NCF Nation: Kenny Hilliard

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.

The SEC lost another talented offensive stud on Monday when LSU sophomore Jeremy Hill announced via Twitter that he will skip his junior year and declare for the NFL draft.

Though just a sophomore, Hill is three years removed from his graduating high school class after sitting out the 2011 season due to legal issues.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWith LSU running back Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to replace the 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns he accumulated this season.
The loss of Hill can't be understated for an offense that is already losing its starting quarterback and top two receivers. Hill was a beast during his freshman year but turned into a certified monster in 2013. He finished the season with a bruising 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, both ranked second in the SEC this year. As a freshman, Hill rushed for a team-high 755 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Hill was a special talent in the SEC, with a powerful blend of speed, agility and strength that frustrated defenses to no end. Only rarely could defenses stop him with one tackler. You needed assistance -- and then some -- to stop Hill when he got a full head of steam.

He rushed for 100-plus yards 11 times during his college career, including seven times this season.

The thing to watch with Hill is how he transitions to the pro level off the field. He was arrested last April following his role in an alleged fight outside an off-campus bar, and in July pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple battery. This after already being on legal probation in connection with a 2011 arrest for an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. (In January 2012, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile.)

Hill's off-field transgression last year almost cost him his LSU football career, but he more than took advantage of his return to the football field. He trained like a madman when he was away from the team in order to stay in prime shape for football season. He then showed focus and determination on the field when he returned. You can't average 116 yards per game without having the right focus.

Whether Hill has truly learned something from his mistakes is unknown. Until he gets back on the field, he'll have plenty of time to face distractions and temptations. His growth as a player is unquestioned, but his growth as a person is still unknown. Now is when we'll find out what Hill is really made of.

As for LSU, the Tigers welcome the nation's No. 1 recruit, running back Leonard Fournette, who is being called the second coming of just about every great college football running back. He has the right measurables, speed and strength to make an instant impact, as Hill did. Having Hill to learn from would have been a huge win for Fournette, who will now have to deal with overwhelming hype and expectations that will follow him from his outstanding high school career. Hill would have helped deflect some of the pressure that Fournette will now undoubtedly be showered with.

The good news for him is that he'll have two rising seniors -- Terrence Magee, who was second on the team with 626 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season, and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven touchdowns) -- to work with in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers should have good depth at running back without Hill and might have their running back of the future in Fournette. Still, Hill will no doubt be missed on the Bayou.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban eventually learned to take advantage of the bye week and relax. Through years of coaching at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, he found that using two full weeks to prepare for a game was counterproductive. Players got tired of hearing the same things over and over again, he said, and by the time the game actually arrived they were "sort of mentally and psychologically drained."

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger is one of the nation's most-improved QBs, a fact not lost on Nick Saban.
But Alabama's 62-year-old coach with four championship rings and plans on a fifth this season can only stick to his plan so much. He encouraged everyone on staff to go home and take the weekend off, to rest and recuperate before diving headlong into the task of preparing for LSU the following week. He said he looked forward to the change of venue -- "not come to work for the first time in six months" -- and added that he'd even watch some football on Saturday, especially if there was a good SEC game on.

Picturing Saban lounging on the couch with a cold drink and popcorn doesn't quite add up, though. Not with LSU on the horizon. The top-ranked Crimson Tide play host to the always dangerous purple and gold Tigers on Saturday. LSU will enter Tuscaloosa ranked 13th in the BCS, but more importantly as an underdog with a history of winning at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Their offense is potent, the talent unquestionable.

Should Alabama win, the Tide will remain favorites to win the SEC and reach the BCS National Championship Game for a third consecutive season. A loss would mean disaster, disappointment and a year's worth of questions.

The very thought kept Saban from enjoying the time off too much.

"I don't ever get too far from that computer, man," Saban told ESPN's Ivan Maisel on his podcast on Thursday. "It's just hard not to think about what's coming up and trying to prepare for it. Even though you get away, you never totally get away."

Though most of last week was spent looking at his own team, the matchup with LSU was impossible to ignore. Saban called it "the most challenging game" of the season and touted LSU's improved offense under new coordinator Cam Cameron, a coach he's familiar with dating to his days at Michigan State.

Zach Mettenberger has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC under Cameron's tutelage. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His 38.6-point improvement from the season before is the biggest gain of any quarterback who qualified.

With Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to throw the ball to, it's no wonder. The two starters rank in the top three of the SEC in yards receiving and have combined for 16 touchdown catches through nine games. Beckham ranks second nationally with 207.33 all-purpose yards per game.

And that's not to mention Jeremy Hill and LSU's stable of backs. Hill's 115.2 rushing yards per game is good enough for 15th nationally. Kenny Hilliard, his backup, has scored on 10.1 percent of his rushing attempts this season, trailing only Marcus Murphy and Kenyan Drake among SEC tailbacks.

"This is the most skilled group of receivers, combination of runners, combination of balance on offense, a good quarterback ... all the factors that I think are going to be the most challenging for us this season," Saban said.

There never has been a doubt about what the game means to everyone involved, Saban said, but he didn't want to "wear them out with it" last week. The Alabama-LSU rivalry speaks for itself. What's riding on this year's game is obvious.

But now that restriction is gone. It's Monday and it's time to start figuring out how to beat LSU.

Coaches and players know what to expect. Linebacker Trey DePriest called it a "physical, downhill-type team" that will line up and go right at you. Then the only thing left is "Can you stop it?" according to DePriest.

And the answer to that question means everything.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- They craned their necks like prairie dogs drawn helplessly toward something off in the distance. Some of LSU's defensive players stretched from the bench on the sideline to see the Jumbotron in the south end zone, while others simply stood straight up, turned around and watched their offense race down the field against Mississippi State.

Purple-and-gold-clad coaches in headsets milled around them, shaking their heads at the action. But was it at the success of Zach Mettenberger and their offense or at their own ineptitude on defense? The way the game went back and forth for so long, it was hard to tell.

