Through the first half of the season, Kentucky’s grades would have been much higher. The Wildcats started 5-1 and were one victory from becoming bowl eligible, and there was even some talk of winning the SEC East.

But that’s when the wheels fell off. Kentucky lost its final six games and missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. The program is still trending up under head coach Mark Stoops, but this season proved to be a difficult one for the fans.

Offense: Let’s start with the bright spots. Quarterback Patrick Towles looked to be the right choice early in the season, making throws some of us didn’t think he was capable of making. He tailed off down the stretch, but that wasn’t all on him. The running game was a disappointment given the talent in Kentucky’s backfield, but the emergence of freshman Stanley “Boom” Williams gives fans hope for the future. Williams rushed for 100 yards or more twice in the final three games and averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the season. The struggles came primarily up front on an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks and 84 tackles for loss. Grade: C

Defense: This was supposed to be the strength of the Wildcats, and it looked to be just that through the first six games. They were getting to the quarterback, forcing turnovers -- everything you want from your defense. However, it all changed after a 41-3 beatdown at LSU on Oct. 18. Kentucky allowed 40 or more points in five of its last six games, and the sacks, turnovers and third-down stops, they all dropped off significantly. It was embarrassing for Stoops, who prides himself on defense. Grade: C-minus

Special teams: Thanks to freshman kicker Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky led the SEC in field goals made. MacGinnis finished 21 of 27 on the year, including three field goals of 50 or more yards. He was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press. The rest of the special-teams unit? Not so great. The Wildcats finished toward the bottom of the conference in both kick and punt coverage and allowed an SEC-worst four return touchdowns. Punter Landon Foster was middle-of-the-pack, averaging 42.58 yards per punt. Grade: C

Coaching: It wasn’t the season Kentucky was hoping for, but Stoops and his staff deserve some credit. There was significant improvement from their first year, and for the first time in a while, Wildcats fans were talking about football rather than basketball in early October. The second-half collapse doesn’t look good, but the team didn’t ever give up. They played tough against Mississippi State (ranked No. 1 at the time), and in the season finale at Louisville, which came down to the final possession. A win there and this team goes bowling. Grade: B-minus

Overall: It’s amazing how much a bowl game and a bowl victory can change what was otherwise a mediocre season. Just ask Tennessee. But Kentucky wasn’t afforded that luxury. The six-game slide sealed this team’s fate. But let’s not forget that the Wildcats did win their first SEC game since 2011, ending a 17-game conference losing streak. And they were just one play away from beating Florida for the first time in 28 years. Those are signs of a program making progress, and while this season turned sour in a hurry, the future remains bright. Grade: C
Missouri’s 11-3 season with an SEC East Division title and a bowl win meant there were plenty of good performances across the board. But there are still areas that could use improvement heading into 2015 and we look at one of them today:

Position to improve: Quarterback.

Why it was a problem: Missouri ranked 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game and 13th in yards per attempt. Against SEC competition (including the SEC title game), Maty Mauk completed only 48.9 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns to seven interceptions in those nine games. The Tigers want to take the next step from SEC East Division champions to SEC champions, and improved play at quarterback has to be part of that equation. Mauk is a playmaker who can make great throws, improvise with his feet and produce highlight-worthy plays, but more consistency is needed from him if the Tigers are going to move into elite status.

How it can be fixed: Gary Pinkel voiced confidence in Mauk, even during his struggles, saying, “He’s our guy” in the aftermath of the Tigers’ 34-0 loss to Georgia in October. The Tigers then reeled off six straight wins. It stands to reason that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Mauk will remain Mizzou’s guy heading into his junior season. So it’s on Mauk simply to play better in 2015. The Tigers are 14-4 when Mauk starts, so despite some shaky play at times, Missouri has still been successful with Mauk behind center. Backup quarterback Eddie Printz, a redshirt freshman last season, attempted only one pass in three appearances in 2014. Corbin Berkstresser, the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, will be a senior this fall. The Tigers are bringing in a highly touted prospect at the position, ESPN 300 quarterback Drew Lock, a four-star prospect who is the No. 107 overall player nationally and the sixth-ranked pocket passer. Lock, an in-state prospect from Lee’s Summit High, is a nice acquisition, but this will still be Mauk’s team going into 2015.

