SEC: Mississippi Rebels

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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Best of the visits: SEC

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
There were some great games around the SEC over the weekend. Several prospects attended games and used social media as a platform to share their experiences. Here's a look at some of the top social media posts:

The No. 2-ranked inside linebacker in the country, Roquan Smith, visited South Carolina for its 38-35 victory over Georgia. The Under Armour All-American tweeted out a picture of his family in Williams-Brice Stadium. Georgia is one of Smith’s favorite schools, while South Carolina has fallen behind. A big win against the Bulldogs could have given the Gamecocks a boost.

Former Florida defensive back commit Marcus Lewis is still considering Kentucky and Florida. The four-star prospect might not have attended the game, but Lewis was definitely watching on TV. The ESPN 300 prospect tweeted out his thoughts on how Kentucky looked.

David Womack tweeted a picture of his son, Matt Womack, an LSU commit, with Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Womack has been committed to LSU since July, but it appears the Alabama offer could give this three-star offensive lineman something to think about.

Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson, despite suffering a shoulder injury Friday night, visited Florida for the third consecutive week. In this photo he tweeted out, Jefferson is in the Florida locker room holding a “Chucky” doll. The doll, which is usually taken through the Gator Walk prior to the game, is a recent Florida defensive tradition started by New England Patriots defensive tackle and former Florida player Dominique Easley and passed down to defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

ESPN Junior 300 quarterback Brandon McIlwain poses with his mom for a photo in front of Williams-Brice Stadium. McIlwain has narrowed down his choices to South Carolina, Duke, Florida, Auburn, Penn State and Virginia Tech. The strong-armed quarterback is one of the top signal-callers in the country for 2016.

Miami running back commit Dexter Williams visited Florida for its thrilling 36-30 victory over Kentucky. Despite his commitment to the Hurricanes, the Gators have continued to pursue Williams. Williams tweeted about his time in Gainesville.

2017 OL prospect Jack Anderson, who already holds offers from Arizona State, New Mexico, Texas Tech and UAB, visited Texas A&M for its 38-10 victory over Rice on Saturday night.

The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough. That’s when the SEC mandate for at least one Power 5 nonconference game will go into effect. But how will the SEC fare when that day does arrive? Exactly how good is the conference outside its own borders? And how does its scheduling practices match up with others?

Bowls are only one thing

The SEC went 7-3 in bowl games last season. Since 2000, the league is a robust 26 games above .500 in bowl games, which is a better win-loss differential than the ACC (minus-5), Big 12 (even), Big Ten (minus-23) and Pac-12 (plus-5).

Go ahead, fans of the SEC: Thump your chest at that.

But don’t go too far. Because bowls are only one piece of the puzzle, and it might not be all that significant in the first place. Given the long delay between the end of the regular season and the start of bowl season, coupled with the lack of motivation to play for a better tomorrow, is it really a fair sample to draw from?

If you think so, don’t try telling that to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who said it was a challenge to get his team to “try to play a consolation game” against Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Besides, the real test of scheduling isn't who you were selected to play, but who you decided to play of your own free will.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Butch DillDan Mullen and Mississippi State are among the teams that schedules a lot of FCS opponents historically. But that only tells part of the story.
Last Saturday was horrific for fans

Saturday came and went without a single game of consequence in the SEC.

A week after scheduling nonconference games even Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops would qualify as “toughies” -- West Virginia, Wisconsin, Boise State, Clemson -- the SEC reverted to form and ordered up a bunch of cupcakes.

Alabama dominated Florida Atlantic, LSU trounced Sam Houston State and South Carolina survived East Carolina. Kentucky walloped Ohio and Missouri thumped Toledo. Florida saw Eastern Michigan’s troublesome cinder block wall and launched the Eagles right through it. All told, SEC teams outscored opponents by a cannon-wide margin of 462 points.

It certainly helped that none of those opponents were from Power 5 conferences. Sadly, one wasn’t even an FBS-level program, which we’ll have to get used to as teams pay for the right to beat teams like Western Carolina and Chattanooga.

