NCF Nation: Cedric Ogbuehi

All-SEC team debates

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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Obviously when you take the opinions of six people -- in this case, our group of SEC writers -- we aren’t going to agree about everything. Such was the case this week when we assembled our picks for the SEC blog’s all-conference team.

Some picks were easy. For instance, Alabama’s Amari Cooper might have been the easiest choice for All-SEC wide receiver in history. Others, not so much.

Here are some of the places where we were split on a decision or where we made a somewhat surprising omission, plus a couple of guys who we feel confident will make our team in the future -- possibly as soon as next season:

Sims vs. Prescott at QB

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBlake Sims consistently stepped up in crucial moments for the Crimson Tide over the second half of the season.
Alex Scarborough: There’s little doubt in my mind that Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott is the more talented quarterback. He’s got the stronger arm and generally has more polish than Alabama’s Blake Sims. But that’s not the point. This isn’t the NFL. This is college football, where players like Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow can have stellar careers without possessing All-Pro tools.

With that in mind, my selection for All-SEC QB was simple. It was Sims over Prescott -- by a mile.

That’s no knock on Prescott. Personally, I love watching him play. But when his Heisman Trophy campaign waned after Mississippi State reached No. 1 in the polls, he went sideways. Throwing out games against FCS Tennessee-Martin and woefully pathetic Vanderbilt, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the second half of the season.

Sims, meanwhile, was stellar in the biggest moments of the second half, whether it was the overtime affair in Death Valley, his 15-play drive against Mississippi State that Nick Saban ranked as one of the best in school history, or the end the regular season where he bounced back from three interceptions against Auburn to lead five consecutive touchdown drives.

If you need production, consider this: Sims ranks first or second in the SEC in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. His Adjusted QBR (88.4) ranks second in the country, trailing only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. With 3,250 yards passing, he surpassed AJ McCarron for the school record in a single season.

David Ching: Let’s use a fancy-pants baseball statistic here: Wins Above Replacement Player. That stat assigns a number value to a player, reflecting the wins he individually added to his team’s total compared to what an average player would add in the same circumstances.

For instance, Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw led MLB this season with an 8.0 WARP, meaning that simply having Kershaw on the team gave the Los Angeles Dodgers eight wins more than they would have had with a replacement-level player (like a minor leaguer).

I’ll get to the point. If there was such a thing as WARP in college football, Prescott would be a mile ahead of Sims. There isn’t even much of a debate in my mind.

Sims had a good season, and was even great at times, but he also plays for a team that is stocked with future NFL talent. By far the biggest reason that Mississippi State was in the playoff conversation until the end of the season was that Prescott is the Bulldogs’ quarterback.

This is a guy who’s probably going to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 once bowl season is over, plus he’s already thrown 24 touchdowns, caught one scoring pass and run for 13 more. I’m eminently confident that if the two players switched teams, Alabama would still be where it is in the national hierarchy. Could State say the same? I don’t think so.

Where’s Cedric Ogbuehi? Texas A&M’s 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle has a strong chance to be a first-round pick. In fact, he’s currently No. 11 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board Insider and considering his athleticism, it seems to be a safe bet he’ll perform well at the NFL scouting combine and improve his draft stock. However, 2014 wasn’t quite the home run that many were expecting from Ogbuehi when he made the move from right tackle in 2013 to left tackle this season.

Ogbuehi was inconsistent at times and didn’t always appear comfortable at left tackle. It’s a position he didn’t play in college before this season, so some transition was to be expected, especially with footwork when switching from the right side to the left as an offensive lineman. He had his moments when he looked the part, but others, like this one vs. Robert Nkemdiche or this one vs. Kwon Alexander where he didn’t.

He moved back to right tackle for a few games as the Aggies tried to manage without starting right tackle Germain Ifedi, who missed time because of an injury and Ogbuehi looked more comfortable there, though even at that position, Missouri’s Markus Golden gave Ogbuehi all he could handle when the Tigers came to town. Overall, it just didn’t feel like a first-team All-SEC season for the future pro. (Sam Khan Jr.)

