NCF Nation: Hugh Freeze

Early Offer: OU's big chance to impress 

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
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Oklahoma is the place to be this weekend as the Sooners are bringing in a number of elite recruits for what is shaping up to be the biggest recruiting weekend by any program so far, and despite losing last week to Virginia Tech it looks like Ohio State is still in good shape with prospects.

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To win at the highest level in the SEC, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze knows he has to recruit well in Memphis, Tennessee, and Charlie Strong's job of returning Texas to the top just got more difficult after the loss to BYU this past weekend.


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ATLANTA – With a healthy shoulder and more experience than any other quarterback in the SEC, there are no more excuses for Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace.

That means the Bo Wallace who showed up in the first half of Ole Miss’ ugly 35-13 victory over Boise State just won’t cut it this fall. There were some brutal moments in his first two seasons, but he was learning the speed of the SEC, he had a lingering shoulder injury and Ole Miss was under new management.

None of that is the case now, so three first-half interceptions and some ugly overthrows that could have easily lost the opener for the Rebels just can’t happen anymore if Wallace wants his Rebels to compete for an SEC West title.

“I have things to work on,” Wallace said shortly after the Rebels’ opener. “I was lucky to be able to bounce back in the second half.

“I don’t know what that was, but I have to get back and make sure I come out better next week.”

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
AP Photo/John BazemoreOle Miss quarterback Bo Wallace didn't play like a three-year starter in the first half against Boise State.
Wallace admitted after the game that he felt some jitters before the Boise State game, something he said he’s never dealt with before games. So maybe he pressed a little because of that. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell added that he thought the offense was trying to do too much too quickly in the first half. So maybe Wallace was trying to dig that dagger into the Broncos just a little too early inside the Georgia Dome.

The stumbling offense we saw for the better part of three quarters vanished in the fourth when Wallace took charge and slowed down. In that quarter alone, Wallace threw three touchdowns – on consecutive throws – and 175 yards on 6-of-7 passing.

So what happened before that?

“Obviously two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable to us because they weren’t even in his progression on the route, and he’ll be the first to tell you that, and he knows that,” Freeze said last Thursday. “So it was a bit amazing.”

Wallace definitely rebounded, which fueled the offense, but you could tell after the game that he was frustrated with his play. And that’s good. He knows he had some bad moments. He tried to stay in it mentally, but the passes that got away from him weighed on him once the game was over.

“The whole time my mindset was still the same [throughout the game],” Wallace said. “I didn’t get too low, obviously didn’t get too high in the second half. I was even-keeled. All the players coming up to me [saying], ‘You’re good, you’re good.’ I know I’m good, just get away from me, let me collect my thoughts and let’s go out and put a drive together.”

The Jekyll-and-Hyde persona that has tortured Wallace in the past isn't going to win games for the Rebels this year. The Ole Miss offense just can’t take it.

When Wallace has been good, he’s been really good. He’s thrown for 6,727 yards and 44 touchdowns. He’s also run for 758 yards and 14 touchdowns. He can kill you with the zone-read at times and is an excellent leader.

He’s marched into Austin and slayed Texas. He’s gone pass-for-pass with Johnny Football -- twice. He’s slayed No. 6 LSU. And has two bowl victories.

But his bad has led to drives ending prematurely and 30 career interceptions.

Wallace is no slouch, but his schizophrenic play raises fans’ blood pressure and puts his team in precarious situations.

It’s time for Wallace to truly step up, or Ole Miss will step aside.

Maybe the opener was a hiccup, and maybe nerves really did get to Wallace. But going forward, Wallace can’t afford to start games like that. His opponents are going to get stronger.

The pressure will only increase, which means Wallace has to keep his cool.

“I’m going out and playing football,” Wallace said. “I’m trying to take this team back to Atlanta. That’s really all I’m worried about.”
It’s not that Ole Miss had a terrible season last year. The Rebs, under coach Hugh Freeze, won eight games for the first time since 2009. Freeze admittedly was pleasantly surprised by how far the program had come since he took over following a 2-10 season in 2011. To anyone who’d ask, he’d say that he thought the process of fielding a competitive football team in the SEC would have taken longer.

