SEC: Corey Broomfield

It's time for teams to focus on the future. That means replacing all of those holes left by departing seniors and underclassmen.

But which exiting players will be toughest to replace in 2013? ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner tackled that exact question earlier this week Insider.

When it came to the SEC, Texas A&M's loss of defensive end Damontre Moore and Mississippi State's loss of cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay were chosen as the toughest voids to fill in the SEC this fall.

As far as Moore goes, he was easily the best defender for the Aggies and ended the season as one of the top overall players in the country. He was a game-changer with his speed, strength and versatility and the Aggies will have to replace 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.

Replacing Moore's talent and playmaking skills would be tough for any team, but it makes it that much harder for the Aggies to mask the loss of Moore because of all the other defenders leaving with him. Senior linebackers Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Steven Jenkins will all be gone, and so will senior defensive linemen Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis. That's a lot of missing bodies. As Joyner points out, the Aggies will be losing 23.5 of its 31 total sacks from this past season.

For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are losing both starting cornerbacks, who at one time were considered the best corner duo in the country. Banks, who had a tremendous career at Mississippi State, won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2012 as the top defensive back, while Slay led the team with five interceptions.

While both struggled in the second half of the season, Joyner has them on because Banks' big-play ability will be missed and Slay coverage skills will be missed. While Banks garnered all of the attention -- and the Thorpe Award -- Slay was a better cover man in 2012. Joyner writes that in nine games against BCS teams, Slay allowed 5.5 yards per attempt with two interceptions, while Banks allowed 11.5 YPA with no interceptions.

Couple that with losing senior Corey Broomfield in the defensive backfield, and the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do in the secondary in 2013.
The 2012 grades are in for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

OFFENSE: During the first seven games of the season, the Bulldogs displayed one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the SEC. During that span, Mississippi State was running for 180 yards per game and throwing for 236 yards. The Bulldogs were also scoring just under 37 points per game. Tyler Russell was one of the most efficient passers in the country and had just one interception during that time. Helping him was running back LaDarius Perkins, who was one of the SEC's top offensive weapons when it came to all-purpose yards. But things quickly changed once the Bulldogs reached the teeth of the season. Starting with the Alabama game on Oct. 27, the Bulldogs' offense fell flat, averaging just 21 points in the final six games of the season. The Bulldogs were held under 20 points in three of those games. Russell threw nine interceptions in the final six games and the run game became nonexistent in the second half of the season, as Mississippi State rushed for less than 100 yards four times in the last six games. In three of those games, the Bulldogs generated less than 50 yards on the ground. Russell finished the year with 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but he capped the year with a 106-yard, four-interception performance in the loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Perkins finished the year with 1,024 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, while wide receiver Chad Bumphis had his best season as a Bulldog, catching a career-high 58 passes for a career-high 922 yards and 12 touchdowns. Grade: C

DEFENSE: Like Mississippi State's offense, the first seven games of the year were relatively good to the Bulldogs' defense. But games against much weaker opponents masked glaring issues that this team had on defense. There was hardly any sort of consistent pass rush from the Bulldogs, who finished the year with just 18 sacks (second-worst in the SEC), the front seven was gutted in the second half against the run, allowing an average of 196.5 yards in the last six games, and the secondary played uncharacteristically bad during the last month of the season. This defense ranked eighth in the SEC in yards allowed (387.4 per game) and surrendered 5.5 yards per play. During the season, the Bulldogs allowed more than 500 yards of offense three times, including giving up 693 yards in a 38-13 loss to Texas A&M. After giving up 30-plus points just once during the first seven games, the Bulldogs allowed 34 or more points in all five of their losses. There were a couple of bright spots, as Mississippi State tied LSU for the league lead and tied for sixth nationally with 33 takeaways. Cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, while linebacker Cameron Lawrence registered 120 tackles, including 10 for loss. Grade: C-

OVERALL: The Bulldogs were in play to win 10 games for the first time since 1999 after their 7-0 start, but that quickly faded away after a disastrous second half of the season. We saw two vastly different Mississippi State teams in 2012. The Bulldogs were outscored by at least 20 points in three of their four SEC losses and ended the year with a 34-20 loss to Northwestern. The regular season ended with a 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss, and Mississippi State missed out on winning nine games for the second time in a span of four years for the first time in school history. There's no question that Dan Mullen has done a tremendous job during his tenure in Starkville, especially with three straight winning seasons, but losing five of your last six games puts a major stain on the start of the season. Grade: C

Past grades:

With Tennessee coach Derek Dooley recovering from hip surgery, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took his spot on Wednesday's SEC coaches call.

But that shouldn't worry Vols fans when it comes to what capacity Dooley will be coaching in on Saturday against Mississippi State. Even with Dooley coaching from the coaches box, Chaney said he doesn't anticipate much change in how plays are relayed and it might make things easier between the two with them sitting right next to each other.

"It's really going to be not a lot of difference for us," Chaney said. "I'm not anticipating a lot of change in any environment in that regard."

