SEC: Denico Autry
If effort was the only part of the equation, Mississippi State would have scored much higher. Dan Mullen had never dealt with a more manic quarterback situation in his career: fifth-year senior Tyler Russell was supposed to be his rock under center, but he was injured early; Dak Prescott, an athletic sophomore, looked capable of taking over the offense, but a shoulder stinger cost him time; true freshman Damian Williams played in five games, but he wasn’t really ready for the job. Throw in a lack of experienced playmakers at wide receiver and it’s a wonder the Bulldogs mustered a respectable 27.7 points and 434.4 yards per game. But, as you might have guessed, consistency was the biggest problem for Mullen’s bunch as Mississippi State scored 21 or fewer points six times.
The talk of the preseason was how Mississippi State would struggle replacing NFL cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay. If there was a weak spot on defense, it was thought to be the secondary. And with high-flying Oklahoma State’s offense on tap in Week 1, it looked like it would be a tough ride for the Bulldogs. But it turned out that defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was up to the challenge, starting with an impressive performance against the Cowboys in which his defense gave up only 21 points. By the time the season was over, Mississippi State had the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the SEC. Even without senior safety Jay Hughes, the Bulldogs ranked fifth in the league in passing defense, thanks in no small part to pressure up front from defensive linemen such as Denico Autry and freshman Chris Jones.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Having Jameon Lewis to return punts and kicks was a nice threat, but Mississippi State ultimately never took advantage. In nearly every special-teams category, the Bulldogs were middle of the road or worse. Mississippi State didn’t return a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown all season and only one such punt return gained 20 or more yards. All told, the Bulldogs ranked 60th nationally in yards per kick return. Mississippi State also connected on just 10 of 21 field goal attempts.
There were few schedules more difficult than Mississippi State’s in 2013. All of the Bulldogs’ five losses came against ranked opponents: Oklahoma State, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. Talk about an impressive strength of schedule. But that did little to quell the talk of Mullen being on the hot seat when Mississippi State lost to Alabama at home to drop to 4-6 and in need of two straight wins to become bowl eligible. They came in gritty fashion, but overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss ultimately turned the narrative of the season, casting the Bulldogs as the comeback kids and Mullen as a coach securely headed into his fifth season in Starkville.
The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).
And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.
Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.
Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.
Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker
Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.
Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.
Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson
LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger
Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley
Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson
Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford
South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton
Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone
Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews
Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews
2. Florida: Sure, the Gators lost All-American Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, but Florida rotated enough guys in last year to have good experience coming back across the board. Star lineman Dominique Easley will play at his more natural position at tackle this year, but will move outside at times. He led Florida with four sacks last year and was consistently disruptive all year. Florida is loaded at end with sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard returning. Ronald Powell, who is coming off of two ACL injuries will rotate with Fowler at the hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, while Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings will help out at tackle.
3. Arkansas: While Arkansas featured one of the league's worst defenses last year, the Razorbacks were solid up front. Arkansas returns one of the best defensive end combos in senior Chris Smith and junior Trey Flowers. They combined for 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last year. Inside, you have seniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Jones has started 29 games in his career and had 52 tackles last year. Thomas steps into a starting role this fall after recording five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. The Hogs have young reserves, the staff is excited about guys like JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis, Darius Philon, DeMarcus Hodge and Deatrich Wise Jr.
4. LSU: The Tigers lost a lot up front, but this team is used to reloading along the defensive line. Tackle Anthony Johnson has the meat and ability to be one of the best at his position, and excels as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher. He'll be helped by junior Ego Ferguson, who has all the talent to be successful but is still looking to reach his full potential. The staff is expecting big things from end Jermauria Rasco, who might be a better pure pass-rusher than Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery before him. Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen should do more at end, while incoming freshman Tashawn Bower could see immediate playing time. Also, keep an eye on freshman Christian LaCouture, who played his way into the two-deep this spring at tackle.
5. Ole Miss: There are depth issues at defensive tackle, but the Rebels are stacked on the outside. C.J. Johnson should be back from the broken leg he suffered this spring, and has All-SEC talent at end. Fellow end Cameron Whigham only had 1.5 sacks last year, but started 11 games. Channing Ward got a lot of action this spring with Johnson out and has the chance to have a true breakout season. All eyes will be on freshman Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class and is physically ready to play right now. Tackle Issac Gross should be healed from his spring grown injury and will get good help from junior college transfer Lavon Hooks.
6. Alabama: Right now, Alabama is still searching for the elite players it's used to having up front. This unit wasn't as consistent as Nick Saban would have wanted this spring, but there is a lot of potential in the trenches, starting with the versatile Ed Stinson, who can line up inside or out and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Jeoffrey Pagan could be fun to watch at the other end spot. He was a big-time recruit a few years ago and will get a lot more time to shine this fall. Brandon Ivory has to replace Jesse Williams at nose guard, but showed good flashes this spring. LaMichael Fanning will also help at end. Alabama is young here, but will continuously rotate again in order to keep guys fresh.
