NCF Nation: Vernon Hargreaves III

Now that you've seen our first round of the SEC's best 25 players from the 2014 season, it's time to see who made the next cut in our countdown:

16. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas
Flowers left Arkansas on a very high note after a very productive 2014 season. One of the league's best defensive linemen, Flowers ranked fourth in the SEC with 15.5 tackles for loss and led the Hogs with six sacks. Flowers finished his Arkansas career with 18 career sacks. Last season, he ranked third on the team in total tackles (68) and solo stops (34). Flowers also led the team with nine quarterback hurries, and he defended six passes. Another aspect of Flowers' game that made him so successful was how he could create plays for other teammates. Flowers was such a disruptive player that he was able to direct plays away from himself and right into the hands of his teammates.

17. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Yet again, Hargreaves was one of the SEC's best cover corners. Scratch that, he was yet again one of the nation's best cover corners. For the second straight year, Hargreaves was named All-SEC, and for the second straight year he grabbed three interceptions. In 2014, he ranked second in the SEC with 16 passes defended and averaged 1.33 passes defended per game. Hargreaves wasn't always perfect (see the Alabama game against Amari Cooper), but quarterbacks always took a risk throwing to his side of the field. Hargreaves lined up outside and inside throughout the season, and with his speed and strength, he was able to make play after play while draping the guys he was covering. He had 50 tackles, including two for loss, and recovered two fumbles.

18. Bud Dupree, DE, Kentucky
Dupree might be the best player no one has really talked about enough over the last three years. His sack totals have increased every year, and after registering 7.5 sacks in 2014, Dupree finished his Kentucky career with 23.5 sacks. Dupree can play both defensive end and linebacker, and has during his career. In 2014, he recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. He also snagged an interception. The All-SEC selection recorded at least three tackles in all 12 games he played in this season, and was second on the team with 60 total tackles, including having 45 solo stops. Dupree is a physical freak who has been productive every year at Kentucky, and he has possibly played himself into being a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

19. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Somehow, this kid was a freshman in 2014, yet he became one of the SEC's best pass-rushers after finishing second in the league with 20.5 tackles for loss and tying for fourth with 10 sacks. Both numbers were records for a true freshman at Tennessee. Barnett also tied for first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally in tackles for loss per game (1.6). He notched 72 tackles, including 47 solo stops. Barnett, who started 10 games for the Vols in 2014, recorded at least a half-tackle for loss in 11 games. He also had three multisack games, including two games with three sacks (the three sacks are a school record). All of Barnett's sacks came in SEC play, while 18 of his tackles for loss occurred in league play and led the SEC. Let me repeat that Barnett did all this -- and was named an All-SEC second-teamer by both the Associated Press and league coaches -- as a true freshman.

20. Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas
Spaight was a lightning rod for production in 2014. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound All-SEC first-teamer led the league with 128 tackles and led the Razorbacks with 63 solo tackles. He became the first player in Arkansas history to lead the SEC in tackles. Spaight had no problem flying around the field to make plays in the middle and side to side, but he was also third on Arkansas' team with 10.5 tackles for loss and also had a sack. He defended four passes with an interception and forced two fumbles, and he was credited with four quarterback hurries. Spaight recorded at least five tackles in every game this season and started all 13 games.
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- With new coach Jim McElwain in attendance, Florida jumped out to an early lead and hung on against East Carolina, winning the Birmingham Bowl 28-20.

The offense looked good at times, before quarterback Treon Harris got hurt, but it was the Florida defense that deserves the credit. The Gators made stop after stop in the fourth quarter and kept East Carolina out of the end zone when it mattered the most.

The win gave the SEC a winning bowl record (7-5) and helped the SEC East finish a perfect 5-0 this postseason.

Game ball goes to: Dante Fowler Jr. already declared early for the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from going all out in his final game at Florida. The junior defensive end, projected as a first-round pick, finished with three sacks, two quarterback hurries and deflected a pass late in the game with East Carolina threatening.

