SEC: Blake Barnett

ESPN 300: Five things to know in the SEC 

January, 15, 2015
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More than a third of the players in the final 2015 ESPN 300 rankings are committed to SEC schools. As for distribution of those 102 conference commitments, Alabama leads the way with 20, followed by Georgia with 10. Here is a closer look at five things to know in the SEC from the new recruiting rankings.

Top early enrollees: SEC 

January, 14, 2015
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Newcomers to the SEC made a huge impact throughout the conference this past season. From running back Jalen Hurd at Tennessee, to offensive tackle Cam Robinson at Alabama and to wide receivers D'haquille Williams and Speedy Noil at Auburn and Texas A&M, respectively, these prospects who enrolled last January left their mark on the 2014 football season. Whether it be junior college transfers or true freshmen, these newcomers are counted on every year to help fill voids. Here's a closer look at some of the top candidates who are likely to make an impact early on in their collegiate careers.


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Talent isn’t the question. For Alabama, it never is.

But the number of concerns coach Nick Saban and his staff face this offseason are aplenty. On both sides of the ball, there are major reconstructions to take place. And philosophically, it feels as if the program is at a crossroads -- to further embrace Lane Kiffin’s wide-open offense and try to win games by way of a shootout or go back to the basics and attempt to re-create the hard-nosed defense that typified Alabama’s first three national titles under Saban.
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It’s why we at the SEC Blog went against the grain and did not rank the Crimson Tide among our projected top three teams in the conference. With so much up in the air, we felt better about the chances of Georgia and Auburn.

Now there are two sides to every debate, and here we’ll reveal the point-counterpoint behind our thinking.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsCan CB Cyrus Jones make a big leap in his play in the Tide secondary?
1. A shaky defense

Point: Saban built Alabama on defense. So to see the regression there this past season was troubling. While the line was strong and the linebackers were more than adequate, nothing seemed to save the secondary. It seems like so long ago now, but the season-opener against West Virginia when it gave up 365 yards passing was a harbinger of things to come. Outside of the now departed star safety Landon Collins, there wasn’t a lot of solid on-ball coverage. In the final three games against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, the once-dominant Crimson Tide defense surrendered an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game. Without Collins to lean on and no sure thing at safety ready to step into his shoes, can we honestly expect an improvement in Alabama’s pass defense? And even bigger than that, is there anything to suggest that Saban and his staff have learned to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle any better? Especially when there’s a mobile QB involved, Alabama has been found lacking.

Counterpoint: There’s always the chance that this was a transitional year at cornerback. Cyrus Jones came to his own, Eddie Jackson returned from a torn ACL quickly, and freshman Tony Brown was able to see the field with some regularity. So, if you’re looking on the bright side, all three could be better next season, whether it’s Jackson’s knee getting stronger or Brown’s knowledge of the defense increasing. Along with that, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Marlon Humphrey, a five-star corner in last year’s signing class, will shed his redshirt, and there’s the chance that a few stars from the 2015 class emerge, whether that’s early enrollee safety Deionte Thompson or one of the two top-five cornerbacks already committed to the Tide.

2. Too many questions on offense

Point: Blake Sims is gone after one spectacular year as a starter. And while Alabama lucked out with his out-of-nowhere development, can we expect lightning to strike twice? Maybe, but most programs aren’t so fortunate. At some point, you have to think Saban’s run of solid QBs will end. If it does, how will it affect Alabama? Do we know for sure that Derrick Henry is ready to become a feature back? After all, the way Kiffin subbed an ailing T.J. Yeldon into the game against Ohio State on most every third down indicated that Henry is a liability blocking. And beyond Henry’s ability and Kenyan Drake’s health, who will be the go-to receivers? Amari Cooper’s 124 receptions are gone, along with the next two leading pass-catchers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White.

Counterpoint: Who would have thought a year ago that Alabama would be bemoaning the loss of Sims? The former wideout was never supposed to become the starting QB, which is both a testament to his ability and that of Kiffin to coach the position. After all, if Sims can throw for 3,000 yards, maybe Jake Coker can too -- or Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett. Because in fact, we don’t know who will win the starting job. But there are plenty of options, and a number of them possess the traits to do well in Kiffin’s offense, as evidenced by Cornwell and Barnett’s high ratings as recruits or Coker’s much ballyhooed arm while at Florida State.