Recruiting will do that for you.

Freeze changed the mentality of Ole Miss football in the blink of an eye. That day was Feb. 6, 2013, when the program’s news release -- “Ole Miss Lands Historic Signing Class -- was, for once, not an overstatement. Eleven All-Americans headlined the class, including the No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche. All told, Freeze signed four recruits who were considered the best prospects at their position, according to ESPN.

Relying heavily on freshmen such as Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss began the 2013 season on a tear, beating both Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Losses at Alabama and Auburn weren’t altogether unexpected, and when the Rebs returned home, they beat No. 6-ranked LSU in dramatic fashion.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsWith a year of experience under their belts, Robert Nkemdiche and the rest of Ole Miss' sterling sophomore class should be much improved.
But somewhere along the way, things changed. After reeling off five victories in a row, Ole Miss began to falter, losing two in a row to Missouri and Mississippi State.

Dropping the Egg Bowl in overtime was particularly painful. Freeze would look at the film each Sunday and see mental and physical breakdowns from his players. The level of consistency wasn’t there.

“We just didn’t play as crisp,” he said.

They lost to Missouri because they drove into the red zone three times and couldn’t punch it in. They lost to Ole Miss because Bo Wallace was on his way into the end zone and had the football punched from his grasp.

“You could see kids making some mistakes they didn’t make earlier in the year,” Freeze said.

Freeze looked in the mirror and decided, “I have to look at what I do.”

“We weren’t the same,” Freeze said. “Now we lost C.J. Johnson, Aaron Morris, Evan Engram, Charles Sawyer, Denzel [Nkemdiche], Robert [Nkemdiche]. We lost five games. But for whatever reason we weren’t the same. We think part of it was the mental fatigue.

“Year 2, I expect them to handle that much better.”

It isn’t just that Wallace’s shoulder has finally recovered. It isn’t even that those sidelined players are back. Freeze believes Year 2 will be different because that much-talked-about signing class from 2013 is more mature. The growing pains those freshmen went through last season should make them better prepared as sophomores.

“Those young kids, as many as we played, physically, you would look at them and say, ‘They look the part,’” Freeze said. “But mentally it took a toll on them. We played four out of the first five [games] on the road. Every one of them was 7 or 8 p.m. kickoffs. We’re getting back at 4 a.m., and those high school kids, that’s a new world for them.”

This season’s schedule is more favorable, with four of the first seven games in Oxford, Mississippi. And if that’s not enough, Freeze is considering altering his weekly schedule after the fatigue he saw last season, whether that means changing practice times or taking Sundays off entirely. If Ole Miss wants to be a contender in the SEC West, keeping consistent throughout the season is a must.

“I assure you that I’ll be looking at it,” he said. “Last year I had blinders and was saying, ‘Let’s get ready for the next one.’ I didn’t think about, ‘Hey, somewhere in here they’ve lost 2-3 days.’ When you get back at 4 a.m. for five straight weeks, that’s part of my learning curve.”

For the players’ part, they’re taking some of the onus on themselves.

“I’ve never seen since I’ve been here people getting extra work on their own, going out and doing cone drills and things like that,” Wallace said. “I think everyone is ready to go.”

Veteran defensive end C.J. Johnson said the way last season ended should be motivation enough.

“It was kind of taking a toll on everybody because we had been through so much as a football team: a close loss at Auburn, a close loss at A&M, the Alabama game was a lot closer than the score was,” he said. “So, you know, going through all that physical grind and then to drop the Egg Bowl the way we did, I think it kind of pushed a couple of guys.”

The hard part isn’t pushing through fall camp, though. For Ole Miss, the real test will come when they realize they’ve pushed enough. After all, you can’t go anywhere without ample gas in the tank.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Evan Engram might have been one the most underrated true freshman in the SEC last season. Of course it didn’t help that he rolled his ankle and missed five games, and when he did return for the Music City Bowl he simply wasn’t 100 percent. But when he was on the field and healthy, he was the type of pass-catching threat that makes defenses cringe. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he had the build of a tight end and the athleticism of a receiver. On a team with Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, he had 20 receptions and three touchdowns in seven games before being sidelined.

[+] EnlargeEvan Engram
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsTight end Evan Engram had 20 receptions and three TDs in seven games for Ole Miss last season.
Coach Hugh Freeze’s eyes lit up when asked about Engram at SEC media days this month. The guru of the Rebels’ offense couldn’t hide his enthusiasm; he couldn’t wait to see his promising tight end back on the football field this season. When Engram went out last season, Freeze had to turn to two walk-ons at the position. Though he “loved having them” and praised their effort, they were no replacement for Engram. It got to the point that from Week 8 on, Ole Miss released its pregame depth chart with three receivers, two running backs and no tight ends.

“I cannot overstate it,” Freeze said of Engram’s absence. “We changed last year when he went out. We were not the same.”

Early on against Vanderbilt, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss averaged 466 yards and 35.75 points per game. Week 7 against LSU -- the same game Engram rolled his ankle in the second half -- the Rebels racked up 525 yards and 27 points in a dramatic upset victory. But down the stretch in losses against Missouri and Mississippi State, the offense faltered, failing to score more than 10 points in either game. Without Engram, there was no one to work the middle of the field and keep the safeties honest. Quarterback Bo Wallace began forcing the ball and threw six interceptions in November alone as the Rebs limped to an 8-5 finish.

A healthy Engram should mean greater consistency for Ole Miss in 2014. He and fellow freshman Treadwell are a year wiser, and Wallace’s arm is finally back to 100 percent after never fully rehabilitating from shoulder surgery prior to last season. Moncrief might be off to the NFL now, but there is plenty to like about the depth of the receiving corps, especially 6-foot-3 sophomore Quincy Abedoyejio, whom Wallace said is the best route-runner and the fastest receiver of the bunch.

Even though the receivers deserve their fair share of acclaim, don’t sleep on Engram. He might not be a household name yet, but to the people who matter most he’s held in high esteem. As junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, “I think it will be key to keep him healthy.”

“Evan is a little faster than people give him credit for, I think,” Johnson added. “He’s tough, really long, really athletic, has good hands. He can really cause some problems in the slot.

“Having Evan and the skill set he has is pretty special.”

Asked in May what Engram brings to the table, offensive coordinator Dan Werner said simply, “The fact that he’s almost a wide receiver.”

“He’s got the talent of a wide receiver, but he’s more physical so he can play inside. Now we’re getting him matched up on linebacker and safeties a bunch. That’s just a total mismatch.”

But it’s not just Engram who is poised to wreak havoc on SEC defenses this season. The entire league seems to be strong at tight end. When the John Mackey Award watch list came out last month, Engram and six other SEC players were on it: Rory Anderson, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Malcolm Johnson, Jay Rome and C.J. Uzomah. The seven total selections (compared to five the year before) were more than any other conference in college football.
HOOVER, Ala. -- It wasn't a surprise to see Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper selected as first-team All-SEC by the media Thursday. He led all wide receivers in points, and his 282 points were the most received by any player at any position.

“Never have I seen a player like Amari,” teammate Landon Collins said when asked about Cooper. “Not even playing in Louisiana when I was a recruit coming up.”

Cooper battled injuries throughout the 2013 season but still finished with 736 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He's healthy now and primed for a big season.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesLaquon Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman at Ole Miss.
However, there's another wide receiver in the conference, Ole Miss sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who is hoping to follow in the same footsteps and make that jump to elite status. He was actually left off the media's first-team offense despite a freshman season in which he was third in the SEC in receptions (72) and had 608 yards receiving with five touchdowns. If you ask his teammates, they'll tell you Treadwell is just as good, if not better, than Cooper.

“Amari Cooper is fast,” Rebels safety Cody Prewitt said. “But if I were going to go up in a jump ball against both of them, I'd rather do it against Amari because Laquon is a big body. He's a really good receiver. To be as big as he is, it's amazing to watch him run because he still runs like a deer at 230.”

“Oh absolutely Quon,” Rebels defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “He's a freak physically. I think him being able to impose his will over people -- he's so big, he's gotten bigger since last year -- you can just imagine what that's like.”

When Treadwell first arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, he was 195 pounds. Now, a year later, he's closer to 220 pounds. He looks more like former Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief, now a member of the Indianapolis Colts, which is fitting considering he'll be moving outside and filling the role once occupied by Moncrief.

Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace went one step further and compared Treadwell to Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant.

“I don't like to compare anybody -- you get in trouble when you compare people -- but he's that type of player,” Wallace said.

Treadwell, a former ESPN 300 prospect who was ranked No. 1 at his position, was part of the star-studded recruiting class head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff put together in 2013. Freeze remains high on the players in that class, Treadwell in particular, as they enter their second year with Ole Miss.

“I couldn't be more pleased with the leadership of that class,” Freeze said. “[Laquon] really takes serious his role of being a leader on the offensive side of the football. He's a physical specimen. He's a blocking machine. His hands are really good. I'm really excited to see what Laquon is going to do this year.”

Maybe Treadwell isn't on Cooper's level just yet, but even Collins remembers facing No. 1 on Ole Miss from last year's game.

“Laquon is very talented, very gifted,” Collins said. “I see that when he plays against other teams. I saw that when he played against us -- he made some spectacular plays."
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
DESTIN, Fla. -- The 10-second rule proposal has been annihilated, and its future rests in nothing more than discussions -- and jokes. But its presence returned during this week’s SEC spring meetings inside the Sandestin Hilton.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsUp-tempo offenses might be fun to watch, but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema says he's still concerned about the safety of players.
Talk revolved around player safety, which Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said was lost in the original talks surrounding the controversial rule, and as long as up-tempo offenses thrive, coaches who oppose it are going to bring their player-safety card to the forefront of the discussion.

“I am not an agenda guy,” Bielema said. “I believe in playing by the rules and what it is. I love up-tempo offenses, I love going against them, I love competing against them, I respect coaches that believe in that system because it’s so much different than mine.

“I had one agenda: player safety. And that was the only thing that really became frustrating for me.”

With or without the silly 10-second rule, debate will rage on between coaches when it comes to up-tempo offenses and how it affects – or doesn’t affect – players’ health.

The fact is teams are trying to play faster. Even Florida coach Will Muschamp is jumping into the up-tempo ring, as new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will have Florida going more no-huddle and pushing the tempo in 2014.

“It is, I think, growing, and it’s a fun brand of football for people to watch,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who has really only known up-tempo offenses during his coaching tenure.

Cue more frustration from traditionalists.

Alabama coach Nick Saban talked this week about the number of “exposures” (how many plays, hits and contact practices players are involved in during a given season) players get and how going faster can affect them.

Saban said you can limit the studies to just concussions and “how many exposures a guy gets relative to how many concussive hits that he takes.” As he dove deeper into the subject, Saban injected some sarcasm into his feelings on how up-tempo offenses are making games longer for players because of the number of actual plays they run now.

“We act like the game doesn’t matter and most of the time our guys hit harder and play harder and it’s more physical in the games than it is in practice,” he said. “We have a longer game now when you play 85-90 plays a game. We used to average 65 plays a game. That’s three more games over the course of a season, so I guess it’s not logical at all to think that if guys are playing three more games -- 15 games instead of 12 -- there’d be any chance for more injuries.”

Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let's just make sure the game's administered the right way and doesn't get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don't let the offenses control the tempo of the game.

-- Florida coach Will Muschamp
Saban and Bielema said that studies are either out there or are being done about the dangers of hurry-up offenses, but to Freeze, he hasn’t seen them and doesn’t believe up-tempo offense provides any more health risks.

“I don’t think that it’s a fact,” Freeze said. “Certainly, you can keep up with injuries on teams that run tempo, as oppose to those that don’t. I’d love to see how that measures up. I don’t believe that it’s going to be a big difference. We train for this, just as they train for their type.

“As far as tempo offenses causing more injuries, I just haven’t seen it. Again, I’m not trying to be stubborn, hardheaded or totally biased to my way. I’d love to see it. I just don’t see that there’s a big difference.”

Muschamp sees this argument differently. He’s already discussed the player-safety agenda and said the real issue is the placement of officials on the field. His concern is that faster offenses mean slower officials and less time for either side to get set. What he’d like to see is better administration of the game.

If a substitution needs to be made, hold the ball and let both sides get set. If not, then Muschamp says go as fast as you want. What he doesn’t want is a ref jogging over to him while the ball is being snapped.

“Is that really what we want? I think what we all want is a good administration of the game,” he said. “Our officials in our league do the best job in the country. They play fast, and the teams in our league, including ourselves moving forward, are gonna play fast, but let’s just make sure the game’s administered the right way and doesn’t get out of control. Let the officials control the tempo of the game. Don’t let the offenses control the tempo of the game.

“If we want to play fast -- I’m not trying to slow anybody down, including ourselves -- I’m just saying let’s make sure we administer it the right way where guys are lined up, guys got their cleats in the dirt, and are ready to play. Once we’re able to do that, you can still play fast.”

Luckily for Muschamp, SEC officials are making speed a priority this fall. SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said Thursday that officials are hurrying up to catch up and keep up with faster SEC offenses.

Shaw said he certainly doesn’t want officials walking to spot the ball, but he also doesn’t want them sprinting. Something right in the middle should be good enough to help both sides of the ball.

“We expect a crisp job,” Shaw said.


DESTIN, Fla. -- In a week that could be light when it comes to real news, a few coaches made their feelings known on the future of SEC schedules, and for once it had nothing to do with the number of conference games.

Now that the eight-game conference schedule format will live on for the foreseeable future, coaches were asked about the possibility of ending play with Football Championship Subdivision schools. This year, all 14 SEC teams play at least one FCS opponent.

If Florida coach Will Muschamp had it his way, the Gators would no longer play FCS teams.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports Nick Saban says the issue sometimes comes down to a matter of choice.
“We’re probably going to move forward without playing FCS opponents,” Muschamp said.

The irony is that Florida lost to FCS opponent Georgia Southern (at home no less) 26-20 last season, but Muschamp understands that with strength of schedule now playing a factor in the selection process for the College Football Playoff, getting rid of FCS opponents will help his team’s chances in the future. It’s also something that greatly improves the product on the field for the people in the stands. You know, the people who don’t show up to watch the cupcakes.

“I think our fan base as much as anything wants to see better opponents,” Muschamp said. “So that’s kind of where we are with it.”

Make all the jokes you want about Georgia Southern’s win. Snicker about Michigan getting upset by Appalachian State a few years ago. Giggle about Virginia Tech getting shocked by James Madison.

Those games were great for the Cinderellas of the world, but they are nothing more than blips on the radar when it comes to the annual poundings those schools take from power five programs. They lessen the excitement for games and keep people out of seats.

“The first people that need to be taken into consideration here, who get no consideration, are the fans and the people who support the programs -- the quality of games for them -- so they want to come to the stadium and come to the games and support the programs and make it exciting for the players,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday. “No, we do not want to play those types of teams. Sometimes we don’t have a choice.”

Earlier this month, Saban talked about the idea of the teams in the power five conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12) playing only one another. His idea was spot on, and it's one that could help the SEC lose its FCS partners.

But eliminating FCS play isn’t going to be easy. There are still some coaches who want to continue to play FCS opponents. It also isn’t easy to schedule 12 teams every year.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wants his Rebels to play FCS opponents because he understands firsthand how beneficial it is for those schools on and off the field.

“I think me coming up through the route of smaller-school ball to this point, I know the value that it adds to those programs also,” Freeze said. “I kind of always try to look at that aspect of it also. I just find it hard to believe that one game like that, out of the schedule that we play in this league and agreeing to play another BCS conference opponent, that that one game over the totality of the season would really hinder you if you perform well in those other games.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt, who works with FCS representatives as one of the board of trustees members with the American Football Coaches Association, agrees with Freeze when it comes to helping FCS schools out financially.

“I think college football is too important at all levels to hurt them by setting criteria that would not allow you to play them,” Richt said. “I’m for doing it.”

I understand that. These schools get paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to suit up and usually get pummeled. But with the power five looking to make its own rules without pushback from schools outside of the five major conferences, why should they care about FCS opponents? Why should FCS schools' well-being be a concern for SEC or Big Ten schools?

Honestly, it sounds like schools continue to play these smaller institutions because they have to fill space when scheduling ideas fall through. As Saban said, it’s not like organizing a golf game. You can’t just call up a school, ask it to play and expect the game to happen.

“I understand what Will's saying: In a perfect world, you play all D1 schools,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “But also you have to have 12 opponents.

“I understand Will's point of view, and when I hear from the fans, I understand their point of view. Some years, you've got to have 12 games."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said that discussions of FCS opponents didn't come up in Tuesday's meetings and that the decision to play them would be institutional.

“I’m in favor of our strength of schedule being as good as it can be," Slive said.

“We have not told our schools that they can’t play FCS schools and we don’t have any plans to tell them that.”

With the creation of the power five and the bigger role strength of schedule will play going forward, the SEC could be moving away from FCS opponents. It would be a good move, but it will likely start small and branch out. The good news is that coaches are speaking out about it.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

Ole Miss DE eager for return

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
1:30
PM ET

OXFORD, Miss. – The feeling is euphoric for Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson. Rarely does he find something that makes him so happy, even giddy on the football field.

“There’s no better feeling than hitting a quarterback,” Johnson says with a hearty laugh. “It’s like the ultimate feeling. It’s way harder than it looks. To finally be able to get back there and when you’re doing it consistently is really fun.”

Sitting in an Ole Miss dining hall, devouring two pieces of seared tilapia and a small green salad, Johnson smiles wide as he thinks about all the times he’s barreled into a quarterback. You’d like to think he’s salivating over the food he’s cramming into his mouth, but it’s obvious it’s from the thought of plowing into his next victim.

After all, it has been a while since Johnson really felt the thrill of hitting a quarterback. Spring practice allowed him the opportunity, but it’s different when it’s one of your own. After a serious leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, Johnson is ecstatic about getting back to what he’s good at.

“It’s kinda weird because it feels like just yesterday I was just getting here and now I’m one of the leaders of this team and being a heavy contributor,” Johnson said. “I’m really just trying to cherish it. Time has flown by so fast.”

Last year, it seemed to slow down at times for Johnson. After breaking his right fibula in spring practice, Johnson played in just four games before undergoing surgery again after the explosion he was used to having disappeared. Johnson said there was no re-injury, but that he didn’t have the same push off the line and felt his leg just needed to be “fixed.”

During those four games, Johnson didn’t record a sack after leading the Rebels with 6.5 sacks the year prior. While Johnson didn’t make the same sort of impact the team was accustomed to, coach Hugh Freeze said losing him for most of the season drained the Rebels.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Johnson
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisOle Miss DE C.J. Johnson is looking forward to pressuring SEC QBs like he did in 2012 when he posted 6.5 sacks.
“You talk about leaders. That should be the first name out of my mouth for the defense,” Freeze said. “They follow him.

“When we lost him last year, our team changed.”

Where it really changed was how Ole Miss got to the quarterback. In 2012, the Rebels led the SEC with 103 tackles for loss and ranked second in the league with 38 sacks. Last season, the Rebels were third with 88 tackles for loss, but tied for 12th with 19 sacks.

Now, Johnson wasn’t going to grab 20 sacks last year, but at 100 percent he would have made his own handful of plays in one-on-one situations and helped create plays for his teammates.

“C.J. Johnson changes our defense,” Freeze said.

However, instead of making plays or helping, Johnson was hauling crutches around for a month when he wasn’t finishing Season 4 of “Sons of Anarchy” and four seasons of “White Collar” on Netflix. He hobbled around on a scooter for a while and had moments of pity.

But after a month of sulking, Johnson returned to the field as a cheerleader and got back into the gym, starting with his upper body.

Gradually, he worked his way into strengthening his legs and jogging. Soon, he was running on an underwater treadmill, which made him feel like he could deliver a 4.3-second 40-yard dash when he got out.

“It was basically either sit at home, or be here,” Johnson said. “I felt like I should be here.”

Once winter workouts rolled around, Johnson was 100 percent, he said. And spring practice brought back the contact he craved. While there was a little soreness at times, Johnson said he was never tentative on his leg. He played like nothing was ever wrong.

