NCF Nation: Cam Cameron

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were both supposed to roll right before attempting a pass during a drill at LSU’s practice on Monday, but Harris ran right up Jennings’ back and disrupted his timing enough to prevent him from even making a throw.

Jennings’ frustration quickly evaporated into empathy, however, because it was only a year ago that he was doing the exact same thing to Zach Mettenberger.

“That’s fine with me,” Jennings chuckled after practice, the Tigers’ second team workout of the spring. “I did the same thing to Zach, so Zach was in the same predicament. I guess I’m like the veteran of the quarterbacks [now]. That’s hard to say coming in when I guess I’m a sophomore now. But I know how it is. You’re not going to be perfect right when you arrive on campus. You’re working to start. It’s all fun; it’s all fine. I’m just ready to get him going and teach him everything that I know -- and I’m still learning, too.”

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings is looking to jump into being LSU's starting quarterback, but he'll be challenged by Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
Jennings put himself on the map as an early enrollee last spring, eventually claiming the Tigers’ backup quarterback job as a true freshman and starting the Outback Bowl in place of injured senior Mettenberger. Harris is on campus as an early enrollee not only in an attempt to learn Cam Cameron’s offense prior to preseason camp, but to try to win the starting job.

Understandably, Harris still has plenty of work to do on that front. He’s only been on campus for two months after all. He doesn’t possess a veteran’s understanding of the offense or a feel for the personnel around him yet. And that’s enough to rattle anyone’s confidence -- even a player whom every recruiting service ranked among the nation’s top dual-threat prospects for 2014.

The constant theme that everyone seems to be reinforcing to the freshman is positivity. Even when Cameron would chastise Harris for reflexively clapping after misfiring on a pass Monday, he'd give his young quarterback a fist-bump moments later in an attempt to encourage him.

“It’s definitely going to benefit him,” said receiver John Diarse, who is in line to start as a redshirt freshman after enrolling early a year ago. “I’ve been trying to talk to him here and there whenever I get an opportunity, just stay encouraging, stay upbeat because everybody can’t do it and apparently you have your opportunity because somebody believes you can do it. So just believe in yourself, stay confident and like [strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt tells us every day, practice positive self-talk and just believe that you can do it and take your time with it.

“Don’t try to be in a rush, don’t worry so much about the media or just the pressure around you. Just focus on yourself and what you can do.”

The media probably won’t be an issue for Harris. As a freshman, he is off limits to reporters until further notice. His plate is full enough in simply adapting to college life and trying to decipher LSU’s offense -- much less compete against Jennings and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig.

But with nearly six months remaining until the Tigers’ opener against Wisconsin, nobody is winning the quarterback job now.

“The older guys obviously know cadence, and there’s some comfort there,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We want to allow a quality competitive environment for Brandon Harris and the other quarterbacks, so we have to bring Brandon to speed, just a comfort of the offense, and then let’s have at it. Let’s see who’s best.”

For now, Jennings wants to prove that he’s more like the player who came off the bench to lead the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas than the one who struggled in his first start, the bowl win over Iowa where he completed just 7 of 19 pass attempts for 82 yards and an interception.

“I don’t think that game was one of my best games. If it was, I don’t think I would be starting,” Jennings said, later adding, “I watched [film of the Iowa game] so many times, I don’t think you’d believe it.”

Jennings and Rettig were both in Harris’ position a year ago, so while they both have the advantage of a year in Cameron’s system, nobody has a decided experience advantage -- particularly now that senior Rob Bolden has shifted to receiver in an attempt to earn some playing time.

Everyone in the quarterback room has plenty to prove, which is why Jennings said he has been spending six days a week at LSU’s football building in an attempt to learn as much as possible from his offensive coordinator.

It should be a competition where knowledge of the offense and daily consistency become enormously important factors as the coaches weigh their options at the position. Jennings is in the lead for now, but he knows -- and Miles guaranteed on Saturday -- that the starting privilege against Wisconsin is “going to be given to no one, earned by the one that plays.”

“[Harris and Rettig] wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play on this level,” Jennings said. “They’re going -- just like I am -- to try to progress every day. Brandon’s throwing the ball well, still has a lot of things to learn in the offense, but I was in the same predicament last year. Hayden’s just learning along with me. He’s throwing the ball well, he’s speaking, he’s vocal. So we’re all trying to get better as spring goes along, and I think they’re progressing rapidly.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ed Stinson's mammoth shoulders shrink, relaxing from the form that only half an hour earlier flexed to crash and beat up on 300-pound blockers for a full 60 minutes. Alabama's senior defensive end looked tired in the eyes after his team beat rival Tennessee 45-10 on Saturday, his dark brown pupils soft and eager for rest. After three straight SEC contests and seven consecutive game weeks, he and his teammates were eager for some time off.

"I've been waiting for it," he said, flashing a slight grin. An ear-to-ear smile would have required too much energy. "I'm one of the guys [who] needs to be healed."

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter playing for seven straight weeks, No. 1 Alabama gets the weekend off to recover and heal.
The nature of his injuries are unknown, a buildup of bumps and bruises on his 6-foot-4, 292-pound frame. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, no lightweight at more than 300 pounds, is out in what coach Nick Saban describes as a "medical issue." H-back/running back Jalston Fowler can't make contact in practice because of a concussion. Cornerback Deion Belue is dealing with a nagging toe injury and the starter opposite him, Bradley Sylve, isn't yet 100 percent either.

And that's just the injuries we know of.

The bye week comes at the perfect time for top-ranked Alabama. The scoring margin the past six weeks, 246-26, has made it look easy. But the games have demanded their own pound of flesh, the toll evidenced in every wince and limp.

"In the SEC you bang hard every week, so you need time to rest up," Belue explained to reporters on Saturday night. "Then we have LSU, and they're going to come in and bang some more."

Ah, the matter of LSU. The 13th-ranked Tigers represent the biggest challenge to Alabama's undefeated season. Les Miles' squad always gives Alabama a hard time, and the last time his team came to Tuscaloosa (2011), it won. With a much improved offense thanks to new coordinator Cam Cameron, get ready for calls of an upset. Zach Mettenberger has progressed quickly into an NFL quarterback and with two of the best receivers in the SEC -- Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- to throw the ball to, they''ll be licking their chops to get at Alabama's secondary, which doesn't have much quality depth.