LSU's defense, long the backbone of the program, showed little resolve Saturday night against unranked Mississippi State, surrendering big play after big play in the passing game while simultaneously getting gashed up the middle with runs between the tackles. The final score, a hard-fought 59-26 win over the Bulldogs, was fine in the short term, with LSU improving to 5-1 overall while remaining squarely in the title picture. But it didn't bode well for the 10th-ranked Tigers' outlook moving forward when it must turn its attention to even more potent offenses like Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M in the second half of the season.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott rushed for 103 yards and threw for 106 as Mississippi State ravaged the LSU defense.
Everyone has accepted the fact that the defense had to rebuild after losing eight starters to the NFL last spring, but this? Missing tackles and being overwhelmed physically has never been a part of LSU's identity. There wasn't an inch of sideline that Les Miles didn't pace during the first half, when he nervously contemplated the dangerous tightrope his team continues to walk on defense.

Giving up points in bunches to Georgia a week ago was one thing. This was another. This kind of effort, six games into the season, was a trend. All LSU's head coach had to fall back on was the idea that a strong second half was something to build on.

"We weren't perfect in any way," Miles explained after the game, "but we're a young team that's coming, and we'll certainly build on this."

Miles lauded his offense after the game, cheering on a group that has performed a turnaround few could have imagined. Cam Cameron stepped in as offensive coordinator this offseason and worked wonders, harnessing Mettenberger's pro potential to the tune of 15 touchdowns and a per-game average of 290 yards passing. Saturday night marked the sixth consecutive game LSU scored 30 or more points and racked up 400 or more yards, both school records.

But longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis has had no such renaissance. Saddled with a slew of inexperienced players at every level, he has had trouble stopping anyone this year. LSU came into the weekend averaging roughly 40 yards and a dozen more points per game than it did a season ago.

Mississippi State, which has struggled to score points consistently and still hasn't found a clear-cut starter at quarterback, scored at will for the better part of three quarters, racking up 468 total yards, including 13 plays of 15 or more yards. When Dak Prescott wasn't burning LSU with the read-option, Tyler Russell was picking apart the secondary from the pocket.

It wasn't until a fourth-quarter turnover that the bleeding stopped and LSU looked like a prohibitive favorite again. Jeremy Hill made sure Tre'Davious White's interception counted when he took the ensuing handoff 5 yards for the touchdown, putting LSU ahead by two scores.

LSU would pad its lead and run away with the win in Starkville, but it didn't come without its consequences. Suddenly Florida, which scored 30 points in a win over Arkansas the same night, didn't look like such a winnable game.

"It's coming along," a hopeful Ego Ferguson said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. We're just going to go out there and practice hard every day, prepare hard like we do every week and gradually get better."

LSU's mammoth defensive tackle said he understands that the roles might be different this season. The offense, long the struggling little sister at LSU, is suddenly the one taking the lead, with the defense trailing behind.

"I believe our offense is probably the best in the country," Ferguson said. "We have the best wide receiver duo in Odell [Beckham] and Jarvis [Landry] and we have four running backs who can play great. Right now we're going to keep fighting for them and they'll keep fighting for us."

One of those running backs, Kenny Hilliard, ran for 45 yards and three touchdowns against Mississippi State. He said that with the defensive woes, it has become something of a game of attrition.

"We have to put up numbers," he said. "The defense is going to get the job done to a certain extent, and we're going to have to go out there and put more points on the board than the opposition."

For Miles and the Tigers to stay at the head of the class with Alabama in the SEC West, a high-powered offense won't be enough. Rediscovering its defensive identity is a must, and maybe that process began in the second half against Mississippi State.

"We were a little younger last game," Miles said. "We weren't as young this game. We'll have to see if we can't improve on that and be a little faster and a little older next week."

LSU running back Jeremy Hill and another man were formally charged in Baton Rouge on Monday with misdemeanor simple battery and will be arraigned on Friday, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said.

Hill and Robert Bayardo, who isn't an LSU student, were charged after being connected to a late-April scuffle in a bar parking lot, in which police have video evidence that shows Hill throwing a punch to the side of the head of the victim. The video also shows Hill's target being knocked out seconds later by Bayardo, who was initially booked with felony second-degree battery.

This means that Hill's future with the Tigers is very much in doubt, considering he was already on probation after his January 2012 plea of misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile. LSU coach Les Miles already suspended him and LSU has been very quiet about the situation otherwise.

On Monday, team spokesman Michael Bonnette reiterated the Tigers' no comment status by saying that the program was "letting the legal system run its course."

There isn't much LSU can do about Hill at this point. It's out of the Tigers' hands and it's time to focus on the running backs that are currently on the roster. Hill might have been the leading rusher for the team last year, but if he isn't around, the Tigers have two capable backs in Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard. Sure, there are now depth issues at running back, but both are talented enough to create quite the tandem in LSU's backfield. Hilliard rushed for 464 yards last year, while Blue rushed for just 270 yards during an injury-shortened season.

Now, the loss of Spencer Ware and Michael Ford is hurting that much more. But when healthy, Blue and Hilliard make a formidable duo. Both are big backs, both can run between the tackles and both have the ability to make plays off the edge.

Things would have been a lot better with Hill in the fold because he's one of the most complete backs in the league, but if he can't go this fall, the Tigers' backfield should be in good hands.
The other day I was asked a question about the SEC that caught me off guard a little.

And no, it wasn't about Bob Stoops or scheduling.

I was asked if the league would be a quarterback or running back league in 2013. Obviously, when you think about the SEC, you think of pound-it-out, grind-it-out football. Games are won and lost in the trenches and running backs are usually a team's most coveted asset. The more the merrier, too.

But the SEC returns some pretty good experience at both positions.

At running back, the SEC will be without four of the league's top 10 rushers -- Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence -- from the 2012 season. The SEC will be without three of the top 10 passers -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Jordan Rodgers.

Now, my math skills tell me that seven top players at a position is better than six, but the SEC is deep at running back this season. Of the seven top quarterbacks returning, six reached 2,500 passing yards, while only two made it to 3,000 yards -- Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel. Nine true starters return (Kentucky's Maxwell Smith missed most of last season and ended the spring behind Jalen Whitlow). So five teams are breaking in new starters.