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette didn't have the Heisman-worthy season some were projecting, but expect him to be in the conversation in 2015.
Wait until next year, offense: Prior to the season, Leonard Fournette was generating Heisman Trophy buzz before he had even played a single down in college. Our bet is that the LSU freshman is a much bigger factor in that conversation next year. This season, he had some quiet games, as most freshmen do, but he also carried the Tigers’ offense in narrow wins against Florida and Texas A&M. It hasn’t been a Heisman-caliber season by any means, but Fournette can still post a 1,000-yard season if he rushes for 109 yards against Notre Dame in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. That would still be a heck of a debut season, and more than enough reason to expect big things from Fournette next fall. (David Ching)

Wait until next year, defense: Myles Garrett is a star. There’s no doubt about that. In most leagues, he probably makes first-team all-conference with the season he put together. But this is the SEC, with a lot of great defensive linemen, so Garrett -- while excellent this season -- must wait. The Texas A&M true freshman defensive end had 11 sacks this year, which ties him for second in the conference with Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt, but Garret compiled eight of those against the following opponents: Lamar, Rice and Louisiana-Monroe. The sacks still count, but they aren’t as impressive as they would have been if more had come during SEC play. Garrett did pick up a sack against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, all teams with quality offensive lines, so that is noteworthy. And had he not got injured against Auburn after being yanked to the ground by Shon Coleman, Garrett might have had a stronger finish (he missed the Missouri game because of the injury, though he did return to play against LSU). Garrett earned deserved honors by making it onto both the Associated Press and coaches All-SEC second teams and if he continues to improve at his current rate, you can bet he’ll be a first-teamer across the board at this time next season. (Sam Khan Jr.)
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Almost two years ago, Texas A&M walked into Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium with boundless confidence and impetus to make a statement.

The Aggies possessed college football’s best player at the time and a 7-2 start to their debut SEC season but still lacked the signature win that would validate their first-season success in college football’s biggest, baddest league.

After 60 intense minutes, the statement was made. The Aggies beat then-No. 1 Alabama 29-24 and officially announced their SEC arrival in Tuscaloosa.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Aggies hope for a repeat performance of their 2012 matchup with Alabama, when Johnny Manziel & Co. beat the No. 1 team in the country.
“It just proved a point,” said senior receiver Malcome Kennedy, who caught the Aggies’ final touchdown that day. “It gave us so much confidence as a team and as a unit. We knew what we set out to do could be accomplished.”

Saturday, for the first time since that seminal victory, the Aggies return to the scene of the crime. Both teams are vastly different and neither enters with the type of momentum they’d like to have: the Aggies have lost two straight; Alabama squeaked out a 14-13 win at Arkansas after a loss to Ole Miss the week prior.

For Texas A&M, the game is pivotal for reasons much different than 2012. By starting 25-8 in their first two-and-a-half seasons as SEC members, the Aggies no longer need validation. They’ve produced a Heisman Trophy winner and proved they can hold their own in the league, though they’re still trying to move up the ladder to prove they can win at the highest level of this league, or more specifically, the SEC West.

The Aggies (5-2, 2-2 SEC) need this win to help a young team regain full confidence, as two convincing losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss has provided a wake-up call to this group in the post-Johnny Manziel era.

"I think this is very big and important,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “These last couple weeks have been disappointing for us and the fans. We're trying to get back on track and prove to people that we're a really good team and these last couple weeks don't define who we are.”

Kennedy, considered the vocal leader of the Aggies’ offense, missed each of the losses with a separated shoulder but is expected back Saturday. Prior to Monday’s practice, the veteran could sense some uncertainty among his teammates and decided to speak up to the team to help restore any shaken confidence.

“Just trying to stay positive,” Kennedy said. “I just told them there will be a lot of outside voices trying to tell you how things go, but nobody knows how this team works best but us. We have to fix the problems we have, look at each other, look at ourselves and figure out what we have to do.”

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin isn’t concerned about his team losing confidence based on its recent performances.

"Coming into this thing, nobody said this was going to be easy,” Sumlin said. “This is a difficult league and there's no doubt, that based on the last two weeks against the type of opponents that we're playing, that we've got to coach better and we've got to play better. That's our expectation within the building, to win games. Confidence is something you don't gather overnight and I don't think you lose it overnight. It's something you build and that's who you are. I don't see that waning.”

The team has a handful of veterans that saw significant time and have positive memories of 2012. Kennedy caught the Aggies’ final touchdown, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett intercepted A.J. McCarron near the goal line to deny Alabama’s final scoring chance. Senior safety Howard Matthews, junior cornerback De'Vante Harris and junior defensive end Julien Obioha are also among those who were a part of that program-changing night.

Offensively, tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, guard Jarvis Harrison and running back Trey Williams join Kennedy as players with experience in T-Town.

It’s likely impossible for a victory this time around to have the kind of impact the 2012 one did. That one changed the national perception of Texas A&M's program, was a catalyst in Manziel’s Heisman Trophy campaign and the Aggies reaped the benefits in recruiting as well. A win would be critical to this season though, to keep the Aggies from going on a three-game losing streak, restoring confidence in young players like sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill and perhaps serving as a springboard for a strong finish. The Aggies have an open date coming up followed by a nonconference game and three SEC contests in the final month.