“I’ve never been one of the hesitant ones on the football field,” he said. “I don’t care if I have a broken leg; if I’m out there, I’m going to try and go 100 percent.

“It felt good just to be back out there after not playing for so long and doing something that I love. That’s what really made it feel good.”

This spring, Johnson felt rejuvenated on the football field after so much time away from being himself. He hopes it’s a bit of foreshadowing for the fall.

With a team that has a chance to make some real noise in the SEC West this fall, the defense needs more of an edge. With Johnson flying around, the Rebels should get exactly that.

“Just being out there and knowing that I can bring that confidence to make the quarterback get the ball out and help guys get to the quarterback and cause turnovers [can] make us a better defense,” he said.

OXFORD, Miss. – Bo Wallace wanted to be the hero.

Hobbled and hurting, Wallace took off through a sea of maroon, nearly 12 yards away from the end zone. If he had successfully crossed the goal line, Ole Miss’ quarterback would have put the Rebels within an extra point of tying archrival Mississippi State in overtime.

But the fickle college football gods had other plans. He was stripped of the ball around the 2-yard line, sending the ball into the end zone into the hands of the enemy.

Game over.

As the Bulldogs celebrated a bowl berth, Wallace was sprawled on the ground at the edge of the end zone.

“That was the worst thing that could have happened to me, as a quarterback here,” Wallace told ESPN.com in March.

Wallace truly has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde career with the Rebels. Case in point, Wallace turned around a month later to lead the Rebels to a 25-17 win over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl with 342 total yards and three touchdowns.

“I knew I had to put up numbers; we [had] to win this game so that myself and these fans can somewhat forget about the Egg Bowl,” Wallace said.

Well, good luck in getting Ole Miss fans to forget that loss. But Wallace showed that he can be an effective quarterback in big moments. He’s just had quite the flair for the dramatic during his career. A week before the State game, an ill Wallace threw for 244 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 24-10 loss to Missouri. This was all after winning four games in a row.

There has been plenty of turbulence in Wallace’s storm of a career, but he’s ready to prove himself for a final time in Oxford.

Entering his final season with the Rebels, the microscope is focused a little closer, the expectations are higher and his shoulder is finally healthy.

“I’ve never really been healthy my whole career here,” Wallace said. “I’ve probably played two healthy games, and those were my first two my sophomore year.”

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace says he hasn't felt truly healthy throwing the ball since 2012.
Wallace doesn’t use his shoulder as a crutch, but it has kept him from being 100 percent during his two years on the field. After suffering through most of the 2012 season and undergoing offseason surgery in 2013, Wallace hasn’t felt the joy of a healthy throw in a long time.

“His arm strength from Week 1 to the end of the season, it declined consistently throughout the year,” coach Hugh Freeze said.

If you look carefully at the way Wallace threw the ball at the end of last year -- a year in which he passed for 3,346 with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions -- you can tell that his arm slot came down to a more sidearm-style delivery. After an offseason and spring of rehab and fewer reps, Wallace says his arm slot is back up and so is the zip he once had on his passes.

“It’s definitely coming out of my hand more naturally,” a relieved Wallace said with a glowing smile. “I have more pop to it than I did at the end of the year.”

Wallace is throwing the ball better than he has in years, but his coaches were careful with him during the spring. With an important battle raging behind him for the No. 2 quarterback spot, Freeze and his staff decided to scale down his arm work.

Wallace admits it was frustrating to have to sit and watch at times, but he made sure to take mental reps, watched even more film during his down time and became more of a leader to the younger quarterbacks.

That last statement might be what separates Wallace from the quarterback he’s been in the past, according to teammates. His arm strength is key to the final step in his in-game development, but the command he’s taken in the locker room and in the huddle this spring impressed the players around him.

“He’s our team,” defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “With him offensively, he’s been in the system so long, he understands it now. He’s more of a leader. I mean he’s been a leader ever since he’s been here, but he’s turned it up a notch.”

Spring improvements are one thing, but translating that under the lights of a Saturday afternoon in the SEC is totally different. Everyone around Wallace knows that. Cutting down the mistakes that have plagued him in games will require physical and mental strength.