But in Alabama's camp, that's not the focus yet. At least not externally.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," quarterback AJ McCarron said Saturday in his usual no-nonsense manner, mimicking his head coach. "We've got a 24-hour rule and then a week off so I'm not really thinking about who we got next."

Said Saban: "We've got some big challenges and some stiff competition against some teams coming up here. This bye week comes at a pretty good time for us. We have a lot of guys banged up. We could use the rest, and we can use the time to try to help some of our players improve. So that's going to be our focus this week."

Notice the utter avoidance of LSU? The game was on the lips of every fan around Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, but it was nowhere to be found in Saban's postgame comments. When he spoke to the media again on Tuesday, he got three-quarters of the way through before LSU entered his consciousness, and even then it was to relive the 2011 game, not to focus on the game ahead of him.

"Just because we don't have a game doesn't mean you change anything about how you think and what we need to do to get better as a team," Saban said.

You're not going to catch this Alabama team looking ahead to LSU. Not even when LSU is the next team on the schedule. In their mind, this week is about recovery and a return to the basics. Saban said they'll spend an extra day on LSU preparation, but he doesn't want to throw the team off its usual schedule or burn them out too quickly, showing them the same plays and schemes too many times over the next two weeks.

Trey DePriest, Alabama's starting inside linebacker, said he didn't think they'd spend any time on LSU this week. Maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship, but he reiterated it, saying they'd go back to "camp rules." Stinson backed him up, adding that there would be "no talk at all" of LSU.

"It's a positive, and it's definitely going to help us out," said veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, opening up where his teammates hadn't. "LSU's a tough team, and that kind of gives us an advantage to study the opponents more."

Just don't expect to hear much beyond that. Mettenberger and the LSU offense haven't been brought up. Neither has LSU's defense. Right now it's a matter of staying focused on the task at hand, even if that task doesn't involve another football team.

Really, it's Saban's way. When asked how he'd celebrate his birthday this week, he responded bluntly, "Whatever Miss Terry has planned is what I'll be doing."

If he could, he'd blow out his candles in the film room watching practice tape.

His is the kind of singular focus, and that makes Alabama unique. The build up to big games is the same as smaller ones. In fact, you often see a more fired up coaching staff for cupcakes like Georgia State than for "Game of the Century" type contests with LSU. They have to light a fire under their players for some games, but that won't be the case for next Saturday's home game against LSU. The battle lines were drawn well before the start of the season.

So why emphasize the matchups and specifics of the game now? With so many players hurt, why not take the week to rest? Inside the walls of Alabama's football offices, it might be different, but outwardly players aren't anxious for what's next.

"Our bodies need time to get ready for another physical game," said veteran wideout Kevin Norwood. "That's what we're going to do."
It's easy to look at LSU's success offensively this season and believe that Cam Cameron has the Midas touch. The night-and-day difference has been that startling. The eye-popping numbers -- 488.7 yards per game, 45.5 points per game -- are leaps and bounds better than they've been in years past.

But truth be told, Cameron walked into the perfect situation when he was signed on as LSU's offensive coordinator in February. He didn't have to overhaul anything. He didn't arrive in Baton Rouge twirling a magic wand in one hand and a spellbook of plays in another. The parts were already in place. He just had to get them running efficiently.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Zach Mettenberger is only one of several worries for defenses facing LSU.
Les Miles would have told you so if you'd only asked. LSU's often eccentric head coach would have you believe he envisioned this kind of turnaround when he hired Cameron.

"I felt like it was just exactly the right pieces or factors to come together," Miles told reporters on Monday. "You have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it. You have a veteran receiving corps that can really run routes and receive the ball. Yeah, I really did [see it coming]. I don't underestimate our offense, nor do I underestimate Cam."

Whether you believe Miles' premonition is one thing. But understanding the root of LSU's offensive turnaround is cut and dried. What it comes down to is simple: balance. Cameron didn't bring an innovative scheme or better personnel with him, he simply unpacked his bags and used what was already there more effectively than his predecessors. His deft touch was golden, but not glaringly so.

LSU's scheme, as best summed up by its leading receiver, is downright elementary. It's old school in that it operates mostly under center and uses two or more running backs 72 percent of the time.

"You know, you can't run without passing and you can't pass without running," Odell Beckham Jr. said after LSU thumped Mississippi State 59-26 this past weekend. "We have great running backs in the backfield, and that's a threat. They have to respect that. If they load the box up we're going to throw the ball and then if they back off a little bit we're going to break big runs."

If Beckham's explanation seemed coy, it wasn't meant to be. Stopping LSU's offense isn't as simple as stopping the run or the pass. You can't blitz your way out of it or scheme against any one player in particular. As a defensive coordinator, you're basically left to hope for the best.

You can't double-team Beckham. If you do, Jarvis Landry will get you. The two receivers are first and second in receptions per game in the SEC. Beckham leads the country in all-purpose yards while Landry is tied for fourth in touchdown receptions. You can try playing off coverage and they'll burn you just the same. Mississippi State tried, playing 6 and 7 yards off of Beckham all night, and he still managed 179 yards and two touchdowns.

You can try playing two safeties back and shading them toward Beckham and Landry for help over the top, but that won't work either. If you leave only seven in the box, you're likely to regret it. With LSU's stable of running backs, they'll make you pay. Jeremy Hill, a 235-pound bowling ball of power and quickness, is second nationally with nine rushing touchdowns. When he leaves the game, Alfred Blue comes on, averaging 5 yards or more on 51.4 percent of his carries.

If you do everything right and somehow double-cover Beckham and Landry and stop the run, then you're still left with the matter of Zach Mettenberger. There might be no bigger turnaround in college football than LSU's senior quarterback. Mettenberger, thanks to the tutelage of Cameron, is first in the SEC and fifth nationally in raw QBR (86.7).