Kennedy feels the veterans will draw on the images from their last time there. If they can recapture some of the magic from that blissful November night, it would be big for the current Aggies.

"Going to Alabama, having those positive memories from two years ago, I think the guys will walk into a more welcoming environment,” Kennedy said. “I know there will be a lot of Aggies there. It'll be noisy, loud. I think that's when we play best, when it's loud and noisy.”

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

Top SEC players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
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Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. Our top-25 countdown ends here and now with our best five players in the SEC entering the 2014 season.

5. Landon Collins, S, Alabama Crimson Tide
It was only a matter of time before Collins became one of the league’s best DBs. The former five-star recruit had to wait his turn, but when he got his chance as a sophomore, he jumped at the opportunity. Despite switching back and forth between free and strong safety and not starting the first four games of the season, he filled up the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended.

4. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida Gators
Cornerback is one of those positions that’s supposed to take time to master. You have to learn the various coverages and physically mature to handle more experienced receivers. But Hargreaves defied convention last season, quickly becoming the top on-ball defender in the SEC by season’s end with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. "At the end of the day, he has some natural instincts that others of us don't have," his coach, Will Muschamp, explained.

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide
We didn’t see Cooper’s best until late in 2013. By the time his foot injury healed, he tweaked his knee, and without full mobility, he wasn’t his usual elusive self. But in the final six games, he looked more like the Cooper we saw burst onto the scene as a true freshman, catching 30 passes for 507 yards and three touchdowns. Now fully healthy and armed with an offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who loves to highlight his playmakers, Cooper’s stock could soar even higher as a junior.

2. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M Aggies
There’s got to be something in the water in College Station, Texas. The way the Aggies keep producing NFL-caliber offensive tackles defies any other explanation. First, it was Luke Joeckel. Then, it was Jake Matthews. Now, it’s Ogbuehi, who made himself a potential first-round pick at right tackle last season before deciding to return for his senior year and a shot at playing left tackle, the O-line’s biggest money position. You'd be hard pressed to find an offensive lineman who has a better blend of size, strength and athleticism than Ogbuehi.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Coaches, players and sports writers can agree on at least one thing: Gurley is a beast. At SEC media days, nearly every player surveyed by ESPN called Georgia’s lead tailback the most intimidating player to tackle in the league. Reporters, meanwhile, made Gurley a first-team All-SEC choice, awarding him the second-most votes overall. If he can stay healthy, he’s the league's best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. With 2,374 yards in the past two seasons, only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah has more career rushing yards entering 2014.
The opening of SEC media days isn't the only news of the day. Two more college football award watch lists debuted Monday, and the SEC is a major player on both.

Thirteen of the 123 watch list honorees for the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the top lineman or linebacker, are from the conference. Likewise, nine of the 51 nominees for the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker, are SEC players.

Here are the full lists of SEC nominees:

Lombardi
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OT La'el Collins, LSU
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn
DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
OG Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Butkus
Trey DePriest, Alabama
Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Kris Frost
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Braylon Mitchell, Arkansas
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ramik Wilson, Georgia
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before the season, and even in the first week or two, little of the national conversation surrounding Johnny Manziel had to do with his on-field exploits.

The talk centered on his offseason. Or the NCAA investigation into an autograph controversy in which he was involved. Or hand gestures he made to opponents and a flag he drew for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsImproved pocket presence has helped Johnny Manziel improve his passing efficiency.
In recent weeks, Manziel hasn't done much talking publicly with the media, but instead mostly allowed his play to do the talking. And it has spoken well for him.

Through five games, Manziel is No. 1 in the SEC in completions (140), passing yards (1,489), passing touchdowns (14) and completion percentage (71.4 percent). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-to-4) is excellent, as is his yards per attempt (10.6). And yes, he can still run the football.

In leading the Aggies to a 4-1 record, it'd be hard to ask for much more from Manziel.

"[I've seen] more confidence, more excitement," Texas A&M right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He's gotten a lot better since last year. He trusts his arm more, so that's good. You can tell he's a great overall player."

Manziel's on-field play has been good enough to keep him in the thick of the Heisman Trophy discussion, despite the fact that Texas A&M lost to Alabama on Sept. 14. Manziel threw for 464 yards and ran for 98 against the Crimson Tide. It also didn't hurt that wiedout Mike Evans had a career day and has been one of the nation's best receivers all season.

But this is not a carbon copy of the 2012 edition of Manziel. He has shown more patience in the pocket, leading to fewer scrambles, without taking away his effectiveness as a runner.

