SEC: Kentucky

It all starts up front. So if you’re looking ahead to project which teams will have the best defenses in the SEC next season, look no further than the defensive line. Because if they’re on, the linebackers and secondary will be better off for it.

It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:

1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.

2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.

3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.

4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.

5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.

6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.

7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.

9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.

10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.

11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.

13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.

14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.
You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.

SEC morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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You can feel the buzz emanating from Indianapolis, can't you?

We know you want to know all about the NFL scouting combine, and we've got you covered. Tweet of the day

One of these things is not like the other ...

SEC morning links

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
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1. Ah, the mythical "Bama bias." You may have heard how it pertains to recruits. Well, it cuts both ways, apparently. Because just as players are hyped upon their entry to Alabama, they're devalued on their way out. As one scout told NJ.com of T.J. Yeldon, "He's a little overrated, because he's coming from Alabama." Um, what? Overanalyzed maybe, but not overrated. If anything, Yeldon's accomplishments were minimized over time. As soon as he rushed for 1,000 yards as a true freshman, he was old hat and people were ready for the next big thing. But don't sleep on Yeldon. He may not have the flash of other running backs, but he's the complete package. Here's what former NFL great Shaun Alexander told me of Yeldon's pro prospects in December:
He will be a steal wherever he goes. Teams will get him and say that the all-day running back is dead, the guys that could take 30 carries and catch three, four passes. The idea of that guy no longer being needed, he will allow people to think, ‘Well, if you want to you can.’ That’s what’s going to make him a great steal because he will open up the coaches’ eyes wherever he goes to that, ‘You know what? We can use this guy all day and in any situation.’

2. No, Mike Debord was not what you'd call a "sexy" hire at Tennessee. He's 59 years old and hasn't coached in two years. But it's hard to shake the feeling that this was the right hire by coach Butch Jones. After all, the roots of Jones' offense come from Debord. And it's that intimate understanding that should make the fit work out so well. With an established system, an emerging QB and a solid set of skill players, Debord needs only to "enhance" the offense and add a few "wrinkles" to help get the Vols over the hump and competing for the SEC East crown.

3. Derek Mason is taking a "going back to genesis" approach toward the start of spring practice at Vanderbilt. Sounds intense, right? But after a 3-9 campaign last season, it may take more than 40 days and 40 nights to get the Commodores back on track. With an overhauled coaching staff and no clear answer at quarterback, something has to get Vanderbilt headed in the right direction again. After all, it was only a few years ago that James Franklin put together back-to-back nine-win seasons.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
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On Tuesday, we released our too-early conference rankings. By now, most of you have seen that Georgia, Auburn and Alabama were the top three. But the great thing about ranking teams is that there are so many ways to dissect them. With that said, I thought it would be interesting to come up with a few superlatives heading into the 2015 season.
  • Highest ceiling: There are questions galore for Alabama, but when you bring in three consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes and are running out the clock on a fourth, you don't worry about potential.
  • Safest bet: Georgia's schedule is manageable and running back Nick Chubb is sensational. Jeremy Pruitt brought the defense along last season, and further progress there could mean an East crown.
  • Wild card: Does anyone in the SEC have more young talent on offense than Texas A&M? If John Chavis can coax a heartbeat out of the defense, watch out for the Aggies.
  • Sleeper: It's a scary place to be one quarterback away, but that's where LSU is today. With Leonard Fournette at running back and a solid defense, the only missing ingredient is a passing game.
  • Spoiler: Kentucky is only getting better. With Patrick Towles, a Ben Roethlisberger clone, back at QB and a roster steadily improving thanks to the staff's work on the recruiting trail, the Wildcats are a team no one wants to see on the schedule.
Around the SEC
  • At Alabama: Move over Nick Saban, writes Kevin Scarbinsky, it's time to make room for Urban Meyer on college football Mount Rushmore
  • At Auburn: Gus Malzahn, echoing the sentiment of many fans of college football, says an eight-team playoff "wouldn't hurt my feelings"
  • At Texas A&M: Reports indicate that offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi has a torn ACL, which could seriously harm his NFL draft stock
  • At Georgia: The Bulldogs are said to be in talks for another high-profile nonconference game, possibly in the Georgia Dome or the Falcons' new stadium
  • At Tennessee: A pair of Vols have been granted medical redshirts
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

SEC morning links

January, 12, 2015
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Chris Dufresne writes in his column "Goodbye SEC, hello Ohio State, Oregon in college football title game" that it's time to accept that the SEC was overrated. And while one might debate the definition of "overrated" and how we should determine the strength of a conference in bowl games, it is undeniable that Monday night is reserved for the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

So instead of taking part in the old BCS tradition of arguing whether the right teams got in, how about we just enjoy the game for what it is? Because no matter the final score, there's not a team in the SEC that has a legitimate right to be there. Not Alabama, which lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Not Missouri, which lost to Alabama, or Georgia, which lost to Georgia Tech. In fact, taking away merits, there's not a single SEC team I'd favor against Oregon or Ohio State.