Mettenberger is fitting balls into windows that make scouts blush. The "oohs" from three pro scouts sitting next to me were audible even over the clanging of thousands of cowbells in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday night. You can do everything right and he'll still get you. The Bulldogs' defense played well and he still managed to complete a ridiculous 25 of 29 passes for 340 yards, defying blanket coverage and pass-rushers nipping at his heels.

"When you play LSU you have to prepare for the run," Mettenberger said matter-of-factly. "[Mississippi State] came out hyped and they did a really good job executing their run defense. But again that left holes in the secondary and we were able to execute and really soften them up for the run game."

Even LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson had to laugh.

"I told Coach Cam, 'What did you do that for?'" said Ferguson on LSU hanging 59 points and 563 yards of offense. "It was a great game, man. I've never seen an offense like that before. Zach Mettenberger is playing great. I call him old Drew Bledsoe."

And like those old Patriots teams, the theory on offense is balance. LSU doesn't run to set up the pass and it doesn't pass to set up the run. Cameron isn't using a gimmicky scheme. Instead, defenses make a choice: Would you like Hill and Blue to beat you, or Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry?

Pick your poison.

Florida will have to when it travels to Baton Rouge on Saturday. The 17th-ranked Gators have allowed the lowest Total QBR (13.0) of any defense and the second fewest rushing yards per game (65.0).

"They’re going to get movement in the run game, they do a nice job in protection, but again, balance is the word you’re looking for," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "You have to try and make this a one-dimensional game as best you can and understand they’re very effective at throwing the football, and that’s where they’ve hurt some people."


ATHENS, Ga. -- With new coordinator Cam Cameron in charge, LSU's offense this season is more diverse than it has been in several years -- and yet the overriding philosophy remains the same.

“If we don't slow down the run game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told a caller on his Monday night radio show, “it's going to be a long day for Georgia.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Bulldogs must slow down LSU tailback Jeremy Hill, who has rushed for 350 yards and six touchdowns this season.
When Richt's Bulldogs last faced LSU -- in the 2011 SEC championship game -- LSU completed only five passes for a total of 30 yards, but the Tigers' stable of running backs combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-10 victory.

Their pound-the-rock strategy was in place last season, as well, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's 12 touchdown passes tying for the fewest among regular starters in the SEC and the Tigers relying on Jeremy Hill and the other tailbacks to make their offense go.

“Ain't no trickery, ain't no razzle-dazzle,” Georgia defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “It's just all about playing the best you can and seeing who's going to make the fewest mistakes.”

On the occasions where that physical approach wasn't enough, LSU's offense bogged down, with the Tigers ranking 10th in the SEC in total offense (374.2 yards per game) and 11th in passing (200.5 ypg). LSU's defense was as imposing as ever, but its lack of offensive creativity was a clear liability.

Enter former NFL coordinator Cameron, who still leans heavily on Hill and the running game, but has helped Mettenberger (1,026 passing yards, 10 TDs, one interception through four games) rank among the nation's most improved quarterbacks. The senior is eighth nationally with an 88.3 Total QBR, up substantially from his dismal 47.1 rating a season ago.

“Sometimes a guy has a coach that may have a tremendous scheme, but doesn't really have a feel for how to handle your quarterback. You better handle him properly,” Richt said. “Cam's been doing that forever, and he's been doing it at all levels of ball. I'm just very impressed with what he's doing.”

It helps that Mettenberger has two impressive receivers at his disposal in Odell Beckham Jr. (third in the SEC with 97.2 receiving ypg) and Jarvis Landry (fourth, 91.0) -- a duo who make it difficult for an opponent to sell out to stop the run. And Mettenberger's continued development -- he's completing 64.8 percent of his passes and averaging 11.28 yards per attempt compared to 58.8 and 7.4 in 2012 -- makes LSU even more of a test at all levels of a defense.

“[Georgia, LSU and Alabama] run the ball very well, and I think that's what opened up the downfield passing game,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “Because once you're done trying to stack the box on a team that can throw the ball like [Georgia's Aaron] Murray can, like [Alabama's AJ] McCarron can, like Zach can, that's when people beat you.”

Nonetheless, the Bulldogs know that their defense won't have a prayer on Saturday if it fails to match LSU's physicality up front.

Slowing down the Tigers' running game remains every opposing defense's first objective, but it is not a particularly easy goal to accomplish. Auburn certainly knew Hill was the top player it had to stop last Saturday and LSU's bellcow back still rolled up 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 win.

Neutralizing LSU's running game will be the Bulldogs' first objective on Saturday, coming off an impressive performance against North Texas where Georgia allowed the Mean Green to accumulate just 7 rushing yards on 25 attempts. It's a difficult goal to meet, but if they can pull it off, the Bulldogs' chances of victory increase exponentially.

“That's just the style of football that they play with Les Miles being an offensive guy, and that's how he likes to run it” Swann said. “He's going to line it up and run it at you. You just have to prepare for it.

“You have to tackle well, you have to play your gaps well -- everything has to be fundamentally sound because it's not going to be no trickeration going on. It's going to be line up, smashmouth football. You have to be ready for that.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Zach Mettenberger was too quick on his first pass attempt Saturday night.

LSU's senior quarterback spun quickly to his right and rushed to plant his foot as he attempted to fire a pass to Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. The ball skipped carelessly at the receiver's feet. Mettenberger shook his head, kicking himself for the mistake. With the UAB defender playing off-coverage, it would have been an easy pickup of 5 or more yards and, more importantly, a first down. Instead, it was now third down and 5 yards to go with the punter waiting impatiently on the sidelines. A familiar groan swept through Tiger Stadium -- not again.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Sarah Glenn/Getty ImagesZach Mettenberger and the LSU offense are off to a flying start under Cam Cameron.
It was a snapshot of the old Zach Mettenberger, another über-talented quarterback leaving too many opportunities wasted on the football field. He had all the tools -- good height, good size, a good arm -- but inconsistency plagued his career from Georgia to Butler Community College to LSU. Les Miles and the coaching staff had seen it before, flip-flopping between similarly troubled quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee from 2010-11. They thought Mettenberger would be the one to break the chain last season, but he was too inaccurate and too careless with the football. His 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions wound up placing him 12th out of 13 passers in the SEC in ESPN's Adjusted Quarterback Rating, which accounts for key factors like down, distance, field position, as well as the time and score of the game.