Early 2015 outlook: With an offseason to improve and 18 starts under his belt, next season has some potential for Mauk. Can he improve his completion percentage and lower his interception total? If he can without taking away from his improvisational ability and style that makes him compelling to watch, it would be huge for the Tigers’ offense. Missouri says goodbye to its three leading receivers from 2014 – Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White – who were all seniors. Mauk has to quickly establish a rapport with the new crop of pass catchers, if he can, it bodes well for the Tigers. Moments like this one and the way he finished the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota provide optimism. If Mauk can play that way more consistently, the Tigers will be in good shape.

Recruit breakdown: DT Daylon Mack 

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What he brings: Daylon Mack is a compact, but thickly built and powerful defensive tackle who is capable of being a disruptive force in the trenches. He lacks some in ideal height, but built like a powder keg the five-star can quickly explode off the ball and create problems. With a quick first-step and good snap anticipation, Mack is capable of blowing up plays in the backfield, but strong and with a low center of gravity, he is tough to move and control even when blockers can get a piece of him. He may be closer to his ceiling of development than most of the five-star prospects, but is a pretty darn good player at this stage. If he can continue to refine his technique and manage his weight, he has demonstrated the tools needed to be a handful at the college level and likely can begin causing havoc soon after hitting campus.

Season report card: LSU Tigers

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BATON ROUGE, La. – The 2014 season was one of growing pains at LSU – which was to be expected because of the massive draft hit the Tigers absorbed the last two years.

But LSU fans are not accustomed to seeing the Tigers finish with an 8-5 record, and that’s exactly what they got when Les Miles' team lost three of its last four games. Let’s recap:

Offense: D. There were times where the running game was clicking, the offensive line was shoving around opponents and LSU’s offense looked decent. But on those days where Leonard Fournette & Co. couldn’t carry the Tigers, Cam Cameron’s offense could be truly unpleasant to watch. Anthony Jennings had a rocky first season as the starting quarterback and the passing game was the nation’s worst. Vanderbilt (17.2 points per game) was the only SEC team to average fewer points per game than LSU’s 27.6.

Defense: B. It’s tempting to award LSU a better grade here because of the progress it made over the course of the season. After all, the Tigers led the SEC and ranked ninth nationally in total defense by allowing 316.8 yards per game. But let’s remember, the group also put together two of the worst defensive outings in the Miles era – they surrendered 570 yards in a loss to Mississippi State and 560 in a blowout loss to Auburn – and that drags down the overall grade.

Special teams: C. This grade was higher for most of the season, but a late-season downturn at place-kicker hurt the Tigers’ score. There was a time where Colby Delahoussaye was nearly perfect as a field-goal kicker, but he missed three of his last four field goals and eventually gave way to Trent Domingue. Punter Jamie Keehn had a solid season (44.9 yards per punt), but the Tigers struggled in punt coverage at times. Overall, it was an OK season on special teams. Not great, not awful.

Coaching: C-minus. LSU matched its worst record in Miles’ decade as the Tigers’ coach, so the season overall was a disappointment. To their credit, however, LSU made obvious progress over the course of the season. The Tigers easily could have been a 10-win team had they not allowed possible victories to slip away in the closing minutes against Alabama and Notre Dame. Instead, a young team struggled mightily at times and finished the season with a thud.

Overall: C. The season was a disappointment considering the lofty standard that Miles has set at LSU, but there are signs of potential here. The defensive line improved greatly throughout the season and the defense wound up becoming the strength of the team. Quarterback play was largely atrocious, and the passing game in general struggled throughout. We can’t give an eight-win team a grade any higher than a C, but this looks like a group that could fare better in the fall after learning on the job in 2014.
Mississippi State did a lot of good things on defense this season under Geoff Collins, who left prior to the Orange Bowl to take the defensive coordinator's position at Florida. The Bulldogs were outstanding in the red zone and on third down, racked up 36 sacks and intercepted 16 passes. But where they struggled was stopping the big plays, particularly in the passing game.

That last line of defense wasn't nearly as dependable as it needed to be, whether it was making key tackles that could have prevented big gains or preventing opposing receivers from getting behind the coverage.

Position to improve: Safety

Why it was a problem: The Bulldogs were 114th nationally in passing defense, giving up 272.8 yards per game. It's true that their pressure style put the defensive backs in some tough spots, but too many times big gains turned into backbreaking gains or even touchdowns. In losing three of their last four games, the Bulldogs allowed 13 plays of 30 yards or longer in those three losses. Nine of the 13 were passing plays. Even in the loss to run-heavy Georgia Tech in the bowl game, the Bulldogs gave up a 41-yard touchdown pass to go down 14-0 and were later burned on a 69-yard touchdown run. Losing junior safety Kendrick Market to a torn Achilles in the first quarter against Ole Miss didn't help matters, and Justin Cox never developed into the kind of difference-maker the Bulldogs thought he would be when he came over from junior college. What's more, senior safety Jay Hughes was coming back from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the final 12 games of the 2013 season.

How it can be fixed: The outlook overall in the secondary is better than some might think. In fact, the Bulldogs should be fairly strong at cornerback, which will only help as they sort out matters at safety. Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond both return for their senior seasons at cornerback, and Redmond was playing as well as any of the Mississippi State defensive backs when the season ended. The Bulldogs will also get back Cedric Jiles, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury. He's the kind of speedy athlete who will find his way onto the field somewhere in the secondary. Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman will both be juniors. They both played some this season, but will be counted on to move into bigger roles.

Early 2015 outlook: Manny Diaz is back as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. He headed up the Bulldogs' defense in 2010 and was renowned for the way he attacked offenses with an array of different blitzes. To play that way, you're obviously vulnerable in the secondary at times, which means solidifying the safety spots will be critical. Market, coming off his torn Achilles, probably won't be fully recovered for the start of the season. It's a big offseason for redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant. The Bulldogs almost pulled his redshirt this past season. He has a nose for the ball and anticipates well. Evans and Coman will also factor prominently into the rotation, and one of the biggest names on the recruiting board is Jamal Peters, the No. 2 safety prospect in the country and a Mississippi State commitment. Several other schools are still in hot pursuit. The 6-3, 200-pound Peters is a big-time tackler and could help the Bulldogs immediately.
It was a memorable season for Mississippi State on several fronts. The Bulldogs surged to No. 1 in the polls for five weeks and won 10 games in the regular season for the first time in school history. The downer was that they lost their last two games, including the regular-season finale to rival Ole Miss, snuffing out any chance they had of making the College Football Playoff.

Offense: B-plus. Quarterback Dak Prescott enjoyed a tremendous junior season and was a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate much of the way. He led the SEC in total offense, averaging 341.2 yards per game, and tied for fifth nationally in touchdowns accounted for (42). Balance was the name of the game for the Bulldogs, who were the only team in the SEC to rush for more than 200 yards per game and pass for more than 250 yards per game in league contests. The only thing that keeps this from being an A is that the Bulldogs hit the skids toward the end of the season. In three of their last four SEC games, they were held to 20 points or fewer, and two of those were losses. They still averaged 33.8 points per game against SEC competition.

Defense: C-plus. This is a tough one to grade because the Bulldogs were disruptive in their front seven and did a lot of the things you need to do defensively to have a big season. They led the country in red zone defense, giving up just 19 touchdowns in 44 red zone possessions. And in SEC games, they were first in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 32.8 percent of the time. However, the Bulldogs also gave up way too many big plays in the passing game and finished last in the league in passing defense (272.8 yards per game) and 12th in total defense (424.4 yards per game). They were ultra-aggressive on defense, and at times, it cost them. They gave up more than 30 points five times, including their last two losses.

Special teams: B. Mississippi State kicked the ball well and covered kicks well. Christian Holmes even returned an onside kick 61 yards for a touchdown to seal the 45-31 win over Kentucky. The Bulldogs also blocked four kicks. Sophomore place-kicker Evan Sobiesk was 12-of-14 on field goals, while junior punter Devon Bell finished fifth in the SEC in punting with a 43.2-yard average and had 18 downed inside the 20. The only real blip was that the Bulldogs missed an SEC-high four extra points.

Coaching: B-plus. In his sixth season, Dan Mullen did one of his better coaching jobs and had been building toward this with a veteran team. Yes, his critics will point to the fact that he lost to both Alabama and Ole Miss, but it’s not every day that the Bulldogs ascend to No. 1 in the country and win 10 games in the regular season. Mississippi State’s offensive ineptitude in the red zone against Alabama was a killer, and while Geoff Collins’ defense really came after people and held SEC foes to an average of 22.5 points per game, the Bulldogs gave up too many explosive plays to be a championship defense.

Overall: B-plus. In the grand scheme of things, this was probably an "A" season for the Bulldogs. They weren’t even a top 25 team when the season began and spent five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country. They beat Auburn, beat LSU and lost by five points at Alabama. Unfortunately, they also lost three of their last four games, and in the season-ending losses to Ole Miss and then Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, gave up a total of 80 points and 1,109 total yards. Being outplayed in those last two games blurred what was an otherwise special season. But the mere fact that Mississippi State was even in the College Football Playoff conversation in late November speaks to what kind of season it was in Starkville.

Our favorite plays of the year

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It was another season of record-setting performances, unbelievable finishes and very large men scoring very big touchdowns. And, yes, the Fainting Goat.

Here are our favorite plays of the year:

Hail Marys

Bahamas Bowl miracle

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Central Michigan trailed by 35 points entering the fourth quarter. It trailed by seven when it pulled off a 75-yard, three-lateral Hail Mary as the clock struck :00. The Chippewas failed on the two-point conversion, but their comeback and miracle finish was the craziest play of bowl season.

Central Florida wins a share of the AAC

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After blowing a 26-9 fourth-quarter lead, it looked as if Central Florida was done. But East Carolina mismanaged the clock -- taking three knees and a sack -- before giving the ball back to the Knights with 10 seconds left. One 51-yard score later, George O'Leary's crew was celebrating a share of a conference championship.

Solomon stuns Cal

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Arizona scored an absurd 36 points in the fourth quarter, capped by Anu Solomon hitting Austin Hill in the end zone on a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win.

Big-guy touchdowns

Come to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs

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Who said Bret Bielema offenses were old school? Arkansas' coach loves his linemen, and here he lets 350-pound guard Sebastian Tretola throw for a score in a 45-17 win over UAB.

The biggest of big-guy touchdowns

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Tretola's pass was nice, but how about seeing a 400-pounder go up the seam for an 18-yard score in a New Year's Six bowl game? That's what Art Briles and Baylor dreamed up, as Laquon McGowan scored to give Baylor a 20-point lead before Michigan State stormed back to win 42-41.

Boise goes back to the future


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Everyone remembers Boise State's introduction to a national college football audience, upsetting Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Well, the Broncos brought it back for this year's game, as Jay Ajayi scored from 16 yards out in a 38-30 Boise win.

Fainting Goat gets its own category


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Arkansas State can lay claim to the best worst fake punt ever. In theory, one player falls down, draws the attention of the defense and the Red Wolves get a first down. In reality, he got clobbered and Arkansas State's pass was intercepted. But that only made us love it more.

So does this Nebraska false start


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Poor Jake Cotton. The Nebraska lineman was just trying to hold his stance, but once all 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds of him starting going backward, there was no turning back.

Year of the freshman RB

Leonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M

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It was an up-and-down year for the heavily hyped Fournette, but he certainly showed signs of why such big things were expected out of him. Just ask Howard Matthews, who got bowled over on Fournette's way to the end zone in LSU's 23-17 win.

Dalvin Cook runs past Miami

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Florida State had fallen behind again. This time, it was 23-10 to rival Miami. But Cook saved the day, with 44- and 26-yard scores to guide the Seminoles to a 30-26 victory.

Royce Freeman can do it all

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Freeman could be a game-changer for the Ducks, the kind of every-down power back the team hasn't had in the past. And he can throw it too, as he proved with this touchdown toss to Marcus Mariota against Arizona.

Samaje Perine an Oklahoma bright spot

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Oklahoma's year certainly ended poorly, but the Sooners have hope for the future following the emergence of Perine. He set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards (and five scores) in a win over Kansas. This 64-yard TD scamper jump-started a comeback win for Oklahoma.

Nick Chubb shatters records in Belk Bowl

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No Todd Gurley? No problem for the Bulldogs, who saw Nick Chubb announce himself as perhaps the best of all the freshman runners with a dominant 266-yard performance against a tough Louisville run defense. It was the most rushing yards by a Georgia back in a bowl and also a Belk Bowl mark.

More top plays

Nebraska's behind-the-back catch

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It was all the way back in August, but this held up as one of the best plays of the year. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp went behind the back to grab a pass during a 55-7 Cornhuskers win over Florida Atlantic.

Ohio State DE ends game like a Bosa

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A running back on Joey Bosa? Yeah, that's not going to end well. As dominant as Ohio State was down the stretch, it wouldn't have happened had the Buckeyes not taken care of Penn State. Bosa made sure they finally did, with a 31-24 double-overtime win.

Mariota strikes a pose

Marcus MariotaBrian Davies/The Register-Guard Marcus Mariota looked the part of a Heisman Trophy winner in Oregon's win over Oregon State.

Ohio State reverse touchdown pass

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Of all the plays on this list, this is the most important. Trailing Alabama 21-13 in the final seconds of the first half, Evan Spencer took a handoff on a reverse and somehow found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The lesson? Even Ohio State's receivers are great quarterbacks.

Gordon leaps into record books (briefly)

video Melvin Gordon's stay atop the record book for single-game rushing yards may have lasted only a week, but that does nothing to diminish his magical performance against Nebraska, when he ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Cornhuskers.

Air Maxx

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Minnesota may have lost its bowl game, but the Golden Gophers still had the highlight of the game, as tight end Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders en route to a 54-yard touchdown. So it's probably no surprise that Williams declared for the NFL draft after this game.

Shaq brings it baq

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You can't do much more than a 99-yard touchdown return, and that's exactly what Shaq Thompson did for Washington to kick off the scoring in a 31-7 win over Cal.

Position that needs improvement: LSU

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BATON ROUGE, La. – When it comes to the position that LSU most needs to improve in 2015, there is only one reasonable choice.

Sure, we could discuss the wide receivers or the pass rush off the edge, but if the Tigers are to contend in the SEC West, they have to perform better at quarterback.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: LSU has had some mediocre seasons in the passing game under Les Miles, but 2014 was the low-water mark. The Tigers had the worst passing offense in the SEC (162.9 yards per game) and ranked 114th nationally. There were times when they struggled to complete even simple passes that should have kept drives alive, but instead resulted in punts. For the most part, if a defense was able to slow down the Tigers’ running game, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were completely unable to move the chains with completions. The blame largely falls on Jennings’ shoulders, as he started 12 games but passed for at least 200 yards just once (in the opener against Wisconsin) and completed more than 50 percent of his passes in just four games. Harris, a true freshman last season, received far less playing time – and he gave a couple of promising early performances – but there were also times when it looked like he had no idea what he was doing on the field.

How it can be fixed: By this point, it seems as though we know what Jennings can do. He might be able to progress if he gets a second season as a starter, but his strength at quarterback seems to be in his leadership and rapport with his teammates, not his skills. Granted, he was largely able to avoid catastrophic errors – he threw only seven interceptions – but Jennings was not accurate or aggressive enough as a passer. LSU’s offense would likely be more dangerous with Harris under center, as he clearly possesses more electric skills. The question is whether he can put it all together and win the job. It appeared as though he might do that after back-to-back strong efforts against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but Harris’ disastrous start in a 41-7 loss at Auburn put an end to his playing in any important situations. This will be a huge spring for both players, as Miles has said the starting job is open again.

Early 2015 outlook: There has been offseason buzz about LSU accepting a quarterback transfer from a high-profile program – and we can’t rule out that possibility with any certainty – but for now it appears that the starter will be either Jennings or Harris again. With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, it seems reasonable to expect LSU to remain a run-first offense, but it has to do a better job in the passing game to become a championship contender. There were times last fall when LSU’s offense was completely awful, and Jennings’ shortcomings as a passer were the biggest reason why the problem existed. It will be a major issue for LSU if one of two things doesn’t happen: one, Jennings wins the job again and plays at a much higher level; or two, Harris proves he has a grasp of the offense, claims the starting job and allows Cam Cameron to open up the playbook. Either of those outcomes would signal progress. The status quo will not be good enough.

Malzahn leads list of best playcallers 

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This week, I asked a few coaches what constituted a good playcaller. Balance was one consistent element, both in terms of run and pass calls as well as taking shots downfield. Creating and leveraging mismatches, finding space for playmakers, was another.

Another characteristic -- confidence -- was a bit more abstract. Coaches said a proper playcaller has to take control of a game rather than allowing a defensive coordinator to get the upper hand.

It’s a chess game in the gladiator arena, and one coach said “bravado” is required.

“Always be on the attack,” he said, “regardless of down, distance, score or time of the game.”

Here are 10 playcallers -- coordinators and head coaches -- who most embody those elements.

1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach
Even though the Auburn offense is built on the same few basic run plays, Malzahn continues to frustrate defensive coordinators.

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HOOVER, Ala. – It started with a dream, the dream to play Division I football. Next Wednesday, four high school teammates will become one step closer to turning that goal into a reality when they sign with their respective schools.

The only catch? The quartet from Hoover High School will be choosing four different colleges.

“It was kind of a dream that we’d play together,” ESPN 300 linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I still think that would be cool if we could all four go to the same school, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where’s best for you.”

In four years at Hoover, they won three state championships and finished with a record of 42-3. But now Williams (Auburn), Christian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin) and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) are on to the next chapter, and each is paving his own way.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Williams
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNDarrell Williams grew up an Alabama fan, but Auburn turned out to be a better fit for him.
The pretty boy

Off the field, that’s what teammates call Williams -- he’s always fixing his hair, he’s the last to leave the locker room after the game, you get the idea -- but on the field, it’s a different story. He still likes to look good, but he likes to look good making plays.

At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Williams has a rare combination of size and speed, and the scary part is he’s not done filling out his frame.

“He can cover a lot of grass,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s a great blitzer, but he’s a great dropper. He can play inside or outside. But he brings something to the table with length and athleticism that you don’t normally see out of a lot of kids.”

Williams grew up an Alabama fan. He always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. But when it came time to make his college decision, Alabama wasn’t ready to accept his commitment. The coaches wanted to see him in camp first. That didn’t sit well with Williams, especially after seeing one of his teammates commit in April, around the same time he was ready to make a decision.

Two weeks later, Williams gave his verbal pledge to Auburn.

He developed a bond with the Auburn coaches that got stronger with every visit. Though the last two months have been a whirlwind with all the coaching changes, he remains firm to Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.

Finally, he can say he’s 100 percent committed.

“It feels good,” Williams said recently after his official visit to Auburn. “It’s kind of a relief because this whole process has been kind of stressful.”

The freak

Bell is the type of player quarterbacks have nightmares about. He’s 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has a quick first step and when he gets around the edge, look out.

He’s also the teammate who committed to Alabama in April when the staff told Williams to hold off. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is more talented, but maybe he’s a better fit for Nick Saban’s defense. Or maybe the coaches saw a certain edge about him, an attitude that leads to his intense and aggressive demeanor on the field.

His teammates, who have been with him since middle school, still have trouble describing him.

“Christian is Christian,” one said.

“I don’t know what word can describe Christian,” another said.

Shaw probably said it best.

“He’s the freak,” Shaw said. “In practice, he’ll give the offensive lineman a move and just do whatever he wants. He manhandles people.”

Surprisingly, Alabama wasn’t always the choice for Bell. He, too, weighed his options before making his commitment and admits that Mississippi State and UCLA were very much in the mix at that time. Both schools offered a better chance at early playing time.

But that’s not what Bell was interested in. He understands he’s just another name in Alabama’s star-studded recruiting class, and that’s the way he likes it.

“We haven’t really talked about playing time because if they say I’m going to start, I don’t really want to know that,” Bell said. “I want to just go in there and work.”

The quiet one

[+] EnlargeChristian Bell, Bradrick Shaw, Justin Johnson
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNChristian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin), and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) will join Darrell Williams as Hoover (Ala.) players headed to FBS schools.
A week ago, Shaw was the only uncommitted member of the Hoover quartet. The four-star running back didn’t have the luxury of staying in state with both Alabama and Auburn loaded at his position.

“They’re in state, but I guess they got the players who they wanted,” Shaw said. “I can’t do anything about it.”

Instead, his choice came down to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. Many predicted that he would sign with the Commodores given the proximity to home and the opportunity to play in the SEC. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shaw chose the road less traveled.

“I’m OK to go out of the SEC,” he said. “The Big Ten is nice, too. They produce great running backs every year. Of course, Ohio State won this year. It’s elite talent just competing. SEC is one of the best conferences, but the Big Ten is pretty nice, too.”

It fits his personality. Go to a school where nobody knows you, keep your head down, work hard, and maybe become the next Melvin Gordon.

It’s the same attitude that helped Shaw get on the field at Hoover as a freshman. It’s what made him better every season and what ultimately turned him into a star. But you would never hear that from him.

“I’m not quiet,” Shaw said. “But I’m kind of like the most normal guy. All the other guys are crazy.”

The underdog

There was a time when Johnson didn’t know if he’d be part of the group. He didn’t know if he’d have the same opportunity as the others. They all had received Division I scholarship offers by the beginning of last year, but he was still waiting on his.

“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Thinking about it really does upset me sometimes, but you get over it. You don’t realize it, but it makes you go harder.”

“Of course everybody wants to be ranked high and stuff like that. That’s every kid’s dream. Sometimes things just don’t work out as you expect they would. I’m not upset about it or anything. It’s just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head and drives you.”

Eventually, the offers came. The three-star wide receiver was offered by Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a handful of smaller schools.

When it was time to make a decision, the choice was easy. Johnson committed to Mississippi State because it’s a program that reflects his attitude. Since Dan Mullen arrived, they have exceeded expectations just like he has done throughout his career at Hoover and just like he plans to do when he arrives in Starkville.

“I see that underdog mentality,” he said. “You never know what to expect.”

Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit and Josh Robinson a two-star prospect who both became stars with the Bulldogs. Johnson is hoping to become the latest in that line of under-the-radar stars.

SEC morning links

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1. I hate to start the day off with this, but it needs to be addressed. Two ex-Vanderbilt football players were convicted of rape Wednesday, and two more are still awaiting trial. It’s a black eye for the school, for the conference and for college football. The verdict likely gave some closure to the victim, but this is not going away anytime soon for the Commodores football program. Is it fair for head coach Derek Mason who took over after the incident occurred? No, but he’s the one who will have to deal with the consequences. One can only hope that the culture has changed under Mason's watch. And maybe all this will send a message to other student-athletes. Here’s to not having to address these types of issues as often in college football.

2. On a different note, we are officially one week from national signing day. Who’s ready? ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage next Wednesday with more than 15 live commitments and reporters on different college campuses across the country. There’s plenty of intrigue with six of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 still uncommitted, and some believe Auburn, Florida and USC will make the most noise on signing day. The biggest name to watch will be five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who is in the middle of a Lone Star recruiting battle for the ages. Will he stick with his current Texas A&M commitment or will he flip to the Longhorns and go play for head coach Charlie Strong? We’ll have to wait and see.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

Official visits, unofficial visits, in home visits and everything else one can possibly think of is happening with one week until national signing day, Feb. 4. As expected, Twitter is abuzz right now with information flowing constantly all day and night.

Here is a look at some highlights from Tuesday.

@HamiltonESPN: ESPN300 five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson headed to Florida on Tuesday afternoon for an unofficial following a trip to Ole Miss and Alabama over the weekend. In a recruitment that could go a number of different directions, the Rebels and Gators are the best bets to be standing on national signing day unless Auburn can pull the upset. Jefferson is scheduled to visit LSU this weekend, followed by a national signing day announcement live on ESPN.

@HamiltonESPN: Nick Saban was in South Florida on Tuesday, and one of his stops was Coconut Creek High. The reason is simple -- Coconut Creek is home to a trio of ESPN Junior 300 prospects, including top cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who has an Alabama offer.

Season report card: Missouri Tigers

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An SEC East championship, a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and double-digit wins add up to a good season in Columbia, Missouri. Let’s grade how the Tigers did in 2014:

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRush end Shane Ray led a defense that propelled Missouri back to the SEC title game.
Offense: C-. The Tigers didn’t exactly light it up offensively. Missouri finished 70th in the country in points per game (27.8), 95th in yards per game (367) and 80th in yards per play (5.39). Quarterback play was often inconsistent, but the running game – powered by Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy – was the strength, where Missouri averaged 177.86 rushing yards per game. The Tigers were solid on third downs, converting 42.9 percent of their chances. There were six games that the Tigers gained 322 yards or fewer, which in the current era is subpar.

Defense: A-. This is where Missouri shined this season and is probably the biggest reason the Tigers returned to the SEC title game. Mizzou ranked in the top 27 nationally in scoring defense (21.1), yards allowed per game (346.6), rushing (133.86) and pass yards per attempt (6.3). The Tigers were tops in the SEC in sacks (44) and sack percentage (8.5 percent) and boasted one of the nation’s best pass-rushing duos, Shane Ray (14.5 sacks) and Markus Golden (10 sacks).

Special teams: B. Missouri’s return game, led by the dynamic Murphy, was excellent. Murphy averaged 29.6 yards per kickoff return and had two touchdowns and averaged 10.4 yards per punt return and another touchdown. As a team, Missouri was No. 8 nationally in kickoff return average (24.65) and 25th in punt return average (10.4). Placekicking could’ve been better (Andrew Baggett was 18-of-25 on field goals and 43-of-45 on PATs) and kickoff coverage was near the bottom nationally, as the Tigers allowed 24.85 yards per kickoff return (116th nationally).

