NCF Nation: Fletcher Cox

The oldest cliché in football is that you win up front.

The more I watch the sport, especially in this league, the more I’m convinced that it’s not just a cliché.

I went back and looked at which schools in the SEC had produced the most offensive and defensive linemen to be selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft over the past five years.

Any guesses which school topped that list?

Not surprisingly, Alabama and Florida tied with six apiece.

[+] EnlargeTyson Jackson
AP Photo/Butch DillDominant linemen like Tyson Jackson (LSU), chosen third overall in the 2009 NFL draft, have long been a key ingredient on the SEC's best teams.
The Crimson Tide have had four offensive linemen and two defensive linemen taken in the top three rounds of the draft over the past five years. That doesn’t include Courtney Upshaw, who was an outside linebacker in the Tide’s 3-4 scheme and was drafted at the top of the second round last year.

The Gators have had three offensive linemen and three defensive linemen go in the top three rounds.

Right behind Alabama and Florida (surprise, surprise) was LSU with five.

In fourth place was Auburn with four.

And with those four schools, you have the past seven national champions.

Every SEC school but Texas A&M has had at least one offensive or defensive lineman go in the top three rounds dating to the 2008 draft. Von Miller went No. 2 overall in the 2011 draft, but he was an outside linebacker.

Not since Chris Ruhman went in the second round of the 1998 draft have the Aggies had an offensive or defensive lineman drafted in the first two rounds. That’s getting ready to change, because offensive tackle Luke Joeckel is being projected as a top 5 pick in the 2013 draft, and defensive end Damontre Moore could also go in the first round.

In addition to Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky are the only other schools in the league that haven’t produced a first-round selection in the offensive or defensive line over the past five years.

LSU leads the SEC with the most first-round defensive linemen over the past five years with three -- Michael Brockers in 2012, Tyson Jackson in 2009, and Glenn Dorsey in 2008.

South Carolina has put together its best run in school history despite producing very few premium draft selections up front. Defensive end Melvin Ingram went in the first round last year, and is the only offensive or defensive lineman for the Gamecocks to go in the top three rounds over the past five years.

South Carolina hasn’t had an offensive lineman go in the first or second round of the draft since Ernest Dye was taken in the first round in 1993.

LSU is the only school in the league to have produced an offensive or defensive lineman that was taken in the first four rounds each of the past five years.

Mississippi State had defensive tackle Fletcher Cox go in the first round last year, and offensive tackle Derek Sherrod go in the first round in 2011. Prior to that two-year run, the last offensive or defensive lineman from Mississippi State to go in the first round was defensive end Glen Collins in 1982.

Tennessee has gone five straight years without an offensive lineman being selected in the first three rounds of the draft. The Vols haven’t had an offensive lineman go in the first round since tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis went Nos. 7 and 8 overall in the 1991 draft.

Below is a listing for each SEC school of the offensive and defensive linemen selected in the top three rounds of the draft over the past five years:

  • Alabama: 6 (Four OL, Two DL. Three first-rounders)
  • Florida: 6 (Three OL, Three DL. Three first-rounders)
  • LSU: 5 (One OL, Four DL. Three first-rounders)
  • Auburn: 4 (No OL, Four DL. One first-rounder)
  • Ole Miss: 3 (Two OL, One DL. Two first-rounders)
  • Arkansas: 2 (No OL, Two DL. No first-rounders)
  • Georgia: 2 (One OL, One DL. No first-rounders)
  • Kentucky: 2 (No OL, Two DL. No first-rounders)
  • Mississippi State: 2 (One OL, One DL. Two first-rounders)
  • Missouri: 2 (No OL, Two DL. Two first-rounders)
  • Tennessee: 2 (No OL, Two DL. Two first-rounders)
  • South Carolina: 1 (No OL, One DL. One first-rounder)
  • Vanderbilt: 1 (One OL, no DL. One first-rounder)

Big draft looming for the SEC

April, 26, 2012
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It could be a record haul tonight in the NFL draft for the SEC.

As many as 12 players from the SEC are being projected to go in the first round, which will be carried live tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. ET. Rounds 2 and 3 will be on Friday, also on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. Rounds 4-7 will be on Saturday with ESPN coverage beginning at noon.

The most first-round selections the SEC has produced in one draft was 11 in 2007.

So if 12 go tonight, that would break the record.

Here's a look at the 12 SEC players being pegged to go in the first round. They're listed in order of their rank on Mel Kiper's Big Board :
Denico Autry played his high school football in the shadow of Charlotte, N.C., and had his sights set on playing collegiately at North Carolina.

“I didn’t have the grades, and my plans changed,” said Autry, who’s from Albemarle, N.C., a small town about 40 miles east of Charlotte.

It’s a good thing for Mississippi State those plans did change, because Autry has been a force this spring for the Bulldogs after going the junior college route the past two years. He’s given them the kind of edge pressure from his defensive end position that they didn’t possess a year ago.

“That’s what I do best, get to the quarterback,” said Autry, who had three sacks in Thursday’s scrimmage. “I know I can rush the passer, but you can always get better. I think I’ve gotten better this spring. The big thing is that I have to get better in all parts of my game. They’re not going to be passing on every down. You’ve got to be able to play the run, too.”

Ironically, the 6-5, 255-pound Autry found his way to East Mississippi Community College with the help of another SEC assistant.

Auburn linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen was coaching at North Carolina when Autry was in high school and had a connection with East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator William Jones.

“Coach Thigpen hooked me up with coach Jones at East Mississippi, and that’s how I got to (the state of) Mississippi,” Autry said.

It didn’t take him long to start wreaking havoc on opposing junior college quarterbacks. Autry earned All-America honors last season in leading East Mississippi to the junior college national championship. He collected 11 sacks and 41 quarterback hurries and was rated by most analysts as the top junior college defensive prospect in the country.

The offers came pouring in. Miami offered. So did USC, Oregon, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and North Carolina.

But Autry remembers watching Mississippi State play Alabama and LSU last season and thinking to himself that he could help the Bulldogs get over the top against those teams.

“I watched them against LSU and Alabama,” Autry recalled. “LSU didn’t offer me. Alabama was recruiting me, but they really didn’t offer me when it got down to it. I saw how Mississippi State played both of those teams and wanted to be a part of that.”

Autry was a must-get for the Bulldogs, who desperately needed to add a finisher to their defensive line. Tackle Fletcher Cox gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and of the Bulldogs’ 27 sacks last season, only six came from defensive ends.

“I want to be that third-down guy, somebody that helps get us off the field on third down and takes the other team out of their game,” Autry said.

With the Bulldogs set to conclude their spring on Saturday with their annual Maroon-White spring game, Autry is a big reason there’s a renewed sense of optimism on defense in Starkville. The Bulldogs were fourth in the SEC in scoring defense last season, but eighth in total defense.

"He is who we thought he was," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson told The Mobile Press-Register. "When he's not out there thinking (too much), he makes us different. I don't always like to say better. I think it's an overused term, but he really makes us different."

Autry said he loves Wilson's attacking style of defense, which he said will be the Bulldogs' calling card in 2012.

"We're a hard-nosed defense that’s going to keep coming after you, and you’re not going to get anything easy against us," he said.

Autry also knows that he's not the first junior college player to come into the league surrounded by a lot of hype. Some of those guys pan out. Others don't.

Pernell McPhee earned All-SEC honors a couple of years back at Mississippi State after starting his career at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. Jones has said that he thinks Autry is better than McPhee, who's now with the Baltimore Ravens.

Autry would prefer to do his talking on the field ... this fall.

"The only thing that matters is what you do in the games," he said. "That's where you have to prove it."
Each year, there are always winners, losers and plenty of questions that come out of the NFL combine. They can all affect players' draft stocks.

It certainly makes for exciting water cooler talk.

Mel Kiper Jr. has been hard at work since the combine ended and he's come up with his winners from the combine and players who still have questions Insider that remain.

Kiper has a couple of SEC players on both of his list. Here's what he had to say about each:

WINNERS

Offense

[+] EnlargeCordy Glenn
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireCordy Glenn's flexibility to play multiple positions on the offensive line should make him an attractive prospect.
Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: "Considering I have Glenn as a mid-first-round pick best suited for guard, it's hard to say he could move up, but some teams could probably see him at right tackle, too. Workouts confirmed what we believe -- powerful yet plenty nimble for his huge frame."

Thoughts: Glenn has the athleticism to have success at the next level. Plus, his versatility should really help him because he can play multiple positions, which is certainly a plus for teams. He has the ideal size to play inside, but teams know he can play outside, which could help him rise in this draft, as Kiper said. I don't see him falling out of the first round.

Defense

Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: "Solidified a mid-first grade. It won't say a lot about what he does on the field, but a 4.79 at 298 pounds is a pretty freaky number for a DT. Good week for Cox."

