NCF Nation: Ryan Mallett

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It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
Troy AikmanUSA TODAY SportsTroy Aikman played under Barry Switzer in Oklahoma before enrolling at UCLA.
Have you logged on Twitter today? Turned on the TV? Went to the grocery store or picked up your child from the babysitter? Then chances are you know the King has returned.

LeBron James is going back to Cleveland.



That has us at CFB Nation thinking: Which college football players originally left home only to transfer back to put together a successful career? So we racked our brains and came up with a handful of the most successful transfers from the last 25 years of college football. The condition, obviously, is the transfer had to be made back to a school in their native state or at least within 100 miles, give or take a few.

If LeBron ever asks, they can all attest that there truly is no place like (playing at) home.

QB Troy Aikman, UCLA (by way of Oklahoma)

The California native left the Golden State and played his high school football in Oklahoma before enrolling with nearby perennial power Oklahoma, led by legendary coach Barry Switzer. Aikman was promised the Sooners' offense would be more passer-friendly, but when Aikman broke an ankle Switzer went back to the wishbone offense. The Sooners went on to win the national championship under the direction of a freshman quarterback, essentially closing the door on Aikman's Oklahoma career. The Covina, California, product returned to the state and enrolled at UCLA. In his first season with the Bruins, Aikman was awarded with the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. He led UCLA to consecutive 10-win seasons and finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1988. He was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1989 draft and is a three-time Super Bowl champion.

 Joe FlaccoMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco transferred to Delaware to play near his hometown in southern New Jersey.
QB Joe Flacco, Delaware (by way of Pittsburgh)

Technically Flacco did not return to his home state of New Jersey. However, Delaware's campus is less than an hour from Flacco's South Jersey home, making it a closer option than in-state Rutgers, the only FBS program in the state. Flacco played sparingly his first two seasons at Pitt before transferring to FCS powerhouse Delaware. He took the Blue Hens to the FCS national championship and his name is littered throughout the school's record book. He was taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft and has a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP award in his trophy room.

QB Scott Frost, Nebraska (by way of Stanford)

Rarely does an elite prep player from Nebraska leave the state, especially during the Cornhuskers' glory years under Tom Osborne. That's what Frost did, though, spending two seasons at Stanford before returning to the nation's heartland. In his first season, he was named the Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year. As a senior, he led Nebraska to an undefeated record and a share of the national championship. He was the first quarterback in school history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (by way of Michigan)

The second-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2007, Mallett signed with then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr as the heir apparent to senior Chad Henne. However, spread-option coach Rich Rodriguez replaced Carr at season's end, prompting the traditional pocket passer Mallett to transfer. The Batesville, Arkansas, native moved home to play for the Razorbacks and Bobby Petrino, and he had two exceptional seasons. A two-time All-SEC second-team selection, Mallett threw for more than 3,600 yards in both of his seasons in Fayetteville and led the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in 2010. He finished seventh in Heisman voting that season.

WR Randy Moss, Marshall (by way of Notre Dame and Florida State)

Transferring was not entirely up to Moss, whose own transgressions cost him the opportunity to play at his dream school, Notre Dame, and under coach Bobby Bowden, who told Sports Illustrated in 1997 Moss was just as gifted as Deion Sanders. Notre Dame denied his enrollment for his role in a fight, and Florida State removed him from the football team after he tested positive for marijuana, violating his probation. Moss transferred to Marshall, which at the time was a Division I-AA school, allowing him to play immediately. In two seasons, he accumulated 174 receptions, 3,529 yards and 55 total touchdowns. He was taken in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft and is considered one of the greatest receivers in league history.

Cameron NewtonChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesGeorgia native Cam Newton won a Heisman Trophy after transferring to Auburn.
QB Cam Newton, Auburn (by way of Florida and Blinn College)

Much like Moss, Newton's transfer issues were self-inflicted. Urban Meyer removed Newton from the Gators' roster following charges of felony burglary, larceny and obstructing justice stemming from an incident in which he stole another student's laptop. He enrolled at Blinn College (Texas) and led the program to the junior college national championship. The following season, Newton was the starting quarterback at Auburn and won a second consecutive personal national title, leading the Tigers to an undefeated season and BCS trophy. He won the Heisman Trophy in the weeks leading up to the BCS national championship. He declared for the NFL draft in the days following the national title and went No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers. He was the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year and is a two-time Pro Bowler.

Honorable mention: Urban Meyer, Ohio State (by way of Bowling Green, Utah and Florida)

So he isn't a player and technically never transferred, but it certainly has a transfer feel to it. He left Florida after the 2010 season, sat out 2011 and then was named Ohio State's coach before the 2012 campaign. An Ohio native, Meyer's first college coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. Even as the coach at other programs, he always spoke fondly of former coaches Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce, who hired Meyer away from a Cincinnati high school.

 

This week ESPN.com spent time looking at the future of college football, so here are a few players returning home -- not all are eligible in 2014 -- who could be the next impact transfers.

QB Jacob Coker, Alabama (by way of Florida State)

Coker is immediately eligible and is the favorite to be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback for the opener. He left Florida State after the 2013 season after losing out on the job to Jameis Winston.

QB Brandon Connette, Fresno State (by way of Duke)

The change-of-pace and red zone quarterback for the Blue Devils' run to the ACC championship, Connette left for Fresno State to be closer to his ailing mother.

QB Tyler Murphy, Boston College (by way of Florida)

Murphy is from Connecticut, but there aren't many FBS programs up in New England, and Boston is only 100 miles from Murphy's hometown. The BC coaches believe Murphy is a better player than he showed at Florida and can help Steve Addazio take the program to the next level.

LB Mike Mitchell, Texas Tech (by way of Ohio State)

A blue-chip prospect in the 2013 class, Ohio State was considered the long-time favorite for the athletic product. He signed with the Buckeyes but only lasted one season before transferring to Texas Tech, which was not a finalist during Mitchell's recruitment.