Coaching: A. This was a team most observers left for dead after losses to Indiana and Georgia in September and October, respectively. All Gary Pinkel and Co. did was focus the Tigers enough to reel off six straight wins to clinch the Tigers’ second consecutive SEC East title, despite an offense that didn’t always click. Perhaps the best endorsement of the job the coaching staff did is Missouri’s continued road success: The Tigers were perfect in true road games this season for the second straight year.

Overall: A-minus. An 11-3 season with a divisional title and a bowl win is a good one any way you slice it. The only thingsthat can bump up the grade is for the Tigers to avoid ugly losses like the ones they took early and getting over the hump and actually winning the SEC, which is certainly on the Tigers’ to-do list. That will take some gradual improvement but so far Missouri has two SEC East titles, two more than anyone outside Missouri expected three years into SEC membership.

Recruit breakdown: DE CeCe Jefferson 

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What he brings: CeCe Jefferson possesses a nice blend of size and athleticism that can allow him to be a disruptive and versatile front-seven defender. This is a prospect with very good height, bulk, and strength at this stage, and coupled with his first-step quickness and range he can create problems as both a run defender and pass-rusher. A physical player, he has the size and strength to set the edge when he stays low, and is also quick enough to shoot gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield at times. He needs to continue to develop, but has the tools to be a handful coming after the quarterback, with the ability overpower blockers or quickly work around them. When he keeps his 'foot on the gas pedal' he can be a factor in pursuit with very good redirect skills and range for his size. Jefferson moved around defensively quite a bit in high school, and a more singular focus should help aid his development in the little things, though he will likely continue to be aligned differently some at the college level to take advantage of his athleticism and create mismatches. The five-star did miss most of his senior season with a shoulder injury, but it shouldn’t take long for him to shake off any rust. Once healthy and with full maximization of his ability, Jefferson can be a disruptive defensive playmaker at the college level.


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There were times when Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles looked like a future star in the SEC. Some even went as far as to say that he had the most NFL potential of any starter in the conference. But he was a different player down the stretch. He threw for more than 200 yards just once during the Wildcats' six-game slide to end the season.

The solution isn't to replace to Towles. The talent is there and so is the potential. But Kentucky must find and develop some weapons in the passing game to help the young signal caller.

Position to improve: Wide receiver

Why it was a problem: Kentucky's leading receiver, sophomore Ryan Timmons, finished with a mere 536 yards on the season. Nineteen other SEC players finished ahead of Timmons in yards, and every team other than Vanderbilt had at least one player with more yards. Granted, Javess Blue was right behind Timmons with 525 yards, but there was clearly no go-to wide receiver for Towles and the Wildcats. Timmons and Blue had just three games of more than 100 yards receiving between them, and the duo only accounted for seven receiving touchdowns on the season. The stats look even worse if you go beyond those two. There were simply no big plays, no consistency and very little improvement among the wide receivers, and it was a major reason why you saw Towles and this offense regress in the second half of the season.

How it can be fixed: There's hope. For one, Towles will be better in 2015. He'll have another offseason to train, get stronger and develop a rapport with his wide receivers. Second and maybe more importantly, Kentucky is bringing in Shannon Dawson as its new offensive coordinator. Dawson comes from West Virginia where he was known for running a pass-happy offense. This past season, the Mountaineers featured Kevin White, one of the nation's top wide receivers, and had three wideouts with more yards than Timmons. The Wildcats might not put up those kind of numbers in Dawson's first season, but it's a step in the right direction and one that has to have fans excited about the future in Lexington.

Early 2015 outlook: Timmons is back and could be poised for a breakout season. However, both Blue and Demarco Robinson are gone, which means it's up to the young guns -- Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and T.V. Williams -- to step up and play a bigger role in 2015. All four played as true freshmen and all four made an impact at some point during the season. Johnson, in particular, flashed his potential with six catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns in a double overtime loss at Florida but was quiet the rest of the year. Fellow freshmen Thaddeus Snodgrass is another name to keep an eye on. He redshirted his first season on campus, but the former ESPN 300 star was the highest ranked of any of the wide receivers in Kentucky's 2014 class. He'll likely factor into the mix when the Wildcats return to practice this spring.

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