NCF Nation: Jake Matthews

It was another successful first round of the NFL draft for the SEC, even if one star had to wait a lot longer than he expected.

By the time the night was over, Jadeveon Clowney was the first overall pick, Johnny Manziel was in Cleveland, and the SEC led all conferences with 11 picks in the first round.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesAs expected, Jadeveon Clowney was the top pick among the SEC's NFL draft prospects.
The first 10 picks were littered with SEC talent, as Clowney went first to the Houston Texans, Greg Robinson went second to the St. Louis Rams, Jake Matthews went sixth to the Atlanta Falcons, and Mike Evans went seventh to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The real drama of the night came with Manziel Watch. The former Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner was at one point expected to go No. 1 overall. Then, there was no way he was getting out of the first five picks. Then, the Dallas Cowboys were thought to be the favorites to land him in the middle of the first round.

But Manziel tumbled all the way down to No. 22 when the Cleveland Browns traded with the Philadelphia Eagles to get college football's most exciting player. Many thought Cleveland would end up being the destination for Manziel, but dropping that far was a surprise. Something tells me Manziel will be pretty fired up to prove a lot of people wrong about passing on him.

There were a couple of other first-round surprises concerning the SEC, too. For starters, former Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James went 19th to the Miami Dolphins after being projected as a second-rounder. Former Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who missed most of the 2013 season after suffering an ACL injury, was drafted by the New England Patriots with the 29th pick. And former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 23 after being projected as a second-rounder.

Here's a complete look at how the SEC fared in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina -- Houston Texans

2. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams

6. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M -- Atlanta Falcons

7. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers

12. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU -- New York Giants

17. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama -- Baltimore Ravens

19. Ja'Wuan James, OT, Tennessee -- Miami Dolphins

21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama -- Green Bay Packers

22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M -- Cleveland Browns

23. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn -- Kansas City Chiefs

29. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida -- New England Patriots
In their two seasons together at Texas A&M, Mike and Jake Matthews had distinct roles and personalities.

Jake was the cagey veteran, a quiet leader and productive offensive tackle who helped anchor one of the best units in the country. Mike was the up-and-coming center, the younger brother was a little bit louder and "rowdy," according to a teammate.

[+] EnlargeMike Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsAs his brother Jake heads off to the NFL, center Mike Matthews is preparing to lead what looks to be another strong line at Texas A&M.
Now that Jake Matthews is preparing for his professional career as a projected first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Mike Matthews continues to make significant strides as the Aggies' center, finding a comfort level as he enters his junior season.

"I think I'm just a lot more comfortable with this offense and the guys here," Mike Matthews said. "I just enjoy it, go out here every day, I'm not nervous. ... Now I feel comfortable with what I'm doing -- I feel confident."

He should. Having played only part-time as a freshman in 2012, the 2013 season was his first as a full-time starter. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin elected to have Mike Matthews serve as the backup center in his first season rather than redshirt behind then-senior Patrick Lewis so that Matthews would get a taste of SEC life: the travel, the opponents, the whole nine yards.

That helped prepare the younger Matthews for the starting role once Lewis graduated. While there were some bumps in the road in his sophomore season, he looks poised for a strong 2014 based on what Texas A&M offensive line coach B.J. Anderson saw in spring football.

"Mike has total control of the offense," Anderson said. "He's got as much freedom as any center I've ever coached. He's got it all. He can change whatever he wants to change and I trust him that much. Guys around him trust him."

For the Aggies, that's huge. In their uptempo, no-huddle offense, communication is critical, especially when it comes to protection calls for the offensive line. Anderson said Matthews can handle that responsibility well and on top of it, he continues to be a high-energy presence in all facets of the program.

"He's doing exactly what we need him to do," Anderson said. "He's really a leader for us up front. Great energy guy, outspoken guy, he brings the juice to practice, brings the juice to the game, brings the juice to the meetings. He's a big piece of that puzzle."

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound (depending on the day) Matthews is one of four returning starters on the Aggies' offensive line. Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guards Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi join him to bring plenty of experience as the Aggies look to match or exceed their performance from a season ago.

"I think just approach every day like it's our last day," Matthews said. "Go out there and work hard, not take any plays off. I think if we do that, we're going to have a good chance to be just as good as last year."

While Anderson praises Matthews' physical strength, he continues his effort to keep his weight up. Matthews hovered around 283 pounds during spring practice.

"You can get him up, but then he'll go into [the weight room] with [strength and conditioning coach] Larry Jackson and Larry will run him and lift him and do that stuff, and next time he weighs in, he'll be down," Anderson said. "The key is don't get too focused on the weight because he's one of the strongest -- if not the strongest guys -- in my room. He plays with great leverage. We're going to keep working on the weight, but we're not chasing number. He's very effective at the weight he's at."

Anderson said Matthews' energy is contagious to those around him and it's helpful. Since he arrived on campus, Jake Matthews has noted Mike's constant chatter, but as he continues to develop into a leader for the Aggies, it's a safe bet that those around him are listening and enjoying it.

"It's a job, but at the same time, you don't want to come in here and hate it," Mike Matthews said. "You want to have fun and on the field, [so I'm] just being loud and making noise and getting guys to run up to the ball after every play and staying on guys. That way we can have high energy."

2013 SEC Super Seniors

January, 22, 2014
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For the fifth consecutive season, we pay homage to the top seniors in the SEC.

We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.

There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.

Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis made one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Chris Davis, CB/RS, Auburn: Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama was the play of the year in college football, maybe the play of the last quarter-century. But that's what he did -- make plays. Davis led the league in punt return average (18.7 yards), tied for the league lead in pass breakups (15) and was second on Auburn's team with 74 tackles. It goes without saying that he was one of the key figures in the Tigers' improbable run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.

Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.

Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiVanderbilt's Jordan Matthews made an SEC-record 112 receptions in the 2013 season.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt: Matthews leaves quite a legacy at Vanderbilt. Not only was he one of the centerpieces of a Vanderbilt team that won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history, but he set a slew of SEC records. His 112 catches this season were the most ever by an SEC player, and he's also the league's career leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.

2013 AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 14, 2013
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Offense
QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State
RB: Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona, Andre Williams, Boston College
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M, Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
OT: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor; David Yankey, Stanford
C: Bryan Stork, Florida State

Defense
DE: Michael Sam, Missouri; Leonard Williams, USC
DT: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh; Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State, Trent Murphy, Stanford
CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
FS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
SS: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
K: Nate Freese, Boston College
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Before walking through the tunnel behind the south end zone after pregame warm-ups on Saturday, Johnny Manziel stopped near the goal post where his parents, Paul and Michelle, stood waiting for him.

The last player in maroon and white to walk off the field, it seemed as if the Texas A&M quarterback was savoring every moment of the last Aggies game at Kyle Field this season. Before following his teammates into the tunnel, Manziel gave his mother and father each a warm embrace, and they reciprocated. With arms wrapped around each other tight, the emotion on their faces seemed telling.

If it wasn't Johnny Manziel's last game, period, at Kyle Field, it certainly had that feeling.

The rest was vintage Johnny Football. If you tried to sum up his short college career in four quarters, Saturday's 51-41 win over Mississippi State would serve as a pretty accurate microcosm. A spin move here, a juke there. Touchdown passes in bunches, oohs and ahhs from the crowd when he scrambled for yardage or to extend passing plays and, yes, a few interceptions mixed in for good measure, because Manziel is nothing if not a risk-taker.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohnny Manziel wouldn't say whether this was his last home game, but he savored it nonetheless.
Heisman Trophy winner. Riverboat gambler. Highlight reel waiting to happen. Relentless and unapologetic. It all accurately describes Manziel, who is right in the middle of this year's Heisman race as he pursues a second consecutive trophy.

The numbers were good: 30-of-39 passing, 446 yards, five touchdowns, plus 47 rushing yards. There were those three interceptions that he'd like to have back, too, but in the end, he played well enough for his team to win. Was this it for Manziel in Aggieland? He's not ready to say.

"Not one bit," Manziel said, when asked if he has thought about or made a decision about his football future. "I'm focused on still trying to get us into a BCS berth and the best bowl that we can possibly get to. That's my only focus right now."

Whether or not this was his last game in front of the home crowd, Manziel made sure to enjoy the moment to the fullest. With less than two minutes to go and the Aggies trying to take a knee to secure a win, he waved his arms emphatically toward the crowd, hyping up the fans, ordering them to get loud. After returning to the sideline with less than a minute to go, his face showed up on the JumboTron and he smiled and saluted. The fans went nuts and began chanting in unison, "One more year! One more year!"

After the game was over, as the Aggie War Hymn played, Manziel ran into the stands to enjoy the moment with the fans and saw varsity's horns off with the people who have adored him throughout his nearly two-season stint, one in which he has captivated the college football world. He smiled from ear to ear almost every second, soaking it all in.

"It was just kind of spur of the moment," Manziel said. "The way that the crowd acted that last 1:30, for me and Mike [Evans], with the chant and with the energy that they brought when the game was kind of slowing down, it kind of kept us focused. It was just a great way to end this year, celebrating with them."

If the Aggies can get to a BCS bowl, or at least win out with victories at LSU and Missouri to close out November, Manziel's chances of repeating as the Heisman winner are real. Oregon's loss to Stanford on Thursday significantly hindered Marcus Mariota's chances, and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, whose team beat Wake Forest 59-3 on Saturday, stands as Manziel's primary competition.

But Manziel will have to limit the mistakes he made on Saturday in those final games against LSU and Missouri, both of which are stronger opponents than the Mississippi State squad the Aggies played Saturday. The Bulldogs harassed Manziel quite a bit, sacking him three times and making him do a lot of work outside the pocket. Manziel admitted he got greedy at times, particularly on his final interception, when he tried to force a pass to Evans that was picked off by Mississippi State safety Nickoe Whitley.

"Greed is a terrible thing," Manziel said. "I really wanted to hit that touchdown to Mike. I tried to look off that safety, and still going to him anyway, as a football player and as a quarterback watching film, I know better than that."

But it was about more than just Manziel. It was a historic moment of sorts, because it's the last time Kyle Field will exist in its current state. Major work soon will begin as part of a $450 million renovation project to be completed in 2015 to turn the stadium into a pristine, 102,500-seat monstrosity. It was senior day, the last time guys such as left tackle Jake Matthews, running back Ben Malena, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. would play in College Station. The 13 seniors there on Saturday have been part of a 35-14 overall record and the Aggies' quick and surprising rise upon entry into the SEC.

And it also could be the last home game for Evans, arguably college football's best pass catcher this year, who also is a draft-eligible sophomore after this season. He'll have a decision to make, just like Manziel.

There still are two games left for the Aggies and a lot out in front of them, but there certainly was plenty of emotion in the air on Saturday night in Aggieland.

"We know who the seniors are, and we know who the guys are that could potentially leave," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "We want to play hard every game, but there was something inside of us that urged us to play harder, because we know this team won't be the same next year. Every year, regardless, there will be change, but there will be some drastic changes next year, and I just wish those guys the best."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In last Saturday's 56-24 victory over Vanderbilt, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel recorded a career-low 11 rushing yards.

Nursing an injured throwing shoulder, Manziel recorded only four official carries, which also was a career low. There were no designed running plays in the game plan for him, Manziel said, and coaches noted that they wanted to be smart about not putting the Heisman Trophy winner's shoulder in harm's way.

But throughout his college career, Manziel's scrambling ability has become a signature trait, something that has helped make him one of the most electrifying players in the country. His combination of speed, agility and decision-making have made him a challenge for opposing defenses, but it also took some adjusting for the Aggies' offensive line last season, when he rushed for 1,410 yards. (Manziel has 497 so far this year.)

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel's unique abilities required a lot of adjustment for his offensive linemen at Texas A&M.
"It just takes a while," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "We came in last season and -- it's not just the linemen, it's the coaching staff, too -- I've learned a lot. I remember the Florida game last year [to open the season]. If you look at our offense then as compared to our offense now, now it looks like it's built around our quarterback. Then it looks like it's built around Case Keenum. And that's just the truth of it."

Keenum was the record-breaking passer at the University of Houston, who enjoyed tremendous success under Kevin Sumlin and the Cougars' offensive coaching staff, many of whom followed Sumlin when he accepted the Texas A&M head coach job. Keenum, now starting for the NFL's Houston Texans, wasn't a statue in the pocket, but he wasn't quite the athlete that Manziel is. Few quarterbacks are.

Because of Manziel's ability to extend plays from a traditional three, four or five seconds, the Aggies' offensive linemen must block longer and be smarter, because they never know when or where Manziel might take off and run. Look at his signature play from the 2012 season: a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Swope against Alabama. On that play, Manziel collided into Jake Matthews, who was playing right tackle, before gathering himself, recovering a near-fumble then scrambling away to throw the pass.

Even 21 games into his career, the veterans up front say it's still a process.

"There's still times where you feel like you're adjusting because you never know which way he's going to dart out of that pocket," offensive tackle Jake Matthews said. "Sometimes he's right behind you and you think he's going under you. It can get kind of confusing sometimes. But he makes so many plays for us that we're willing to go the extra mile and block that much longer for him. It's a little bit of a challenge, but you've got to love it."

And Manziel has helped matters by being open about what his preferences are when the play breaks down.

"He's such a football nut," Anderson said of Manziel. "He'll tell you, 'I don't want to run up in there [pointing to a specific area]. There's too much [going on] in there. It's not clear to me. I want to run around people.

"So that's why you've seen all these packages of us pulling everybody around and there goes Johnny. We're not geniuses, but what they're good at, we want to do."

Starting center Mike Matthews says he pays keen attention to where his defender is going, which is what many linemen do anyway because the defensive linemen are chasing after the quarterback. But when the defender takes off abruptly, it can get tricky.

"When [Manziel] rolls out sometimes, it's kind of hard because you're blocking a guy and next thing you know, he sprints straight to the sideline," Matthews said. "I'm assuming Johnny rolled out, so I just start running after him."

Anderson said he believes his group has made significant strides in learning and adapting to their quarterback based on film study and practice time. Opponents try several different tactics, but the Aggies seem to handle them well. The key, Anderson said, is to finish blocks.

"You've got to maintain blocks unlike you've ever done," Anderson said. "Most quarterbacks, you know where they are the whole time. Johnny, that's just part of his game.

"We work awfully hard at finishing blocks, putting pressure on guys -- A, so they don't jump and knock balls down; and B, in case he's right beside you, a guy can't yank him and bring him to the ground. We're going to get to our spots, our intersection points in the passing game, cover people up and apply pressure and let Johnny make us right."

Reranking the SEC's top 10 players

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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It’s never easy to come up with the 25 best players in the SEC heading into the season.

There’s a lot of projection involved, and there are always players who come out of the woodwork and others who simply don't live up to their billing.

But as we reach the midway point of the season, at least now we have some real performances to evaluate. So we’re taking a second shot at reranking our top 10 based on what the players have done to this point.

Again, this is not a ranking of where players sit on NFL draft boards. Rather, it’s a ranking reflecting how they have played during the first part of this season and their impact on their teams.

We took injuries into consideration. For instance, Florida’s Dominique Easley was playing better than any defensive lineman in the league, but only played in the first three games. The same goes for Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who’s missed most of the last three games. Both are great players, but they didn't play in enough games to be included in our midseason list.

Here’s what we came up with:

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAs good as Johnny Manziel was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he's arguably been even better this year.
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (preseason: No. 2): He's the reigning Heisman Trophy winner for a reason, and he's making a strong bid to win it for the second straight year. Manziel was sensational this past week in leading the Aggies to a last-second win on the road at Ole Miss, and even in Texas A&M's lone loss of the season to Alabama, Manziel put on a show with 562 yards of total offense and five touchdown passes. He's the Michael Jordan of college football. The only real way to defend him is hoping he's off his game, which rarely ever happens.

2. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (preseason: No. 5): With all the injuries the Dawgs have incurred on offense, Murray is carrying that team and playing the best football of his career against a killer schedule. He did have a costly interception late against Missouri last week, but he threw eight touchdown passes and only one interception in the two wins over LSU and South Carolina. He's accounted for 20 touchdowns, which leads the SEC, and is right behind Manziel in passing with 304 yards per game.

3. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU (preseason: unranked): One of the most improved players in college football, Mettenberger has blossomed under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and is a big reason the Tigers are lighting up scoreboards like never before under Les Miles. Mettenberger leads the SEC in passing efficiency, is completing 66.7 percent of his passes, and has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. In LSU's only loss (to Georgia), Mettenberger threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns.

4. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina (preseason: unranked): The Gamecocks had a good feeling coming out of the summer that Davis was primed for a big season. But he's been even better than anybody expected and has set the pace among a star-studded group of running backs in this league. Davis leads the league in rushing with 742 yards (an average of 123.7 yards per game) and has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of his six games. He also has nine touchdowns and has shown the ability to hit the big play with three runs of 50 yards or longer.

5. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (preseason: No. 6): The move from right tackle to left tackle for Matthews has been a snap, and he's playing as well as any tackle in America right now. The Aggies' offensive line, period, is playing lights out, and having a player with Matthews' expertise, talent and experience anchored on that left side is invaluable. The Aggies have given up only seven sacks in six games and are averaging nearly 600 yards of total offense per game.

6. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama (preseason: No. 8): Mosley's sheer numbers on defense aren't going to blow you away. But turn on the tape and watch everything he does for that Alabama defense, from making the calls to getting everybody lined up to always being in the right place at the right time. Mosley leads the Tide with 48 total tackles and is one of the surest tacklers in the league. He's also excellent in coverage and is one of those guys who's always making key stops or pass breakups when Alabama needs it most.

7. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (preseason: unranked): After a rocky offseason that nearly cost Hill the rest of his career at LSU, he's bounced back with a vengeance. Hill is second in the league in rushing with 715 yards (an average of 119.2 yards per game) and really didn't get started until the third game. He was suspended for the opener and carried it only six times in the second game. But he's rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his last five games and was a straight-up man running the ball last week against that vaunted Florida defense.

8. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M (preseason: No. 17): He's the one-on-one matchup no defensive coordinator wants to think about. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Evans was held in check last week against Ole Miss, but that was the exception. He leads the SEC with an average of 122.8 receiving yards per game and has caught five touchdown passes. Nobody goes up and gets the ball like Evans, who pulled in seven passes for a remarkable 279 yards against Alabama. He's averaging 23 yards per catch.

9. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (preseason: No. 14): The Commodores' record-breaking senior leads the SEC with 47 catches and is second to Evans in receiving yards per game (118.2). With Chris Boyd dismissed from the team and not playing this season, opposing defenses have shadowed Matthews at every turn, but he's continued to produce. He has five touchdown catches and is averaging 15.1 yards per catch. His consistency is what sets him apart. In his last 15 SEC contests, he's averaging more than 120 receiving yards per game.

10. James Franklin, QB, Missouri (preseason: unranked): It's a shame that Franklin separated his throwing shoulder last week in the win over Georgia and will now be sidelined for the foreseeable future. In the year of the quarterback in the SEC, Franklin was playing as well as anybody. He'd accounted for 17 touchdowns and was one of three quarterbacks in the SEC (along with Manziel and Murray) averaging more than 300 yards per game in total offense. Franklin's command of the Tigers' offense had been outstanding.

Aggies show poise late in games

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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When Texas A&M's defense got the stop it needed to give the offense a chance to win against Ole Miss late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, players and coaches on the sideline elicited a knowing reaction.

"Everybody on the offensive side of the ball had a smile on their face," Malena said. "Especially all the coaches. They were so fiery."

They knew what was about to happen. With a tie game and the ball in the hands of one of college football's best offenses and arguably college football's best player, the coaches, players and plenty who were watching could guess what was coming: The Aggies would drive downfield and score.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel, Mike Hilton
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisJohnny Manziel added to his legend with a game-winning drive at Ole Miss.
They did, pulling out a thrilling, 41-38 road victory over the Rebels.

It was the second consecutive season that Texas A&M had to go into Oxford, Miss., and fight tooth-and-nail for a victory. In 2012, the Aggies had to crawl out of a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to escape with a 30-27 win.

What both instances showed is that the Aggies have tremendous poise when it comes to playing from behind and making plays with the game on the line.

"Championship teams know how to handle adversity," Malena said. "Just because we were down 31-24, with them having the momentum, as a championship team, you can't let that get you. Who said it was going to be easy every game? They have a great team over there, too. Hat's off to them."

There were plenty of ups and downs Saturday. From some brief uncertainty regarding the health of Johnny Manziel, to a couple of key turnovers in the second half, to a defense that struggled to get stops as Ole Miss made a charge and even a missed field goal, there were several situations that could have thrown the Aggies off course and given them their first road loss under Kevin Sumlin.

Instead, when crunch time came, the Aggies made the key plays in all three phases. The defense got a three-and-out on Ole Miss' final possession to force a punt. The offense drove downfield to put themselves in position for the winning points and, after missing an first-quarter field goal, kicker Josh Lambo drilled a 33-yarder to win it.

"I feel like our seniors and our captains, we lead by example," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Starting with Ben and Johnny, they made big plays running behind Jake Matthews and our offensive line. On defense we just stepped up. In the fourth quarter we knew we had faced a lot of adversity, but we had to step up and make plays on offense, defense and special teams to win this game."

Sumlin noted earlier in the week that last year's battle in Oxford was significant because the Aggies needed a strong effort in the second half to escape. It gave the team confidence after 2011, when Texas A&M lost five games in which they held double-digit leads.

"The year before, I wasn't here, but I heard all the stories about what had happened and the mindset that those types of football games, we wouldn't win," Sumlin said. "There was a lot of emotion after the game [in 2012] and rightfully so and there's no doubt that it helped us gain confidence as the season went on and it helped us gain confidence at a time certainly at a time when we needed it."

Now you have an A&M team that finishes strong, even when behind. Even in losses, the Aggies have stayed in games until the final minute. When the Aggies trailed No. 1 Alabama by three touchdowns on Sept. 14, they kept rallying to keep it close but lost 49-42.

That type of effort is a big reason why the Aggies are 16-3 since Sumlin took over.

"One thing I'll say about our guys: They don't quit," Sumlin said. "It's been kind of a trademark here in the last year and a half. They're going to play until the end and then we'll see what happens."

Despite attention, Aggies focused

September, 6, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In answering the final of several questions he received on Tuesday about his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the negative attention said quarterback received after the game and what it's like to be in the middle of it all while shots are fired from critics across the nation, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin looked at a reporter with a knowing smile and gave the world a peek into what's really happening inside the Bright Football Complex.

Johnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite much of the attention centered on Johnny Manziel, the Aggies say it's not affecting them inside the locker room.
Sumlin's message was clear: You might think the national scrutiny is getting to us, but it isn't. In fact, it might be doing us a favor.

"Obviously, after last Saturday, people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now," Sumlin said as the smile slowly crept in. "And in a way, right now, for me as a coach, I'm not going to complain about it. Because it's kind of putting a wall up between us and everybody."

That wall became necessary because having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most talked-about athletes on the planet, Johnny Manziel, on its roster has created an easy target for that attention. Last season, much of it was positive as Manziel set records, led the Aggies to a takedown of No. 1 Alabama and he became the first freshman to win college football's most coveted individual award.

This year is different. After an offseason in which Manziel checked items off a bucket list that most sports fans can dream of, endured criticism for tweets, leaving the Manning Passing Academy early and becoming the focal point of an NCAA investigation, a lot of the attention became negative. The scrutiny got to the point that Manziel was vilified by some for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed against Rice and celebratory hand gestures that he -- as well as his teammates and other players across the country -- have done before.

Texas A&M senior associate athletic director for external affairs Jason Cook recently told TexAgs Radio, a show that airs on local radio station KZNE-1150 AM, that he received as many calls from celebrity gossip site TMZ as he did from traditional sports media outlets during the NCAA investigation into Manziel.

But the Aggies say they're letting none of this get to them.

"I believe with the off-the-field issues, we really don't bother ourselves with that," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "… When it comes to the off-the-field issues, Coach Sumlin and the staff upstairs will definitely handle that. But as for on the field, right now, I feel like we're playing well and we can only get better from this point forward."

The wall is more than a metaphor. While the coaches and players might be taking an "us against the world" approach in their newfound fame, a wall is also what Manziel and the school have put up -- for now -- when it comes to him speaking publicly.

The 20-year-old has not spoken to the media since SEC media days in mid-July. Texas A&M wisely did not make him available to the media during the NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from autographs and the school stayed mostly silent on the matter as well.

As reporters wait with bated breath, Manziel remains away from the microphone. Sumlin said Tuesday that he felt this isn't the "right time," for Manziel to speak but that when the time comes, he will.

"I think it's important now, based on where he is, that his focus is to try to be our quarterback and a student-athlete," Sumlin said. "That's his biggest challenge right now. It's not his challenge to be here. That's me."

Does having to answer for Manziel frustrate his teammates?

"No, it doesn't," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It comes with it. You want to have a defending Heisman Trophy winner as your quarterback. That's not a bad thing."

Malena stressed what life inside the Aggies' locker room was really like.

"What's perceived from the outside world is, nine times out of 10, a complete [180] of how the team looks at it," Malena said. "So how you guys might single him out or anything like that doesn't hurt us as a team, because right now, we're just focusing on getting ready for Sam Houston."

So far, life inside the emerging walls appears to still be business as usual. Whether that changes remains to be seen and the Aggies' showdown on Sept. 14 against Alabama could certainly play a role in that. Sumlin is aiming to keep his team's focus with what's happening on the field, not all the noise off of it.

"The discussion we had Monday, both in here and on the field, I think our players understand that," Sumlin said. "And there's not much confusion on what goes on here in this program."

Matthews brothers relish opportunity

September, 4, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Jake and Mike Matthews settled in to watch the BCS championship game this January, Jake thought deeply about his future and whether to stick around Texas A&M for one more season, perhaps to make a run at playing in the type of game the two were about to watch on television, or declare for the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeMike Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMike Matthews is playing on the O-line with his brother Jake for the first time since high school.
Naturally, Jake sought advice from his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Tennessee Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. The two spoke on the phone at length about Jake's options before Jake decided it was best to finish out his Aggie career.

Once his parents knew, the next person he told was Mike, now a sophomore center for Texas A&M. His reaction?

"'Alright, cool,'" Jake recalls Mike saying, nonchalantly. "And then watched the game. That's just way he is."

Now the two embark on a unique opportunity, brothers playing only two spots away from each other on the No. 7 Aggies' offensive line.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Jake is now a senior who spent his first three seasons at A&M playing right tackle. But after 2012 Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel declared for the 2013 draft and joined the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted him second overall, Jake is now manning Joeckel's old left tackle spot.

Mike, a 6-2, 285-pounder who backed up starter Patrick Lewis at center last season, played late in games when the Aggies held comfortable leads in 2012, so the two didn't have a chance to play on the field at the same time last season. With Lewis having graduated and Mike next in line to start at center, the chance to do so existed.

"It's one of the main reasons I wanted to come back and finish up my senior year here, just the opportunity to play with him," Jake said. "… It's always something real special to play with your brother, especially a sport like this and especially playing on the o-line, just because it's such a close-knit group."

The pair had the chance once before, under similar circumstances. When Jake was a high school senior and Mike -- then known as "Mikey" -- was a sophomore at Missouri City (Texas) Elkins High School, they spent a season starting at left tackle, and center, respectively.

Fast forward four years and the pair are playing together on a top-10 team and blocking for one of the country's most explosive offenses, which includes Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel.

Jake has established himself as an elite tackle. He was a first-team All-SEC selection last season, was named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers’ Association of America and was projected by many to be a first round pick in the 2013 draft, had he elected to enter it. That will still likely be the case when 2014 arrives.

Mike, in his first year starting for the Aggies, has already impressed the coaching staff. His debut as a starter on Saturday in a win over Rice yielded positive results, according to Coach Kevin Sumlin.

"He handled [adjustments] very, very well," Sumlin said. "Really, after the first series, he played extremely well. I think that was evident by our ability to rush the football effectively."

For Jake, there is an adjustment phase in moving from right tackle to left tackle.

"It's definitely different," Jake said. "I played left tackle throughout high school but playing college football three years at right tackle you definitely get some tendencies. That's been a little bit of a challenge, getting used to flipping everything, your feet and all that stuff."

Sumlin calls Jake, one of the Aggies’ team captains, a classic "low maintenance, great player," the same compliment he used on Joeckel.

Outside the whistles, their personalities are distinct, according to coaches and teammates.

"I would say Mike Matthews is the more rowdy guy and Jake is more quiet," senior running back Ben Malena said. "I think with [Mike] playing the position that he does, by him being vocal it helps him a lot."

Mike agrees.

"I guess I am a little loud," he said. "[Jake] always tells me I'm annoying because I don't shut my mouth. I do a lot of talking. When I get on the field, I start yelling around a little bit. I'm kind of hyper."

Jake even compared Mike's personality to that of a former Texas A&M defensive lineman who was known for his outsized personality.

"He's like the new Spencer Nealy," Jake said. "He's always been like that growing up. You would think we were raised by different parents. He's always yelling and excited and stuff. It's fun to have someone like that on the team because he picks up the energy and gets guys excited. I'm not sure where he gets it from though."

Jake has his share of fun, too, though. Though Mike seemingly shed the "Mikey" nickname once he left high school, Jake has done his best to keep it alive.

"Everyone calls him Mike and I call him Mikey," Jake said. "It is kind of funny, because now half the guys on the team call him 'Mikey,' and it's kind of funny to see it. [Quarterback] Matt Joeckel does it the most and makes fun of him with it. It's second nature [for me] to call him Mikey, I've been calling him that since we've been running around like little kids."

Jake doesn't escape ribbing however. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney has gotten in a jab or two.

"I always tease Jake and tell him he's the fourth-best center in his family," said McKinney, referring to Bruce, Kevin and Mike Matthews who have all played center. "He'll be a guy who leads us and we're definitely happy to have both of those guys be a part of this program."

The pair aren't the first of the Matthews men to don the maroon-and-white, though. Their older brother Kevin Matthews, who spent three years with the Tennessee Titans and spent time in Washington Redskins camp last month, also played for the Aggies.

With Bruce being a Hall of Famer, Kevin having played in the NFL and Jake next in line, Mike said he wants to follow in his elders' footsteps. The bond he shares with Jake is a strong one.

"We spend a lot of time together," Mike said. "He's like a best friend to me and every single day we have basically the same schedule. We go to class, go to football practice, hang out there, go home, watch TV together, hang out, joke around, just like any old brother relationship."

While Mike was a big reason that Jake returned for one final season in Aggieland, there were a few others too. Jake, a university studies major in A&M's Mays Business School, is on track to earn his degree in December, three-and-a-half years after he stepped on campus. It never hurts to make your mother happy, which Jake did. Carrie Matthews was hopeful for the opportunity to see two of her five sons share the field together at least one more fall. And Jake feels like there are special things ahead for the Aggies.

"We're a great team right now and we're getting a lot of publicity," Jake said. "That was one of the main things I liked. We have a chance to do some special things and I really wanted to be a part of that."

The Aggies are thankful to have them both this season.

"Let me just tell you that I'm extremely happy to have Mike Matthews here, because I do believe if he wasn't here, Jake Matthews wouldn't be here this year," McKinney said with a smile. "We're happy about that."
There are always a couple of players on each football team that you just can't replace. Most of the time they are quarterbacks, but every so often someone else emerges as that indispensable player teams just can't live without.

Today, we're looking at those players. It's easy to talk quarterbacks being the most important people on a team, so we decided to look at the most indispensable players on each SEC school who aren't lining up under center.

Here's our list for the 2013 season:

ALABAMA

C.J. Mosley, LB, Sr.

Nothing about C.J. Mosley's game fits the typical Alabama mold. He's rarely the biggest or the strongest player on the field. Next to Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, he looked like a safety. But Mosley's sideline-to-sideline speed is outstanding, and in a league that continues to feature mobile quarterbacks that trait is invaluable. Last season Mosley became the first Alabama defender to break the 100-tackle mark since Rolando McClain, and he did it while splitting time. Now that the job is all his, it's up to Mosley to do even more in terms of production and leadership. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

ARKANSAS

Travis Swanson, C, Sr.

The 6-foot-5, 314-pound Swanson has started all 38 games of his career and was a second-team All-SEC selection last year. He has blocked for three 3,000-yard passers and will be an integral part of the Razorbacks this year as well, as they move to a more run-oriented attack under new coach Bret Bielema. The new head coach has been quoted as saying Swanson is the "best center in college football." That's high praise from a coach who has seen plenty of talented offensive linemen over the years. -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

AUBURN

Reese Dismukes, C, Jr.

All eyes will be on first-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall, and although Auburn has plenty of skill players for him to utilize, the most important player will be the one who is snapping him the football. In his first two seasons on The Plains, Dismukes has started all but two games at center. He’s become a mainstay on the offensive line and was a constant even through all of the turmoil a year ago. He’ll be counted on again this year to serve as the rock for Marshall and the entire offense. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

FLORIDA

Matt Jones, RB, So.

This is bad news for the Gators because they may very well be without Jones for the season opener against Toledo -- and possibly beyond -- because he has not yet been cleared to return to the field (viral infection). The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is a bruising runner who was a perfect fit for the Gators’ between-the-tackles running game. He is UF’s best offensive player and his top backup is Mack Brown, who has just 40 carries in three seasons. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA

Damian Swann, CB, Jr.

The first name that comes to mind is Todd Gurley, who will surely rank among the nation’s top tailbacks. But Georgia’s ship probably wouldn’t sink if it relied on Keith Marshall to carry the running game. Perhaps Georgia’s most indispensable player is on defense. Cornerback Damian Swann -- who led the team with four interceptions last year -- is the only returning starter in the secondary and is one of the young defense’s clear leaders. -- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY

Alivn "Bud" Dupree, DE, Jr.

It will be interesting to see how Dupree transitions from linebacker to end this fall, but regardless of position, he’s the best player on this UK defense. And there’s no doubt it will be a defense that new head coach Mark Stoops will count on to keep them in games. As a sophomore, Dupree emerged as one of the SEC’s top pass-rushers, finishing with 91 tackles and seven sacks. This fall, he’ll also serve as a mentor to newcomers Za'Darius Smith, a junior college transfer, and Jason Hatcher. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

LSU

Anthony Johnson, DT, Jr.

With a rebuilt defensive line, Johnson has become arguably the Tigers' most important player outside of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He's strong, big, athletic, fast and ready to live up to his full potential as "The Freak." He'll anchor LSU's defensive line. Without him, the Tigers have a gaping hole in their relatively younger defense. Johnson is the team's best run stopper, but also has the ability to rush the passer and make plays outside of the box. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG, Sr.

The Bulldogs have a lot to replace in the receiving game, but if the offensive line doesn't come together, the offense will be in trouble. Jackson is the heart and soul of Mississippi State's offensive line and without him, the Bulldogs could have big problems up front this fall. He's an NFL prospect and is great pushing the run and protecting the pass. Losing him would greatly set this unit back. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSOURI

Evan Boehm, C, So.

The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Boehm is the Tigers’ best offensive lineman despite being only a sophomore. He moved from guard in the spring and struggled a bit with the transition, but is settling into the position. Boehm was the only lineman who didn’t miss a game last season and those injuries played havoc with the offense. Missouri has the offensive weapons to score points, but the line has to be better and stay healthy. That begins with Boehm. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR, Jr.

The Rebels have some depth at receiver, even with Vince Sanders going down this preseason with a broken collarbone. But they don’t have anybody quite like Moncrief, who caught 10 touchdown passes last season and opens up the field for everybody else. He takes plays that should go for minimal gains and turns them into touchdowns, and he wins one-on-one battles with cornerbacks even when the ball isn’t thrown perfectly. Defenses have to play the Rebels differently when Moncrief’s on the field. -- Chris Low

SOUTH CAROLINA

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Jr.

Clowney is easily the best defensive player in the country and he might be the nation's best overall player, regardless of position. He has incredible measurables, elite speed and athleticism, and is stronger than an ox. Without him, South Carolina's new-look defense would take a major hit in 2013. He's the motor that makes that defense run and is the main reason why the Gamecocks have the SEC's best defensive line. His mere presence on the field makes teams change their game plans. -- Edward Aschoff

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT, Jr.

Call him "Tiny" at your own peril. Tennessee's Antonio Richardson is anything but small. The 6-foot-6, 327-pound offensive tackle is a mountain of a man, and the Vols will need every bit of protection they can get when they find their quarterback of the future. If Richardson can help relieve the pressure on the passing game and help open up holes in the running game it would go a long way in helping an offense in transition under new coach Butch Jones. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

TEXAS A&M

Jake Matthews, OT, Sr.

When looking at non-quarterbacks, the guy who protects the quarterback's blind side is of utmost importance. Last season, Luke Joeckel had a stellar season in that role while Matthews was anchoring the right side of the line. This year, Matthews, son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, slides to left tackle. There's no reason to believe Matthews will miss a beat and he has the look of a high first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Kevin Sumlin calls Matthews a classic "low maintenance, great player." -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR, Sr.

Coming off the best season by a Vanderbilt receiver (94 catches, 1,323 yards, 8 TDs), Jordan Matthews is the clear pick. Chris Boyd will also produce big numbers, but it’s unusual for a Commodore to claim the SEC’s career lead in a top statistical category. Matthews can do that in receptions (he has 150, needs 86 to tie Vandy’s Earl Bennett’s record) and receiving yards (has 2,290, needs 803 to tie Georgia’s Terrence Edwards) if he duplicates last season’s numbers. -- David Ching, DawgNation
1. Reinforcing my belief that offensive linemen are the best interviews in football, Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews did his best to grab attention away from his more famous quarterback at SEC Media Days. Matthews, with tongue in cheek, thought out loud that he needed a nickname and suggested that it be “Jake Football.” As the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin of Packers star Clay Matthews, someone asked about the First Family of Football. “That’s what we like to tell ourselves,” Jake said.

2. One thing I learned here is that Texas A&M is overrated in the top 10. The losses in the defensive front, both in numbers and experience, are simply too large to overcome. Head coach Kevin Sumlin said one reason the Aggies signed 31 players last February is to create depth. “They are going to be great players,” Sumlin said. “We just need them to be great players here in two months.” You can’t win in the SEC with 18-year-olds playing 21-year-olds on the line of scrimmage.

3. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said Wednesday he would be perfectly happy if college football reverted to the pre-BCS days and allowed for two national champions. He worried that playoffs will take precedence over end-of-season rivalries like the Egg Bowl. “What makes college football great is the passion and the tradition,” Mullen said. The powers that be believe a four-team playoff won’t tamper with the sanctity of the regular season. Hey, go for it. But I hope guys like Mullen keep speaking out.
Alabama might have fallen to No. 2 in ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, but I'd like to think that most of the college football world still considers the Crimson Tide to be the favorites to win the national championship again.

Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.

But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.

No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.

Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.

The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.

A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.

Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:

Florida

The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.

The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.

Georgia

Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.

Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.

LSU

Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.

The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.

South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.

And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.

Chase of Alabama resumes this spring

February, 25, 2013
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SabanAP Photo/Chris O'MearaAlabama coach Nick Saban hoisting a national title trophy has become an extremely familiar sight.
Change is inevitable in the world of SEC football.

It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.

Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.

Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.

They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.

Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.

The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.

But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEven South Carolina's Steve Spurrier concedes that Alabama has been college football's best team in big games in recent seasons.
And probably more precisely, how wide is the gap between Alabama and everybody else in the SEC?

Back on national signing day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier probably summed it up best.

“We’re all chasing them, everybody in college football is … but they can be beat,” Spurrier said. “I know we’re not going to out-recruit them here at South Carolina, but it doesn’t always get down to [recruiting]. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy, and Alabama has been super in the big games.”

That’s the challenge for the other 13 SEC teams, figuring out a way to unseat the Crimson Tide.

It starts all over again this spring. Georgia and Texas A&M are the first to crank up workouts this Saturday. South Carolina is up next the following Tuesday.

Speaking of the Aggies, who knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa last year, they get Alabama at home the third week of the season.

Both teams face similar questions this spring, starting with retooling a pair of offensive lines that were two of the best in the country a year ago.

Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel left early for the NFL, but Jake Matthews elected to return for his senior season and will move from right to left tackle. The Aggies also have to replace underrated senior center Patrick Lewis. Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to move from guard to right tackle.

Alabama is losing three starters in its offensive line, including three-year starter Chance Warmack and four-year starter Barrett Jones. But Cyrus Kouandjio returns at left tackle. Kouandjio and Matthews will be two of the best left tackles in college football next season.

If you don’t think offensive line play is crucial in the SEC, go back and find an offensive line on any of the past seven national championship teams that wasn’t outstanding, and in most cases, didn’t feature a couple of future pros.

The quarterback crop should again be strong in the SEC, and Alabama and Texas A&M have two of the best. The Aggies' Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 with one of the best individual seasons in college football history, while the Tide’s AJ McCarron threw 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and led the country in passing efficiency.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will certainly have high hopes in 2013 with Aaron Murray returning to lead the offense.
Right behind McCarron in passing efficiency last season was Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who returns for his senior season and is on track to break virtually every SEC career passing record.

One of the other interesting storylines this spring involving quarterbacks is at South Carolina, where Dylan Thompson will get the first-team work with Connor Shaw rehabilitating his surgically repaired left foot.

Nobody in the SEC has a better one-two punch at quarterback than the Gamecocks with Shaw and Thompson.

Quarterback will be a central theme at Auburn this spring as well, as Malzahn reintroduces his hurry-up, no-huddle offense and tries to find the guy best suited to run it. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will get first shot until three new signees arrive in the summer.

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both will be looking to continue their momentum. The Commodores closed the season with seven straight wins and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They have to replace a couple of key leaders, namely quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and cornerback Trey Wilson.

The Rebels, who won seven games in Hugh Freeze’s first season, have one of the top signing classes in the country arriving this summer and return most of their key personnel from last season’s 7-6 team.

If you’re looking for new faces, the practice field at LSU will feature plenty of them. The Tigers lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those were starters on defense.

This spring will also be Cam Cameron’s debut as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Getting that offense “fixed” will be paramount for the Tigers, especially after losing so much talent on defense.

There are always new stars and new leaders emerging in the spring.

This time a year ago, Damontre Moore, Dee Milliner, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Matthews, Tre Mason, Ace Sanders and Manziel weren’t exactly household names.

We’ll find out who the next wave of those guys are over the next several months.

Where they ranked as recruits: Offense

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
2:02
PM ET
We’ve done this exercise for the past several years and it’s always interesting.

Where did the players on the 2012 Associated Press All-SEC team rank as high school prospects by the ESPN recruiting folks?

We’ll start with the offense and take a look at the defense later today.

Notice that some of the most accomplished and decorated players on offense weren’t ESPN 150 members. That includes Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, as well as Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy in 2011 and the Rimington Trophy in 2012.

In fact, of the 12 first-team players on offense, eight were not ranked as ESPN 150 prospects.

Here’s a look back:

OFFENSE

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M – Three-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2011. Ranked as the No. 39 quarterback prospect nationally. Nine other quarterbacks who signed with SEC schools that year were ranked higher. Among them: Kiehl Frazier (Auburn), Christian LeMay (Georgia), Jerrard Randall (LSU), Justin Worley (Tennessee), Maikhail Miller (Ole Miss), Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Jacoby Brissett (Florida). Manziel was ranked as the No. 97 prospect overall in the state of Texas.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Rick Scuteri/AP ImagesTodd Gurley was a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia – Four-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2012. Ranked as the No. 22 athlete nationally and the No. 10 prospect overall in the state of North Carolina. Six other players who signed with SEC schools were ranked ahead of Gurley in the state of North Carolina.

RB: Mike Gillislee, Florida – Ranked No. 129 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 14 running back prospect nationally and the No. 20 prospect overall in the state of Florida. Andre Debose was the Gators’ highest ranked signee from the state of Florida that year at No. 4. Gary Brown was the second highest at No. 7.

WR: Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 50 receiver prospect nationally. That same year, LSU signee Russell Shepard was ranked as No. 1 overall athlete nationally. Among the receivers signing with SEC schools that were ranked higher than Hamilton that year were Andre Debose (Florida), James Green (Tennessee), Zach Rogers (Tennessee), Nu’Keese Richardson (Tennessee), LaVoyd James (Auburn), Lamar Scruggs (South Carolina), Brandon Heavens (Mississippi State), Pat Patterson (Ole Miss) and Kendall Kelly (Alabama).

WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt –Two-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 153 receiver prospect nationally. Matthews became the first student from Madison Academy in Huntsville, Ala., to sign with an SEC program. His other finalists were Mississippi State and Kansas.

TE: Jordan Reed, Florida – Ranked No. 141 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 14 quarterback prospect nationally. Reed started his career at Florida as a quarterback, and after redshirting in 2009, rotated with John Brantley and Trey Burton in 2010. He shifted to tight end in 2011 despite having never played the position before.

AP: Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee – Unranked nationally overall or as a receiver coming out of high school in 2009. He attended North Carolina Tech in 2009, but didn’t play football. He spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and came to Tennessee as the No. 1-ranked junior college receiver prospect in the country.

OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M – A four-star prospect and ranked No. 83 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 6 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Three tackle prospects who signed with SEC schools that year were ranked ahead of him – Ja’Wuan James (Tennessee), Ian Silberman (Florida) and Chaz Green (Florida).

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M – A four-star prospect and ranked No. 90 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 7 offensive tackle prospect nationally and one spot behind eventual teammate Luke Joeckel.

OL: Chance Warmack, Alabama – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 16 offensive guard prospect nationally and ranked as the No. 35 prospect overall that year in the state of Georgia. There were 18 players from the state of Georgia that year signing with SEC schools who were ranked ahead of Warmack.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 125 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Among Southeast recruits that year, Jackson was ranked No. 553. Three players signing with SEC schools that year were ranked in the top 10 nationally among tackle prospects – No. 1 D.J. Fluker (Alabama), No. 5 Austin Long (Georgia) and No. 7 Xavier Nixon (Florida).

C: Barrett Jones, Alabama – Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2008. Ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle prospect nationally. Among Southeast recruits that year, Jones was ranked No. 157. The 2008 class for Alabama was ranked No. 3 nationally and included seven ESPN 150 players, but Jones wasn’t one of them.

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