NCF Nation: Matt Smith

SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.

A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.

For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.

Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:

1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.

2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.

3. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is gone, and that could be tough for the Razorbacks to overcome in the long run, but the team has bought in to what interim coach John L. Smith is saying. We still need to see how this team -- and Smith -- acts when adversity enters the picture. The offense has two of the league's best in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who is back from a serious ankle injury. Wilson lost three NFL receivers, but his receiving corps doesn't lack talent. Questions still surround the defense, which lacked depth last season.

4. Georgia: A load of talent returns on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Aaron Murray could be a Heisman candidate, while linebacker Jarvis Jones might be one the country's best players, regardless of position. Isaiah Crowell is gone, but the Bulldogs seem happy with their stable of running backs and were probably going to run by committee again this season anyway. The defense will take a hit with a couple of key stars suspended to start the year, but this group has elite status. The schedule is set up again for a run to Atlanta.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a filthy defense headlined by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive line should be one of the best in the league with Clowney and Devin Taylor on the ends and Kelcy Quarles coming back in the middle. The secondary has issues, especially with Akeem Auguste going down, but safety D.J. Swearinger and hybrid safety/linebacker DeVonte Holloman are studs. Marcus Lattimore is one of the nation's best, and he appears to be 100 percent after his ACL injury. The hope is that quarterback Connor Shaw will help take some pressure off of him.

6. Florida: The Gators return a fierce defense that should be strong across the board. End/tackle Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL injury, but has the ability to be one of the top linemen in this league. But for Will Muschamp, his second-year success will be determined by what the offense can do. Questions are everywhere, starting with a quarterback battle that isn't close to being settled. There are unproven pieces at receiver and the offensive line, which returns most of last year's parts, struggled mightily in 2011.

7. Tennessee: The Vols have a chance to challenge Arkansas for the league's best passing game. Tyler Bray can throw it all around a bit and has two potential stars in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to. However, Da'Rick Rogers is gone, which means the pressure is on Hunter, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Patterson, who is in from the juco ranks. The defense has a lot of experience and talent, but four new coaches are on board, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville, and it's no secret that Derek Dooley's seat is very hot there.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of confidence in quarterback Tyler Russell, who can finally call this team his. He'll have quite a bit of experienced weapons to throw to, including seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, who have combined to catch 221 passes for 2,782 yards and 22 touchdowns in their careers. The running game should be strong with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, while the offensive line is just hoping to stay healthy this year. The defense should be solid with a talented front seven and a very gifted secondary, starring potential All-American Johnthan Banks. The schedule is also very favorable in September and October.

9. Missouri: The newbies don't lack confidence, but on paper they lack size up front -- on both sides. The staff and players say it's not a problem, but let's see come mid-October. Quarterback James Franklin appears to be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery and might be the league's best dual-threat QB. He's the key to a spread offense that returns a lot of speed. The defense is experienced and has a strong linebacker group. Ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy could form a pretty good tandem this fall.

10. Auburn: The Tigers are still a young team and there are two new coordinators in town. Now that Kiehl Frazier has been named the starting quarterback, the offense can start molding around him. He'll have a solid group of running backs to work with, but the line is young and he needs more reliable receiving targets alongside Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. The defense is loaded up front, headlined by end Corey Lemonier. But the defense as a whole still has a lot of questionable parts for new coordinator Brian VanGorder to work with.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a new coaching staff, have to replace some key starters from last year and will be working with a very green quarterback in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The good news for him is that the offensive line is very strong, starting with tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Helping Manziel will be senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and stud running back Christine Michael, who is coming back from an ACL injury. The defense is moving to a 4-3, but is stacked at linebacker. The secondary is dangerously young and thin.

12. Vanderbilt: This team surprised a lot of people last year, but opponents won't be caught off guard by the Commodores in 2012. There is good offensive firepower coming back, with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Plus, there is some good, young offensive talent. But the offensive line has depth issues and will have to use a lot of young guys this fall. The defense is also replacing some key components from last year's team.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats saw their five-year postseason run end after having the SEC's worst statistical offense in 2011. Joker Phillips thinks he has more potential playmakers this fall and is excited about quarterback Maxwell Smith's potential. The offensive line is younger and can't afford an injury to either Matt Smith or Larry Warford. The defense will be strong up front, but is replacing all four linebackers and two starters in the secondary.