In such a big game for the program against a talented team that has one of the best secondaries around, clear and open dialogue between Dooley and his offensive coordinator are going to very important.

The Bulldogs sport the country's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for seven interceptions this season, and have a veteran safety unit in Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley. The Bulldogs are giving up fewer than 200 yards through the air per game and have surrendered just three passing touchdowns this season, while grabbing nine interceptions.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has struggled in his two SEC games (both losses), throwing four touchdowns to five interceptions. Chaney said making sure Bray slows down Saturday and quits pressing will be crucial against Mississippi State's defensive backfield.

"We're just trying to get him to calm down and realize sometimes there's not a play to be made," Chaney said. "And what Tyler believes is he believes in his own skill so much that he'll try to force some things once in a while. We're just trying to get that out of him.

"We throw it up to [Mississippi State's secondary] and they're going to make the play."

In order to help take some of the pressure off of Bray, Chaney said the running game has to continue to grind things out like it has the past few weeks. Running back Rajion Neal has rushed for 255 yards and a touchdown in his last two contests, including 104 yards against Georgia two weeks ago.

Being able to run the ball won't just help Bray, it will help Chaney be more patient on offense and help balance things about in order to create more plays against the Bulldogs' defense.

"As a playcaller, I don't have to throw the ball as often as I have in the past," Chaney said. "As long as we are running the ball efficiently, it's pretty comfortable and easy to stay with it."
Those who have the unfortunate task of facing Mississippi State's secondary must deal with the thought of going into lockdown mode.

Wide receivers have to face facts as they enter "Precinct 913” run by cornerbacks Darius Slay (9) and Johnthan Banks (13).

The clever title involving both players’ uniform numbers supposedly came from the mind of a fan, but the two have grown to love and live it, as they own the title of the SEC’s best corner duo.

"Me and Slay work real good together," Banks said.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDarius Slay is helping Mississippi State make its case for having the best secondary in the country.
Their seven combined interceptions (Slay 4, Banks 3) are more interceptions than 108 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have, they haven’t allowed a touchdown against them, Slay is one of four players nationally averaging 1.0 interceptions per game and Banks is allowing just 4.2 yards per pass thrown his way in man coverage.

Banks was thrown at 11 times through the first three games, but watched offenses pay the price, as Slay ended up being the only player in the nation to intercept a pass in each of the first three weeks of the season.

South Alabama avoided Slay, throwing 10 passes at Banks, but he left the game with yet another interception.

Things only get better when you add safeties Corey Broomfield, who moved from corner, and Nickoe Whitley. The foursome has combined to defend 12 passes and intercept eight. It's also helped Mississippi State's defense allow just 53 points in four games, the lowest allowed through the first four games since 1999 (28).

The Bulldogs are giving up 213.5 passing yards per game, but have allowed just two passing touchdowns while registering nine interceptions.

Yet, Banks feels the jury is still out on this unit.

"I don't think anybody else thinks we have a really good secondary, but we know we have a good secondary," Banks said. "It kind of makes us mad that I get singled out, out of the four. That motivates us. We know that people are going to come watch me and praise me, but that makes them go even harder to show what I can do, they can do, and maybe do it better."

Added Broomfield: "You can say what you want to say. You can put any list together that you want to, but we're going to put it on tape that we're the best secondary in the nation."

Through three seasons of work, these players have 32 career interceptions among them, but nearly half go to Banks, who ranks first among active FBS players with 15 career interceptions. He's also tied for third nationally with Broomfield with three interceptions returned for touchdowns. He's an excellent cover man who moonlights as a ball hawk.

But he’s nothing without his posse.

"I know I get all the praise, but I'd say we're all dangerous," Banks said. "All those guys just get it done -- 'Broom,' Slay, Nickoe -- all of them do the same things I do. It's just ridiculous how good these three guys that play with me are."

Banks said the crew really started to jell when Slay moved into the starting lineup. It gave the Bulldogs a chance to be in nickel on every down with Broomfield still on the field. Having three corners on the field at all times makes for more versatile packages for the secondary and provides more opportunities for man coverage, which they all love.

It’s also helped make them more competitive in practice. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said his players have to keep an edge in the secondary, and they do that by constantly challenging each other in practice.

It’s almost another game to see who can out-do the other each day in order to eliminate complacency.

“In the big picture, if these guys can really prepare as well as I think they can, week in and week out, they'll only get better,” Wilson said.

Saturday, this secondary should feast off Kentucky's pass game, which will be without starting quarterback Maxwell Smith. The thought of possibly playing against two true freshmen quarterbacks has to make State's foursome salivate uncontrollably.

But in two weeks, Tennessee comes to town. Tyler Bray and his band of receiving threats will invade Starkville on a mission to rule the skies. However, they should tread lightly when around the precinct.

Handcuffing is its specialty.

“We're ready,” Slay said. “We're built for good competition and we look forward to playing good receivers.”

