NCF Nation: D.T. Shackelford

It wasn’t pretty, but Ole Miss did just enough to knock off Georgia Tech and win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl 25-17. With the win, the Rebels have now won 10 of their past 11 bowl games.

Here’s how it went down:

It was over when: Mike Hilton sealed the victory with an interception in the final minute, but the key play came the drive before when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace connected with Laquon Treadwell for 27 yards on third-and-13. It allowed the Rebels to run an extra two minutes off the clock and made a Georgia Tech comeback nearly impossible. The freshman wide receiver finished with five catches for 51 yards, but none bigger than that third-down grab.

Game ball goes to: Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller played maybe his worst game as a Rebel in an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but he redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Georgia Tech on Monday. The junior went 22-of-32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed 13 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns. It was a successful homecoming for the Tennessee native, who finished the season on a high note.

Unsung hero: Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford. The senior, who missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, might not have gotten the credit he deserved this season, but he was all over the field for the Rebels on Monday. Down the stretch, he blew up the Yellow Jackets' reverse pass attempt that ultimately led to a safety, and he was the one to apply pressure on the quarterback which forced the game-clinching interception.

Stat of the game: Georgia Tech rushed for 92 yards in the first quarter, including 64 yards on the opening drive. Ole Miss held the Yellow Jackets to just 59 yards on 33 carries the rest of the way. The return of freshman star Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt in the second quarter was huge (both were suspended for the first quarter; Prewitt later left due to injury), but the whole defense stepped up, stopped the triple-option attack and carried the Rebels to victory.

What we learned: Ole Miss fell short of its goals this season, but with a victory in the bowl game, the Rebels can take some momentum with them into the offseason. This is clearly a team on the rise, and it’s not far from competing in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama and Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, it’s time to start wondering if the Yellow Jackets have reached their ceiling under coach Paul Johnson. They will lose 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, and all they have to show for it is a 7-6 season with a loss in the bowl game.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Music City Bowl, click here.

OXFORD, Miss. -- Even though Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze isn’t one to make excuses, he had plenty of room to do so this week. The Rebels, who had lost three consecutive games, were without five starters on defense and the team’s leading rusher when they hosted No. 6 LSU on Saturday.

Turns out Freeze and the Rebels didn’t need any excuses as they stunned the Tigers, 27-24.

“I couldn’t be more proud of that staff and those kids to go through what they’ve been through, with the injuries and the outside world having their opinion of things,” Freeze said. “In the back of your mind, you always wonder as a coach if you can get a team ready to do those things like this when you’re shorthanded and coming off an extremely disappointing loss.”

The Rebels were in a similar situation last week when Texas A&M came to town. The game was tied with three minutes left, and it was up to quarterback Bo Wallace and the offense to drive down the field and win the game. Instead, they went three-and-out, punted the ball and watched as the Aggies drove down and kicked the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Ritter
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Ritter drilled a 41-yard, game-winning field goal with 2 seconds remaining that gave the short-handed Rebels a stunning win over LSU.
“For A&M to beat us the way they did, I wasn’t letting that happen to us again,” Wallace said. “Ja-Mes [Logan] made a huge catch in the same situation that he had last week. He took a shot and hung onto it. Everybody just came together and fought hard on that last drive.”

It was Ole Miss who kicked the game-winning field goal this week, but it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a number of players who stepped up when called upon.

The defense lost four starters due to injury against Texas A&M, and Freeze told his team Friday that starting cornerback Senquez Golson would be suspended for the visit from LSU. Four more Rebels defenders went down during Saturday's game, and yet, they forced three turnovers in the first half and held on for the upset.

“I think it was a God thing,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “We sat in there on Sunday and said, ‘We got 14 players, not starters, 14 players for seven spots between the defensive line and the linebackers. We tried to make D.T. [Shackelford] do two different things, and he was able to do that. Fortunately, Tony Conner made a big difference because we were able to teach him some linebacker stuff. The kids are warriors. We needed that for our program.”

On offense, running backs Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers more than made up the absence of starter Jeff Scott. Walton finished with 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns while Mathers added 51 yards on 12 carries.

“We ran the football against a really good defense,” Freeze said. “Our offensive line played against a good defensive front. I have great confidence in Jaylen and I’Tavius. Jaylen has quick acceleration. He did really well tonight and protected the ball.”

It was a crushing loss for Les Miles and his LSU team, who lost any chance they had to play in the BCS National Championship, but the victory shouldn’t be understated for Ole Miss. The Rebels were down, but they showed they’re not out.

“We really needed a win,” Walton said. “We came close last week where we should’ve won, but this week, we got the W and now we can keep moving forward with wins.”
The golden rule in our business is that there is no cheering in the press box.

At least, there’s not supposed to be.

That said, I don’t mind admitting that I was cheering for D.T. Shackelford to be back on the field this season for Ole Miss. The junior linebacker and emotional leader for the Rebels had been working feverishly to get back from two ACL surgeries on his right knee.

Shackelford hasn’t gone through any contact (or played “real football,” as he calls it) since first tearing his ACL in the spring prior to the 2011 season.

Initially, he had hoped to get back some time during the 2011 season, but his knee wasn’t getting any stronger during the recovery process, and another MRI determined that it was partially torn again.

D.T. Shackleford
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisD.T. Shackleford missed all of last season and will also miss the upcoming season as he recovers from more knee surgery.
So Shackelford had a second surgery on the same knee in late February. He missed all of spring practice earlier this year, but had his sights set on being back for preseason practice and playing this season.

There was some progress along the way, and Shackelford remained hopeful. But upon meeting with doctors earlier this month, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be close to 100 percent this season. The gut-wrenching decision was made for Shackelford to sit out a second straight season and put all of his effort into being ready for the 2013 season.