The SEC saw eight running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark last season. There's a chance the league could not only reach that number again but it could eclipse it.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon takes over for running back Eddie Lacy as "the guy" for Alabama.
Alabama lost Lacy -- and his 1,322 yards/17 touchdowns -- but rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to take over as the lead back. He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and it sounds like he looked even better as the guy. He'll also have help from fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake, who played in 12 games last year, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. Remember, Fowler had nearly 400 rushing yards in 2011. True freshman Derrick Henry, who was tearing it up this spring before his leg injury, should help once he's healthy this fall.

Oh, and Alabama will welcome three more backs this summer, including ESPN 150 member Alvn Kamara.

Texas A&M and Florida will also have the luxury of a packed backfield. The Aggies return leading rusher (for a running back) Ben Malena (808 yards), but will also have rising sophomore Trey Williams, and transfers Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. Brandon Williams might be the most talented of the bunch, and none of these guys should get too tired with all those legs to work with.

The Gators lost Gillislee, but sophomore-to-be Matt Jones had an excellent spring. He knew the playbook backward and forward and showed a more physical style. He already has the goal of getting 1,500 yards. But he'll have help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had a very solid spring, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee) and Adam Lane. The coaches feel very good about all four contributing a lot this fall.

Georgia is a little thin at running back, but with Gurley and Keith Marshall returning, the Dawgs could have the best running back duo in the SEC -- maybe the country.

Here's a quick look at how other SEC teams currently fare at running back heading into the summer:

Arkansas

The Razorbacks lack experience at the position, but sophomore Jonathan Williams made good strides this spring and looks poised to be the top back. He'll also have incoming freshman Alex Collins to help him this fall.

Auburn

Tre Mason and his 1,000 yards return. He should have even more space to work with in Gus Malzahn's spread, which could spell trouble for defenses. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid spring, and Corey Grant returns.

Kentucky

Leading rushers Raymond Sanders (669 yards) and Jonathan George (504 yards) return with two talented youngsters to help out. Dyshawn Mobley had an excellent spring and Josh Clemons is back from a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2011.

LSU

Legal issues have Jeremy Hill's fall status unknown for the fall. If he returns, he gives the Tigers on of the top backs in the league. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue return, but LSU will be thin at the position without Hill.

Mississippi State

LaDarius Perkins returns after his 1,000-yard season. He's a complete back and can hurt teams running and catching. Josh Robinson returns after a productive year as the backup. Nick Griffin has a ton of skill, but still hasn't reached his potential.

Missouri

Lawrence is gone, but Henry Josey is back and says he's 100 percent after his devastating knee injury in 2011. He was one of the Big 12's best and most explosive running backs before his injury. The Tigers have plenty of bodies at running back and should get good use out of Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

Ole Miss

Leading rusher Jeff Scott (846) is back and he'll be working with some solid sophomores in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. True freshman Mark Dodson had a productive spring as well. Along with the six returning lettermen, Ole Miss will have three more signees on campus this fall.

South Carolina

Mike Davis isn't trying to be Marcus Lattimore, but he did a good job of taking his spot this spring. The rising sophomore can pound it or break out for that home run play. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are back from injuries and ESPN 150 member David Williams will be in town this fall.

Tennessee

Marlin Lane's off-field problems didn't help things this spring, but Butch Jones was very happy with the play of Alden Hill and Rajion Neal this spring. Lane has every chance to come back and if he does the Vols will have a pretty solid three-headed rushing monster.

Vanderbilt

Stacy is gone, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow had good springs in Nashville. Jerron Seymour gives Vandy another body to use, as well. Tate and Kimbrow both have big-play ability, but they'll have to stay healthy because there isn't a lot of experience behind them.
With spring practice in full swing, all eyes are on Zach Mettenberger and LSU's passing offense. And that trend should continue through fall practice and once the season finally gets here.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertFollowing a 12-touchdown season in 2012, Jeremy Hill aims to keep the Tigers running next season.
But while many want to see what Mettenberger can do in his second year as a starter, especially with Cam Cameron taking over the offense, LSU's running game will still have to be very strong. With Michael Ford and Spencer Ware surprisingly taking their games to the NFL, the Tigers will be down some backs in 2013, meaning rising sophomore Jeremy Hill will become that much more important this fall.

In fact, he could be the X factor in LSU's offense.

The Tigers want to throw the ball more, and probably will with Cameron's philosophy and all of Mettenberger's receiving targets returning, but a powerful running game has always been in Les Miles' arsenal. Having a bullish back like Hill, who resumes his role as LSU's No. 1 running back, will help continue that trend.

But like Mettenberger a year ago, there will be a lot of pressure on Hill to perform. He arrived with a load of hype last year, and once he took over as the starter midway through the season, he was one of the most exciting running backs to watch in the SEC. He finished the year with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns. He started five of the 11 games he played in.

Starting with the South Carolina game in early October, Hill carried the ball at least 12 times each game during the last two months of the season. During that span, he gained 124 yards in a win over the Gamecocks and 127 yards in a win over Texas A&M a week later. He rushed for three touchdowns in those games and averaged more than 7 yards a carry in both outings. A week later, he carried the ball 29 times for 107 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Alabama.

His numbers dipped in the final three games of the season, but he came roaring back for three quarters against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. After rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns (averaging 10.3 yards per carry along the way), he didn't touch the ball at all in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers let a 24-13 lead slip away inside the Georgia Dome.

On the season, Hill averaged a rugged 5.3 yards per carry. He also gained 490 of his yards on first down, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Eleven of his touchdowns also came on first down, and he rushed for 291 of his yards (5.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in the fourth quarter, making the Chick-fil-A Bowl game plan in the fourth quarter that much more perplexing.

