NCF Nation: Jalen Mills

Instant Analysis: Auburn 41, LSU 7

October, 4, 2014
Oct 4
10:32
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This one was over almost as soon as it started.

Auburn's Nick Marshall was the runaway winner in the quarterback battle with LSU freshman Brandon Harris, who struggled mightily in his first college start. Harris' LSU teammates didn't fare much better, failing to provide much of a challenge in a 41-7 loss to the defending SEC champs at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

How the game was won: Auburn scored on each of its first four possessions -- three touchdowns and a field goal -- to overwhelm LSU from the get-go. Auburn rolled up 247 yards of total offense in the first quarter, which were the most for the Tigers in any quarter since Gus Malzahn became head coach last season.

Game ball goes to: Marshall. Auburn's quarterback was the central figure in Auburn's early onslaught. He accounted for four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) in the first half and finished the night 14-for-22 for 207 yards and two touchdowns, plus 119 rushing yards and two more scores.

What it means: Combined with the massive shakeup that occurred elsewhere in the Top 25, Auburn is poised to make a jump in the polls. Malzahn's Tigers were already ranked fifth in the AP Top 25 before this week's losses by Nos. 2-5 Oregon, Alabama and Oklahoma and No. 6 Texas A&M. On the other sideline, Les Miles' LSU team once again fell flat on a national stage. LSU will have to improve significantly to avoid finishing last in the SEC West.

Playoff implication: Auburn's sitting pretty right now. At 5-0 overall and 2-0 in SEC play, Auburn is one of three unbeaten SEC clubs alongside teams it will play in two of its next three games: Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Auburn faces one of the nation's most difficult remaining schedules, but if Malzahn's team keeps playing like it did Saturday, Auburn has to like its chances. LSU's loss, its second in two SEC games, has put its playoff hopes on life support.

Best play: Sammie Coates made an impressive 56-yard touchdown catch from Marshall to give Auburn its first touchdown of the night. Coates boxed out LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson to make a circus catch and then tumbled past Robinson and safety Jalen Mills into the end zone to give Auburn a 10-0 lead.

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What's next: Get ready for another huge showdown, Auburn fans, this time at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs are coming off two straight routs of SEC opponents (LSU and Texas A&M) and are playing as well as anybody in the nation. LSU, meanwhile, must regroup before another road test at Florida on Saturday.

LSU 'D' dominating as SEC play arrives

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
10:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles asked attendees at his postgame news conference Saturday whether anyone in the room was alive the last time LSU posted back-to-back shutouts at Tiger Stadium.

While some of those media members were firmly in middle age, nobody there had been alive since October 1941, a couple of months before the Pearl Harbor invasion pulled the United States into World War II, when the Tigers tied Mississippi State 0-0 and beat Rice 27-0 on consecutive weekends.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoCan Jalen Mills and LSU's defense shut out their third straight opponent when the Tigers take on Mississippi State in Week 4?
Junior safety Jalen Mills is one of the veterans on the Tigers' roster, but joked that he "wasn't even thought of" yet by his parents in 1985, the last time LSU notched consecutive shutouts of any sort, when the Tigers won 10-0 against Kentucky at home and beat Ole Miss 14-0 in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, that piece of history came a full nine years before Mills was born.

Both of those streaks are history thanks to what Mills and the other members of LSU's defense accomplished over the past two Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, first shutting out Sam Houston State 56-0 and then taking down Louisiana-Monroe 31-0.

"They were not getting yards," Miles said after Saturday's win against ULM. "They handed the ball off, they weren't getting yards, and [LSU's defensive backs] were covering. In short throws, they were covering. So I think the defense is playing dominant football."

Both shutouts were impressive. Even when it's an FCS squad such as Sam Houston State or a lower-division team such as ULM, preventing an opponent from scoring a single point is an accomplishment -- and in ULM's case, the Warhawks didn't even generate 100 yards of total offense (they had 93 yards, the fewest by an LSU opponent since 2007).

