NCF Nation: Morgan Newton
Well, you be the judge.
Over the past four years (2009-12), Alabama and Florida have tied for the most ESPN 150 prospects signed with 41 apiece. During that span, the Crimson Tide have won an SEC-high 49 games and three national championships.
The Gators, meanwhile, have won 10 fewer games (39) than the Crimson Tide and haven’t won any SEC or national titles during that span. In fact, they’ve been shut out of the SEC championship game the last three years.
The most ESPN 150 prospects any SEC school has signed in one year going back to 2009 was Florida in 2010 when the Gators signed 17 ESPN 150 prospects.
For perspective, that’s more than eight SEC schools -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- have managed to ink in each of their last four signing classes.
Every SEC school has signed at least one ESPN 150 prospect over the past four years, although Kentucky and Vanderbilt have both been limited to one each. The Wildcats’ only ESPN 150 signee during that period was quarterback Morgan Newton in 2009, while the Commodores signed running back Brian Kimbrow last year.
The school doing the least with the most over the last four years has been Tennessee. The Vols have signed 20 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is tied for the fifth most in the SEC. However, the Vols are just 23-27 during that stretch (9-23 in the SEC) and have suffered through three straight losing seasons.
Tennessee signed six ESPN 150 prospects in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s only signing class in Knoxville. But four of those players (Jerod Askew, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Jr., and Nu’Keese Richardson) were kicked off the team, and the other two (Bryce Brown and David Oku) wound up transferring out of the program.
The school doing the most with the least has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have signed 13 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is seventh in the league. But the Gamecocks have the third-best record over the last four years (38-15) behind only Alabama and LSU. They’re also one of two teams in the league (along with Alabama) to have won 11 or more games each of the last two seasons.
As the Head Ball Coach himself would say, somebody’s coaching ‘em up in Columbia.
Arkansas, prior to its collapse this past season, had managed a nice run despite not reeling in very many highly ranked signees under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Hogs won 11 games in 2011 and 10 games in 2010, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl, and signed just five ESPN 150 prospects between 2009-12.
Below is a breakdown of how many ESPN 150 signees each SEC school has signed over the past four years along with each school’s overall and SEC record during that span. We’ve also included Missouri and Texas A&M even though they’ve just played one season in the SEC.
Of the Aggies’ nine ESPN 150 prospects signed over the past four years, five came last year in Kevin Sumlin’s first signing class.
One other interesting nugget is South Carolina is the only team to have played in the SEC championship game over the past four years that hasn't signed at least 20 ESPN 150 prospects during that span.
Here’s a closer look:
- Alabama: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 49-5 (.907), 27-5 SEC
- Florida: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 39-14 (.736), 22-10 SEC
- LSU: 28 ESPN 150 signees, 43-10 (.811), 25-7 SEC
- Georgia: 26 ESPN 150 signees, 36-18 (.667), 21-11 SEC
- Auburn: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635), 15-17 SEC
- Tennessee: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 23-27 (.460), 9-23 SEC
- South Carolina: 13 ESPN 150 signees, 38-15 (.717), 20-12 SEC
- Texas A&M: 9 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635)
- Ole Miss: 6 ESPN 150 signees, 22-28 (.440), 8-24 SEC
- Arkansas: 5 ESPN 150 signees, 33-18 (.647), 17-13 SEC
- Mississippi State: 4 ESPN 150 signees, 29-22 (.569), 13-17 SEC
- Missouri: 3 ESPN 150 signees, 31-20 (.608)
- Kentucky: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 20-30 (.400), 7-25 SEC
- Vanderbilt: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 19-31 (.380), 8-24 SEC
But has our No. 2 team fallen after a sloppy win on the road?
1. Alabama (4-0; LW: 1): I feel like a broken record, but Alabama dominated yet again Saturday. It's hard to find any real weaknesses in this team. Although the backups did give up a touchdown to Florida Atlantic, so there's that.
2. LSU (4-0; LW: 2): The Tigers looked pretty sloppy offensively in a tough 12-10 win against Auburn Saturday. LSU probably will have its name dragged through the mud after its play this weekend, but all good teams have those hiccup games. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has to play better, but the defense still looks extremely dominant. The goal now is to not let that hiccup bleed into future games.
3. Georgia (4-0; LW: 3): This Bulldogs offense has been really fun to watch through the first four weeks. Quarterback Aaron Murray has looked like a real Heisman candidate at times, while freshman running back Todd Gurley just gets better every time he gets on the field. Georgia completely overwhelmed Vanderbilt and heads into a fun showdown with Tennessee with a load of confidence.
4. South Carolina (4-0; LW: 4): Connor Shaw has proven he's a true player for the Gamecocks. He battled through a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder to complete 20-of-21 passes in a blowout win against Missouri. You're starting to see more balance from this Gamecocks offense and that will be very important as SEC play continues. The defensive front is also getting stronger each week.
5. Florida (4-0; LW: 5): The Gators seem to be growing up with each week. After back-to-back tough road wins, Florida shut out Kentucky at home and now has two weeks to prepare for LSU. This really has become more of the blue-collar team Will Muschamp wants, but we'll really find out how tough Florida is when LSU ventures into the Swamp.
6. Mississippi State (4-0; LW: 6): Dan Mullen wasn't exactly pleased with the effort the Bulldogs gave in their lackluster 30-10 win against South Alabama, but a win is a win these days. This team can't be too happy with the way it has played in the past two weeks, but it's still undefeated. It's obvious players are losing focus against lesser opponents, and that should change with SEC play starting back up next week.
7. Tennessee (3-1; LW: 7): There were some tense moments in the Vols' win over Akron Saturday, but the second half belonged to Tennessee. Tyler Bray showed off that cannon of a right arm, passing for 401 yards and four touchdowns. The running game also got going with Rajion Neal rushing for a career-high 151 yards. The key for this team is to duplicate those kinds of efforts against SEC opponents.
8. Texas A&M (2-1; LW: 9): Man, the Aggies know how to use that football, right? In the past two games (both wins), A&M has averaged 526.5 yards and 59 points. Sure, you can point your nose up at the competition, but those are pretty good numbers for a team dealing with a brand new coaching staff and philosophy. Let's see how this offense performs with the SEC slate coming up.
9. Missouri (2-2; LW:8): The Tigers just didn't put up much of a fight against South Carolina. Both the offensive and defensive lines got pushed around and it's looking more and more like the size up front is an issue for this team. Mizzou has too much talent offensively not to get the ball moving, but the Tigers failed to get big plays against South Carolina. You have to wonder what sort of offensive changes might come heading into the Central Florida game.
10. Ole Miss (3-1; LW: 11): The Rebels really rebounded from that Texas blowout with a 39-point shutout of Tulane. Through four games, Ole Miss is third in the SEC in total offense (488 yards per game) and is averaging 36.8 points per game. This team has to cut down on the turnovers and the defense still needs some work, but the product on the field is much better than it has been the past two years.
11. Auburn (1-3; LW: 10): The Tigers suffered a tough loss at home to LSU over the weekend. It was a game in which Auburn played its toughest ball of the season, but just didn't have anything going on offense. Like, absolutely nothing. The defense made strides, but the offense is still a major concern. Defense wins championships, but you have to put points on the board and move the ball, and Auburn has issues doing both, scoring only 20 points in two SEC games.
12. Arkansas (1-3; LW: 12): Things just aren't working in Fayetteville, Ark. Tyler Wilson returned against Rutgers, but he couldn't help a defense that gave up 525 yards in the loss to the Scarlet Knights. Arkansas has now lost three straight -- all in the state of Arkansas -- and it's fair to say that leadership is lacking inside that locker room. There shouldn't be any smiling this week as the Hogs prepare for Texas A&M.
13. Vanderbilt (1-3; LW: 13): The Commodores had nothing in the tank against Georgia. For a team that is supposed to have a different attitude, Vandy lacked any form of passion in its 45-point loss to the Bulldogs. The defense was shredded and the offense just never got into rhythm. This team is also dealing with quarterback issues. You never know who is going to be throwing the ball for the Commodores, and that's not a good thing.
14. Kentucky (1-3; LW: 14): Nothing seems to be going right for the Wildcats. Maxwell Smith missed Saturday's loss to Florida with a bum shoulder and Morgan Newton did noting to help in Smith's place. Kentucky's offense has lacked any sort of consistency this season and the defense has been walked over. The bad news is that things get a lot tougher for the Wildcats with the teeth of the schedule coming up.
Let's take a look at each one from the spring and see where they currently stand:
The matchup: Sophomore Kiehl Frazier left the spring with the edge because he took most of the reps, as a sore shoulder sidelined junior Clint Moseley. This fall, freshman Jonathan Wallace entered the race and has continued to impress Auburn's staff.
The winner is: Frazier has the most athleticism and has felt much more comfortable throwing the ball with help from first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. While coach Gene Chizik continues to say the race is even between Frazier and Moseley, who is still dealing with shoulder soreness, we'll go with Frazier because of overall talent. He can make more plays with his feet and if his arm really does improve, he could be a solid dual-threat QB in this league.
The matchup: This two-horse race between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel has been intense since the spring. Brissett has had a little bit of the edge because of his game experience last year, but Driskel has made tremendous strides under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
The winner is: Will Muschamp continues to say the race is dead even. Driskel's bruised shoulder didn't even complicate the race. It doesn't sound like anyone really knows who has outperformed the other, but the concensus is the team and the coaches can win with either. With that said, Brissett has more experience and we assume is completely healthy, so we'll go with him, but both should play in the opener.
The matchup: Sophomore Maxwell Smith took all of the first-team reps this spring, while senior Morgan Newton recovered from shoulder surgery. However, Newton returned to get back into the race this fall. Joining them this fall were freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.
The winner is: Smith. Joker Phillips named Smith the starter on Monday, so this race has come to an end. The offense can now focus on running around Smith, who has been the most consistent of Kentucky's quarterbacks since the spring. This isn't a surprise.
The matchup: Neither of Hugh Freeze's quarterbacks have proven much at all and have struggled with consistency since spring. Barry Brunetti was given the starting job at the beginning of last season, but lost it almost immediately, and Bo Wallace is fresh off a season in the junior college ranks. Wallace, however, did spend a year with Freeze at Arkansas State.
The winner is: Wallace seemed to have the edge for part of the spring, and then lost it as Brunetti got more comfortable with Freeze's offense. Both quarterbacks and Freeze felt things were very even heading into champ, but Wallace has had a much stronger champ. Both could end up playing in the opener, but we'll go with Wallace.
The matchup: Sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the only game experience at quarter, and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel were nearly neck-and-neck for most of the spring, but Showers seemed to pull away little toward the end. Sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis also competed this spring.
The winner is: Manziel. It seemed as though Showers had the edge in this one, but Manziel outplayed him during fall camp. After a solid outing during one of the Aggies' scrimmages, coach Kevin Sumlin decided to end the battle and give the starting job to Manziel.
The matchup: Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith last season, but still showed inconsistency on the field at times. So, this spring, he had a battle on his hands with Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009.
The winner: Rodgers. This was probably always his job to lose, and he didn't. He had a very good spring and fall camp. Rodgers said this summer that he felt way more comfortable with the people around him this spring and is poised to have a much better year this fall.
This is never easy. We go back and forth dozens of times before finding any sort of confidence in our lists. After checking with colleagues and people around the league, we come up with lists ranking each position and in the end someone gets upset. Someone has to be last and someone is always underrated or overrated.
Such is life.
The important factors for every position were great players, true game-changers, depth and experience. We also considered past performances, but we also had to think about possible projections for the upcoming season.
We’ll start with the quarterback position:
1. Georgia: Aaron Murray has thrown 59 touchdowns in his first two seasons and is on his way to breaking several school records. He has great toughness and mechanics, but needs to cut down on his 14 interceptions from a year ago. The staff is looking to redshirt Hutson Mason, but he might be the league's best quarterback insurance policy. He could be used if Murray suffers a serious injury. Freshmen Faton Bauta and Christian LeMay are both talented, but inexperienced.
2. Arkansas: Tyler Wilson is arguably the SEC’s best quarterback and probably would have been a first-rounder had he come out this past season. Junior Brandon Mitchell complements Wilson well with his running ability, but he'll be in an intense battle with redshirt freshman Brandon Allen, who is a stronger drop-back quarterback.
3. Tennessee: If Tyler Bray can stay healthy, he’s potentially a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown guy. Justin Worley was thrown into the fire last season and gained some valuable experience, and the Vols also have high hopes for true freshman Nathan Peterman, who showed promise in the spring before dislocating his finger.
4. Alabama: If AJ McCarron picks up from 2011, he could contend to be the league's top quarterback. He has all the tools, but needs to keep making strides with his decision-making. Behind McCarron, Alabama doesn't have much experience with Phillip Sims transferring to Virginia. Next in line would probably be redshirt freshman Phillip Ely, but true freshman Alec Morris has turned heads in summer workouts.
5. Vanderbilt: Jordan Rodgers put a charge into the Commodores’ offense when he took over midway through last season. He’s a big-play quarterback, but needs to cut down on his turnovers. The other thing Vanderbilt has going for it is Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started for two seasons at Wyoming and rolled up nearly 2,100 yards in total offense in 2010. Plus, the staff is excited about early enrollee Patton Robinette, who is one of the top quarterback prospects to sign with Vandy in a while.
7. South Carolina: Connor Shaw is hardly the biggest quarterback in the SEC and runs a lot, so that’s never an ideal situation. However, he improved greatly toward the end of last season and made strides this spring to use his arm more than his legs. The Gamecocks have barely any experience behind Shaw, as Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford battle for the No. 2 spot.
8. LSU: It's Zach Mettenberger time in Baton Rouge, as he takes over a unit that has struggled with consistency. He was a very talented high school player a few years ago and helped make LSU's offense much more pass-friendly this spring. While he's an obvious upgrade for the Tigers, he's still pretty unproven at this level. Behind him, there's no experience, as Jerrard Randall and Stephen Rivers both redshirted in 2011.
9. Auburn: The Tigers should have quite the quarterback battle on their hands. Clint Moseley returns with more experience under center, but he lost ground to Kiehl Frazier this spring because of shoulder soreness. Frazier was a run-first QB last year, but looked much more confident with his arm this spring with help from new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Zeke Pike was a top QB prospect coming out of high school, but off-field issues sent him home for the summer.
10. Florida: Will Muschamp said following spring practice that he felt like he had two quarterbacks he could win with. Nonetheless, he wasn’t ready to name either Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel the starter. Both struggled for the most part last year, but both were very talented high school prospects and each could excel with more experience. The reality is that both will end up playing this season.
11. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen said this spring that he was very pleased with how Tyler Russell performed this spring, but Russell has had consistency issues in the past. The hope is that now that Russell knows he's the starter, he'll be more comfortable on the field. However, Mississippi State only has one other scholarship quarterback on its roster: redshirt freshman Dak Prescott. Quarterbacks Dylan Favre and Nick Schuessler both transferred.
12. Kentucky: Maxwell Smith was far from perfect last year, but he took advantage of his time on the field. After replacing the injured Morgan Newton late in 2011, Smith was named to the SEC's All-Freshmen team. He also seemed to improve this spring with Newton watching and rehabbing. Newton's time as a starter could be over, but both will be pushed by incoming freshman Patrick Towles, who might be more physically gifted than the two ahead of him.
13. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin is working with a ton of inexperience at quarterback. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge, but he’s thrown all of five career passes. Things got even foggier for the Aggies when backup Johnny Manziel was arrested in late June and charged with disorderly conduct by fighting, failure to identify and having a fake driver's license. That leaves sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis with the chance to catch Showers.
14. Ole Miss: It looked like Bo Wallace would come in and snatch the starting job, but as spring went on Barry Brunetti played himself into a tie with Wallace. But Brunetti was the starter coming out of last spring and played in just five games last fall. Randall Mackey moved from quarterback to wide receiver, while Zack Stoudt left the team in June, so there is very little experience at the quarterback position in Oxford.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
If a kid can play, schools are going to find him.
Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith was the exception. He recruited Kentucky.
Now a sophomore, Smith heads into the 2012 season as the guy to beat at the quarterback position for Kentucky. Coach Joker Phillips said coming out of the spring that Smith would be the Wildcats’ starter if the season started today.
A Granada Hills, Calif., product, Smith had Sacramento State as a possibility and was also thinking hard about going to junior college.
“I found Kentucky. They didn’t find me,” Smith now jokes.
What happened is that Smith didn’t play his junior season of high school. He had some minor injuries and was playing at a high school, Bishop Alemany in Mission Hills, Calif., that ran the ball most of the time.
So Smith transferred prior to his senior season to Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif., and put up big numbers.
The only problem was that schools were just starting to hear about him and thought he was a junior.
“Stanford and UCLA were asking for my film, but they thought I was a junior,” Smith explained. “I was way under the radar.”
Determined to play big-time college football, Smith started sending out tape from his senior season. He picked out several SEC schools with offenses that he felt like fit his game. Kentucky was on that list.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers was the coach Smith made contact with, and the Wildcats immediately liked what they saw. They offered Smith a scholarship, but like everybody else, thought he was a junior.
Smith wound up coming on a visit to Kentucky two springs ago. He still didn’t have a firm offer at that point. The Wildcats were full and didn’t have any scholarships available, so they offered him a chance to grayshirt, which meant delaying enrollment until that January.
Smith accepted, and even though there was very little fanfare surrounding his signing, he had exactly what he wanted -- a chance to compete at the highest level in college football.
“I just went back to California and worked,” Smith said. “I didn’t have a playbook or anything. I didn’t even know any of the Kentucky players. I just knew I had to work as hard as I could to be ready.”
Smith didn’t have to wait long to get his first taste of the SEC. He played in eight games last season as a true freshman and made his first start against Ole Miss in Game 9.
Kentucky trailed in the fourth quarter of that game, but Smith brought the Wildcats back with a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and they won 30-13. Smith finished 19-of-36 for 283 yards. His 38-yard touchdown pass to La’Rod King was a beauty, and most importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions.
“The thing you like about Maxwell is his toughness and the way the guys respond to him,” Phillips said. “That’s something your quarterback’s got to have, and Maxwell never flinched last year.”
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Smith started the rest of the way until a sprained throwing shoulder kept him out of the finale against Tennessee.
While not pleased with the two interceptions he threw in the spring game, Smith said there’s no question that his teammates look at him in a different light than they did this time a year ago.
“They know me now and know what I can do,” Smith said. “Nobody really knew anything about me last year. But when I went into that Mississippi State game and played well, and then we came back and won against Ole Miss, you could sort of see everybody then saying, ‘OK, maybe Maxwell can do this.’
“I’ve tried to feed off that. I feel like I have real good camaraderie with my teammates, both on and off the field. I think they trust me now to make good throws and get it right out there.”
Still, Smith isn’t taking anything for granted. A Freshman All-SEC selection a year ago, he knows senior Morgan Newton isn’t going to just lie down when he returns to the practice field this fall. Newton missed the spring after having shoulder surgery.
“With Morgan coming back healthy, you’ve got to win it all over again,” Smith said. “You’re never safe. It’s a business. It really is, just like the NFL. You have to be ready for anything.”
Until somebody tells Smith differently, though, he views it as his job to lose.
“That’s how I’ve got to look at it,” he said. “If I’m performing and doing things well in practice, and they feel like I can help this team win, then it’s my team.”
That battle, at least from a football sense, is still raging at Kentucky, and it’s never going to be anything but a battle when it comes to making the Wildcats a consistent winner in the SEC.
In this basketball-crazed state, one that’s still aglow thanks to the hoops national championship brought home by John Calipari and his band of one-and-done phenoms this month, football will always reside in the shadows to some degree.
But Phillips, entering his third season as Kentucky’s head coach, has a little different perspective. He’s seen how far the program has come in the past decade, and has been an integral part of the Wildcats’ resurgence.
Prior to last season’s 5-7 finish, the Wildcats were one of only five SEC teams that had gone to five consecutive bowl games. The other four were Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, which is obviously some pretty exalted company.
And even though it was a struggle the whole way offensively a year ago, it’s the way Kentucky ended the season that gives Phillips and his staff so much optimism for 2012.
“We were a game away from playing in our sixth straight bowl game. Only four other teams had done that,” Phillips said. “We were really close, but it was a down year for us with some of the injuries and losing some of the personnel that we lost, and being as young as we were. I think with another year of growth in our system, and another year of growth with our personnel, we think we can get back to the level that we’ve been at and continue to grow from there.”
Phillips couldn’t be more pleased with the young talent in the program, and he said the Wildcats have stuck by their guns in terms of what they’re looking for in a player.
Toward the end of the season, Phillips said he looked out on defense and there were five true freshmen on the field at various times against Georgia and Tennessee. That experience, not to mention the infusion of new talent, will be vital next season, especially with the Wildcats losing top defensive playmakers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.
“You look at this last class, and we wanted to find 25 guys who have high character and are highly intelligent, and have ability also,” Phillips said. “Those guys that have all those things will do something every day to improve themselves. Therefore, it’s easier for us to develop them and get them ready to play.
“That’s how we decided to build this thing, and we think these last two classes that we put together have a chance to be two of the best classes to ever play here, and we’re already working on a third straight.”
The disappointment of not going to a bowl game last season was tempered by what happened on the final Saturday of the regular season in Lexington.
After 26 straight losses to Tennessee, Kentucky finally ended that drought by beating the Vols 10-7, and did so with senior receiver Matt Roark stepping in and playing quarterback after Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton were unable to play because of injuries.
Phillips was a player on that 1984 Kentucky team that had last beaten Tennessee, and he’d also been on the losing end to the Vols 15 different times as an assistant coach or head coach.
So, it goes without saying that he suffered as much as anyone through all those losses to the Vols.
“I’d been in a lot of those meeting rooms, war rooms, whatever you want to call it, and trying to get a plan together to beat those guys,” Phillips said. “Never did I think when I left here in 1984 that that would be the last time that we would beat Tennessee in 20-something years.
“A lot of the ex-players who left in 1984 can sit and criticize those teams, but I was a huge part of it. I was in there trying to get those players prepared to beat those guys. So, yes, there was a lot of pain. It didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t sit well with our fans, and I understand that.
“Maybe we can start our own streak now.”
It wasn’t just that one win against Tennessee that reassured Phillips the program was headed in the right direction.
A week earlier, Kentucky went toe-to-toe with eventual Eastern Division champion Georgia on the road, before falling 19-10, and opened the month of November with a 30-13 blistering of Ole Miss.
“The way we finished, period, was encouraging -- playing well against Georgia and then beating Tennessee,” Phillips said. “The thing I liked about the Tennessee game was that we got to see some seniors go out the right way. Every senior that played on defense made plays, but there were a lot of young guys who played, too.
“And for those young guys to have success carried through to the offseason, and that momentum has shown this spring. It’s shown in the way they’ve worked, and now it’s starting to show in their confidence level and the way they’ve played this spring.”
It didn’t come in a bowl victory, although you might not have known that by the jubilant celebration held by the Wildcat faithful on Nov. 26.
No, it came in the form of a regular-season win that didn’t feel regular at all, as the Wildcats ended a 26-game skid to archrival Tennessee with a 10-7 win in front of their home crowd.
The Wildcats added just a fifth win to their record, but they made history, while knocking the Vols out of bowl contention.
For Warford, it sent a message throughout the team that things could get better. It was used as a motivational tool for the offseason and Warford said he was ready to get back out on the field with his teammates almost immediately after Kentucky’s monumental win.
“We didn’t have the best season or the season we were hoping for, but after that win everybody’s spirits rose up drastically because throughout the season, before that game, we were getting beaten down, momentum-wise.”
Now, Warford and his teammates are hoping that signature win acts as a launching pad. According to Warford, it has so far as players entered offseason workouts with improved attitudes. The youngsters who struggled through their first season at Kentucky looked refreshed and energized. Players hit drills harder and pushed longer.
While the coaches have tried to downplay the Tennessee victory, players still talk about it. They relish in the win because it stands for something and it continues to motivate the players to do more for the future.
“The Tennessee win was great for us and it did help us out a lot,” Warford said, “but we definitely want to have a better season than what we did.”
To do that, Warford said the chemistry has to improve from where it was last season, when the Wildcats’ offense stumbled around, ranking last in the SEC and 118th nationally. Kentucky averaged a minuscule 4.1 yards per play and 14 first downs a game.
To say that Kentucky’s offensive game floundered in 2011 is an understatement.
Warford didn’t point to the injuries or the loss of playmakers from the 2010 team as excuses. He said Kentucky’s struggles were internal. There wasn’t as much comraderie as past teams had. The locker room was a mess and it translated to the play on the field.
The little mistakes that ruin drives were apparent on “just about every play,” Warford said, and it killed the Wildcats’ chances of harnessing any sort of momentum.
But Warford sees changes. Players are being held more accountable and trust is building. The underclassmen are buying in and are picking up plays. Things are starting to get a little easier for them, and that’s encouraging.
“They really will progress into SEC players,” he said.
It won’t be an easy spring for the Wildcats. Kentucky enters down three starters on the offensive line, stud running back Josh Clemons (knee) is limited, quarterback Morgan Newton isn’t doing much as he rehabs frpm shoulder surgery and Kentucky is still looking for playmakers at wide receiver.
It’s still an uphill battle, but Warford is making the effort to put as much of this team on his back as possible. This is the last season, so he wants to go out the right way.
Kentucky’s old man, who went from scared and nervous when he debuted as a freshman in 2009 to an outspoken leader, wants to enjoy what little time he has remaining by helping this program get back on track.
“I’m trying to embrace it,” Warford said of his final year at Kentucky. “I only get four years of this and this is the last one. I’m trying to take it all in and enjoy it while I’m here. It’s not going to last forever, so while I’m here I’m going to make the best of it.”
Making the best of it would include getting Kentucky back to the postseason. Kentucky's five-year bowl streak was snapped last season and that really hit home for Warford because it was new territory for him. He was accustomed to the postseason and he felt as if the coaches and past players who helped rejuvenate Kentucky were let down.
Warford wants to make amends this fall.
“I want this program to succeed,” he said. “Nobody deserves anything, but I feel like with the effort that this team gives … we should be a better program than we are right now.”
Spring practice start date: March 14
Spring game: April 7
What to watch:
Finding offensive playmakers: Year 2 of the Will Muschamp era begins with the team trying to find someone who can make a few plays for this fall. New offensive coordinator Brent Pease has a host of unproven offensive talent to work with. Wide receiver Andre Debose was Florida's best deep threat last year, and the coaches raved about receiver Quinton Dunbar's potential, but neither was consistent enough in 2011. Maybe Florida can finally turn to bigger backs Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown in the playmaking department.
Toughening up the offensive line: The Gators' line struggled throughout the 2011 season. It wasn't always at 100 percent, but Florida's line also just wasn't tough enough -- mentally or physically. The Gators couldn't get the tough yards on the ground and didn't exactly protect quarterback John Brantley enough. The line should get a boost with early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the top offensive line prospect in the 2012 class, and Jessamen Dunker, but Florida will have to get improvement from players who return to a line that lost just one starter from last season.
Quarterback battle: Brantley is gone, leaving rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy. Brissett replaced Driskel as Florida's No. 2 quarterback last year, while Murphy has yet to take a college snap. Brissett and Driskel had plenty of down moments last fall but should get a chance to reinvent themselves this spring with new leadership and more practice reps. This spring will be extremely important for all three quarterbacks as they try to improve a position that struggled mightily the past two years.
Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
Isaiah Crowell's toughness: Crowell has the talent to be a star in this league. He has the size and athletic ability to cause a lot of headaches for opposing defenses. However, his inability to stay healthy -- and in games -- became more of a headache for Georgia's coaches and fans in 2011. Crowell needs to get tougher and be more reliable. He said as much after last season, but it's time to make good on his word. Crowell could get a push from early enrollee Keith Marshall this spring, and we know coach Mark Richt isn't afraid to play multiple backs.
Position changes: Richt made headlines recently when he said he'd be open to considering moving star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell to cornerback now that the Bulldogs are thin there. Maybe he'll play both ways. Also, rising sophomore Ray Drew could switch from outside linebacker to defensive end. He played both in high school. Georgia's offensive linemen also could play multiple positions up front.
The target on the Bulldogs' backs: There will be a lot more attention paid to the Bulldogs this spring, as they will probably enter the 2012 season as the favorites in the SEC East. Georgia returns just about everyone from a team that reeled off 10 straight wins on its way to the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs aren't just considered the East front-runners -- they also are being viewed as national championship contenders. But the Bulldogs can't let the hype get to them. We've seen this team underachieve when the expectations were high before.
Spring practice start date: March 21
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
Offensive line auditions: The Wildcats must replace three offensive linemen this year. That process will begin this spring, and the good news is that veterans Larry Warford and Matt Smith return. Left guard Kevin Mitchell, who will be a junior this fall, started one game last year, while soon-to-be sophomore right tackle Darrian Miller started two games last fall, so there is some experience coming into the open spots. Trevino Woods, who didn't start a game last year, should be the favorite to play left tackle this spring, but he also can play guard. There's also a lot of depth to work with.
Defensive makeover: Danny Trevathan is gone, so Kentucky must find someone else to run the defense this season. There's no question that Trevathan was the heart of this defense, so replacing him won't be easy, but the Wildcats must find someone who can step up and be a player others can look up to. The Wildcats also lost six starters from their linebacking corps and secondary, meaning Kentucky will have to fill holes with youngsters. Mikie Benton and Ridge Wilson are the only returning starters not on the defensive line.
Maxwell Smith: With fellow quarterback Morgan Newton sidelined this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, all eyes will be on Smith. He struggled at times last year, but Kentucky's offense was better when he was under center. Now, he'll have to make even bigger strides this spring if he wants to create a sizable lead in the race before Newton returns. Smith needs to work on his consistency, clean up his mistakes and develop better chemistry with his receivers.
Spring practice start date: March 6
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
Offensive adjustments: Missouri might return some key pieces at skill positions, but the Tigers must replace three offensive linemen and will have to tweak some things to make their spread offense efficient enough to face SEC defenses. It helps that quarterback James Franklin is a runner and Missouri has speed and depth at receiver and running back, but the team must make subtle changes to combat the improved speed Missouri will see on defense, especially off the edge.