How the game was won: The bend-but-don’t-break philosophy worked for Florida’s defense in the second half, and the Gators sealed it with an interception by Vernon Hargreaves III in the final minutes. It was the third turnover forced by the defense. East Carolina entered Florida territory on 12 of its 16 drives and came away with only 20 points.

Stat of the game: East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden was as good as advertised in the loss. The senior finished 34-of-66 for 427 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The 427 passing yards give him 11,991 for his career and moved him up to No. 26 on the all-time list, passing names such as Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.

Best play: After East Carolina grabbed the momentum to begin the second half, Florida needed a big play. The Gators called on wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, and he delivered. The 6-foot-4 sophomore caught a quick screen and sprinted past the entire ECU defense on his way to an 86-yard touchdown. It was the longest touchdown at Florida since Muschamp arrived in 2011.

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Florida is back in a bowl game, but a matchup against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN) is not the game Gators fans were hoping for at the beginning of the season. No offense to the Pirates and the city of Birmingham, but Florida had higher aspirations for 2014. It’s why head coach Will Muschamp was let go at the end of the regular season.

But now it’s 2015, a year of hope for the Gators. A win over East Carolina could be just the momentum boost this team needs as it begins a new regime. Here are five things to watch heading into Saturday’s game:

New coach on hand: Florida has already tabbed Jim McElwain as Muschamp’s successor, but the former Colorado State head coach won’t be able to coach during the bowl game. Instead, he’ll be relegated to a box in the stadium where he’ll watch and evaluate his new roster, making it an audition of sorts for the returning players. They will be looking to make a good first impression on their new coach and get a leg up heading into spring practice. McElwain has interfered very little with interim coach D.J. Durkin during the bowl preparation, but he’ll be paying close attention during Saturday’s game.

Swan song: Let’s not forget that East Carolina is playing in this game, too, and the Pirates have Shane Carden, one of the best quarterbacks in college football. It will be Carden's final game with the Pirates, and he’ll be looking to finish his career on a high note. The senior is No. 2 nationally with 4,309 passing yards this season. He’s averaging 359 yards per game and has thrown 28 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He also has a chance to climb up the all-time ranks. If he can go over 300 yards Saturday, he’ll finish among the top 30 in career passing yards, passing the likes of Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.

Hargreaves vs. Hardy: Remember all the hype when Vernon Hargreaves III went up against Amari Cooper, the eventual Biletnikoff Award winner? Well, the Florida sophomore will have his hands full again in the bowl game with Justin Hardy. The East Carolina wide receiver is second to Cooper with 110 receptions on the season, and he played in two fewer games. Hardy leads the nation in first-down receptions and receptions in the red zone. With that said, he hasn’t faced a cornerback quite like Hargreaves, who led the SEC in passes broken up. Both players will be playing on Sundays before they’re done.

Wet conditions: If Florida’s defense can’t stop Carden and the Pirates’ prolific passing attack, the weather might. It’s expected to rain nearly two inches in Birmingham this weekend, and there’s a chance for thunderstorms in the area on Saturday. That’s nothing new for the Gators, who had their season opener canceled due to weather. But how will East Carolina respond? If it does get wet and sloppy, protecting the football will be at a premium.

Special teams disparity: The rain also might have an effect on special teams, which already is an area of concern for East Carolina. The Pirates rank 119th nationally in special teams efficiency, worst among all bowl teams. Florida comes in at No. 21 but will be without its top return man, Andre Debose, who opted to stay home rather than make the trip with his teammates. The sixth-year senior returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns during his Florida career.

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 12, 2014
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Now that the Associated Press and the league coaches have spoken and cast their votes for their All-SEC teams, it's time for us to get in on the fun.

We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.

RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.

RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.

OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.

OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.

All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.

DEFENSE

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.

DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.

S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.

K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.

KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.

National links: Michigan steals spotlight 

December, 2, 2014
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Since late October, Tuesday has been reserved for speculation and anticipation over the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. But not this week.

Michigan reluctantly takes center stage hours before the committee releases its sixth set of rankings.

Next week, the four-team playoff will be set. If things fall right Friday and Saturday in each of the Power 5 leagues, next Tuesday could be epic.

TCU or Baylor? Will Ohio State remain a factor? The debate alone over the order of the top four, which determine the semifinal matchups, will make it a day like no other in college football history.

Sadly, though, we’ve seen plenty of days like this Tuesday.

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Will Muschamp made one thing abundantly clear during his news conference Monday: He's leaving Florida's program in better shape than he found it.

"We've got a deep and talented roster, so don't let that new guy tell you he ain't got no good players," said Muschamp, who will not return as the Gators' head coach in 2015. "Tell you that right now. They got some good football players in that locker room."

Despite what the stats and this year's 5-4 record might say, he's right. The Gators are losing a star in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., but the defense is still loaded with quality depth and talent to help any new coach for a couple of years. And even though the offense is riddled with holes, the quarterback position is better than when he arrived, there's depth on the line and there could be promise in a group of young receivers that includes Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood.

I'm not saying Florida's next head coach has a group of world beaters on his hands, but he has a much better foundation to work with than Muschamp did when he took over for Urban Meyer in 2011.

Florida will lose four senior starters on both offense and defense, and there are still a couple of juniors, such as linebacker Antonio Morrison and running back Matt Jones, who could depart early for the NFL draft. But the core of this team will be back, including most of the defensive line and a secondary that houses star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

All in all, the Gators could potentially return 20 players who have played in at least 14 collegiate games and 14 who have played in 20 or more games. So there's experience to work with, and players who have gone through the toughest parts of their development stages.

Now, this isn't to say Florida has a complete roster full of elite talent. Upgrades need to be made, especially at wide receiver, and more quality bodies need to be brought in on the offensive line. The Gators might have to replace all three starting linebackers, as well. There's work to be done across the board, but there's a good base for the next coach to build off of.

Muschamp also left that locker room in a more stable condition, too, after walking into an absolute mess when he arrived in 2011. Even Meyer relented he left him a broken program. So it took awhile for Muschamp to gain power in that locker room, but looking at the state of what's happening away from the field, he did a heck of a job bringing order, even if the wins didn't come.

Head cases and trouble-makers were booted, as the off-field incidents decreased exponentially under Muschamp and the team's GPA rose. The team's Academic Progress Rate (APR) this spring was 979, which is 10 points higher than the national average and the highest it's been at Florida in the past decade. Muschamp has had 68 players make academic All-SEC and 44 graduate with degrees. And the composite team GPA this past spring was the highest in the history of the football program.

"He was asked to come here and build a program, a program built on character and on good academic values," university president Bernie Machen said. "He was asked to develop young men that would be a credit to the Gator Nation. He has done that."

This team isn't going to be thrown right at the top of a wobbly SEC Eastern Division when the next coach arrives, but he'll have the internal advantages Muschamp didn't. It certainly won't be a bad way to start a new life in Gainesville.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
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Can you feel the drama building? We're just starting to get into the meat of the SEC schedule and already the league is spinning off its axis with excitement. Here are this week's best performances:

Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, Alabama: Everyone suspected Cooper might be the nation's best receiver, but who saw this coming from Sims? The Crimson Tide dismantled Florida 42-21 and Sims' 445 yards passing -- second best in the school's storied history -- was the biggest reason why. Equally unstoppable was Cooper, who caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three TDs. Much of Cooper's production came against the defense of UF cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, thought to be one of the nation's finest.

Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: Time after time this dynamic duo sliced through the heart of the LSU defense en route to the Bulldogs' first win in Baton Rouge in nearly 23 years. LSU's late rally made the final score 34-29, which diminished State's dominance for most of the game. Prescott passed for 268 yards and two TDs. He ran 22 times for 105 yards and another score in building MSU's 34-10 lead. Meanwhile, Robinson was a deadly efficient complement, running for a career-high 197 yards and a TD on 16 carries (12.3 yards per carry). The Bulldogs' offense was firing on all cylinders and racked up 570 yards with standouts all around. The empty seats in Death Valley were a testament to just how demoralizing Mississippi State's performance was for the No. 8 Tigers and their fans.

Auburn's run defense: Holding a run-heavy team like Kansas State to 40 yards on the ground is exactly how you win huge nonconference road games. The Tigers did that in Thursday's 20-14 win in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats came in averaging 236 yards a game on the ground, but Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had his front seven ready. When called upon, safeties Joshua Holsey (11 tackles) and Rudy Ford (eight tackles) cleaned up the leftovers.

Arkansas' run game: We might want to reserve a weekly spot for this unit, as it seems there is absolutely no slowing down Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and their under-appreciated blockers. The Razorbacks were rolling once again in their 52-14 rout of Northern Illinois on Saturday. Collins, Williams and Korliss Marshall combined to rush for 188 yards on 36 carries. Right guard Denver Kirkland (6-foot-5, 330 pounds), left tackle Dan Skipper (6-10, 316) -- both sophomores -- and senior tight end AJ Derby (6-5, 255) had great success opening some gaping holes.

Sony Michel, Georgia: We knew the heralded true freshman was good, but in garbage time against Troy he laid any doubt to rest. Michel needed just 10 carries to pile up 155 yards (15.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Occasionally running out of the Wildcat, he's already proven to be more than a backup. The future is looking bright for a Bulldogs team that suffocated Troy in a 66-0 romp.

Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.

SEC slant: Defense still optional

September, 18, 2014
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Blame Missouri and Texas A&M. Blame the targeting rule, the emphasis on protecting the quarterback or the failed attempt to slow down the pace of play. Blame whoever and whatever it takes. But it's time to start facing facts about the SEC. The league that has long thrived on defense, the league that made its name on defense, is in the midst of an identity crisis. These last few years -- it feels like it started with the expansion to 14 teams, right? -- defenses have gone missing, particularly against the pass.

Back in the day

Of course it wasn't that long ago, but it feels as if it's been a decade since the SEC was a defense-dominated league.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe SEC's defensive decline has coincided with the arrival of Big 12 coaches such as Kevin Sumlin.
For the longest time, the defenses of Alabama and LSU were measured in feet, not yards. Urban Meyer's Florida defenses swarmed to the football, not giving an inch.

Remember the Gators' thrashing of Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game? The Sooners, who averaged 54 points per game entering the contest, were held to just two touchdowns.

From 2004-11, SEC defenses surrendered an average of 330.2 yards per game, 192.11 of which came through the air. Meanwhile, the rest of the Power 5 conferences gave up 350.1 total yards per game, 219.6 of which came by way of the forward pass.

During that time, quarterbacks completed an average of 55.3 percent of their passes against SEC defenses.

But in 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M entered the league and everything changed.

From 2012-13, SEC defenses allowed an average of 361.3 yards per game. Passing yards per game went from 192.11 to 221.16. Quarterback completion percentages climbed by 4.2 percent.

It was supposed to get better, but it hasn't

Remember the offseason? It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about all the stellar quarterbacks who left the league.

With Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel gone, defenses would finally catch a break. Zach Mettenberger wouldn't be around to rifle those impossible 25-yard outs. Even James Franklin would move on and leave behind his 51 career touchdown passes at Missouri.

The quarterbacks left, but the offense hasn't.

Texas A&M -- without Johnny Football, mind you -- racked up 680 total yards of offense against South Carolina in the league opener. Kenny Hill, a first time starter, threw for a whopping 511 yards.

Then there was this past weekend. Not much defense to be found there either. Georgia's secondary was shredded by South Carolina as Dylan Thompson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, South Carolina's front seven was gashed for 131 yards and a touchdown by Todd Gurley.

So far, SEC defenses are allowing an average of 354.6 yards per game, which is only slightly down from this time last year.