It's a tough pill to swallow, the SEC being labeled overrated, but it could be worse. It could be the Big 12, which couldn't settle on one true champion and ultimately cost TCU and Baylor in the process. If there's anyone who can watch Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T and decry a missed opportunity, it's TCU, which further quieted the SEC by dismantling Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Around the SEC
  • At Alabama: A maturing Hootie Jones is ready to fill Landon Collins' shoes.
  • At Auburn: Why is Nick Marshall not at an all-star game? It's a curious move for the athlete hoping to prove that his skills translate to playing quarterback at the next level,
  • At Kentucky: The Wildcats had to say goodbye to QB Maxwell Smith, who announced he would transfer.
  • At Tennessee: Despite having a starting QB in place and bringing in three more young passers, the Vols are confident backup Nathan Peterman isn't leaving.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
11/14/14
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It's now or never for many teams in the SEC.

After Saturday, only two weeks of the regular season remain.

Want to reach Atlanta and play in the conference championship? This is the time to prove it.

Noon

South Carolina at Florida, SEC Network: A win over South Carolina would mean a lot of things for Florida. It would mean an automatic bowl bid, continued hope of winning the East and, possibly, another year for coach Will Muschamp. It's funny how a month ago none of those things seemed likely, but thanks to the spark Treon Harris has provided at quarterback, Florida is in a much different place today. Meanwhile, South Carolina is moving in the opposite direction. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have lost two straight, and the coach's future is suddenly a topic for debate.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen, Nick Saban
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWill Dan Mullen and No. 1 Mississippi State finally get a win over Nick Saban and No. 5 Alabama?
3:30 p.m.

No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama, CBS: Dan Mullen already got the Texas A&M and LSU monkeys off his back this season. So will he keep up the good work and finally beat Alabama, the only remaining SEC West team that has eluded him as coach of Mississippi State? It won't be easy, and Mullen's Bulldogs won't be favored heading into Tuscaloosa despite their No. 1 overall ranking.

4 p.m.

Kentucky at Tennessee, SEC Network: These are two young teams moving toward a bright future, but which will reach a bowl game ahead of schedule? Because that's what this game ultimately boils down to. Tennessee, at 4-5, must win two of its next three to get into a bowl. Meanwhile, Kentucky either takes care of business against the Volunteers or waits two weeks to try and upset Louisville to reach six wins and a bowl berth.

7:15 p.m.

No. 9 Auburn at No. 15 Georgia, ESPN: We could wind up seeing the most rushing yards in a single game this season when Georgia hosts Auburn between the hedges. After all, neither defense is particularly adept at stopping the run and, at the same time, both offenses are catered to the running game. And that's not to mention the return of Todd Gurley. Georgia's star running back has been itching to get back on the football field after his four-game suspension. He might just try and make up for all those lost carries in one game.

7:30 p.m.

Missouri at No. 24 Texas A&M, SEC Network: It has been a roller-coaster ride for Texas A&M, as it started off 5-0 before losing three straight. The fall from No. 6 in the AP poll to unranked felt devastating. Starting quarterback Kenny Hill was suspended, and it seemed as if the Aggies would throw in the towel on the season. But then last weekend happened. Kyle Allen made some plays in the passing game, and Texas A&M upset Auburn. Now the question becomes where the Aggies go from here. With no hope of reaching the playoff, will they continue their upward climb against a Missouri team that sits atop the SEC East?

8 p.m.

No. 17 LSU at Arkansas, ESPN 2: Fans of old-school football, rejoice! We have the game for you. When Arkansas hosts LSU, there will be fullbacks and offensive linemen galore, plenty of huddling and an abundance of running the football. There will even be freezing temperatures to set the mood. Bret Bielema has to be positively giddy. This is the "normal American football" Arkansas' coach so cherishes. Plus, it's an opportunity for his Razorbacks to break their unlucky streak of 17 conference games without a win.

