorbacks finished the season with nine straight losses, which was a school record and a new record for coach Bret Bielema, who just completed his first-year at Arkansas (his first head-coaching stop was at Wisconsin). Arkansas had a solid running game, with freshman RB Alex Collins (1,026 yards and four touchdowns) carrying the load, but the passing game was the worst in the SEC (148.5 yards per game).
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): Mark Stoops' first season in Kentucky was forgettable in the win-loss column, but the hope in Lexington is that his impressive recruiting class brings some real life back to the program in Year 2. What had to really irk the defensive-minded Stoops was that his defense ranked 13th in the league, allowing 427.2 yards per game and an SEC-worst 31.2 points per game. The Wildcats just didn't have the endurance to keep up in SEC play and have now lost 16 straight against SEC competition.
1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.
2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.
3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.
6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.
8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.
10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.
1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.
2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.
3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.
5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.
6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.
8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.
9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.
10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.
1. Franklin’s return: It has been over a month since quarterback James Franklin last played a down for Missouri, but his return couldn't have come at a better time. The Tigers visit No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday, and it's a must-win game if they want to stay atop the SEC East standings. Before the injury, Franklin had thrown for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also rushed for 290 yards and three scores. Missouri fans hope he can return to form in time to keep the Tigers on track for Atlanta.
3. The battle of Tennessee: Who thought the day would come where Vanderbilt would be favored over Tennessee? But with a win, the Commodores have a chance to make it two in a row over their in-state rival for the first time since 1926. James Franklin's squad has won three of its past four and became bowl eligible last weekend with a win over Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Volunteers still have to win their last two games if they want reach the postseason.
4. How Georgia responds: There are devastating losses, and then there's Georgia's loss to Auburn last weekend. The Bulldogs had the game won until Nick Marshall connected with Ricardo Louis on a 73-yard prayer in the final minute. It's the type of loss that stays with you. But fortunately, the Dawgs have Aaron Murray at quarterback, and he's too much of a competitor to dwell on it. He'll be ready when Kentucky comes to town Saturday.
5. How LSU responds: It's not the same hangover that Georgia is experiencing, but LSU suffered its own hard-fought loss to No. 1 Alabama the last time out. It was a make-or-break game for the Tigers, and they came up short. Now, after an off week, they have to get up once again to play No. 12 Texas A&M. LSU has had a tendency to fall apart when the BCS is no longer an option, but Les Miles is hoping to buck that trend this season, beginning Saturday.
6. A Rebel upset: Ole Miss might be the best team in the SEC that nobody is talking about. The Rebels have won four in a row and are up to seven wins on the season. Their only losses came to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M -- three teams ranked in the top 12. They will have to keep quarterback Bo Wallace upright against a tenacious defensive line for Missouri, but they have a chance to knock off another top-10 team at home this weekend.
7. First-year coaches: Outside of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the first-year coaches in the SEC have not fared well. Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Kentucky'’s Mark Stoops have yet to win a conference game, while it's still a mystery how Butch Jones and his Tennessee team upset South Carolina. The trio has a combined record of 1-17 in the SEC. On Saturday, they hope to find better results.
8. Coaches on the hot seat: The seats are getting warmer each week for both Will Muschamp and Dan Mullen. Muschamp’s Florida team has had its fair share of injuries, but they're in a downward spiral. The Gators will get a short reprieve Saturday against Georgia Southern. It won't be as easy for Mullen and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs travel to Arkansas in what could be a must-win game for their coach. Both teams need to win out to make a bowl game.
9. More FCS opponents: There are plenty of intriguing matchups on the docket for Saturday, but there are also a couple of snoozers. Florida plays Georgia Southern, as mentioned above. Alabama welcomes Chattanooga, and South Carolina will host Coastal Carolina. The days of playing FCS opponents might be numbered, but the fans will have to endure them for at least one more week.
10. Are we there yet? It's still a week away from the Iron Bowl, but everybody is already talking about the matchup between Alabama and Auburn. The state of Alabama might not make it though Thanksgiving at this rate. Auburn is off this weekend, giving Malzahn and the Tigers two weeks to prepare. In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide might as well have two weeks to prepare with a game against Chattanooga on Saturday.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- An iPhone App said that it was 84 degrees on Mississippi State's campus Tuesday afternoon, which could only be true if Starkville was located at the bottom of a lake. It's only a few minutes into the start of practice and you can see the players struggling with the humid, sapping conditions. Coaches shout at the medical staff to "Water the O-line!" as if the assembly of 300-pound men were a patch of wilting dandelions.