But that was 2012, Mettenberger's first full season starting and Greg Strudawa's second year as LSU's play-caller and quarterbacks coach. That combination failed as the Tigers offense floundered, punctuated by a disappointing 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

This is 2013. After failing to complete his first pass against UAB, Mettenberger went back to work the very next play, stepping into a throw that whistled 13 yards over the middle to Tarvin Dural for a first down. The crowd cheered and Tiger Stadium settled in for what would be the best passing night of Mettenberger's career. If last season is what it took for Mettenberger to get to this, then everyone could accept that. He's now 18th nationally in QBR and No. 1 in the SEC.

"If you watch Zach throw the football, he's throwing it with so much confidence," Miles said after the 56-17 win. "He knows where it's supposed to go."

Mettenberger showed all the tell-tale signs of confidence against UAB: He made quick decisions, stepped into passes and didn't mind throwing the ball into coverage. He wound up passing for 282 yards and set a school record with five touchdowns, the first three of which went into double coverage. On his first touchdown, he threw the ball before Beckham broke on his route and fit it narrowly between two defensive backs for the score. He did the same exact thing with Beckham for his second touchdown, and on the third scoring pass he inched the ball just over a leaping safety's hands and into the outstretched arms of Jarvis Landry. They were risky throws, but they were thrown perfectly.

For so long LSU's offense has been risk averse, opting to run the football even in passing situations. The Tigers were 92nd nationally in passing a season ago and have not ranked higher than 71st since 2008.

But this year appears to be different. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has Mettenberger and the offense going a new direction: vertical. And it wasn't just against an overmatched UAB squad. LSU did the same thing to 20th-ranked TCU in the season opener two weeks ago. Mettenberger was 16 of 32 passing for 251 yards and a touchdown against the Horned Frogs, which in itself wasn't overly impressive. But a closer inspection saw the Tigers push the ball downfield with 19 plays of 10 or more yards, compared to the 11.46 it averaged a season ago.

Through two games, an even odder trend has formed, though: LSU is passing to set up the run, not the other way around.

"Here in the past couple of years we've been very good at the run," Mettenberger said. "Teams are coming in trying to load the box on us, and this year when we take our shots we're hitting them. That's something we've all been working on."

Mettenberger said he couldn't remember a specific time where he realized this year would be different, but it could have been the first time he met his new offensive coordinator.

"Meeting [Cameron] got me really excited about the potential because I knew what talent we had," he said. "When he first told me about the X's and O's and everything, I got really excited because potentially this can be one of the best offenses LSU has had in recent years."

Beckham, who had a career night against UAB with five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns, has been thrilled with the trio he, Landry and Mettenberger have formed, calling it a "dream come true." Together they've combined for 23 receptions, 434 yards and six touchdowns through the air, already only one touchdown off last year's total.

And Beckham said the first two games are only the start.

"Zach is going to be a great quarterback," he said. "As the year develops, he's going to develop.

"I'm looking forward to being a part of it. It's a great start for him."

It's early, but has SEC lost a few steps?

September, 10, 2013
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By the time the sun sets Saturday on the East Coast, another one of the preseason heavyweights in the SEC will be sporting a loss.

And in unison, the rest of the college football world will let out a collective cheer.

One of the ways to look at the Alabama-Texas A&M showdown is that the winner will be in primo position to make a run at the national championship.

But there’s another subplot to the game in College Station: The loser will be the fourth SEC team ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls to lose -- only three weeks into the season.

After watching Florida fall last week at Miami and Georgia stumble to open the season at Clemson, the anybody-but-the-SEC crowd is starting to rev its engines and ponder the possibilities.

Maybe the big, bad SEC is showing a few cracks in its foundation, and just maybe this is the year that a BCS National Championship -- the last one, as fate would have it -- is played without an SEC team as a participant.

There are still so many ways this season could go, but the feeling coming in was that the surest way for the SEC’s seven-year national championship streak to end was for the league to beat up on itself.

Stay tuned on that front, but it certainly looks like everybody in the SEC has a few warts.

Even Alabama was average at best offensively in its season-opening 35-10 win over Virginia Tech. We’ll find out a lot more about the Crimson Tide this weekend, but part of their issues offensively in the opener can be attributed to how physical Virginia Tech’s front seven was on defense.

The Hokies flat got after Alabama, and unlike past years when the Tide were playing with an NFL-esque offensive line, they didn’t respond particularly well.

Meanwhile, the rest of the college football world is starting to smell blood, SEC blood.

Is that premature?

[+] EnlargeAlabama/Texas A&M
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsSaturday's showdown between Alabama and Texas A&M should provide some answers about the path to the national championship.
Sure it is, but it’s going to be fascinating to see how it all plays out, because more than ever, it’s the SEC versus the rest of college football.

Comparing scores this early in the season is meaningless, but Clemson did beat Georgia, which beat South Carolina.

After Miami took down Florida last week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney chortled, “How about that ACC? Spunky little old league.”

The best part was Swinney flashing the “U” sign as he walked out of the interview room following Clemson’s 52-13 pasting of South Carolina State.

The gamesmanship makes it a lot more fun, and Clemson is hardly the only team that’s a legitimate threat to the SEC this season.

At first glance, Oregon appears to be faster and more explosive than ever, and nobody’s sleeping on Stanford. Louisville could easily go unbeaten when you look at the Cardinals’ schedule, and it’s not far-fetched to think that an unbeaten team could come out of the Big Ten this season either.

Ultimately, it’s probably going to come down to how much damage is doled out within the SEC’s own parameters.

What’s more, is there another Texas A&M lurking similar to a year ago?

The Aggies went from unranked to taking down Alabama in Tuscaloosa last November and were playing as well as anybody in the country by season’s end.

LSU was sort of the forgotten team in the league to begin this season after losing so many star defensive players, but the Tigers’ passing game has taken flight under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and it’s hard to see an appreciable drop-off on defense to this point.

Again, though, LSU has to play at Georgia in three weeks and at Alabama in November.