Lunchtime links

August, 15, 2012
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Taking a look around the SEC on a Wednesday.
We continue to rank all the positions in the SEC and turn our attention to groups of defensive backs the conference has to offer.

Past rankings:
On to the league's secondaries:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Mathieu is a force to be reckoned with in the LSU secondary.
1. LSU: The Tigers bring back a load of talent here. Tyrann Mathieu and his Honey Badger persona return, but he might not be LSU's best pure corner. While Mathieu has a true knack for finding the ball, no matter where he is, junior Tharold Simon, who replaces Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne, might have the best cover ability on the team. Junior safety Eric Reid takes the back end of the field away and will challenge to be one of the nation's top safeties this fall. The coaches are still waiting for safety Craig Loston to break out, and his solid spring was an encouragement. Keep an eye on safety Micah Eugene, who turned heads this spring.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.

3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.

5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.

6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.

8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.

9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.

10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.

14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 2012.

Recapping the weekend scrimmages

April, 16, 2012
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While there were six SEC spring games this weekend, six other teams also took part in scrimmages over the the weekend:

ARKANSAS

Quarterback Tyler Wilson had yet another big scrimmage for the Razorbacks. Wilson completed 39 of 49 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns during Friday's scrimmage. Wilson completed 20 consecutive passes at one point.

Wilson has yet to throw an interception in Arkansas' three spring scrimmages. He led the offense on scores on seven of the offense's 11 possessions Friday.

The good news for Wilson is that his production has come against the first-team defense. The bad news for Arkansas is that his production has come against the first-team defense. But maybe Wilson is just playing that well this spring.

Wide receiver Marquel Wade led Arkansas with nine receptions for 98 yards, while tight end Chris Gragg caught eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown on Friday. Receiver Javontee Herndon added five receptions for 73 yards and two scores.

Defensive tackle Robert Thomas led the defense with four sacks, while defensive end Austin Flynn added three sacks.

Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, linebacker Tenarius Wright and tight end Austin Tate all sustained injuries Friday, but coaches didn't feel they were serious.

Check out more from Arkansas' scrimmage here and here.

KENTUCKY

The Wildcats took part in a very spirited scrimmage Saturday. It was one that left coach Joker Phillips proud of both the offense and defense.

The 90-minute scrimmage featured the first-, second- and third-team offense and defense. The offense started things well, with quarterback Maxwell Smith leading a 70-yard drive on 13 plays. He capped the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver La'Rod King.

Smith finished the scrimmage completing 25-of-38 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns. King also led the offense in receiving with seven catches for 76 yards and two scores.

Kentucky's defense stepped up considerably after that, allowing just one touchdown and a field goal on the next 10 possessions, including seven three-and-outs.

You can find more info on Kentucky's scrimmage here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Despite a fast start by the offense, the defense won Mississippi State's scrimmage Friday after forcing five turnovers late.

The first- and second-team defense held the offenses to four touchdowns and a field goal on 27 possessions. They also registered seven sacks and four interceptions.

After quarterback Tyler Russell led touchdown drives of 75 and 80 yards on the offense's first two possessions, the defense stepped up, forcing a few three-and-outs for the first- and second-team offense.

Russell had an impressive outing inside Davis Wade Stadium, passing for 310 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Wide receiver Joe Morrow had arguably the play of the day when he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass. He sprinted 50-plus yards to the house after spinning off of cornerback Corey Broomfield about 30 yards up field. Morrow finished with 103 receiving yards, while tight ends Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill registered 110 and 75 receiving yards, respectively.

The player of the day might have been senior cornerback Darius Slay, who intercepted three passes.

Head coach Dan Mullen missed the practice after the birth of his daughter Friday.

For more on Mississippi State's scrimmage, check here and here.

OLE MISS

It was an air affair in Oxford, as Ole Miss quarterbacks combined for eight touchdowns in the Rebels' Saturday scrimmage.

Barry Brunetti finished the day with 119 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed seven times for 41 yards and two more scores.

But he didn't do much to separate himself from junior college transfer Bo Wallace, who threw for 113 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball five times for 32 yards and another score.

However, both had their hiccups, as Wallace completed less than 45 percent of his passes and Brunetti threw two interceptions. Coach Huge Freeze told reporters after the scrimmage that he had mixed emotions about both, but felt Wallace played a little better Saturday.

"Standing out there it's real clear to me our quarterbacks, our personnel, we don't quite understand the game," Freeze said. "Third-and-2 we don't know those things. We have very little awareness of those at times. We get in second-and-5s and we get negative plays because we try to do more than we can do. Then it puts you in third-and-8, instead of just keeping it third-and-5. There's so many things that we have to understand."

Brunetti threw two 20-yard touchdowns, one to wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan and one to receiver Vince Sanders. Logan also caught two touchdown passes from Wallace, who also hit receiver Terrell Grant for another score.

For more on Ole Miss' scrimmage, you can go here and here.

TENNESSEE

Justin Hunter picked up right where he left off the last time he played inside Neyland Stadium.

After missing most of last season with an ACL injury, Hunter caught three passes for 70 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass in his return to Neyland.

Quarterback Tyler Bray completed his first seven passes of the day and finished with 180 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-23 passing.

While Hunter had a solid outing, sophomore wide receiver Jacob Carter was the top receiver of the day, catching four passes for 102 yards.

Marlin Lane, who has improved a lot this spring, had the big day that he needed with his 71 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

Defensively, the Vols got sacks from defensive linemen Jordan Williams, Willie Bohannon and Steven Fowlkes. Defensive backs Justin Coleman, Izauea Lanier and Rod Wilks added six tackles.

For more on Tennessee's scrimmage, go here.

TEXAS A&M

As the quarterback race continues in College Station, redshirt sophomore Jameill Showers stood out in Texas A&M's scrimmage over the weekend. He threw for more than 150 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception, but only after it was dropped by a receiver.

Showers played in seven series with both the first- and second-team offense.

Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel split snaps with Showers, throwing for more than 150 yards and two touchdowns as well, but he threw two interceptions, with one that was returned for a touchdown by junior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr.

None of the offenses' possessions reached double digits in plays. Turnovers, sloppy play and penalties hurt the offense in the Aggies' first open scrimmage of the spring.

"We just have to be more consistent in our play on both sides of the football, and that's why we're here," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "For the quarterbacks to go operate the way they did, checking plays and moving around, it's encouraging. It gives us a real starting point."

Sophomore linebacker Donnie Baggs, junior linebacker Charlie Thomas, junior linebacker Domonique Patterson and senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart all registered sacks in the scrimmage.

For more on the Texas A&M's scrimmage, go here and here.

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
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We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.
Saturday’s Arkansas-Mississippi State game might not exactly be grabbing college football headlines, but there is a pretty exciting matchup to keep an eye on in Little Rock, Ark., this weekend.

Arkansas’ high-flying passing game will take on the Bulldogs’ talented secondary that ranks fifth in the SEC in pass defense (186 yards per game) and has allowed just nine passing touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesArkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson is passing for 285 yards per game.
The Hogs sport four game-breaking wide receivers, while Mississippi State is equipped with a defensive backfield that is oozing NFL talent.

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson is passing for 285 yards a game and has two receivers in Jarius Wright and Joe Adams who both rank in the top 10 in the league in receptions and yards.

Mississippi State features one of the most underrated players in the country in cornerback Johnthan Banks, who has intercepted five passes and has 49 tackles, including two sacks. Also, fellow corner Corey Broomfield has defended five passes and recorded 47 tackles, while safety Nickoe Whitley has four interceptions.

Basically, this one should be a lot of fun and one side won’t be able to hold on for four quarters.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the issue with Arkansas is that there is so much depth. There isn’t just one receiver that defenses can key on and stick their best defender on for 60 minutes. When facing the Razorbacks, it truly is a collective effort to contain the passing game.

“That’s where the mismatch occurs because you don’t have to stop one guy, you have to stop all of them,” Mullen said.

“You can’t say, ‘OK our one guy is gonna shut down their one guy.’ You can’t do that against these guys. You have to have all of our guys playing well throughout the whole game.”

The good news for the Bulldogs is that this secondary has seen plenty of these Hogs in action. Last year was a back-and-forth, double-overtime slugfest, and two years ago the Bulldogs were in Little Rock, facing a younger version of the receivers they’ll be facing Saturday.

Mullen said both teams have grown and improved mightily since then, and Saturday shouldn’t bring anything new and unexpected for Mississippi State’s secondary.

“Fortunately, we have some experience back there with guys that have played some football,” he said. “Coming into this game, they’ve played in these games before.

“The matchup is going to be pretty good, but for our guys, I don’t think they’re going to be looking out on the field and be intimidated by anything that they see.”
With the LSU-Mississippi State game just hours away, fellow SEC blogger Chris Low and I decided to look at the keys to victory for each team.

LSU comes in with all the momentum after two tremendous showings by its defense. Mississippi State was a trendy dark-horse pick to win the West before the season started, but that talk was halted after a tough loss to Auburn last week.

Starkville will no doubt be jumping for tonight's game, but how can each team win? I looked into three ways that the Bulldogs could pull the upset, while Chris looked at how LSU can stay undefeated in a hostile environment.

Mississippi State's keys to victory:

1. Stop the run: Mississippi State was awful when it came to stopping the run last week. Auburn carved up the Bulldogs' front seven for 235 yards on the ground inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the Bulldogs surrendered more than 160 yards to Memphis a week earlier. LSU brings in a tough running game that features multiple backs, so stamina won't be an issue. The Tigers have put up back-to-back 175-yard rushing performances and if the Bulldogs don't get tougher in the trenches, it could be another long day for Mississippi State's defense. Mississippi State barely got any push from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when he returned last week, but he and Josh Boyd can't afford to slump tonight.