One of the team doctors takes issue with the readout. Robert Collins, a white-haired holdover from the Jackie Sherrill era, says it's at least 5-6 degrees warmer on the practice field most days, and that's not counting the radiant heat, a measurement he argues is a much more accurate gauge of how hot it actually feels. Inside the players helmets, it's a good 20 degrees warmer, he says.
"They're killing the sled," said Ray, craning his neck to the far side of the field where the defensive linemen are working. "You can hear it all the way over here."
A few minutes later, players break from their position groups and begin to practice live action. What happened next should have looked familiar to Ray. It wasn't basketball, but the tempo sure looked like it. All that was missing was the high pitch of sneakers screeching on hardwood floor.
Mississippi State has long been a team that likes to run the football and control the clock, but today both sides of the ball are working at a full sprint. The NASCAR offense, as coaches call it, is in full effect. There's almost no break between plays. The first series is over before there's even time to measure it by hand. Ready for the second series, the average time between the blow of the whistle and the snap clocks in at roughly 19 seconds.
Players aren't the only ones running. Coaches are, too. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins waves his hands like a man possessed and screams at his cornerback to, "Crank your a-- up!" before he's dropped to the scout team.
Time, you see, is of the essence.
Oklahoma State and its high-octane offense await Mississippi State on Saturday. The Cowboys, who finished seventh nationally in passing a year ago, averaged one play every 20.3 seconds. Fifty-eight of their 69 offensive touchdowns came on drives that lasted 3 minutes or less. Under the direction of coach Mike Gundy, they scored 19 touchdowns in under 60 seconds, good enough for third in the country.
"Once their tempo gets started, it's like a train rolling downhill," Collins said earlier in the day, "it's kind of hard to stop it."
For more than seven months, Mississippi State has been preparing for Oklahoma State and its no-huddle offense. Collins has stressed to his players that the best way to stop it is to never let it get going in the first place. Negative plays and pass breakups, he says, put the offense at a disadvantage. Throwing off the tempo is the only real option, because once the Cowboys have a defense on its heels, it's lights out.
To come up with our future rankings, we looked at coaching, current players, depth, recruiting and the current state of each program.
It was a very tough process, but someone had to do it. This shouldn't cause much of a stir at all:
1. Alabama: So Alabama is equipped with the sport's best coach, has some of the best facilities in the country and is still recruiting better than anyone else? Yeah, I think Alabama will be just fine over the next few years and will continue to look down at the rest of the SEC. It'll be interesting to see what happens when AJ McCarron leaves, but Nick Saban might have his quarterback of the future in David Cornwell and appears to have plenty to work with on both sides of the ball for years to come.
2. LSU: The Tigers will always be able to recruit with the best of them. Les Miles has a strong group of younger players, and many will get some valuable time this fall, especially on defense. With John Chavis around, LSU's defense will be fine. It's the offense that people wonder about. But the addition of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator should definitely help. The plan is to become more explosive in the passing game, and a good start in 2013 would go a long way toward securing more passing deep threats.
3. Florida: Will Muschamp has seen both the good and bad during his two years with the Gators, but he's building his program the right way. Florida could miss out on another trip to the SEC championship game this year, but the Gators are built for the long run with the recruiting job Muschamp has done. He has a handful of young offensive players already on campus to build around and appears to have his quarterback of the future -- 2014 recruit Will Grier. Florida's future on defense looks extremely bright as well with the foundation being built up front.
4. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel will soon be gone, but Kevin Sumlin has done a great job of recruiting since his arrival in College Station. As long he's around, the Aggies should be fine. Last year, he brought in highly touted pass-catchers Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Both could see good time this year and will eventually help Manziel's replacement, who could be 2014 commit Kyle Allen. There are some holes to fill this year, but the good news is that a lot of younger players will get valuable experience, which will only make this team stronger in the years to come.
5. Georgia: Like the top SEC teams, Georgia won't have any trouble recruiting over the next few years. It's all about development and breaking through in the big games. Mark Richt doesn't always get the credit he deserves, but he's made back-to-back SEC championships. The Bulldogs are young on defense, but that won't matter over the next couple of years, as those players get all those game reps. The future of the offense looks bright with the players signed this year and how the 2014 class is shaping up.