DT Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA (by way of Notre Dame)

This situation got a little ugly last summer. Vanderdoes was the center of a signing day controversy as Notre Dame listed him on their list of signees before Vanderdoes publicly committed at his announcement later in the day. Before ever playing a down for Notre Dame, Vanderdoes decided he wanted to enroll at UCLA, but Notre Dame would not grant him a release. He petitioned the NCAA and was able to play at UCLA this past fall.
As a former star pitcher in his hometown of Greenwood, Ark., Tyler Wilson understands the importance of finishing what you started.

His sport of choice these days is football, and Wilson is more determined than ever to make his final season as Arkansas’ quarterback one they’ll remember in the Ozarks for a long time to come.

It’s not a season that will be measured in touchdown passes or passing yards, either.

It’s a season that will be measured in wins, and more precisely, in whether the Hogs can finally get over the hump in the Western Division and play for an SEC championship.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireTyler Wilson passed up NFL dollars for one more shot at an SEC title.
That quest begins in earnest on Wednesday, when Arkansas opens spring practice, and Wilson says with conviction that unfinished business is the primary reason he’s back for his senior season.

“This run the last couple of years where we’ve given our fans a lot to cheer about excites me,” said Wilson, who led the SEC with 3,638 passing yards last season. “But I’m even more excited to finish it up strong and leave my stamp on the program and get it to where it needs to be and where it needs to stay going forward into the future.”

Wilson sought feedback from the NFL draft advisory committee following last season and seriously considered turning pro. Some analysts have said that he could have gone in the second or third round.

“There definitely was some contemplation, probably more so than I ever thought there would be,” Wilson said. “But we have a great team, and I think, the right chemistry, to go beyond even what we did last year. That’s what I kept coming back to when I was making my decision.”

Wilson, in his first year as the starter last season, became the first Arkansas quarterback to earn first-team All-SEC honors. He led the league in passing yards, total offense, passing efficiency and completions.

What’s more, he did it without star running back Knile Davis, who missed the entire season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason.

Davis is scheduled to return for the 2012 season, and if healthy, will no doubt put a charge back into the Hogs’ running game.

Wilson is losing three of his top receivers, including a pair of All-SEC selections in Jarius Wright and Joe Adams.

But senior receiver Cobi Hamilton is back along with senior tight end Chris Gragg, and Wilson warned not to sleep on some of the Hogs’ other receivers who simply haven’t had much of a chance to play the past couple of years because they were behind Greg Childs, Wright and Adams.

“People mention the young guys, but some of these guys have been around,” Wilson said. “It’s just that they’re stepping into bigger roles now and have been there behind Joe Adams and Jarius Wright and Greg Childs and are super talented as well and finally getting their opportunity.

“It’s their time now, and I’m excited about what I’ve seen. There’s always a curve there when you go from being a backup to a starter, but they’re ready to make their mark. You have Marquel Wade, Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. They’re all big-time players. It just goes down the line. There are a lot of players who’ve been overshadowed, and I’m extremely exited to get them the ball and let them make plays for us.”

Wilson already owns nine school records. He and his predecessor, Ryan Mallett, are the only two Arkansas quarterbacks in school history to put together 3,000-yard passing seasons.

Not only that, but in 2011 Wilson led the Hogs to their first 11-win season since 1977, and they finished No. 5 in the polls.

The resurgence of the program under Bobby Petrino has electrified the entire state.

Nonetheless, the Hogs haven’t been able to break through and play in the SEC championship game and are just 1-5 against Alabama and LSU the past three seasons.

“Coach Petrino has used the term a number of times, but you just have to keep beating on the door, and one day, that door’s going to fall in,” Wilson said. “That’s the attitude I’ve taken and one our team needs to adopt.

“We just have to be there year in and year out establishing ourselves, and we’ll get the respect we need. Obviously, we have to win the big games, and once we do that, we’ll be where we need to be. I think we’re really close.”

Wilson is also quick to note that Arkansas gets both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville in 2012.

“That’s another positive and sets us up on the path to be where we want to be at the end of the year,” he said.

Having been exposed to just about every defensive look imaginable in his first season as the starter, Wilson wants to use this offseason to become an even better student of the game.

In his mind, that’s where he can best help his team and go from an All-SEC quarterback to a quarterback who leads his team to a championship.

“You’re a year ahead of where you were last year and there are a lot of things you understand, but there’s a constant learning curve for any quarterback,” said Wilson, who threw just six interceptions in 438 passing attempts last season.

“My ability to execute the running game increased tremendously in the month that I had to prepare for the bowl game. If I can expand on that knowledge in the run game and on how to get our offense in a better position as far as the looks the defense is giving us and get us into a positive play when a negative play is called ... that’s the next step for me.

“We’ve got to eliminate the negative plays on first and second down, and a lot of that is on the quarterback and making sure we’re running the right plays against the right looks.”
It’s OK. We can all admit it: We didn’t expect too many snaps for Arkansas quarterback Brandon Mitchell this fall.

Tyler Wilson was the heir to the Ryan Mallett throne and we all assumed he’d be the starter from the beginning. Yes, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino talked a good game about there being a competition between the two during the spring and preseason camp, but we took it as coach-speak and just waited for Wilson to take the overwhelming majority of the snaps for the Hogs to start the year.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mitchell
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireIs Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell the answer for NC State at QB? We won't know until game day.
Well, Wilson was the starter in the first two games and he has taken the majority of snaps, but it might benefit Arkansas to get Mitchell out on the field even more going forward.

For starters, Wilson isn’t invincible and he proved as much when he left Saturday’s blowout win over New Mexico with concussion-like symptoms. Wilson said he was fine earlier this week and shouldn’t miss Arkansas’ game against Troy Saturday, but anytime you're dealing with a concussion there is some concern.

“I feel fine, really,” Wilson said. “I’m feeling good, had a good day-and-a-half worth of rest so I’m feeling fine and ready to go back and prepare for Troy this week. I really felt fine the whole time even after the touchdown run. I got up fine, celebrated, and was fine going into the locker room. We started kind of going over some stuff during halftime. You get your bell rung sometimes in football. I think that might have been more what happened. Precautionary wise, we just took that approach and I sat out the second half.”

With Wilson sitting out the second half, Mitchell came in and impressed for the second straight week. In the opener, Mitchell was 10-of-11 passing for 104 yards and a touchdown. Against the Lobos, we saw more of what Mitchell can do with his feet as he carried the ball five times for 59 yards and a score. He also threw for 114 yards and a touchdown.

“I thought he did a great job,” Wilson said of Mitchell’s performance last weekend. “Obviously there were a couple of plays there where he had some good runs, he had a pull read late in the game where he ran it in for a touchdown, and made some good throws too. I think he did a great job, and he’s doing a good job.”

Arkansas isn’t short of offensive talent by any means, but having Mitchell on the field adds a dual-threat weapon that helps the Hogs, especially with a running game that is without starter Knile Davis for the season.

The Hogs are averaging 180.5 rushing yards per game, but leading rusher Ronnie Wingo Jr. has just 116 yards on the season. Granted, veteran Dennis Johnson has yet to play, but Arkansas would get a little more variety in the running game with Mitchell getting more snaps.

Arkansas doesn’t have to bring him in on every series, but putting him out there every once in a while will force defenses to think more and change up their plans of attack.

Wilson is obviously more of a passer than a rusher, but with Wilson you don’t know if he’ll throw or run (he’s completed 75 percent of his passes this year). Keeping defenses and defensive coordinators guessing is always a nice advantage for teams. And, hey, line both up in the same formation and you might watch coaches’ heads spin.

Wilson would -- and should -- continue to get the majority of the snaps, but Mitchell would be a nice change-of-pace quarterback for an Arkansas team getting ready for the SEC season. Why not inject another weapon for opposing teams to worry about each week?

SEC power rankings: Week 3

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
9:22
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» Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Another week means more movement in our power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers (2-0) have shown that you don't need a powerful offense to succeed. It's all about defense for LSU and that defense has been very good for the Bayou Bengals. After shutting down Oregon in Cowboys Stadium, LSU sported the purple jerseys in its home opener and totally dismantled an over-matched Northwestern State team, allowing just 95 total yards of offense. Moving the ball against this group looks like it will be a tall order for any team this fall.

2. Alabama: The Tide (2-0) isn't flashy on offense by any means, but this team manages the game well and is efficient. AJ McCarron seems to have cemented himself as the starter in Tuscaloosa after an impressive day in Happy Valley over the weekend. Help will eventually be on the way on offense, once receiver Duron Carter is cleared to play. He should provide a much-needed deep threat to the offense. Like LSU, consistently moving the ball on this defense is beyond hard.

3. Arkansas: This team has quietly put up a ton of points in its first two games. The Razorbacks (2-0) have outscored their opponents 103-10. Granted, Arkansas isn't playing top-level talent, but we can see that this offense can still move the ball, despite losing Ryan Mallett to the NFL draft and Knile Davis to a knee injury. It will be interesting to watch how injuries in Week 2 affect the Hogs. Quarterback Tyler Wilson left the game with concussion-like symptoms, receiver Jarius Wright suffered a strained knee, and defensive end Jake Bequette injured his hamstring. Arkansas won't need them against Troy this weekend, but they'll need to be healthy for the trip to Alabama to close the month.

4. South Carolina: The defense hasn't been pretty, but it made the necessary plays to squeak by Georgia in Athens on Saturday. South Carolina (2-0) has really been pushed in the first two weeks, but the Gamecocks have showed resiliency. They aren't winning the way they'd like to, but the Gamecocks are undefeated and have the early lead in the SEC East. Teams know Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are going to be heavily targeted and both are still making plays.

5. Florida: We still don't really know what to expect from the Gators (2-0). Florida's defense has looked faster and much more aggressive under new head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, but Florida hasn't faced SEC-quality opponents. This week, the Gators will as Tennessee comes to town with its high-flying offense. Chris Rainey has been the star on offense and John Brantley isn't making a lot of mistakes, but the playbook will have to open up as the Gators get ready for the conference season.

6. Auburn: This team just doesn't know how to lose. Auburn (2-0) has won a nation-leading 17 straight games -- 10 by eight points or fewer. The Tigers kept that winning streak intact after a back-and-forth slugfest with Mississippi State Saturday. The defense still has a lot of question marks, but when a play had to be made, the Tigers did it. The offense isn't too exciting, but plays were made at critical times and Michael Dyer looked like his running legs were back as he made the Bulldogs' defense look silly. Will taking it down to the wire eventually catch up with these cats?

7. Tennessee: Well, we know the Volunteers (2-0) will keep the scoreboard lights on. Quarterback Tyler Bray has looked like the league's best quarterback through the first two weeks, passing for 678 yards and seven touchdowns. Receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter have made things easy for Bray, combining for 31 catches for 502 yards and five touchdowns. The Vols' offense will get a major test in Gainesville this weekend, where the winner will become top contender to challenge South Carolina for the division.

8. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (1-1) came into the season as a trendy dark horse pick in the West, but left the weekend with yet another loss to the West under Dan Mullen. Mississippi State's defense showed it misses defense coordinator Manny Diaz and its three starting linebackers from last year as Auburn carved up the defense for 235 rushing yards. Chris Relf was most of the offense for the Bulldogs Saturday, until running back Vick Ballard finally got things going late, but Mississippi State needs much more from its receiving corps.

9. Georgia: This group of Bulldogs (0-2) has had a rough start to the season, but things get a little lighter from here on out. After losing a tough one in the Georgia Dome to Boise State, Georgia dropped a heart-breaker to South Carolina at home. Fans are no doubt growing more impatient, but the Bulldogs aren't out of the East race by any means. It will be a fight to get ahead now, but the season is far from over. It's all about staying together and making sure the Bulldogs are mentally ready for the rest of the season.

10. Vanderbilt: Getting that win over Connecticut Saturday was huge. The confidence is through the roof in Nashville and the Commodores (2-0) have a two-game winning streak for the first time since 2008. New coach James Franklin injected some swagger into this Commodores team and it showed when Vandy was down 21-14 in the fourth and scored 10 unanswered points. This defense is flying around and has been much more aggressive under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

11. Ole Miss: The Rebels (1-1) got into the win column over the weekend, but the offense still has a ton of question marks around it. Jeff Scott showed that he is a solid option at running back with Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis out with injuries, but he looked like the only consistent weapon Ole Miss has on offense. The defense, which played very well against BYU in the first week, made things interesting against Southern Illinois by giving up 21 points in the second half.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats (2-0) might be undefeated, but the offense is still struggling, especially in the passing game. Morgan Newton has been a starter before, but he hasn't looked very comfortable out there on the field yet. He has just 211 yards passing, two touchdowns and four interceptions in two games this year. Someone needs to step up alongside La'Rod King in the receiving game to give Newton some help. Two bright spots have been a faster, more effective defense and the play of freshman running back Josh Clemons, who has 165 rushing yards and two scores this year.

SEC predictions: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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» Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Upset pick

We’re used to winning football in the SEC, and we’re also used to winning picks.

If I say so myself, my record last season was pretty spiffy. Come to think of it, my record the past few seasons has been pretty spiffy.

Counting the SEC championship game, I was 79-18 (.814) last year in the regular season.

I fully expect to top that 80 percent figure again this season, but I’m going to have some competition.

My SEC blogging colleague, Edward Aschoff, joins the fray this season, and we’ll both be picking games every week.

It’s sure to be a heated race. We’ve already decided that the loser gets to call up Nick Saban on the first day of spring practice next year and ask him to break down the Crimson Tide’s depth chart and then ask him to compare his best three teams as a head coach.

Anyway, good luck Edward. Second place in the best conference in college football isn’t so bad.

On to the picks:

THURSDAY

KENTUCKY vs. WESTERN KENTUCKY

Chris’ take: This game is being played in Nashville, Tenn., and the Music City has been pretty good to the Wildcats over the years. Morgan Newton has a big game in a Kentucky rout. … Kentucky 35, Western Kentucky 13

Edward’s take: Morgan Newton and the offense start the season off right, but look for that defense to be tested in the running game. ... Kentucky 31, Western Kentucky 21


MISSISSIPPI STATE at MEMPHIS

Chris’ take: Memphis can’t be as bad as the Tigers were last season, but this should be Dan Mullen’s best team since arriving in Starkville. … Mississippi State 41, Memphis 14

Edward’s take: The Bulldogs return some solid talent on offense and it will be on full display, as Mississippi State routs Memphis to start the year. ... Mississippi State 52, Memphis 14

SATURDAY

UTAH STATE at AUBURN

Chris’ take: Try telling the Auburn players that they’re not going to be a factor in the SEC championship race this season. This is one motivated bunch on the Plains. … Auburn 31, Utah State 10

Edward’s take: Without all of those offensive playmakers from a year ago, the Tigers will struggle early, but expect a second-half revival. ... Auburn 31, Utah State 17

KENT STATE at ALABAMA

Chris’ take: Who’s the Alabama starting quarterback? Is it AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims, and does it really matter who takes the first snap? … Alabama 42, Kent State 0

Edward’s take: Alabama is just happy to finally be back on the football field. It's been a long year in Tuscaloosa and the Tide should come out firing on all cylinders. ... Alabama 56, Kent State 7

FLORIDA ATLANTIC at FLORIDA

Chris’ take: Finally, we get a glimpse of what the Gators will look like under Will Muschamp, who’s kept everything under wraps to this point. … Florida 34, Florida Atlantic 7

Edward’s take: The Gators will be very vanilla in Muschamp's coaching debut, but the goal should be fueling John Brantley's confidence. ... Florida 42, Florida Atlantic 10

MISSOURI STATE at ARKANSAS

Chris’ take: The Hogs might win as many games with their defense this season as they do with their offense. But Tyler Wilson & Co. will still be plenty potent. … Arkansas 51, Missouri State 10

Edward’s take: This will be the first glimpse of life after Ryan Mallett and Knile Davis, but the Razorbacks have enough firepower on offense to still put points up. ... Arkansas 44, Missouri State 7

ELON at VANDERBILT

Chris’ take: First-year coach James Franklin doesn’t want to hear about what can’t be done at Vanderbilt. He’s only interested in what can be done. … Vanderbilt 28, Elon 10

Edward’s take: There is buzz and excitement around Vanderbilt's program for the first time in a while. The seven-game losing streak ends here. ... Vanderbilt 28, Elon 17

MONTANA at TENNESSEE

Chris’ take: The Vols will be one of the youngest teams in the country with 14 freshman or sophomore starters. They like flying under the radar this season in the East race. … Tennessee 35, Montana 14

Edward’s take: There is no doubt that Tennessee will be able to score on opponents and we'll see the Vols do it often Saturday. ... Tennessee 44, Montana 13

SOUTH CAROLINA vs. EAST CAROLINA

Chris’ take: The Head Ball Coach is set on playing two quarterbacks. After all the off-the-field news generated by Stephen Garcia in the offseason, Connor Shaw has been the better player in the preseason. … South Carolina 38, East Carolina 20

Edward’s take: We aren't sure who will take the brunt of the snaps at quarterback, but Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are still there, so that's good enough. ... South Carolina 42, East Carolina 17

BYU at OLE MISS

Chris’ take: The Rebels’ season went up in flames a year ago in the opener when they were upset by Jacksonville. The Rebels will be the ones doing the upsetting this season. … Ole Miss 27, BYU 21

Edward’s take: It's a new day in Oxford. There is a ton of youth across the board, and the Rebels are being overlooked. That's when Houston Nutt's teams can be dangerous. ... Ole Miss 24, BYU 20