Mettenberger should be better this fall, but Hill will have to pick up where he left off and be able to carry even more of the load. He'll be able to get breathers from Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, but Hill will be the focal point of the running game. He has a great combination of size and speed and packs quite the punch, making it hard to prevent him from toughing out a couple extra hards on every run.

People continue to pump up guys like Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon -- and for good reason -- but keep two eyes on Hill this fall. He has all the talent to be a special player in this league, and if the passing game gets going, Hill will be freed up to do even more in 2013 ... and that's not a good thing for opposing defenses.
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.
Watching film of last year's LSU game must be traumatizing for Florida's defense.

All the Gators will notice is the constant pounding LSU's run game put on it. All those defenders were good for was getting pushed around and making each of LSU’s running backs look like a Heisman candidate.

That film is probably burning in a trash heap this very moment. And that's perfectly acceptable when you consider the Gators surrendered 238 rushing yards to the Tigers last season.

For as much push as Florida tried to give LSU up front, the Tigers doubled that intensity, constantly knocking the Gators back as they cruised to a 41-14 win at Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRonald Powell
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Tigers gashed the Gators defense for 238 yards on the ground in last year's meeting.
If the Gators are going to pull off the upset in the Swamp this weekend, the rush defense has to be infinitely better, and it's tangling with basically the same backfield that wore it out last year. LSU's multiback system is alive and pounding, as the Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 229.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

"They're a team that really likes to run the ball and grind down a team and win the game in the third and fourth quarter,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.

"We have to come out and make plays, too. We can't just let them come out and run the ball down our throats."

And that's exactly what happened to the Gators last year in October. In back-to-back weeks against the league's strongest running teams in Alabama and LSU, the Gators gave up a combined 464 yards and allowed both teams to run for more than 4 yards per carry.

It's obvious that toughness in the trenches was lacking. As the Gators enter the first weekend in October, they are light-years ahead of last year's squad in the toughness department. The blue-collar approach Will Muschamp wants from his defense is finally starting to come together, and that will go a long way against LSU.

"Toughness is everything," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said of stopping the run. "You have to have toughness, smartness and discipline. We're working on all of it. Toughness is a big factor when the run game is involved."

Florida is allowing a little less than 120 rushing yards a game and just 3.8 yards per carry, but the Gators have yet to play a team as physical and as deep in the run game.

LSU can throw four backs out on any given drive. There's the quick bruiser in Kenny Hilliard, the speedy Michael Ford, the pounding Spencer Ware and the dynamic Jeremy Hill, who has yet to really be unleashed this year. Also, the Tigers have a certified battering ram in 272-pound fullback J.C. Copeland.

All five are averaging more than 4 yards per carry, with Hilliard leading the group with 6.9 yards per rush.

"We have guys who can run fast and run hard. It's hard for defenses to prepare for," said Ford, who has 224 yards, but is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

"Even our defense, it's kind of hard because they always get a different look."

Fresh legs against huffing, puffing defenders is never a fair fight, and that's why the Gators found themselves on defense for the majority of the second half in last season’s game. Florida's defense couldn't get off the field on third downs, and you can’t win games like that.

"That's just an important storyline in this game -- winning on third down -- because this is a team that knows how to run it, and if they can possess the ball and continue to convert on third downs, it's a hard day," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.

The good news for Florida is that opponents have converted on third downs just 29 percent of the time this fall.

Part of Muschamp’s plan against the rush is to add defensive backs to the box and control the perimeter. He’s also harping on gap control.

But to Bostic, positioning isn’t everything. The mental side will be just as important and he wants players to have more composure and be more restrained this time. Overzealous play in pursuit could be detrimental against this running game, so patience is key.

"A lot of guys will get antsy and want to go make a play," he said. "You've got to let the big plays come to you."

LSU will go right at them ... again and again.

SEC mailbag: Florida a BCS buster?

September, 28, 2012
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It's time to take some questions as we enter the weekend:

Robert in Salt Lake City writes: How much of a role does UF have in determining who plays for the national title? Will possibly knocking off FSU put someone in it, or will FSU be on the outside looking in at that point?

Edward Aschoff: The Gators could be a real BCS buster for a few teams. For starters, Florida hosts LSU next week and a Gator win could throw a wrench in the Tigers' plans for a return to the national championship. Oh, and there are the games against Georgia and South Carolina. All three of those teams are ranked within the top 6, so the Gators are very much going to be a part of the national championship picture in some form or fashion. That doesn't mean Florida will be competing for it, but it could determine who plays in it because the Gators have a chance to beat each one of those teams. Now, will they? I don't know, but this team is better equipped to than it has been in the past two years. As for Florida State, the Seminoles still have to prove to me that they're back. Yes, they beat Clemson, but wasn't that supposed to be a vaunted defense? I believe it gave up 462 yards and gave up 37 points in the process. Also, beware of the Thursday night game at Virginia Tech. FSU has a way of losing those games it shouldn't …




Bobby in Ludowici, Ga., writes: Kentucky, Vandy, Arkansas, and Auburn are clearly the most struggling teams in the SEC, who has the best chance at making a bowl game?

EA: Right now, it's hard to say if any will make a bowl game. All sit at 1-3, and all have tough roads ahead. Arkansas has four home games left, but could drop to 1-5 with back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn coming up. Auburn has five home games left, but Georgia and Texas A&M are on that list and Alabama is on the road. Three of Kentucky's remaining five home opponents are currently ranked, and Vanderbilt ends the season with three road games in the final four weeks. For Arkansas and Auburn, next week's matchup between the two will make or break the Hogs' bowl chances. A loss will likely terminate Arkansas' real bowl chances. Same for when Vandy plays Kentucky. At this point, I'm going to go with Auburn because of those five home games and road games at Ole Miss and Vandy. Auburn has to at least split those two road games and win three of its final five home games.




Steve in Virginia writes: Just from looking at the stats this year, it's starting to look like the Gamecocks might be more of a pass first team this year instead of a run first team. Do you think this will continue, or will the Gamecocks have to adjust back more to the running game against teams with solid DBs?

