SEC: West Virginia Moutaineers

The SEC's most underrated players

July, 20, 2011
7/20/11
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HOOVER, Ala. -- The stars will be out in force this week at the SEC media days.

Alabama’s Trent Richardson will be here. So will the South Carolina tandem of Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, not to mention Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Arkansas running back Knile Davis.

The spotlight will be bright for all of those players and probably won’t dim much during the season.

But what about those players who haven’t received the pub they deserve? You know, the guys who are outstanding football players in their own right, but seem to fly under the radar for some reason.

We’ve already sized up the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team. The media’s preseason All-SEC team will be unveiled on Friday.

So while we’re picking teams, here’s our stab at the 10 most underrated players in the SEC:

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bolden
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireOle Miss running back Brandon Bolden found the end zone 17 times last season.
1. Ole Miss RB Brandon Bolden: He’s one of the most complete running backs you’ll find anywhere in college football. The 5-foot-11, 221-pound senior rushed for 976 yards last season and averaged 6 yards per carry. He also led the Rebels with 32 catches and scored 17 touchdowns. But try finding Bolden’s name on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team for the 2011 season. He didn’t even make third team.

2. Arkansas LB/S Jerico Nelson: Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson will tell you that Nelson is the guy who sets the tempo for the rest of the Hogs’ defense. He’s small for a linebacker (5-foot-10, 211) and also has some safety responsibilities, but he’s incredibly productive. He was second on Arkansas’ team with 87 tackles last season, including 11 for loss. Nelson is also another player you won’t find anywhere on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team.

3. Tennessee RB Tauren Poole: There’s no denying that the running back position in the SEC is insanely talented, but Poole rushed for 1,034 yards last season and rarely gets mentioned among the top backs in the league. One of the most respected players on Tennessee’s team, Poole recorded six 100-yard rushing games a year ago, which tied for the SEC lead. Where’s the love?

4. LSU S Brandon Taylor: When the Tigers lost Taylor to that ankle injury in the Alabama game last season, they were never quite the same defensively. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Taylor adds a presence to the LSU secondary that’s irreplaceable. The 6-foot, 195-pound senior was also selected to wear No. 18 this season, which is one of the Tigers’ top honors as a player.

5. Vanderbilt S Sean Richardson: The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior has started in 18 consecutive games, including all 12 at free safety a year ago. He’s been overshadowed at times by others in the Vanderbilt secondary, but Richardson is the real deal. He set single-season career highs a year ago in total tackles (98) and tackles for loss (7) and finished fourth in the SEC in solo tackles (5.2 per game).

6. South Carolina C T.J. Johnson: He’s the guy who makes it go up front for the Gamecocks. The 6-foot-3, 314-pound junior has started every game in his first two seasons at South Carolina, all 13 at right guard as a redshirt freshman and all 14 at center last season. He’s tough. He’s smart, and he’s one of the strongest leaders on South Carolina’s team.

7. Georgia CB Brandon Boykin: More pub is starting to flow his way leading into this season. Boykin was a second-team preseason All-SEC selection by the coaches. Of course, he’ll readily tell you that he doesn’t think there’s a better cornerback in the league than him, and he’ll get a chance to prove that this fall. When you throw in his return skills, Boykin rates right up there with any of the SEC’s two-way players.

8. Auburn WR Emory Blake: Here’s a quick trivia question: Who led the Tigers in touchdown catches last season en route to their BCS national championship? Some might be surprised that it was Blake, who had eight touchdown catches. He’s also Auburn’s leading returning receiver and averaged 16.8 yards per catch. So when you start listing the top receivers in this league, don’t forget about Blake.

9. Kentucky OG Stuart Hines: The Kentucky guard getting all the love right now is Larry Warford and deservedly so. He’s an excellent player, but don’t sleep on the Wildcats’ “other” guard. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound Hines is one of the better pulling guards in the league and has made 24 starts during his career. It’s no secret that Kentucky will lean heavily on its offensive line in 2011, and Hines -- rock-solid in every way -- is a big reason why.

10. Mississippi State S Charles Mitchell: He’s been an integral part of the Bulldogs’ secondary since he was a true freshman and has played in all 37 games of his college career. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior is a big-time hitter and collected 93 total tackles a year ago. He’s the Bulldogs’ enforcer in what should be a very productive secondary in 2011.


Chris Low breaks down the SEC’s toughest September schedules.

Video: Top SEC recruiters

February, 5, 2010
2/05/10
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Chris Low gives props to the guys behind the programs who brought in top recruiting classes to the SEC.

Signing Day Live

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
11:05
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Our Signing Day Live site is up and running, and it's a great place for recruiting junkies (and just regular fans) to discuss what's a national holiday for some in college football.

It's just like the Virtual Pressbox we used during the season. The SEC will be covered from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., but you can jump in anytime.

Here's hoping everybody has a great class. Come to think of it, though, when's the last time you heard a coach stand up on signing day and say he had a bad class?

Video: the decade that was in the SEC

January, 22, 2010
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SEC blogger Chris Low looks back at the 2000s and ahead to the next 10 years in the conference.

Video: Handing out presents in the SEC

December, 24, 2009
12/24/09
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SEC blogger Chris Low hands out some Christmas gifts to each team in the conference.

SEC helmet stickers

October, 11, 2009
10/11/09
2:07
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

In the end, the most anticipated Saturday of the season in the SEC didn't produce any thrillers in the marquee matchups.

Arkansas and Tennessee both pulled off surprises in how convincingly they won, while Alabama and Florida continued to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Lots of candidates for this week's helmet stickers, although a couple were no-brainers:

Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes: He's the igniter of the Florida defense and one of the best linebackers in the country. Spikes got the Gators going early on defense Saturday in their 13-3 win over LSU, and they never looked back. He finished with a team-high 11 tackles, including 2.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and was LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson's worst nightmare all night long.

Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton: If the Vols would have had this version of Crompton all season, who knows what their record would be right now. The fifth-year senior quarterback was outstanding in the 45-19 win over Georgia. He was 20-of-27 for 310 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in what was easily the best game of his career. With all the abuse Crompton has taken at Tennessee, he deserves some good things to happen to him.

South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: One of the Gamecocks' most prized signees this past February, Jeffery had his official coming-out party in the 28-26 win over Kentucky with three touchdown catches. He had five catches in his first five games before going off on the Wildcats, who were missing their two starting cornerbacks. Two of Jeffery's touchdown catches were as good as you're going to see. He pulled in a 28-yarder with one hand and made a sweet adjustment on a fade route to catch a 22-yarder. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound freshman finished with seven catches for 138 yards.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram: A week after he ran for 140 yards against Kentucky, Ingram rolled up a career-high 172 yards in the 22-3 over Ole Miss. His 36-yard run was the game's only touchdown. He's now scored a touchdown in 14 of his 20 games at Alabama and established himself as one of the more versatile running backs in college football.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson: It hasn't been a lot of fun heading up the Hogs' defense this season, but Robinson had his guys ready Saturday against previously unbeaten Auburn. The Tigers were held to under 400 yards of total offense for the first time all season, and Arkansas played its best all-around game defensively of the season in a 44-23 win over Auburn.

Resilient Tigers are starting to believe

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
3:12
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


AUBURN, Ala. -- There was thunder and lightning, a vaunted Auburn running game that never really showed up and a shaky start to the game that probably would have doomed the Tigers a year ago.

Then again, nobody on the Plains can really remember last year.

John Reed/US Presswire
Gene Chizik has the Tigers off to a 3-0 start.
“All I’m worried about is right now,” junior linebacker Josh Bynes said in the aftermath of Auburn’s 41-30 win over West Virginia on Saturday night. “We got it done, and that’s all that matters.”

The Tigers got it done on a soggy night at Jordan-Hare Stadium when they had to wait more than an hour just to start the game because of the weather.

It wasn’t their best tackling performance on defense, particularly early. Their running game was AWOL, and they fell behind 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.

“This game shows that we can push through anything and endure,” junior running back Mario Fannin said.

It’s also the most convincing evidence yet that these Tigers (3-0) are for real.

If they weren’t already believing, they are now.

In fact, with about five minutes to play in the game, their excitable first-year coach, Gene Chizik, went up to his defensive guys and peered into every one of their eyes.

It was still a one-possession game, and Chizik wanted to see if they were ready to win a game like this.

“Coming into those last minutes, Coach Chizik came over and said, ‘Guys, one more stop, and it’s over,’ ” said sophomore cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who had the interception deep in Auburn territory that turned the game around in the second quarter.

“We weren’t trying to do anything special. We were just all trying to do our jobs. You do the little things and the big things happen. It was a long game, physical game, wet and slippery, but that’s what we are all about.”

The Tigers turned to their defense in the fourth quarter to send the Mountaineers packing once and for all.

Four times, West Virginia turned the ball over in that final quarter. Two interceptions came on attempted middle screen passes. Defensive tackle Jake Ricks set up the go-ahead touchdown by snatching the tipped pass and returning it 21 yards to the West Virginia 19.

Linebacker Craig Stevens finished the Mountaineers off a few possessions later when he intercepted another Jarrett Brown screen attempt in the middle of the line and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.

“If we can get off the field a little better on third down, we’re going to be a great defense,” Ricks said.

The Tigers gave up 509 yards of total offense, but came up with six turnovers.

“It doesn’t matter which way the cookie crumbles,” Bynes said. “They got more yards than we wanted to give up, but we got more turnovers than they wanted to give up."

The other thing this defense has going for it is that it doesn’t have to spend all game on the field similar to a year ago. Ricks joked that he can actually bear to watch this Auburn offense play after keeping one eye closed last year.

OK, not really. But you get the idea.

“It’s great. Our offense is putting up points and scoring touchdowns,” Ricks said. “I love watching our offense play now.”

It’s debatable if even immediate family members enjoyed watching the Tigers’ offense a year ago.

“We changed directions a little bit tonight, but got the same result,” said Fannin, referring to the Tigers’ 300 passing yards after they rushed for 300 yards in each of the first two games.

“We can go a lot of different ways with this offense.”

The direction this program is going would appear to be up, and the Tigers just may find themselves in the Top 25 when the new polls come out later Sunday.

Healthy Todd gets it done for Tigers

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
2:25
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


AUBURN, Ala. -- Chris Todd couldn’t have won a game like this for Auburn a year ago.

He didn’t have the strength in his throwing shoulder to do it. He didn’t have the confidence in his throwing shoulder to it. And most importantly, his teammates didn’t have the confidence in him to do it.

Paul Abell/US Presswire
Chris Todd passed for career highs in yards (284) and touchdown passes (4).
“This is a different Chris Todd,” said Mario Fannin, who was on the receiving end of one of Todd’s career-high four touchdown passes Saturday night in Auburn’s 41-30 victory over West Virginia.

“He feels 100 percent comfortable with his shoulder, and we do, too. He knew he was bruised up last year. We knew he wasn’t right. But there are no problems this year, and he looks great.”

After gashing their first two opponents with the running game, the Tigers turned to the pass against the Mountaineers, who were determined early not to let Auburn run the ball.

Trailing 14-0, the Tigers and Todd never blinked.

“Coach (Chizik) always talks about impostors during a game, and we had to take them down with our will,” said Todd, who had surgery on his shoulder in December. “We had to react to the situation, and we always knew that we could come back from the deficit.”

Todd’s third touchdown of the night, a quick flip to Fannin that turned into an 82-yard score, tied the game at 27-27 midway through the third quarter.

And then Todd’s final touchdown pass, a 17-yarder to Darvin Adams on a third-and-8 play, put Auburn ahead to stay early in the fourth quarter.