BOISE STATE vs. GEORGIA

Chris’ take: Boise State has made a living winning these types of games and won’t be the least bit intimidated. The pressure’s on Georgia, but the Bulldogs know the stakes and will deliver a championship-caliber performance at a place (the Georgia Dome) they hope to return to in December. … Georgia 31, Boise State 27

Edward’s take: Boise State has been anxiously waiting a chance to play against the SEC again. Last time the Broncos tangled around these parts they were blown out by -- you guessed it -- Georgia. Things will be different this time around, with the national championship on the line inside the Georgia Dome. ... Boise State 31, Georgia 24

LSU vs. OREGON

Chris’ take: LSU will be without three starters on offense, and you’ve got to wonder how the emotion of the past two weeks will impact the Tigers. It hasn’t been easy wading through all the controversy, but this is a game they win because they’re fast, deep and nasty on defense. … LSU 28, Oregon 24

Edward's take: LSU will be without its starting quarterback and most explosive wide receiver, but this team will rely more on its defense, and it should be able to keep up with that blistering Oregon offense. The Tigers have too much speed and power along the defensive line and enough weapons on offense to get the job done. ... LSU 23, Oregon 18
We all know how strong the SEC is year in and year out, but could one side of the conference qualify as the greatest division of all time?

The question has been raised and ESPN insider Brad Edwards is wondering if this year's SEC West could be the strongest division not just in the nation but ever.

For now, his all-time leader is the 2008 Big 12 South, that featured "two of the top three, three of the top seven, and four of the top 13 teams in the final BCS standings." Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all finished the regular season at 11-1 and were 1-1 against each other.

Oh, and Oklahoma State's only regular-season losses came at the hands of, yep, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech.

So can the 2011 SEC West compete?

I think so.

The West features an Alabama team that will begin the year ranked No. 2 in the country and features a defense that might be the scariest in the country. Offensively, running back Trent Richardson is one of the best at his position and that veteran offensive line should keep its first-year starter pretty comfy in the pocket.

LSU has a young, but extremely athletic defense that will put tons of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and take passing threats away with budding stars Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has improved and big things are expected from receiving playmakers Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard. Not to mention running back Spencer Ware should have a big season.

Arkansas lost dynamic running back Knile Davis and is working with a young line, but few will find a better passing attack than Bobby Petrino's, which should be fun to watch with Tyler Wilson and his receiving foursome. The defense is also much better, making this team that much more deadly.

Then there's Mississippi State. The sexy dark horse pick of the bunch. The Bulldogs return a high-powered offense led by dual-threat quarterback Chris Relf and his band of talented receivers. Throw in running back Vick Ballard and the Bulldogs should be fun to watch.

Auburn and Ole Miss are dealing with handfuls of inexperienced players, but have the young talent to get better throughout the season, so they could surprise a few teams here and there.

Here is some of what Edwards wrote about the league:
Preseason expectations can be miles apart from end-of-season reality, but as of now, the SEC West appears to be facing some hefty competition on its 2011 schedule -- competition that could be much tougher than that faced by the Sooners, Red Raiders and Longhorns in 2008.

LSU plays the Oregon Ducks and West Virginia Mountaineers, Arkansas faces Texas A&M, and Alabama takes on Penn State -- all away from home. Auburn also travels to play the Clemson Tigers, and Ole Miss plays BYU. Tack on three teams from the SEC East (South Carolina, Georgia and Florida) that are preseason ranked, and there's little doubt that if the West teams finish with sparkling records this season, they will have earned them.
Our preview of the SEC season continues with more quarterback talk.

This is the awards portion of our preview, where we give the gunslingers in this league superlatives based on what we’ve seen and info collected from around the league.

There are still a handful of questions concerning the quarterbacks in this league, but there is also a wealth of potential.

So we don’t have to extend this intro any more, here are our SEC quarterback superlatives:

Biggest Arm: Zach Mettenberger, LSU. He might not be JaMarcus Russell sitting on his knees, chucking the ball 70 yards, but Mettenberger has a cannon for a right arm. When you watch video of Mettenberger, you can see that he has a quick release and some great velocity and zip on his passes. What’s really impressive is his consistency hitting receivers in stride on deep throws.

Best Runner: Randall Mackey, Ole Miss. Mackey arrived at Ole Miss with a ton of hype from his junior college days. Mackey is learning to be a pass-first quarterback, but he’s still dangerous with his legs and his elusiveness makes him very hard to contain inside and outside of the pocket. The former JUCO All-American rushed for 579 yards and five touchdowns in 2009.

Best First-year Starter: Tyler Wilson, Arkansas. The Wilson hype began when he replaced Ryan Mallett against Auburn last season and passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns. He might not have the arm Mallett possessed, but he’s every bit as talented and developed impressive leadership skills this spring. With Wilson at the helm, Bobby Petrino’s pass-friendly offense shouldn’t miss a beat.

Best Backup: A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims, Alabama. The one not named Alabama’s starter this fall earns this superlative. They are currently neck-and-neck in this race and both have shown they can guide one of the nation’s best teams, not only by their play but with their leadership skills. The youngsters are surprisingly mature, and either could start for a few teams in this league.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia quarterback Aaron Murray has embraced his role as a team leader.
Best Leader: Aaron Murray, Georgia. Murray made major strides this spring after his freshman season with the Bulldogs. Murray had impressive stats in his first season, but the Bulldogs were 6-7, so Murray took it upon himself to the leader for his team. With a few veteran leaders from last year gone, Murray immediately stepped up this spring and has become much more vocal with his teammates and plans to lead with not just his play, but his words.

Most Improved: Chris Relf, Mississippi State. Relf became one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch in the league last season. Relf went from 783 total yards in 2009 to 3,285 in 2010. For most of last season, Relf made his mark by barreling through defenders, but began to use his arm more, passing for 200 or more yards in the final three games of the season, a stretch in which the Bulldogs went 2-1.