One of the constants in the SEC’s national championship run has been suffocating defense. It’s not a coincidence that six of the seven national champions during the streak have finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The early returns suggest that some of the offenses are perhaps catching up with the defenses in this league. But, then, maybe some of the defenses this season simply aren’t what we’ve grown accustomed to in the SEC.

South Carolina was torched for 536 yards last week in its loss to Georgia, which has given up 68 points in its first two games, albeit to a pair of top 10 teams.

Texas A&M has been playing with a patchwork unit defensively thanks to suspensions, but the Aggies have given up 59 points in their first two games -- to Rice and Sam Houston State.

Florida is a load on defense, but the Gators haven’t shown nearly enough offensively to think that they could be a national championship contender.

LSU’s toughest tests are yet to come defensively, which leads us back to the Crimson Tide.

They’ve won national championships each of the past two seasons despite losing games at home in November.

One of the things that make Saturday’s game so pivotal for both Alabama and Texas A&M is that neither team has a tough draw in the East this season. They both avoid Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

So the path to the national championship gala will clear up considerably for the winner Saturday.

Even so, it’s a race after a few laps around the track that has everybody outside the SEC’s footprint believing, anticipating and hoping that the league everybody has been chasing for the better part of the past decade may finally be losing a few steps.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
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Here are five things we learned on another crazy Saturday in the SEC:

East should be wild: Just as we all expected, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina each have a loss after all of two weeks. Georgia jumped into the division lead with its 41-30 win against South Carolina on Saturday, but the division's power trio all figure to hang around throughout the fall. They all have demonstrated glaring weaknesses that make a second loss possible for each of them -- and even if Georgia has the lead now, it also faces perhaps the most difficult league schedule of the three expected front-runners. It should be yet another memorable race in the East.

Pay attention, Tide: Johnny Manziel certainly looked like a Heisman Trophy contender in passing for 403 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for another in Texas A&M's 65-28 thrashing of FCS squad Sam Houston State. But the Aggies' porous defense has to be a major concern for Kevin Sumlin, with Alabama's stable of running backs on tap next week. Sam Houston's Timothy Flanders rushed for 170 yards and scored three touchdowns against A&M's depleted defense. Several Aggies defenders should be back from suspensions next week against Alabama, which should help. But after allowing 450 yards per game in the first two games, the Aggies will have to get a lot better in a week's time.

[+] EnlargeShayon Green, Jeff Driskel
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJeff Driskel and the Gators offense struggled in a 21-16 loss to Miami on Saturday.
More of the same at Florida: Jeff Driskel and Florida's offense still appear to be the middling bunch they were in 2012. In Saturday's 21-16 loss at Miami, Driskel passed for a career-high 291 yards, but the Gators turned it over four times inside the Miami 20 in another bumbling performance. Florida's defense surrendered just 212 yards and 10 first downs, but the offense still hasn't found consistent playmakers, and that was clearly evident Saturday.

Mettenberger for Heisman: It looks like the offseason talk about LSU making better use of Zach Mettenberger's powerful right arm under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was no joke. Mettenberger set a new school record with five touchdown passes in Saturday's 56-17 win against UAB. After passing for 282 yards against UAB -- with Odell Beckham Jr. grabbing five balls for 136 yards and three scores -- and 251 last week against TCU, Mettenberger has eclipsed the 250-yard mark in both of the first two games. He did so only three times last season.

Welcome back: Through two weeks, seven SEC programs are off to a 2-0 start. Included in that bunch are four of the five teams that failed to reach a bowl game last season: Auburn, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. Enjoy it while it lasts, though, guys. Tennessee faces Oregon and Florida in the next two games. Auburn gets Mississippi State and LSU in the next two weeks. Arkansas draws Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in a four-week stretch before long. And Missouri faces Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in October alone. In other words, the road's going to get bumpy soon once they jump into conference play, and they can't feast on the Samfords, Arkansas States and Toledos of the college football world.

3-point stance: First impressions

September, 2, 2013
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Three-Point Stance, It’s Only One Game, But … Edition

1. … Washington backed up the confidence that head coach Steve Sarkisian placed in a team that has been 7-6 for the last three years. The Huskies moved back into their home after a $280-million renovation and looked as if they couldn’t have been more comfortable. The 38-6 victory over Boise State, the Broncos’ first loss by more than six points in six years, is evidence enough. But the 592 yards of offense without suspended preseason All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a sign that the Pac-12 North may be the best division in the FBS.

2. … the union of LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger appears to be a success. Mettenberger completed 16-of-32 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown, nearly doubling his raw QBR of a year ago (74.6/3did 9.3). Moreover, Mettenberger put up those numbers against TCU, year in and year out one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation. Mettenberger made big, precise throws, putting them in places where defenders couldn’t reach them. That’s what NFL quarterbacks do.

3. … Oklahoma may be out of its long defensive slump. The team that allowed at least 34 points in four of its last five games whitewashed Louisiana-Monroe, 34-0. That’s the Sooners’ first shutout in three seasons, and came against a team that went 8-5 last season and has eight returning offensive starters, including four-year starting quarterback Kolton Browning. The Sooners allowed 166 total yards and only 2-of-16 third-down conversions. In other words, they looked like a Bob Stoops team.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
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Ready or not, it's here. The start of the college football season is upon us with all of its promise and potential.

Throughout the SEC, there's a sense of new beginnings, of hope, of the fresh start so many programs have been longing for. Gus Malzahn will lead Auburn for the first time as its head coach, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones will coach their first games in the SEC at Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, and Mark Stoops will take the first steps in rebuilding a Kentucky program that's struggled historically.

