SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or fewer points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.

SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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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.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day
 
Now that we've taken the time to look at offensive players who could pile on the stats in 2014, it's time to take a look at the defenders who make this league so scary.

Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.

Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.

This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.

Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is looking to build off of his strong freshman season.
1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: During his first year at Georgia, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 QB hurries. He explodes off the line and is a beast for linemen to handle. He could be the SEC's best pass-rusher in 2014.

2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.

5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.

7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.

8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.

9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.

10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.
As we count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the official start of the 2014 college football season, we're also gearing up for our first trip through the College Football Playoff.

Yes, after waaaaay too many years of being stubborn and different, this beloved sport is finally getting a playoff system to determine its national champion at the end of the year.

Better late than never.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMIThere's strong support among SEC players such as La'el Collins for the new College Football Playoff, but they have different ideas on how big it should get.
There's a 13-member playoff committee, revolving playoff sites and newfound excitement attached to the playoff. Fans, coaches, media members and school administrators have all weighed in on the pros and cons of the College Football Playoff, but we haven't really heard a lot from the players who will actually be partaking in the playoff and throwing their bodies around a couple of more times each season.

What do the players think of it? Are four teams enough? Should it expand? What effect will it have on players' bodies and academics? What about travel for their families and friends? Do they want the playoff at all?

Over the past month, we asked players around the conference to weigh in on the playoff and give us their thoughts on the playoff.

Enough teams?

You were hard-pressed to find a player who didn't agree with FBS football adopting a playoff system. So with that out of the way, we asked players whether they thought four games was enough. The majority were happy with that number.

  • “I think it’s perfect -- a four-team playoff. You get right to the point. If you lose, you go home and there’s two more teams [left]. There it is, it’s simple.” -- LSU OT La'el Collins. (However, when asked about his thoughts on expanding it, Collins said it "would be cool, too.")
  • “I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do it, but I think that’s a good amount of games. You don’t want to be playing too many in the playoff because then guys’ bodies would be shot and coaches after the season wouldn’t have time to go out and recruit [as much]. They would lose out on a lot of recruiting opportunities.” -- Florida QB Jeff Driskel
  • “Four is plenty right now. ... Right now, four is what it is and I’m happy that that’s what it is. If they end up changing it, then I’ll be happy also." -- Tennessee C Mack Crowder
  • “It’ll be just like high school again, I guess. It’s just one more game. I think everybody will be fine.” -- Georgia RB Todd Gurley
  • “Four teams is better than two, so it’s a good start.” -- Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi

What if the playoff were to expand to eight or 16 teams?

  • “That might be too much because it’s a hard game already. Playing all those games, there would definitely be more injuries. Four is fine, eight could be cool too, but I don’t think 16 would be smart.” -- Ogbuehi
  • "That would probably be a little too much.” -- Gurley
  • “As players, we don’t think about it like that. We think of it as some players are going to go on and play in the NFL where there are 16 games on top of a playoff and a Super Bowl -- mind you that some of those guys play in a wild-card game. By the time they finish, it’s like 20-something games.” -- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.

What about your life away from football? Wouldn't an expanded playoff eat into your family time during the holidays and conflict with finals?

  • “Fans don’t think about that. Fans don’t think about us spending time with our families or finishing out our classes with good grades. That’s something that they have to take into consideration.” -- Driskel
Travel

A playoff, whether it has four teams or 16, means more travel for players, fans and family members. That means more money out of people's pockets when it comes to transportation -- which is more than likely going to be by plane -- food, lodging, and miscellaneous. And that's just for one game.

Let's face it, some people are going to have to decide between going to the semifinal game or the national championship.

  • “Not every family can make that trip. The fact that there are more games and both are immensely huge games could make it difficult on a lot of families [to plan travel]. I could see that happening. ... It’s not necessarily something that we thought about. But when we look at the schedule and we know how that’s going to play out, then some people have to start thinking about that, and some more than others.” -- Georgia WR Chris Conley
  • “It’s definitely a concern. It’s something that guys’ families are going to have to start preparing themselves now.” -- Collins
  • “You can watch us on TV. As long as we win, that’s all that matters.” -- Fowler

Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier thinks players and families should be helped out with travel.

  • “They have to do that now because most of them don’t have enough money to make all those trips. That’s why I think we should give the players and the parents expense money -- $200 to the player, $200 to the parents. Every time we play, here’s $400 of expense money.”
Injury concern?

More games mean more chances for injuries. That's just science. So are players concerned about wearing down?