14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.
Joker Phillips isn’t sugarcoating anything when he talks about Kentucky’s ugly 14-3 win against Western Kentucky.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Newton
Jim Brown/US PresswireMorgan Newton and the Kentucky offense never hit stride in a 14-3 win against Western Kentucky.
It wasn’t pretty and there were way too many offensive mistakes. Phillips has acknowledged as much this week. He watched like the rest of us as his offense, led by junior quarterback Morgan Newton, sputtered along in Nashville.

Kentucky gained a SEC-low 190 yards of offense, including an SEC-worst 97 yards passing. Newton, who started most of his freshman season, was expected to have good command of the offense, but struggled to find in any sort of rhythm. He finished the game with three interceptions to one touchdown.

His passing was more erratic than normal and when he did hit receivers, they had trouble holding onto the ball.

The lack of a passing threat caused Kentucky’s running game (93 yards) to stall more most of the game.

“It’s been said that we’re a better throwing team, but our offense starts with our running game and we could never get our running game going to open up the passing game,” Phillips said. “Once we dropped back, we didn’t do a very good job of protecting.”

One offensive bright spot was freshman running back Josh Clemons, who led Kentucky with 39 rushing yards and a touchdown. Phillips said he wanted to get Clemons the ball more, but because of the way the game went he couldn’t.

Phillips expects that to change from here on out and wants Clemons to be more of a factor.

The main focus for Kentucky’s defense this week has been cleaning up the mistakes -- and we’re talking major spring-cleaning here.

Throwing, running, blocking and catching need to improve, Phillips said, putting pretty much everyone on offense on notice.

What doesn’t help is that the offensive line is more banged up now than it was heading into the season. Center Matt Smith, who missed the opener with an undisclosed injury, is doubtful this weekend against Central Michigan and right tackle Billy Joe Murphy, who was healthy heading into the season, is also doubtful after suffering a knee injury in last week’s game.

Redshirt freshman Teven Eatmon-Nared could get the start at right tackle if Murphy can’t go.

But don’t count on Phillips using injuries up front as an excuse.

“We’re banged up, but a lot of people are this time of the year,” he said. “We expect production not to drop off, especially the way it did last week. We expect those guys to go in and play like veterans when they get a chance and we did not do that last week.”

One thing that keeps Phillips hopeful is the play of his defense. The defense didn’t allow the Hilltoppers to find the end zone and forced four turnovers.

If the defense keeps this up and the offense finds a spark, Phillips likes the Wildcats’ chances this fall.

“The way our defense is playing right now, you could win a lot of games if we score 14 points and those guys do what they did last week with shutting people down,” he said.
Workout numbers are always nice to look at, and he who wins the bench-press battle, usually wins a heap of respect.

But while cranking out the reps and stacking the weight might be the top priority for some athletes when they step into the gym, Ray “Rock” Oliver, who is in his first year with the Kentucky Wildcats as the director of strength and conditioning, likes to add emphasis to another area when the workouts begin.

The size he’s most concerned about is the girth of is athletes’ necks.

A neck doesn’t help you run faster, jump higher or throw farther, but it does provide some extra safety in the violent game that is football.

[+] EnlargeRaymond Sanders
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky is hoping Raymond Sanders' improvement in the weight room will translate to success on the field.
“The No. 1 mechanism that’s absorbing a lot of the shock is the neck, so we need to get that bigger,” said Oliver, who joined Kentucky’s strength staff after spending the past six seasons as the associate strength and conditioning coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We’re really proud of that. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have ever been talking about that. Ten years ago, I would have been talking about our bench [press] and our vertical jumps.”

But Oliver -- and the rest of his staff -- is more concerned with protecting his players during head-on collisions.

Kentucky’s staff makes the neck a gym priority by working it out every other day with lateral raises, shrugs and flexing exercises.

Oliver said his goal is to add one-half to three-fourths of an inch to each player’s neck in the span of a year. That might sound silly to some, but Oliver said there’s nothing foolish about wanting to strengthen and thicken the cylinder that holds the head.

“It’s the No. 1 concern of mine,” he said.

Oliver also prides himself on the amount of lean muscle mass his athletes have been able to put on each year during offseason training sessions.

“If you want to really want to find out if you’re doing your job, put 15 to 16 pounds of lean muscle mass on a kid in a year,” Oliver said. “That’s where me and my staff take great pride in.”

With a late bowl game, Kentucky’s football team started lifting together four weeks before spring practice began, Oliver said. But when spring ball began, he could tell the gym work was paying off.