Thoughts: I knew Cox was quick and fast on his feet, but I didn't know he was 4.7 fast. He's powerful and showed last season that he can really wreak havoc in opposing defensive backfields. If not for a tremendous showing by Memphis' Dontari Poe, Cox might be slated as the top defensive tackle available in the draft.

QUESTIONS

Offense

Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: "He checked in at 216 following three years of being listed about 13 pounds heavier. If he doesn't run at about 4.5, we'll certainly wonder if he has enough athleticism to separate. He's a big target and it'd be hard to see him falling past the second round, but he has work to do."

Thoughts: I've seen Jeffery play time and time again and I've always come away impressed when he's in one-on-one situations. He's incredibly physical and really makes a corner's job much harder in jump-ball situations. He's not the fastest receiver out there and last year's dip in his production could hurt, but you can't forget about his ability to manhandle defenders.

Defense

Michael Brockers, DT, LSU: "Up to 322 pounds, Brockers is still seen as a 3-technique tackle in a 4-3. But the weight seemed to drag on his explosiveness, and the strength numbers were also less than average. He may want to drop a little weight before his pro day. Still a safe Round 1 guy, but needs to find that comfort zone."

Thoughts: He wasn't very impressive at the combine, but like Jeffery, he showed how well he can play during his college days. His field speed was certainly better than what he showed at the combine. I think his stock has fallen, but you have to think that what he did in 2011 will make sure he stays in the first round. He certainly can't falter again during his pro day.

Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama: "He's a high-motor guy who can rush the quarterback, but he didn't run in Indy and will need to show enough explosiveness that teams think he won't get engulfed by NFL tackles."

Thoughts: Whenever you skip out on workouts questions will arise, but from everything I've heard, he will probably be the first outside linebacker taken in April's NFL draft. He showed all year that he has the speed to be dangerous on the outside.

SEC combine update

February, 28, 2012
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Other than Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe's performance, several SEC players put up some of the most impressive numbers Monday at the NFL combine.

Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram all helped themselves.

And with the defensive backs working out Tuesday, already LSU cornerback Ron Brooks has turned heads with a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, which unofficially is the fastest 40 time this year at the combine.

Some of the other unofficial 40 times from Tuesday included South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore (4.44), LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne (4.47), Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward (4.53) and South Carolina safety Antonio Allen (4.62).

Hightower, weighing 265 pounds, ran a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash on Monday, and also recorded a 32-inch vertical leap.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. guys said Hightower showed impressive mobility for his size.

Todd McShay of ESPN Scouts Inc. said Ingram had the best workout of the perimeter defensive linemen. Ingram turned in the second-best three-cone (6.83) and third-best short shuttle (4.18), and also finished in the top 10 among linemen in the 40 (4.79) and vertical jump (34½).

McShay said of Ingram: "Ingram's lack of size could mean a move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but for now he has the most explosive, violent hands in the defensive end class and he could end up being a top-10 pick. The Miami Dolphins (No. 8 pick) and Buffalo Bills (No. 10) could both have interest."

Cox's 4.79 in the 40 topped all defensive tackles. He posted a 7.07-second three-cone drill, which is more than a half-second faster than the four-year average. He turned in a 4.53 in the short shuttle.

McShay said of Cox: "Cox came into the combine as the second-rated defensive tackle on the Scouts Inc. board, and he did nothing to change our opinion. He shows the versatility to play the 3-technique (DT) or even left end at times in a 4-3 alignment or the 5-technique in a 3-4."

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers didn't test well. He ran a 5.36 in the 40 and did only 19 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. Even so, it sounds like Brockers will still be a high draft pick.

McShay said: "Brockers didn't look as quick or explosive as some of the other top prospects in drills, but he did move well in space for a 6-5 322-pounder. It's important to keep things in perspective, though, because Brockers' game tape is strong enough that his combine workout won't affect his stock nearly as much as it would a prospect who is less consistent on tape."

Big days for Cox, Ingram at NFL combine

February, 27, 2012
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Two of the best and most athletic defensive linemen in the SEC last season were Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and South Carolina's Melvin Ingram.

Therefore, seeing some of their impressive workout numbers Monday at the NFL combine shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody.

Cox, who gave up his senior season to turn pro, was on display for the first time for the scouts, and at 6-4 and 298 pounds, ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash, which was one of the fastest times at the combine for an interior defensive lineman. Cox also showed impressive strength by doing 30 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.