Since 2004, SEC teams have scheduled 121 FCS opponents. Only four times have they lost. The average margin of victory: 31.5 points per game.

The top five worst offenders at scheduling games against teams outside the major conferences since 2004: Mississippi State (35), Ole miss (33), Arkansas (30), Alabama (30) and Tennessee (30). Outside of SEC newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri, Georgia had the fewest such games with 21.

During the regular season, the SEC is still king

It’s easy to poke fun at the SEC scheduling. When you’re on top, criticism comes with the territory.

But when it comes to scheduling nonconference games against Power 5 opponents, the SEC isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, contrary to the buzz outside the Southeast.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, the SEC has played 111 total regular-season games against Power 5 schools since 2004. Its 69-42 record is the best of the all Power 5 conferences, ahead of the Pac-12 (53-42), the Big 12 (42-42) and the Big Ten (36-45).

Over that time, the SEC has gone 42-23 against the ACC, 12-7 against the Pac-12, 9-8 against the Big 12 and 6-4 against the Big Ten.

Simple math says the SEC hasn’t shied away from playing its Power 5 brethren. The ACC leads the way with its 117 such nonconference games, but the Pac-12 (95), the Big 12 (84) and the Big Ten (81) all lag behind the SEC’s 111 total Power 5 matchups.

It’s going to get better -- sort of

Mark your calendars. Clear out your entire day on Sept. 3, 2016.

College football will (hopefully) be reborn on that day. Why? Because all the talk about improving strength of schedule will finally come to fruition. Alabama will play USC, UCLA will take on Texas A&M and Notre Dame will go to Texas. And those are just the games inside the Lone Star State. LSU and Wisconsin will do battle at Lambeau Field, and Clemson and Auburn will kick off in Atlanta.

It’s going to be a great day for college football fans. Just don’t expect it to last all season. Because while teams are beginning to go all in on premier nonconference games, it’s important to remember that it’s in the singular sense of the word. As in, only one per regular season.

According to, the week after Alabama plays USC, it hosts Western Kentucky. LSU, in the six weeks after playing Wisconsin, is set to welcome Southern Miss, Jacksonville State and South Alabama to Baton Rouge. And Auburn? It will be so exhausted with Clemson that it has to play Arkansas State in Week 2.

Unless something changes between now and the opening week of the 2016 season, Mississippi State will start out against South Alabama while Florida hosts the mighty UMass Minutemen. In Week 2, the Gators get the North Texas Mean Green.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
It wasn't much of an eventful week in the SEC with so many teams playing weaker opponents and only one conference game, with Ole Miss routing Vanderbilt. As a result, there are no major shakeups in this week's bowl projections from last week's. Georgia had the weekend off, so it is still riding its impressive Week 1 victory to sit atop the list. We are still projecting only one SEC team in the College Football Playoff at the moment, though that could change down the road.

We are still projecting 11 SEC teams to make the postseason. Noting that these projections will fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season, here's our best guess after Week 2:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Georgia
Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Missouri
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee

SEC morning links

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
1. Arkansas has a fancy way to enter its stadium, that much is for sure. But what will happen once the Razorbacks see the field? This weekend's game against Nicholls State might be the only sure-fire win on the schedule. UAB isn't a pushover, not after beating Troy, 48-10. Neither is Northern Illinois, which has won double-digit wins in each of the past four seasons. Going on the road to Texas Tech isn't something many SEC teams would dare attempt. So what's the over/under on wins this season? If I were setting the line, I'd start at three and dare someone to take the over. Even so, I see improvement from Bret Bielema's squad. Playing Auburn to a tie at halftime was impressive. Brandon Allen and the receivers have added more dimension to the offense, and Korliss Marshall has emerged alongside Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams at running back. The defense has a ways to go, but don't be surprised if Arkansas plays the role of spoiler to one of the league's favorites somewhere along the way.

