SEC: Kentucky Wildcats

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 both the players and 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: D

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
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.
You learn pretty quickly in the realm of college football to never say never.

So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.

And that’s bad news for the SEC.

When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama had to survive a challenging SEC schedule to earn a playoff berth.
After all, this was the big, bad SEC, which had won seven straight BCS national championships (with four different teams) and had played in eight straight BCS title games.

But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.

The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.

Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.

Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.

Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?

That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.

The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.

The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.

At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.

Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.

What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.

What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.

The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.

With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.

I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.

They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.

Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.

The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.

But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.

And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
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This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.

DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."

Former SEC players in Pro Bowl

January, 20, 2015
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With the NFL teasing us by putting the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl, we are forced to wait even longer before watching the biggest game of them all.

Is the Pro Bowl a worthy compromise in between conference championships and Super Sunday? Well, that's very much up for debate, but it is football. And if it's football, we'll try to figure out a way to interject some SECness into it because, you know, SEC bias and all.

But like we did with the Super Bowl on Monday, we're going to see who will be representing SEC teams in this year's Pro Bowl. And yes, ALL Missouri and Texas A&M players will be included in this. No, some didn't play in the SEC while they were in school, but those schools are there now and those players will count toward the SEC's number. It's just how the world works.

Last year, the SEC had 24 players make Pro Bowl rosters. This year, the league is also represented by 24 players. I mean, it's no shock that the NFL and the SEC go so well together. Just look at the NFL -- past, present and future. SEC players made the cut for every position except defensive end, safety and punter.

Remember, the Pro Bowl now has that funky format in which past NFL greats will draft each team. This year we could see nothing but receivers taken in the first few rounds, as Cris Carter and Michael Irvin are this year's coaches.

Alabama led the SEC with five Pro Bowl selections.

Here are the 24 SEC Pro Bowl representatives:

Quarterback

Peyton Manning, Tennessee (Denver Broncos)

Running back

Arian Foster, Tennessee (Houston Texans)
Mark Ingram, Alabama (New Orleans Saints)

Wide receiver

Julio Jones, Alabama (Atlanta Falcons)
A.J. Green, Georgia (Cincinnati Bengals)
Odell Beckham Jr., LSU (New York Giants)
Jeremy Maclin, Missouri (Philadelphia Eagles)
Randall Cobb, Kentucky (Green Bay Packers)

Tight end

Jason Witten, Tennessee (Dallas Cowboys)
Martellus Bennett, Texas A&M (Chicago Bears)

Offensive tackle

Jason Peters, Arkansas (Philadelphia Eagles)

Center

Maurkice Pouncey, Florida (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Offensive guard

Evan Mathis, Alabama (Philadelphia Eagles)
Mike Pouncey, Florida (Miami Dolphins)

Defensive tackle

Marcell Dareus, Alabama (Buffalo Bills)
Kyle Williams, LSU (Buffalo Bills)
Sheldon Richardson, Missouri (New York Jets)
Geno Atkins, Georgia (Cincinnati Bengals)

Outside linebacker

Von Miller, Texas A&M (Denver Broncos)
Justin Houston, Georgia (Kansas City Chiefs)

Inside linebacker

C.J. Mosley, Alabama (Baltimore Ravens)

Cornerback

Joe Haden, Florida (Cleveland Browns)
Patrick Peterson, LSU (Arizona Cardinals)

Kicker

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

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

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

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

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

20. Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas
Spaight was a lightning rod for production in 2014. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound All-SEC first-teamer led the league with 128 tackles and led the Razorbacks with 63 solo tackles. He became the first player in Arkansas history to lead the SEC in tackles. Spaight had no problem flying around the field to make plays in the middle and side to side, but he was also third on Arkansas' team with 10.5 tackles for loss and also had a sack. He defended four passes with an interception and forced two fumbles, and he was credited with four quarterback hurries. Spaight recorded at least five tackles in every game this season and started all 13 games.
In two weeks, we will officially say goodbye to football season.

College football left us last week, and with the Super Bowl scheduled for Feb. 1, we'll soon have to shift some of our sporting attention to ... baseball. Thank goodness for March Madness.

But before we settle, let's take advantage of the next two weeks of football coverage before the biggest game of them all.

The SEC will have 24 player representatives in this year's Super Bowl featuring the Seattle Seahawks (again) and the New England Patriots (pretty much again). There are 14 SEC players on the Seahawks and 10 on the Patriots. Alabama leads all SEC teams (shocker) with four players on Super Bowl rosters, while Mississippi State and Texas A&M both have three. Auburn is the only SEC team not represented.