Most Enigmatic: Stephen Garcia, South Carolina. Garcia received an unprecedented sixth chance from coach Steve Spurrier after an alcohol-related outburst at a mandatory leadership seminar event this spring. Garcia has found himself in a lot of trouble off the field since he arrived in Columbia, but keeps coming back. He has the chance to lead the Gamecocks to something special this fall, but people still wonder if he can stay out of trouble in order to do that.

Most to Prove: John Brantley, Florida. The senior arrived at Florida with a boatload of hype five years ago, but it was painful to watch him try to run the Gators’ spread offense last season. He isn’t a runner and was never cut out for the spread, but now that he’ll be directing Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense, Brantley has a chance to reinvent himself. Brantley has a big arm, but he has to develop confidence before he can make Florida’s offense go.

Most Valuable: Murray. He has the skills and intangibles to be the best quarterback in the league. He doesn’t have great height (he’s barely 6-foot-1), but he makes up for it with his composure in the pocket, solid arm strength and accuracy, and his leadership skills. He enhanced his game this spring by working on his footwork to deliver tighter, more accurate passes. If Murray goes down, Georgia goes from a team that could win the East, to a team that could struggle to make a bowl.
1. Ohio State overreacted by telling its players that they could not wear “JT” wristbands in honor of former coach Jim Tressel. The administration is understandably skittish about its upcoming NCAA hearing. But what rule could wearing those wristbands possibly break? Instead of providing the players a release for their understandable emotions regarding their former coach, the school’s heavy-handedness has taught the Buckeyes a lesson in how to make the trivial important.

2. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has yet to name a starter to replace the departed Ryan Mallett. But in case anyone had any doubt, the team announced last week that junior Tyler Wilson had been named offensive captain. Wilson took most of the snaps in the spring of 2010 when Mallett got hurt, and played in six games last season, including Auburn, when he played like a starter until he threw two fourth-quarter interceptions. Wilson will start, and will play as well as an inexperienced offensive line allows him.

3. The Big Ten, beginning in 2017, will move to the nine-game conference schedule already played by the Big 12 and Pac-12. How long will the ACC and the SEC hold out? A long time. With a plethora of nearby Sun Belt and Southern Conference teams happy to play on their campuses in exchange for a nice check, the incentive to toughen the schedule is minimized. That’s too bad for the sport. Maybe peer pressure will help.
The Razorbacks are ready for some football.

Offseason 7-on-7 workouts are over and the Hogs officially got things started by naming their captains for the upcoming season.

On the eve of fall camp, the team voted on captains, and coach Bobby Petrino released the names of the six captains Thursday -- junior running back Knile Davis, junior quarterback Tyler Wilson, senior wide receiver Jarius Wright, senior defensive end Jake Bequette, senior linebacker Jerry Franklin and senior safety/linebacker Jerico Nelson.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesTyler Wilson has quickly gained the respect of his teammates.
You probably read through that list and didn't stop, but upon further review, when you see "Tyler Wilson," your eyebrows have to rise a little.

For starters, if you're an Arkansas fan, it must feel pretty good to know that the players have that much faith and confidence in the first-year starter. Everyone who knows a lick about the SEC has heard -- or seen -- Wilson's breakout performance when he replaced Ryan Mallett against Auburn last season and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns. But there was still concern if he'd be able to sustain that type of play with all the pressure on him.

According to his teammates, he should.

"The thing about Tyler is he gets better every day," wide receiver Cobi Hamilton said Wednesday. "It's real funny to go out there and watch him because he gets better every day. You can tell by the vocal leadership and everything he does by his movements every day. I think he'll be all right and he'll have a great season.

"He's opened up a lot since Ryan left, and everybody sees that and everybody knows that he's going to the be the man this year. We're all behind Tyler, and we have his back."

The second thing you should take from this is that Petrino's not-so-well-kept secret is probably out -- that Wilson is Arkansas' starting quarterback.

Still, Petrino insists that Wilson is very much battling it out with sophomore Brandon Mitchell, but he sounds so close to handing the offense off to Wilson.

"Tyler has an opportunity to do a very, very good job for us," Petrino said. "He's been in the offense for four years now. He's done a good job when he's come in games. We all saw what he did in the Auburn game last year. But also the next week, when we had that marathon game with Ole Miss, the two lightning delays, Tyler came in and finished the game and converted some tough third downs and helped us win the ballgame. Been very impressed with the way he's prepared in the offseason, the leadership role that he's working to take over."

And Arkansas is looking to take over the SEC. The expectations are high for the Hogs and they expect to garner elite-level respect this season.

"I don't really want to say that anybody fears us, but I do think we are on the level with top-named schools now," Wright said. "When people see Arkansas they are going to game plan a lot and very smart against us."

2011 SEC media days final

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
1:28
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Today, we take one last look at the sights and sounds of SEC media days. There was so much information, yet so little time to really process it all. We at the SEC blog have come up with a few things that we learned from our time in Hoover, Ala., and what questions still remain in the nation's top college football conference.

What we learned:

1. Mike Slive pushes radical change: The SEC's commissioner has a résumé that few would question, but he raised some eyebrows and garnered mixed reviews in Hoover when he discussed his "agenda to stimulate a national discussion, an agenda for change." Slive talked about raising the academic entrance requirements for incoming freshmen and would like to offer cost-of-education scholarships and make scholarships four-year contracts, instead of the current one-year setup. Slive also wants coaches to be able to text recruits and contact them via social media, and he also promoted earlier official visits for recruits.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/Dave MartinSouth Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said "we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there."
2. Spurrier got his swag back: Steve Spurrier has always been confident and witty, but the swagger that he had while at Florida appeared to be back this year. After guiding South Carolina to its first SEC title game, Spurrier believes he has the best team he’s had during his tenure at South Carolina. “We feel like we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there,” he said. “But time will tell.” There is a lot of hype in Columbia, and Spurrier understands the Gamecocks are the team to beat in the East.