2. Who would have thought only a few years ago that Texas playing BYU would be a huge deal? But considering the beat down BYU gave Texas a season ago and the firestorm around Mack Brown that ensued, it sure is. You can read more about the Longhorns seeing vengeance here. But that story got me thinking: What were some of the worst losses that spurred change in the SEC in recent memory? Here's my stab at it:
  • Alabama: Nick Saban's first season at Alabama wasn't much fun, the low point of which had to be the Nov. 17 loss at home to Louisiana Monroe. Since 2007, Alabama has gone 72-9 and won three national championships.
  • Auburn: Gene Chizik probably knew it was over before the Iron Bowl. But when Auburn went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and was blown out 49-0, the hammer dropped. Chizik was fired and the Tigers called on a familiar face in Gus Malzahn to right the ship.
  • Florida: It's been bad at Florida, but it was never as bad as last season when the Gators lost to Georgia Southern on their way to a 4-8 record. After that there was no question Will Muschamp would be on the hot seat in 2014.
  • Georgia: The 2010 season wasn't kind to Mark Richt. The Bulldogs finished 6-7, and the worst loss came to perennial cellar-dwellar Colorado, 29-27. The very next season they bounced back with 10 wins and an Eastern Division title.
  • LSU: Saban had a lot of fine moments in Baton Rouge. Sept. 23, 2000, was not one of them. That's when the Tigers lost 13-10 to UAB. What happened the very next season? Saban led LSU to a 10-3 record, an SEC title and a win in the Sugar Bowl.
  • Ole Miss: Houston Hutt had so many bad losses during his final season at Ole Miss in 2011 it's hard to figure out which was the worst. Though BYU and Vanderbilt make compelling cases, it has to go to Louisiana Tech, which went into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and beat the Rebels soundly, 27-7.
  • Tennessee: Derek Dooley's tenure in Knoxville ended with a giant thud, losing 41-18 at Vanderbilt, which had beaten the Volunteers just once in their last 35 games.
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Butch Jones and his recruiting staff just won't quit.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
There were several key SEC games over the weekend and plenty of recruiting news to go along with them. From Texas A&M’s impressive victory over South Carolina to Georgia’s dominating second half performance against Clemson, recruits from all over the country had a chance to finally see teams they are considering in action. Here is a closer look at some of the top recruiting news around the SEC.

Texas A&M catches the attention of top recruits

Even though Texas A&M has put together a tremendous recruiting class this year, many expected it to be a down year on the field for the Aggies. After all A&M lost three first-round draft picks including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Much to the delight of the Aggie faithful, Texas A&M dominated SEC East opponent South Carolina last Thursday evening.

The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouches are the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

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Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

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SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
1. Kentucky settled its quarterback race on Monday when coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomore Patrick Towles will be the Wildcats' starter. It's a nice story, because Towles redshirted last season and competed for the starting job twice before and lost. Instead of transferring, Towles continued to work and battled his way to the top of the depth chart. Not an easy thing to do in the winner-starts-loser-transfers trend that seems to be increasing among college football quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Towles was even able to fend off highly-regarded true freshman Drew Barker, a prize recruit in the Wildcats' 2014 class. No word yet from Stoops whether Barker will redshirt this season, but regardless, former Wildcat great Tim Couch has sage advice for the young Barker: "It’s how you handle that year that is really going to determine the rest of your career."

2. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks are wearing knee braces in hopes of preventing injuries. It's not common to see healthy quarterbacks who haven't had knee injuries wear them and Vanderbilt's signal-callers did not engage in this practice in the 16 years that head trainer Tom Bossung has been there. After losing two quarterbacks to knee injuries last season, though, the Commodores decided to make the move. They're different from the offensive linemen's knee braces, but thumbs up to the Commodores training staff on the move. While it may not prevent all knee injuries, the decision to do it moving forward should help. It has become so common among offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend among quarterbacks across the nation.

3. Alabama brought in its fourth motivational speaker of fall camp, welcoming former Fresno State basketball star Chris Herren to campus on Monday. Herren got a positive response from the Crimson Tide players. Preceding Herren in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during training camp was former NFL player and current league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, former NBA star Antoine Walker and well-renowned motivational speaker Eric Thomas. This is certainly not uncommon; plenty of programs bring in guest speakers or motivational speakers to get messages across to players. Still, it's beneficial because when you recruit at the level Alabama does, you bring in dozens of highly-regarded players who have been told often how good they are. Getting messages from people who have been through ups and downs like Herren or Walker or someone like Vincent who has played at the highest level of football as these players undoubtedly hope to, they can impart valuable wisdom and provide a different voice other than the coaches who are barking at them every day. Sometimes that different voice can have an effect.

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It’s not that Ole Miss had a terrible season last year. The Rebs, under coach Hugh Freeze, won eight games for the first time since 2009. Freeze admittedly was pleasantly surprised by how far the program had come since he took over following a 2-10 season in 2011. To anyone who’d ask, he’d say that he thought the process of fielding a competitive football team in the SEC would have taken longer.

Recruiting will do that for you.

Freeze changed the mentality of Ole Miss football in the blink of an eye. That day was Feb. 6, 2013, when the program’s news release -- “Ole Miss Lands Historic Signing Class -- was, for once, not an overstatement. Eleven All-Americans headlined the class, including the No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche. All told, Freeze signed four recruits who were considered the best prospects at their position, according to ESPN.

Relying heavily on freshmen such as Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss began the 2013 season on a tear, beating both Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Losses at Alabama and Auburn weren’t altogether unexpected, and when the Rebs returned home, they beat No. 6-ranked LSU in dramatic fashion.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsWith a year of experience under their belts, Robert Nkemdiche and the rest of Ole Miss' sterling sophomore class should be much improved.
But somewhere along the way, things changed. After reeling off five victories in a row, Ole Miss began to falter, losing two in a row to Missouri and Mississippi State.

Dropping the Egg Bowl in overtime was particularly painful. Freeze would look at the film each Sunday and see mental and physical breakdowns from his players. The level of consistency wasn’t there.

“We just didn’t play as crisp,” he said.

They lost to Missouri because they drove into the red zone three times and couldn’t punch it in. They lost to Ole Miss because Bo Wallace was on his way into the end zone and had the football punched from his grasp.

“You could see kids making some mistakes they didn’t make earlier in the year,” Freeze said.

Freeze looked in the mirror and decided, “I have to look at what I do.”

“We weren’t the same,” Freeze said. “Now we lost C.J. Johnson, Aaron Morris, Evan Engram, Charles Sawyer, Denzel [Nkemdiche], Robert [Nkemdiche]. We lost five games. But for whatever reason we weren’t the same. We think part of it was the mental fatigue.

“Year 2, I expect them to handle that much better.”

It isn’t just that Wallace’s shoulder has finally recovered. It isn’t even that those sidelined players are back. Freeze believes Year 2 will be different because that much-talked-about signing class from 2013 is more mature. The growing pains those freshmen went through last season should make them better prepared as sophomores.

“Those young kids, as many as we played, physically, you would look at them and say, ‘They look the part,’” Freeze said. “But mentally it took a toll on them. We played four out of the first five [games] on the road. Every one of them was 7 or 8 p.m. kickoffs. We’re getting back at 4 a.m., and those high school kids, that’s a new world for them.”

This season’s schedule is more favorable, with four of the first seven games in Oxford, Mississippi. And if that’s not enough, Freeze is considering altering his weekly schedule after the fatigue he saw last season, whether that means changing practice times or taking Sundays off entirely. If Ole Miss wants to be a contender in the SEC West, keeping consistent throughout the season is a must.

“I assure you that I’ll be looking at it,” he said. “Last year I had blinders and was saying, ‘Let’s get ready for the next one.’ I didn’t think about, ‘Hey, somewhere in here they’ve lost 2-3 days.’ When you get back at 4 a.m. for five straight weeks, that’s part of my learning curve.”

For the players’ part, they’re taking some of the onus on themselves.

“I’ve never seen since I’ve been here people getting extra work on their own, going out and doing cone drills and things like that,” Wallace said. “I think everyone is ready to go.”

Veteran defensive end C.J. Johnson said the way last season ended should be motivation enough.

“It was kind of taking a toll on everybody because we had been through so much as a football team: a close loss at Auburn, a close loss at A&M, the Alabama game was a lot closer than the score was,” he said. “So, you know, going through all that physical grind and then to drop the Egg Bowl the way we did, I think it kind of pushed a couple of guys.”

The hard part isn’t pushing through fall camp, though. For Ole Miss, the real test will come when they realize they’ve pushed enough. After all, you can’t go anywhere without ample gas in the tank.

Ole Miss Rebels season preview

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Ole Miss Rebels:

2013 record: 8-5, beat Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl

Final grade for 2013 season: Because of the team’s inconsistency, a B- seems fair. Eight wins isn’t a bad result for second-year coach Hugh Freeze, especially when you look at the close losses to Auburn and Texas A&M, but losing back-to-back games to Missouri and Mississippi State when the offense combined for 20 points isn’t good enough.

Key losses: WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, C Evan Swindall, OL Jared Duke, OL Pierce Burton, K Andrew Ritter

Key returnees: QB Bo Wallace, WR Laquon Treadwell, TE Evan Engram, DL Robert Nkemdiche, DE C.J. Johnson, S Cody Prewitt, S Tony Conner

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsIf Bo Wallace can limit his turnovers, Ole Miss could be a factor in the SEC West this season.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Wallace, RB Jaylen Walton, TE Engram, WR Treadwell, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, WR Vince Sanders, LT Laremy Tunsil, LG Aaron Morris, C Ben Still, RG Justin Bell, RT Robert Conyers, DE Johnson, DT Nkemdiche, DT Issac Gross, DE Fadol Brown, OLB Serderius Bryant, MLB Deterrian Shackelford, CB Senquez Golson, CB Mike Hilton, S Prewitt, ROV Trae Elston, NB Conner

Instant impact newcomers: OL Rod Taylor, S C.J. Hampton

Breakout player: Really, Engram broke out last season. That is, if you were paying attention to the first half of the season and saw him set an Ole Miss record for touchdowns from a freshman tight end (three). However, he injured his ankle and missed five games down the stretch. As Freeze said, the offense changed with him gone. If Engram can stay healthy, the offense and his own personal numbers should improve greatly.

Biggest question mark: The defense is talented and deep. The offense is loaded with skilled players at quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back. But at the one position where you need experience to win in the SEC, the offensive line, Ole Miss is lacking. With three starters gone and Austin Golson no longer with the program, the Rebs are thin up front. Morris should make for a nice addition, and Tunsil is quickly becoming one of the best linemen in the SEC, but it might take some time to work out the kinks on the line of scrimmage for Ole Miss.

Upset special: Can one top-25 team upset another? Sure, especially when the opponent is Alabama. Ole Miss has struggled with the Crimson Tide in recent years, but this season could be the time to change all that. Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, two new offensive linemen and three new starters in the secondary. Throw in the fact that coach Nick Saban still hasn’t solved the no-huddle offense, and you have a recipe for an upset. If Wallace can limit his turnovers and push the pace on offense, the Rebels will have a chance, especially at home on Oct. 4.

Key stat: If there is one stat that means anything in football, it’s turnovers. Ole Miss was found lacking in that department last season, coming in 58th nationally with a +1 turnover margin. Of the Rebels' 21 turnovers on offense, 10 came from Wallace interceptions. Another turnover, the most crippling of the season, came when Wallace fumbled in an overtime loss to Mississippi State. If he can take care of the football, Ole Miss has a chance to compete in the SEC West. If not, it won't matter how much talent the Rebels put on the field, because you can’t win games giving the ball away.