Here's a complete list of the 24 SEC players on the two Super Bowl rosters:

SEAHAWKS

Alvin Bailey, OT, Arkansas
Michael Bennett, DE, Texas A&M
Justin Britt, OT, Missouri
James Carpenter, OG, Alabama
Demarcus Dobbs, DE, Georgia
Lemuel Jeanpierre, OL, South Carolina
Patrick Lewis, C, Texas A&M
Chris Matthews, WR, Kentucky
Tony McDaniel, DT, Tennessee
Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama
Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Steven Terrell, S, Texas A&M
K.J. Wright, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/injured

Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

Coaches

Pete Carroll, head coach: He spent a season as a graduate assistant working with the secondary at Arkansas (1977) under Lou Holtz.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator: Florida's defensive coordinator from 2010-11.
Kippy Brown, wide receivers: Coached receivers at Tennessee from 1983-89 and served two seasons as the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at Tennessee from 1993-94. He also spent one month at Tennessee in 2009-10 as its wide receivers/passing game coordinator for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, before serving as interim head coach after the departure of Lane Kiffin.
Pat Ruel, assistant offensive line: He served as Arkansas' assistant offensive line coach in 1977 and later became the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Texas A&M from 1982-84.
Will Harriger, offensive assistant: He served as an assistant at Auburn in 2007 and an assistant at Florida from 2012-13.
Travis Jones, defensive line coach: The former Georgia defensive lineman (1990-92, 94) served as a graduate assistant/defensive line assistant at his alma mater in 1997. He later became the defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator at LSU from 2002-2004.
Marquand Manuel, defensive assistant: The former Florida defensive back was also a coaching intern at Florida in 2011.
Chris Carlisle, head strength and conditioning coach: Served as a strength and conditioning graduate assistant at Arkansas for two years (1992-93) before getting his master’s degree in history from Arkansas in 1997. He then became the associate head strength and conditioning coach at Tennessee for three years (1998-2000).

PATRIOTS

Brandon Bolden, RB, Ole Miss
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
Chris White, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/Injured

Dominique Easley, DL, Florida
Jerod Mayo, LB, Tennessee
Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU

Practice squad

Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
Jonathan Krause, WR, Vanderbilt
Deontae Skinner, LB, Mississippi State

Coaches

Dave DeGuglielmo, offensive line: Tutored South Carolina's offensive line in 1999 and 2003 and the offensive tackles and tight ends from 2000-02.
Joe Judge, assistant special teams coach: He played multiple positions at Mississippi State from 2000-04. He then served as a graduate assistant at Mississippi State from 2005-07. He later spent three years at Alabama as a football analyst under Nick Saban (2009-11).

SEC morning links

January, 19, 2015
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1. For recruiting maniacs, Prince Tega Wanogho Jr.’s story is not new. But for those who follow recruiting only as national signing day nears, this is one of the more unique prospects you’ll come across. Recruiters across the country are beating down the door of the recruiting prospect who hails from Alabama by way of Nigeria. The 6-foot-7 defensive end has already lined up visits to LSU, Auburn and Tennessee, but he’ll have no shortage of options on national signing day. Check out the brand-new football player’s “Coming to America” story from AL.com’s Jeff Sentell.

2. It’s that time of year. Between bowl games and signing day, college headlines frequently involve players leaving their programs because of playing time or disciplinary or academic reasons. It happened at LSU on Sunday when the school confirmed that sophomores Rashard Robinson and Melvin Jones are no longer members of the team because of academic issues. It’s apparently happening at Alabama, where Altee Tenpenny and Malcolm Faciane are not expected to return. And similar stories will continue to pop up all over the country as classes resume for spring semester. Keep your eyes peeled, it will probably happen at your school, too.

3. This is a big week for 25 former SEC players who started arriving in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday for this weekend’s Senior Bowl. For instance, former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was invited to show that he can play the position in the pros – some draft analysts believe he should switch to defensive back to make it in the NFL – while plenty of other players from the conference hope to solidify their draft stock by performing well in this week’s all-important practices against other top-notch prospects. Here is a link to the rosters for the North and South squads for this week’s all-star game.

Around the SEC

Is it time to stop calling Kentucky’s offensive scheme the “Air Raid?” Maybe so.

Stephen Rivers, who transferred from LSU to Vanderbilt prior to the 2014 season, announced on Twitter that he will transfer from Vandy and use his final season of eligibility elsewhere.

Georgia early enrollees Michael Barnett and Natrez Patrick both underwent recent surgeries, but Patrick is still expected to participate in spring practice and Barnett should be available for the fall.

Multiple players who competed on NFL championship Sunday had ties to Mississippi State and 2010 defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

Tweet of the day
College football is getting younger and younger. Gone are the days of just relying on upperclassmen to guide your football programs. Really, gone are the days of waiting for freshmen to develop.

Getting guys on the field earlier and earlier is more than just the norm, it's a necessity. Just look at all the young skill players tearing it up around the country.

The SEC has a treasure trove of young stars, so today we're going to look at rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on in 2015.

Now, we aren't going to talk about the obvious guys. No All-SEC members from the coaches or the Associated Press. That's just too easy. We're diving into guys who just slid under the title of star in 2014 and could jump right in to the limelight this fall.