Through the first five games last season, Manziel carried the ball 72 times and had double-digit carries in four of the contests. This year through five games, he has just 48 carries and has 10 or more carries in a game just twice so far.

His yards-per-carry average is similar (6.88 through five games last season, 6.54 so far this season), but he has been perhaps just as effective or more so carrying the football. Manziel has significantly improved on third-down rushes, with 70 percent of his third-down carries resulting in first downs. Last season through five games, only 45.5 percent of his third-down carries wound up as conversions.

He has also reduced the number of rushes that result in zero or negative yardage. Only seven carries (14.6 percent) have netted that type of result this year, compared to 21 carries (29.2 percent) that went for zero or negative yards in his first five games last year.

"I think he’s done a better job of seeing the field and not bailing right away as he did a year ago," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "And when he ran, he’s used pretty good judgment in getting out of bounds and sliding, which he didn't do last year, which we begged him to slide. He’s probably slid more in the first five games than he slid all of last year, which is another sign of growing up. He’s protecting the football and not being reckless."

Manziel's progress is a result of his work, improved maturity and a better understanding in his second year operating the Aggies offense.

"He's more comfortable with what's going on. He's repped it so many times, he knows where the players are going to be," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "We put an emphasis on him throughout the spring to stay more in the pocket and get to his third and fourth progressions. ... He made some great scrambles (this season). You never want to handcuff him with that, but we can help him out and be more of a threat if he can sit in that pocket longer and throw some balls downfield for completions instead of always reverting to run."

His teammates have noticed his improved patience as well.

"We watched film and this past game he was sitting back there waiting and he could have easily ran, but he was trying to find somebody to get open downfield," receiver Derel Walker said. "I would say he's trying to become more of a pocket quarterback to show everyone that he can do that job and still be able to scramble. That's very important."

Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney noted that there were no designed run plays for Manziel in the game plan against Arkansas last week. But that doesn't mean he's going to refrain from running at all -- Manziel still carried the ball nine times for 59 yards.

Sumlin said Manziel has also been given more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage and has handled that part of it well, too.

"He’s got some parameters, [but] he’s been able to get us into some good plays," Sumlin said. "What it is, is keeping us out of horrendous plays, negative yardage plays. And I know he understands that a lot more this year in year two than in year one, and he should.”

And even as he endured the scrutiny earlier in the year, Manziel's play remained at a high level. That's something that has impressed Spavital and just about everyone else in Aggieland.

"You've got to commend him for it," Spavital said. "I don't think anybody that has ever played the college football game has been through that much scrutiny and pressure. I think he's lived up to the expectations and he just enjoys going out there and playing."

Mike Evans makes case to be among elite

September, 17, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — After putting together the performance of his young career against the nation's top team, it was clear that the only thing that could stop Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans was his own body.

After cramping up toward the end of the Aggies' 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field, Evans received fluid intravenously to hydrate himself after a day that many Aggies won't soon forget.

Seven catches, 279 yards. One 95-yard touchdown and multiple highlight-worthy grabs. At the end of it all, Evans was drained.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M WR Mike Evans had two steps on Alabama all day en route to a school-record 279 receiving yards.
"I gave it all I had," he said. "I caught cramps at the end of the fourth. I feel kind of beat up. I feel like I played the whole season."

Fitting, since his receiving yardage total is higher than that of 35 FBS teams so far in 2013.

Based on his early season performance, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Evans is quickly making his case to be considered one of the nation's best receivers. The man who throws him the football, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, is already sold that Evans is No. 1.

"In my eyes, Mike Evans is the best receiver in college football," Manziel said. "I've seen him every day and I get to see how he works against defenders and it's just amazing. A big guy like that who can really run and gives his all every game, what a great player."

It's still intriguing to think about his success when you consider Evans played only one varsity season of football at Galveston (Texas) Ball High. He spent the majority of his high school career focused on basketball, He was one of the top players in Galveston County and the Greater Houston area.

But before his senior season, he decided to go out for football. The day of the first padded practice Evans participated in on Ball's varsity squad, Tulane offered him. Evans participated in football, basketball and track his senior season but eventually decided football was his future. He committed to Texas A&M in December of his senior year.

Evans redshirted as a freshman in 2011 and began developing a chemistry with the scout-team quarterback, which happened to be Manziel. That explains why the two had such a good rapport when they both made their A&M debuts last season.

"We used to have a lot of fun together," Evans said. "We played basketball. He's one of my best friends. I guess that's where our connection comes in."