EA: I think as Marcus Lattimore gets stronger and healthier, Steve Spurrier will go back to him more. He was South Carolina's bread and butter for a year and a half, and once this team gets into the meat of the SEC season, look for him to get more carries. He's already starting to look stronger out there, and he carried the ball 21 times against Missouri. Connor Shaw has done a good job of spreading the wealth around in the passing game, but I'm sure he'd like to see someone other than Ace Sanders step up as a consistent target. If that doesn't happen, expect more from the running game.




Scott in Atlanta writes: Other than perhaps money, what are teams like Vandy and Kentucky (or even Ole Miss/Miss St) missing to consistently catch up to the rest of the SEC considering the amount of exposure the SEC has now after winning so many championships? Certainly they should be able to get some great kids that were not picked up by other SEC teams that want to play in the SEC instead of other conferences.

EA: Well, you have to consider that schools like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU don't really recruit, they just kind of gather talent. When you have that ability, you can pluck kids from just about anywhere. And that means schools like the ones you mentioned get hurt in the process. The schools you mentioned have to do a better job of developing players once their on campus. These schools won't just automatically start out-recruiting the Alabamas and LSUs. They have to start with development and getting more wins and getting signature wins over the big guys in the league. That will attract better players. They also have to fend off bigger schools from out side of the SEC. That's where you see a lot of the "great" players you referred to go. I think development will help with recruiting, but I don't see those schools getting to "plucking" status in this league.




Mark inTulsa, Okla., writes: I'm just curious to know how you can have a QB poll and NOT have A&M's Manziel on a list of the seven QB's. I mean, I could understand leaving him off of a Top 2 or even a Top 3 list, but Top 5? Look at the numbers per game.

EA: There's no doubt that Johnny Manziel has been impressive. He's really picked up on A&M's offense and brings a great element to it with his legs. But he was a no-show in the second half of the Aggies' loss to Florida -- the only real competition for Texas A&M this year. He was tremendous against SMU and South Carolina State, but the other quarterbacks on our list have done more against better competition. That's not to say Manziel won't make this last at the end of the year, but for now we want to see more from him against better talent.




Jblackburner in Atlanta writes: Which SEC team has the best RB depth, top-to-bottom, in your opinion? I say Bama.

EA: I'm still going with LSU. While I'm impressed with the slew of talent in Alabama's backfield, I just think the Tigers have a little more punch in their group. And both have injuries to key players in Jalston Fowler and Alfred Blue. Take Blue out of the equation, and Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford Spencer Ware and Jeremy Hill have rushed for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. Not to mention, they are averaging 6.3 yards per carry. But look beyond stats. These guys are absolute animals on the field. Ware just never goes down after one hit. It takes a couple of guys to bring him down, while Hilliard is more of the complete package with his strength and speed. Ford led the team in rushing last year and really looks like he's getting his burst back And Hill might be the most talented, but hasn't really been able to show all of his stuff. Also, add fullback J.C. Copeland to the mix and this is the tough backfield to face. With Fowler out, Alabama doesn't have the same big-bodied blocker and pounder that LSU has in Copeland.

Instant analysis: LSU 63, Idaho 14

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
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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.

Instant analysis: LSU 41, Washington 3

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
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No. 3 LSU's home date with Washington was one of the biggest nonconference games on the docket for Week 2 of the 2012 season. Unfortunately for football lovers it didn't live up to that billing, as the Tigers steamrolled the Huskies in a 41-3 white-washing. Here's the quick gist from Baton Rouge, La.

It was over when: LSU running back Kenny Hilliard dove into the end zone early in the third quarter to give the Tigers a 27-3 lead. The score gave LSU a lopsided scoreline to go along with what was an absolutely dominating box score. The Tigers outgained Washington 437 yards to 183 and limited the Huskies to a startling 26 yards rushing. Red zone woes forced the Tigers to settle for two field goals in the second quarter, holding them to a modest 20-3 lead at halftime. Hilliard's touchdown broke that open.

Game ball goes to: Alfred Blue continued his strong start to the season with a 101 yards on just 14 carries. On LSU's second possession of the night, he coasted untouched through the Washington defense for a 21-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead that the Tigers would not surrender. It was Blue's second straight 100-yard game, making him the first LSU back to open the season with two 100-yard games since Charles Scott in 2008.

Injury bug: Washington had already lost starting right tackle Ben Riva and starting running back Jesse Callier in the season opener. Those injury woes continued early on Saturday night when the Huskies lost another offensive tackle, Erik Kohler, to a re-aggravated knee injury. The Huskies' ability to protect quarterback Keith Price was already an issue, and the loss of Kohler only exacerbated that. Price was on the run for his life all night and finished with just 157 yards and an interception.

Dropping the ball: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a solid night in his second outing. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. That said, the Tigers' receivers did him no favors by dropping five passes on the night. LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had an especially forgettable night, as he dropped several passes in addition to fumbling away the kickoff that led to Washington's lone field goal.

What it means: Not much we didn't already know. The Tigers took care of business with a 38-point win despite some sloppy mistakes, but this was never supposed to be a major test on the schedule. The Huskies look like they'll go as far as their quarterback can carry them this season -- but that won't be far if they can't find a running game to keep defenses honest and off Price's back.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
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With several key conference tilts on tap, we take a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 2:

1. Hello Missouri, Hello Texas A&M: Even though Missouri has already played a game as an SEC member, Missouri and Texas A&M “officially” become league members Saturday when the Tigers take on Georgia and the Aggies face Florida. It’s fitting that the two newcomers would play traditional powers in their first league games, and it’s also fitting that both would open SEC play at home. The eyes of the league will turn to College Station, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. ET and then to Columbia, Mo., at 7:45 p.m. ET. It is indeed a new day in the SEC.

2. Missouri’s inexperience up front: Blocking Georgia’s defensive front with a veteran offensive line is no easy task, but the Tigers will try to do it a bit short-handed. Senior right guard Jack Meiners is questionable for the game with a knee injury. His size and strength inside would be invaluable against the Bulldogs. Former walk-on Max Copeland is scheduled to start in Meiners’ place. And at left guard, true freshman Evan Boehm is the starter. Senior Travis Ruth was slated to be the starter at left guard, but tore his left triceps tendon in August and underwent surgery.

