NCF Nation: Florida Gators
Geoff Collins isn't a "swag stealer," he says. When he left Mississippi State to become Florida's defensive coordinator, he left the so-called Psycho Defense behind. That was their brand, he said, and in Gainesville under new head coach Jim McElwain, he's out to create a new identity with the help of creatures that may or may not live in a black lagoon.
One such example: The Cryptid, an award Collins and his staff hand out from time to time.
If there's one thing Florida fans need to know about Collins, who turns 44 in a few weeks, it's that he's not afraid to think outside the box. In order to connect with a younger generation, he hands out daily awards following each practice such as the "Apex Predator Award" for the most enthusiastic player or the "Swamp Beast Award" for the player who showed relentless effort. Unlike a lot of buttoned-up programs, he wants players to "play wild and fly around like crazy." He even encourages celebrating after big plays -- as long as it's not a me-first display.
At Mississippi State, that confident, aggressive attitude translated to the football field last season, when the Bulldogs finished second in the SEC in sacks (37) and tied for third in interceptions (13). Playing a bend-but-don't-break style, they finished third in the conference in third-down percentage (35.0) and red-zone touchdown efficiency (43.2 percent).
During Collins' first conversation with the entire Florida defense, he said players already knew of his reputation.
"They knew I had been a part of the great run that we had at Mississippi State, probably the best season in school history, a top-10 scoring defense and all those other things," he said. "So they knew what we’d done on defense at places I’d been before, and one of the big things I stressed to them was that even though they had played really good defense in the past, there was room for improvement.
"We talked about that 10 percent and working together to find that 10 percent improvement, whether it be tackling, situational football, improvements in the red-zone defense, improvements in third-down defense, points after turnovers, things that I thought we’d done really well at Mississippi State and bringing that and adding to how well they’d played in years past."
Eyeing a roster he says is deeper than any he's ever coached, Collins isn't out to make wholesale changes to the defensive schemes developed by former coach Will Muschamp. It's a lesson he learned years earlier when he left Georgia Tech to become defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Western Carolina.
Returning to his old stomping grounds a bit overzealous back in 2002, he attempted to install an entirely new defense without once looking at the previous defense or the terminology players had become accustomed to. Like a lot of young coaches, he had to come to grips with that "four- and three-deep is four- and three-deep regardless of where you go." Only the buzzwords are different.
So rather than dumping a new playbook on everyone's locker at Florida, he took the studying upon himself.
"I spent a lot of time during December and January learning what they called everything," he said. "I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s easier for one person to learn a lot of words than for 33 18-to-22-year-olds to learn a lot of new words. I try to put the hard stuff on me."
Outside of acclimating himself to a new environment, though, there's not a lot of hard stuff Collins has had to encounter with a solid system and a solid roster already in place. He inherited one of the most promising secondaries in the country, whether it's starters Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole or a reserve such as redshirt freshman J.C. Jackson, whom Collins says is "one of the most athletic kids I've ever been fortunate to be around." And where there's maybe not a lot of depth, Collins said there's certainly talent, whether it's Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone at linebacker or Alex McAlister on the defensive line.
It's a good situation all the way around, Collins says.
"I'm excited. We've got a lot of really good players. They're hungry. They're excited. They're competitive kids. Everything that Coach McElwain and the rest of the staff they've thrown at them, they're run with."
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Will Be Making My College Choice April 3rd! @ Ocean Lakes High School 6pm... Anyone Can Come, No Charge Decision, Decisions, & Decisions.=— Levonta Taylor (@iamlevonta) March 24, 2015
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BUFORD, Ga. - Despite the cold and rainy weather conditions, more than 400 prospects from all over the Southeast made the trip to Buford High School for the Nike The Opening Regional Camp on Sunday.
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It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.
The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.
That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.
So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.
In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."
In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.
More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.
Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.
Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.
Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.
"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.
The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.
"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."
Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.
Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.
If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.
Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.
The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.
Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.
Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.
Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.
Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.
And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.
Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.
There are sure to be more, too.
This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.
Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.
Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.
Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.
Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.
South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.
Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:
1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.
2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.
4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.
5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.
6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.
7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.
8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.
9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.
10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
PLANTATION, Fla. -- The Nike football camp in Miami is generally regarded as one of the top camps, talent-wise, in the country every year and this year’s camp held at American Heritage School didn’t disappoint.
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While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.
Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.
Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.
Here's what we came up with:
1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.
2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.
3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.
4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.
5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.
6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.
7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.
8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.
9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.
10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.
11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.
12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.
13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.
14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.