Now we'll see whether these achievements mean something or whether they'll become historical footnotes that in a few years will interest only those who dig stats out of old media guides.

We'll probably learn which option it's going to be over the next couple of weeks, beginning with Saturday's game against Mississippi State. LSU was supposed to dominate its past two opponents and it did. Neither of those offenses had a player like Dak Prescott at quarterback or weapons like De'Runnya Wilson, Jameon Lewis or Josh Robinson at his disposal.

Prescott (91 rushing yards per game, 232 ypg passing, 12 total touchdowns) is not a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at this point, but that would change quickly if he runs wild next weekend and the Bulldogs improve to 4-0 in the SEC opener for both teams.

"He's a very mobile guy," Mills said. "He's at best when he is being mobile -- so [LSU's defense must] just try to contain the pocket, try to contain him, try to get the timing on him and his receivers' routes off a little bit."

Prescott and State were giving LSU fits last season until the Tigers got it together late in the third quarter and closed the game on a 31-0 run to earn a 59-26 victory. The defense ignited that win-clinching run by forcing two turnovers and a turnover on downs in State's final three possessions -- mirroring a trend in the Tigers' recent run of defensive success.

They have been finishers. Finishing drives with third-down stops to force punts (ULM had seven three-and-outs in 12 possessions Saturday). Finishing possessions by forcing turnovers (LSU has six takeaways and two turnovers on downs since the start of the fourth quarter in the opener against Wisconsin). Finishing plays with hard hits on quarterbacks and gang tackles on opposing ball carriers.

LSU's defense needs to keep playing that way or its SEC West chances might quickly be finished.

Like some of Les Miles' best Tiger teams, this is not a team built to win shootouts against prolific offenses such as Auburn's or Texas A&M's. Last season's LSU club was more comfortable playing that style of game because of its wealth of NFL-ready skill talent, but this team seems to be cut more from the traditional LSU cloth. Challenge the opponent's manhood with a physical brand of offense. Limit risks and mistakes. Then let John Chavis' defense put away wins by overwhelming opponents with aggression and athleticism.

We're about to discover whether the Tigers have the pieces to duplicate the massive success that previous Miles teams enjoyed while abiding by that basic philosophy.

Will the interior defensive line be good enough to slow down the power running games ahead on the schedule? Will the pass rush be effective enough to force some mistakes? Are the linebackers going to be effective against high-level skill talent? It's too early to respond with a definitive "yes" to any of those questions, but aside from a rocky first half against Wisconsin, things look good for Chavis' bunch so far.

If they stifle Mississippi State's offense on Saturday the way they suffocated two overmatched nonconference opponents the past two weekends, LSU fans will have good reason to ratchet up their excitement level another few notches.
You shouldn’t have much trouble remembering the year 2011. It wasn’t that long ago. There was an NBA work stoppage, the NFL threatened a lockout and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State rocked the college football world. Jack Kevorkian passed away, Aaron Sorkin released the film “Moneyball” and Miley Cyrus was only beginning to embrace her inner crazy.

Oh, and somewhere in there the SEC landed two teams in the BCS title Game.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims, Karl Joseph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims is reminiscent of the "game manager" quarterback that Alabama had when it beat LSU for the 2011 national championship.
It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. The BCS system has since been retired and the perception of both Alabama and LSU have changed significantly since they met in New Orleans. AJ McCarron found a way to break free of the “game manager” label at Alabama, reaching within ear shot of a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger helped reshape the image of LSU’s offense, incorporating a more vertical, NFL-style passing game.

Now things have changed again. And in so many ways it feels like 2011.

At Alabama, the phrase “game manager” is back to being embraced. If Blake Sims can only manage the game and take care of the football, then the Crimson Tide might be capable of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Like McCarron’s first season starting, he won’t be asked to do it all. Despite hopes to the contrary, he probably won’t throw the ball deep very much. We’ll all do well to remember that 43 quarterbacks had more passes of 20-plus yards than McCarron in 2011.