3. More touches for Gurley: In his debut last week, Georgia freshman running back Todd Gurley carried the ball eight times for 100 yards and had touchdown runs of 55 and 10 yards. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Coach Mark Richt said he would “definitely” like to see Gurley touch the ball more Saturday against Missouri than he did last week. But the Bulldogs aren’t going to forget about fellow freshman Keith Marshall and sophomore Ken Malcome. Richt said Gurley probably would have carried it a few more times last week but that he got a little light-headed after his 100-yard kickoff return.

4. Driskel takes the reins: It’s Jeff Driskel's job, and Florida coach Will Muschamp has told him that there’s no need to be looking over his shoulder Saturday. It was important that the Gators settle on a starting quarterback prior to going to Texas A&M, and that’s exactly what Muschamp did coming out of Florida’s ho-hum 27-14 season-opening victory over Bowling Green. Driskel is a better runner than Jacoby Brissett and has a better chance of extending the play when things break down. More than anything, though, it’s going to be imperative that the Gators play well around Driskel. The running game looks to be in good hands with Mike Gillislee, but the Gators are going to need more big plays like the one Frankie Hammond turned in against Bowling Green. He took a quick out, shook a tackle and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown. It’s been a while since the Florida receivers have made those kind of plays consistently.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel earned the nod as Florida's starting quarterback heading into the SEC opener at Texas A&M; can his receivers step up?
5. More first-timers: In Week 1, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, Georgia’s Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace stole the show among the newcomers in the league. There are sure to be a few more that break out this week. Keep an eye on Missouri freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The Tigers will look to get him more involved in the offense. And at Texas A&M, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel makes his debut along with true freshman cornerback De'Vante Harris, who earned his way into the starting lineup soon after preseason camp began. Two other true freshmen worth watching at Texas A&M are both known for their big-play skills -- receiver Thomas Johnson and running back Trey Williams.

6. Ascending to No. 1: Alabama coach Nick Saban scolded the media this week for not giving Western Kentucky proper respect. That said, we’ll change the subject a little bit from the impending blowout this Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide moved to No. 1 in both polls after routing then-No. 8 Michigan 41-14 in the season opener. Since the preseason Associated Press poll began in 1950, only two teams have ascended to No. 1 in the poll after Week 1 and stayed there the rest of the season. Nebraska did it in 1971 after Notre Dame was the preseason No. 1 selection, and USC did it in 1972 after Nebraska was tabbed preseason No. 1.

7. Connor Shaw’s status: There’s still no final word on whether South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw will play Saturday against East Carolina, but he gave a thumbs-up to reporters as he left the practice field Wednesday. Coach Steve Spurrier said it could be a game-time decision. Spurrier said the key was Shaw being able to throw effectively Wednesday and Thursday in practice without considerable pain. Shaw’s teammates said he looked like his old self Wednesday in practice. Shaw is dealing with a bruised right (throwing) shoulder after taking a knee to the shoulder area last Thursday against Vanderbilt. Wednesday was the first time he’d done anything in practice since the season-opening victory over the Commodores. Sophomore Dylan Thompson is Shaw’s backup.

8. Breaking through in the SEC opener: Dropping the SEC opener hasn’t just been a problem for Mississippi State since Dan Mullen has been on the job. The Bulldogs haven’t won their SEC opener since 1999, when they beat South Carolina 17-0. They started 8-0 that season. Under Mullen, they’ve lost their past three SEC openers to Auburn, including the past two by a combined 10 points. The Bulldogs get a chance to end that drought Saturday when Auburn visits Scott Field. It’s also a chance for Mullen to break through in the West. His only three wins over Western Division foes since taking the job in 2009 have been over Ole Miss. He’s 0-12 against everybody else in the West.

9. LSU’s running back carousel: As problems go in this league, it’s a great one to have. LSU may have too many good running backs ... if that’s possible. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue each rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU’s opener. Hilliard had 141, and Blue, who started the game, had 123. A year ago, it was Michael Ford and Spencer Ware carrying most of the load for the Tigers in the running game, although Hilliard’s role grew later in the season. Ford led the team with 756 yards in 2011, and Ware had 707 yards. Ford had eight carries for 50 yards in the opener. His eligibility had been in question until he won an appeal the week before the game. Ware didn’t play in the opener after he was slowed by a thigh injury. Can you play four running backs and keep them all happy? Something says the Tigers are going to find out. Either way, it’s a sweet luxury to have.

10. Hamilton does Little Rock: Arkansas senior receiver Cobi Hamilton left the Hogs’ opener last week in the first quarter after catching two passes for 13 yards. Arkansas didn’t specify his injury other than to say it was above his shoulders. Coach John L. Smith said Hamilton should be fine for this week, which goes without saying. The game is in Little Rock, and Hamilton has been at his best in War Memorial Stadium. He’s played in six games there for the Hogs and has 22 catches for 644 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of his five 100-yard receiving games have come in Little Rock. In other words, if you have Hamilton on your fantasy team, you might want to be sure he’s in your lineup this week.

SEC power rankings: Week 2

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
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The first weekend of the college football season brought some changes to our power rankings. As we enter Week 2, some teams are trending down, while others are on the up. And some look pretty much like we thought they'd look in their first games.

It's still early, but this weekend could help to better shape the conference race, especially in the SEC East where Florida travels to Texas A&M and Georgia heads to Missouri. Also, keep an eye on Mississippi State's home game with Auburn.

OK, time for the rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0): The Crimson Tide made quite the statement by absolutely dominating No. 8 Michigan inside Cowboys Stadium. The defense, which lost a host of top talent from last year's national championship team, took Denard Robinson out of the game from the start. The offense should be fun to watch this fall with freshman T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy carrying the ball and AJ McCarron throwing to those young, explosive receivers.