Todd’s 284 passing yards were also a career high, and the Tigers needed every one of them because their running game netted just 100 yards on 41 carries.

“There were a lot of times the offense wasn’t moving the ball,” Chizik said. “But you never looked in his eyes and saw anything but confidence, and all he ever needed was another chance … and he came back and delivered.”

The truth is that Todd wasn’t completely healthy Saturday. He’d been fighting the flu the last couple of days.

But his arm and decision-making were razor-sharp.

“His eyes were puffy,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “You could tell (he wasn’t feeling well). We were concerned two days ago. But he showed a lot of toughness.”

video

Final: Auburn 41, West Virginia 30

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
12:27
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


AUBURN, Ala. -- Don’t look now, but Auburn is three-fourths of the way to being unbeaten in the month of September.

It wasn’t the best start for the Tigers on Saturday night. They had to wait more than an hour just to begin the game because of lightning. And when the game did start, it was all West Virginia.

But Auburn’s defense came up with one big play after another in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers raced past the turnover-prone Mountaineers for a 41-30 victory at rain-soaked Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Tigers (3-0) forced six turnovers by the Mountaineers, including five interceptions. Four of those turnovers came in the fourth quarter.

Senior quarterback Chris Todd threw four touchdown passes for Auburn, which has Ball State at home next Saturday before going on the road for the first time Oct. 3 against Tennessee.

Defense delivers again for Auburn

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
12:11
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


The defense delivers again for Auburn, and this may have been the deciding blow.

Linebacker Craig Stephens intercepted another attempted middle screen pass by West Virginia and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, extending the Tigers' lead to 41-30 with 3:41 left in the game.

Again, it hasn't been the best night statistically for the Auburn defense, but that's two huge plays now in the fourth quarter for Ted Roof's guys.

And both were on middle screens.

A stat to remember

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:55
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


As this game goes down to the final minutes, Auburn fans can take heart in one stat. That is, if you believe in stats.

The Tigers have won 51 consecutive games when they score 30 or more points, a streak that dates back to 1996.

With a little more than five minutes to play, Auburn leads West Virginia 34-30.

Auburn's Coleman helped off field

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:18
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


Auburn star defensive end Antonio Coleman was helped off the field late in the third quarter. It appears the Auburn medical staff is looking at his right hand or wrist.

Devine stealing the show

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


Most of the talk coming into this game centered around the Auburn running game and tandem of Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb.

But it's been West Virginia's Noel Devine who's been the best running back on the field. Devine has 111 yards rushing and three touchdowns. His 12-yard touchdown run stretched the Mountaineers' lead to 27-20, although they missed the extra point.

Halftime analysis: W. Virginia 21, Auburn 20

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
10:34
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


AUBURN, Ala. – There was a little more than an hour delay Saturday night in the Auburn-West Virginia game because of lightning and monsoon-like rain at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Mountaineers lead 21-20 at the half. Here’s a quick analysis of the first half:

Best call: Jordan-Hare Stadium was rocking to open the game after the long delay, but West Virginia didn’t hesitate in trying to quiet the crowd. The Mountaineers went up top on the third play from scrimmage, and Jarrett Brown connected with Bradley Starks on a 58-yard pass down to the Auburn 1. Brown scored two plays later to give West Virginia a quick 7-0 lead, sapping some of the energy from the stadium

Turning point: West Virginia, leading 21-10, was driving deep in Auburn territory early in the second quarter and really seemed to have the Tigers on their heels. But Brown tried to float a pass that Auburn sophomore cornerback Neiko Thorpe intercepted and returned 22 yards. The Tigers were able to convert that turnover into a 42-yard Wes Byrum field goal, pulling within 21-13 when it looked like they might be on the verge of going down two touchdowns or more.

Stat of the half: The two teams have combined for 500 yards of total offense in the first half. But Auburn, which came into the game second nationally in rushing with an average of 345.5 yards per game, only has 50 yards on the ground at the half.

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