The 6-1, 264-pound Ingram also ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash and did 28 repetitions on the bench press. Ingram played defensive end at South Carolina, but also slid inside to tackle some during his career. Some NFL scouts think Ingram could be an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He actually started his career at South Carolina as a linebacker.

Both Cox and Ingram were projected as first-round picks even before the NFL combine.

Somebody else who helped himself Monday was Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard, who turned in a 4.82 in the 40.

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers didn't test as well as some had expected. He ran a 5.36 in the 40 and only did 19 repetitions on the bench.
There were plenty of SEC players who made improvements in 2011. Complacency wasn't an option for these players, therefore, they made tremendous strides.

Today, we'll look at players who either improved their play, rose from the ranks of reserve to really impress or returned from injury. I'll go first with my five players who I thought made the most improvement from 2010 to 2011. Chris will follow up with his top five later today. We haven't communicated about our choices, so we could have some that overlap or we could have five completely different picks.

Regardless, this should create some pretty fun debate for readers.

Here's a look at my five most improved players in the SEC:

    [+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
    Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMississippi State's Fletcher Cox is projected to be a first-round pick in April's draft.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: As a sophomore, Cox started 11 games and accumulated 29 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. But last year, he proved to be one of the top defensive tackles in the SEC. He had 56 total tackles, including 14.5 for loss and five sacks. He also blocked two kicks, recovered a fumble and forced a fumble. He's expected to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
  • Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU: As a reserve, Mathieu had a productive year in 2010, when he ranked first in the SEC and fifth nationally with five forced fumbles and tied for first in the league with three fumble recoveries. He also led LSU with seven pass breakups. He became a national star and a Heisman finalist in 2011, as he tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, tied for first nationally with five fumble recoveries, and tied for fourth with six forced fumbles. He was also fifth nationally with a 15.6 average on punt returns and took two back for touchdowns.
  • Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Montgomery missed most of 2010 with a knee injury, but still managed two sacks. Last season, you would have never guessed that he was coming off an injury. Montgomery was one of the league's most productive players off the edge, ranking sixth in the SEC with nine sacks and had 13.5 tackles for loss.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: He finished the 2010 season as Vanderbilt's second leading rusher with 331 yards and had three touchdowns. He looked like a completely different player in 2011, becoming one of the top running backs in the SEC. He was third in the SEC with 1,193 rushing yards and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 5.7 yards per carry in conference play.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Wright left Arkansas as one of the best receivers to ever step foot in Fayetteville, but he saved his best season for last. After catching 42 passes for 788 yards and five touchdowns in 2010, Wright was the SEC's top receiver last season with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the league with 93.1 yards per game.

Here are 10 more that just missed the cut:

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
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The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

Mississippi State's Cox turning pro

January, 3, 2012
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As expected, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox confirmed Tuesday he was giving up his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

Cox, who led all SEC defensive tackles with 14.5 tackles for loss this season, is rated No. 20 by ESPN's Todd McShay in his latest breakdown of the top 32 NFL prospects. Cox closed out his college career by collecting two tackles for loss, including a sack, and blocking a field goal in Mississippi State's 23-17 win over Wake Forest Friday in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

Cox said in a statement: "This is a chance for me to do what I’ve always dreamed of, play in the NFL. I appreciate everything Mississippi State has done for me to help me get to this point. The coaches, fans, staff and everyone there have been amazing during my three years in Starkville.”

Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to enter their names into the draft. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery is also expected to come out early.

Others to keep an eye on are Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo, Georgia tight end Orson Charles, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, LSU receiver Rueben Randle, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks and South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

The SEC started bowl season 1-0 after Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday night.

Mississippi State racked some points up early, but Wake Forest fought back before the Bulldogs' defense hunkered down for most of the second half.

Here's the instant analysis:

How the game was won: Mississippi State's offense racked up 246 yards and 16 points in the first half, while the Demon Deacons managed just 130 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense played well all night, especially the closer Wake Forest got to the end zone. Mississippi State held Wake Forest to 287 total yards. On offense, quarterback Chris Relf overcame two interceptions to play effectively both throwing and running the ball. Mississippi State's running game put up 253 yards, including 180 from senior Vick Ballard.

Turning point: After Wake Forest cut Mississippi State's lead to 16-14 early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs' offense was pretty quiet in the third quarter. But with almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ballard took a carry up the middle for a 72-yard touchdown, making it a two-score game and giving the Bulldogs enough points for the win.