Here are the obvious guys who either made All-SEC teams, were honorable mentions or already are well known:
There are a ton of youngsters to choose from, so this certainly wasn't easy, but here are 10 rising sophomores and redshirt freshman from the SEC to keep an eye on in 2015:

EAST

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsJosh Malone didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but expectations for him remain high.
Will Grier, QB, Florida: He redshirted last year but will be in an all-out battle with Harris for the starting job. Some feel he might be more suited to run new coach Jim McElwain's more pro-style offense.

Jacob Park, QB, Georgia: Another quarterback who redshirted in 2014, Park will challenge for the starting spot in Athens, and he might be the most physically gifted of the three guys competing for that job this spring.

Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia: He really came on at the end of last season, proving to be one of the Bulldogs' best pass-rushers. He finished the year with 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

Isaiah McKenzie, WR/RS, Georgia: Running back Sony Michel should be fun to watch too, but McKenzie has a chance to really take a big step forward in the receiving, rushing and return game. He registered 684 all-purpose yards in 2014.

Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia: Sanders started all 13 games for the Bulldogs last season and finished the year on a very high note with a two-interception performance in Georgia's bowl win over Louisville.

Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky: He started seven games last season and finished the year with 10 tackles. He has to become a more disruptive player up front, but he really has a chance to help this defense in 2015.

Chris Lammons, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense will be a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser in 2015, and Lammons could be a big part of the improvements in the secondary.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: The Vols return a pretty deep receiving corps, but Malone could have a bright future in Knoxville and should improve on his 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown from 2014.

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee: Another talented, young weapon in the Vols' offense, Wolf made an instant impact as a freshman and should continue to be a key part of the Vols' aerial attack in 2015.

Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt: Not much went right for the Commodores in 2014, but Bowden could be a budding star. He led Vandy with 78 tackles and added two tackles for loss and a sack.

WEST

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Marquis Haynes led Ole Miss in sacks.
Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: He registered only seven tackles with two sacks in 2014, but Hand, a former five-star prospect, is a monster talent for the Tide who should see plenty of time this fall.

Marlon Humphrey/Tony Brown, CBs, Alabama: Brown played in 13 games, making two starts, while Humphrey redshirted. Alabama had issues at corner all year and these two youngsters, who might be the most talented corners on the team, will have every opportunity to take both starting spots.

Cam Sims, WR, Alabama: With Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones all departing, Alabama will be rebuilding at receiver. Sims, a former top high school prospect, could jump right into a key role at receiver for the Tide.

Jojo Robinson, WR, Arkansas: Coaches knew that he was really talented when he arrived last year, but he wasn't ready. There are high hopes for the former four-star prospect, who has a chance to make a strong impact in Arkansas' passing game.

Roc Thomas, RB, Auburn: In a crowded backfield, Thomas played in 12 games and registered 214 rushing yards with two touchdowns. With both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, Thomas will take over as Auburn's lead back so of course he'll be productive.

Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU: Eligibility issues cut into Valentine's chances of playing in 2014, but he has the potential to be a major player up front for the Tigers. He was probably physically ready to play last year.

Clifton Garrett, LB, LSU: Garrett didn’t really play much last season but was one of LSU's top prospects in its 2014 recruiting class. Garrett just wasn’t ready last season, but that will all change this year.

Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State: While he sat out the 2014 season, the good news is that he's built like Benardrick McKinney, who just left Starkville for the NFL. He's a big, fast, strong, long, athletic linebacker, who the coaches are very excited about.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: With Cody Prewitt gone, Hampton should step right in at that safety spot. There was even talk before the 2014 season that he could have replaced Prewitt and moved him to linebacker. He already has had good field experience, playing in 13 games.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: The Rebels are loaded with defensive line talent, but Haynes was Ole Miss' best pass-rusher in 2014. He started four of the 13 games he played in and led the team with 7.5 sacks while tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

January, 16, 2015
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With national signing day less than three weeks away, it is officially crunch time. There are only three recruiting weekends left for visits, and most schools plan to take full advantage of those available weekends. Here are a closer look at some of the top visits around the SEC this weekend.

Auburn


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Imagine that, the SEC is getting a lot of love in early NFL mock drafts.

The conference that has watched 23 players get drafted in the past two first rounds of the NFL draft, and 14 drafted in first five picks of the past eight drafts, again looks primed to have another successful first round.

On the final day for players to declare for the NFL draft, ESPN's NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. debuted his first mock draft of the new year. In his Mock Draft 1.0 Insider, he has seven SEC players going in the first round in April.

Four are projected to be top-10 picks:

4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama -- Oakland Raiders
6. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri -- New York Jets
7. Landon Collins, S, Alabama -- Chicago Bears
8. Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida -- Atlanta Falcons

As long as we're thinking about the draft, fellow draft expert Todd McShay also released his next batch of the top 32 players eligible for the draft Insider. McShay also had seven SEC players make his list, with three ranking in the top 10 -- Ray, Cooper and Collins.

SEC morning links

January, 14, 2015
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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.

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