2. Force Jarrett Lee to beat you: Lee hasn't been spectacular this season, but he has run the offense the way his coaches have asked him to. Lee's unsettled football past is well documented and if he gets in trouble, he can be a defense's best friend. He has had interception problems in the past and Mississippi State fields one of the most athletic and dangerous secondaries in the SEC. Cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are big plays waiting to happen, while Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley have a tremendous knack for finding the ball. Lee has yet to feel rattled this season, but the Bulldogs have the personnel in the secondary to do that.

3. Get the wide receivers more involved: Quarterback Chris Relf showed that he can be a one-man wrecking crew, but even that wasn't enough to push the Bulldogs past Auburn last week. He needs more help from his receivers. In two games, Mississippi State's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has just five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He had one catch for 3 yards against Auburn. Last week, Relf passed for 198 yards, but running back Vick Ballard led the team in catches with five. In order to get more variety out of the offense, Mississippi State's receivers have to get more separation and be more of a factor.

LSU's keys to victory:

1. Take control early: Scott Field is a tough place to play, and those cowbells have a way of ringing in your ears after a while. They don’t ring nearly as much or as loudly when Mississippi State is down, though. So taking the crowd out of the game early would be a huge help to LSU, which is at its best when it’s playing with the lead, running the football and dictating the flow of the game.

2. Hit some plays in the passing game: The Tigers don’t necessarily need to throw for 250 or 300 yards, but they do need to keep the Mississippi State defense honest by hitting a few big pass plays down the field. LSU’s longest completion to a wide receiver in the Oregon game was 10 yards to Rueben Randle, but Randle came back with a big outing last week in the blowout of Northwestern State. LSU is going to need Randle, Odell Beckham and Kadron Boone to stretch that Mississippi State defense tonight so that the Bulldogs aren’t able to walk a safety up and stack the box.

3. Ground the Bulldogs’ ground game: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is tied for third nationally in rushing. He has 301 yards in his first two games and is averaging 9.1 yards per carry. It’s not just Ballard, either. Quarterback Chris Relf is a big part of the Mississippi running game along with backup running back LaDarius Perkins, who had a 40-yard touchdown run last week against Auburn. LSU’s challenge is to keep Mississippi State from getting that running game going, particularly on first and second down, and forcing Relf into a lot of third-and-long situations. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally against the run and are allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. If they play that way tonight, they’ll make it 12 in a row over the Bulldogs.

The shootout continues in Auburn

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
1:41
PM ET
AUBURN, Ala. -- After a bit of a lull, we've got ourselves a pretty exciting game again in Auburn.

The Bulldogs reeled off 21 straight points, with the most recent being a 27-yard interception return for a score by Johnthan Banks on a terribly telegraphed pass by Barrett Trotter.

Oh, but the Tigers, who entered their last drive with just 15 yards passing, came right back with a 46-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the field from Trotter to Emory Blake to tie the game.

Right when you think the Bulldogs' pass defense is dominating, Trotter finds a weakness and exploits it. Blake didn't do anything special on the route, he just hit his spot and the middle of the field was free of Bulldogs. After that, it was a foot race to the end zone -- one that Blake easily won.

That was the only real mistake Mississippi State's defense has made all day. Neither defense has been perfect, but both have gotten on the board with touchdowns.

An interesting note brought to you by Mississippi State officials: Banks now has three career interceptions returned for a touchdown. That ties him with teammate Corey Broomfield and Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner for the most in the nation.

Ranking the SEC cornerbacks

June, 22, 2011
6/22/11
10:30
AM ET
SEC defenses don’t make it easy for quarterbacks to get their jobs done. But when you’re throwing against the talent the conference throws out at the cornerback positions you have to feel for them at times.

Or you don’t really have to, I guess.

Here’s the list of top corners that we came up with:

1. Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, Jr.: Gilmore knows that 2010 could have been better for him. Still, he was first on the team with 79 tackles and three interceptions. He also played well in the box, grabbing three sacks. Gilmore enters the season as one of the most dynamic corners in the league and should be the top cover-corner around.

2. Morris Claiborne, LSU, Jr.: It would surprise few if he were at the top of this list by the end of the year. He lined up opposite Patrick Peterson in 2010 and led the Tigers with five interceptions. Claiborne should fill into Peterson’s role nicely this fall and expect quarterbacks to limit their passes toward his side of the field.

3. Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama, Jr.: Coming out of high school, he was one of the top defensive back prospects and after a year of growing, he should move to the top of the SEC chain. He’s got great length at 6-3, 193 pounds and had a way of finding the ball last season; defending 10 passes, including having three interceptions.

4. Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt, Sr.: After linebacker Chris Marve, Hayward is Vanderbilt’s top weapon. He’d start on a lot of teams in the SEC and led the SEC with 17 passes defended and had six interceptions. Hayward was a second-team All-SEC member a year ago and could creep into the first team in his last go-round.

5. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, So.: Another athletic corner on the Bayou. Real shocker. Mathieu got solid playing time last year and made sure he was always around the ball when he was on the field, ranking fourth on the team with 57 tackles and he was third defending nine passes. He’ll start opposite Claiborne this fall.