Edward Aschoff: South Carolina in the top 25
The fact that Steve Spurrier has won 84 games in his 10 seasons at South Carolina is almost absurd, when you consider South Carolina’s history. The Gamecocks are now a legit SEC East contender every season. However, I’m not sure South Carolina is a top-20 job, let alone a top-25 job, nationally, even though South Carolina comes in at No. 19 on our list. The tradition really rests on recent events. The facilities are improving, but they don’t exactly challenge the best of the SEC, and while the state of South Carolina has some underrated talent, it’s in short supply. There’s Clemson to battle, and then you have to fend off bigger schools looking to poach the few elite guys. Being in the SEC East helps, and that fan base is amazingly loyal, but I’m just not sure this job is better than those at Miami, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Sam Khan Jr.: Mississippi State as high as No. 34
I was mildly surprised to see Mississippi State as high as No. 34 in the rankings, but I think that's a testament to what Dan Mullen has accomplished and the commitment the Bulldogs have shown to improving facilities, with renovations to Davis Wade Stadium and a new football complex that opened in 2013. Starkville isn't close to a major city, so recruiting can be a challenge, but Mullen's staff proved it can recruit highly regarded prospects and also develop overlooked players. Being in the SEC West with Alabama, Auburn and LSU is a challenge, but this season Mississippi State showed it can hang with those schools. That recent success makes the job more appealing than it was, say, five years ago.
Chris Low: South Carolina in the top 20
Seeing the South Carolina head-coaching job crack the top 20 nationally was surprising. Having grown up in that state, I've always felt that job had potential. But let’s be honest: Nobody had won consistently there until Spurrier came along, and it took him five years to win more than eight games in a season. Spurrier has raised the national profile of that program to heights few could have envisioned, and he’s also raised expectations. The Gamecocks dipped to seven wins this past season, and judging by the outcry of some of the fans, you’d never know they were coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons. The facilities are improving but still don’t compare to the top rung of the SEC. The high school football in the state is underrated, but the state itself is small, which means the Gamecocks have to share top prospects with Clemson and several other neighboring schools. Before Spurrier arrived, South Carolina had won more than nine games in a season only once in school history. That’s become the standard now -- maybe even more than that -- which could make the job a monster for the coach (and coaches) who follow Spurrier.
Greg Ostendorf: Florida at No. 2 in the SEC
Honestly, the ESPN panel that put together the rankings did a pretty solid job, but I’m not so sure Florida is the second-best job in the SEC. Don’t get me wrong: Florida is a great job. Both Spurrier and Urban Meyer have proven that in the past. But when the Gators aren’t winning, there’s a pretty short leash on the head coach. Just ask Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Jeremy Foley, the athletic director, has high expectations, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s not necessarily that way at other SEC schools, such as Georgia and LSU. Unlike Georgia and LSU, who essentially have the state to themselves, Florida has to compete with Florida State -- and to a lesser extent, Miami -- on the recruiting trail. When Alabama was looking for a coach eight years ago, it hit a home run with Nick Saban. If Florida is really the conference’s second-best job, don’t you think it could’ve landed a bigger name than Jim McElwain? He could be great, but he’s not yet on the same level as a Bob Stoops or even a Hugh Freeze.
LB Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt: Don't be so shocked a Vandy player made the list. Azubike is a freak athletically. He's 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and there's not an ounce of fat on his body. As a junior, he started off strong but injuries derailed his season down the stretch. The senior-to-be will look to finish his career on a high note and earn his invite to the combine.
CB Tony Brown, Alabama: Brown is one of four Crimson Tide football players who double up with track and field. He played sparingly as a freshman last fall, but the expectations are high for the former five-star defensive back. On the track, he's the team's fastest runner in the 60-meter hurdles, and he recently ran the 60-meter dash in 6.82 seconds.
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Who else remembers that picture of Chubb showing off his vertical before a track and field event at his high school last May? If not, here you go. The guy looks like he could jump over a car. After a sensational freshman season, he'll be one of the more talked about athletes when it's his turn at the combine. Odds are he won't disappoint.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Chubb isn't the only freshman running back we can't wait to see at the combine. Fournette, the former No. 1 player in the country, has all the skills to put on a show when he goes and works out. He's big, fast, and there always seems to be a chip on his shoulder. It won't be any different at the combine.
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Chiseled would be the best word to describe Garrett's physique. The freshman is a weight room freak and should put up big numbers on bench press. The scary part is he'll be just as impressive in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. There's a reason he broke the SEC freshman sack record, previously held by No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: 4.3 is the new 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and Hargreaves has a chance to run in that 4.3 range. A performance like that could solidify his stock as a top-10 pick in next year's draft, assuming he decides to leave early. And don't be surprised if the former high school track star clears 40 inches in the vertical jump.
RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: Everybody wants to see what Henry is going to do when he goes to the combine. Players that big (6-3, 241) aren't supposed to run that fast. Henry likely won't be among the fastest at his position, but he did run a 4.45 at the 2012 Nike SPARQ competition. Granted, it was on a faster surface, but still -- that's moving for a guy his size.
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: To nobody's surprise, another former No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 makes this list. Nkemdiche has always been gifted athletically, and though he might not be as fast as his brother, his overall performance will certainly grab the media's attention at the combine. Simply put, he's the complete package.
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: It's all in the name. Wouldn't it be great if the fastest 40 time came from a guy named Speedy? It could happen. Noil won the Nike SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013 with a 40 time of 4.46 seconds and a vertical jump of 44.1 inches. He also ran the shuttle in a blistering quick 3.87 seconds.
OT Braden Smith, Auburn: Former Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers was deemed the strongest man at the combine this year after he put up 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Per Auburn's strength coach, Smith can already put up at least 30 reps and he's still a freshman. Imagine what he'll be able to do in two-to-three years when it's his turn.
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss