SEC: Aaron Morris
1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.
2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.
3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.
4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.
6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.
7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.
8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.
9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.
11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.
12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
Now, with the Rebels returning a handful of talent on both sides of the ball, expectations will be even higher in 2015, and Freeze knows that. But if Ole Miss is going to take that next step in its quest for an SEC West title, the offense has to be more consistent. The Rebels are looking for a new quarterback and the running game has to get going, but if the offensive line doesn't play with more consistency, the Rebels won't make a move in 2015.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: The Rebels struggled with consistency up front for most of the 2014 season. When all was said and done, the Rebels gave up the third-most sacks in the SEC (31) and allowed 2.8 sacks per game in SEC play. Ole Miss’ line also struggled helping anyone with the ball behind the line of scrimmage, as the Rebels finished 13th in the league by allowing 89 tackles for loss (6.9 per game). Ole Miss dealt with injuries but kept that starting line intact for most of the season. However, the on-field production just wasn’t good enough at times to keep the offense going. For as poorly as quarterback Bo Wallace played at times, the line broke down too often in big games and failed to create enough lanes up front, as the Rebels allowed 3.3 sacks per game in their four losses and averaged just 88.8 rushing yards in those losses. Ole Miss dipped below 80 yards rushing four times last season, including totaling just 72 combined yards in losses to Arkansas and TCU (9 yards on 0.24 yards per carry).
How it can be fixed: Freeze has not shied away from the fact that the depth along the offensive line isn’t adequate to consistently compete in the SEC. He was absolutely right last season, but the good news for the Rebels is they return their entire starting lineup from the 2014 season. Star left tackle Laremy Tunsil will miss considerable time in the offseason after breaking his leg in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, as will starting left guard Aaron Morris, who suffered another ACL injury before the bowl game. While the Rebels would prefer to have a complete line, this will at least help get some younger guys into the rotation during the spring. Fahn Cooper and Rod Taylor -- both signees in the 2014 class -- saw good time last season, but their inexperience showed, so spring development will be key. As cliché as this sounds, Ole Miss’ line needs its younger members to get more reps between the start of spring practice and the start of the 2015 season. With the entire starting five coming back, the reserves need to get more comfortable with meaningful reps. Pure and simple, development and reps are essential for this crew getting better in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: With all five starters returning in 2015, the Rebels will bring back 102 combined starts from those guys. Now, that clearly hinges on Morris (31 career starts) being able to recover from his ACL injury. Also, the Rebels should get back transfer Christian Morris, who missed the entire 2014 season because of injuries. That’s a pretty good foundation to start with, and the Rebels are hoping to really build on their depth up front with what’s shaping up to be a pretty solid offensive line recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has three ESPN 300 offensive linemen committed, including No. 3 guard Javon Patterson, who is already on campus. Fellow ESPN 300 recruit Drew Richmond (OT) is committed but has flirted with Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee. Keeping him in this class will be crucial for the Rebels as they look to create solid SEC depth up front for this season and beyond.
“Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora met with Durkin on Sunday, sources confirmed, and the UNC administration has granted Fedora the ability to offer a competitive financial package."
Durkin was named the Gators' interim coach for Florida's bowl game, but his return as defensive coordinator isn't a sure thing. Surely, McElwain won't wait until after the bowl game to figure out his staff, right?
2. It truly was heartbreaking to hear about the tragic death of Auburn freshman Jakell Mitchell, who was shot and killed early Sunday morning. On Monday, hundreds gathered to mourn and remember Mitchell at a candlelight vigil in Opelika, Alabama. Funeral arrangements have also been made for Mitchell:
- The funeral will be held at noon on Saturday at Greater Peace Baptist Church at 650 Jeter Avenue in Opelika.
- The visitation will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday night.
Former teammates also remembered Mitchell.
3. The Ole Miss Rebels have a lot going on around them, as they prepare to face No. 6 TCU in the Peach Bowl. For starters, the Rebels just lost linebackers coach Tom Allen to South Florida, where he will go to be the Bulls' new defensive coordinator.
Think Tom Allen will be a great fit for #USF. Knows the Tampa area well and he's a high character guy which recruits will like.— Derek Tyson (@DerekTysonESPN) December 15, 2014
Also, offensive guard Aaron Morris will miss the bowl game -- and then some -- with a torn ACL. That's a big blow to the Rebels' offense, and it will force Justin Bell to move to left guard, with freshman Rod Taylor now starting at right guard. Oh, and quarterback Bo Wallace is playing in his final game with the Rebels, while nursing an ankle injury. With a win over the Horned Frogs, Wallace would become the first Ole Miss quarterback to start and win three bowl games.
Apparently, Ole Miss' senior quarterback knew not to be so optimistic. Of course it wasn't good that his starting left guard, Aaron Morris, was done for the season with a torn ACL.
But the reality was that Wallace learned of the injury two weeks ago. He also knew that despite Morris' absence, there was a good backup plan in place: Justin Bell would slide over to left guard and freshman Rod Taylor would come off the bench to fill the void.
So Wallace didn't have any trouble seeing the silver lining as he spoke to ESPN after practice on Monday afternoon. He estimated that Taylor, a former blue-chip prospect, has played roughly 35-40 percent of the snaps this season anyways.
"I mean it's never good when someone gets hurt," Wallace said, correcting his earlier statement. "But as far as us building depth on the o-line for guys next year, it can come out to be a positive because we know Aaron is going to come back and be the same type of player he is."
Bringing it back to Ole Miss' impending showdown with TCU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Wallace said, "[Taylor] was in the rotation, so he knows what it's like. He's been in there before, so we trust him. He'll be ready to go."
He better be, because TCU's defensive line can get after it.
The No. 6-ranked Horned Frogs are tied for 20th nationally in sacks (35) and rank third in interceptions (23). Their five defensive touchdowns are the most of any Power 5 program not named Washington, Kentucky or Georgia Tech.
Much like his quarterback, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was hopeful about Taylor's ability to slide into the starting lineup without issue.
"He improves every week," Freeze told reporters in Oxford, Mississippi. "He loves to practice. He loves to play. Really pleased with his progress.
"He's going to be a good one."
When Morris does undergo surgery on his injured knee, it will be the second time doctors have repaired the ligament. He first tore it back in Ole Miss' 2013 season-opener against Vanderbilt.
Freeze was optimistic Morris would return for the 2015 season, but allowed that "these things tend to be iffy."
"It's hard to say," he said. "I sure hope so for his sake and for our team."
Depth up front was always going to be an issue for the Rebels, who lost three starters from last season's team. But the coaches felt good about the first unit coming out of spring practice. That was until sophomore offensive lineman Austin Golson informed the staff that he planned to transfer so he could be closer to his family.
The former ESPN 300 prospect and Prattville, Ala., native was penciled in as the starter at right tackle, but instead he’ll walk on at Auburn and sit out the 2014 season. He appeared in 12 games last season as a true freshman.
It’s a win-win for Golson and Auburn. He gets to be closer to his family, and the Tigers gets a potential starter on the offensive line. But what about Ole Miss? An already thin offensive line gets even weaker, and the Rebels are now scrambling to try and pick up the pieces before the beginning of fall camp in August.
“That’s the thing,” offensive coordinator Dan Werner told ESPN.com. “We’re still shuffling guys around, trying to get the best five in there. Again, because Aaron [Morris] wasn’t there and we had a young man that was with us and decided to transfer, it sort of [changed]. We’re just going to have to shuffle some guys around and get them in the right position.”
Aaron Morris missed spring practice while recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in the season opener last season, but Werner believes the veteran left guard is getting close to full speed again and expects he’ll be ready to go for fall camp.
When Morris does make his return, Ole Miss is getting a guy who started every game as a sophomore in 2012 and has the experience that is lacking from the rest of the unit.