“The hardest part is not being out there with my teammates, especially when you go through a season like we had last year,” said Shackelford, who led the Rebels with five sacks during the 2010 season and later became the first Ole Miss non-senior to receive the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

Even though Shackelford won’t be out there making tackles, he’ll still be contributing. He’ll resume his role as an unofficial student coach. It’s not the same as having Shackelford in every huddle and knowing he’s going to be bearing down on the quarterback on key downs, but his teammates believe in him and gain inspiration by just having him around.

“He’s an amazing guy, a tremendous leader,” Ole Miss junior safety Charles Sawyer said. “He’s always there. Even if he’s not in pads, he’s there motivating guys and making everybody feel like they’re important.”

One of the most refreshing things about Shackelford is how selfless he is. Sure, he misses football and would give anything to be out there playing again. But it says something about him as a person that his greatest regret is not being able to help his teammates at a time when the Rebels could use all the help they can get. They’ve lost 14 straight SEC games.

“It’s one thing to lead from the sideline, but it’s another thing to lead in between those white lines,” Shackelford said.

There’s no breaking his spirit, either. He realizes that some people have counted him out after two different surgeries and incorporates that into his workouts. This latest setback has only fueled his fire.

“I just want the opportunity again,” Shackelford said. “Sometimes we forget it’s a blessing to be out there playing. We take it for granted. I can promise you that I don’t take anything for granted.”

Keeping the swelling down in his knee has been one of the trickiest parts for Shackelford, who’s been running sprints, stadium steps and doing a little bit of cutting.

And through it all, Shackelford hasn’t lost his focus in the classroom. He graduated in May with a degree in history and a minor in English. He’ll start on his master’s degree this fall in higher education and wants to be a principal.

“I’ve been playing this game my whole life and you have all these goals, and when you get hurt like this, it forces you to readjust your focus a little bit,” Shackelford said. “The knee injury drove me to do so much more. I got my degree in three years and love working with kids.

“That’s the stuff that keeps me going, and I’m not going to stop.”

Forgive me while I stand up and applaud.
Hugh Freeze enters his first spring at Ole Miss with a lot of questions surrounding his new football team.

The same team that won just two games last year, watched its head coach get shown the door and has lost 14 straight SEC games.

Talk about a project.

For starters, Ole Miss is breaking in a totally new spread offense for a team that isn't exactly built for it. Plus there are four scholarship quarterbacks competing this spring and the ones who played last year had a host of issues.

Don't be surprised if junior college transfer Bo Wallace turns some heads this spring at QB because he's more familiar with Freeze's offense. He spent 2010 with Freeze at Arkansas State before going the JUCO route. While he had a record-setting season at East Mississippi Community College in 2011, Wallace has zero experience at this level. He redshirted in 2010, so he has yet to take a snap at the FBS level.

The defense will also see quite a few changes, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has said he plans to move the Rebels all around the field. Ole Miss ran a 4-2-5 defense last year under Tyrone Nix, but will come out in multiple sets this time around. It's going to take some time for players to adjust. It also means the Rebels might have to rely more on its secondary again. The good thing for Ole Miss is that just about everyone from the secondary is back, including standouts Charles Sawyer and Wesley Pendleton.

Sawyer might have been Ole Miss' best defensive player last year, while Pendleton has a chance to be a very solid corner in the SEC next fall. Also, keep an eye on Aaron Garbutt, who transferred from the JUCO ranks last year and was sixth on the team in tackles. Getting more out of them this spring will go a long way to helping this defense adjust.

At linebacker, the Rebels return all four starters, but adjusting to the new defensive formations could be more of a chore for them. But having Mike Marry back will be big for the Rebels this spring, considering D.T. Shackelford won't go through the spring as he recovers from another surgery on his knee. Marry filled in nicely for Shackelford last season, leading the Rebels in tackles as just a sophomore.

Marry will be accompanied by rising sophomores Serderius Bryant and C.J. Johnson. Bryant was the better of the two former freshmen last season and was fourth on the team in tackles. For Johnson, the spring will be crucial for his maturation. He started to come on strong toward the end of the season, but he still needs to make strides in his game before the end of the summer. Johnson could also line up at defense end, a position that must replace former star Kentrell Lockett.

The defense has more positives, but there are still questions surrounding where guys will lineup and how they'll take to all the changes. Plus, this is practically the same group that ranked last in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in the SEC last year.

On offense, finding a quarterback is priority No. 1, with improving an offensive line that took more than a few steps back in 2011 as a close second. Two starters are gone from the line and Freeze has said that the linemen he has weren't recruited for a "more power-type offense."

Freeze has a lot on his plate, but he knew that coming in. He understands that there were locker room issues in the past and the field issues are well documented. This won't be a quick fix by any means, but this spring will be really interesting for Freeze because even he'll have a lot of questions of his own to sort through when the Rebels start digging deep into spring practice.

Spring preview: Western Division

February, 24, 2012
We all know that football season never ends in the SEC. Well, it’s cranking back up in earnest next week, at least the spring version, when LSU opens spring practice Thursday.

As usual, there’s a lot that’s new in the SEC, including coaches and even a pair of new teams. Missouri settles into the Eastern Division and Texas A&M into the Western Division.

And while the league lost its share of star players, plenty of star power returns.

We’ll kick off our SEC spring preview with the West, home to the past three national champions, including Alabama this past season.

So without further ado …


Spring practice starts: March 9
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • McCarron takes charge: As a first-year starter this past season, quarterback AJ McCarron was more of a caretaker on offense for the Crimson Tide and performed well in that role. But next season, he will be asked to do more and will also need to take on more of a leadership role. He played his best game on the biggest stage in the BCS National Championship Game, so he enters this spring with a lot of momentum. If he takes the kind of step Alabama fans hope he will, the Tide will be a load on offense again in 2012.
  • Shuffling the deck up front: Replacing veteran center William Vlachos won’t be easy. He’s been a rock in the middle of that offensive line for the past three seasons. Alabama could end up replacing him with another rock. Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones will get a long look at center this spring after playing left tackle this past season and left guard the season before that. One of the keys for the Tide up front is Cyrus Kouandjio, who had his freshman season cut short by a knee injury. Physically, he’s exactly what you’re looking for at left tackle. However it shakes out, the Tide will get their best five on the field.
  • Reloading on defense: Most of the marquee playmakers on defense are gone, and the Tide were gutted in the secondary. But junior college cornerbacks Travell Dixon and Deion Belue are on campus and will be tossed into the mix this spring. It’s also a big spring for rising sophomore safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, and Alabama will be looking for a few more finishers when it comes to rushing the passer and a nose guard to replace steady Josh Chapman. One option may be sliding Jesse Williams inside, although the Alabama coaches like what he gave them at end during his first season on campus.

Spring practice starts: March 14
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Getting defensive: There’s a reason Paul Haynes is now calling the shots on defense for Arkansas. The Hogs simply had not made the kind of strides on that side of the ball that coach Bobby Petrino felt like they needed to make if they were going to break through and play for a national championship. Haynes comes over from Ohio State and brings with him an attacking approach. Arkansas fans liked what they saw in the Cotton Bowl, but replacing departing seniors Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas won’t be easy.
  • Ask and you shall receive: The Big Three are gone -- Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs. They comprised the heart of the Hogs’ talented receiving corps for the past three seasons and made a lot of plays. Now, it’s Cobi Hamilton's time to be the leader with a whole cast of less familiar faces jockeying to get into that starting equation this spring. It’s a chance for guys like Marquel Wade, Quinta Funderburk, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon to show what they can do. Don’t forget about Chris Gragg, who returns as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SEC.
  • Jewel of the Knile: There were some rumblings that Knile Davis was going to give it a go at the end of last season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason. It didn’t make sense to rush things, though, and Davis should be fully healthy for the 2012 season. How much he does this spring remains to be seen, but you know it’s important for him to at least be out there and getting back into the feel of football. He was doing some things at the end of practice last season. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure he’s ready to go come September when the season begins, but the spring will provide a glimpse of where he is with his recovery. If he returns to the same form as the 2010 season, Arkansas fans are salivating at the thought of that offense with Tyler Wilson slinging it and Davis running it.

Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive restructuring: It was a nightmarish season a year ago for Auburn’s defense, making it no surprise to anybody that Gene Chizik overhauled things on that side of the ball. Only defensive line coach Mike Pelton remains in the same position. Everything else will be new on defense, including Brian VanGorder taking over as coordinator. Willie Martinez joins the staff as the secondary coach, and Tommy Thigpen moves from coaching safeties to coaching linebackers. The Tigers return most of their key players on defense, and youth was certainly an issue last season. But VanGorder’s challenge is getting this unit to play with more consistency and to be more fundamentally sound, particularly when it comes to tackling.
  • Quarterback quandary: Scot Loeffler steps in as the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator, and right off the bat, he has to settle on a starting quarterback. In the past, Auburn has taken its time with that decision. We’ll see if that changes with Loeffler. Clint Moseley has the most experience and finished last season as Auburn’s starter, but rising sophomore Kiehl Frazier has been around long enough now that he should have his first legitimate chance to win the job. One of the things Frazier has to prove this spring is that he can throw the ball well enough to be the every-down starter. True freshman Zeke Pike is also on campus and will practice this spring.
  • Making plays: With Michael Dyer now at Arkansas State, the Tigers have to find somebody else to lean on offensively. Dyer was the Tigers’ offense last season. There are plenty of candidates. Onterio McCalebb would be at the top of that list, and Tigers are also keeping their fingers crossed that receivers Emory Blake and Trovon Reed can stay healthy this season. But finding roles for guys like Tre Mason and Quan Bray will be equally important this spring. Both are supremely talented with the ball in their hands, and the Tigers need to find ways to get them both a lot of touches next season.

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: March 31

What to watch:
  • Forgetting the past: As memorable as last season was for LSU, the way it ended has been difficult for anybody on the Bayou to forget. The 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game was a serious downer after 13 straight wins against a killer schedule and still has a lot of LSU fans fuming. The best thing for the Tigers is simply getting back onto the practice field and putting the past behind them once and for all. This will be an extremely talented team once again, but a team that everyone will expect to be right back in the championship race in 2012. Developing the right kind of chemistry and leadership will be critical, and that starts this spring.
  • Passing fancy: LSU coach Les Miles has already said that the Tigers will throw the ball more next season, and a big reason is because Zach Mettenberger steps in at quarterback. The Tigers have been spotty in the passing game each of the past two seasons, but throwing the ball downfield and hitting big plays in the passing game is what Mettenberger does best. This spring will be his first chance to be “The Man” for the Tigers, and a big part of that is gaining the trust, confidence and faith in all of the players around him on offense. With all the pieces in place to be a strong running team again, LSU could really take off offensively if Mettenberger has a big season throwing the ball.
  • Looking for linebackers: Go back and look at LSU’s signing class, and it’s obvious the Tigers felt like they needed to reload at linebacker. There will be a ton of competition for starting spots this spring at linebacker with a lot of new faces in that mix. Defensive coordinator John Chavis puts a premium on speed, which means you don’t have to be 240 pounds to play linebacker for him. He’s also proven that he’s not afraid to play young guys if they’re ready. This will be a big spring for rising junior Tahj Jones, who has the speed and athleticism to be a perfect fit in Chavis’ system.

Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Tyler Russell’s time: With Chris Relf gone, it’s Russell’s time to show what he can do as the Bulldogs’ full-time starter. He made four starts toward the end of this past season, and throwing the football from the pocket is his forte. Russell still needs to polish up on all of the other things it takes to be a good quarterback in this league, and the Bulldogs also need to create some depth at the position. Look for Dak Prescott to get a lot of work this spring, especially with Russell still nursing the knee he banged up during bowl practice. Prescott redshirted last season and will be a redshirt freshman.
  • Drawing a line: The Bulldogs are eager to get junior college newcomers Dylan Holley and Charles Siddoway on the field and see where they fit in up front in the offensive line and if they’re going to be ready to go in the season opener. Holley projects as a center, but could also play guard. Siddoway will get a shot at the Bulldogs’ left tackle job. Sorting out things across the board on the offensive line will be a priority for Mississippi State this spring.
  • Safety valve: The good news is that Mississippi returns two experienced cornerbacks in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, but veteran safety Charles Mitchell is gone. What’s more, Nickoe Whitley tore his Achilles tendon in the Alabama game and won’t be full strength this spring. So finding some reinforcements at safety will be important. Some of the younger guys like Jamerson Love, Dee Arrington and Jay Hughes will have big opportunities to show what they can do, and cornerback Darius Slay could also get a look at safety.

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The big Freeze: First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wants to run a power spread similar to what Arkansas State ran on offense last season. One of the toughest parts of that transition will be getting the offensive line up to speed. Freeze isn’t sure what Ole Miss has returning in the offensive line is tailor-made for a power offense, which means the Rebels’ coaches have some coaching and some recruiting to do. Addressing the offensive line, period, will be a big priority this spring, especially with offensive tackle Bobby Massie deciding to turn pro.
  • Wallace on display: One of the things that held the Rebels back last season on offense was that they were never able to get any consistency at the quarterback position. There are still a couple of different options, but junior college newcomer Bo Wallace is probably the front-runner to win the job. He’s on campus and will go through spring practice and isn’t a stranger to Freeze’s offense. Wallace started his career at Arkansas State and redshirted in 2010 when Freeze was the offensive coordinator there. More than anything, Freeze is looking for some real competition at the position with Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti all returning.
  • Recovering on defense: It was a rough season for the Rebels defensively a year ago, and a lot of that was because they were on the field for much of the season. Getting a healthy D.T. Shackelford back at linebacker is huge after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered last spring. It will be interesting to see how much he does in this spring practice. Either way, just having him back out there should help from a leadership standpoint and getting that edge back defensively. The Rebels need to find more finishers up front defensively after finishing 110th nationally with just 13 sacks in 12 games. Creating more turnovers is also a must. Ole Miss finished with 17 a season ago, which was tied for 95th nationally.

Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Sumlin takes over: First-year coach Kevin Sumlin takes over in College Station, and the spring will be his first real chance to place his stamp on the program. He’s already said that all jobs are open and purposely didn’t watch any film from the 2011 regular season. He wants to make his own evaluations on the field, which means there will be some serious auditions going on this spring. Sumlin ran a wide-open spread offense at Houston because that’s the kind of personnel he had. He’ll certainly modify his system to fit his personnel this first season at Texas A&M, which likely means running the ball more given the Aggies’ returning experience in the offensive line and their stable of backs.
  • Quarterback hunting: One of Sumlin’s first orders of business is finding a quarterback, and there’s at least four candidates on campus. The only guy with any game experience (and it’s not much) is rising sophomore Jameill Showers, who backed up Ryan Tannehill last season. The other two returnees are Johnny Manziel and Matt Joeckel, both of whom will be redshirt freshmen. Manziel is more of a runner, while the 6-4, 230-pound Joeckel is a pocket passer. Sumlin knows at least a little bit about Showers, Manziel and Joeckel. He recruited all three at Houston. There’s also true freshman Matt Davis, who’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice.
  • Finishing the drill: As all Texas A&M fans are well aware, the Aggies weren’t what you could call a second-half team last season. In fact, they were far from it, and time and time again wilted in the second half. Sumlin has made it known that one of his goals is for the program to toughen up both physically and mentally. In five of the Aggies’ six losses last season, they were ahead at halftime or at some point in the second half. The defense absorbed much of the blame and definitely has to improve as Texas A&M makes the jump to the SEC, but Sumlin wants to make sure this spring that he instills a programwide toughness that carries over into the fall.

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Superman lives.

Ole Miss senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, or "Superman" to his fans, is back and ready to exact his revenge on skittish quarterbacks around the SEC.

[+] EnlargeMississippi's Kentrell Lockett
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesKentrell Lockett suffered a knee injury last season, but coach Houston Nutt expects "him to be full go the first game."
Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering an ACL injury early last season, says he's fully healthy and ready for his last romp through the SEC.

Lockett skipped spring practice to recover more, but insists that he hasn't lost any quickness or mobility.

"It's a knee. A knee heals. Nothing happened to anything else," he said. "I still can tackle, still can run, still can jump, so I'm going to play ball."

Getting Lockett, who was a first-team All-SEC selection by the media, not only improves Ole Miss' defense, especially in the pass rush, but adds a crucial element in the leadership category -- an area that suffered a major blow this spring with the season-ending injury to linebacker D.T. Shackelford. Lockett's outgoing and charismatic personality instantly lifts his teammates up and having him on the field this fall will be even more beneficial for the Rebels.

"Means so much to get it back," coach Houston Nutt said. "He is a tremendous leader for us. He does so much with his teammates. He's a winner. I think he's just about there. According to our doctors, he's just about 100 percent, so we expect him to be full go the first game."

Lockett said he felt game-ready late last season when he shed this crutches, and with the season just around the corner, Lockett said his knee is better than it was before he suffered his injury.

"I've made tremendous strides," he said.

"I feel like I'm myself again. I feel like I can do anything now."

SEC media days: One good thing

July, 22, 2011
Alabama: The Tide led the SEC with 16 players selected on the media's preseason All-SEC team. That's great for PR, and means that there should be some talent in Tuscaloosa this year, but neither the players nor head coach Nick Saban are paying attention to us and what we think.

Good, because the last thing Alabama needs is to get caught in the hype with the goal of winning multiple championships on the line.

"From a logical standpoint, I know there's a couple other teams in our division -- forget about the league -- that have just as many returners starting, and their quarterback," Saban said to the media when asked about being picked to win the SEC. "So even though I have a tremendous amount of respect for the intelligence level and your ability to prognosticate, which we really can't do, I'm not capable of doing it, I don't understand how you come to the decisions that you come to."

LSU: The Tigers' offense was downright offensive to watch at times last fall, and they know it. LSU was 11th in the SEC in total offense, averaging 341.3 yards per game.

Now, under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, there is more optimism on the bayou when it comes to talking about an offense that the Tigers expect to be more pass-friendly.

"I love it," offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said of the offense. "Coach Kragthorpe brought a new intensity to the offensive side of the ball and he's injected new life in us. We can't wait to get back there during camp, start practicing, get more refined and more like a well-oiled machine. That's how an offense should work -- like a machine."

Ole Miss: The loss of linebacker and emotional leader D.T. Shackelford this spring to a knee injury was absolutely devastating for the Rebels. The centerpiece of the defense is gone and Ole Miss didn't find a replacement this spring.

However, prized recruit C.J. Johnson appears to have what it takes and Houston Nutt isn't going to hesitate throwing him in the regular rotation early.

"C.J. Johnson doesn't look like a guy just coming out of high school," Nutt said. "Physically he looks the part. So I'm excited about him, getting him going. We'll give him every opportunity to get in the mix.

"Just by default because of D.T. Shackelford's injury, we lose a guy like that, he'll line up second team day one. He'll have every opportunity to play a lot of football."

Vanderbilt: The Alabama secondary is getting a ton of preseason love, and so is LSU's secondary. But Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward says not to sleep on the Commodores' secondary when you start ranking the best defensive backfields in the league.

Hayward was a second-team All-SEC selection by the coaches and media. Senior safety Sean Richardson had 98 tackles a year ago, and his running mate at the other safety spot, Kenny Ladler, was one of the most talented freshman safeties in the league last season. Junior cornerback Trey Wilson also looks like he's coming. He was one of the Commodores' most impressive players this spring.

"We don't get a lot of credit because of our record," said Hayward, who was second in the SEC last season with six interceptions. "But production-wise, when you look at the things we did last year, not too many secondaries did that. I think we'll take it to another step this year."
Fellow SEC blogger Chris Low started things off by discussing the players in the SEC’s Eastern division with the most to prove, so it’s time to put some pressure on some guys out in the West.

Here are my five players who have to show us more this fall:

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Tyler Kaufman/Icon SMISolid play from Jordan Jefferson could be all LSU needs to make a national title run.
QB Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Sure, Jefferson led the Tigers to an 11-win season, but did you see the numbers he (didn't) put up? Jefferson passed for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010 and ended the year with a passing efficiency of 114.7. This spring, new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe made it his goal to transform the senior's passing technique and presence in the pocket. Things worked out well, with coach Less Miles calling this the best spring Jefferson has had. The next step is for him to show what he learned this spring when it counts this fall. This is Jefferson's last go-round with the Tigers and this team has the talent to compete for a national title. The Tigers go the way Jefferson goes and if he should falter, Miles might not hesitate to put in junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger in, who probably has the most skill of any of LSU's quarterbacks.

RB Trent Richardson, Alabama: Yes, one of the country's most complete backs still has to show us something. He has the power and speed to be a stud now that this is his backfield, but is he truly ready to be the guy in Tuscaloosa? On paper, it would appear so, but things change when the lights go on and the pressure mounts. Not to mention, he's replacing a Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama will be breaking in a new, young quarterback this fall -- whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims -- so the Tide's offense will be leaning heavily on Richardson. Alabama has one of the top teams in the nation and Richardson will be a key component in the Tide's run to multiple championships.

WR Russell Shepard, LSU: Shepard has all the ability to be quite the playmaker for the Tigers. He was second on the team with 33 receptions a year ago, but only managed 254 yards and a touchdown. He's better than that. With Terrance Toliver gone, the junior-to-be will be called upon to really step up alongside Rueben Randle. We've been waiting to see Russell’s true athleticism and he’s confident people will this fall. It’s time for him to take his game to another level.

DE Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss: Lockett missed most of last season after suffering an ACL injury in the third game. Fortunately for he and the Rebels, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility and should be back to full health this fall. But with linebacker and team leader D.T. Shackelford suffering a season-ending ACL injury this spring, Lockett enters the fall with new responsibilities. Not only does Lockett have to provide a much-needed presence on an unproven defensive line but he has to become the emotional leader this team desperately needs. This defense has a ton of questions and having a guy like Lockett step up on the field and in the locker room will provide some juice for the unit.

WR Chad Bumphis, Mississippi State: Bumphis has led the Bulldogs in receiving the past two seasons and is arguably the team's best playmaker at receiver. However, Bumphis has the ability to play all over the field, kind of like Percy Harvin did at Florida, but hasn’t reached his potential. As the go-to guy, he has just 1,009 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in two seasons and has rushed for 204 yards and one score. Bumphis is a player that should be getting the ball as much as possible and in as many different situations as possible. He's got the speed and athleticism to really frustrate defenses, but we've yet to see him really turn the corner. He can be an elite weapon in this offense and could be the difference in making this one of the more potent offenses in the SEC.
On paper, BYU opens the season with quite a tough stretch with games at Ole Miss and at Texas. But are they tough in reality? Let us check in with the Rebels as we begin to size up some of the matchups.