6. Prentiss Waggner, Tennessee, Jr.: He moved from safety to corner last year and was an All-SEC performer with his five picks. Then, he moved back to safety this spring when Janzen Jackson left, but could end up back at corner again this fall. He’s got great lockdown ability and should be fine this fall after injuring his left hand this spring.

7. Brandon Boykin, Georgia, Sr.: Boykin is Georgia’s best weapon in the secondary and is the emotional leader of the entire defense. He had three interceptions last year and would have had more if teams threw his way more often. Boykin is also an exceptional player in the Bulldogs’ return game as well.

8. Corey Broomfield, Mississippi State, Jr.: He’s improved each year he’s been in Starkville and is the best all-around player in Mississippi State’s defensive backfield. He had 52 tackles and three interceptions last year, but people around the program think he’ll be even better and should make even more big plays this fall.

9. DeQuan Menzie, Alabama, Sr.: The former junior college standout overcame a lot of injuries last year and started six games. He might not have the popularity of some of Alabama’s other defensive backs, but coach Nick Saban has complete trust in him and thinks he has the skill to be Alabama’s most talented player in the secondary.

10. Jeremy Brown, Florida, Jr.: During freshman workouts a couple years ago, Brown was actually ahead of eventual All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. Now, he’s really ahead of the departed star and while he had some rough moments last year, he’s locked up one of Florida’s corner spots. His back is healed, he’s learned some things and should be even better in 2011.
We head into high-flyer mode as we discuss defensive backs today. They are athletic as ever this season, and some teams return a bevy of secondary talent in 2011.

Here’s how the teams look:

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMark Barron decided to return to Alabama instead of making himself eligible for the NFL draft.
1. Alabama: This was an area of the team that was a problem and it wasn’t so much the yardage given up but the lack of consistency, especially in big games (see the Auburn game). This year, the Tide should have one of the best defensive backfields in the country. Safety Mark Barron could have entered the NFL draft, but stayed. And while he was in a non-contact jersey this spring, he’ll be one of the top safeties around this fall. Robert Lester is another solid safety who is also making everyone’s short list of top safeties for next year’s draft. At corner, everyone knows Dre Kirkpatrick, but DeQuan Menzie could be Alabama’s best weapon in the secondary. Dee Milliner is still in the mix at corner and there is a lot of good young talent as well.

2. LSU: No Patrick Peterson? No problem. The Tigers are once again loaded in their secondary with corners Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are All-SEC material and Claiborne led the Tigers with five interceptions last season. Mathieu found a way to get to the ball often last season and both should make it tough for any quarterback to throw on LSU this fall. Sophomore Tharold Simon made strong improvements at corner this spring as well. Safety Brandon Taylor is another top player at his position and he should be fine after suffering a foot injury at the end of last season. Youngsters Eric Reid and Craig Loston look like stars in the making at safety.

3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return five players who started at some point in 2010. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley each recorded three interceptions and had 50-plus tackles last year. Broomfield should be the Bulldogs' top option at corner, while Banks can play both corner and safety. Charles Mitchell returns at safety and was third on the team with 93 tackles last season. All of Mississippi State’s defensive backs not only have a knack for making big plays down field but they can each play efficiently in the box.

4. Arkansas: This group is a little inexperienced, but there is a lot of talent to go around. Things start with safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas was fourth on the team in tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions. Thomas looked even better this spring, making play after play. Fellow senior Elton Ford should get time at safety, and converted corner Eric Bennett should get reps as well. Hybrid linebacker Jerico Nelson enhances the group when he drops back with the safeties and Isaac Madison returns at one of the corner spots and should team up with Darius Winston. The two have 27 career starts under their belts.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ secondary has to improve after underachieving a year ago, and South Carolina has the weapons to do it. Corner Stephon Gilmore wasn’t at his best last year, but has tremendous cover ability and speed to be tops at his position. Akeem Auguste moved from safety back to his more natural position at corner and should give the Gamecocks one of the top corner tandems in the SEC. DeVonte Holloman moved to the Spur linebacker spot, so there are still questions at safety, but D.J. Swearinger really impressed this spring and some think he’s the most gifted defensive back in Columbia. Replacing Holloman’s spot is going to be tough, and the coaches have yet to find someone to solidify that position.

6. Vanderbilt: This is the strongest part of Vanderbilt’s team. The Commodores return a heap of talent, starting with senior corner Casey Hayward, who was a second-team All-SEC pick a year ago. Hayward led the SEC with 11 pass breakups and had six interceptions. Safety Sean Richardson led the team with 98 tackles and would start on a lot of teams in the SEC. The other safety spot is occupied by Kenny Ladler, who was one of the top safeties in the league last season, even as a freshman. Junior Trey Wilson had a great spring and could move past last year’s starter Eddie Foster on the depth chart.