Everyone is on an even keel today, but that all changes when the lines are painted and the football is teed up for the start of the season. So as you get ready for all that Week 1 has to offer, keep an eye on these few things:

1. Return of the champs: Alabama has all the ingredients to make another run at a national title. AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon are Heisman Trophy contenders, and the defense is once again littered with potential All-Americans. With a league-best 16 players chosen to the Coaches' Preseason All-SEC Team, there's no doubting the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But can Nick Saban fend off complacency again and help his team meet its full potential? That remains to be seen, though a season opener against Virginia Tech is a good place to start. The Hokies are a three-touchdown underdog that Alabama could easily overlook with a bye week and Texas A&M to follow. Will overconfidence get the best of the Tide? If UA comes out with anything less than 100 percent effort, that could signal trouble for the road ahead.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray will aim to lead Georgia past Clemson in the Bulldogs' opener.
2. An early title test for Georgia: Mark Richt's Bulldogs won't get a chance to test the waters before jumping in headlong this season, as Clemson awaits in Game 1. Never mind letting Aaron Murray and his talented tandem of tailbacks get their bearings, and never mind allowing the revamped defense to find its stride; Georgia will encounter its first obstacle on the road to the national championship right away. Tajh Boyd and the Tigers offense are prolific -- and dangerous -- averaging 512 yards per game a season ago, which was good enough for ninth in the country. And while there's no doubting Georgia's ability on offense, there are some serious questions on the other side of the ball. After all, 10 of the 22 players listed on Georgia's two-deep depth chart have never played a down of FBS football.

3. Can LSU's offense turn the corner?: There have been glimpses of potential, but LSU's offense has never reached its full potential under Les Miles. The defense has been great, sure, but when it's come to scoring points, the Tigers left something to be desired. Not having the right quarterback had something to do with that, though, but this season, that excuse and all others won't be enough as Zach Mettenberger enters his senior season under center and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron takes control. LSU will still line up and play power football, which it has always done well. The passing game, though, could use some spark, and Miles hopes Cameron is the guy to light that fire, starting with the season opener against TCU. Just because the Horned Frogs come from the defensively challenged Big 12 doesn't mean coach Gary Patterson's squad can't play ball. TCU has long been SEC-like on defense with playmakers like defensive lineman Devonte Fields and cornerback Jason Verrett. They'll get after Mettenberger and give LSU fans an early look at what the Tigers' offense is truly capable of.

4. Florida seeking playmakers: The Gators' woes on offense have been well documented. After all, Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver or rusher since 2004. Since Tim Tebow left, there hasn't been a lot of chomp to the Gators' bite. For all of Jeff Driskel's faults as a young quarterback, it was hard to figure out exactly who he was supposed to get the football to last season. There was no Percy Harvin to be found. While there doesn't appear to be an All-American brewing at wide receiver now, this season should be better. Losing Matt Jones for the season opener hurts, but it should give other players a chance to step up and make plays. With a date with in-state rival Miami looming, coming out with a bang against Toledo could serve as the springboard to bigger and better things in 2013.

5. Which Johnny Football will it be?: It's only Rice, but Johnny Manziel needs to come out and set the tone right away for what kind of season he hopes to have. The Aggies’ success depends on it. After an offseason filled with turmoil, it's time for all of College Station to turn the page. We've heard time and time again that it will get better when Manziel can put aside the distractions and focus solely on football. Now, he has to prove it. If he really is tired of the college life and ready to move on to the NFL, he'll have to show he's capable of handling the spotlight and performing on the football field. Veterans like Luke Luke Joeckel, Ryan Swope and Damontre Moore are gone. For better or worse, it's Manziel's team, and the pressure is on him now more than ever.
Zach Mettenberger has picked up a lot of different playbooks during his college career. He doesn't collect them out of habit, he's just dealt with his fair share of different offensive coordinators since his one season at Georgia in 2010.

He was handed another this spring when Cam Cameron replaced Greg Studrawa as LSU's offensive coordinator. It sounds like it could be a little bit of an annoyance to have to learn and change so much while trying to master the sport's most important and scrutinized position, but Mettenberger has appreciated the chaos.

"If you look at the NFL, it's like a carousel of offensive coordinators that come through (for teams). If I am fortunate enough to play in the NFL, this is a chance to get me prepared for that," said Mettenberger, who passed for 2,609 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. "There's been a lot of studying and getting used to new playbooks and whatnot, but I've definitely embraced that challenge and enjoy it."

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports"I'm just more comfortable .... I learned a lot of tough lessons last year, but also a lot of good ones," Zach Mettenberger said.
For playing such a high-pressure position at one of the nation's most high-profile programs, Mettenberger displays quite the cool demeanor. Facade or not, Mettenberger looks more comfortable now than he did during the early part of his first season as LSU's starter. Back then, he was struggling to maneuver his way through LSU's offense. His inconsistent play held the offense back at times, as he saw his completion percentage fluctuate between 77 and 37 percent through the first two months of the season.

He failed to pass for 200 yards in consecutive games through that stretch and threw seven touchdowns to four interceptions.

But when November arrived, Mettenberger became a new player, passing for 200 yards in all four of LSU's games that month. His comfort level continued to rise and his chemistry with players improved. There was no special formula, Mettenberger said. He just had to be patient and continue the learning process.

Now, Mettenberger will enter the 2013 season without hesitation about his ability. His confidence pushed him through yet another spring with a new offensive coordinator. With all of his receiving weapons returning, Mettenberger expects to have a much more productive second year as LSU's starter.

"I'm just more comfortable," he said. "You can't tell? I'm more loose, not as nervous. I learned a lot of tough lessons last year, but also a lot of good ones. The ups and downs of the college football season are some things that I'm more prepared for and ready to take on."

Mettenberger knows that with Cameron aboard, his arm will get used even more this fall. He knows his strength is throwing downfield, and he hopes to unleash that more against his SEC foes.

"There were a lot of chances [downfield] that we had last year that we missed," Mettenberger said. "You can trust me when I say that that's been one of our main priorities in getting better at this offseason."

He also knows that everyone will be watching. For so long people have waited for more of a downfield passing game from LSU, and Mettenberger was supposed to shepherd that process. The wait is over, and in a pressure cooker like the SEC, it's time for Mettenberger to prove himself as he looks to cement his legacy with the Tigers.

"You're either a winner or a loser," he said. "In this day and age it's what you can do for me and I want to go out on top and lead us to a great season and hopefully I can leave LSU with a national championship."
There's hardly ever a perfect time to part ways with a coach, especially one who has had success. Some programs opt to nudge out long-tenured, mostly successful coaches only to pay the price later for their decisions. Others that part ways with a veteran coach end up seeing improvement. ESPN.com is taking a closer look at this topic today, and we're putting it under the Big Ten microscope.