Stat of the game: The teams combined to go 7-of-30 on third downs, with Wake Forest converting just 2-of-17.

Stat of the game 2: Wake Forest won the turnover battle 4-0.

Player of the game: Ballard made the most of his final game in a Mississippi State uniform. The senior carried the ball only 14 times, but had 180 yards and had touchdowns of 60 and 72 yards. Ballard pounded the Demon Deacons' defense through the middle of the field and used his speed to make a handful of plays off the edge. He outrushed Wake Forest by 117 yards on 24 less carries.

Unsung hero of the game: Friday might have been defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's final game with the Bulldogs as well. He had a strong game, recording seven tackles (including two for loss), assisting on a sack, blocking his fifth career kick (a school record) and providing plenty of pressure inside Wake Forest's backfield all night.

Second guessing: Dan Mullen has a pretty aggressive coaching style, but he made a bad call when he decided to go for the end zone from the Wake Forest 9-yard line with six seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal. Wake Forest grabbed a chunk of momentum and drove 64 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it 16-14. Luckily for Mullen, the play didn't cost Mississippi State the win.

What it means: Mullen has now directed Mississippi State to bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade. It also gives Mississippi State its fifth straight bowl win overall. The Bulldogs have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Mississippi State didn't live up to its higher expectations this season, but getting to seven wins -- including a bowl victory -- will make the offseason much easier for Mullen and his players.

Record performance: Cox wasn't the only one taking home a school record. Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens entered the game with a school-record 1,276 receiving yards. The ACC's leader in receiving for the 2011 season added to his record-setting year by gaining 54 more yards on nine catches, giving the junior 1,330 yards on the year.

Music City Bowl: Miss. State-Wake Forest

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
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Mississippi State (6-6) makes its second straight bowl trip and takes on Wake Forest (6-6) on Friday night in Nashville in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Here’s a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Mississippi State junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. This may be the last chance to see him play, period, at least in the college game. Cox is being projected by some analysts as a first-round NFL draft selection and is thinking about turning pro. He was the best interior defensive lineman in the SEC the second half of the season and enters the bowl game with 12.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. That’s after getting off to a slow start and going four straight games without a tackle for loss. The Mississippi State coaches challenged him publicly, and the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Cox ended the regular season on a tear.

WHAT TO WATCH: Johnthan Banks vs. Chris Givens. Banks is one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, and Givens is one of the top receivers in the ACC. The two talented juniors are both thinking about leaving school early and entering the NFL draft. Banks has five interceptions this season and 12 for his career. He was one of two players in the NCAA this season to have an interception return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. It was a breakthrough season for Givens, who caught 74 passes and a set a school record with 1,276 receiving yards. He also caught nine touchdown passes and is the player on Wake Forest’s team who will command the most attention from Mississippi State’s defense.

WHY TO WATCH: The winner leaves Nashville with a winning season and the loser with a losing season. In Mississippi State’s case, the Bulldogs are trying to put together their second straight winning season for the first time since 1997-2000, when they had four straight winning seasons under Jackie Sherrill. The postseason brought out the best in the Bulldogs a year ago when they thrashed Michigan in the Gator Bowl. They're still looking for a complete game this season. Maybe they'll put it all together again in the bowl game.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 31, Wake Forest 17. Both teams just did squeeze into the postseason, but Wake Forest was really wobbling there at the end. The Deacons' only victories since the second week of October came over Duke and Maryland. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were playing their best defense when the regular season ended, and that will be the difference in the Music City.

Fletcher Cox has come full circle

December, 29, 2011
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From time to time, Fletcher Cox will go back and peek at his freshman video.

The sight of his undersized, younger self flailing about makes for good comedy for him and his coaches.

“I always go back and laugh at it,” Mississippi State’s junior defensive tackle said.

“My freshman year, I was pretty much playing off of talent and didn’t quite know what was going on.”

Early on, it was painful for him to dissect film of himself after his freshman season. Though he started four of the 12 games he played in, recording 29 tackles and 3.5 for loss, Cox said the sight of his sometimes-awkward technique and raw behavior left him cringing.

He used his faults as motivation for his second season and he burst onto the SEC scene as a more disruptive lineman, with 11 starts and 29 more tackles, including 6.5 for loss.

[+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJunior Fletcher Cox will decide whether to enter the NFL draft after the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Now, Cox enters the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Wake Forest as a top junior prospect in the 2012 NFL draft. He’s grown physically and mentally, and he ended the regular season as one of the most imposing defensive linemen in the SEC.