  • “I just see it as more games, and I love playing games. You can get hurt literally at any point in the season. At the end of the season, some guys are going to be completely healthy, some guys are gonna be beat up." -- Crowder
  • “That’s the sacrifice you make, but it all pays off in the end.” -- Collins
  • “It’s a lot of games, but it’s something that you have to prep yourself up for and prepare yourself to just go. You’re going to have aches and injuries, and things like that, but if you want to win it takes hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears.” -- Fowler

For now, players will go through the motions of the season before they sniff what life in the playoff will be like. It's worked at all other levels of sport, and now Division 1 football is getting in on the act. All these questions and concerns will be approached head-on in the months to come, and we'll see how players' opinions on the playoff change.

SEC morning links

August, 14, 2014
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1. If you think Nick Saban is leaving Alabama for the NFL, don't hold your breath. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told AL.com recently that Saban's next stop will be TV, maybe even adjacent to him on the set of ESPN. Saban is no stranger to the camera. He's been on College GameDay countless times, and he served as a guest analyst for ESPN during last year's BCS national championship coverage. That got me thinking. What other SEC coaches would be good on TV? The first one that comes to mind is the always-entertaining Les Miles. If he had his own show, people would watch. I also think Steve Spurrier would be fantastic as an analyst because of his candor. He was great on set with Saban during ESPN's recent carwash. Will Muschamp could provide that fiery on-air personality, and Dan Mullen could be fun, too.

2. Speaking of SEC coaches, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was the latest to take the ice bucket challenge. He and his entire team had ice water dumped on their heads Wednesday to help raise awareness for ALS, a disease that took the life of Adam Deacon's mother. Deacon is a junior offensive lineman at Arkansas. Afterward, Bielema and his team challenged athletic director Jeff Long, ESPN personalities Paul Finebaum and Joe Tessitore, and college football teams across the nation to complete the challenge and donate to the ALS association. Earlier this week, NHL player Paul Bissonnette took the ice bucket challenge to new heights, literally.

3. We're nearly two weeks into fall camp, and it's about that time when coaches start making decisions on key position battles. At Tennessee, it sounds like Butch Jones might be on the verge of naming his starting quarterback. The candidates include senior Justin Worley and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. All three started at least one game last year, and all three have shown progress through the early stages of fall camp. Across the state, Derek Mason is in no hurry to name his starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, but the competition was cut in half this week. Only three signal callers remain.

Tweet of the day

 

More around the SEC

 
More than ever, the Power Five conferences are jockeying for the pole position as we get set for the first season of the College Football Playoff.

Each conference has its own pitch as to why it's the best conference in the country or has the toughest path to the title. Consider it an early dose of lobbying to the selection committee.

Do the math and at least one of the five conferences is going to be left out. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach has broken down each of the five leagues and done his best to separate the facts from the propaganda, the latter a word Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops used heading into last season to describe the SEC's so-called dominance from top to bottom.

Stoops took some heat from SEC diehards, but ended up getting last laugh: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31.

As Schlabach points out in his piece, the SEC obviously won more national titles than anybody during the BCS era, including seven straight before having that streak snapped by Florida State last season, but it wasn't like the SEC was ripping everybody else to shreds. From the start of the BCS era in 1998 to its end in 2013, SEC teams went .500 against Pac-12 teams during the regular season (13-13), were only slightly better than the Big Ten in bowl games (23-21) and had a losing record against Big 12 teams during the regular season (8-12).

I've long contended that the grind of the SEC is what makes the league so difficult, and it's a grind I think will once again ensure that everybody finishes with at least one conference loss this season. Still, there's no denying that Tennessee's struggles the last several years and Florida losing 21 games over the last four seasons has watered down the East. But, then, look at what South Carolina and Vanderbilt have done the last three seasons, and Missouri went to the SEC championship game in just its second year in the league.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue with Schlabach's assessment, that the SEC's best teams might be great every season, but its overall record against the other Power Five conferences suggests it might not be as dominant as we believed.

Can't wait to see how all this "propaganda" plays out in the playoff era.
You can sign all the four- and five-star recruits in the world, but none of that matters if you're not able to fill your needs. RecruitingNation takes a look at 2015 recruits who most fill the needs of each of the SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 11, 2014
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Yes, you’re reading this right. And, no, you’re not reading this at the wrong time, either.

“SEC lunchtime links” is no more. But don’t cue the funeral procession music. We wanted to give you more to read earlier in the day, so we’ve shifted the post to the morning. And rather than focusing solely on providing you with links from every team around the SEC, we’re instead going to make the post more multi-faceted with fewer quotes, more analysis and, hopefully, more fun.

With that said, let’s get on with our maiden voyage.

Saban gets defensive

Don’t call it a tirade, because it wasn’t. But when Nick Saban was asked on Saturday how he and the staff were preparing for hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, he didn’t exactly answer in kind.

“You know, in all honesty, guys, you all make way too much of this,” he said.

Oh, do tell.

“I mean, [Auburn] had 21 points against us with 30 seconds to go in the game, and I don’t think anybody held them to 21 points all year long,” Saban said. “I saw them score 60 in the SEC Championship Game, or whatever. We shut Ole Miss out here. We had four turnovers against Oklahoma that led to 28 points; two [touchdowns] the defense never even got back on the field.”

You know what that sounds like? Excuses.

Before you go ballistic, think about it. Did Alabama play all that poorly against HUNH offenses last season? Maybe not, compared to the rest of the country. But since when does Alabama compare itself to anyone? As Kirby Smart said prior to last season, “A lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC, be first in the country. ... We really don't go by that motto. We go by: Be the best Alabama defense there's been.”

From 2009-11, it seemed like no one could score on the Tide. Now, uptempo offenses are having some success poking holes in Alabama’s aura of invincibility. Are they big holes? Maybe not, but they are there nonetheless. Nearly 300 yards rushing by Auburn says so. Oklahoma throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns says so. Texas A&M racking up 628 yards -- the most ever allowed by an Alabama defense -- says so, too.

When Saban said, “We make it out like we’re horrible when we play a (no-huddle) team,” his argument was essentially that the scheme is sound, the preparation is good, but that the tempo makes it difficult to implement because of the trouble communicating from the sideline. But that sounds like a distinction without a difference. If you study all week for an exam, bring the sharpest No. 2 pencils and then answer most of the questions incorrectly, you still fail.

“We need to improve on it,” Saban said of defending the HUNH. “But I think we need to improve on defense, period.”

Both are true. But what good is one without the other?

Scrimmage season

From now until the season begins, you’ll hear a lot of talk about scrimmages. At Georgia, Hutson Mason called the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage a “draw.” At Alabama, Saban said both quarterbacks “did a lot of good things." And at Tennessee, Butch Jones said he saw "marked improvement."

That’s cause for celebration, right? Well, maybe.

Talk is great, but seeing is believing. And with many scrimmages these days, no one in the media or the general public is allowed to see anything.

So practice caution with the post-scrimmage news conferences, and beware of the stat sheet you’ll see shortly thereafter. The picture they paint is often a little too rosy.

Just look at Georgia, where somehow 51 passes were attempted without a single interception or touchdown. Alabama provided some rushing and receiving stats, but nothing from the QBs. Tennessee, meanwhile, didn’t provide any statistics whatsoever.

South Carolina, on the other hand, had a scrimmage open to the media in which Pharoh Cooper continued to impress and Dylan Thompson connected on 9 of 15 passes for 114 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Around the SEC
Players like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Cameron are frustrating defenses and changing offenses in the NFL.

Having that big, powerful tight end who can knock defenders around and stretch the field is turning into more of a necessity for NFL offenses, and college coaches are taking notice.

“I definitely think it's a trend going on right now,” Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu said. “Tight ends are starting to become just a larger receiver, quite honestly, especially when you have guys who are tight ends in the NFL trying to get their contracts signed as a wide receiver because they're taking most of their snaps out wide."

In the SEC, most coaches are on board with having that lovely mismatch of size and athleticism lining up inside. Finding multifaceted players who create advantageous mismatches is the name of the game.

[+] EnlargeJake McGee
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIThe Gators were eager to add former Cavaliers TE Jake McGee, who beings a new dimension to their offense.
The use of the tight end as more of a blocker has become more a part of how NFL offenses operate over the past few years, especially with the emergence of these hybrid players.

In 2011, 14 tight ends ranked inside the top 50 in the NFL in receiving. Those tight ends were targeted 1,526 times and caught 1,006 passes for 12,422 yards and 91 touchdowns. Last year, the NFL saw nine tight ends rank in the top 50 in receiving, catching 723 passes for 8,686 yards and 85 touchdowns. Those tight ends were targeted 1,088 times.