Rebuilding up front: The Tigers will be without three starters on the offensive and defensive lines. That isn't exactly what any SEC team would like, considering games are won in the trenches in this league. Fortunately for Missouri, both sides saw multiple guys get playing time last season. Keep an eye on defensive end Brad Madison. He was viewed as a defensive player of the year candidate in the Big 12 last year but was limited by a shoulder injury.
Wide receivers: Franklin had a heck of a 2011 season, but as he gets ready for 2012, he's still looking for a big-play threat in his receiving corps. T.J. Moe returns as the Tigers' leading receiver, while Marcus Lucas was fourth in receiving last year. Both have the potential to be elite in this league, but can one leave spring with the title of playmaker? Lucas showed flashes last year, but flashes only go so far. Missouri needs to find a definitive receiving threat.
Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
Marcus Lattimore's health: His knee injury took place at the halfway point of the season, so he won't be 100 percent for a while. Still, the word is that he's ahead of schedule when it comes to rehabbing his knee. ACL injuries can be tough to manage, but with Lattimore's determination, he'll do everything possible to come back sooner than expected. He likely won't take contact this spring, but it'll be interesting to see whether the Gamecocks get much use out of him before summer.
Finding receiving options: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, there's more pressure on South Carolina's receiving corps. Outside of Jeffery, the Gamecocks didn't have consistently reliable options in 2011. That has to change this year, and it starts with a productive spring. Ace Sanders should get more reps, and the coaches are excited about the big-play ability that speedster Damiere Byrd possesses. Also, keep an eye out for Shamier Jeffery, Alshon's little brother.
Connor Shaw's development: Things couldn't have ended any better for South Carolina's quarterback last season. After an up-and-down start, he rebounded in the final three games with 896 combined yards passing and rushing and 11 touchdowns. Now, it's time for him to sharpen his passing skills and develop more confidence in his passing ability. Accomplishing that will help his receivers as well.
Spring practice start date: March 26
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
New coaching feel: The Vols enter spring practice with some new faces on the coaching staff. Six new assistant coaches will make their spring debuts this year. The most important might be defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and running backs coach Jay Graham. Sunseri is working to make Tennessee more multiple in its approach, adding more 3-4 looks, while Graham will have to fix a struggling running game. Tennessee players will need to adjust to new coaching styles and buy in quickly this spring.
Running backs: No group at Tennessee struggled quite like Tennessee's running backs last fall. The Vols were ranked 116th nationally in rushing offense and recorded just 11 rushing touchdowns (nine from running backs). Tauren Poole is gone, which means Graham will first turn to Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal, who combined for just 414 yards and four touchdowns last year. Devrin Young and Tom Smith will have to step up, while Tennessee will get some use out of early enrollee Alden Hill.
Justin Hunter's health: Losing Hunter was the first of a few blows Tennessee's offense took last year. He's arguably Tennessee's best receiver and one of the best deep threats in this league. He suffered his ACL injury at the beginning of the season, and he's reportedly ahead of schedule but won't take any contact this spring. The goal is to have him running and cutting well at the end of the spring.
Spring practice start date: March 16
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
Jordan Rodgers' confidence: He enters spring as the quarterback for the Commodores, but he has to improve the mental part of his game. He let it get the best of him at times last year, especially in last season's bowl game. He can lose his rhythm quickly at times. He needs to work on improving his confidence and take more command of Vandy's huddle this spring. He has the skill to be a top quarterback in this league, but his head has to follow.
Warren Norman's health: A knee injury forced the running back to redshirt last year, but the good news is that he spent the fall strengthening his leg by participating in each practice. The hope is that he'll be ready to go this spring, but you'd imagine that since this is his second knee injury, the coaches won't push him too much. Getting him to sprint and cut with ease will be important to his rehab this spring.
Keeping the edge: James Franklin's first year as a head coach was a success, but it's important that the attitude and personality that made Vanderbilt so confident last year roll over to the spring. The loss in the bowl game might have stunted that personality growth a bit, but it's important that the Commodores get it back. It will go a long way toward keeping the progress going.
Coach Joker Phillips and his staff signed 26 players, including two four-star prospects in athlete Patrick Towles (Fort Thomas, Ky./Highlands) and outside linebacker Khalid Henderson (Austell, Ga./Pebblebrook).
The versatile Towles is probably the biggest signee in this class and should compete with Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton for playing time at quarterback when he gets on campus.
You can view Kentucky's entire 2012 signing class here and you can check out Phillips' signing day news conference at 3 p.m. ET here.
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.
4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.
5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.
6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.
7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.
8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.
9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.
11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.
13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.
14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.
The offense didn't take a step forward: Even though quarterback John Brantley appeared better suited for Charlie Weis' pro-style offense, the Gators didn't look much better after last year's ugly offensive output. Things looked better during the first four weeks, but the more SEC defenses the Gators saw, the worse they got. A complete turnaround wasn't expected, but improvement was and Florida just didn't have it.
Weis leaving for Kansas: Staying with the offensive theme, Florida received quite the surprise when Weis left Florida to take over as Kansas' head coach. People around the program were pretty surprised when they received the news, but it seemed especially odd considering how outspoken he was about staying at Florida for the long haul.
Jarvis Jones: Anyone unfamiliar with Jones' situation would have never guessed that Jones didn't play a down of football last year. After sitting out 2010 because of transfer rules, the USC transfer linebacker was an absolute beast in his first season of SEC football. Jones was named an All-American after leading the SEC in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (13.5).
Georgia's resolve: The Bulldogs had recently been marred by seasons of under performing, but after a 0-2 start Georgia pulled off 10 straight wins and made it back to the SEC title game for the first time since 2005. Not a lot of people outside of that locker room thought Georgia would dig itself out of its early hole, but the Bulldogs did and found a way to have a very successful season.
Morgan Newton: Remember when it appeared as though Newton was primed for a solid career after a successful freshman season? It seems so long ago, now, especially after such a poor 2011 season. Newton never looked very sharp all year, and after a late-season ankle injury he lost his starting job to freshman Maxwell Smith. Newton finished the season with 793 passing yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Kentucky beat Tennessee: For all of the Wildcats' offensive struggles, they found a way to finally beat Tennessee after 26 straight years of losing to the Vols. The win not only stopped a lot of suffering for the Wildcats, but it eliminated Tennessee from bowl contention.
Surviving without Marcus Lattimore: The moment the news hit that Lattimore, South Carolina's most consistent offensive weapon, was lost for the season with a knee injury, most felt the Gamecocks' season was doomed. But the Gamecocks stayed on course. South Carolina lost just one game after and finished the regular season with 10 wins for only the second time in school history.
Brandon Wilds: When Lattimore went down against Mississippi State, Wilds was thrust into the starting spot. For someone who started the season as the fifth-string running back and a redshirt candidate, Wilds did a heck of a job. He averaged 82.2 yards in South Carolina's final five games and eclipsed 100 yards three times during that span.
A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt: It's not every day that a team has a standout true freshman at linebacker. Well, Tennessee had two of them. Both were named to the SEC All-Freshman team after combing for 136 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. The season was pretty rough, but these two were major bright spots.
Tennessee's collapse in the finale: All the Vols had to do was beat Kentucky and a season full of injuries and agony would have been saved by a bowl berth. But Tennessee fell flat against a Kentucky team that was eliminated from a bowl berth the week before. Tennessee turned the ball over three times and couldn't muster more than seven points, snapping a 26-year win streak over the Wildcats.
Vandy's attitude: James Franklin promised things would be different and they were for the Commodores. The defense was aggressive, the offense was exciting and the Commodores didn't back down from anyone. There were postgame outbursts from Franklin and teams learned early on that this wasn't the same Nashville pushover.
Zac Stacy/Vandy's defense: Stacy started as a relative unknown, but finished the season third in the SEC in rushing with 1,136 yards and was second with 13 touchdowns. He had five 100-plus-yard games, averaging 162.8 yards in each. As for the defense, it had to replace three starting linebackers, but finished the year sixth in the SEC in total defense.
One of our top teams lost over the weekend, but no way we're making a change after that defensive slug fest. But one team has cemented itself in the third spot:
1. LSU (9-0, 6-0): The Tigers were the survivors of "The Game" and should now officially be No. 1 on everyone's list. LSU's defense was absolutely ferocious against Alabama over the weekend. The speed that the Tigers have on defense is almost unmatched. Some will say that LSU's offense was hard to look at, but that's only because LSU had to deal with an equally tough sledgehammer on the other side of the ball. The bottom line is that LSU runs a near-perfect game plan each week. Coach Les Miles just finds ways to win and that's exactly what LSU did against a team that could have easily been slotted at No. 1 entering Saturday.
2. Alabama (8-1, 5-1): If not for an awful kicking game, Alabama might be No. 1 here. The Crimson Tide made mistakes we didn't think Alabama was capable of making against LSU. There will be a lot of second-guessing around Alabama's program after some questionable calls Saturday. But don't think this counts Alabama out of achieving its goals. There's a slight chance the Tide could end up in the SEC title game and even the national championship. As long as Alabama takes care of its own business and gets some help, everything can still be achieved by this team.
3. Arkansas (8-1, 4-1): While most of college football's eyes were on Tuscaloosa, Ala., Arkansas was busy taking care of things in Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks had struggled with slow starts, but scored first for the first time since the Troy game Saturday before defeating South Carolina 44-28. The win over the ninth-ranked Gamecocks was as complete a win as Arkansas has had this season. There was some bend in the defense, but when the Hogs needed a stop it was made, and when they needed the ball back, the got it ... four times. Arkansas is right back in the SEC West race and is clearly in the third slot in the SEC.
4. Georgia (7-2, 5-1): From left for dead to at the top of the East, Georgia finally controls its own destiny to Atlanta. Georgia put up 63 points over the weekend, scoring 42 in the second quarter, without three of its running backs. It was against New Mexico State, but in a game where the Bulldogs could have played down to their competition, Georgia came out hot. Now, a win over Auburn this coming weekend all but locks up the East for the Bulldogs.
5. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2): At the beginning of the year, South Carolina was the overwhelming favorite to win the East, but now the Gamecocks are on the outside looking in. South Carolina must beat Florida and hope for another conference loss by Georgia if the Gamecocks want to get back to the Georgia Dome. It's been an up-and-down season for South Carolina, and even when the offense finally found ways to get into the end zone against Arkansas, the defense broke down. If the Gamecocks don't make it to the title game, they'll look back at a handful of chances that got away from them this season.
6. Auburn (6-3, 4-2): The Tigers were off this week, but Auburn has a chance to play spoiler for Georgia this weekend. That extra time should make for a much more refreshed Auburn team. We've seen the growing pains that the Tigers have struggled through this season, but we've also seen great resiliency from this team. For such a young team, the Tigers have played like vets out there at times and that's why Auburn has six wins after losing a slew of talent from last year's national championship team. The future looks bright on the Plains.
7. Florida (5-4, 3-4): It looks like all Florida needed was to get out of the month of October and get back home. After dropping all four October games, the Gators pulled a close one out against Vanderbilt at home, but they still have major issues on both sides of the ball. The win had to instill some confidence back in this team, but now might be the time for the Gators to just let loose. Having that nothing-to-lose attitude might be what this team needs to end the regular season on a high note. Florida is a win away from being bowl eligible, but losses to South Carolina and Florida State will make Will Muschamp's first year hard to look at.
8. Mississippi State (5-4, 1-4): The Bulldogs have now won two games in a row for the first time all season. This certainly isn't the season those in Starkville, Miss., envisioned, but that struggling offense that plagued this team for most of the season was shelved over the weekend. Against Tennessee-Martin, the Bulldogs got 570 yards of offense. It wasn't against an SEC team, but coach Dan Mullen had to feel much better about Saturday's performance. Mississippi State is still a win away from being bowl eligible. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Alabama and Arkansas are next on the list.
9. Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-5): Coach James Franklin keeps telling us that this isn't the same old Vanderbilt, and he's right. However, this team still finds ways to come up short in the big games. The Commodores have lost their last three conference games by a combined 13 points and might have gotten their first win in Gainesville, Fla., since 1945 if not for Jordan Reed's clutch catch on Vanderbilt's onside kick late in the fourth. But before that, silly penalties and miscues on offense hurt the Dores in the first half. The energy, confidence and play is certainly different for this program, but the outcomes against conference opponents remains the same.