The Rebels are coming off a disappointing 2010, in which they went 4-8. Oxford is a wonderful place to tailgate, but did not exactly strike fear into the opposition last season. Ole Miss dropped four home games, including the stunning loss to FCS Jacksonville State in the opener, followed by a loss to Vanderbilt in its next home game.

The offseason has already produced its share of drama. Their best defensive player, linebacker D.T. Shackelford is out for the game after injuring his knee at the end of spring practice. His projected replacement, Clarence Jackson, was just dismissed from the team, along with reserve defensive end Delvin Jones. Ole Miss still has no starting quarterback, with competition between redshirt junior Randall Mackey, West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Zack Stoudt ongoing. Mackey has a slight edge but has no playing experience.

BYU should be the favorite going in, but it is never easy to play on the road at an SEC opponent. Just ask Fresno State, which got whipped 55-38 in Oxford last season. Here are two matchups that should go in the Cougars' favor:

Passing game. Ole Miss is inexperienced and small in the secondary. This was a unit that was a problem last season, ranking No. 103 in the nation in pass defense. Of the four starters on its post-spring depth chart, only one is taller than 6 feet -- strong safety Damien Jackson, who also happens to be one of their top returning players. BYU has the size advantage with big receivers Cody Hoffman (6-foot-4) and Ross Apo (6-3), and this could be the perfect opportunity to show off the big arm of Jake Heaps and get the once high-flying BYU offense back in gear. With the linebacker issues for Ole Miss, the Cougars could also get their tight ends more involved, something that should be a priority this season. Plenty of depth there with Devin Mahina, Marcus Mathews and Austin Holt.

Matt Reynolds vs. Kentrell Lockett. We shall see where Lockett lines up this season, but he did start 13 games in 2009 at right defensive end, where he had 13 pressures and five sacks. A preseason All-SEC pick in 2010, Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing nearly all of 2010 with a knee injury. He sat out spring practice while he continued his rehab but is expected back in the fall. Reynolds is projected to be a first-round pick after deciding to return to BYU for his senior season, and has done a first-rate job of protecting his quarterbacks.

Here is the most intriguing matchup of the game: Ole Miss offensive line vs. BYU defensive front. The Rebels' offensive line is one of the strengths of the team. Seven players have started at least two games, which should no doubt help as Ole Miss starts a new quarterback. Because of the inexperience at quarterback, you can expect BYU to try to increase the pressure, which means the offensive line has to be exceptionally strong. BYU has depth here, and tackle Romney Fuga is expected back so this is no doubt a key matchup to watch.

For more on the Rebels, here is the Ole Miss spring wrap from our friends at the SEC blog.
The moment outside linebacker D.T. Shackelford’s injury proved to be season-threatening, distress signals circulated throughout Ole Miss’s football team.

Offensive coordinator David Lee said the severity of Shackelford’s knee injury, which is expected to sideline him for his senior season, felt like a shot to the figurative heart of the football program.

Not only was he an outstanding linebacker -- and arguably the Rebels’ best player -- he was a tremendous leader. On a team lacking a ton of seniors, losing an emotional leader like Shackelford is devastating.

However, in the weeks since Shackelford’s freak ACL tear, coach Houston Nutt has found some potential candidates who could step into Shackelford’s leadership role.

Right now, Nutt is relying on veteran defensive ends Wayne Dorsey and Jason Jones. Dorsey, a senior, enrolled at Ole Miss last January and played in nine games in 2010, starting four.

Jones, a junior, played in 12 games last season, starting four.

[+] EnlargeKentrell Lockett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSenior defensive end Kentrell Lockett is a strong candidate to fill the leadership void left after D.T. Shackelford's injury.
Neither is a household name for the Rebels, but Nutt said he saw both step up in place of Shackelford shortly after he went down.

“They showed real signs [of becoming team leaders],” Nutt said.

Sophomore Mike Marry, who worked some in Shackelford’s spot after he went down this spring, also took on a leadership role for the team during that latter parts of spring practice, Nutt said.

One guy who could provide that leadership spark this fall is senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett. Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his ACL last fall, missed all of spring practice, but is someone Nutt said he’s really hoping steps up soon.

It shouldn’t be hard for Lockett to grab the attention of his teammates. He’s the most experienced guy on Ole Miss’ roster and has great locker-room presence.

While each of these players could become dynamic leaders for this team, finding someone with the same electricity Shackelford possessed seems like a long shot.

“D.T. just took complete ownership,” Nutt said. “It was just unbelievable the way he went about things.”

That won’t easy to replace.

As for finding someone to fill his playing shoes, besides a little work from Marry, the Rebels also rotated sophomore Clarence Jackson and redshirt freshman Ralph Wilson in at Shackelford’s position this spring.

The player to keep an eye on this fall will be incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top recruit out of the state of Mississippi in 2010. He accumulated 149 tackles and two interceptions as a high school senior and despite playing inside linebacker he should be able to move outside.

Johnson has the skill to come in and immediately contribute, but developing his leadership qualities will be the next step in his maturation process.

Exiting the spring: Ole Miss

April, 15, 2011
Spring game

Questions answered: The Rebels’ running game should be solid this fall. Work horse Brandon Bolden didn’t miss a beat before suffering an ankle injury during one of the scrimmages. The injury doesn’t seem to be serious, which is a good sign. He’s gotten some help from speedster Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis. Davis appears to be having his best spring. The offensive line will also be one of Ole Miss’ strengths. With All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, the Rebels return seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line last year.

