NCF Nation: Adrian Hubbard
Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.
But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.
Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.
Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.
Players to watch
Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).
Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.
Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Stats to keep an eye on
2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.
18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.
20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.
AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.
Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.
"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.
"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.
Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.
"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.
Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.
"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.
Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.
"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."
Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.
Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.
"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."
Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.
"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"
It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.
"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"
"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."
Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."
The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.
Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.
"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."
"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."
It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.
When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.
Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.
DePriest, a junior with NFL potential at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, missed Tuesday's practice in Tuscaloosa. He's part of a linebacking corps that returns all four of its starters from a season ago, including All-American inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and top pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard on the outside.
Saban also announced that star wide receiver Amari Cooper would miss the next few practices with a strained foot. The preseason All-SEC selection led the team with 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, setting nearly every Alabama rookie receiving record in the process.
Cooper wore a black no-contact jersey during practice on Tuesday.
"He’s going to be out for a few days," Saban explained, "and then he will be day-to-day. I don’t think he’s going to be hurt for a long time."
Luckily for Saban, Alabama is loaded at wide receiver. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell all have starting experience and freshmen such as Chris Black, Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins are pushing for playing time as well.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said at UA's media day on Aug. 4. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games. Obviously we had some injury issues last year that helped us develop some younger players."
Alabama was able to welcome back tight end Malcolm Faciane on Tuesday after he finished a 30-day suspension for violation of team rules. The 6-foot-5, 267-pound redshirt sophomore was in line for more reps this season after the departure of Michael Williams, but will have an uphill battle now that backups such as Harrison Jones and O.J. Howard have begun making their case for playing time.
"I don’t like suspending players," Saban said. "If we’re going to punish any players or suspend any players, it’s going to be in their best interest to change their behavior so they have a better opportunity to be successful. If it’s not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to do it.
"It’s almost like raising your kids. If you’re going to spank them and it doesn’t change their behavior, why spank them? If you take their computer or their cell phone away from them and it changes their behavior, I’d say that’s the thing to do. We would only do it in the best interest of the player."
Alabama's Assistant to the President and Associate Vice President for University Relations, Deborah Lane, released this statement Tuesday:
“UA has been aware of this situation for some time, and we have monitored this company for several years. They have twice ignored cease and desist letters sent by our compliance office. We have maintained consistent education of our student-athletes regarding the substances in question and will continue to do so.”
The SI report stated that former defensive end Quinton Dial, former linebacker Alex Watkins and junior outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard were reportedly present in a New Orleans Marriott hotel room when Christopher Key, one of the company's founders, discussed the benefits of the company's frequency-reducing hologram chips, "negatively charged" water and deer antler spray/pills.
Deer antler powder contains IGF-1, which is "a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth." It's banned by the NCAA and most professional sports leagues.
While there's no evidence that any of the Alabama players took the company's products, Watkins endorsed the chips and spray in a YouTube video video six months later, and Hubbard reportedly said during Key's pitch that he "already had some" of the deer antler spray.
You can view Alabama's cease-and-desist letter to Mitch Ross here and the one to Key here.
This isn't the first time a college team has been linked to S.W.A.T.S. In April of 2011, Yahoo! Sports reported that Ross and Key both met with "roughly 60 Auburn players" during Auburn's 2010 national championship season to discuss using the company's chips.
Former defensive end Quinton Dial, former linebacker Alex Watkins and junior outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard were reportedly present in a New Orleans Marriott hotel room when one of the company's founders, Christopher Key, demonstrated the values of its frequency-reducing hologram chips, "negatively charged" water and deer antler spray/pills.
Deer antler powder contains IGF-1, "a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth" and is banned by the NCAA and most professional sports leagues.
The players are not directly implicated in receiving or using any of the products, although according to SI's story, Watkins recorded a YouTube testimonial six months after the game endorsing the chips and deer antler spray. Also, Hubbard reportedly said during Key's pitch on deer antler spray that he "already had some."
"We've sent them two cease and desist letters, and we are constantly educating our guys on performance-enhancing substances," an Alabama spokesperson told Sports Illustrated.
Adrian Hubbard, So., LB: The Crimson Tide had problems the last time it played a solid dual-threat quarterback. While Notre Dame's Everett Golson certainly isn't Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, he can make plays with his legs, and gives the Irish another threat in the running game. His ability to extend plays with his feet could make things tough on Alabama's secondary, which has had its issues at times this year. That's where Hubbard comes in. The strongside linebacker had a knack for making this difficult on quarterbacks all year long and he'll have to make sure he can contain Golson tonight. Hubbard finished the regular season with a team-high six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He has the speed to get right into Golson's face, but he has to be patient as well because going in too quickly could make Golson that much tougher to defend if he gets room outside the pocket. Hubbard can bring good pressure and contain Golson in order to take away his dual-threat ability. Alabama needs Hubbard to make Golson uncomfortable so the defense doesn't get caught looking on plays like it did against Manziel.
The last time the sport had a consensus back-to-back national champion was Nebraska in 1995. USC claims to have won in both 2003 and 2004, but there was a split with LSU in 2004.
Florida has missed out on it twice since 2006 and Alabama couldn't do it in 2010. However, Alabama is one of just four other programs to claim back-to-back titles since 1960 (1978 and 79).
Scarborough brings up many of the same reasons I could see Alabama going either way in 2012. For starters, the offense could be more explosive without Trent Richardson. Yeah, I said it.