6. South Carolina: As long as Steve Spurrier is around, the Gamecocks will compete for an SEC East title. South Carolina has held its own in the recruiting world since Spurrier arrived, and while it's going to get tougher with schools like Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt recruiting at a much higher level these days, don't expect Spurrier to miss much of a beat. It helps that the Gamecocks have a good base of young players to work with now.
7. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has totally changed the perception of this program, and he's recruiting like no other Rebels coach in recent history has. Ole Miss has depth issues, but that historic 2013 recruiting class will be the foundation of Freeze's first few years in Oxford. If it lives up to the hype, watch out. Ole Miss surprised many with its play last year, and expect that to improve as the talent continues to roll in thanks to Freeze's recruiting efforts.
8. Auburn: Gus Malzahn hopes to have the right recipe for turning Auburn around. He was around when the Tigers won the national championship in 2010, and the hope is that his spread offense rejuvenates a team that took too many steps backward last year. He has his type of players on his roster now, and after closing strong on the recruiting front with his first class, Malzahn isn't missing a beat this year. He'll make sure the Tigers are more competitive in the SEC West.
9. Vanderbilt: James Franklin has done a tremendous job transforming pretty much everything at Vandy, and he doesn't look like he's going to stop any time soon. The Commodores are recruiting at a very high level, and this team is looking for more than just bowl victories. The Commodores want an SEC title, and Franklin believes he can get his team there. If that attitude remains and the recruiting momentum keeps chugging along, the Commodores will stay around the eight- or nine-win mark.
10. Tennessee: There's no question that Butch Jones has brought much more excitement to Knoxville since his arrival -- and he hasn't even coached a game yet. The Vols aren't built to win the SEC East right now, but if Jones can keep his current 2014 class intact, Tennessee will have a great foundation to work with. But we've seen that before with the Vols. This new staff has to make sure it's developing all that talent the right way as well.
11. Arkansas: The success that Bret Bielema had at Wisconsin has Arkansas' fan base extremely excited about the future. Right now, he just doesn't have the players he needs to compete at the high level that he wants to. Bielema did a good job of closing his first class with the types of players he wants in order to have the big, physical team he wants. It'll be tough enough competing in the West, which will only get stronger, so Bielema has to make sure that his recruiting efforts improve and that he builds more evenly on both sides of the ball.
12. Mississippi State: There's no question that Dan Mullen has done a great job during his time at Mississippi State, but the emergence of Ole Miss could hold the Bulldogs back when it comes to recruiting. The best players in and around Mississippi are now more interested in the Rebels, which certainly doesn't help. The Bulldogs also have to play much better in big games. Last year, Mississippi State waltzed through a very soft nonconference slate before ending the season with a 1-5 record, including four losses to ranked teams.
13. Kentucky: Mark Stoops has one of the country's best recruiting classes, which bodes well for the future of this program. But can this staff develop this talent once it arrives? That's yet to be seen, as Stoops hasn't even coached a game at his new school. The good news is that the Wildcats will be built on a more defensive foundation. We know how important that is, but Kentucky is behind most of its conference counterparts when it comes to immediate talent as a whole.
14. Missouri: We learned last year that the Tigers just weren't properly built to immediately compete in the SEC. Sure, injuries really hurt this team, but Mizzou has to get tougher all around and bigger up front if it wants to really compete in the SEC. It also has to start recruiting at a much higher level. With Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt currently outpacing Mizzou on the recruiting trail, the Tigers have a lot of ground to make up. And they have to start getting more SEC-ready players or they'll dig themselves into a deeper hole.
On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.
Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.
Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).
But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.
The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.
"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."
And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.
Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.
Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.
This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.
Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.
"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."
To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.
The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.
"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."
In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.
We take our weekly temperature in the SEC:
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel: This guy is playing in his own league right now. Johnny Football accounted for six touchdowns last Saturday in Texas A&M’s wild 59-57 win over Louisiana Tech, and he broke the SEC record for total offense that he established earlier this season. Manziel finished with 576 total yards, including 181 yards rushing. He now leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 112.7 yards per game. His numbers (14 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns) are phenomenal, but even more so when you consider that he’s only a redshirt freshman and has played all of six college games. Manziel’s on track to break the SEC record for total offense in a season. Cam Newton set the record in 2010 with 4,327 yards in 14 games. Manziel already has 2,356 yards in six games. Only three players in SEC history have surpassed 4,000 yards in a season -- Tim Couch (1998), Tim Tebow (2007) and Newton.
To see who else is hot -- and who's not -- in the SEC, click here.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
So where does Texas A&M rank in this week's power rankings? How about ... No. 7?