3. Gene Chizik isn’t budging on the NCAA investigation: No matter how many times (nine) the NCAA’s investigation was brought up with Chizik, he wasn’t budging. He discussed his testy interaction with NCAA enforcement director Julie Roe Lach at the SEC meetings in Destin, but when asked directly about Cam Newton and the NCAA’s continued investigation, he continued to say that no wrongdoing has been found with Auburn and that when his head hits his pillow each night, he still sleeps well.

4. Jordan Jefferson is a changed man: LSU’s senior quarterback has been one of the more criticized players during his time in the SEC. He was near the bottom of the league in passing numbers last season, but with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, Jefferson has more confidence and had his best spring at LSU. His teammates see tighter passes, better pocket presence and even better leadership from him. Jefferson was also reportedly very sharp at the Manning Passing Academy this summer.

5. Petrino embracing expectations more than ever: The Razorbacks return one of the country’s most high-powered offenses, but what could really make this team dangerous this fall is its defense. Petrino has made it very clear that he has the best defense he’s had during his time at Arkansas and he welcomes the lofty expectations that have come. Arkansas might have to replace Ryan Mallett at quarterback and have a young offensive line, but Petrino bled confidence in Hoover.

Remaining questions:

1. Will the SEC make it six titles in a row?: Yet again, the SEC is loaded with talent, but will that cost the SEC a shot at a sixth straight national championship trip and victory? Alabama, LSU and Arkansas all have what it takes to win multiple championships this fall, but the round-robin schedule could leave each team with multiple losses. However, a two-loss SEC team has made the title trip before. Then there's the East, where the faith is in South Carolina. The Gamecocks have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but can they keep up with one of those West teams in a return trip to Atlanta?

2. Will Auburn's drop-off be as steep as everyone thinks? The Tigers lost a slew of talent from its national championship team and there isn’t a lot of faith in Auburn this fall. Auburn returns just six starters. There is a lot of young talent at Auburn, but the inexperience has people severely overlooking the Tigers. “A lot of people in the media, they get misconstrued that being young is a lack of talent, and it’s not at Auburn,” defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We have a lot of talent, and come Sept. 3, we’re looking to show off that talent on stage.”

3. Can Georgia's offensive line survive this season?: It hasn't been a great offseason for the Bulldogs’ offensive line, which is an injury away from being a major soft spot in Athens. Despite a devastating injury to Trinton Sturdivant and some attrition, coach Mark Richt said he isn't worried about the players he has now -- as long as they stay healthy. "I think it's fine if we don't get anybody hurt," Richt said. "We actually had a pretty good lineup." Expect a lot of cross-training up front.

4. Can South Carolina deal with the hype?: The Gamecocks will enter the season as the overwhelming favorite in the East, but can South Carolina live up to the expectations? Last season, after defeating No. 1 Alabama, the Gamecocks were upset by Kentucky. And they were blown out in their first SEC championship game. The confidence is running high in Columbia and players think this is a closer team in 2011. "We're more experienced and more confident," receiver Alshon Jeffery said. "Going into this season, we're more together and just one. This year, we are more prepared.”

5. How will the QBs fair? There are still a lot of questions surrounding quarterback battles around the league. Alabama might have the best team in the league, but youngsters A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are still fighting for the No. 1 spot. Jefferson might have improved this spring, but will that translate to real games this fall? Can Stephen Garcia stay out of trouble this fall? Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith has instilled confidence in his head coach, but he’ll still have to battle a pair of freshmen quarterbacks during preseason camp. Ole Miss and Auburn have three competing at camp and John Brantley has a lot to prove after a rough junior season at Florida.
Mel Kiper, ESPN's NFL draft analyst extraordinaire, has released his first Big Board for the 2012 draft, and South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery is the top SEC player at No. 4 on the list.

Kiper's Big Board is a ranking of the top 25 draft-eligible players in college football based on value, and he updates it periodically all the way up to the draft.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
Mark Zerof/US PresswireAlshon Jeffery is coming off a huge sophomore season in which he had 88 catches for 1,517 yards.
Jeffery is coming off a monster sophomore season and will almost certainly come out early. He set single-season records last season for the Gamecocks with 88 catches for 1,517 yards and is also tied for the school record with Sidney Rice with 11 100-yard receiving games. As Kiper points out, the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Jeffery is a matchup nightmare for defenses and is a lot faster than you think.

The SEC had a total of five players on Kiper's Big Board, and the second player might surprise a few people. Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was No. 9. The NFL scouts love Kirkpatrick's size and range, even though he was a bit inconsistent at times last season.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson was No. 13, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore No. 19 and Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw No. 25.

Before it's over, I wouldn't be surprised to see three more Alabama players on there -- cornerback DeQuan Menzie, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron. In fact, Menzie could wind up being one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC and was the most consistent defensive back on Alabama's team this spring.

LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is another player who could easily show up on the Big Board at some point along with South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor, Arkansas running back Knile Davis and Arkansas receiver Greg Childs.

The ACC led the way with eight players on the first Big Board for 2012. The Pac-12 had six players.

On Kiper's first Big Board a year ago, he had six SEC players. Five of them wound up being selected in the first round of the draft in April. Georgia receiver A.J. Green was No. 4 on that first Big Board last year. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett was No. 6 followed by Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus at No. 7, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson No. 10, Alabama running back Mark Ingram No. 11 and Alabama receiver Julio Jones No. 17.

Mallett was the only one of the group that didn't go in the first round. He slipped to the third round.
The fans have spoken (well, clicked) and Alabama running back Trent Richardson has taken the poll to be this fall's SEC Offensive Player of the Year.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith Mark Ingram gone, Trent Richardson will carry Alabama.
The last poll update showed Richardson taking 33 percent of the vote, with more than 13,800 people voting.

This was a tough one, but I'd have to agree with the people.

Richardson replaces Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in Tuscaloosa, but Richardson could be a more complete back than Ingram. He's a step faster and could be a more powerful runner.