10. Tennessee (4-5, 0-5): True freshman Justin Worley made his second start of the season over the weekend and guided the Vols to a 24-0 win over Middle Tennessee, completing 23 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown. The win means Tennessee is two wins away from becoming bowl eligible, but it won't be easy for the Vols to get to that number. The youth of this team has to keep from wearing down this late in the season in order for the Vols to get to six wins. Tennessee has to travel to Arkansas this week and finishes the season against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. We'll learn just how much fight is left in this team from here on out.
11. Kentucky (4-5, 1-4): The Wildcats got their first conference win and looked dominant in the process. Kentucky blew out Ole Miss 30-13 over the weekend. Maxwell Smith took over the quarterbacking duties and had quite the day against the Rebels' defense. It looked like this would be the year that the bowl streak would end for the Wildcats, but Kentucky can't be counted out just yet. There also might be a little controversy brewing in Lexington, Ky., after Smith's performance while Morgan Newton was out. It might be time for coach Joker Phillips to take a hard look at his quarterback situation.
12. Ole Miss (2-7, 0-6): Things can't get much worse for the Rebels this year. This was supposed to be a season of improvement for Ole Miss and it looks as if reaching last year's four-win mark could be a stretch, with LSU and Mississippi State still on the schedule. If Houston Nutt wasn't close to being pushed out of the door before Saturday, he might have at least one foot out after losing by nearly 20 to a Kentucky team that had topped the 30-point mark just once before the weekend. Things are not getting better in Oxford, Miss., and changes in the near future would be far from surprising.
The SEC has four teams in the top 10 of the latest BCS standings. This week's SEC Power Rankings have a similar look at the top:
1. LSU (8-0, 5-0): Approaching midnight Saturday, we won’t have to choose anymore between Alabama and LSU. We’ll know who’s better. Until that time, the Tigers stay on top based on their five wins over nationally ranked foes and the way they’ve rolled through the opposition regardless of how many key players they were missing.
2. Alabama (8-0, 5-0): The Crimson Tide are an early favorite in the game, which isn’t surprising given that the game is being played in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has been equally impressive this season. It has won all five of its SEC games by at least 24 points and is ranked nationally at the top or near the top in just about every defensive category.
3. Arkansas (7-1, 3-1): There was a time when finishing the game was a problem for the Hogs. Now, it’s figuring out how to start the game. Once again, they recovered from a poor start to rally and beat Vanderbilt on the road last week. It’s probably going to take a more complete game to beat South Carolina, which is playing lights out on defense right now.
4. South Carolina (7-1, 5-1): The Gamecocks are winning ugly, and it’s obvious that’s not Steve Spurrier’s style. But he likes winning too much to complain too loudly. There’s nothing ugly about the way their defense has been playing. They’ve gone five straight games now without allowing the opposition to score more than 16 points.
5. Georgia (6-2, 5-1): It’s hard to believe the Bulldogs are sitting where they are after seeing them start the season 0-2 and all the grumbling going on around the program at that time. But they’ve won six straight games and really showed their mettle, particularly defensively, in being able to claw back into the East race.
6. Auburn (6-3, 4-2): The Tigers take this week off and can use the break after playing nine straight weeks. It’s the longest any team in the SEC went before getting a bye. Quarterback Clint Moseley played much better in his second start last week, and the collection of younger players the Tigers are playing are starting to come into their own. This is a team that could still win eight or more games.
7. Florida (4-4, 2-4): The Gators are glad just to get out of October after losing all four games they played during the month. It was a killer schedule, for sure, but they’re struggling to find any kind of consistency or rhythm on offense. Senior quarterback John Brantley returned against Georgia and showed a lot of courage in playing on a gimpy ankle. The Gators are going to need to keep him healthy if they’re going to finish with a winning record.
8. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4): First-year coach James Franklin isn’t into moral victories, but it’s pretty clear the Commodores, to quote their coach, aren’t going to sit back and take it anymore. They just missed again last week against Arkansas and are starting to improve on offense. They need to find two more wins in these last four games to qualify for a bowl.
9. Mississippi State (4-4, 1-4): Nothing has come easy for the Bulldogs this season, and outside the opener against Memphis, they haven’t looked like the team everybody thought they would be when the season began. They shouldn’t have any problem this week against UT Martin, but then they close the season against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
10. Tennessee (3-5, 0-5): The Vols are mired in one of the worst stretches in their program’s history. They have lost four straight games, the second straight season they’ve had a four-game skid, and have gone two straight games without scoring a touchdown. They need to get busy if they’re going to make a bowl game. Losing quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter was a killer for this team.
11. Kentucky (3-5, 0-4): The Wildcats showed a pulse against Mississippi State last week in a tough loss and might have found a new quarterback. Coach Joker Phillips said junior Morgan Newton and freshman Maxwell Smith will compete for the starting job this week. Smith came in and played well last week after Newton banged up his shoulder and ankle.
12. Ole Miss (2-6, 0-5): The Rebels lay claim to the bottom spot based on their 11 straight SEC losses going back to last season. That said, they haven’t quit fighting and were right there against both Auburn and Arkansas in the first half each of the past two weeks, but simply couldn’t finish the deal. They get a chance to move out of the cellar this week if they can beat Kentucky in Lexington and end their league drought.
The Bulldogs went into halftime with a 21-6 lead over Kentucky, and after a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Russell to Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State is up 28-9.
Russell has looked like a new quarterback, passing for 169 yards and a touchdown, while Chris Relf has done well when he's been in. He has 92 yards passing and a touchdown and also has two rushing touchdowns.
After the third quarter, Mississippi State has 357 offensive yards. The only real issue Mississippi State has had is turning the ball over. Mississippi State has three in this game.
But the inept offense we watched for weeks hasn't shown up tonight for the Bulldogs.
The Wildcats are struggling to move the ball against this Mississippi State defense and have Maxwell Smith in at quarterback for Morgan Newton. Smith has looked pretty good at times, but the Bulldogs haven't given him many opportunities to make a lot of plays.