Pass defense has actually gotten worse from 2012-13 to now. Through three weeks, SEC secondaries are allowing 231.5 yards through the air per game, compared to 221.16.

Interceptions per pass attempt are down from 3.6 percent from 2004-11 to 3.2 percent this season. Over time, that adds up.

Where have all the star DBs gone?

Don't you miss Tyrann Mathieu? No, not for the off-the-field stuff, but for the way he made plays on the back end of the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesStar defensive backs such as Alabama's Landon Collins are rare these days in the SEC.
It seems like there are fewer Honeybadgers in the SEC these days. Outside of Landon Collins and Cody Prewitt, are there any other star safeties in the league? Besides Vernon Hargreaves III, is there another cornerback worth talking about nationally?

Four cornerbacks were taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft. None were from the SEC. Only Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represented the league's secondaries in the first round.

The year prior, Dee Milliner, Eric Reid and Matt Elam were all drafted in the first round. In 2012, three SEC DBs were taken in the top 10 picks.

How many SEC DBs are projected to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft? According to the mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay in May, he expects only Collins and LSU's Jalen Mills to be taken Day 1.

Maybe the SEC is just catching up

To be fair, offenses deserve credit, too. Coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have challenged SEC defenses with their unique brand of spread-you-out, push-the-tempo offenses.

And therein lies the problem.

Big 12 football invaded the SEC when Sumlin, Malzahn and Freeze started entering the league in 2012. Since, it's become the norm to operate without a huddle and use multiple receiver sets. Passing has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Through three weeks of play, eight SEC quarterbacks rank in the top 50 nationally in Raw QBR. Five SEC QBs have thrown for eight or more touchdowns and more than half of the league's starters average more than 200 yards per game through the air.

The SEC might not be as dominant defensively as it used to, but it's still the best defensive league in the country.

From 2012 to now, no Power 5 conference has allowed fewer total yards per game or rushing yards per game, and only the Big Ten has allowed fewer passing yards per game.

Here's the breakdown in total yards allowed per game: SEC (369.0), Big Ten (370.7), ACC (374.0), Pac-12 (399.0) and Big 12 (401.7).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The true measure of any recruiting class' worth isn't fully realized until a couple of years down the road. Regardless of the hype and golden stars racked up before signing day, getting the most out of a class takes time.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRunning back Kelvin Taylor and the rest of the Florida Gators' underclassmen are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.
For Florida, that time might have to be now for its 2013 class following last season's 4-8 debacle. It's a class that ESPN's RecruitingNation ranked second nationally with its 30 signees and 16 ESPN 300 members and held the nation's best high school cornerback -- Vernon Hargreaves III -- and running back -- Kelvin Taylor. It grabbed a potential game-changing receiver in Demarcus Robinson and 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions.

The Gators will certainly need a lot from their upperclassmen, but the 2013 class could hold the key to Florida's present -- not just its future -- especially after a handful of its members were thrown into the SEC fire last season.

"We knew we wanted to come in and make an impact," said sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who caught 16 of his 17 passes in the final seven games of last season. "Not necessarily take someone's position or anything out of the ordinary, but we knew we had to come in and make an impact as a class and that's pretty much what we did."

For the most part, this class was mainly constructed of a group of contributors last season, with Hargreaves and Taylor being the headliners. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American member and ended up being one of the nation's best corners, leading the Gators with three interceptions and ranking third in the SEC with 14 passes defended. Taylor was a freshman All-SEC selection after rushing for 508 yards and four touchdowns.

Eleven members of the class lettered last season and collected 22 combined starts. With the majority of the class redshirting, even more is expected from this group, but players don't feel any added pressure. They don't mind the added responsibility.

"I feel like the guys who the coaches are looking at will definitely be able to step up," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "They know what to do and they know they're talented."

"These guys are ready to take on that role."

And it isn't just the talent and potential this class contains that has teammates and coaches trusting it. Once players saw injuries piling up, Taylor said the freshmen realized they were going to be counted on more so they started to buckle down with their preparation.

In a year in which this group could have resisted and pushed away from the core group, it grew closer and began to see older players looking up to them. Not even a year removed from high school, and this group was being relied on to help carry the team through some very dark weeks in 2013.

"You were a freshman, but they were depending on you to win games," Taylor said.

The wins didn't come, but resiliency did, redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. What impressed him the most was how this group continued to work through an exhausting seven-game losing streak.

"When you face adversity that you'll see in a 4-8 season, those guys kept fighting through all of it -- through the injuries, through the losses," Taylor said. "That's what shows that they have what it takes to take ownership of the team and lead us."

Moving forward, the contributions from this class will only grow. Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could be staples in Florida's secondary this year. Following a suspension-filled first year, Robinson has been one of the Gators' best offensive players during the offseason, and Fulwood has been even more consistent and could be a real vertical threat for the offense this fall.

Roderick Johnson is the next tackle in line after vets D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, while linebacker Alex Anzalone has a chance to see time in Florida's linebacker rotation.

Davis was pegged as an early leader for the Gators last season and is right in the thick of a battle for a starting spot. Joey Ivie and Jay-nard Bostwick are in the early rotation along the defensive line, and Caleb Brantley has the chance to play his way in to as well.

This group has barely scratched the surface, but Taylor said guys are playing faster and thinking less. Last year this class was asked to learn, now, Taylor believes it will lead. Then, well, Taylor expects big things ... soon.

"Our whole mindset was that we were going to come here together and try to win a national title," he said.

"Now that we're so close, like brothers, it's going to be special in the future. We're looking forward to it."
The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At SEC media days, coach Will Muschamp was asked when his Florida Gators hit rock bottom in 2013.

Naturally, it involved an injury.

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
AP Photo/John RaouxThe Gators lost tackle Tyler Moore for the remainder of the 2013 season after a scooter accident Nov. 5.
"On a Tuesday night, it was about 9:30, 10 at night," he said, recalling the night of Nov. 5. "I'm in the defensive staff room preparing third down for the next day. Our trainer Paul [Silvestri] knocks on the door. I come to the door. He's usually not there at 10 at night.

"What do you want?" Muschamp asked.

"Tyler Moore just wrecked on his scooter and broke his elbow," Silvestri said.

The thought that burst into Muschamp's mind was, "You've got to be kidding."

"I can't tell you exactly what I said, but it wasn't good," Muschamp said. "That was at a point where it was just very frustrating."

The final tally by UF officials was 21 injured players who missed a combined 126 games during the 2013 season. There were 15 season-ending injuries, including 10 to starters.

The Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, backup QB Tyler Murphy, starting tailback Matt Jones, defensive tackle Dominique Easley (their best player and most important leader), and most of the starting offensive line.

"It was rough," said right tackle Chaz Green, who missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in preseason camp. "I can only say it so many times. It was a rough year just going to practice in the training room and you see half the team in there."

Perhaps it was Moore's scooter accident, but at some point the rash of injuries smothered the team's spirit. It quelled any hopes of pulling out of the tailspin that turned into a season-ending seven-game losing streak.

"I haven't ever faced anything like that," Muschamp said.

No one had. Coaches and players just shook their heads, while Muschamp began an offseason quest for answers.

He spoke to medical experts like famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. He gathered UF's training staff and strength staff for a full day in his office.

"Honestly, I'm a football coach," Muschamp said. "I'm not a doctor, and I need to sit down and have someone explain to me why this happened.

"... We looked at a lot of stuff, went back and looked at film, looked at training methods. Are we doing the right thing? Absolutely. It just reaffirmed what we're doing."

One decision for fall camp was to cut down on midday practices on days after a two-a-day.

"I think we only have three or four," Muschamp said. "The midday practice was hard from the standpoint of the heat and also weather. Sometimes you get lightning.

"We're going to practice every morning. When we do have opportunities, per the rules, to have a two-a-day practice, [we'll] go later at night and a little lighter than we had been doing before, so it won't be as taxing for the players."