2. LSU (1-0): It's not like the Tigers looked bad against overmatched North Texas, but Alabama's performance was just that good. Zach Mettenberger did well in his LSU debut, passing for 192 yards and a touchdown, while running backs Kenny Hilliard (141 yards) and Alfred Blue (123) pounded away at North Texas' defense. The Tigers racked up 508 total yards and limited North Texas to just nine first downs and 219 total yards.

3. Arkansas (1-0): We know Arkansas can score and churn out yards. The Hogs made both of those things look very easy against Jacksonville State, especially quarterback Tyler Wilson, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. But the defense still has some questions surrounding it, as the Hogs gave up 24 points. The defense settled down the second half and gave up 322 total yards, which was one yard less than the average given up by top 15 teams this weekend.

4. Georgia (1-0): The Bulldogs' defense is obviously hurting without Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree and it showed in the win over Buffalo. There was a lot of give in the pass defense and the Bulldogs struggled stopping quarterback runs. Improving in both of those areas will be crucial heading into the Missouri game. The offense looked pretty good, especially with freshman running back Todd Gurley carrying the ball. He registered 100 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.

5. South Carolina (1-0): The offense was shaky when it came to throwing the ball, and it certainly wasn't any better after quarterback Connor Shaw went down with that shoulder injury. His health is critical, as there isn't much experience at all behind him. Running back Marcus Lattimore looked solid in his return and was back to his workhorse ways. The defense played well overall, but the secondary still has concerns.

6. Tennessee (1-0): Everything went right for the Vols against NC State. It became blatenly obvious that they have more depth across the board now than they've had during Derek Dooley's tenure. Getting the tough yards running the ball was still an issue at times, but Marlin Lane showed that he might have what it takes to be that explosive running back Tennessee needs. Tyler Bray had no issue throwing the ball with Justin Hunter back and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson going off.

7. Florida (1-0): There was more bend in Florida's defense than the coaches would like, but it looked like players were more disinterested than anything else. Expect a little more enthusiasm from that group this week. The offense, however, has major work to do. Mike Gillislee can run, but the passing game was nonexistent. Jeff Driskel was named the starting quarterback and the Gators should open things up more this weekend at Texas A&M, but it'll be a tough road game.

8. Mississippi State (1-0): The Bulldogs were pretty balanced on offense against Jackson State, getting 193 passing yards and 202 rushing yards in their 56-9 win. The Bulldogs have a major test this Saturday with Auburn coming to town. Dan Mullen has yet to win a game in the West against someone not named Ole Miss. This game could go a long way to shaping the Bulldogs' season, kind of like last year's game at Auburn.

9. Missouri (1-0): The Tigers might not have all the size that other SEC teams possess, but this team showed it has some quality speed -- and some quality playmakers. The defense displayed some grit as well, forcing four turnovers in the blowout win over Southeastern Louisiana. But the real test is this weekend with Georgia coming to town. We'll see that high-flying spread offense battle one of the SEC's top defenses. Should be fun.

10. Texas A&M (0-0): The Aggies had their opener with Louisiana Tech postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That gave Texas A&M a couple more days to game plan for Florida, but all the kinks and mistakes that you'd like to get out of the way early will now come in the Aggies' SEC opener against Florida. The Gators might not have much offense, but expect that defense to put a lot of pressure on first-year starting quarterback Johnny Manziel.

11. Auburn (0-1): These Tigers have clearly improved on defense under Brian VanGorder, but their "tackling" in Week 1 was ugly. Just ask Clemson running back Andre Ellington, who rushed for 231 yards in the win over Auburn Saturday. Kiehl Frazier looked more comfortable throwing the ball, and Auburn has a solid rushing tandem in Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, but offensive efficiency has to improve. Auburn settled for too many field goals Saturday.

12. Vanderbilt (0-1): Thursday's loss to South Carolina was tough for this team to swallow. The swagger and talent is there in Nashville, but the little things that have plagued this program continue. Still, you can tell that with the offensive weapons and a hungry defense, this team has what it takes to beat one of the top teams in the SEC East. A trip to Northwestern this weekend is a must-win for the Commodores as far as confidence and making a bowl are concerned.

13. Ole Miss (1-0): The Rebels ended a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season in Hugh Freeze's debut. For the first time in a long time, Ole Miss' offense showed up, as the Rebels registered 565 yards of offense against Central Arkansas. Quarterback Bo Wallace also had a tremendous debut for the Rebels, with his 264 passing yards and 82 rushing yards. UTEP provides a bigger test, as the Rebels look for their first two-game winning streak since September 2010.

14. Kentucky (0-1): Not a lot went right for the Wildcats in their loss to Louisville. The offense moved the ball through the air at times, but couldn't make plays when it had to and rushed for just 93 yards. The defense was gutted up front, as two of Louisville's backs rushed for more than 100 yards. As far as making it back to the postseason, this was a game that Joker Phillips' team had to have. Line work on both sides has to get better if Kentucky is going to improve on last year's 5-7 season.

SEC West post-spring notes

May, 8, 2012
5/08/12
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The good folks over at the SEC office delivered a plethora of post-spring notes for us to dive into as summer creeps closer and closer.

I've split it up by division, so you all aren't overwhelmed. We'll start with the SEC West:

ALABAMA
  • The attendance for A-Day was 78,526 (1st in the SEC and 2nd nationally this year to Ohio State) which was the fifth-largest in school history. Each spring game under coach Nick Saban has had an attendance of 78,200 (2008) or higher.
  • As an SEC head coach (beginning in 2001 at LSU and 2007 at Alabama), Saban has totaled 73 NFL draft picks with 20 first-round selections and 10 among the top 10 overall.
  • During the last academic year, Alabama’s football program led the SEC (in what is believed to be a conference record) with a total of 38 student-athletes on the Academic All-SEC Honor Roll. A total of 22 players were on the bowl roster who had already earned their degrees, which was tied for first nationally in terms of graduates on bowl rosters.
  • Of Alabama’s 13 starters lost, all were either drafted or signed free -agent contracts with the NFL. Included among those 13 were the four first-rounders along with LB Courtney Upshaw (2nd round), NG Josh Chapman (5th round), DB DeQuan Menzie (5th round) and TE Brad Smelley (7th round). OG Alfred McCullough, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, C William Vlachos and LB Jerrell Harris each signed as free agents following the draft.
ARKANSAS
  • Arkansas is the only team in the SEC to return a quarterback (Tyler Wilson) with a 3,000-yard passing season in his career and a running back (Knile Davis) with a 1,000-yard rushing season.
  • Arkansas has been ranked in 32 straight Associated Press polls, tied for the seventh-longest active streak in the nation, and in the top 10 for nine straight polls, which also ranks seventh among active streaks in the country.
  • Arkansas finished the 2011 season undefeated at home for the first time since 1999. With seven home victories in 2011, the Razorbacks have 19 wins at home in the past three years, which is tied for the fourth-highest total in the NCAA. Arkansas enters the 2012 season with an 11-game home winning streak, the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
  • Kicker Zach Hocker enters his junior season as Arkansas' record holder for career field goal percentage with his success rate of 80.4 percent. He also ranks in the top 10 in school history in six other categories and finished the 2011 season second in the SEC in points per game, field goals made per game and touchback percentage.
AUBURN
  • Auburn returns 48 lettermen (20 offense, 26 defense, 2 specialists). Of the 68 scholarship players who participated in spring drills, 61 percent (38) were underclassmen.
  • The Tigers start the 2012 season in the same location as they finished the 2011 campaign, playing in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. On Sept. 1, Auburn opens with Clemson in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game. The Tigers completed the 2011 season with a 43-24 victory over Virginia in the Chick-fil-a Bowl on Dec. 31. Auburn’s 2012 schedule features eight games against bowl participants from a year ago, including five that played in traditional New Year’s games.
  • Junior punter Steven Clark, one of three finalists for last year’s Ray Guy Award, is one of two returning first team All-SEC honorees for Auburn, along with junior defensive end Corey Lemonier. Returnees Philip Lutzenkirchen (senior tight end) and Onterio McCalebb (senior all-purpose back) were second team all-SEC selections in 2011.
LSU
  • The Tigers have four running backs coming back who had seven or more rushing touchdowns (Spencer Ware 8, Kenny Hilliard 8, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue 7).
  • LSU has five returning offensive linemen with starts to their credit, led by C P.J. Lonergan with 26 and OG Josh Dworczyk with 26. Other linemen with career starts to their credit include LT Chris Faulk (13), RT Alex Hurst (23) and RG Josh Williford (9). A sixth offensive lineman – La’el Collins – came out of spring practice as possibly the starter at left guard.
  • Defensively, LSU returns its top two tacklers (Tyrann Mathieu 76, Eric Reid 76) and its top two leaders in both tackles for loss (Barkevious Mingo 15.0, Sam Montgomery 13.5) and sacks (Montgomery 9.0, Mingo 8.0).
  • LSU returns 11 players on defense that started at least one game a year ago, including five defensive linemen.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Mississippi State is one of only two SEC teams to bring back all 10 on-field coaches from last season. The entire staff continuity is a first in more than a decade (1999-2000) for the Bulldogs.
  • Dan Mullen enters the 2012 campaign with 21 wins in his first three seasons, the second most in school history (Alllyn McKeen, 26, 1939-41). Mississippi State had only won 21 games over any three-year stretch eight times prior to Mullen’s arrival.
  • Wide receiver Chad Bumphis enters the season with 101 career receptions, good for eighth in school history and 61 shy of David Smith’s (1968-70) record of 162. The Tupelo native needs five touchdowns to reach the school record of 17 held by Eric Moulds (1993-95) and Justin Jenkins (2000-03).
OLE MISS
  • Five returning offensive linemen have each started five or more games in their career, including junior starting center Evan Swindall. Senior A.J. Hawkins and sophomore Aaron Morris settled in at the guards during the spring, while a pair of potential first-time starters, junior Emmanuel McCray and mid-year JUCO transfer Pierce Burton, have taken the lead at the tackles.
  • Special teams remains a strength of the Rebels, led by 2010 NCAA punting champion and two-time All-SEC senior Tyler Campbell. In addition, senior K Bryson Rose has made 25 of 29 career field goals and 65-of-67 PATs.
  • In the return game, junior running back Jeff Scott has established himself as a weapon during his career, ranking 20th in the country in kickoff returns in 2010 and helping Ole Miss finish third as a team nationally in punt returns in 2011.
TEXAS A&M
  • Senior Dustin Harris enters the 2012 football season as the reigning punt return average statistical champion. The cornerback from Livingston, Texas, led the NCAA with a 18.9 average on 18 returns in 2011, with a 72-yard touchdown return against Kansas. Against the Jayhawks, Harris set a school record with 162 punt return yards.
  • Senior Ryan Swope, from Austin, Texas, has career numbers of 180 catches for 2,204 yards and is chasing Jeff Fuller’s school records of 233 catches for 3,092 yards. Fuller’s records would appear to be within range after Swope’s record-setting junior season that saw him set school standards with 89 catches for 1,207 yards.
  • The Aggies led the nation with 51 sacks in 2011 (six more than the second-best team), and A&M’s top two pass-rushing threats return in 2012. In fact, Texas A&M is the only team in the nation with two returnees that posted 8.5 or more sacks in 2011. Senior Sean Porter led the Big 12 with .73 sacks per game (No. 19 nationally), while junior Damontre Moore chipped in .71 per game (No. 21 nationally).
  • Despite attempting the ninth most pass attempts in the NCAA FBS, the Aggies did a remarkable job of protecting their quarterback in 2011. In 13 games, A&M allowed just nine sacks for a NCAA-low 44 lost yards. Four of five starters return from the 2011 offensive front, including juniors-to-be OTs Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who have been mentioned as first-round draft picks in several early 2013 mock drafts.
  • The offensive line was penalized for holding just twice in 2011 and enters 2012 with a streak of 11 straight games without a holding call against a lineman.

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