Freeze hopes that more confidence in Wallace’s arm will lead to less head-scratching when the ball leaves his quarterback’s hand.

“Bo is really who he’s gonna be,” Freeze said. “I don’t know how much better we can get him, but I do know this: If he has consistent arm strength throughout the entire season [this fall], it will be to our benefit.”

OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze reaches up and brushes his hair back with his right hand as he slides back into his office chair inside his oversized office in the heart of Ole Miss’ newly renovated football facility.

He’s reaching for a thought, as he tries to remember a laundry list of young names he doesn’t want to forget while he rattles off players he’s excited about.

After mentioning a handful, he runs out of names and sports a faint smile which slowly covers his face after a reporter points out that this is the first time he’s seen him smile about his team without provocation.

Ole Miss’ head coach, who is entering what many in Oxford hope is a very exciting and accomplished third year with the Rebels, has too many names to remember and is genuinely excited about the team he has in front of him. Following his second straight winning season and bowl win, Freeze is manning a team that returns 16 starters and 60 lettermen.

Freeze admits that he thought the only real serious bowl talk he’d have with his team would come in Year 3. He also thought it would take three full recruiting classes in order to have adequate SEC depth. But as he relaxes in his chair and talks about his team, you can feel the ease in his voice. With 15 wins (two bowl victories) in two years after the incredible rut this program was in when Freeze took over, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. Freeze says players are buying in, depth is improving, leaders are emerging and the talent pool is much deeper now than it has been in years.

Freeze doesn’t know if his excess smiling or a more gratifying start to spring will result in more wins in 2014, but he knows the product he has now is better than what he had during his two prior springs.

“I just know today when we step on that practice field, we’re better than we were [last year],” Freeze told ESPN.com last week. “I know that today.”

Today, no games will be played, but the wheels are in motion in Oxford. With depth improving after two solid recruiting classes, including that monster of a 2013 haul, Freeze decided to up the intensity this spring. He wanted a more physical practice because he felt his team could finally take it.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche is a key part of Ole Miss' outstanding recruiting class from 2013.
There’s always the risk of injury when you ramp up the contact, but extra quality bodies sprinkled around eases those worries. Players embraced a more rugged spring, Freeze said. Last season was another step forward for the Rebels, but Freeze knows neither he nor his players were satisfied with winning just eight games.

“I’m really pleased with where we are in attitude and effort,” Freeze said.

“There’s no possible way that I could do what we’ve done this spring and expect to finish [the spring] feeling good, but we’re a lot deeper than we have been. The good teams have physical springs, and I know that it helps you get better if you can survive it.”

One reason for the increased depth, intensity and confidence is that 2013 class. Headlined by ESPN 300 studs Robert Nkemdiche (the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect), Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner, Ole Miss’ 2013 class landed in Oxford with historic hype and crazy expectations. Even with enough golden stars attached to their names to light the night sky, these freshmen didn’t boast about their high-profiled prep careers, Freeze said. They were humble when they arrived, and that only increased after strength coach Paul Jackson got ahold of them before fall camp.

“They weren’t five-star players anymore,” quarterback Bo Wallace said with a smile, “they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them and they loved it.”

For Nkemdiche, whose hype dwarfed that of his classmates, living up to lofty expectations was be tough, but he said he and his classmates got together to discuss drowning out the talk and focusing on football. They wanted wins and wanted to change the program.

Slowly, it’s happening, and the freshmen are making sure the process continues under their watch.

“They want it to be a high level of competitive juices flowing every day and that’s the next step for us to win the day, so to speak,” Freeze said. “We have to have people like that who bring it every day, and those are the ones that naturally will help our team follow a lot quicker.”

After winning eight in 2013, the Rebels face much higher expectations this fall, and while depth is still an issue at receiver and along the offensive line, players and coaches feel confident that this year could be special.

With questions piling up around the SEC in 2014, the Rebels hope they have plenty of answers this fall.

“The expectations for us are just growing and growing and I feel like some of the other teams around the conference lost some of their key players,” Nkemdiche said. “I feel like it’s our turn to take over and do big things.”

AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

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

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

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

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

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

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

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

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

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

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