Cox has a career-high 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Scouts Inc. ranks Cox as the No. 20 overall prospect in next year’s draft.

“This is the best season I’ve had at Mississippi State,” Cox said.

But things didn’t start great for the 6-foot-4, 295-pound lineman. After garnering a ton of preseason love from around the league, Cox was one of five Mississippi State players suspended for the opener against Memphis for violating team rules.

Cox was forced to sit at home and watch as his Bulldogs routed Memphis 59-14. Cox was happy to see his teammates win, but it was hard for him to watch from afar.

There were moments when he was shouting at the TV, playing coach from his couch. He called his teammates afterward to congratulate them and talked about specific things to change going forward, but no matter how much constructive criticism he delivered, he knew it wouldn’t make up for letting his teammates down.

“I never look back at that game,” he said.

Cox said that moment changed his outlook on the season, motivating him to work harder on the field. It took him a few weeks to get on track, but recorded all of his tackles for loss in SEC play.

Cox also used his time to energize defenders around him. Defensive playmakers had to be replaced from the 2011 season, and Cox took it upon himself to make sure those bodies up front didn’t stumble.

He even made sure teammates forced him to take his game to new heights. Cox is good individually, but it takes more than one player to keep a defense going.

“I always tell them that I’m a leader, but sometimes, push me,” Cox said.

Cox’s Bulldog career could be coming to an end Friday, but he isn’t concerned with that. He hasn’t made a decision about the NFL and doesn’t plan to until after sitting down with his family following the bowl game.

He’s keeping quiet about which way he’s leaning, but admits it would be a “no-brainer” for him to enter the draft if he was projected to go in the first round. Beyond that, Cox will have a long discussion with those close to him.

Regardless of what Cox decides, he feels blessed. The draft questions can get stale, but they help to remind him of where he came from.

They lead him to think of how that lost freshman might have a real NFL future.

“Going back to my freshmen year and then seeing where I am now shows that hard work pays off,” Cox said.

ESPN.com's 2011 All-SEC team

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
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Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

Constructing an all-conference team is never easy. There are always players you second-guess or just remember at the last minute.

The tough decisions have to be made and that means not everyone can make the team.

We just don't have enough room for hundreds of players.

We struggled with a couple of decisions, starting with the quarterback position. We gave the nod to Aaron Murray over Tyler Wilson. We understand that Wilson led the SEC in yards (3,422), but Murray did more with less. Wilson was working with four top-tier wide receivers, while Murray simply wasn't. He still led the SEC with 32 touchdown passes, threw 19 them in the last six games and led Georgia back to the SEC title game.

It was also hard to leave Zac Stacy off this list. Michael Dyer was Auburn's most valuable player, and that 7-5 record might not have been possible without him. He was second in the SEC in rushing (1,242) and was the only back besides Trent Richardson to average more than 100 yards in SEC games. But Stacy was great, too. He averaged a yard more per carry (5.7) than Dyer in SEC play, had more total touchdowns (13) and averaged 126 yards in each of his last six games.

We also decided to go with a 3-4 defense because we felt linebackers deserved a little more love this year.

Here's our team:

OFFENSE

TE - Orson Charles, Georgia
OL - Barrett Jones, Alabama
OL - Will Blackwell, LSU
OL - Cordy Glenn, Georgia
OL - Rokevious Watkins, South Carolina
C - William Vlachos, Alabama
WR - Jarius Wright, Arkansas
WR - Rueben Randle, LSU
QB – Aaron Murray, Georgia
RB – Trent Richardson, Alabama
RB – Michael Dyer, Auburn
AP - Chris Rainey, Florida

DEFENSE

DL - Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
DL - Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State
DL - Sam Montgomery, LSU
LB - Jarvis Jones, Georgia
LB - Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
LB - Dont'a Hightower, Alabama
LB - Danny Trevathan, Kentucky
DB - Morris Claiborne, LSU
DB - Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
DB - Mark Barron, Alabama
DB - Bacarri Rambo, Georgia

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK - Caleb Sturgis, Florida
P - Brad Wing, LSU
RS – Joe Adams, Arkansas
With the LSU-Mississippi State game just hours away, fellow SEC blogger Chris Low and I decided to look at the keys to victory for each team.

LSU comes in with all the momentum after two tremendous showings by its defense. Mississippi State was a trendy dark-horse pick to win the West before the season started, but that talk was halted after a tough loss to Auburn last week.

