NCF Nation: Sal Sunseri

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban will be in the awkward position of having to watch a football game rather than coach one on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. His Alabama Crimson Tide won't play for the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and instead will be forced to watch Florida State and Auburn do battle on center stage.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFormer Nick Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher and former Saban recruit Jameis Winston are proof of the power of "The Process."
But don't weep for Saban and the Tide. Because whatever happens, Alabama benefits.

Should Auburn win, Saban can continue selling recruits on the SEC being the most dominant conference in college football. "Come play in the league with eight straight national titles," his pitch might go. "Come compete in a rivalry game with championship implications," he might say.

But if Florida State wins, Saban can sell something much simpler. "See Jimbo Fisher coaching out there? He was my offensive coordinator at LSU," he could say. "See Jeremy Pruitt leading the Noles defense? I took him from a high school assistant coach to an SEC defensive coordinator," he could flaunt. "Defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri? Offensive line coach Rick Trickett? Wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey? Yeah, those were all my guys at one point, too," he could add for good measure.

Saban's process of building and running a football program -- simply dubbed, "The Process" -- has caught hold at a number of programs around the country, but maybe none more so than at Florida State. The similarities between the two schools are staggering: both work out of a 3-4 base defense, both use mainly pro-style sets on offense, both have built through the trenches and both recruit like gangbusters. Even their focus and implementation of off-field physical and mental conditioning are similar as both have employed the services of sports 'mindset' expert Trevor Moawad and both try to stay on the cutting edge with programs like Catapult Sports.

"Jimbo has done a fantastic job," Saban said of his former assistant in late November. "I always thought Jimbo was one of the best coaches we've ever had to work with on any of our staffs. He did a fantastic job for us. I think he has done a fantastic job.

"If you look at the whole body of work and the way they beat people, they are arguably the best country right now. And they weren't when he went there. They made a significant improvement. He has done a very good job of recruiting and developing the players they do have in the program. They've played really, really well and improved each year he has been there."

Though the Noles may have the flashier quarterback and the higher profile today, Saban shouldn't let you -- or the nation's top recruits -- forget what got them there. Since Fisher took over, the two staffs and the two rosters have been heavily intertwined. Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy this year, signed with Florida State over Alabama in 2012. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American a season ago, signed with Alabama over Florida State in the same year. The list of prospects whose decisions have come down to the Tide and the Noles are too many to count.

It ultimately took three seasons of coaching, recruiting and staffing for Saban to reach his first championship game with Alabama. For Fisher, it took four seasons to get Florida State to the promised land.

Whichever team wins on Jan. 6, The Process, Saban and Alabama come out looking good.
Florida State was not the only program to introduce new assistants during the offseason. Though the Seminoles led the way with the most changes for a program with a returning head coach, 13 of the 14 league schools had staff changes. Only Maryland returns all its assistants from a year ago.

There were some pretty big hires for some of those positions. With that in mind, whom do you think was the best assistant coaching hire in the ACC? I have narrowed the list down to five.


Who is the best assistant coach hired in the ACC this offseason?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,537)

James Coley, offensive coordinator, Miami. This has to qualify as one of the assistant coaching coups in all of college football, as Miami coach Al Golden worked at warp speed to replace Jedd Fisch, stealing away one of the best recruiters in the South Florida area from arch rival Florida State. Coley has had the coordinator title with the Seminoles, but it was in name only as Jimbo Fisher still called the plays. This is a huge chance for him not only to help Miami on the field and in recruiting, but to show Florida State what it's missing.

Scot Loeffler, offensive coordinator, Virginia Tech. Loeffler did not exactly have a great season last year at Auburn, but nobody on that staff did. He was hired, in part, because of his past work in developing quarterbacks at previous stops. And we all know Logan Thomas has got to take the next step this season if the Hokies are going to get back atop the ACC. The results of the spring game weren't exactly ideal, but coaches have said Thomas has definitely made strides this spring.

Tom O'Brien, associate head coach/tight ends coach, Virginia. Coach Mike London made the decision to completely revamp his coaching staff this past offseason, and one coach he knew he wanted to hire immediately was O'Brien, recently fired at NC State. London previously worked under O'Brien; O'Brien spent 15 years working at UVa under former coach George Welsh. Adding a coach with as much experience and knowledge as O'Brien should definitely help a team looking for a turnaround in 2013.

Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator, Florida State. This is what Florida State assistant Sal Sunseri had to say about Pruitt, with whom he worked last season at Alabama. "When I got to University of Alabama, I sat in the press box with that young man through that whole year and we won a national championship, and he was as good as anybody I’ve been in the press box. He knows what’s going on out there. He knew how to make adjustments." Pretty high praise from a veteran who has worked both in the NFL and college football.

Ted Roof, defensive coordinator, Georgia Tech. Roof has wandered around a bit of late but he now returns to his alma mater intent on improving a defense that showed gains in the second half of last season. Last season at Penn State, his defense ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), first in sacks (34), first in red-zone defense and third in turnover margin. Before that, he won a national championship at Auburn, which his defense held high-scoring Oregon to 19 points -- 28 below the Ducks' average.

My vote goes to Coley. What say you?
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Over the past four months, Florida State won an ACC championship, a BCS game, reeled in another top-10 recruiting class and sent a handful of players into the NFL draft with first-round promise.

Given the recent spate of unsightly 7-6 seasons, Florida State seems to be in pretty fantastic shape. That, of course, is not the storyline that has taken shape since December. No, the convenient storyline has focused mainly on the coaching turnover that has left the Seminoles with six new assistants heading into the 2013 season.

What does the unusually large turnover say about coach Jimbo Fisher? What does it say about the program itself?

At this point, the storyline has become rote. Fisher already has his answers before the questions are asked, prepared to bat down the notion that this very strange offseason has been, well, strange.

He begins.

“You know,” he says, “we were one of four teams in the entire country that did not lose a single assistant in my first two years here.”

Pretty astounding, when you consider just how frequently assistants change jobs year to year. But what is more astounding is hiring seven different assistants in a two-month span. One of those assistants, Billy Napier, lasted a handful of weeks before moving on to Alabama.

As Fisher tried to defend the staff turnover, he proved the point others have made. Coaching change is common in this profession, especially at winning programs. But the type of coaching change Florida State just experienced is as rare as scoring a safety on consecutive plays.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFSU coach Jimbo Fisher says he wasn't surprised by the amount of staff turnover this offseason.
Among programs that did not have a head coaching change, only Marshall had to replace more assistants than Florida State this past offseason. Point this out to Fisher and he shrugs.

“We took the attrition of three years and put it in one,” Fisher says simply.

Was he surprised that he lost so many assistants?

“Not really. Last year was a big year,” Fisher begins. “You go back and look at all the major jobs. When’s the last time you saw four major SEC schools open?”

Not since 2004. His defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, got the head coaching job at Kentucky and took assistant D.J. Eliot with him. Another assistant, Dameyune Craig, left for a co-offensive coordinator job at Auburn. Counting Napier, four assistants left for the SEC.

Fisher continues.

“The NFL has nowhere else to draw coaches from,” he says. “And we had a lot of success. We’re graduating players. Guys aren’t getting in trouble. People want to know how you’re having success. We had to have a proven commodity.

“We’re the eighth-winningest team in the last three years. We were 30th the previous three years. We’ve jumped more than any team in the country. So people say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all do research and look at who’s doing good and ask, ‘Why are they doing good? Are they doing something we’re not doing?’ People are saying, ‘Let’s get some of those guys and see why they’re having success and are able to change the culture and change a program.”

The other three coaches who left -- Eddie Gran (Cincinnati), Greg Hudson (Purdue) and James Coley (Miami) -- took coordinator jobs as well. Fisher points this out, too, and makes it clear he has never stood in the way of an assistant getting another job. After all, he allowed Stoops to interview at Kentucky in the middle of the season.

While all of the change may not look so great on the surface, the staff Fisher has assembled may in fact be better than the one he had his first two seasons with the Seminoles. When asked what he likes most about this staff, Fisher says, “No. 1, the experience. No. 2, their undaunting ability to work and put in hours. A lot of staffs you get recruiters or coaches. I think everybody on our staff can do both. We have a staff that’s very solid recruiting and very solid coaching. It’s hard to find nine guys capable that way.”

Perhaps that is a slight dig at his past staff. But there is no questioning the credentials of the men tasked with elevating Florida State from ACC champ into yearly national title contender. All of them have won conference titles; three have won national titles.

Fisher keeps a running list of potential candidates with him, so he knew exactly whom to call when all these jobs came open. How they arrived in Tallahassee plays like a game of Six Degrees of Jimbo Fisher.

  • You have quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who crossed paths with Fisher when both were assistants in the SEC some years ago. He also coached new running backs coach Jay Graham at Tennessee in the 1990s. The two have known each other since Graham was 17.
  • You have defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who come from the Nick Saban tree that also produced Fisher. Sunseri and Fisher were on the same staff at LSU in 2000.
  • You have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who never worked with Fisher but recruited against him when he was at Texas and Fisher was at LSU.
  • Then you have special teams coordinator, linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Fisher was there. Kelly also played against Fisher the past several seasons while working at Georgia Tech. When Kelly was with the Jackets, and Pruitt with the Tide, the two shared ideas.

“Florida State has always been one of the schools I’ve always wanted to work at,” Sanders said. “When I first got married and was first coaching, my wife asked me. I said this was one of the four schools in the country I’d love to work at some day. When the opportunity came along, I was excited to come to Tallahassee.”

He echoed what all the other assistants said during their only media availability this spring: the desire to win a national title. Indeed, the intensity during spring practice seemed to be turned up a notch. Both Sunseri and Pruitt are quite boisterous and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with their players -- face to face mask.

On one particular afternoon last month, Sunseri kept getting after defensive end Giorgio Newberry. At one point, Newberry just slung his big arm around Sunseri’s shoulder and chuckled.

“I give him a hug every once in a while,” Newberry said. “I love Coach Sal. I love how he coaches me. He doesn’t let us take plays off. We have to go hard every time, and we’ve got to do it his way. I like that. He’ll chew me out and I’ll be like, 'Yes sir' and I try to fix it.”

Graham is not as in-your-face, but he demands excellence. That was not so easy to get adjusted to for some of the backs.

“He wants you to be great, so he has very high expectations,” James Wilder Jr. said. “It was hard getting used to it at first. He wants everything perfect.”

Fisher has described the staff transition as seamless. He has veteran coaches that share his same philosophies and players who have embraced the changes. But the questions will linger on until kickoff in Pittsburgh on Sept. 2.

Perhaps even longer.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State hit spring practice with two major questions -- who would start at quarterback this season, and how would the new coaching staff come together?

I got a little bit of insight into both Wednesday, when coach Jimbo Fisher opened the entire 2 1/2-hour practice to the media for the first time this spring. It was my lucky day!

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreWIll FSU coach Jimbo Fisher have a title contender despite having to replace 13 starters from 2012?
I paid close attention to the quarterback competition between Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston. From my viewpoint, Trickett looks to be the clear front-runner, as he should, given the time he has spent in the system and his past game experience. He knows the offense the best of the three; he seemed comfortable and at ease; and his passes were crisp and sharp, and went exactly where they needed to go.

Now, it should be noted that both Coker and Winston have been limited this spring. Coker is still not 100 percent as he recovers from a foot injury, and Fisher acknowledged after practice that his quarterback was unable to display the athleticism that makes him so good.

"But I’m not concerned about that right now," Fisher said. "I know he can do those things. I want him to win from the pocket right now. Make decisions, lead and do those things."

As for Winston, the team is monitoring his throws this spring because of his dual commitment to baseball, especially following games in which he pitches. Winston pitched Sunday out of the bullpen against Georgia Tech, and was a little sore following the game. Again, this is not a concern to Fisher but clearly something the team has to be sensitive to as Winston does both this spring. Winston, by the way, seems to be the most vocal of the three, bringing an extra bounce to practice.

Now on to the new assistants. I was impressed with the energy, passion and tempo they brought to the field Wednesday. This is a boisterous group unafraid to get in the faces of their players. Offensive line coach Rick Trickett used to be the loudest of the bunch, but that title belongs to new defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri, whose booming voice could be heard for most of the practice.

In particular, he was on Giorgio Newberry for a good part of the practice, clearly realizing how much potential his player has as the Seminoles work to replace both starting ends. Newberry has the physical tools, and he looks very impressive in person. Now he has to take the next step and dominate consistently in games.

Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was on his players, too, hollering one minute, then pulling a player aside for a teachable moment the next. Coaches want to teach first and foremost this spring, and you definitely saw a lot of that going on during the open practice.

One more note: Kelvin Benjamin was all the rage headed into last season as a player who could be a star on the rise given his size (6-foot-5, 242 pounds), speed and athleticism. He had a productive first year with 30 catches for 495 yards and four touchdowns, but was maddeningly inconsistent. In the final three games of the season, he had a combined two catches for 16 yards (including a goose egg against Florida).

Benjamin is incredibly impressive in person because he is just so big. He towers over just about everybody on the field. What you now want to see out of him is complete domination. He should be winning his one-on-one matchups more; he should be able to come down with every fade pass in the end zone; he should become an All-ACC receiver. Can he?

That's it for now. Check back later for much more.
Florida State hired veteran assistant Sal Sunseri to coach defensive ends, coach Jimbo Fisher officially announced Thursday.

Sunseri will join Fisher’s staff in time to coach in the 2013 Discover Orange Bowl against Northern Illinois. He replaces defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot, who went with Mark Stoops to Kentucky to become defensive coordinator.

“Another great recruiter. Another great guy that's coached in the NFL, coached tons of first-round picks at linebacker and defensive end," Fisher said in a statement. "A lot of knowledge. He and I have been together for a long time. He and I have known each other for a long time. He used to send his son to my camp. I used to coach his son in camp for many years and got to develop him early -- Tino. And we coached together at LSU during those times. We have been friends for a long time. He brings a lot to the table. And that's another guy in the system who also knows that system. So you've got a front-end guy to help bridge that gap."

Sunseri joins Florida State after serving as the defensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2012. Before that, he spent three years as the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama under Nick Saban, including the 2009 and 2011 national championship teams. He also spent seven years (2002-08) with the Carolina Panthers under then-head coach and current Denver Broncos coach John Fox, a tenure that included the franchise's lone NFC championship and Super Bowl appearance.

3-point stance: Tough moment for Jones

December, 20, 2012
1. Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock explained two weeks ago how Butch Jones told him he had turned down Colorado to stay with the Bearcats, only to see Tennessee lure Jones away later that day. Jones told me Wednesday how gut-wrenching it was. Babcock asked him point-blank if he was going to Colorado or Tennessee. Jones assured Babcock he had turned down Colorado and that he hadn’t talked to the Vols. “Whit’s face dropped,” Jones said. “‘Butch,’ Whit said, ‘(Tennessee athletic director) Dave Hart just called.’ Trace (Armstrong), my agent, didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about it.”

2. In the end, Jeremy Pruitt took the bird in the hand. The Alabama secondary coach could have waited a year to see if defensive coordinator Kirby Smart got a head-coaching gig. Instead, Pruitt accepted an offer from Jimbo Fisher to become Florida State’s defensive coordinator. Pruitt knows it’s a gamble to leave the Nick Saban Coaching Academy. A year ago, Derek Dooley lured away Sal Sunseri to be defensive coordinator at Tennessee. After Dooley got fired, Fisher hired Sunseri to work for his young friend Pruitt.

3. As one of the leading mockers of athletic directors who buy opponents for home games, I have to admit it’s refreshing to see one of those games used for something more. If Wisconsin hadn’t brought in Utah State this past September, then athletic director Barry Alvarez might not understand how good a coach Gary Andersen is. The Aggies nearly upset the Badgers, losing 16-14, and now Alvarez has picked Andersen to replace Bret Bielema. Andersen becomes the third WAC coach to move to an AQ school this month.

Vols' Dooley making changes on defense

November, 5, 2012
Tennessee’s Derek Dooley may be in danger of losing his job if the Vols don’t finish strong, but he hasn’t lost his wit.

Asked Monday about all of the criticism the Vols’ struggling defense and first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri were receiving, Dooley quipped, “Like Bruce Hornsby and the Range, that’s just the way it is.”

That may be, but Dooley isn’t sitting pat. He said Monday he will begin spending all of his time in the defensive meeting room and that changes were coming. He didn’t rule out Sunseri moving from the sideline to the coaches’ booth in the press box.

“That’s something we’re working through as a staff, how we call it and who’s where,” said Dooley, whose Vols face Missouri at home this Saturday. “We are probably going to make some game-day changes to help.”

The Vols can use all of the help they can get on defense after allowing 222 points in their last five games. They were torched for 721 yards of total offense -- the most given up by a Tennessee defense in school history -- last week in a 55-48 win over Troy.

Dooley admitted that the scheme change (moving to a 3-4) has been much more problematic than ever envisioned for a variety of reasons.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘Let’s quit trying to put a square peg into a round hole and maybe do some things to maybe take some of the pressure off the kids,' and that’s what we’re going to do," Dooley said.

Hot and Not in the SEC

November, 5, 2012
We turn to our Hot/Not meter to check the latest state of affairs in the SEC:


[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Bill HaberT.J. Yeldon and AJ McCarron proved clutch in the closing stages of Alabama's win over LSU.
Alabama’s final drive: It’s the stuff of which championship seasons are made. Alabama hadn’t done anything on offense in the second half Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, and LSU had seized control of the game. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron missed his first five passes to open the second half, and the Crimson Tide went three-and-out on four of their first five possessions. The only time during that span that they did drive the ball, freshman running back T.J. Yeldon lost a fumble at the LSU 10. It was just one of those nights, but Alabama never lost its poise. Getting the ball back on their own 28 with 1:34 to play, the Crimson Tide put together what may turn out to be a season-defining drive. McCarron hit 4 of 5 passes, the last one a 28-yard screen play to Yeldon for the game-winning touchdown. A lot of people wondered how Alabama would respond in a tough spot. After all, it had been a full year since the Crimson Tide had played a fourth-quarter that really meant something. It’s safe to say that they responded like champions.


Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night: Man, what a place to watch a college football game. I can still hear the roar from the crowd in my ears. Bear Bryant once said that being in Tiger Stadium was like being inside a drum. He nailed it, because there’s nothing else like it in college sports. And it’s not just how loud the place is, either. It’s the festive atmosphere on campus, the tailgating, the tasty food, the cool outfits, Mike the Tiger hanging out just across the street from the stadium and those first four notes from the Golden Band from Tigerland. I’ve been fortunate enough to see 15 or more games in Tiger Stadium, and it only gets better each time I go.


Tennessee’s defense: We might as well create our own weekly spot for the Vols’ defense in this space. Sure, they were transitioning to a 3-4 defense coming into this season and were doing it with a first-year coordinator (Sal Sunseri), but you almost have to try to be as bad as they are on defense right now. In their past five games, they’ve given up 222 points, including 48 to Troy last week in a 55-48 “defensive struggle.”


Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray: He bounced back from a shaky outing against Florida with 384 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 37-10 win over Ole Miss. Murray, a junior, has 21 touchdown passes for the season and 80 for his career. He’s well within range of Danny Wuerffel’s SEC career record of 114 touchdown passes.


Alabama’s tackling: As jubilant as the Crimson Tide were to get out of Tiger Stadium with a win, they won’t be thrilled when they watch the defensive tape. The tackling, especially in the secondary, was poor and will come back to bite them down the road if they don’t get it fixed.


Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter: He dropped a deep pass early, which has been a problem for him all season, but he recovered to catch nine passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the Vols’ 55-48 win over Troy.


Florida’s passing game: The Gators’ passing game is what it is, which is just sort of serviceable at best. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel passed for 106 yards in the 14-7 win over Missouri last Saturday. That’s after throwing two interceptions the week earlier in the loss to Georgia. The problem goes much deeper than Driskel's ability to throw it. The Gators simply don’t have any playmakers at receiver. Their longest gain by a wide receiver against Missouri was 9 yards.


Auburn running back Tre Mason: He called for the ball earlier this season and delivered with a career day last Saturday in the 42-7 win over New Mexico State to snap a five-game losing streak for the Tigers. Mason finished with 152 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.


Arkansas’ off-the-field issues: Senior linebacker Terrell Williams became the eighth Arkansas football player to be arrested since March when he was charged Sunday morning on charges of driving while intoxicated. Williams was indefinitely suspended. When’s it all going to end for the Hogs, who’ve seemingly been cursed ever since Bobby Petrino drove his motorcycle into that ditch in April?


Vanderbilt’s defense: The Commodores’ 40-0 win over Kentucky was their first shutout of an FBS team since 1982 when they beat Virginia Tech 45-0. It was their first shutout of an SEC foe since beating Kentucky 6-0 in 1968. Vanderbilt has given up just 20 points in its past three games and is one win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season.


Mississippi State’s swagger: The Bulldogs were riding high after starting 7-0, but have been smacked back down to reality the past two weeks, losing 38-7 to Alabama and 38-13 to Texas A&M. A third straight smackdown could be looming this week when the Bulldogs travel to LSU.


Football at Kentucky: Let’s face it. Football at Kentucky matters about like telling the truth does in politics. The Wildcats are in the market for a new coach after athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced Sunday that Joker Phillips would not return next season. It will be interesting to see what kind of candidates Kentucky can attract, because it’s easily one of the hardest two or three jobs in the league. Rich Brooks proved that it is possible to have some moderate success there despite basketball being king. It’s a hoops-crazy state that simply doesn’t produce very many big-time college football prospects. And to be fair, while Brooks had four straight seasons of seven wins or more with four straight bowl appearances from 2006-09, the Wildcats never had a winning SEC record during that stretch. For that matter, the last time they had a winning SEC record was 1977. Nobody in the SEC has what you would call poor football facilities, but Kentucky’s would rank near the bottom of the league. There haven’t been a lot of upgrades over the past few years. Also, Phillips was the lowest-paid head coach in the SEC. It goes back to that old saying: You typically get out what you put in.

Halloween in the SEC

October, 31, 2012
We're saying Happy Halloween to everyone from the SEC blog. It's been another scary good year for the SEC, and all of this southern success must be truly frightening for the rest of the country.

Also, it's Nick Saban's birthday. You can't make this stuff up.

I can't wait to see all the Honey Boo Boos (not) and PSY (Gangnam Style) costumes parading around Atlanta tonight. But before we all go trick or treating, check out our most spine-chilling post of the year:

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesGene Chizik's Auburn squad has been scary bad this season.
Cursed: Two seasons removed from winning a national championship, Auburn is sitting at the bottom of the SEC with eight straight conference losses dating to last season. Auburn has the SEC's worst offense and is second to last in total defense. The Tigers are also near the bottom of the offensive barrel nationally. Auburn is on its third starting quarterback of the season, and coach Gene Chizik's seat is getting hotter and hotter on the Plains, as Auburn enters the weekend with a 1-7 record.

Trick: This spring, Arkansas was considered a real SEC championship contender, then, Bobby Petrino took that now infamous motorcycle ride. After Petrino, who thought he had a national championship-caliber team, was dismissed and John L. Smith took over, the thought was that there was still enough talent for this team to make a run in the SEC West. However, two weeks into the season, we found that not to be the case, as the Razorbacks lost in overtime to unranked Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama then shellacked the Hogs, and Arkansas went 1-4 in September. Arkansas' bowl chances are all but gone with a 3-5 record and blood-curdling November coming up.

Treat: Heading into the season, not much was expected from Ole Miss. But Hugh Freeze has played a perfect Dr. Frankenstein, creating a monster at Ole Miss. The Rebels might not be as menacing as Frankenstein's original monster, but they've been more challenging than the past two years. Oh, and Ole Miss is a win away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. Freeze is just hoping that his monster doesn't have a tragic end like the one with the bolts in his neck.

Boo (boo): No question, the biggest injury of the season occurred over the weekend when South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered that gruesome season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. Not only was the injury hard to watch, but you hate to see bad things happen to good people like Lattimore. He is one of the most respected individuals in college football, and the sport seemed to temporarily stop when word spread about his devastating injury.

Thriller: The play of the season right now might be Jarvis Jones' wicked fumble forced on Florida tight end Jordan Reed last week. Georgia's linebacker was having a monster game already, and capped it by sealing the game for the Bulldogs when he poked the ball out of Reed's hands as he tried to jump into the end zone for a potential game-tying touchdown. The ball flew out of Reed's hand, bounced off his knee and fell into the back of the end zone, where the Bulldogs fell on it.

The Walking Dead: Kentucky's football team looks like something right out of the minds of Robert Kirkman and Frank Darabont. It hasn't been healthy all season. Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith has suffered shoulder and ankle injuries and is out indefinitely. Backup Patrick Towles then suffered his own ankle injury. Former starting running back CoShik Williams is out for the season, and running back Josh Clemons, who might be the Wildcats' most talented back, has been out all season. Starting safety Dakotah Tyler is also out for the season. This team has had to play a handful of freshman because of all the injuries piling up.

House of Horrors: LSU has won a school-record 22 straight games at home. It's the nation's longest home winning streak, and it will be put to the test against No. 1 Alabama. But expect all those rabid Tigers fans to try to make the Crimson Tide's experience frightening.

Scary: As in just how scary good Alabama has been this season. The Tide has totally dominated the competition this season. It hasn't even been close. Alabama has one of the nation's most balanced offenses (1,776 passing/1,715 rushing) and is first nationally in scoring, rushing and total defense.

Scariest: Tennessee's defense has been downright terrifying to watch this season. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's 3-4 scheme just hasn't translated well with his players, and the Vols have been beaten up by opposing offenses. Tennessee is last in the SEC in total defense (453.4 yards per game) and scoring (33.9), and 13th in passing (271.9) and rushing (181.5) defense.

Halloween costumes: LSU coach Les Miles/The Mad Hatter (just too easy, again); Jarvis Jones/Predator; South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney/Michael Myers (doesn't talk much, but he's terrifying on the field); Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers/Great Smokey Mountain; Vanderbilt coach James Franklin/College football bowl planner; Florida coach Will Muschamp/Lionel Messi (separated at birth?); Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel/Iron Man/Johnny Football; Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott/Mighty Mouse.

Hot and Not in the SEC

October, 29, 2012
Our weekly check of who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:


[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireClose contests have been the norm when LSU's Les Miles faces Alabama's Nick Saban.
Alabama-LSU rivalry: It’s become the best rivalry in college football and the rivalry that means the most each year in the national championship race. Saturday’s matchup in Baton Rouge will be the third time these two teams have met in the past 12 months. They’re deadlocked at 3-3 in their past six meetings, although Alabama won 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game to cap the 2011 season. That’s the only time in the past six meetings, dating back to Nick Saban’s arrival at Alabama in 2007, that these games haven’t come down to the final few minutes. Alabama and LSU are each 31-4 over their past 35 games. Two of Alabama’s losses during that span have been to LSU, and one of LSU’s losses was to Alabama. Between them, Alabama and LSU are 26-8 against nationally ranked opponents over their past 35 games. This truly is a battle of college football’s titans.


Coaches’ seats: The way it’s looking right now, there could be four coaching vacancies in the SEC this season. It’s a given that John L. Smith won’t be back at Arkansas, and the odds are against Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Kentucky’s Joker Phillips returning. Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky are a combined 0-17 in the SEC.


Auburn’s defense: There were some ugly moments for Auburn’s offense earlier this season, but the Tigers’ defense was roasted for 671 yards in the 63-21 shellacking by Texas A&M. It’s the most yards Auburn has ever allowed in a game, and it’s the most points the Tigers have allowed in a game since a 68-7 loss to Georgia Tech in 1917.


Gruden rumors: If Jon Gruden is not the next coach at Tennessee, the entire state of Tennessee will have to go on depression medication. The Vols’ fan base has “Chucky" all but hired, and there are reports that some Tennessee fans have begun naming their newborn kids “Gruden.” OK, maybe that last part isn't true. At least, we hope it’s not. But Gruden Mania has taken on a life of its own in Big Orange Country.


Marcus Lattimore’s luck: Another season, another knee injury for the South Carolina running back. Nobody ever said football was fair, but it’s nauseating that a player (and a person) as first-class as Lattimore would have such horrible luck. If anybody can make it back from this latest injury, which was a dislocated right knee and ligament damage, it’s Lattimore. They don’t come any finer than No. 21.


Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: The coach of the year vote in the SEC this season will be an interesting one. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Florida’s Will Muschamp certainly will receive consideration, and so should Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. But if Ole Miss manages to get bowl-eligible, my vote goes to Freeze. Nobody gave the Rebels a chance to be playing in the postseason this year, not with the number of young players they’re playing and not with Freeze taking over a program that had lost 14 straight SEC games. He and his staff have done an exemplary job.


Florida’s ball security: It’s amazing that Florida was even in the game against Georgia when you consider that the Gators had six turnovers. They lost four fumbles and had two interceptions. You have zero chance to win a big game when you turn it over that many times, and the frustrating thing for the Gators was that they’d turned it over only four times in their first seven games.


Alabama’s discipline: Much has been made about Alabama’s talent, and there’s no question that the Crimson Tide have a roster full of great players. But their edge is built around their discipline, their keen awareness on the field and the fact that they simply don’t give you anything easy. It’s uncanny how few mental errors they make and how they’re always in the right spots, blocking the right people and making the right checks. Alabama is the best team in college football and also the best-coached team in college football.


Empty seats: Did you see the shot of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday in the fourth quarter? It looked like a football ghost town. Imagine what it’s going to be like this Saturday for the New Mexico State game. The same goes for Neyland Stadium when Troy comes to town this weekend. Anybody looking for some cheap tickets?


Tennessee’s defense: The Vols have played some rock-solid defense during their proud history and won a national championship in 1998 thanks to a defense that will forever be the measuring stick on Rocky Top. This 2012 defense will also be remembered ... for its ineptitude. It’s inexplicable how bad the Vols are on defense right now, how confused they look, how eternally out of position they are and how they’re the perfect recipe for the opposing quarterback to have a career day. Tennessee is last in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense. In five SEC games, the Vols have given up a staggering 211 points, and they’ve allowed at least 450 yards of total offense in all five games. They give up big plays like most people give out candy on Halloween. Fifty times this season (that’s right, 50), they’ve given up a play that has gone for 20 yards or longer. It’s been a complete disaster, and even if Derek Dooley survives, the Sal Sunseri experiment as defensive coordinator would almost certainly seem over. The Vols managed to give up a touchdown pass to South Carolina last week on a third-and-goal play from the 26. That’s not the worst part. The worst part was that Tennessee had a single safety back on the play, which pretty well sums up the sad state of this Tennessee defense right now.

Hot and Not in the SEC

October, 15, 2012
Anybody hot? Anybody not?

We take our weekly temperature in the SEC:


[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireTexas A&M QB Johnny Manziel is on pace to set the SEC record for total offense in a season.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel: This guy is playing in his own league right now. Johnny Football accounted for six touchdowns Saturday in Texas A&M’s wild 59-57 win over Louisiana Tech, and he broke the SEC record for total offense that he had established earlier this season. Manziel finished with 576 total yards, including 181 yards rushing. He now leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 112.7 yards per game. His numbers (14 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns) are phenomenal, but even more so when you consider that he’s only a redshirt freshman and has played all of six college games. Manziel is on track to break the SEC record for total offense in a season. Cam Newton set the record in 2010 with 4,327 yards in 14 games. Manziel already has 2,356 yards in six games. Only three players in SEC history have surpassed 4,000 yards in a season -- Tim Couch (1998), Tim Tebow (2007) and Newton.


LSU’s pride: The Tigers haven’t lost two games in a row since the 2008 season, and they weren’t about to let South Carolina come into their den and change that. LSU not only beat the Gamecocks, but the Tigers beat up the Gamecocks physically in a 23-21 win Saturday in Tiger Stadium. The win served notice that LSU is still a player in the SEC and national championship races.


Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri: There was genuine excitement in Big Orange Country when the Vols hired Sunseri away from Alabama, but they’re ready to ship him back after watching his defense give up 129 points and 66 first downs in three SEC games. It’s been a disaster for Tennessee on defense.


Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace: Obviously, Wallace knows how to reach the end zone. In the 41-20 win over Auburn, he rushed for a touchdown, passed for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass, becoming the first player in Ole Miss history to pull off that feat.


South Carolina’s run defense: The Gamecocks had flexed their muscle against the run all season. Teams were averaging just 2.2 yards per carry against them, but a purple-and-gold bulldozer left nothing but feathers in its wake Saturday on the Bayou. LSU gashed South Carolina for 258 rushing yards and did it by blowing the Gamecocks off the line of scrimmage.


Alabama’s running game: The weather was nasty this past weekend in Missouri, and so was Alabama’s running game. The Crimson Tide pounded out 362 yards on the ground with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both topping the 100-yard mark. Lacy finished with 177 yards and three touchdowns, while Yeldon had 144 yards and two touchdowns.


Kentucky’s third-down defense: The Wildcats really haven’t stopped much of anybody this season on defense. But on third down, it’s been even more glaring. They’re 119th out of 120 FBS teams in third-down conversion defense. Teams are converting against them 55.7 percent of the time. The only defense that’s been worse is Baylor, which is not the kind of company you want to be keeping on the defensive side of the ball.


Cowbell Central: The Mississippi State fans should be proud. They’ve rekindled a super home-field advantage at Scott Field under Dan Mullen. It’s obviously not as big as most stadiums in the SEC, but that place was rocking (and clanging) Saturday night against Tennessee in what was the Bulldogs’ 20th straight home sellout.


Late games: What’s with some of these late start times? Yes, I know the reason. But football wasn’t meant to be played after 1 o’clock in the morning.


Auburn: How far have the Tigers fallen just two years after winning the national championship? They travel to Vanderbilt this weekend, and the Commodores -- who are just 1-13 against Auburn since 1950 -- are a touchdown favorite. There have been happier times on the Plains, for sure. Auburn has lost six straight SEC games going back to last season and seven of its past eight. Only one of those seven losses has been closer than 17 points. The Tigers (1-5, 0-4) are ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense, although the 41-20 loss to Ole Miss was the first time this season that they’d given up 30 or more points in a game. The bigger problem has been the offense, which is ranked last in the SEC in total offense and scoring offense. The Tigers have scored just four offensive touchdowns in four SEC games, and it appears now that they will lean toward playing more younger guys the rest of the season.

SEC: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
It seems like only yesterday people were talking about an LSU-USC national championship, and weren't totally sold on Alabama making another run to a national title.

Oh, how things change in a matter of a month.

Now that September has come and gone, it's time to take a look back at some of the SEC's best and worst moments from the first month of the college football season. We'll also take a look at three storylines to keep an eye on in October:

September's best:

1. Alabama's dominant run to No. 1 in the polls: In September, it appeared the Crimson Tide were just reloading after their national championship season. Alabama destroyed Michigan in its season opener at Cowboys Stadium and has mangled its past four opponents by a combined score of 160-21, including a 52-0 romp over Arkansas in Fayetteville. Questions surrounded Alabama's defense, but it's been utterly dominant, leading the nation in scoring defense and ranking in the top four in total, rushing and passing defense. There's no question that this is the best, most complete team in the country.

2. Florida's emergence in the East: We didn't know what we were going to get from the Gators in Year 2 of Will Muschamp's coaching career. The defense hasn't really surprised us with how it's played, but the offense has made tremendous strides since last season, thanks to Jeff Driskel and Mike Gillislee. Driskel has been splendid for the Gators, running that offense like a vet with his ability to own the second half of games. Gillislee has given this offense the downhill running threat it's missed since Tim Tebow was around. The Gators have dominated in the second half of games and haven't allowed any fourth-quarter points.

3. Georgia's sensational freshman duo: The Bulldogs had to find some success in their running game after Isaiah Crowell's dismissal, and with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall tearing it up, Crowell is a distant memory. The fabulous freshmen have combined for 964 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gurley currently leads the SEC with 536 yards and nine touchdowns. He's also averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Marshall, who has displayed some of the best open-field speed in the SEC, is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and cranked out touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards against Tennessee over the weekend. It's hard to stop a train, let alone two.

September's worst

1. Arkansas' total meltdown: Heading into the season, I had a feeling that this team would struggle with adversity without Bobby Petrino around. This team hasn't just struggled, it has totally collapsed. John L. Smith has lost this team, as the Razorbacks are 1-4 and have been outscored 203-116. Against Alabama and Texas A&M, the Hogs were outscored by 100 points. This all started with Petrino's now-infamous motorcycle ride back in April, but trouble on the field was magnified by Arkansas' overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Since then, there hasn't been a lot of fight out of this team and quarterback Tyler Wilson went as far as to say his team "quit" against Alabama. The same should have been said about the 58-10 loss to Texas A&M.

2. Defensive woes: It was a rough month for some of the SEC's defenses that were supposed to be better in 2012. Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee are all giving up more than 400 yards a game, after all hired new defensive coordinators. The Hogs own the SEC's worst defense, allowing 510.2 yards per game and 40.6 points per game under Paul Haynes. Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been through the SEC before, but the Tigers are allowing 419.3 yards per game. As Tennessee continues to transition to Sal Sunseri's 3-4 defense, it's clear the Vols aren't ready for it, as they are allowing 425.8 yards and nearly 30 points a game.

3. Missouri's SEC start: After Mizzou's first two SEC games, the Tigers are a decisive 0-2 and have been outscored by Georgia and South Carolina by a combined 72-30 margin. Mizzou put up a good fight through the first three quarters against Georgia, but had no steam in the fourth. This team barely looked alive against South Carolina, as the Gamecocks just pushed the Tigers around all day. The Tigers said they could handle the size and speed of the SEC, but haven't through two games.

October storylines:

1. Will the real LSU stand up? Entering the season, LSU was one of the country's best teams on paper. Now, we're all wondering what this team will do going forward after it ended the month with less than flattering outings against Auburn and Towson. LSU's offense struggled to get much of anything going against an overmatched Auburn defense, and the Tigers' defense then allowed 188 rushing yards and 22 points to Towson. It isn't panic time in Baton Rouge, but what's this team's true identity? A lot has to be cleaned up in a month that features trips to Florida and Texas A&M and a home game against South Carolina.

2. Can Manziel continue his red-hot run? Georgia's frosh duo at running back has stolen the freshman headlines, but Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has been spectacular this year. Through four games, the redshirt freshman has passed for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns (no interceptions) and has rushed for a team-high 366 yards and six more scores. He's been the league's best dual-threat quarterback, and while his feet have made him and A&M's offense that much more dangerous, he's turning into a better passer with each game. Against Arkansas, his 557 yards of total offense (453 passing yards and 104 rushing yards) set an SEC record.

3. East race could settle itself: This month, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina all play each other. That means that come Nov. 1, we might know who really has the upper hand in the East race. Florida has a chance to really make a statement by playing LSU on Saturday, while either Georgia or South Carolina will drop a game back this weekend, as they play each other in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina then goes to LSU. Florida ends the month playing South Carolina and Georgia back-to-back, but both games are in the state of Florida.
Tino SunseriJeanine Leech/Icon SMITino Sunseri is ready to move on from last season's disaster and run a pro-style offense again.
The son of a former linebacker and a former gymnast at his current school, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri learned how to take criticism at an early age.

"My parents really instilled that in me," Sunseri told, adding, "They never really sugarcoated anything. They gave me straightforward answers every time I asked them, and they made sure that I was always told the truth."

Last season, the truth was that Sunseri threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) in a campaign that went south following the loss of running back Ray Graham, as the Panthers dropped three of five games to finish 6-7. The truth was also that Sunseri was charged with running new coach Todd Graham's option-read, shotgun offense — a system that hardly fit him or his offensive teammates, though Graham often publicly voiced his displeasure with the unit.

But Graham's abrupt winter departure for Arizona State led to the hiring of former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who has brought a return to the pro-style attack that Sunseri and his teammates ran in 2010, his first year as a starter. And Sunseri is hoping that translates into a productive fifth and final season with the Panthers, who have become the popular darkhorse pick to win the Big East in their final year before moving to the ACC.

"I think the biggest difference is Coach Chryst really has brought us in and said, 'You have to forget about the past; only worry about the present and future,' " Sunseri said. "And I think that's what a lot of our guys have really done in the way that we've practiced. We really haven't thought much about what's happened. We're getting ready for this kind of offense, this kind of team, making sure that we're doing everything possible to work and get better each day."

Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger have demanded decorum across the offense as a whole, Sunseri said, making sure every player is on the same page from the routes they run to the way they line up before plays.

"Last year it was a little bit of a zoo," Sunseri said. "Guys were running the wrong routes each game, guys were making mistakes. So for us to really just focus in on each game, each player has to do their part. Obviously it's sports, and everybody works good as a unit."

The carry-over effect is felt under center, where Sunseri arrived in 2008 to play for Dave Wannstedt.

The son of Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, Tino said that he feels blessed to return to a pro-style system after the rough 2011 campaign, during which his frustration became evident in his teammates' eyes.

"Last year he was doing something that he wasn't really comfortable with, and I think we all could really tell that he wasn't really comfortable with all that," fifth-year receiver Cameron Saddler said. "He's confident again and he's a senior, man. I feel like once you become a senior you kind of just get a feel for the game. You're confident."

Sunseri has carried that confidence into this season, ignoring the public and in-house criticism from a year ago and recognizing his mistakes on his own through film study and practice.

It's all in the name of making the next play count more than the last, as Sunseri refuses to look at his final college season with the typical "last chance" narrative that follows so many seniors, especially at his position.

"Ever since I stepped into college, you never know what could happen," Sunseri said. "So each day I don't take for granted. I come out here ready to work great and try to push my team, make sure that we can accomplish something each day. And each day that I'm able to go out there and practice and perform, I honestly feel like I'm blessed and I'm lucky and I just wanna make sure I can keep on going out and keep the same approach."

SEC power rankings: Week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.
Things are clearly heating up in Knoxville, Tenn., and it's not a good thing.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley's name has almost become synonymous with the phrase "hot seat" this year. On Monday,'s Dennis Dodd released his hot-seat rankings for 2012 and Dooley was one of just two coaches (the other being Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith) given a rating of 5.0 with a "Hot seat! Win or be fired" label.

There's no question that 2012 is a crucial year for Dooley, but while he has an unsatisfactory 11-14 record in his two years as the Vols' coach and is coming off a year that ended with Tennessee's first lost to Kentucky since 1984 instead of a bowl berth, he wasn't exactly dealt much of a hand when he arrived in 2010.

[+] EnlargeDerek Dooley
AP Photo/Butch DillThings haven't exactly gone as planned since Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville.
Tennessee's program had plenty of cracks in it. Longtime coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, showing just how far Tennessee's football program had fallen, and Lane Kiffin left Tennessee with NCAA clouds hanging over it and a paper tiger recruiting class that Kiffin heralded as a true gem.

(That class left Tennessee with more headaches than wins.)

Dooley dealt with issues he could barely control, but still sent the Vols to a bowl game in his first season. During this year's SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., Dooley expressed his feelings about the short-handed roster he had during his first year.

"I knew there were some challenges internally," Dooley told reporters last month. "I knew there were challenges with our culture. But probably the one thing that surprised me the most was the state of our roster. When we were in my first spring practice, I knew that this was going to be a much tougher road to plow than what I expected when I got here. Because I think I was probably no different than most typical fans who see the Power T and you expect a pretty deep and talented roster. And we didn't have that.

"Certainly the attrition had a big impact on it because of the changes. I knew that it was not something we could solve right away."

And Tennessee didn't. There were growing pains expected in 2011 with a young defense returning, but there was hope with offensive playmakers Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter returning. Unfortunately for the Vols, injuries to Bray and Hunter stunted Tennessee's growth. Add an inconsistent offensive line and a nonexistent running game and Tennessee limped through 2011.

Dooley then had to replace seven assistant coaches before the spring, leaving even more questions about his job security. It's as if Dooley just can't catch a break. He returns nearly 20 starters in 2012, but loses seven assistants.

But those challenges haven’t prevented his name from appearing at the top of the college football hot-seat boards. Dooley could have done a lot more complaining about his situation but he didn't.

The problem Dooley finds himself in is that in this profession -- and especially in this league -- it's all about what you've done lately, and Dooley hasn't done a lot in the wins department. This year, that could change. Though there will be some adjustments made with players and new coaches, especially on defense with new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri looking to run out of a 3-4 base, this is Dooley's best team. The offense might have one of the best passing games in the league, and the running game should benefit from what is expected to be an improved offensive line.

The schedule is also more favorable with Florida and Alabama at home and no LSU or Arkansas. The Vols could actually win eight games without beating Florida, Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina. That's good news, but it could also dump even more pressure on Dooley. Eight wins almost becomes a must for Dooley.

So if Dooley fails to reach the eight-win mark for the third consecutive year, will that be his undoing? It's hard to say what new athletic director Dave Hart will do in that situation. He's been adamant that he wants to see improvement, but won't put a number on wins Dooley needs.

But does he want to be the new guy who dismisses a coach who appears to finally have the numbers and talent needed to get Tennessee going again?

There's no question that Tennessee has to make strides in the right direction this fall. Whether its winning eight or more games, making a bowl or just being more competitive, the Vols have to be better than last year. Anything less could have Dooley out of a job, which is a sad reality in a league as competitive as the SEC.