The two are roommates in the team hotel the night before games. Manziel said that Friday night the two were talking about how the game was going to play out and "I knew he was going to come out and play pretty good."

Alabama had so much trouble handling Evans that they used three different defensive backs in the first half after Evans exploded in the Aggies' first two series. He caught four passes for 135 yards in the first quarter alone and though the Tide made their adjustments, he was still able to have an impact as the game went on. He kept the Aggies in the game with a career-high 95-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

"Mike's the best receiver in the nation," offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He works hard and the hard work carried over to the field [Saturday]. I'm glad for him, I'm happy for him. He's a great receiver and I'm glad it showed."

Evans is demanding of himself, though. When asked about his own performance after Saturday's loss, Evans critiqued his blocking in the running game. He was in no mood to discuss his catches and yards; the team's loss concerned him more.

Before the spring, when asked what would make the 2013 season a special one individually, Evans simply said one word: "Biltenikoff." If he continues to play like he did Saturday, winning the trophy that goes to the country's best receiver will become a foregone conclusion. His teammates are already sold.

"I just practice my butt off and try my best every day," Evans said. "If they want to say that, then I love them for that."
1. A national radio reporter who either doesn’t read sports news or just wanted to prod Alabama coach Nick Saban with a stick asked Tuesday morning at a press conference if Saban would put to rest discussion of a return to the NFL. “How many times do you think I've been asked this question?” Saban responded. “How many times do you think I've been asked to put it to rest? And I've put it to rest, and you continue to ask it.” He’s not going anywhere, people.

2. Kudos to the Orange Bowl for bringing the major individual award winners to the BCS National Championship. It is a well-deserved perk. The players, including Heisman winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee of USC, held a press conference Sunday. The Orange Bowl introduced them on the field to the 80,120 fans at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night. Ideas like these are a smart way for the game to celebrate itself.

3. Another awardee in attendance, Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, announced Tuesday that he will forego his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, where he will be one of the first to get a hug from commissioner Roger Goodell. Sophomore guard Cedric Ogbuehi, who played alongside Joeckel, likely will shift to left tackle. Between Ogbuehi and right tackle Jake Matthews (if he remains in school), Johnny Football should have plenty of time to make magic again in 2013.

Aggies players react to Sherman firing

December, 2, 2011
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Texas A&M players weighed in on the Thursday firing of coach Mike Sherman. Some did so through a school release, and others vented through social-media outlets.

"I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for such a great coach and great man as Mike Sherman," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "As a coach and person, he reflected everything that's great about Texas A&M's traditions and values. He helped us become not only better football players but better men. I wish him and his family the very best as they move forward. He will be missed."

Texas A&M
AP Photo/Eric GayThe firing of coach Mike Sherman -- here celebrating after beating Texas in 2010 -- has prompted strong reactions from several current and former Texas A&M players.
Safety Trent Hunter, a senior captain and four-year starter, said Sherman was "a father figure."

"He's a guy that really taught us core values that I will take with me for the rest of my life," Hunter said. "He is a man of integrity, character and honesty. There's not much more that you can ask for in a man than what Coach Sherman brings to the table. His door was always open to us and you could count on him being brutally honest with you no matter what. That's one of the things that I will always respect him for."

On Twitter, more Texas A&M players weighed in, and did so in much more pointed terms.

"What I'm reading better be fake. Not kidding," receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu wrote in a series of tweets as news broke Thursday evening. "Way way wayyyy beyond livid. Furious. Funny how all these decisions are made without thinking of the players. Funny how things work."

Offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi was angry, too.

"Everybody in the front office are so fake I swear, come to us smiling all the time n (expletive) then do this," he tweeted. "People told me its all a business they dont care about the players, but damn! (I don't know) what to think anymore."

Former quarterback Stephen McGee, who played under Sherman and is now with the Dallas Cowboys, weighed in, too.

"Disappointed of news that Coach Sherman will be released. Was a great football coach and an even better man! A&M has lost a really good one!" he wrote on Twitter. "I find it extremely difficult to point to Sherman for the seasons' shortcomings.. He put his team in situations to win every game and at some point players have to make plays.. A&M has made some bold long term decisions. All that being said I will always love and support Texas A&M! Special place, great people and an unmatched spirit!"

Linebacker Von Miller was one of the best Aggies of all time, winning the Butkus Award last season and being selected No. 2 overall in last year's NFL draft.

"It's unfortunate to see Coach Sherm go He is like another father to me He helped me become the person I am today I will never forget, never," he tweeted on his verified account. "Integrity, honor, accountability, faith, brotherhood, and my definition of the aggie spirit all came to me playing for Coach Sherman. gig em"

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