With two stellar running backs to lean on, the offense should be fine either way. You think the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry isn’t comparable to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Like Richardson, Yeldon is a junior with an established resume. Like Lacy, Henry is an emerging sophomore with talent to burn.

Granted, Alabama’s defense isn’t as experienced as it was in 2011, but there’s certainly more than enough talent to draw upon with the current roster. Landon Collins looks an awful lot like a leaner Mark Barron, and Trey DePriest is the same kind of physical inside linebacker Nico Johnson was. The veteran cornerbacks might not be there, but the defensive line has the potential to be better than its ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

LSU, on the other hand, is in an eerily similar boat.

In one offseason, Les Miles saw his entire passing game head for the NFL as Mettenberger graduated and both his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, declared for the draft. Now it’s a new cast of characters, starting with quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. And judging by their play against Wisconsin, we might be looking at a return to the 2011 days of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Harris clearly wasn’t ready for the big stage on Saturday, and Jennings had trouble reading the defense and seemed limited with throws outside the standard go-route.

There’s hope at receiver, though, with Travin Dural and John Diarse, coupled with young guns Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre. Sound familiar? It should. In 2011, LSU’s leading receivers were Rueben Randle, Beckham, Deangelo Peterson and Russell Shepard, with Landry coming off the bench.

But the real heart of LSU’s offense is still at running back with a three-headed monster of Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette. In 2011, it was much of the same with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue shouldering the load.

Will the Tigers defense be as good now as it was then? Only time will tell, but there are certainly the parts in the secondary to harken back to the days of old. Jalen Mills played lights out at safety against Wisconsin, as did Ronald Martin. Between Jalen Collins, Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, we might be able to call it DBU once again.

This is all to say that while Alabama and LSU looked quite different this past weekend than we’ve become accustomed to, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their respective passing games might have taken significant steps back, but it’s not the end of the world.

It might feel like forever ago now, but in 2011 these two programs didn’t rely on quarterbacks to win football games. McCarron wasn’t a star when he took his first trip to New Orleans. Neither were Jefferson or Lee. Strong defenses and solid running games got them there.

Given the tendency toward overreaction and overanalysis this early in the season, it felt like a good time to remind everyone that three years isn’t that long ago. The SEC probably won't land two teams in a national title game again, but there's nothing to say that Alabama and LSU are out of the playoff hunt altogether.

Plays that changed the game: LSU

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
12:53
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HOUSTON -- For a large portion of three quarters, Wisconsin controlled Saturday night’s Advocare Texas Kickoff game. But about the time “Jump Around” blared from the stadium loudspeakers and giddy Wisconsin fans obliged, LSU began reversing its fortunes.

The No. 13 Tigers reeled off 21 unanswered points in a 28-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday at NRG Stadium thanks to the help of some timely strong defense and three huge plays. Let’s take a look at the plays that changed the game.

Slippery Diarse

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A textbook comeback route turned into a huge play thanks to the tackle-breaking of LSU redshirt freshman receiver John Diarse. The LSU offensive line provided good protection, Anthony Jennings hit Diarse squarely in the chest, and the 6-foot, 210-pound Diarse did the rest, shaking off three would-be Wisconsin tacklers en route to a 35-yard touchdown on third-and-20. The Tigers went for a two-point conversion and succeeded to narrow Wisconsin’s lead to 24-21 with 12:08 to go in the fourth quarter.

Timely turnover

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On second-and-12 on the ensuing Wisconsin drive, quarterback Tanner McEvoy tried to find tight end Troy Fumagalli on the left side of the field. LSU safety Jalen Mills beat Fumagalli to the ball. The timing by Mills was perfect and he went up against a much bigger guy (Fumagalli is 6-foot-5, 246 pounds; Mills is 6-0, 194) and stole the ball away to give the Tigers the ball back with 11:26 remaining.

Hilliard to the house

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LSU, which struggled to develop a consistent running game throughout the night, smelled blood and took over the line of scrimmage on the ensuing drive. With momentum shifting and Wisconsin missing two injured starters on the defensive line, the Tigers simply handed the ball to Kenny Hilliard three times, letting him and the LSU front do the rest. The third time they did, they created a big hole in the middle of the field which Hilliard sprinted right through for a 28-yard touchdown, giving the Tigers the lead with 9:41 left. Wisconsin would get the ball back, but the Tigers didn’t yield another point and escaped the Bayou City with a victory.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles didn’t offer many specifics about LSU’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday -- particularly about which quarterbacks completed the two touchdown passes -- but the Tigers’ coach described the 26-play scrimmage as “pretty productive.”

Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.

“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles said that QBs Anthony Jennings, left, and Brandon Harris are both grasping LSU's offense.
He made similar comments about wide receiver Dupre, who already missed a couple of practice days with an undisclosed injury.

“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.

He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.

“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.

“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”

Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.

“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”

Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”

Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.

Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.

“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”

Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.

“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”

But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.

“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”

Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.

“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.

Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.

“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”

LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”

LSU Tigers season preview

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the LSU Tigers:

2013 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC). Beat Iowa 21-14 in the Outback Bowl.

Key losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Odell Beckham, WR Jarvis Landry, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Anthony Johnson, RB Alfred Blue.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins will anchor an LSU offensive line that will try to pave the way for the Tigers' inexperienced, albeit talented, skill-position players.
Key returnees: OT La'el Collins, DE Danielle Hunter, DE Jermauria Rasco, RB Terrence Magee, CB Tre'Davious White, OG Vadal Alexander, WR Travin Dural, LB D.J. Welter, LB Kwon Alexander, OT Jerald Hawkins, S Jalen Mills.

Instant impact newcomers: RB Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Trey Quinn, LB Clifton Garrett, S Jamal Adams, CB Ed Paris, DB John Battle.

Breakout player: It’s tempting to focus on Hunter or sophomore cornerbacks White and Rashard Robinson here, but let’s go with Fournette. As the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect and headliner of ESPN’s second-ranked 2014 recruiting class, the star tailback has already generated a ton of buzz. Magee, Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will all get some touches, but anything short of immediate stardom for Fournette would be a bit of a letdown.

Key position battle: Quarterback competitions always generate the most attention, and that will be the case this August at LSU. The battle between early enrollee Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings started in spring practice -- and the freshman won the first round by clearly outplaying Jennings in the spring game. LSU’s coaches were in no rush to name a starter at the time, though, so Jennings still has a chance to prove he deserves the job. He engineered the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas after replacing an injured Mettenberger and got a win (despite a disappointing performance) in his lone start, the bowl win over Iowa. Impressive dual-threat talent Harris is going to be awfully difficult to hold off, however.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Auburn. Sure, the Alabama game (Nov. 8 at Tiger Stadium) is the game every LSU fan has circled, and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin carries plenty of intrigue, but the Tigers’ midseason visit to the defending SEC champs might be the key to the season. LSU handed Auburn its only regular-season loss last season and has won six of the past seven in the series.

Biggest question mark: LSU is inexperienced at several key positions (most notably quarterback, receiver and defensive tackle), so the new starters’ abilities to quickly adapt to the grind of SEC football will likely determine whether the Tigers become serious contenders in the Western Division this season.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Florida. The Tigers will be only a week removed from what could be a street fight against Auburn when they visit The Swamp. Injury-depleted Florida became a punch line last season, but the Gators have plenty of talent and a chip on their shoulders after crumbling in 2013. LSU is understandably favored here, but getting a win will not be easy here.

Key stat: 12-211. With Landry and Beckham combining for 72 percent of LSU’s receiving production (2,345 of 3,263 yards), there weren’t a lot of balls to go around to everyone else. LSU’s tight ends combined for just 12 catches and 211 yards, led by Dillon Gordon (6-88) and Travis Dickson (5-109). Cam Cameron’s offenses have typically made good use of the tight end, and the group believes it will be more active in the passing game this fall. Keep an eye on sophomore DeSean Smith (1-14), who caught a touchdown in LSU’s spring game -- a day when the tight ends combined for eight catches and 131 yards.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.01 wins

Bovada over-under: 9 wins

Our take: Les Miles has led the Tigers to a school-record four straight seasons with at least 10 wins. Because of the massive production losses on offense -- including the first combination of a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in SEC history -- the Tigers are one of the biggest wild cards in the SEC. The defense looks like it’s rounding into the impressive form that characterized LSU’s best teams of the 2000s, but the Tigers’ record will likely rest on the progress the new quarterback makes, whether Fournette immediately lives up to his advance billing, and whether at least a couple of the young receivers can handle big roles. The window for this team is probably somewhere between eight and 10 wins. Let’s split the difference in our prediction and go with 9-3.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris for LSU's starting quarterback job will renew on Monday when the Tigers hold their first preseason practice.

Shortly after his team reported for camp on Sunday afternoon, LSU coach Les Miles said he will not set a deadline for when his staff must pick the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

“I never have, never will,” Miles said. “We’ll have to see each day, how they proceed, how things go.”

The competition between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris started in the spring, shortly after Harris arrived on campus as an early enrollee. Jennings has a slight experience edge, having played as Zach Mettenberger's backup in 2013, but Harris clearly outperformed him during the Tigers’ spring game.

However, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said at the time that he was in no rush to establish a quarterback pecking order -- and Miles said on Sunday that their abilities to make big plays, and avoid devastating ones, will factor heavily into the decision.

“I think maturity’s the whole deal. I think it’s the deal for both of them. I think recognizing the style of throw and the kind of play and seeing them understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, how we’re attacking a defense,” Miles said, “I think that is something that both guys have a good, solid base premise, but it’s going to be that time in the game where you have the opportunity to extend the play and make a play and their self-interpretation at some point in time will be, in my opinion, the criteria by which you pick the starter.”

For the first four practice days, the Tigers will split into two groups -- one that works out in the morning and one that practices in the afternoon. He said the quarterbacks will rotate between the two groups.

“We’ll give both guys an opportunity at helmet practices and shells [shoulder pads] practices with the first and/or the second center,” Miles said.

As for the rest of the team, Miles said he expected all of his players to report on Sunday except signee Travonte Valentine and defensive back Jalen Mills.

Valentine, a four-star defensive tackle prospect, has not yet been academically cleared to enroll at LSU, but Miles hopes a resolution will come soon.

“The high school and the [NCAA] clearinghouse have to communicate,” Miles said. “I think they’re doing that, I think they’re trying, so sometimes there’s easy answers and sometimes there’s not. Hopefully this will be an easy answer.”

Starting safety Mills remains indefinitely suspended following an offseason arrest, and his legal case has not yet been settled. Miles said “I don’t know what’s going on” with where Mills’ case stands, “so I’ll just go forward.”

“I really don’t know. I have not tried to, nor do I intend to pressure the process in any way. ... Jalen Mills, everybody in this room has a responsibility to handle his business and this is his business,” Miles said.
From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

With the start of the 2014 season a little more than a month away, we are still trying to figure out who will be in position to capture the league title this fall. But there are a few teams we are still trying to get a good read on.

Today’s Take Two topic: What is the toughest SEC team to get a handle on in 2014 -- Missouri or LSU?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMaty Mauk returns, but Missouri has several question marks on both sides of the ball.
To me, the Missouri Tigers are the toughest team to figure out in 2014. After last season's special run through the SEC, there is plenty of confidence in Columbia, Missouri, but there is also a lot of uncertainty in some areas on this team. I could see this group of Tigers continuing to ride the momentum they created last season, but I could also see Mizzou take a nosedive this fall.

I do like that Mizzou has a confident, talented quarterback returning in Maty Mauk. He went 3-1 as a starter last season in place of an injured James Franklin. Mauk threw for more than 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns to just one interception. He lost almost nine pounds this summer because of a viral infection, but he thinks it has made him lighter, faster and quicker. He has a stacked backfield to work with and an experienced offensive line in front of him. The defense will again be anchored by a stout defensive line, starting with potential All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden.

But there are plenty of questions. Who is Mauk going to throw to? How will reshuffling affect the offensive line? Are there true playmakers at linebacker? How is an inexperienced secondary going to hold up this season? Who's going to replace all those proven leaders?

Receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White have good field experience, but one of them is going to have to stand out as the guy for Mauk to rely on. Are any of them ready? Can any of them be dynamic enough playmakers to force defenses to adjust? Not having someone like Dorial Green-Beckham could really hurt this offense.

Two starters are gone at linebacker, and this unit dealt with injuries this spring. Not great. Mizzou’s secondary was one of the SEC’s worst last season, and three starters are gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is depth in the secondary, but not a lot of proven guys, and that concerns me.

The biggest thing might be finding new vocal leaders. Who can carry this team like Franklin, Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington did last season? Is Mauk up to the task? Golden? I don’t think we really know what the locker room scene is like for this team.

Take 2: Greg Ostendorf

Let’s start with the fact that LSU lost nine players to the NFL draft this past year, more than any other team in college football. The team’s starting quarterback, its top two running backs, top two wide receivers and its top offensive lineman have all moved on to the next level. Time to rebuild, right? Not in Baton Rouge. Not under Les Miles.

Since Miles took over in 2005, LSU has had 60 players taken in the NFL draft, yet the Tigers have managed to win at least 10 games in seven of Miles’ nine seasons as head coach.

So don’t expect this season’s LSU team to fall off completely, but with so many unknowns and a stacked SEC West, the Tigers could finish anywhere between first to sixth in their own division. They are talented enough to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, but they could just as easily end up in the Music City Bowl.

Where this team goes will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class. Between Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, LSU could have three true freshman starting on offense by the time the season opener rolls around.

Fournette might be the closest thing to a sure thing. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back was the No. 1 recruit in the country and has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was one of the top stories at SEC media days, and he has yet to record a carry. But can he handle the pressure and the rigors of a college football season? Can Harris and Dupre handle it? All three were playing high school football in Louisiana less than a year ago.

As for the defense, there are even more question marks. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Tre'Davious White are good players, potentially All-SEC, but what is the status of Jalen Mills after his arrest this offseason? Who will fill the big shoes left by Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson on the defensive line? Who are the leaders going to be?

This might be the toughest coaching job yet for Miles, but don’t be surprised if LSU is in the playoff conversation when it travels to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.
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.

LSU's defense comes back swinging

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
1:00
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John Chavis knows what a championship defense looks like.

He’s coached a few in his two decades as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, both at LSU and Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow, Mack Brown
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a shaky stretch, Lamin Barrow and the LSU defense haven't given up a touchdown in six quarters.
He’d be the first to tell you that the defense LSU put on the field to start this season wasn’t championship caliber, which wasn’t all that surprising considering the amount of talent (six starters) the Tigers lost last season to the NFL draft.

Chavis knew back in the offseason that it was going to be a work in progress with this group, and that some choppy waters were ahead. But seeing his defense shredded the way it was for eight quarters starting with the second half of the Auburn game, extending through the entire Georgia fiasco and then the first half of the Mississippi State game, was nauseating.

“It was difficult, but I always say, ‘We’re going to live in our hopes, not our fears,” Chavis said.

Those hopes have been rekindled thanks to the promise the No. 6 Tigers have shown defensively in their last six quarters of play. And just like that -- with some youngsters growing up in the secondary, some depth developing up front and Chavis making a few tweaks with his combinations -- LSU heads to Ole Miss on Saturday riding the kind of defensive momentum that has been a staple of this program since Chavis took over the defensive reins in 2009.

“But we can’t think that we’ve arrived,” Chavis said.

He’s been around this league long enough to know that it can change in a flash.

He’s also been around long enough to know that playing rock-solid defense and winning championships go hand-in-hand.

Granted, this hasn’t been your typical year in the SEC with so many veteran quarterbacks playing at a high level and 10 of the 14 teams in the league averaging more than 30 points per game.

But somewhere along the way, it always gets down to making key stops at key moments.

The Tigers look a lot more equipped to do that on a consistent basis as they plunge into the second half of the season. They’re coming off their most complete defensive performance of the season in a 17-6 win over Florida and have now gone six straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.

“I feel like the intensity level now is something that it hasn’t been all season, and all 11 guys are on the same page,” junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “When we’re there, it’s a special unit.”

The 44-41 loss to Georgia was undoubtedly the low point. The Bulldogs had receivers running free all game, and the Tigers just looked out of sorts defensively. They then went out the next week and gave up 23 points in the first half to Mississippi State.

“We just weren’t playing to our potential,” Ferguson said.

They also weren’t playing as many players, particularly up front. So Chavis made it a point to beef up the rotation in the defensive line, and also made some changes in the secondary.

Sophomore Jalen Mills has moved to the nickel position, which has given the Tigers more flexibility on passing downs. True freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are now the two cornerbacks outside when Mills moves inside to the nickel, and sophomore Corey Thompson has started at safety the last two games.

Chavis said following the win over Florida that it was the best the Tigers had played at safety all season, and getting back a healthy Craig Loston was also a big part of that.

Robinson probably would have played even more earlier in the season had he not missed preseason camp while waiting to be cleared academically. He has the skill set to be the next great LSU cornerback.

And LSU coach Les Miles really likes what he sees athletically from this defense.

“I think our defense has always been a confident unit,” Miles said. “They just needed to get some things in place. This will be a team that athletically will eventually be one of the more talented defenses that we’ve had.”

Chavis, whose raw emotion is one of the things that endears him to his players, didn’t hold back last week when challenging them to get back to playing LSU football.

This is a team that had finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense and scoring defense each of the last three seasons but gave up 962 yards and 70 points in that two-week stretch leading up to the Florida game.

“Guys are really playing with the attitude and swagger that’s been played here in past years,” Collins said. “Guys are really stepping up and playing their role. We always preach that we haven’t played our best game yet.”

Judging from the way the Tigers have played on defense the last six quarters, they might be just getting started.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
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.
Even for a coach who’s been around the block as many times as John Chavis, the mass exodus of talent from LSU’s defense last season was jolting.

Gone are seven starters, and six of those were underclassmen. All six are projected to be selected later this month in the NFL draft.

Experience won’t be in abundance on LSU’s defense next season. Chavis, one of the best defensive coordinators in the business, glances at the depth chart on the wall in the Tigers’ defensive meeting room and points out that only three seniors are listed.

John Chavis
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSince defensive coordinator John Chavis arrived in 2009, LSU has finished in the top 12 nationally in scoring defense all four seasons.
“That’s what happens when you lose as many good juniors as we have the last couple of years,” Chavis said.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne and tackle Michael Brockers both came out early a year ago and were drafted in the first round. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was also sent packing and didn’t play at all last season after failing too many drug tests.

Anybody thinking Chavis is sitting around mourning all the talent the Tigers lost on defense doesn’t really know him.

This is the kind of challenge he relishes and the kind he’s met head-on his entire career, going all the way back to his days as the defensive coordinator at Alabama State and Alabama A&M in the early 1980s.

Plus, it’s not like the Tigers are void of talent. It’s just young talent.

“Listen, it’s where we are right now, and nobody’s more excited about coaching this group than I am,” Chavis said. “We don’t have any choice but to grow up in a hurry. I can promise you we’re not going to fold up our tents and say, ‘Come get us.’

“We’re going to get there. It may not happen overnight, but we’re going to be a good defense.”

The Tigers have been better than just good defensively under Chavis. They’ve been dominant. Since he arrived in 2009, they’ve finished in the top 12 nationally in scoring defense all four seasons, and were in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past two seasons.

The year before he arrived, LSU had dipped to 56th nationally in scoring defense.

Without question, this will be his most daunting rebuilding job since that first season in Baton Rouge. But the standard has been set.