3. Increasing competition

Point: The bowl season said one thing, but the regular season said quite another. The West, contrary to popular opinion these days, might still be the best division in college football next season. If you don’t believe that to be true, come up with your predicted order of finish. Who do you have as the sixth and seventh teams? Mississippi State, which possesses a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB? Texas A&M, which should upgrade on defense thanks to the addition of John Chavis? How about Arkansas, which won four of its final six games and could begin the season ranked in the top 25? While Alabama might still be the most talented team in the SEC, the gap seems to be dwindling.

Counterpoint: It’s not so weak that it fails to merit playoff consideration, but Alabama’s schedule is not exactly a high-wire act. Outside of nonconference cupcakes Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern, the big draw, Wisconsin, will have a new coaching staff and will be without its star player, Melvin Gordon. Then consider that the home portion of the schedule is about as favorable as possible: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Going to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn won’t be easy, granted, but at least those games come in October and November, rather than when the team is still developing in September.
The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.
Alabama’s 2015 season begins in 239 days.

That’s an awfully long time to sit and wait and wonder. And like every offseason, we will eventually slip into a state of surefire prognosis, where predictions morph into reality and what we think we know overrides all we are only on the cusp of understanding.

It’s a time when preseason polls rule the world and coaches fight helplessly against the never-ending tide of speculation.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonIs this the year Jake Coker takes over as Alabama's starting QB? With five candidates for the job, there is sure to be a lot of speculation this offseason.
It’s great fun.

But it’s also dangerous, because all too often we get it wrong.

This sportswriter, along with scores of others, were dead wrong at this time last year when we thought we knew exactly who Alabama’s starting quarterback would be. Whatever we didn’t know about Jake Coker, we were certain we knew about Blake Sims. After four years of toiling in obscurity, there was no way it could be Sims, who didn’t match Alabama’s recent run of quarterbacks who were picturesque in the pocket with solid throwing motions and even more spectacular bangs.

There were other reasons for our opinions about Sims, of course, but that’s a moot point now considering the way he beat out Coker and went on to set a school record for passing yards in a single season. We looked foolish with each Sims touchdown and each win that led to Alabama reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. We ate our crow along the way, and deservedly so.

With that said, how about we swallow that last bite of humble pie and start this offseason right? Let’s try as best we can to not crown the next leader of the Crimson Tide so early. Let’s not put that pressure on Coker or any other QB on Alabama’s campus.

It very well could be Coker who ends up winning the starting job a year late. We know he has taken some first-team snaps during the season, and we’re certain he should have a better grasp of the offense after spending a year in the system. But there is also Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to consider. And don’t count out Blake Barnett, the five-star prospect who enrolled in school this week.

If we learned anything from Sims, it’s that anything is possible. Any of the five current candidates could develop into a starter.

Lane Kiffin might have driven Alabama fans crazy with his play-calling late in the game against Ohio State, but the offensive coordinator has shown he has the ability to coach quarterbacks. Like his clever use of misdirection in the passing game, he could surprise everyone with the quarterback he chooses coming out of fall camp.

With eight months remaining until that happens, let’s just relax and see what happens.

Let’s take a cue from someone who knows best: Coker, who is entering his third quarterback competition.

"Just trying to get better, that’s all you can do," he told reporters prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, you can’t worry about all the other stuff outside. I just try to go to practice and not read anything. Just stick to the program."

The program worked last season despite our best guesses. Maybe it will work again in spite of another offseason fraught with speculation.
Dak Prescott, Robert NkemdicheIcon Sportswire, AP PhotoDak Prescott and Robert Nkemdiche give the Mississippi schools plenty of hope for 2015.

Now is not the time for excuses.

Don’t tell me about a lack of motivation. Don’t tell me about key injuries. Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me about luck.

Last week, the SEC was exposed. The West, in particular, failed. Miserably. Undeniably. Disappointingly.

If we’re being honest about what we saw, it was destruction. Ole Miss fell flat on its face. Mississippi State continued its downward slide. Auburn’s defense, once again, had the resistance of a wet napkin. And Alabama, supposedly the best of the them all, couldn’t function on third down -- the money down -- if it’s life depended on it.