No disrespect to Richardson at all, but with a more improved quarterback in AJ McCarron, some more athleticism and depth at wide receiver and another strong, veteran offensive line to work with, the Crimson Tide shouldn't have issues moving the ball on the ground or through the air. Coach Nick Saban wants to air it out a little more and he knows McCarron has the ability to do it. The question is whether he can overcome some of his immaturity on the field to consistently get it done.
Bama's line could be chock-full of NFL first-rounders and the backfield is yet again stacked, even without Richardson. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon lead the way, while Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler provide more than adequate depth.
Offensively, this team shouldn't have much of an issue moving the ball. Defensively, there are some questions. Scarborough points out Alabama is more retooling than rebuilding, but there's no getting around all that defensive talent this team lost. Certainly there are talented players stepping in, like linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Nico Johnson and JUCO cornerbacks Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, but experience is everything.
Saban said as much this spring and he also said he's still looking for more defensive leaders to step up before fall camp gets underway.
Also, the schedule is a bit tougher than last year. The Tide starts the year against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, which should get all those SEC-Big Ten juices flowing. And look at this road schedule: Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri (back to back) and LSU. That just doesn't sound fun at all.
Alabama's 2012 team will no doubt draw more comparisons to the 2010 squad that had defensive issues for part of the year, but from what I've gathered, this team wants that. Players want to hear about 2010 because it upsets them -- it motivates them.
The thing that team lacked was ideal leadership and if this team wants to get back to the BCS title game, that's the area where Alabama really needs to make sure it's solid in.
What Saban hopes to see more of from his defense when the players and coaches get back together shortly before fall camp is leadership. This defense can be as hungry as it wants, but Saban knows it won't go very far without a few chiefs stepping up.
He saw progress this spring, but it wasn't enough.
"I'm never satisfied," Saban said at the 2012 SEC spring meetings. "That's an area of our team that we need to continue to develop and mature."
Gone are upperclassmen leaders like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Josh Chapman. In are seniors Nico Johnson (linebacker) and Jesse Williams (defensive tackle) and linebackers C.J. Mosley (junior) and Adrian Hubbard (sophomore). All seemed to make strides this spring, but there's still a lot of room for them and others to grow, Saban said.
This defense isn't on the same level as the historic one in 2011, but it's still pretty talented. But so was the 2010 defense and its slow start hurt Alabama's chance to repeat as SEC champs. Though this unit is older than the 2010 defense, Saban made it clear that leadership and maturity can take a team further than talent and experience.
There's still plenty of time for all the leadership kinks to be worked out and there's no doubt that Saban will take a different approach in helping that growth after what transpired in 2010.
"I've been pleased with the leadership on this team so far," he said," but it's a work in progress and it's developing. It's going to have to continue to develop for them to be what we need them to be successful on a consistent basis."
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.
South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.
Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.
Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.
At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.
The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.
Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.
And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.
Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.
Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.
Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.
Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.
Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.
Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.
Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.
Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.
Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Today's Take Two topic: Other than obvious stars such as Barrett Jones and AJ McCarron, who's the player that needs to come through for Alabama next season if the Crimson Tide are going to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to win outright national championships in back-to-back seasons?
Take 1: Edward Aschoff
Jesse Williams is a guy who I think has to have a big season in 2012 in order for Alabama to repeat this fall. Now that Josh Chapman is gone at nose guard, Williams is moving over from defensive end to follow in Chapman's big footsteps. It won't be easy when you consider how effective Chapman was last season, even while basically playing on one knee. He absolutely clogged the middle of the line and was a key cog in the Crimson Tide's suffocating run defense.
Remember, Williams played tackle when Alabama went to a four-man front last year, so playing inside isn't unfamiliar territory for him. He's likely to get time on the edge again as well, so his versatility will really help Alabama. Getting pressure on opposing backfields will be key for this Tide defense, so the coaches are expecting a lot from Williams. Everything starts up front in the SEC, and Williams' performance could determine a lot for Alabama's defense this fall.
Take 2: Chris Low
The interior of the defensive line is always a good place to start when you’re retooling a defense, and there’s no doubt that Josh Chapman will be sorely missed. The guy was a rock in the middle and played more than half the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. So I understand, Edward, how you could go with Jesse Williams, especially with Williams sliding over from end to nose guard this spring in the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 scheme. But I’m picking sophomore Adrian Hubbard as that under-the-radar guy who needs to come through because I think he has everything it takes to become a premier playmaker on defense next season.
Let’s face it. When you’re losing the likes of Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Chapman on defense, new playmakers don’t just magically appear -- even for a team that has recruited as well as Alabama has. The 6-6 Hubbard, who looked more like a basketball player when he arrived at Alabama, is now pushing 250 pounds. He was listed at 237 last season. Upshaw was that finisher for the Tide from his Jack linebacker position. He was the guy who made most of the game-changing plays on Alabama’s defense. Hubbard is poised to be that guy in 2012, and the Crimson Tide could be relying on him to harass the opposing quarterback more than ever before.
Much like 2010, Alabama will be inexperienced in the secondary next season with three of the four starters departing. It remains to be seen if the Crimson Tide can match up at cornerback the way they did a year ago. Moreover, when you’re plugging new players into the defensive backfield, there are always going to be growing pains. Remember the mental errors that plagued the Tide in the secondary in 2010? The best way to cover up those errors and help a secondary find its way while players learn on the job is to keep the opposing quarterback running for his life. That’s where Hubbard comes in. He’s had an excellent spring and will be counted on to fill Upshaw’s role next season. According to Upshaw, Hubbard will do more than just fill it. Upshaw as much as guaranteed last season that Hubbard would be a dominant player before his time was up at Alabama. That time is now.