SEC bowl projections: Week 10

November, 4, 2014
11/04/14
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The College Football Playoff picture is coming into view.

Ole Miss became the first casualty of an overly crowded group of postseason contenders in the SEC West, but it won't be the last as Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State are on a collision course to meet these next few weeks.

But don't forget about LSU. With a little Les Miles magic in Death Valley on Saturday, the Tigers could simultaneously end Alabama's title hopes while igniting their own.

The only thing more difficult than sorting out the West is figuring out the mess that is the East. While it's impossible to tell who will win that race to mediocrity, we do know that everyone but Vanderbilt has a good shot of becoming bowl eligible.

Which brings us to this big number: 11 bowl teams from the SEC.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Mississippi State
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual): Auburn
Capital One Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: LSU
Citrus Bowl: Ole Miss
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Georgia
AdvoCare 100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Kentucky
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Florida
Belk Bowl: South Carolina

SEC race is all about survival

October, 27, 2014
10/27/14
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People think the SEC is complicated.

It’s really not.

The conference, no matter what some pundits argue and statistics might say, can be observed by following one simple rule: survive and advance.

Style points are erroneous. Average margin of victory is useless. Strength of schedule really isn’t that important.

Ignore all of it.

You think Mississippi State didn’t look like the No. 1 team in the country against Kentucky? Get a grip.

I know that Dak Prescott wasn’t sharp throwing the football. I know that the secondary looked susceptible. I know that turnovers could eventually doom the Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Dak Prescott and Dan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports"Hopefully, we can get all of this ranking stuff behind us," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. "I don't know where we'll rank. You can drop us if you want or you can raise us, I don't really care on any of that now."
But please tell me something I don’t know. Talk to me when Mississippi State actually loses a game.

“This league is brutal,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. “It’s difficult each Saturday to win football games, particularly when you may not play your best and you suffer some injuries you’re not used to having.”

You think Freeze cares about style points today? He would have gone dancing with Mike the Tiger to go back and play LSU differently.

People get too caught up in the minutia. We all do. The fact that so many are now burying Freeze and Ole Miss after their loss at LSU is a testament to that.

If you think the Rebs are out of it, you’re fooling yourself.

Remember when Alabama was buried and the dynasty was over? What about Auburn's ominous fall? Did we forget our recent rush to pronounce Georgia dead?

Good times.

Last time I checked this is still the SEC. Anything can happen. A few cuts and bruises doesn't mean anyone’s season is over.

Ole Miss could beat Auburn this weekend and jump right back into the top four of the polls. A win in the Egg Bowl could mean the division crown and a berth in the SEC title game.

Good luck keeping Ole Miss out of the playoff then.

What happened this past Saturday was all about the continued jockeying for position. The lead in the West could change hands every week from now until the end of November. And sitting off to the side could be Georgia, just hoping no one pays attention to its steady rise up the rankings.

There is no dominant team in the SEC this season, and it’s about time everyone accepts that.

“Hopefully, we can get all of this ranking stuff behind us,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. “I don’t know where we’ll rank. You can drop us if you want or you can raise us, I don’t really care on any of that now.”

It may be wishful thinking, but what Mullen was speaking to is perspective. It’s a rare commodity these days.

But Mullen seems to understand a simple truth about the SEC: win and you’re in. You don’t even need to win all of your games so long as you’re among the top two teams when the music stops. How well you dance doesn’t matter.

Unlike the other Power 5 conferences, there’s no need for overanalyzing schedules and determining supposed “quality wins." You don’t see Mike Slive politicking for the playoff because he doesn’t have to.

The SEC champion won’t be denied a spot in the final four. And the way things are going, the No. 2 team in the league could be in as well. If you go by the AP and coaches’ polls, three SEC teams are among the top four in the country.

We can debate about who’s the best of the bunch all we want, but what really matters is who survives.

The rest will get sorted out in the end.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
10/17/14
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A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Furman at South Carolina, SEC Network: Poor Furman, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to play South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been stewing the past two weeks about their loss at Kentucky. You think they will play with something to prove Saturday at home? For Mike Davis, Dylan Thompson and that offense, it’s a chance to put up a bunch of points and gain some much-needed confidence. For the defense, it’s a chance to take a step in the right direction and actually stop an opponent with some consistency. In reality, this game might as well be a scrimmage for South Carolina. But nonetheless, it’s an important springboard into the second half of the schedule, when the Gamecocks can either continue to circle the drain or rebound and regain the respect they have lost this season.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will have their hands full against Texas A&M on Saturday.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama, CBS: Only one team will leave Bryant-Denny Stadium with hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Aggies, coming off back-to-back losses, are on the razor’s edge, and the Crimson Tide, coming off a loss at Ole Miss and a one-point win at unranked Arkansas, are teetering. Alabama’s defense has played much better of late, but its secondary will be put to the test by Kenny Hill and the A&M passing game. Conversely, Hill could feel the pressure considering his line hasn’t played well the past two games and Alabama’s defensive front has the size and talent to get into the backfield. One thing is certain, though: Emotions should be running high come kickoff as both teams have something to prove.