With the Crimson Tide breaking in a new, young quarterback this fall, a lot of what the offense does will go through Richardson. He's rushed for 1,451 yards and 14 touchdowns in his two seasons as a backup. Now, that he's taking the reigns of the running game, Richardson could get close to those numbers in one season.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore placed second, with 26 percent of the vote. Lattimore was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2010, after gaining 1,197 yards on the ground and scoring 17 touchdowns. He also caught 29 passes for 412 yards and two scores. Lattimore could be relied on even more if senior quarterback Stephen Garcia doesn't return. Sophomore Connor Shaw would take over the offense and in order to limit mistakes, Lattimore would likely get the ball in his hands more.

Either one of these players would be a great choice.

Behind them, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson grabbed 17 percent of the vote. Murray won't have A.J. Green to throw to, and his other weapons are a bit unproven, but he's got the tools to be a star in this league. He not only improved his game on the field this spring, but he became more of a leader. That will go a long way to shaping the Bulldogs' offense this fall.

Murray still has Tavarres King to throw to and should be able to get a ton of production out of tight end Orson Charles and receiver Marlon Brown seemed to improve this spring as well.

With Wilson's arm and the talent around him, the Razorbacks' offense shouldn't look much different than last year's. It might even be better. Wilson is inexperienced, but he shined this spring and really showed promise last season, when he passed for 332 yards against Auburn after Ryan Mallett went down with an injury.

Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery took 8 percent of the vote. You'd think having Lattimore with him could hurt his numbers, but it didn't seem to matter in 2010. He still led the league in receiving. This season, Garcia's return should keep him near the top of the league in production, but if Garcia is gone, it might be tough for him to duplicate 2010.
Last season, South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery exploded onto the SEC scene. He nabbed 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns.

He was, and remains, a matchup nightmare for defenders and the fans think he'll continue to push the Gamecocks by selecting him in our poll last week to have the biggest impact in 2011.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
Jeremy Brevard/Icon SMIAlshon Jeffery's size and strength create a matchup nightmare for opponents.
It was a pretty close race. At last count, Jeffery had 28 percent of the vote, with nearly 16,900 people voting.

Jeffery's impact this fall could be even bigger if senior quarterback Stephen Garcia doesn't return. Having a young quarterback like sophomore Connor Shaw taking over the responsibilities at quarterback will make getting the ball in Jeffery's hands that much more important. If there is a target out there that will make a young quarterback comfortable, it's Jeffery.

At 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, Jeffery can out-muscle just about any defender he faces. And with that height, even I could just chuck the ball up in his direction and have him go up and snatch my duck of a pass.

Now, if Jeffery isn't able to duplicate last season's production, that could put a lot of pressure on both Shaw and South Carolina's running game. Marcus Lattimore is a beast in the backfield, but if you take the Gamecocks' top receiving target out, that will allow teams to bear down on the run more and could complicate things for South Carolina's offense.

But the player I would have gone with is Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell. Yes, he hasn't taken a college rep and is just finishing up high school, but things are setting up for him to get a bunch of carries for the Bulldogs this fall. Crowell has tremendous speed and athleticism and if he quickly catches onto the offense, I wouldn't be shocked if the starting spot was his by the midway point in the season.

Former starter Washaun Ealey left the team earlier this week and Georgia has a stable of unproven runners in its backfield. Crowell could be the key to the Bulldogs' running game.

Crowell came in fourth, with 17 percent of the vote.

Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower placed second, with 22 percent of the vote, and Arkansas running back Knile Davis was third, with 21 percent.

Hightower, who is finally healthy, will be called upon to make the Crimson Tide's defense much more aggressive, especially in the pass rush. He'll also be looked at as one of the leaders of the unit.

Most of the attention at Arkansas has been on the passing game, but Davis' impact will surely be felt. Though redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Wilson isn't expected to miss a beat filling in for Ryan Mallett, having Davis in the backfield will make him that much more effective.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray took 13 percent of the vote. Bray really came on strong toward the end of the 2010 season and has the tools to make the Volunteers' passing game imposing this fall.
Well, it wasn't even close. Former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was the runaway winner in our poll on which SEC player will be the hardest to replace this upcoming season.

It's no shocker, really. Newton had one of the most productive seasons of any quarterback in college football history in 2010. He not only captured the Heisman Trophy but led Auburn to an undefeated season and a national championship.

He was the best player whenever he stepped on the field and was the heart of Auburn's team last year.

So, I would have gone with Newton as well.

At last count, Newton grabbed 65 percent of the vote with more than 21,500 people voting.

When you look at Auburn's quarterback situation now, there is a bit of concern. The Tigers worked sophomore Clint Moseley and freshman Barrett Trotter out this spring. Both suffered some growing pains, but steadily improved down the stretch. Auburn will welcome true freshman Kiehl Frazier into the mix this summer. Frazier could have the most athletic ability of all the receivers, and coach Gene Chizik made it known this spring that he will play the best player this fall, regardless of experience.

In a distant second was Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Arguably the best receiver to enter this year's NFL draft, Green had 16 percent of the vote. As a junior, Green ended the season leading the Bulldogs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, despite missing the first four games because of suspension.

Green's departure leaves the Bulldogs with a handful of unproven receivers. The next star in line seems to be Tavarres King. King assumed Green's flanker position this spring, and while he certainly wasn't Green, he cemented himself as Georgia's go-to receiver.

There is a lot of uncertainty behind King, but having a quarterback like Aaron Murray should keep the offense going.

Next was LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson was one of the most exciting defensive players to watch, and he had the ability to take an entire side of the field away when he lined up. Peterson held 10 percent of the vote.

In single digits were Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and Florida safety Ahmad Black. Mallett has the biggest arm to replace in the SEC. He led the conference in passing a year ago, but he'll have redshirt junior Tyler Wilson taking his place this season. Wilson will have a slew of targets to throw to with Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright out there, so replacing Mallett might not be too hard in Hog country.

As for Black, he finished his career first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally among active players with 13 career interceptions. While small in stature, he came up big for the Gators on defense and was the emotional leader at Florida last season. Black's replacement, sophomore Matt Elam, might have more athleticism, but no one is sure if he'll have the intangibles Black possessed.

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