7. Texas A&M (5-1; LW: 7): Johnny Manziel is pretty good, wouldn't you say? I'm convinced he isn't a freshman. He might make his coaches nervous sometimes with his gunslinger mentality, but when a play needs to be made, he'll make it. Now, for as explosive as that offense is, the defense has had some holes in it this year. In the last three games, the Aggies have given up an average of 531 yards and surrendered 57 points to Louisiana Tech in Saturday's shootout win. Now, we'll see what Johnny Football can do against that nasty LSU defense.
-- Edward Aschoff
To see who ranks above the Aggies, and who's behind them, click here.
Who's the next Urban Meyer? The next Chris Petersen? What about another Brady Hoke?
Who's that next great assistant who rises up the ranks and takes over a major program ... and succeeds?
I'm not completely sure, but I have a few ideas. Here are some coaches lurking in the SEC who could be on their way to bigger and better things or are ready to take the next step with their current teams:
- James Franklin, Vanderbilt: Franklin became the only first-year coach in Vandy history to guide the Commodores to a bowl game. He surpassed the program's win totals in each of its previous two seasons and signed arguably the school's best recruiting class in 2012. He brought attitude, confidence and a bit of swagger to the program. He could have left after one year but is really looking to turn things around at Vanderbilt.
- Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Bulldogs fans probably don't like hearing this, but Mullen is becoming a hot name among the coaching ranks. In his three seasons in Starkville, he has guided Mississippi State to two straight bowl wins. In 2010, he led the Bulldogs to nine wins for the first time since 1999. Mullen says he is happy in Starkville, but if he continues to win, bigger schools won't hesitate to go after him.
- Shawn Elliott, South Carolina offensive line coach/running game coordinator: Steve Spurrier has raved about Elliott's impact on offense and bringing in the zone read package. Elliott has done wonders for South Carolina's offensive line, which was a continual sore spot in Spurrier's early years at the school. Elliott is also a dogged recruiter. Having grown up in Camden, S.C., Elliott is somebody to watch when Spurrier hangs it up. If he doesn't get that job, somebody is going to snap him up.
- Rodney Garner, Georgia defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Georgia for a while and has been wooed several times by other schools. LSU went after him several years ago, and Lane Kiffin was interested in bringing him to Tennessee. In the past 12 years, he has coached plenty of NFL talent, including four first-round draft picks. He has consistently been one of the league's best recruiters as well.
- Todd Grantham, Georgia defensive coordinator/associate head coach: He could start getting more looks for head-coaching gigs. He has vast NFL experience, including being a defensive coordinator at that level, and more schools are looking for coaches with NFL experience. Grantham has proven himself as a recruiter and worked under two of the best in the college ranks -- Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Nick Saban at Michigan State. He has made a tremendous difference in turning around Georgia's defense and has an edge about him that successful head coaches possess.
- Chris Kiffin, Ole Miss defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator for defense: He is one of the bright young names among the assistant ranks. As the defensive line coach at Arkansas State, he coached up Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Joiner, who tied for third in the nation in sacks and 10th in tackles for loss. Arkansas State also led the conference and ranked eighth nationally in tackles for loss (7.62 per game) and tied for 15th in sacks (2.69 per game). He is a tremendous recruiter and helped bring in a solid defensive class in a short amount of time this spring.
- Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator: After being a standout quarterback at Texas Tech, he is considered one of the top young assistants in college football. He came over with Kevin Sumlin from Houston, where he helped guide the Cougars' offense to its record-setting year in 2011. Houston led the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring in 2011 behind quarterback Case Keenum. The Cougars averaged 599.1 total yards per game, including 450.1 through the air, while scoring more than 49 points per game.
- Paul Petrino, Arkansas offensive coordinator: He came over to help run Arkansas' offense with his brother, but after Bobby Petrino was fired this spring, Paul Petrino assumed the role as primary playcaller. In 2010, he guided an Illinois offense that broke school records for total points (423) and points per game (32.54). The Illini averaged 42.1 points and 448.9 total yards over the final seven games of the season. If he can keep Arkansas' offense going this year, his phone might start ringing a little more.
- Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt defensive coordinator/safeties coach: He has been a head coach at Columbia and is innovative on defense, playing the kind of attacking style that attracts great players. He helped orchestrate one of the most impressive defensive turnarounds in the country last year, as Vanderbilt ranked ninth nationally in pass defense efficiency and 18th in total defense. Vandy's defense also ranked among the nation's top units in interceptions, points allowed and rush defense.
- Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator: He is one of the best defensive coordinators around, and it seems like only a matter of time before he is a head coach somewhere. Smart has already passed on a few head-coaching opportunities. He is making $950,000 a year and is in a position to be picky with coaching jobs.
- Trooper Taylor, Auburn wide receivers coach/assistant head coach: He is one of the hottest and most successful recruiters in the SEC. He brought in and trained some elite receivers at Oklahoma State and Tennessee before making his way to Auburn. He is continuing that trend and has turned Emory Blake into one of the SEC's best pass-catchers. He was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and if Auburn's receivers make another jump, Taylor could be waving his towel elsewhere soon.
- Frank Wilson, LSU running backs coach/recruiting coordinator: He has emerged as one of the sport's top recruiters. As a running backs coach, he has done a tremendous job with the Tigers. Last season, LSU averaged 202.6 rushing yards per game and tied a school record with 35 rushing touchdowns. Three backs eclipsed the 500-yard rushing mark. Wilson commands tremendous respect from his players.
- David Yost, Missouri offensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Missouri for 11 years, but he has to start getting more attention as an exceptional playcaller. He has a great eye for talent and pointing out mismatches in his spread scheme. In 2011, Mizzou ranked ninth nationally in rushing (244 yards per game) and had one of the most balanced offenses, as Mizzou was one of only two schools in the country to average at least 230 yards rushing and passing in each game.
The addition of Missouri and Texas A&M means teams will have to play six divisional games instead of five, making things a little complicated.
Right now, it looks as though the most likely format, which could be set as early as Friday, will be a 6-1-1 model. That gives teams six divisional games, one permanent crossover game and rotating crossover. The rotating crossover no longer would be a traditional two-year home-and-home series. It simply would be a one-year rotation. It’s the same model that will be used for the 2012 season.
LSU coach Les Miles said he’d like the structure of future SEC schedules to be “definable,” and wouldn’t mind if the league re-examined how it chose permanent crossovers.
"Legitimately tell me about how you're picking crossover games,” Miles said at the spring meetings Tuesday. “Is it the best team in the East, the best team in the West, top three and top three? OK, if you guys want to do that, let's do that. It might change the matches, but if you want to say, 'Well, we really are going to seed the best teams versus the lesser teams,' well, OK, let's do that, but define the structure and let's stay with it.
“In my mind, here’s what happened: They added two teams this go-round, and very conceivably they could add another two. So let’s build a structure that’s desirable and helps build toward a champion.”
Slive said talks would become more detailed as the week continued, and while he wouldn’t go into detail about formats or permanent opponents, he did say he sensed that most of the schools wanted to keep their permanent crossover games.
Those games likely would be Alabama-Tennessee, Arkansas-Missouri, Auburn-Georgia, Florida-LSU, Kentucky-Mississippi State, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt and Texas A&M-South Carolina. However, there has been talk of the Florida-LSU series possibly not being renewed.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he expects Arkansas to become Mizzou’s permanent crossover, which should help create a rivalry between the two schools.
"That's what I'm told is probably going to happen," Pinkel said. "To me, just tell me who our rival is, and then they'll be our rival. Obviously, we're adjacent to [Arkansas]. Obviously, we've been associated with [Texas A&M] for years. That's above me. Nobody has asked me for my opinion."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze said they’d prefer to keep their schools' current permanent Eastern Division opponents -- Kentucky and Vanderbilt, respectively.
“Having that, it gives you a little bit of a rivalry,” Mullen said about playing Kentucky each year. “I do think in the last three years being there … you see that rivalry spill over. I know in basketball it is that way for everybody, but because we play them every year in football, because there’s that familiarity it spills into basketball, it spills into baseball.
“That works for us, and geographically it works for us as far as East teams go.”
Added Freeze: “I’d like to continue with Vandy. That’s been a healthy rivalry game. In recent pasts it’s been very equal, and it’s a good game for fans to watch. We’ve got a lot of people in Nashville, and we recruit that area, and it’s just good for us and good for them.”
CBSSports.com reported Tuesday that the SEC will create a model for the next 12 years, but Slive told reporters Tuesday that wasn’t necessarily the case.
"That's a long time," Slive said. "I'm not sure that's what we'll do."
What seems sure is that the league won’t go to a nine-game conference schedule. It essentially forces the conference champion to play 10 SEC games, and adding just one more to the regular season has drawn little interest from coaches.
“None at all,” Freeze said. “Not from me.”
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