4 p.m.

No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, SEC Network: Time to find out the answer to the question that has been on the mind of SEC fans everywhere: How would Arkansas do in the dreadful East Division? The Hogs have played well this season, but haven't been able to overcome Texas A&M and Alabama. Against Georgia, will Bret Bielema’s squad break through? The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are riding high after a dominant performance at Missouri in which the absence of Todd Gurley was hardly felt in the final outcome. They now lead the East, and the race hardly appears close. Leonard Floyd and that defense will be put to the test, though. And Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason won’t face as porous a secondary as Missouri’s this time around.

7 p.m.

Missouri at Florida, ESPN2: Watch out for turnovers. Florida and Missouri have combined to give the ball away 11 times in October alone. Just last week, Maty Mauk threw four interceptions against Georgia, and Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel had two costly interceptions against LSU. In other words, both defenses should be licking their chops. The difference in this game, however, could be the running backs. If Florida can establish the run and negate the pressure from Missouri’s Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Gators should be in good shape. However, if Missouri can get Russell Hansbrough & Co. going, the pressure should fall off Mauk’s shoulders. It’s a lot of what-ifs, but for two teams headed in the wrong direction, should that really surprise you?

Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, ESPN: The Vols have been knocking on the door this season, but the divide between competitive football and winning football has been tough to cross. Will they do it against No. 3-ranked Ole Miss? On the road? Now that’s asking a lot of Butch Jones' young squad, which is high on talent (Jalen Hurd, Cameron Sutton, etc.) but low on experience. The Rebs, meanwhile, have both confidence and experience on their side. If anyone thought their home win against Alabama was a fluke, they changed their mind after watching them go on the road and destroy Texas A&M. So long as quarterback Bo Wallace continues to take care of the football and that defense stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine Ole Miss having a hiccup game.

Kentucky at LSU, SEC Network: This game feels a lot like a battle of youth and momentum. On the one side, you have Kentucky, which has surprised many with the way it jumped out to a 5-1 record, most recently beating South Carolina at home. Patrick Towles has played well and the defense has been aggressive. But the Cats are young and don’t have pedigree on their side. On the other hand, you have LSU, which has gone from a dark horse playoff contender to unranked and outside the conversation in the West. But don’t count out Les Miles’ squad just yet. After beating Florida in The Swamp, the Tigers could have confidence going for them. And considering all the young talent in Baton Rouge, that is a scary thought.
Not everyone can be a first-team All-SEC selection. When we created our midseason all-conference team, we understood that some players would be left off. When you have Dak Prescott making a Heisman run, other quarterbacks are forgotten. But that doesn’t mean we should go without mentioning those who didn’t make the cut. Here’s a rundown of some of the SEC's most underrated players at the midseason point.

OFFENSE

QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins is averaging 6.9 yards per carry for the Razorbacks.
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).

WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).

TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.

OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.

DEFENSE

DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.

LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.

CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.

S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.

SPECIALISTS

K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).

P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.

KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 6

October, 4, 2014
10/04/14
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Sorry, SEC East. This post just isn’t for you.

Sure, we learned about Georgia (Todd Gurley can do anything), Florida (Treon Harris should start) and Kentucky (these Cats are on to something). We even found out, once and for all, that South Carolina is a playoff fraud.

But in the end, it was in the West that we learned the most.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Holloway
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrandon Holloway and Mississippi State showed they are SEC West contenders by thumping Texas A&M on Saturday.
1. You’ve got to Hail State: Welcome to the Mississippi State bandwagon, everyone. I’ve kept your seats warm for you this whole time. I understood how you were skeptical those first three games against nonconference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. I even got how you weren’t completely sold after the Bulldogs went on the road and beat LSU this past week. But if you aren’t ready to go all-in after the way State trounced Texas A&M, 48-31, on Saturday, there’s no helping you. Geoff Collins’ defense might be the best in the SEC. Did you see the way the front seven affected Kenny Hill and the Aggies’ passing game? Dak Prescott, meanwhile, is now a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. I know you saw how he imposed his will against A&M and scored with his arm and his legs. With Prescott leading the charge and that defense behind him, there’s nothing stopping the Bulldogs from taking a shot at the division crown. It’s a radical idea, I know, but it’s time to start accepting this brave new world we live in.