For the SEC, eight tight ends ranked among the top 50 in the league in receiving in 2011. Those eight tight ends caught 233 passes for 2,771 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, as only three tight ends ranked inside the top 50 of the SEC in receiving yards last season, after five ranked in the top 50 in 2012.

But coaches see those numbers increasing in the coming years, as the tight end becomes more valued. There's a reason Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped at the chance to sign former Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who can play inside and outside and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years at Virginia.

To Muschamp, that kind of player changes blocking schemes for defenses, creating more holes and space for the offense, and can take bigger linebackers and safeties out of plays.

“That changes run gaps, that creates an extra gap,” Muschamp said. “It also creates an extra gap away from the quarterback. From a protection standpoint and a run-game standpoint, it does some good things to be able to utilize a tight end in the game.

“To be able to match up on a linebacker -- to have a guy who athletically is superior to a safety -- and to be able to find those matchups is huge.”

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't use much of a flex tight end at Houston, but emphasized them more as an offensive coordinator at A&M and Oklahoma. He could do it again this year with the 277-pound Cameron Clear and deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones playing inside.

Mississippi State owns one of the leagues most consistent players in Malcolm Johnson (768 career yards), and rival Ole Miss has the perfect safety net in flex Evan Engram.

Arkansas' best receiving threat might be sophomore Hunter Henry, who averaged 14.6 yards per catch last year.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has had a ton of success with tight ends and hopes to make up for his losses at receiver by using his tight ends and bigger receivers inside.

South Carolina has thrived by using Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams to stretch the field the last couple of years. Anderson has averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 39 receptions, while Adams has averaged 16.3 on 17 catches.

Alabama's Nick Saban is even getting in onthe fun with freak sophomore athlete O.J. Howard lining up at tight end.

“Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him,” Saban said.

More and more, coaches are seeking tight ends with receiver skills, but who like to block. Some players are noticing that that quality makes them even more dangerous.

“It definitely intrigues not only me but people around me, my colleagues I guess, my fellow tight ends,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. “It's a lot more fun to be integrated in an offense and be moved around a lot. I think it definitely throws defenses off, not knowing where exactly you're going to line up a linebacker or a safety on them or what the offense is going to do. I'm definitely noticing that a little bit more.”

SEC lunchtime links

August, 8, 2014
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Last week, we all saw Peyton Manning dancing to "Rocky Top" during practice. Now we know that he’s taken care of when he returns to Tennessee.
 

Now to the lunch links. Enjoy.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Tucked away in a hotel meeting room, Derek Mason slumps in his chair, wearing a breezy black Dri-Fit shirt, athletic shorts and sandals.

Twelve hours from facing the feeding frenzy that is SEC media days for the first time, Vanderbilt's rookie head coach is relaxed and smiling.

The former Stanford defensive coordinator, who commanded back-to-back top-20 defenses, entered the nation's longest, most scrutinized media days radiating confidence.

"I'm just trying to make sure that we are who we think we are," Mason told ESPN.com in July. "And that's a process. [Former Vanderbilt coach] James [Franklin] did a great job of pushing this program to relevancy, but if you dream small, you accomplish small things.

"It doesn't feel tough, man, because it feels like I'm telling the truth. When you're at a place like Vanderbilt and what you're selling is real ... I'm not selling pipe dreams."

To read more of Edward Aschoff's piece on Mason's journey to Vanderbilt, click here.

Center(s) of attention in the SEC

August, 6, 2014
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There are always debates this time of year as we anticipate the start of another college football season.

Who’s the favorite to win the national championship?

Which is the strongest conference?

Who’s the Heisman Trophy front-runner?

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes was a finalist for the Rimington Award last season and is joined by 10 other SEC centers in this year's Rimington watch list.
What’s not up for debate, at least with regard to the SEC, is that the league has never been this talented or this deep at the center position entering a season.

Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.

Talk about being the center of attention.

And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.

If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.

“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.

“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”

Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.

They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.

“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”

Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.

Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.

“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”

Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.

“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.

Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.

But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.

Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.

Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.

“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”

They love their hair, too.

Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.

Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.

“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.

“It’s an honor to be among them.”

And even better to be front and center.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
12:00
PM ET
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:

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
12:00
PM ET
Traditions, position changes, underrated players, suspension news and even anonymous scouting reports on SEC teams. It's all here for you in today's lunch links:

SEC lunchtime links

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
12:00
PM ET
With camps underway or about to open, there is no shortage of news and notes from around the SEC. Let's dive right in:

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