“[His attitude] has been really good,” Werner said. “Because we had so many young guys playing, a guy like him who’s started and played a bunch of football for us, it was nice to have him in the meeting rooms and on the sideline for the games to help those guys out.”
The one staple on this Rebels’ offensive line is left tackle Laremy Tunsil. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in ability. He was the top offensive tackle coming out of high school and, as a freshman, he made nine starts and earned All-SEC honors. He has all the tools to be a first-round NFL draft pick one day.
“He’s obviously got to come along, but as a true freshman, to do the things he did, it’s just phenomenal to me,” Werner said. “I’ve coached a lot of guys who were first-round picks, and at that stage of their career, he’s better than any of them that I’ve ever coached.
“He’s got to keep on progressing like I said, but with our strength coach and with [offensive line coach] Matt Luke coaching him, I don’t see why he won’t be [a first-round pick].”
Tunsil and Morris are expected to form an imposing duo on the left side, but the right side remains a concern. The coaches like redshirt sophomore Robert Conyers, but they aren’t sure where he best fits. He played just about every position last season.
There are other younger, more inexperienced players who stepped up and played well this spring, but how will they react when they’re out there against Boise State in the Georgia Dome to open the season?
1. Expectations are a good thing: Coach Hugh Freeze thought it would take three years before he even talked seriously about bowls. Now, he’s won two and fans expect him to be bowl eligible before November arrives. Expectations haven’t been this high in Oxford in a while, but with the talent returning, confidence is high and the Rebels are ready to make a run.
2. Wallace is healthy: For all the criticism Bo Wallace has endured, the senior quarterback has played just a couple of games at full strength with his throwing shoulder. After another surgery, Wallace says he feels just at 100 percent. He was limited at times this spring, but his arm is stronger and there’s more zip on this throws.
3. The defensive line has muscle: Last season, the Rebels didn’t have the adequate pass rush that gave their defense juice a year prior. Now, with the return of defensive end C.J. Johnson that elite rusher is back. Robert Nkemdiche is moving inside, where he could be better suited, and ends Fadol Brown, Bryan Bennett and Marquis Haynes could be special players.
Three questions for the fall:
1. How will the offensive line look? Ole Miss has to replace three starters and doesn't have a ton of depth. Outside of left tackle Laremy Tunsil, nothing is really settled up front, and not having Aaron Morris or Christian Morris at full strength this spring didn’t help. Also, the versatile Austin Golson is thinking of transferring. Expect Ole Miss to move a lot of guys around before anything is set.
2. Who will back up Wallace? While Ole Miss has its starting quarterback, the backup is a real unknown. And with Wallace’s injury history, that isn’t a good sign. With Barry Brunetti gone, redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan competed with junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins and early enrollee Kendrick Doss, but no one separated himself this spring.
3. Not so special teams? Ole Miss has to replace kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell with players with very little, if any, experience. Only kicker Andrew Fletcher has any experience (two extra points). He mainly competed with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos this spring, but freshman Gary Wunderlich will be involved this fall. Will Gleeson led at punter this spring but has no experience.
One way-too-early prediction:
Some people think the jury is still out on this Ole Miss team, but enough talent returns to make the Rebels a real contender in the West. Even with an early test again Boise State (in Atlanta), Ole Miss will be 4-0 entering a brutal October slate. Still, the Rebels will find a way to win at least nine games for the first time since 2009.
- Four Georgia players were arrested and charged with multiple counts of theft by deception on Monday. Safety Tray Matthews, defensive linemen Jonathan Taylor and James DeLoach and receiver Uriah LeMay are alleged to have “double-dipped” stipend checks.
- The Bulldogs begin spring practice, and here are five things to know.
- Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn't feel a mobile quarterback is ideal for the Crimson Tide's style and explains why here.
- Fans who follow Auburn know about coach Gus Malzahn's affinity for an up-tempo offense. He said he wants his unit to go even faster this fall.
- Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton and safety Shaun Rupert were among four Tigers student-athletes arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession on Saturday (the other two were basketball players). All four athletes have been suspended.
- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze addressed the status of suspended linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche after a video surfaced that allegedly showed Nkemdiche cursing at what appeared to be Mississippi State fans.
- Florida receiver Solomon Patton shined on a rainy pro day for the Gators.
- A host of notes from Auburn's first spring practice today.
- Mississippi State's full spring practice schedule. Of the 15 practices, 14 are open to the public. And there are holes to fill for the Bulldogs, including at running back and offensive line.
- Discussing the SEC's best defensive linemen.
- Ole Miss guard Aaron Morris talks about his progress from rehabilitating his ACL injury and how tough it was to miss last season.
What's new: Yet again, coach Hugh Freeze was able to keep his staff intact. The expectations, however, are a bit higher in Year 3 of the Freeze era in Oxford.
On the mend: Offensive lineman Aaron Morris, who is coming off of a torn ACL he suffered last season, will be limited this spring. Fellow offensive lineman Christian Morris is out for the spring after undergoing surgery to repair an injured Achilles. Defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton is out for the spring after breaking his foot, while offensive tackle Austin Golson will be limited after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
New faces: The Rebels welcomed in six early enrollees this year. Two are true freshman: Safety C.J. Hampton and quarterback Kendrick Doss. Two are also junior college transfers: Athlete Jeremy Liggins and linebacker Christian Russell. Defensive end Marquis Haynes is coming over from prep school and Christian Morris transferred from UCLA.
Question marks: Outside of rising sophomore Laremy Tunsil, who is the unquestioned starter at left tackle, the offensive line has plenty of mystery. Coaches will be looking for bodies and answers this spring after losing three senior starters. Not having Aaron Morris or Christian Morris, who could push for a starting job this fall, at full strength certainly hurts. Redshirt junior Justin Bell started all 13 games last year (seven at right guard, six at left guard), which will add stability inside with Aaron Morris limited. Mr. Reliable at center, Evan Swindall, is gone too, leaving a big hole there. The Rebels are also looking for a backup to quarterback Bo Wallace with Barry Brunetti gone. Redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan will challenge Ross. Liggins could also get some work at quarterback. With the graduation of Mike Marry and the arrests/suspensions of Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant, the Rebels now have some holes at linebacker this spring.
Key battle: The loss of Swindall, who made 35 career starts with the Rebels, is going to hurt. They will mainly work with Bell, redshirt sophomore Robert Conyers and junior Ben Still, who played in five games last year and served as Swindall's backup, at center. Conyers also played in five games last year and has the ability to line up at both center and tackle.
Breaking out: With top-flight wide receiver Donte Moncrief gone, the Rebels will turn to Treadwell to be the new go-to for Wallace. He'll need some help, and Freeze thinks that rising senior Vince Sanders could be that guy. Overshadowed a bit last year, Sanders caught 21 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown. Injuries limited him to playing in nine games, but he has the ability to be a valuable playmaker this season. He has good size and speed to make plays down the field and over the middle. Remember, he registered more than 500 yards and had four touchdowns in 2012. Also, keep an eye on rising sophomore cornerback Derrick Jones, who played in nine games and made three starts last year. He'll be in a battle for one of the corner spots this spring and could be a big-time player for the Rebels.
Don't forget about: Redshirt junior defensive end C.J. Johnson only played in four games last year before undergoing season-ending ankle surgery. Having him back on the field should give the Rebels a big lift off the edge, especially when it comes to the pass rush. That consistent outside threat was lacking after Johnson went down, resulting in Ole Miss finishing the season tied for 12th in the SEC with just 19 sacks after ranking second with 38 in 2012. That year, Johnson led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks. He's not just extremely important on the field; he's a top leader in the locker room.