Questions unanswered: Ole Miss entered spring with a massive quarterback battle and will end it that way. With senior Nathan Stanley abruptly leaving the program, Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti will look to put on a show in Saturday’s spring game. Mackey made the most progress, taking the lead at the position, but word out of Oxford is that Brunetti might have the best set of tools, but has yet to be granted a waiver by the NCAA to be eligible to play this fall after transferring from West Virginia in January. Stoudt might not have the speed, but he could have the best arm. The wide receiver position still seems to be very inconsistent. Playmakers haven’t been found, which doesn’t help the inexperience at quarterback. Junior Melvin Harris has the most experience, but even he has been shaky at times. The secondary is still a concern for the Rebels as well. Only three cornerbacks entered spring with experience, but Marcus Temple missed all of spring after hernia surgery.

Spring stars: Mackey really impressed this spring. The former junior college standout has great wheels for a quarterback, but has also shown tremendous arm strength. He’s overcoming a speech impediment to become a real leader for the Rebels. Corner Wesley Pendleton also came from the JUCO ranks and while he’s still pretty raw, he’s had a solid spring. He’s got great speed and athleticism, which helps him overcome some of his coverage mistakes. Fellow corner Charles Sawyer has also made strong improvements after being benched earlier in the spring. Linebacker Mike Marry had a pretty successful spring for the Rebels.

Of note: The most crushing news of the spring came when linebacker -- and defensive leader -- D.T. Shackelford suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee this spring. He’s likely done for the year, leaving a gigantic hole on Ole Miss’ team. … Defensive end Kentrell Lockett (knee) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and while he didn’t practice this spring he will be back this fall. … Junior linebacker Joel Kight underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear, but should be fine for the fall. ... Cornerback Julian Whitehead left the team before spring for personal issues. … Offensive lineman Michael Brown missed spring with a disc issue in his back. … Defensive end Gerald Rivers is out with a knee injury.

Another tough blow for Ole Miss

April, 12, 2011
A little more than a week ago, they were rejoicing at Ole Miss after receiving the news that senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

[+] EnlargeD.T. Shackelford
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi will have a difficult time replacing linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who suffered a knee injury in practice.
Much more somber news arrived Tuesday when MRI results revealed that junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Monday's practice. He will have surgery in the next two weeks, and Ole Miss officials are saying his recovery time will last anywhere from six to eight months.

In other words, the Rebels will likely be without Shackelford for all of next season.

That's a blow in so many different ways for the Rebels. From a production standpoint, he was easily Ole Miss' best linebacker, a guy they could move around and get production out of no matter where he lined up. He was also one of the better pass-rushers on the team and started five games at defensive end last season.

Having Shackelford and Lockett on the field together would have opened up a lot of possibilities for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Both are big-time pass-rushers, and both have a knack for making big plays.

What's more, having them both on field together was exactly the kind of leadership the Rebels needed on defense after going through the struggles they did a year ago on that side of the ball.

Shackelford was the heartbeat of Ole Miss' team in a lot of ways. He set the tone with his work ethic, was also a vocal leader and saw to it that everybody was on the same page.

Had you asked Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt entering the spring who was the guy he could least afford to lose on this team to injury, I guarantee you that Shackelford would have been one of the first or second names to come out of his mouth.

Plus, the Rebels were already losing two senior starters at linebacker in Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker.

Sophomore middle linebacker Mike Marry and junior strong side linebacker Joel Kight have both had good springs. But the weakside spot is wide open, meaning incoming freshman C.J. Johnson will get every opportunity to show what he can do. Johnson was one of the Rebels' most prized signees in this class.

SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
Mississippi State hits the practice field next Friday to kick off spring practice in the SEC, and several other teams will follow the next week.

Football is back, and here’s a snapshot of what to watch this spring in the Western Division:


Start of spring practice: March 21
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • McCarron or Sims? If you’re looking for one of the more intriguing position battles of the spring, it doesn’t get much better than A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims battling it out for the Alabama starting quarterback job. Both players are extremely talented and were highly rated coming out of high school, and they’re vying to replace a guy who was the essence of precision, smarts and productivity all wrapped into one -- Greg McElroy. McCarron played a little bit last season as a redshirt freshman, while Sims redshirted. We’ll see if one separates himself enough this spring for Nick Saban to name a starter.
  • Back in the SEC: In addition to settling on a starting quarterback, the other thing the Crimson Tide would like to determine this spring is who will be protecting that quarterback from the left tackle position. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas is probably the guy to beat. He’s already on campus after attending Arizona Western College last year and drawing a wide array of interest from schools. He started his career at Tennessee, where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 2009 while playing right tackle for the Vols.
  • Rushing the passer: The Crimson Tide would like to amp up their pass rush next season, which means getting there without having to blitz all the time. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished last season on fire and lived in the opposing backfield his last two games. This is an important spring for middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s also been used outside in pass-rushing situations. Hightower was coming off reconstructive knee surgery last season and didn’t appear to be all the way back. He’s eager to show this spring that he is all the way back and poised to be an All-SEC player again.

Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Mr. Wilson: A year ago, Tyler Wilson got a chance to show what he could do with the first unit because Ryan Mallett broke a bone in his foot and missed the spring after undergoing surgery. This spring, it’s Wilson’s show again, although Mallett won’t be coming back this time. Wilson, a sophomore, is the odds-on favorite to win Arkansas’ starting quarterback job. He passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn last season on the road after Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he thinks Wilson can be a terrific quarterback, but wants to see him beat out Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker for the job before handing him the keys to the Hogs’ offense.
  • Getting defensive: The Hogs’ defense took the kind of step last season that was required to get them to 10 wins. They went from 89th in the country in total defense in 2009 to 36th in the country a year ago. The key figures from that defense return next season, and Petrino has said he thinks Arkansas will be even better on defense in 2011 than it was last season. Finding a replacement for Anthony Leon at one of the linebacker spots will be important this spring, and the Hogs could still use some more speed in the secondary.
  • Fourth-quarter blues: Special emphasis was placed on winning the close games last season and getting it done in the fourth quarter. That will be a familiar cry on the practice field again this spring. All three of Arkansas' losses last season came on the heels of fourth-quarter breakdowns. The Hogs couldn’t hold a lead at home against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. At Auburn, the Hogs were snowed under by a 28-point Auburn avalanche in the fourth quarter. And in the Sugar Bowl, the Hogs couldn’t capitalize in the final minutes despite blocking a punt and recovering inside the Ohio State 20.

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Playing with a target: Auburn emerged from the shadows last season to go 14-0 and win its first national championship since 1957. Nobody really saw the Tigers coming. Now, even though they lost great players the caliber of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, everybody will be circling the Auburn game on their calendars. With so many new faces in key positions, this team will have to establish its own identity and be prepared to get everybody’s best shot every weekend.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: It’s hard to imagine Auburn playing a game without departed senior offensive line starters Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Ryan Pugh. They were together so long and made so many career starts alongside each other. This spring, the Tigers start the process of replacing their four rocks up front. The lone holdover from the BCS National Championship Game is right tackle Brandon Mosley, although A.J. Greene was also a starter last season until he injured his ankle. Redshirt freshman Ed Christian is definitely somebody to watch at one of the guard spots, and don’t forget about junior John Sullen, who can play guard or tackle.
  • Trotter in the race: Even as great as Newton turned out to be, coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn were careful to make sure Newton was clearly the guy before naming him the starter at the conclusion of spring practice and heading into the summer. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley were two of the guys battling with Newton last spring. But this spring, they will be battling each other for the starting quarterback job, a battle that’s likely to continue into preseason practice once heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives on campus this summer.

Start of spring practice: March 11
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby: Perhaps the most closely watched quarterback battle this spring will occur at LSU, where seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will try and hold off talented junior college signee Zach Mettenberger. Jefferson played better toward the end of last season, but the Tigers’ passing game was nonexistent for much of the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mettenberger put up huge numbers in junior college last season after starting his career at Georgia. He obviously didn't sign with LSU to sit and watch.
  • Kragthorpe to the rescue: Former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe takes over as LSU’s offensive coordinator and does so after the Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total offense and last in the SEC in 2009. Kragthorpe wants to make sure LSU is getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers, but he also wants to make sure the Tigers are balanced. Their running game improved dramatically last season. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Spencer Ware is next in line after rushing for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
  • Special-teams makeover: The Tigers were gutted on special teams. Even special teams coordinator Joe Robinson left to take a job on North Carolina’s staff. Also gone are All-SEC place-kicker Josh Jasper, All-SEC return specialist Patrick Peterson and punter Derek Helton, who was second in the SEC with a punting average of 45.7 yards per game. LSU will be looking to fill voids across the board this spring in its kicking game, which was a big reason the Tigers won 11 games last season.

Start of spring practice: March 4
Spring game: April 9
End of spring practice: April 11

What to watch:
  • New defensive chief: Manny Diaz was hired away by Texas to be the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, meaning co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is now the guy running things in Starkville. Diaz and Wilson worked together closely last season, so it’s doubtful much will change. Dan Mullen did bring in Geoff Collins to serve as co-defensive coordinator to Wilson and also coach the Bulldogs' linebackers.
  • Lining up linebackers: The Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers from last season, including their top two tacklers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. Emmanuel Gatling was the other starter, although he shared time with Cameron Lawrence at one of the outside spots. So while Lawrence might have first dibs on one of those three starting jobs this spring, the competition will be fierce. Redshirt freshmen Felando Bohanna and Christian Holmes are two to watch in the middle. Chris Hughes played some last season as a true freshman on the outside, and third-year sophomore Michael Hunt will also be in the mix for a starting job.
  • Relf’s supporting cast: Chris Relf enters his senior season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he’s also one of the league’s most improved players. The Bulldogs’ top threats in the running game return, but Relf will have several new guys he’ll be hooking up with in the passing game. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis has been working out and is expected back this spring after missing the Gator Bowl with a broken collarbone. The Bulldogs also redshirted several receivers last season they have high hopes for, including Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. Getting a healthy Marcus Green back at tight end will also make Relf's life easier.

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Lee to call plays: The last time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t call his own plays was 2007 when David Lee called them during Nutt’s final season at Arkansas. Well, Lee has reunited with Nutt at Ole Miss for the 2011 season after coming over from the Miami Dolphins, and Nutt has again turned over the offensive play-calling duties to Lee in order to spend more time focusing on other areas of the team. Lee will build what the Rebels do offensively around an underrated stable of running backs, led by Brandon Bolden.
  • Quarterback questions: Jeremiah Masoli popped in at the last minute a year ago. But this time, it appears that the guy who separates himself this spring will be the Rebels’ quarterback for the season. Junior Nathan Stanley has the edge in experience. Randall Mackey is probably the most athletic, but will be limited this spring after undergoing knee surgery. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already enrolled and also eyeing the starting job, while West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti will be in the middle of the race as well if he receives a waiver from the NCAA and is allowed to play this coming season.
  • Building back the defense: After back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 when Ole Miss’ defense was outstanding, Tyrone Nix’s unit came crashing down last season. More than anything, it’s a group that needs to regain its confidence this spring and play with that same attacking mentality that made the Rebels so effective on defense the previous two seasons. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is a leader and the kind of guy you win with in this league, but Nix & Co. need to find a few more like him this spring, especially in the secondary.