And before you start saying that it was about the SEC beating itself, stop. TCU, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Ohio State weren’t lucky beneficiaries; they were the better teams. Period. The Big Ten and Big 12 were superior conferences this bowl season.

Try that on for size: The SEC was a second-tier league when it mattered. Before any talk of next season, that must be accepted as fact.

But for how long can we expect that to continue? A week after the league’s meltdown on the national stage, that feels like the logical question.

Here’s a guess at the answer: Right up until the preseason polls come out.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette posted 100 rushing yards in five of LSU's final nine games.
It’s going to whip the #SECBias posse into a frenzy, but the league isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Because when you start projecting who will be among the top teams in college football next season, it’s going to look oddly familiar: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State. Nick Chubb will carry Georgia into the mix, and with enough good feelings toward Jim McElwain, the East might even gain more representation in the top 25.

A decade’s worth of dominance can’t be wiped away in a single bowl season. But more importantly, neither can a decade’s worth of recruiting.

Though the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all will surge forward in 2015, none will have the cache of talent the SEC still enjoys. None will lay claim to the same number of NFL-ready prospects.

When ESPN’s Scouts Inc. compiled its top 25 non-draft-eligible players last month, 13 hailed from the SEC. The next-closest conference: the ACC with five. Ole Miss alone had that many underclassmen on the list.

Before we start declaring Alabama’s dynasty dead, consider that the Crimson Tide are running out the clock on their fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class. If Jake Coker doesn’t work out replacing Blake Sims at quarterback, Nick Saban can turn to a pair of blue-chip prospects in David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. If they need help, there’s always Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to.

The other side to the Iron Bowl should be fine as well. Nick Marshall may be gone, but Jeremy Johnson has been preparing for his chance to lead Auburn for two years now. Thanks to Duke Williams’ return at receiver and the running back tandem of Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, Gus Malzahn’s offense should keep on humming. Coupled with the addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, the Tigers might find that scoring 30 points is enough.

LSU, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up. With Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre to build around, the offense is in good shape. And the defense, in spite of the loss of coordinator John Chavis, is still stacked with talent across the board.

The state of Mississippi may be hurting now, but that pain will soon give way to hope as both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have reasons to believe that next year could yield a breakthrough. The Rebs reload thanks to back-to-back stellar recruiting classes and could find better consistency at QB with Bo Wallace gone. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs already have their playmaker under center in Dak Prescott and a solid defensive line thanks to future pro Chris Jones.

And that’s just the teams that lost their bowl games from the SEC West.

In the division, there’s still Arkansas and Texas A&M to consider. No one will be caught sleeping on the Hogs in 2015, and with a change at coordinator, the Aggies might develop a defense to match the production on the other side of the ball.

In the East, Florida is a sleeping giant, and Georgia is a QB away from breaking through. Missouri is a program that in spite of appearances always finds a way, and keep an eye on Tennessee. The Vols blew out Iowa in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl, and Butch Jones has compiled a recruiting class that currently ranks sixth nationally.

If you’re setting the over/under on the number of preseason top 25 teams from the SEC, where does it lie? Say for argument’s sake that it’s eight. Do you dare take the under? If so, who do you leave out?

While preseason polls carry as much weight as skinny-armed Rob Lowe, it illustrates a point about perception. Today the perception is the SEC is an overinflated bubble that’s poised to pop, if it hasn’t already. But soon that will change.

The rest of the Power 5 conferences should enjoy mocking the SEC’s failures this bowl season. After the runaway hype of the regular season and how things ultimately played out, they have every right to call the West a joke and question the conference's strength as a whole.

When the playoff runs its course on Monday, it will have been two years without a national champion from the SEC.

Let's repeat that number: two. After seven titles in seven years.

Since when is a two-year drought the End of Days? The league isn't exactly wandering Egypt right now.

Downgrade the SEC if you must, but be careful because the league isn’t dead. The divide between conferences is just becoming thinner.
Nick Saban continues to dominate the recruiting landscape. The Crimson Tide are on pace for their fourth consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting class. The current No. 1-ranked recruiting class consists of 22 commitments, including an astounding 17 ranked in the ESPN 300. Playing Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff will only strengthen Alabama's presence when it comes to the top recruits in the country.