All eyes on: Wallace could enter the 2014 season as the SEC's top quarterback. Now, some people might scoff at such a statement, but the league lost a great group of QBs, and Wallace has shown good flashes here and there. He has all the tools to be a top player in this league, but he has to work on his decision making. He has a knack for rushing throws and being careless with the ball. Heading into his final year and spring with the Rebels, it's time for Wallace to take that final step as this team's quarterback. He has to conquer the mental part of his game this spring.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
- Grantland take a look at the winners and losers from the the NFL scouting Ccmbine, including mention of several SEC players.
- Is the NCAA going to limit in-season full-contract practices? There could be as few as one per week via a national mandate.
- Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson had an impressive performance at the NFL combine and makes a case for being the NFL draft's top offensive tackle.
- Florida and Florida State extended their annual football series through 2018, and the Gators also added a 2015 game against East Carolina.
- A look which Alabama prospects are up and which are down in terms of NFL draft stock after the combine.
- After a string of injuries, Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready for a strong senior season.
- Ole Miss left guard Aaron Morris and defensive end C.J. Johnson, who both had season-ending injuries in 2013, were granted medical redshirts.
- Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay did not have a negative effect on his team at Missouri, but there has been a lot of debate whether it will be a distraction when he joins an NFL team.
After shocking many and reaching a bowl in their first year under Hugh Freeze in 2012, the Rebels burst out of the gate this season with a potent offensive attack. During the first three games of the season (all wins) Ole Miss averaged 38 points and 490 yards per game. The read option was working wonders for quarterback Bo Wallace and the offense, as the Rebels averaged 250 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry.
With freshmen filling the stat book, things were really kicking for the Rebel, and they even knocked off Texas in Austin 44-23 to creep into the top 25.
But that was then, and this is now. The Rebels have dropped three straight (all SEC games) and are struggling to get their offense running like it was through the first three weeks of the season. Alabama blanked Ole Miss 25-0, Auburn held the Rebels off 30-22 and Texas A&M broke Ole Miss' heart for the second year in a row with a 41-38 win in the Grove.
In the last three games, Ole Miss' running game just hasn't been as productive, averaging just 101 yards per game without any touchdowns. Wallace has taken more onto his plate in the last three games, attempting more than 30 passes in each game during that span. He's thrown five touchdowns to three interceptions and now has an adjusted Total QBR of 57.7.
The defense held its own through the first five games of the season, but allowed Manziel and that high-flying Texas A&M offense to register nearly 600 yards of offense.
There's no question that Ole Miss' schedule is brutal this fall, and injuries to key players, especially offensive lineman Aaron Morris, have made 2013 frustrating in Oxford. But after a string of three-straight road games, the second half of the season features five straight home games.
Offensive MVP: Laquon Treadwell, WR, Fr.: Ole Miss' stellar recruiting class has made an immediate impact, but none of them have been as good as Treadwell. He leads the Rebels with 32 receptions and is second on the team with 327 receiving yards. He grabbed his first two touchdowns of the year against A&M and debuted with nine catches against Vanderbilt.
Defensive MVP: Serderius Bryant, LB, Jr.: He wasn't even supposed to start for the Rebels, but after replacing Denzel Nkemdiche, who suffered a knee injury in the opener, Bryant has been one of Ole Miss' best players. He leads the team and ranks third in the SEC with 55 total tackles. He leads the SEC with 37 solo tackles. He leads the Rebels with six tackles for loss and has a sack. He suffered a concussion against A&M, but is day-to-day.
As the team bus pulled up to the football complex around 4 a.m., the Rebels were welcomed home from their 44-23 win over Texas by a few fans reveling in their arrival. For players who have seen some truly dark days in Ole Miss' program, Sunday's reception was an odd, yet comforting sight.
"It was pretty cool. It felt good," senior running back Jeff Scott said.
"They showed how dedicated they are to this program."