“There are a lot of guys on this defense who’ve just been waiting their turn,” said senior linebacker Lamin Barrow, who has been working both outside and in the middle this spring. “We know what people are saying about us because of the players we lost, but we can’t wait to get out there and let this beast out.”

The LSU offense put up big numbers against the defense in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but several starters on defense were out.

One of the biggest challenges will be finding finishers at end, although Jermauria Rasco had shown a lot of promise before having his spring cut short by shoulder surgery.

In the middle of that defensive line, the Tigers are set with Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, and Chavis thinks both are future pros.

He also wouldn’t trade his young group of linebackers for anybody. Kwon Alexander was one of the best true freshman defenders in the league last season until he broke his ankle in the Florida game. He returned to play in the bowl game, which should help him mentally going into next season.

The Tigers also get senior Tahj Jones back at linebacker. Jones missed all of last season because of academic issues. The other senior who will play a big role next season on defense is safety Craig Loston.

Three sophomores who played last season as freshmen in the secondary -- cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, and safety Corey Thompson -- are poised to take big steps in 2013. Mills started all season at cornerback.

Six defensive linemen were part of the Tigers’ 2013 signing class, and Chavis said it’s likely that several of those will have to play, particularly at end. Something says it won’t take long for talented incoming linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Melvin Jones to get on the field, either.

“When you sign great players, you do so knowing they may leave early,” Chavis said. “You go back and look, and we’ve always played a lot of freshmen. That’s for a reason. You’ve got to have those guys ready, and we will be.”
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.

Instant analysis: LSU 63, Idaho 14

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
12:07
AM ET

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's mid-game hiccup against the mid-major happened again.

Again, LSU was able to right the ship, this time to an impressive result.

Two pick-sixes by the Tigers' defense and Zach Mettenberger's first 200-yard passing game of his short career allowed LSU to pull away to score the most points by a Tigers team in the Les Miles era in a 63-14 shellacking of Idaho Saturday.

A red zone interception thrown by Mettenberger into the arms of Idaho safety Gary Walker, who returned it 94 yards to set up a touchdown, allowed the winless Vandals to stay within a touchdown of the third-ranked Tigers for most of the first half. But a late Mettenberger TD pass to Jarvis Landry just before halftime began a stretch of 42 straight LSU points.

Like LSU's 41-14 win over North Texas in the season opener, the Tigers (3-0) allowed a team from a smaller conference to hang around. Idaho (0-3) trailed just 21-14 late in the second quarter and 28-14 at halftime, but LSU completely dominated the second half and finished with 472 yards of offense to 213 for the Vandals.

It was over when: LSU defensive end Lavar Edwards tipped a Dominique Blackman pass into the air, intercepted it and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown on Idaho's first possession of the second half, giving the Tigers a 35-14 lead.

It was the second pick-6 of the game, following a 45-yard pick-6 by Ronald Martin in the first half.

Game ball goes to: Martin and cornerback Jalen Collins. On two interceptions, Collins made a nice play to break up the pass, then Martin caught the deflection. On the second one, Martin exploded down the left sideline for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 21-7 second quarter lead. The first one set up a touchcown.

LSU intercepted Blackman four times, making his 23-for-36, 176-yard passing day that included a pair of touchdowns somewhat benign.

Key stat: 222, the yards Mettenberger threw for in his most prolific night yet. After completing four of his first eight, he completed 13 of his final 15 to go 17-for-23 with two touchdowns and the one bad interception at the Idaho 1.

Wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., caught four passes for 73 yards, making up for an off-week in last week's 41-3 win over Washington when he had three dropped passes and a fumble.

Deuces wild: LSU had two pick-6s, two TD passes by Mettenberger and two rushing touchdowns from two different players-- Kenny Hilliard, who rushed for 116 yards on 11 carries, and true freshman Jeremy Hill.

What it means: That Mettenberger played into the fourth quarter and kept throwing passes on the Tigers' final drive showed that LSU is serious about developing the passing game. It had some issues -- not just the interception, but three sacks by the Vandals -- but it appears the Tigers are committed to getting the passing game ready for prime time with SEC play looming.

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