Starkville will no doubt be jumping for tonight's game, but how can each team win? I looked into three ways that the Bulldogs could pull the upset, while Chris looked at how LSU can stay undefeated in a hostile environment.

Mississippi State's keys to victory:

1. Stop the run: Mississippi State was awful when it came to stopping the run last week. Auburn carved up the Bulldogs' front seven for 235 yards on the ground inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the Bulldogs surrendered more than 160 yards to Memphis a week earlier. LSU brings in a tough running game that features multiple backs, so stamina won't be an issue. The Tigers have put up back-to-back 175-yard rushing performances and if the Bulldogs don't get tougher in the trenches, it could be another long day for Mississippi State's defense. Mississippi State barely got any push from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when he returned last week, but he and Josh Boyd can't afford to slump tonight.

2. Force Jarrett Lee to beat you: Lee hasn't been spectacular this season, but he has run the offense the way his coaches have asked him to. Lee's unsettled football past is well documented and if he gets in trouble, he can be a defense's best friend. He has had interception problems in the past and Mississippi State fields one of the most athletic and dangerous secondaries in the SEC. Cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are big plays waiting to happen, while Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley have a tremendous knack for finding the ball. Lee has yet to feel rattled this season, but the Bulldogs have the personnel in the secondary to do that.

3. Get the wide receivers more involved: Quarterback Chris Relf showed that he can be a one-man wrecking crew, but even that wasn't enough to push the Bulldogs past Auburn last week. He needs more help from his receivers. In two games, Mississippi State's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has just five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He had one catch for 3 yards against Auburn. Last week, Relf passed for 198 yards, but running back Vick Ballard led the team in catches with five. In order to get more variety out of the offense, Mississippi State's receivers have to get more separation and be more of a factor.

LSU's keys to victory:

1. Take control early: Scott Field is a tough place to play, and those cowbells have a way of ringing in your ears after a while. They don’t ring nearly as much or as loudly when Mississippi State is down, though. So taking the crowd out of the game early would be a huge help to LSU, which is at its best when it’s playing with the lead, running the football and dictating the flow of the game.

2. Hit some plays in the passing game: The Tigers don’t necessarily need to throw for 250 or 300 yards, but they do need to keep the Mississippi State defense honest by hitting a few big pass plays down the field. LSU’s longest completion to a wide receiver in the Oregon game was 10 yards to Rueben Randle, but Randle came back with a big outing last week in the blowout of Northwestern State. LSU is going to need Randle, Odell Beckham and Kadron Boone to stretch that Mississippi State defense tonight so that the Bulldogs aren’t able to walk a safety up and stack the box.

3. Ground the Bulldogs’ ground game: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is tied for third nationally in rushing. He has 301 yards in his first two games and is averaging 9.1 yards per carry. It’s not just Ballard, either. Quarterback Chris Relf is a big part of the Mississippi running game along with backup running back LaDarius Perkins, who had a 40-yard touchdown run last week against Auburn. LSU’s challenge is to keep Mississippi State from getting that running game going, particularly on first and second down, and forcing Relf into a lot of third-and-long situations. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally against the run and are allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. If they play that way tonight, they’ll make it 12 in a row over the Bulldogs.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
9/15/11
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We have some key SEC matchups this week and a nice ACC-SEC battle in the other Death Valley.

Things get kicked off tonight when LSU meets Mississippi State in Starkville. This game should be full of hard hits and maddening cowbells. Can all that clanking rattle the Bayou Bengals?

And don't forget about a key SEC East matchup Saturday between Florida and Tennessee. The Gators have won six straight over the Volunteers, but this Florida team is still a mystery to most.

Here's what to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 3:

1. Mississippi State’s rushing defense: The Bulldogs haven’t stopped the run well at all in two games this season. Last weekend, Auburn carved up Mississippi State’s defense for 235 rushing yards and got 150 of them from Michael Dyer. Tonight, the Bulldogs will face an LSU running game that has put up 175 yards in both wins this season. Mississippi State was supposed to get a boost from Fletcher Cox in the middle last week, but he was a non-factor. Against this group of Tigers, Mississippi State has to stop the run if it wants to win. Forcing quarterback Jarrett Lee to make plays against a talented secondary could benefit the Bulldogs.

2. Running in the Swamp: The Florida-Tennessee rivalry has always come down to the running game. The team with the most rushing yards has won 19 of the last 21 meetings. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said this week that in order for his offense to truly be effective against the Gators it has to generate a dominant running game. So far, the Vols’ running game has been anything but that, averaging just 127 yards a game. Florida has had a lot of success with its backfield, especially the slippery Chris Rainey, thus far, and the Gators are second in the league with 248.5 rushing yards per game. Winning the battle of the backfield will go a long way Saturday.