2. A Rebel yell: Ole Miss didn’t play well for the better part of three quarters. Bo Wallace was doing his usual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing, and the running game was practically nonexistent. The missed face mask call that resulted in a fumble return for a touchdown right before halftime seemed like the type of play that would decide the game. Ole Miss would fold under its own disappointment, and Alabama would come out in the second half and pull away. But then Ole Miss grew up. It wasn’t three quarters of maturation from the Rebs on Saturday night; it was three decades' worth. What Hugh Freeze has done is completely change the way Ole Miss thinks of itself. We saw that against Alabama. Wallace didn’t beat himself up after a few early mistakes; he got right back in the saddle. The defense, which fought valiantly with little help, never gave up in the 23-17 win. And when Ole Miss absolutely needed a big play, it got it -- twice. Wallace threw a game-winning touchdown pass, and Senquez Golson followed that up with a game-clinching interception. In doing so, Ole Miss proved it belonged. It proved, despite what we might think about football in the Magnolia State, these guys really can play.

3. Alabama isn’t dead: Take the emotions of the game out of it. Let’s think about this like the College Football Playoff selection committee might. Alabama lost to a team ranked in the top 15. It lost on the road. And it lost in the final few minutes. It lost a game in which its quarterback had a subpar performance; its most explosive weapon on offense, Kenyan Drake, was knocked out of the game in brutal fashion; and two starters, linebacker Denzel Devall and center Ryan Kelly, were sidelined with injuries. If there’s such a thing as a quality loss, this was it. It’s not quite Michigan State losing at Oregon, given that Sparty put itself out there scheduling that game, but it’s close. That’s little consolation to Alabama right now, but in a few months, it might mean something. The SEC West is a bear. Who really thinks a team is going to survive the division undefeated? If Alabama can get better play from its offensive line and secondary, what’s to say the Tide can’t get right back in it? A loss at Ole Miss isn’t going to be enough to keep them out.

4. Aggies allergic to defense: In the words of Kevin Sumlin: “What?!” He ought to go up to every defensive player in the locker room and ask that question in a much more hostile tone than he’s become accustomed to. Because the Aggies have no defense, that’s what. Mark Snyder was supposed to coax some improvement out of a defense that was the worst in the SEC the past season, but that hasn’t happened. Players are too often out of position. Tackles too often go missed. Quality execution is too often a foreign concept. The excuse of inexperience has grown tiresome. Go look at the past few recruiting classes -- there’s talent there. It’s time Texas A&M takes a long, hard look in the mirror and decides what it wants to be. Because as out-of-sorts as Hill and the offense looked against Mississippi State on Saturday, they weren’t the problem. You have Myles Garrett. You have Deshazor Everett. It’s time you have some semblance of a defense.

5. And then there’s Auburn: No one is talking about Auburn, and that’s probably the way Gus Malzahn wants it. But week after week, the Tigers keep winning. Forget that Nick Marshall hasn’t become Joe Montana. Forget that the win at Kansas State wasn’t pretty. Forget it because it doesn’t matter. Style points mean nothing. If Saturday showed us anything, it’s that surviving is all that matters. Alabama wishes it could have done that. So do Oregon and Oklahoma. Auburn, for all its supposed flaws, is undefeated and in line to move into the top 3 in the polls. If you don’t think Auburn is good enough to win the West again, I don’t know what to tell you. LSU might not be the team we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, but it’s still LSU. All Auburn did was beat the Bayou Bengals like they stole something. The 41-7 win might not grab the headlines like Ole Miss' and Mississippi State's wins, but it counts the same.

SEC morning links

October, 1, 2014
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1. Stop me if you've heard this one before. On Tuesday, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said he and Will Muschamp are on the same page. Despite looking horrendous offensively against Alabama two weeks ago, Roper and Muschamp are standing arm in arm. As a matter of historical context, I'd refer you to this story from late last season where Brent Pease said essentially the same thing. A week later he was fired. Now I'm not saying Roper is going to suffer the same fate, nor should he. But isn't this too early for votes of confidence and closing of the ranks? Much like the product on the field, it's not a good look for the Gators.