7. Georgia: Like most positions at Georgia, there’s no shortage of talent. However, there are still questions. Senior Brandon Boykin is solid at one of the corner spots with his natural corner instincts, great speed and is the defensive leader. Sanders Commings is talented and has the best size, but he’ll have to battle Branden Smith at the other corner spot. Smith is a total athlete, but he has to improve his coverage skills. Bacarri Rambo is solid at safety, but he needs to return to the form he had as a freshman. Finding someone to line up next to him is important. With Alec Ogletree moving to linebacker, there is a hole at safety and one of Georgia’s newcomers might have to step in this fall.

8. Florida: The Gators would have been higher on this list had it not been for the dismissal of All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. There’s a gaping hole at corner, and the hope is that junior Jeremy Brown can help fill it. He finally played after a severe back injury kept him out for two years, and while he struggled at times, Florida’s coaches were very impressed with his play this spring. Sophomore Cody Riggs was a pleasant surprise at corner last season and is battling unproven senior Moses Jenkins. There is nothing but youth and inexperience behind them. At safety, Matt Elam had a good spring at strong safety, while free safety wasn’t totally locked down by Josh Evans. The good news is that Florida signed six defensive backs this year.

9. Tennessee: This group could be decent, but there are so many questions. We aren’t sure if star Janzen Jackson will return after leaving school this spring. Prentiss Waggner moved from safety to corner last season, where he was an All-SEC performer, and then back to safety when Jackson left. But he might be back at corner this fall. If Waggner is a corner and there’s no Jackson, there’s an enormous hole at safety. If he stays at safety, then there’s one at corner. Fortunately, Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, is a solid safety, and corner Marsalis Teague returns after converting from receiver last season. Incoming junior college transfer Byron Moore should compete immediately for time at corner.

10. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience with four senior starters returning, but the unit has to show that it can be consistent in big games. Safety/linebacker hybrid Winston Guy leads the group with his speed, strength and athleticism, and will move down into the box as the nickel linebacker. Seniors Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley are back at corner after combing for 11 pass breakups and two interceptions. Junior Martavius Neloms began the spring as the starter at corner, but could see more time at safety this fall. Mychal Bailey will line up at safety and was second behind Guy with two interceptions last season. Inexperience behind this group is still a problem.

11. Auburn: Things started off poorly when senior safety Michael McNeil was one of the four players arrested for robbery and later dismissed this spring. McNeil, who started seven games last season, was supposed to be one of the stars of the Tigers’ defense this fall. Now he’s gone and former corner Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety. The move actually benefits the hit-first defensive back. T’Sharvan Bell is at corner and has the speed and tight cover skills to be one of the best at his position. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Incoming freshman Erique Florence should get an opportunity to come in and play immediately at safety.

12. Ole Miss: This group had to hear about how it was the goat of last season’s 4-8 campaign after allowing 246 passing yards a game. It was a motivational tool this spring, but there’s a lot of work to do. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns was pleased with the spring progress and really liked how JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton played at corner. He’s competing to take one of those spots from either Marcus Temple, who missed spring with injury, or Charles Sawyer, who had to be pushed at times this spring. The reliable Damien Jackson is back at safety and could line up next to Brishen Mathews, who got good playing time last season, but is still unproven. JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas and freshman Cliff Coleman will compete for time at safety and corner, respectively.
Wednesday's blog about the Pony Express Award Watch List certainly garnered a lot of attention from SEC fans.

No one seemed overly upset with the tandems listed. It was more about the tandems that were left off that got some fans all hot and bothered.

There were a few combos that I thought would make the list, but not everyone can. It just doesn't work that way.

But that's the beauty of this blog. You people have expressed your frustration and I've looked at the numbers. So here are some other tandems around the league that you should keep your eyes on this fall:

Arkansas: LB/S Jerico Nelson, LB Jerry Franklin -- Franklin and Nelson led the Razorbacks in tackles last season, combining for 187, including 24 for loss. Franklin was second on the team with 6.5 sacks, while Nelson had 2.5.

Florida: DE/LB Ronald Powell, DT Sharrif Floyd, DT Dominique Easley -- This young group could be the heart of Florida's defense this fall. Powell should be the Gators top pass rusher off the edge, while Floyd and Easley should plug holes and frustrate offensive linemen when they line up next to each other.

Georgia: QB Aaron Murray, WR Tavarres King, TE Orson Charles: These will be Murray's main playmakers to start the season. King moved to A.J. Green's flanker spot and showed this spring that he's ready to be the guy. Charles is athletic enough to flex out and play receiver and should be even better in his third season. Both combined for 926 yards and five touchdowns last fall.

Georgia: LB Christian Robinson, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree -- Alabama might have the most intimidating group of linebackers, but Georgia could have the fastest, most athletic. Robinson is the leader in the middle and Ogletree will be a tackling machine alongside him. Jones should help lessen the blow of losing Justin Houston outside and could be a more complete player than Houston.

Mississippi State: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard -- Relf showed last fall that he's one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league, rushing for 713 yards and five touchdowns while passing for 1,789 and 13 more scores. That second number should increase this fall. Ballard rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and scored 19 rushing touchdowns in 2010. These two should be quite the combo this fall.