Here are some notable Big Ten (and Nebraska) coaching forceouts:

LLOYD CARR, Michigan (1995-2007)

What happened: A longtime Michigan assistant for Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller, Carr moved into the top job in 1995 and two years later guided Michigan to a national title. He led the Wolverines to at least a share of five Big Ten championships and six bowl victories, including the 1998 Rose and 2000 Orange bowls. Carr had the Wolverines positioned for another national title run in 2006 as they faced archrival Ohio State in an epic matchup of undefeated teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 nationally. But Carr's squad fell to Jim Tressel's Buckeyes, a theme during the later part of Carr's tenure. The 2007 season began with a humiliating loss to Football Championship Subdivision team Appalachian State. Although Carr officially retired in November 2007, there certainly was some pressure for the school to go in a new direction.

[+] EnlargeLloyd Carr
Chris Livingston/Icon SMILloyd Carr is carried off the field following Michigan's win over the Gators in the Capital One Bowl, which was Carr's final game.
What happened next: Michigan went away from its coaching tree and plucked Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia to succeed Carr. It was a rocky situation from the start that never truly smoothed out. Rodriguez's first Michigan team in 2008 might have been the worst ever, tumbling to 3-9 and ending the school's streak of consecutive bowl appearances at 33. The following summer, Michigan admitted to committing major violations for the first time in its history -- relating to practice time -- and self-imposed probation. The Wolverines once again missed a bowl game in 2009 and struggled to make one in Rodriguez's third season. After a blowout loss in the 2011 Gator Bowl, Michigan fired Rodriguez, who went just 15-22 at Michigan (6-18 Big Ten, 0-3 against Ohio State). Michigan might have slipped a bit from the ranks of the elite under Carr, but the program plummeted to historic depths under Rodriguez. Michigan replaced Rodriguez with former Carr assistant Brady Hoke.

JOHN COOPER, Ohio State (1988-2000)

What happened: After a rocky start (4-6-1 in 1988), Cooper went on a nice run at Ohio State in the mid- to late 1990s, averaging 10.3 victories between 1993 and 1998. He guided Ohio State to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 13 years during the 1996 season and emerged with a victory against Arizona State. He also won the Sugar Bowl after the 1998 season and coached Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. But Cooper had two problems: an inability to beat archrival Michigan (2-10-1) and struggles in bowl games (3-8). Three times the Buckeyes entered The Game with a perfect record -- 1993, 1995 and 1996 -- and fell to the Wolverines. After a 6-6 clunker in 1999 and another loss to Michigan in 2000, Ohio State fired Cooper, who finished second on the school's all-time coaching wins list, behind Woody Hayes, with 111.

What happened next: Ohio State made an unorthodox move in bringing in Youngstown State's Tressel to succeed Cooper. It paid off as Tressel guided the Buckeyes to a national title in his second season. Ohio State remains the only Big Ten team to win a crystal football during the BCS era. Tressel ended up dominating the Big Ten (six titles) and Michigan (8-1) during his tenure, leading Ohio State to five BCS bowl wins (one vacated) and three appearances in the national title game. Although Tressel's tenure ended in scandal, he certainly boosted Ohio State's program after the Cooper era.

BILL MALLORY, Indiana (1984-1996)

What happened: After mostly successful runs at Miami (Ohio), Colorado and Northern Illinois, Mallory came to Indiana and put together an impressive run, reaching six bowl games between 1986 and 1993. He became the first man to win back-to-back Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1986 and 1987. Indiana had three top-four finishes in the Big Ten (1987, 1991, 1993), but after Mallory went just 5-17 (1-15 Big Ten) in 1995 and 1996, Indiana fired him. Mallory remains Indiana's all-time coaching wins leader (69) and is responsible for six of the Hoosiers' nine bowl teams.

What happened next: Indiana has yet to come close to achieving the type of moderate success it enjoyed in the Mallory era. The program struggled under Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo before surging a bit for the late Terry Hoeppner. Still, it took 11 seasons after Mallory's dismissal for Indiana to return to the postseason under Bill Lynch in 2007. Although the Hoosiers are making strides under Kevin Wilson, the program has a ways to go to match where it was under Mallory.

GLEN MASON, Minnesota (1997-2006)

What happened: Mason never got Minnesota to the promised land -- its first Big Ten championship since 1967 -- but he made the Gophers a consistent bowl team. He won six to eight games in six of his final eight seasons, slumping to a 4-7 finish in 2001 but breaking through with 10 victories in 2003. Minnesota reached bowls seven times under Mason, but his middling Big Ten record (32-48) and inability to challenge for league titles eventually stirred the administration into action. The school fired Mason two days after Minnesota squandered a 31-point third-quarter lead against Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl.

What happened next: The program backslid with the overmatched Tim Brewster at the helm, going 1-11 in 2007. Brewster made some splashes in recruiting but couldn't get enough talent to translate to the field. After a 7-1 start in 2008, the Gophers dropped their final five games, including a 55-0 decision to archrival Iowa at the Metrodome. A 6-7 season followed in 2009, and Minnesota fired Brewster after a 1-6 start in 2010. Brewster went 15-30 at the school and 6-21 in the Big Ten, which included an 0-10 mark in trophy games. His tumultuous tenure had many questioning why Minnesota ever got rid of Mason.

FRANK SOLICH, Nebraska (1998-2003)

What happened: A former Huskers fullback, Solich had the nearly impossible task of following coaching legend Tom Osborne, who won national titles in three of his final four seasons at the school. Solich won 42 games in his first four seasons, a Big 12 championship in 1999 and Big 12 North titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He guided the Huskers to the 2000 Fiesta Bowl championship, and the 2001 team, led by Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, played Miami for the national title at the Rose Bowl but fell 37-14. Nebraska then went 7-7 in 2002, its first nonwinning season since 1961. Solich rebounded with a 9-3 mark in 2003 but was fired despite a 58-19 record in Lincoln.