Just over a week into camp, Florida has avoided the big injury. But everyone seems aware of the threat.

Last Thursday, the Gators' first public practice was marred by an injury to the team's best player -- All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III -- that turned out to just be a bone bruise.

"Football is a tough game and injuries happen," Muschamp said the day after Hargreaves' injury sent chills throughout his team and fan base. "We had our share last year. We've just got to move forward."

There's a balancing act going on, as players are obviously conscious of injuries but know they can't let up, either.

"[Being hesitant is] the worst thing to do because generally injuries come when some guy is pulling up," Muschamp said. "I feel like we've addressed that with our team and I feel pretty comfortable where we are."

He's also addressed the scooter issue.

"There's been many a night I've thought about trying to ban them, but I don’t know if that’s the right thing," Muschamp said. "Be smart. Let's be responsible. No texting and scootering at the same time. We do have that rule."

Despite his best intentions, scooters and Gators continue to not mix well.

"Keanu Neal got fortunate," Muschamp said. "He had a tire slip this summer. His girlfriend is a gymnast. ... Nothing happened to her. He messed his finger up. She's a lot better athlete than him. I should have recruited her.

"But no, I haven't made that rule. It’s something we emphasize with our players. We tell them about it. They've got to understand being careful. But they can’t live in a glass bubble. You just can't do that."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The specter of last season's plague of injuries still looms over the Florida football program.

That much was obvious after the team's best player, sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, was hurt during Thursday night's practice, the team's first session that was open to the public.

The news spread like wildfire through the stands and on social media, reminding everyone of the Gators' protracted run of bad luck that started about a year ago. When the 2013 schedule was finished, and Florida's seven-game losing streak culminated in a 4-8 record, an astounding 15 players (10 of them starters) had suffered season-ending injuries.

Before Hargreaves' injury, which head coach Will Muschamp later announced was just a bone bruise, the Gators had been basking in the glow of good health.

Players and coaches were quick to recall how bad the injury situation was in camp a year ago when Florida was without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, starting running back Matt Jones and starting guard Jon Halapio before its first practice.

Having just one player unavailable this year (true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher is out after back surgery) offers an extremely sharp contrast. Muschamp called it "drastically different," and players said they were grateful for each healthy day.

"It feels good after every practice that everybody made it through with no injuries," sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor said on Wednesday. "That's the great part.

"This year we've just got to practice smart, practice fast and take care of our players. We'll be OK. We'll be fine."

The mood took a sudden turn when Hargreaves was helped off the field on Thursday night, and the rest of the practice was far more subdued on the field and in the stands.

Players crowded around Hargreaves in the medical tent, showing concern and looking for a prognosis before the All-SEC performer was carted off the field.

"A lot of people were definitely surprised," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said on Friday. "I was surprised myself. I really didn't know what was going on.

"Coach Muschamp addressed the team at the end of practice and I was kind of shocked to hear that somebody actually got hurt. And then just to hear that it was Vernon kind of sent a shock through everybody because of just what kind of impact he has for our team. It threw a lot of us off."

Ironically, it was a scuffle in practice that knocked Hargreaves out of action. Ironic, because injuries were the biggest factor in Florida's 4-8 record last season, and the team that had been channeling so much of its anger and frustration from 2013 into some very intense practices.

"I feel like fights are definitely a part of it," Davis said. "As football players, we're all trying to be out there and be aggressive and show how dominant we are as a player.

"... But now that Coach Muschamp has addressed it, we've all got that in the back of our head. We've got to take care of our team, got to take care of each other, because we're all we got right now."

Tussles in practice are nothing new, but neither is the injury bug that bit Florida so hard last year. The sight of Hargreaves limping brought back all of the pain and fear.

The drama ended a couple of hours later when Muschamp announced the star cornerback was day-to-day. A shaken fan base heaved a sigh of relief, hoping Thursday night's episode was a sign that the Gators' luck might be changing.

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

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