Mississippi State: CB Johnthan Banks, CB Corey Broomfield, S Charles Mitchell, S Nickoe Whitley -- The Bulldogs might have the most athletic defensive backfield around. This group is a big play waiting to happen. Banks, Broomfield and Whitley each had three interceptions last season, while Mitchell was third on the team with 94 total tackles in 2010.

Ole Miss: RB Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott -- Bolden was one of the SEC's top rushers a year ago, gaining 976 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns. Scott added 429 yards and three scores and he's the home run threat in the Rebels' backfield. He and Bolden will get a lot more action this fall with Ole Miss throwing an inexperienced quarterback onto the field this fall.

Tennessee: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Da'Rick Rogers -- This group grabbed the most votes from fans out there. Hunter showed he’s a playmaker by turning his 16 receptions into 415 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. Rogers had a very impressive spring and will start opposite Hunter. Rogers can play both receiver and in the backfield, so expect his touches to dramatically increase this fall. Bray went 4-1 as a starter and set Tennessee freshman records for passing yards (1,849) and touchdowns (18).

Vanderbilt: RB Warren Norman, RB Zac Stacy, RB Wesley Tate -- This group didn't put up monster numbers in 2010, but it will be the strength of the Commodores offense this season. Norman should be fully healthy this fall and will be the lead horse, while Stacy should continue to put up solid numbers. Tate might be the most athletic of the bunch and he's bigger than Norman and Stacy.
2010 overall record: 9-4

2010 conference record: 4-4

Returning starters

Offense: 8; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners

QB Chris Relf, OG Quentin Saulsberry, RB Vick Ballard, WR Chad Bumphis, WR Arceto Clark, DT Josh Boyd, CB Corey Broomfield, CB Johnthan Banks

Key losses

OT Derek Sherrod, C J.C. Brignone, TE Brandon Henderson, DE Pernell McPhee, LB Emmanuel Gatling, LB Chris White, LB K.J. Wright

2010 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Vick Ballard* (968 yards)

Passing: Chris Relf* (1,789 yards)

Receiving: Chad Bumphis* (634 yards)

Tackles: Chris White (110)

Sacks: Chris White (6)

Interceptions: Johnthan Banks*, Corey Broomfield*, Nickoe Whitley* (3)

Spring answers

1. Relf ready for next step: Last season, quarterback Chris Relf proved he’s a dynamic runner, but toward the end of the year he also showed that he could be strong passer. Relf finished the season passing for more than 200 yards in each of his last three games and the Bulldogs went 2-1 during that span. Coach Dan Mullen has repeatedly said the quarterback position is wide open, but don’t be fooled. Relf had a very good spring and it would be a real shocker if he weren’t the starter this fall.

2. Depth at receiver: Relf will have plenty of options in the passing game this fall. Chad Bumphis is the star of the receiving group, but the Bulldogs developed some nice depth at receiver this spring. Junior Arceto Clark continued to impress, and Chris Smith and Ricco Sanders proved to be reliable targets. Mullen has said that he would like to rotate 10 receivers into games and he’s not only got the depth, but the talent to effectively do that this fall.

3. Strong secondary: Mississippi State lost just one player from its secondary and returned five players that started at some point a year ago. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley all grabbed three interceptions and recorded 50-plus tackles in 2010. While the Bulldogs look to replace three starting linebackers, expect the defense to lean on its secondary to make plays this season. Making things more convenient is that each player as the ability to play in the box and has a knack for making big plays.

Fall questions

1. Finding linebackers: While most of the pieces returned on offense this spring, there are gaping holes at linebacker. The Bulldogs lost three – Chris White, Emmanuel Gatling and K.J. Wright – and must start over at the position. The toughest to replace is White, who led the Bulldogs with 110 total tackles and six sacks in 2010. Cameron Lawrence, has two years of experience in Mississippi State’s defense and should be in charge of directing the linebackers. Behind him, Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes combined for 30 total tackles last season, but have yet to make an impact.

2. Offensive line holes: Mississippi State might have the pieces needed to have an even more explosive offense this fall, but there is a little concern with the bodies up front. Guard Tobias Smith did very little this spring after having shoulder surgery in January and the Bulldogs must replace left tackle Derek Sherrod. The battle for that spot wasn’t decided this spring with sophomore Blaine Clausell and senior James Carmon working there the most. Clausell has the most experience, while Carmon moved from defense before spring. Mississippi State must also replace J.C. Brignone at center.

3. Dealing with the hype machine: For the first time in a long time, expectations are high for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State enters the season as a popular dark horse pick in the SEC. There’s a ton of speed and athleticism on offense and defense, but it’s tough to say if the Bulldogs will be able to keep up with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas this fall. Also, the Bulldogs no longer have the element of surprise on their side. After throttling Michigan in the Gator Bowl, no team will be overlooking the Bulldogs this fall. Whether Mississippi State can handle the hype is yet to be determined.

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