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Recruiting notebook: Under Armour game 

December, 29, 2014
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Orlando, FLA. -- The first day of practice at the Under Armour All-America game went smoothly as the players transitioned into work mode. The recruits got the chance to build chemistry with their teammates and learn the playbooks for the actual game.

With so many highly ranked prospects in one spot there is no surprise that news continues to roll in.


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SEC season recruiting superlatives 

December, 8, 2014
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Looking back at the just-completed regular season, it has been another wild year in the SEC, both on the field and in recruiting. There have been several huge commitments, some big decommitments and, as always, a few surprises. Here’s a closer look at the the SEC’s recruiting superlatives.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

December, 2, 2014
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There were some big games and a bunch of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There was a big commitment, some coaching changes and key visitors for rivalry weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.


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Best of the visits: SEC

November, 30, 2014
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From Alabama's big 55-44 win over Auburn on Saturday night to Ole Miss' 31-17 win over in-state rival Mississippi State, there were some incredible SEC games for recruits to watch this weekend. Some prospects attended the games, while others watched on TV and used social media as a platform to share their experiences. Here's a look at some of the top social media posts from the weekend in SEC recruiting.

Several recruits posted pictures from the Alabama game Saturday. Five-star Alabama quarterback commit Blake Barnett posted a few pictures of himself at the game and some with other recruits who were also in attendance.


One of the top running backs in the ESPN 300, Damien Harris, also tweeted out a photo, as did ESPN 300 linebacker Ricky DeBerry. Harris has appeared to be a Kentucky lean, but Alabama certainly looks to have made an impression on him.


Recent Georgia athlete commit Jarvis Wilson tweeted out a photo of himself wearing a Georgia uniform and helmet.


ESPN Junior 300 safety Joejuan Williams visited Vanderbilt this weekend and posted a couple different tweets about his experience in Nashville.

Whether recruits are attending games this holiday weekend or watching on television, all eyes around the recruiting world will be focused on several rivalry games. From the Iron Bowl to the Egg Bowl there will be recruiting implications throughout the conference this weekend. Here’s a closer look at how these game might affect the top remaining recruits.


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Even though USC still has the top-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12, things are a lot closer after Keisean Lucier-South picked UCLA over the weekend. Plus, Kansas is looking for positives on the recruiting trail and the Jayhawks have got a big one in quarterback Ryan Willis.

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Best of the visits: SEC

November, 16, 2014
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From Alabama's big 25-20 win over Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon to Georgia’s dominating 34-7 win over Auburn, there were some incredible games for recruits to watch this weekend. Some prospects attended the games while others watched on television and used social media as a platform to share their experiences. Here's a look at some of the top social media posts from the weekend:

Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson took an official visit to Alabama this weekend. The No. 9-ranked player in the nation has Alabama as one of his top schools and posed for a picture with Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the game on Saturday.
The 18th-ranked prospect in the ESPN Junior 300, Rashard Lawrence, a Monroe, Louisiana, native, also posed for a picture during his trip to Alabama. An Alabama fan posted a photo of himself with five-star quarterback commit Blake Barnett after Alabama's big win. Florida offensive line commit Brandon Sandifer tweeted this photo of himself and two other Florida commits Tyler Jordan and George Brown Jr., who all visited the Gators Saturday. Alabama commit Ronnie Harrison visited Georgia this weekend and found an unusual connection with head coach Mark Richt's wife. The two posed for a picture on Saturday. ESPN Junior 300 cornerback Chad Clay posted a picture from the Georgia sideline at the game on Saturday night. Another junior cornerback, Malek Young, also visited Georgia for the exciting game against Auburn and posed for a photo on the sideline. Arkansas commit C.J. O'Grady posted a photo of fellow Arkansas commit Will Gragg before Arkansas's first SEC win under head coach Brett Beliema. Junior cornerback Ikenna Okeke posted a photo of himself with Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

November, 14, 2014
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The Mississippi State at Alabama game looks to be loaded with big-time visitors. Georgia is also expecting several ESPN 300 prospects for its game against Auburn and Florida is hoping continue its momentum against South Carolina in front of several recruits. Here’s a closer look at some of the top visitors in the SEC this weekend.


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