They said it: “To be very candid, I think the journey that we've been on, I think it's faster than I thought possible. ... We had some very nice wins last year: going to Texas and winning, beating No. 6 LSU in the beginning of the year. We didn't finish the season like we wanted, obviously. But with the recruiting that our coaches have done and with those two successful seasons, there's no question that the expectations are raised. I think most fans that are close to our program realize that we're still maybe a year or two away of looking like a total SEC team in the depth chart. But I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West. And I think this year we should be that. That's my expectation, is that we should be competitive in every single game.” -- Freeze at SEC media days.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.7 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5

Our take: The schedule could be worse. Getting Boise State to start the season would have been a mammoth undertaking in past years. But with coach Chris Peterson gone, now is the time to take on the giant of all giants among mid-majors. That aside, the rest of the non-conference schedule (Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis, Presbyterian) should result in wins, and drawing Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the SEC East is more than any coach could ask for. If Ole Miss can beat the teams it should (Arkansas, for instance), go .500 in the others (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M) and get revenge in the Egg Bowl against an evenly matched Mississippi State, then a 10-win season is a reasonable proposition.

SEC morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1. On Tuesday, ESPN unveiled campaign posters for the top four contenders in the College Football Playoff hunt. Each came with a clever tagline, such as Alabama’s “Process of elimination” and Oregon’s “Look good, play better.” Florida State’s “Dallas to Dallas” was a nod, of course, to the Seminoles opening the season in Big D against Oklahoma State and, hopefully, closing the season there in the CFB Playoff title match. But it got me thinking: What taglines would other SEC programs employ in their bid to make the Playoff? Auburn’s is easy: #AuburnFast. Florida’s could read: No Georgia Southern, no problem. LSU’s might go: The young and the relentless. And South Carolina’s could nod to the Head Ball Coach: Keeping the SEC spicy. There’s a comments section, so go ahead and have fun with the concept.

2. Laquon Treadwell is not a man to be trifled with. Even in practice, he does things that make your jaw hit the floor. Just look at this catch the other day. His Go-Go-Gadget fingertips are just ridiculous. How he corralled that pass is mesmerizing. To me, he seems like a young Joe Horn (without the cell-phone celebrations). He not physically imposing or particularly fast, yet he’s explosive. If he can’t get by a DB, he’ll simply jump around or over them. He's got that knack for getting his hands on the football. Though there are definite questions about the quarterbacks in the SEC, I’m excited to see the crop of receivers. Treadwell and Amari Cooper are clearly at the top of the list. But look out for young studs such as Ricky Seals-Jones (Mike Evans 2.0), Speedy Noil (the SEC West’s long-awaited answer to Percy Harvin) and Malachi Dupre (think of a young A.J. Green).

3. A few weeks ago, ESPNU replayed the South Carolina-Missouri game from last season. You remember it, I’m sure: Connor Shaw comes off the bench to lead the Gamecocks to a furious come-from-behind win in double overtime. It was a doozy. But watching it again, I paid closer attention to the offense under Dylan Thompson. It was a best case-worst case scenario. At times, Thompson was sharp. It wasn’t his fault Mike Davis fumbled twice in the first half. But there were other times where Thompson left you wanting more. I had to rewind and replay his interception at least a dozen times. His footwork and fundamentals were unspeakably bad. It was what you teach a QB not to do. Turns out, he has a little gunslinger in him. Now he’s trying to tone some of that down. That’s good news if you’re a Gamecocks fan. You don’t need Thompson to be Brett Favre. With a stellar group of tailbacks, a strong offensive line and an underrated receiving corps, Thompson needs to simply manage the game. If he limits his mistakes and keeps his defense out of short-field situations, South Carolina has a chance to separate itself in the East.

More around the SEC

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
With training camps in full swing now across the conference, there are plenty of interesting stories around the SEC. From talk about quarterbacks to injuries and more, here's a sampling via Wednesday's lunch links:



Thursday, 9/18
Saturday, 9/20