2. Arkansas deserves a bye week. After the fight they put up against Texas A&M, the Razorbacks need to catch their breath. As defensive end Trey Flowers said, "We’ve got to go into this off week, prepare for ‘Bama and just keep our heads up.” But what Arkansas really should be doing is recruiting. The saying, "There's no time like the present," should be ringing in every coach's ears. After the hurt Arkansas put on Texas A&M and the dominance it showed a few weeks earlier against Texas Tech, Bret Bielema should be sending a caravan into the Lone Star State to make hay. The Razorbacks are a respectable 22nd in ESPN's Class Rankings today. But with all the positive publicity surrounding the program and all the talk about playing their unique brand of old-school football, Bielema and his staff can do better. They should be beating down every blue-chip offensive lineman's door right now. After all, what's the use in having all this momentum if you're not going to capitalize on it?

3. Now you're starting to look like an SEC team, Kentucky. You're playing with the big boys, suspending multiple players the week of a pivotal game against South Carolina. But all joking aside, the loss of Dorian Baker and Stanley "Boom" Williams hurts. Kentucky has played well on the offensive line and Patrick Towles has done well for himself at quarterback. The one thing Towles needed was help at receiver, and now his third-leading pass-catcher, Baker, is gone. The absence of Williams, who has been a revelation at running back and on special teams, leaves little in the way of explosive playmakers for coach Mark Stoops to turn to. I was thinking upset with Kentucky-South Carolina before this. Now I have to rethink my position. I trust the UK defense, but I don't know whether they'll put up enough points to beat the Gamecocks.

SEC morning links

September, 30, 2014
9/30/14
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1. Alabama's players wouldn't bite. When asked about Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt's comments -- "We don't really think Bama is as good as they have been" -- none of the four Crimson Tide players interviewed Monday said anything noteworthy in response. After all, what did you expect? This is Alabama we're talking about. Landon Collins had fans forward him a link to the bulletin board material, but he wasn't about to lob any shots in return. "We're definitely going to give them our best game and see who comes out with the W," Alabama's star safety explained. If he had gone any further, Nick Saban would have had his head. And, frankly, there was no reason to fan the flames. Neither team is what it has been. Blake Sims has played well, but he's no AJ McCarron. C.J. Mosley ain't walking through that door. This isn't your daddy's Ole Miss, either. Prewitt and that secondary are tenacious. The front seven can get after it. As Saban said, "This is the best team we've played all year." If anything, Prewitt's slight jab was just what we needed to set the week off right.

2. I'll admit it: we were a little myopic on the SEC Blog Monday. In a roundtable discussion, our writers were asked to pick their game of the week. The options: Alabama-Ole Miss, Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn. The reason? Well, it's obvious, seeing as all three games have College Football Playoff implications. But to make sure we cover all our bases, it felt like we ought to make note of the other games on the SEC slate. No, Vanderbilt-Georgia doesn't hold much intrigue. We can skip that. But you could argue that Florida-Tennessee and South Carolina-Kentucky mean something. For the Gators, this feels like a must win. Jeff Driskel needs to crawl out of the hole he's dug for himself, and his coach, Will Muschamp, needs a W to keep his job. The Vols, meanwhile, have to say enough is enough with moral victories and finally close out a big game. And in the case of South Carolina-Kentucky, you're looking at two teams heading in opposite directions. The Gamecocks fell all over themselves yet again Saturday, blowing a late lead against Missouri. Kentucky, on the other hand, broke its winless streak in the SEC by beating Vandy. The Wildcats may be young, but they're dangerous. With a deep group of tailbacks, Bud Dupree and Za'Darious Smith rushing off the edge, and A.J. Stamps making plays in the secondary, South Carolina and the rest of the East better watch out.

3. Not to end our morning jaunt on a sour note, but I was struck by news Monday of the Indianapolis Colts releasing Da'Rick Rogers. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. This is par for the course with Rogers, after all. But once again I was reminded of what a waste of potential the former Tennessee receiver was. To this day I remember seeing him play at Calhoun High in Georgia. He's the best high school player I've ever witnessed in person. Sadly, on the list of all-time SEC talents that never amounted to much, Rogers is right up there with names like Ryan Perrilloux, Mitch Mustain and B.J. Scott. Rogers was everything you wanted in a receiver: tall, physical, explosive. Even in the NFL he flashed All-Pro talent. But something never clicked for him. Maybe there's still time, but not likely. If anything, his story is a cautionary tale for any four- or five-star prospect who thinks talent alone can get the job done.

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