What happened next: Much like Michigan, Nebraska went away from its coaching tree and hired Bill Callahan, who had led the Oakland Raiders for two seasons. And much like Michigan, Nebraska paid a price as the program went downhill. The Huskers went 5-6 in Callahan's first year, their first losing campaign since 1961. They won eight games the following year and the Big 12 North in 2006, but a highly anticipated 2007 season fell apart, particularly for the celebrated Blackshirts defense. Nebraska surrendered 40 points or more in six games and went 5-7, leading to Callahan's dismissal. Although Nebraska has rebounded under Bo Pelini, its last conference championship came under Solich's watch, 14 long years ago.

Future SEC Power Rankings

June, 21, 2013
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In keeping with the theme of peering into our crystal balls to see what's in store for the future of college football, it's time to look at how all 14 SEC teams will do over the next few years.

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.

Video: Ware's top 5 SEC quarterbacks

June, 5, 2013
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Andre Ware ranks his top five quarterbacks in the SEC.

Recapping the SEC spring games

April, 22, 2013
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Alabama coach Nick Saban wasn't ready to proclaim the Crimson Tide as the front-runner to win a third straight national championship coming out of Saturday's spring game, but that's nothing new.

Saban also found plenty of flaws with his team coming out of the past two springs.

AJ McCarron passed for 223 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown to Kenny Bell, to lead the White team to a 17-14 win over the Crimson. McCarron also threw two interceptions, and there were a total of nine turnovers in the game.

Saban said afterward that some of the Alabama players were "too comfortable with their circumstances."

For more on Alabama's spring game, read here and here.

ARKANSAS

More than 51,000 people showed up for Bret Bielema's first spring game at Arkansas, and the Hogs showed off a power running game, which was a staple under Bielema at Wisconsin. Brandon Allen took another big step toward locking down the starting quarterback job, although the Hogs have yet to name a starter.

For more on Arkansas' spring game, read here and here.

AUBURN

Auburn set a school record with an attendance of 83,401 at its spring game, the first under head coach Gus Malzahn, as the battle for the starting quarterback job raged on between Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier. Wallace threw a pair of touchdown passes with an interception, while Frazier threw a touchdown pass and ran for a touchdown. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for 117 yards and also had two catches for 47 yards.

For more on Auburn's spring game, read here and here.

LSU

Quarterback Zach Mettenberger passed for 236 yards and two touchdowns in leading the White team (starters) to a 37-0 victory over the Purple team (reserves) on Saturday in LSU's spring game. Mettenberger was done by halftime and was 12-of-19 passing. The Tigers showed off their expanded passing game under new coordinator Cam Cameron, and receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry both had big days.

For more on LSU's spring game, read here and here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

The Maroon team (comprised of the first-team defense) defeated the White team 38-28 on Saturday in Mississippi State's spring game. Starting quarterback Tyler Russell was sharp for the White and threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes to tight end Brandon Hill. Russell and most of the starters played only the first half. Brandon Holloway rushed for 128 yards for the Maroon team.

For more on Mississippi State's spring game, read here and here.

MISSOURI

None of the Missouri quarterbacks separated themselves in the Tigers' spring game on Saturday, which was won by the starters 21-14. The game started with the reserves up 14-0. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson was most upset with four interceptions by the starting quarterbacks in the first half. James Franklin had the best day of the quarterbacks and guided a pair of touchdown drives. Maty Mauk was intercepted twice.

For more on Missouri's spring game, read here and here.

TENNESSEE

More than 61,000 fans flocked to Neyland Stadium for Tennessee's first spring game under Butch Jones, and the Orange team (defense) outscored the White team (offense) 95-71 using a modified scoring system. Afterward, Jones told his two quarterbacks, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman, that he was handing over the team to them. Jones likes the way the team progressed this spring, but said the summer months will be critical.

For more on Tennessee's spring game, read here and here.
With spring practice in full swing, all eyes are on Zach Mettenberger and LSU's passing offense. And that trend should continue through fall practice and once the season finally gets here.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertFollowing a 12-touchdown season in 2012, Jeremy Hill aims to keep the Tigers running next season.
But while many want to see what Mettenberger can do in his second year as a starter, especially with Cam Cameron taking over the offense, LSU's running game will still have to be very strong. With Michael Ford and Spencer Ware surprisingly taking their games to the NFL, the Tigers will be down some backs in 2013, meaning rising sophomore Jeremy Hill will become that much more important this fall.

In fact, he could be the X factor in LSU's offense.

The Tigers want to throw the ball more, and probably will with Cameron's philosophy and all of Mettenberger's receiving targets returning, but a powerful running game has always been in Les Miles' arsenal. Having a bullish back like Hill, who resumes his role as LSU's No. 1 running back, will help continue that trend.

But like Mettenberger a year ago, there will be a lot of pressure on Hill to perform. He arrived with a load of hype last year, and once he took over as the starter midway through the season, he was one of the most exciting running backs to watch in the SEC. He finished the year with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns. He started five of the 11 games he played in.

Starting with the South Carolina game in early October, Hill carried the ball at least 12 times each game during the last two months of the season. During that span, he gained 124 yards in a win over the Gamecocks and 127 yards in a win over Texas A&M a week later. He rushed for three touchdowns in those games and averaged more than 7 yards a carry in both outings. A week later, he carried the ball 29 times for 107 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Alabama.

His numbers dipped in the final three games of the season, but he came roaring back for three quarters against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. After rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns (averaging 10.3 yards per carry along the way), he didn't touch the ball at all in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers let a 24-13 lead slip away inside the Georgia Dome.

On the season, Hill averaged a rugged 5.3 yards per carry. He also gained 490 of his yards on first down, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Eleven of his touchdowns also came on first down, and he rushed for 291 of his yards (5.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in the fourth quarter, making the Chick-fil-A Bowl game plan in the fourth quarter that much more perplexing.

Mettenberger should be better this fall, but Hill will have to pick up where he left off and be able to carry even more of the load. He'll be able to get breathers from Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, but Hill will be the focal point of the running game. He has a great combination of size and speed and packs quite the punch, making it hard to prevent him from toughing out a couple extra hards on every run.

People continue to pump up guys like Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon -- and for good reason -- but keep two eyes on Hill this fall. He has all the talent to be a special player in this league, and if the passing game gets going, Hill will be freed up to do even more in 2013 ... and that's not a good thing for opposing defenses.

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