3. Hangover in Death Valley?
Auburn has taken both of its games down to the very last minute. The Tigers literally needed a goal-line stand to prevent overtime against Mississippi State. But those games came at home and now the Tigers must greet another set of big cats at Clemson. Auburn is riding high and has proved that while young, this team has the heart and the fight to compete for four quarters every week. Can this trend continue? Well, it’s hard to pick against Auburn, but at some point these late-game antics have to catch up with this team … right?

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonBobby Petrino maintains that Tyler Wilson is his starting quarterback.
4. Two-QB system in Fayetteville: Bobby Petrino laughed at the handful of questions he fielded Wednesday about possibly using a two-quarterback system. He made it clear that Tyler Wilson is his starter and that Brandon Mitchell is the backup who got some extra reps here and there. But why not put Mitchell out there more? Petrino even admitted that he likes the idea of playing him more because he gives defenses something extra to think about because of how productive he is outside of the pocket. Keep an eye out for it. Mitchell adds another rushing threat to Arkansas’ offense and that running game needs a jolt.

5. South Carolina’s tackling ability: The Gamecocks’ defense claimed it would be much better compared to last season. So far, that hasn’t been the case. South Carolina has been in two straight shootouts and tackling has been a major issue. Coach Steve Spurrier ripped his team publicly this week about its inability to tackle effectively. This week, the Gamecocks get a Navy team that is only leading the nation rushing for 400 yards a game with that deadly triple option. Spurrier made it clear that if his team wants to stay undefeated it can’t let Navy’s rushing attack control the game.

6. Alabama’s quarterback competition: AJ McCarron looked to have cemented himself as the Tide’s starting quarterback after an impressive performance at Penn State, but coach Nick Saban still wants to give Phillip Sims some reps. This is the perfect weekend for the last stage of this battle. Alabama’s talent should overwhelm North Texas, meaning Saban can rotate his quarterbacks more. I still give McCarron the edge, but if Sims is going to make any sort of push for the rest of the season, it will have to be this weekend because SEC play is just around the corner.

7. James Franklin going for his first league win: So far, Vanderbilt’s coach’s approach is working. Franklin has been a powder keg of energy for this program and the Commodores are 2-0 for the first time since 2008. Franklin hates looking back to the past and is all about pushing this program forward. Saturday, Franklin and his Commodores will get their biggest test of the year when Ole Miss comes to town. The Rebels haven’t been great this season and the offense hasn’t been consistent. Vandy’s aggressive defense should provide plenty of problems for the Rebels, who have lost two of their last three to the Commodores.

8. Tyler Bray vs. Florida’s secondary: It’s no secret that Tennessee’s sophomore quarterback has a cannon for a right arm. He’s throwing for 350 yards a game and has seven touchdowns. Two things helping his video game-like numbers are receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, who have combined for 31 catches for 502 yards and five touchdowns. But how will Bray stack up against a Florida defense that has been superb in its first two games? Granted, the Gators haven’t played the toughest competition, but they are doing what has been expected and have been much more aggressive. However, top Florida cornerback Jeremy Brown is still battling a knee injury, while the other two main corners are underclassmen. Matt Elam has been solid at strong safety, but there are still questions at free safety.

9. Mettenberger making an appearance: We finally got to see LSU’s backup toss the pigskin around last week when he filled in for Jarrett Lee during the second half. Lee suffered an ankle injury, which doesn’t seem too serious, but we might have another Zach Mettenberger sighting tonight in Starkville. The junior college transfer had a solid outing against Northwestern State and showed a little of what he can do, so trust is growing with the coaching staff. Players seemed excited about seeing more of Mettenberger and if Lee struggles or feels any effects from last week’s ankle tweak, Mettenberger could get some quality snaps tonight.

10. Georgia’s losing streaking coming to an end:
Georgia hasn’t won a football game since Nov. 27, 2010, when the Bulldogs topped rival Georgia Tech 42-34. The losing ends Saturday! Coastal Carolina will see a mad, hungry group of Dawgs this weekend and things won’t be pretty for the Chanticleers. Georgia is looking to generate some confidence and this weekend the Bulldogs will look to correct some of those mistakes that cost them in the first two weeks. We should finally see some smiles in Athens Saturday night.

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