Scott watched Houston Nutt get fired and was there when the school brought Hugh Freeze back. The former Ole Miss assistant arrived with more questions than excitement. But after a return to the postseason, seven victories and a monster recruiting class in his first season, Freeze brought some hope.
That hope turned into inflated expectations entering the 2013 season, but after a 3-0 start and a Texas-sized victory heading into a bye week, the Rebels have gone from forgotten to formidable.
"It's huge," quarterback Bo Wallace said of the win at Texas. "You have to look at how far we've come. Last year at this time, we were really soul-searching this weekend after the Texas game, trying to find ourselves.
"Anytime you can win a game that people say you aren't supposed to win, you can turn some heads. That's what we have to do: Turn some heads and get people excited about our program and keep climbing in the polls and keep winning games."
Considering the depth issues the Rebels had last year, a victory like this didn't seem possible. On Saturday, Ole Miss was down key players such Aaron Morris, Denzel Nkemdiche and Vince Sanders, yet blew out the Longhorns on the road. Thanks to a stacked freshman class, the Rebels' depth has promise.
"The sky is the limit for this team when we have all hands on deck," Scott said. "It's crazy what this team can do because the potential is there."
Last year, the Rebels were hurting after a 66-31 thumping served up by the Longhorns inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The same place they were greeted by a devoted group of fans early Sunday morning was the same place Texas nearly laid them to rest a year earlier.
It's a different time at Ole Miss. The Rebels are ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll. They own the SEC's No. 4 offense (490 yards per game) and defense (332.7). Next weekend, this team will travel to Tuscaloosa to play No. 1 Alabama in a game that will bring major attention and could have major SEC West implications.
All these positive vibes have the Rebels beaming, but they also understand that they have to move on from Saturday's win. As Freeze says, they have to "throw it in the trash" and prepare for what's next. This team is far from perfect and feeling too good about this victory could cause the Rebels to lose sight of a season that is still very long.
"We definitely have some confidence, but at the same time we can't let ourselves be too overconfident," Wallace said. "But we have a mature team, and I don't think we'll have any problems with that."
For Freeze, Saturday's victory was special because of where he saw the program upon his arrival. Academic and discipline issues rocked a team full of potential. Now, the distractions have dissipated, the discipline has increased and players are producing.
"It' definitely a big step in the right direction," Freeze said. "If you were to tell me on my first day on the job that we would have gone to a place like Texas and pull off a win at their place, it probably would have been difficult for me to believe at that point. So I do think that it is a sign that we're moving in the right direction."
The second week of the college football season is upon us.
Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.
Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:
2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?
3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.
4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.
5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.
6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.
7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.
8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.
9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.
10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.
Junior offensive guard Aaron Morris is out for the season after tearing his ACL, and sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche will miss four to six weeks after tearing meniscus. Nkemdiche is scheduled to undergo surgery Saturday.
The Rebels were already banged up entering the opener, and one of the keys last season to their getting to seven wins was staying healthy.
Junior Keith Lewis will step in at linebacker for Nkemdiche, who led Ole Miss in total tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles last season. The Rebels will also get back junior linebacker Serderius Bryant next week against Southeast Missouri.
Morris, who started at left guard against Vanderbilt, was the Rebels' most experienced offensive lineman, but he reported to preseason camp overweight after missing the spring with a shoulder injury. Morris still has a redshirt year available.
With Morris out, that means you could see even more of talented true freshmen Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson, depending on the way the Rebels shuffle things. Both played a lot Thursday night, as Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke was rotating guys as much as possible up front. It was extremely hot, and the Rebels operate at a blistering pace offensively.
Luke said he was going to play his best five offensive linemen, and it's hard to imagine that both Tunsil and Golson won't be in that five at some point this season. They both looked impressive in the opener. The Rebels, after giving up four sacks in the first half, didn't give up any in the second half. They had 185 of their 206 rushing yards after halftime and also did a better job of staying out of third-and-long. For a big chunk of that second half, Tunsil and Golson were both on the field, too.