Some examples include defensive end Collins Ukwu making vast improvements to his playing shape, running back Raymond Sanders adding some needed bulk and center Matt Smith has increased his weight in 75 percent of his workouts.

As a whole, Oliver said the Wildcats entered spring in much better shape. That was a good and bad thing to Oliver. He was both happy and irked by the fact that 95 percent of the team passed the conditioning test.

The good news was that almost the entire team was able to beat the time needed to pass a test consisting of 16 grueling gassers -- that’s 10 more than Oliver was told the majority of the team could get through a year ago.

The bad news was that the Wildcats were starting to become immune to Oliver’s rigorous training.

“I was pissed off because we only wanted 5 percent to pass,” he joked. “But we worked them extremely hard.”

The Wildcats are undergoing a lot of changes in Lexington, and Oliver wants to make sure he does his part by making this one of the most well-conditioned and strongest teams in the SEC.

“The most important thing for us is to get guys to buy into a certain way of working and take pride in everything that we do and to take pride into the others that excel, as well as yourself,” he said.

“We work extremely hard to make sure each individual gets his maximum full potential based off his varied potential.”
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There were a few times this spring when Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton dropped back to pass and looked for No. 18.

The only problem was that he was usually somewhere on the sideline watching in street clothes.

Randall Cobb, who will be in New York City later this week at the NFL draft waiting for his name to be called, was the ultimate bail-out player the past few seasons for the Wildcats.

You could throw it to him, snap it to him, hand it off to him, and if none of those worked, he could always throw it.

He was the quintessential playmaker.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Newton
AP Photo/Butch DillMorgan Newton will have the luxury of operating behind an experienced offensive line in 2011.
“Sometimes you just wanted to tell him to jump back in there and run some of those old plays,” Newton joked. “Randall has been great and great for the receivers. It’s tough not having him out there, but we know what the standard is now and have some other guys who can step up and make plays.”

Perhaps so, but one of coach Joker Phillips’ biggest concerns coming out of the spring centered around who those guys would be on a consistent basis.

It wasn’t a stirring end to the spring for the Wildcats’ receivers, although Brian Adams made the most of his time on the football field while also playing baseball.

Sophomore Raymond Sanders emerged as Kentucky’s go-to running back this spring and also showcased his versatility, and Phillips can’t wait to get a look at incoming freshman running backs Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.

But if you’re looking for the epicenter of Kentucky’s offense next season, look no further than the five guys up front.

The Wildcats return four starters on their offensive line, and two other seniors who’ve played a lot of football for them and are capable of playing different positions.

It’s an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC after finishing second in the league a year ago in sacks allowed (19 in 13 games) and paving the way for the Wildcats to finish fourth in total offense.

“That’s always a good place to start, when you think you have a chance to match up with anybody you play up front,” Phillips said. “We’ll lean on those guys a lot next season.”

Senior Chandler Burden returns at left tackle. He wasn’t supposed to do much this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but returned for the final part of practice. Also back is junior center Matt Smith, who’ll be flanked by one of the better guard tandems in college football.

Junior Larry Warford plays right guard and was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago. Senior Stuart Hines has 24 starts over the past two seasons and will be the Wildcats’ left guard.

Senior Billy Joe Murphy made starts at left tackle, right tackle and left guard last season, but will settle in at right tackle next season. Senior Jake Lanefski also returns and can play center or guard.

“We’re all on the same page with each other and are really starting to learn to play together even more than last year,” said Hines, one of the strongest leaders on the team. “We’re able to communicate well, and even if we don’t get calls made, we’re still able to be on the same page. I know the center is going to still be on his block.

“What that does with our young running backs coming up is hopefully give them confidence to run behind us.”

This will also be offensive line coach Mike Summers’ second year with this group, and Hines points out that Burden was just learning to play offensive line a year ago after moving over from defense.

“We have a solid group of guys who are continuing to learn, and continuity makes a big difference,” Hines said. “At this point last year, we’d only been together for 15 practices and only 15 practices with Coach Summers as well. We hadn’t really come together as a group yet, but now we’re really starting to come together as a unit and know what he expects from us.”

Hines welcomes the offensive burden being on the line’s shoulders next season.

With so many veterans returning, he said that’s the way it should be.

“We’re a group of guys who will take the blame if we have a bad game,” Hines said. “Put it on us. We can take it.

“It’s on us to give everybody a chance to make the kind of plays Randall and Derrick [Locke] did last season, and that’s the way we want it.”