7. Vanderbilt: End Walker May is the star of this very talented group. He isn't the biggest at his position, but he's a relentless worker and is exception at getting to the quarterback on passing plays. Junior Kyle Woestmann came on very strong during the second half of the 2012 season, registering six sacks in the final five games. Then there's sophomore Caleb Azibuke, who grabbedd 4.5 sacks last year, had a great spring and is extremely athletic. With two starters departing, depth is an issue inside, but tackle Jared Morese, who started six games last year is back after being kicked off this team this spring for violating team rules. Juniors Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor both played in 13 games last year. The Commodores also had to move offensive lineman Adam Butler to defensive tackle this spring.
8. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience, starting with seniors Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson at defensive tackle. Rumph, who is coming off of a spring shoulder injury, is the best of the bunch and recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks last year. Cobble is finally starting to reach his potential, and should improve on his three tackles for loss and two sacks from last year. Johnson started nine straight games to end last season. Alvin "Bud" Dupree has nine sacks in the last two years and is moving from linebacker to end this year. Helping him will be junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who had an exceptional spring. Incoming freshman end Jason Hatcher will also get a chance to play immediately.
9. Georgia: The first order of business is finding a suitable nose guard to replace the massive John Jenkins. Right now, it looks like that will happen by committee. Junior Mike Thornton left spring as the starter there, but has just one career tackle. Redshirt sophomore Chris Mayes is next in line, but hasn't recorded any stats during his career. Freshman John Atkins enrolled early this spring and junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who could be the best of them, is recovering from an ACL injury. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained all his linemen and was very pleased with Sterling Bailey's improvement, along with senior Garrison Smith, who started eight games last year. Junior Ray Drew is also getting more comfortable up front.
10. Mississippi State: It's not like Mississippi State doesn't have the talent or potential up front, but his group really struggled to get to the quarterback last year. Senior end Denico Autry struggled through the first part of last season, but played strong down the stretch, which is really encouraging to the staff. End Preston Smith was a backup last year, but still led the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks. The staff seems pretty excited about tackle P.J. Jones, who made some big plays late for this team last year. Of course, having vet Kaleb Eulls back helps and it looks like he's permanently moving inside. End Ryan Brown didn't blow up the stat chart last year, but had a good spring and should see plenty of playing time this fall.
11. Missouri: This unit was probably the Tigers' strongest last year, but it lost its best player in tackle Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou has to replace him by committee, and Gary Pinkel seemed pleased with his tackles this spring. Matt Hoch had a very good spring and while he isn't the same player as Richardson, he figures out ways to get to the ball and started 12 games last year. Lucas Vincent will line up at nose guard, but injuries limited him to just three tackles last year. Redshirt freshman Harold Brantley has a lot of potential at tackle and should see good time this fall. The Tigers are pretty solid outside, with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam returning. Ealy is just waiting to break out, while Sam led the team with 4.5 sacks last fall. Shane Ray provides good depth at end, while tackle Marvin Foster played in 10 games last year.
12. Tennessee: The Vols have to figure out how to move around all those pieces up front with the defense moving back to a traditional 4-3 look. Big-bodied Daniel McCullers is the top player along the line, but he has to be more disruptive up front. He has to be more than just a space eater. Senior Jacques Smith should move down to end from linebacker, while fellow seniors Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood should push for starting time at end and tackle. Senior Maurice Couch is another player with a ton of talent, but has to be more consistent inside. Junior Jordan Williams should also move down after playing a hybrid end/linebacker position last year.
13. Auburn: The Tigers just weren't good enough up front last year, ranking 11th in the SEC in sacks (22) and 12th in tackles for loss (66). Now the best player -- end Corey Lemonier -- is gone. A handful of vets return, but this group has to be tougher and more consistent. Senior ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae lead things up front, but only accounted for 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. Eguae will have his hands full trying to fend off Kenneth Carter, who moved from tackle to end this spring. Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright lead the inside game, but only Blackson had more than five tackles for lass last year (a team-high seven).
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost quality starters like Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and the injury bug devastated this unit during the spring. No one will replace Moore's 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, but A&M needs multiple guys to step up. Julien Obioha started 12 games as a true freshman last year, but has to stay healthy this fall, as he's the key to the entire line. He also has to generate a better pass rush. Tackle Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended, but is expected to return. Youngsters Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown into the mix this fall, but expect plenty of growing pains. Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams have showed flashes here and there, but will have to much more consistent this fall.
First, he took a look at the top wide receiver prospects and top defensive end prospects for next year's draft. A few SEC names made the cut at both positions.
The SEC has a pretty strong group of receivers coming back this season. When it comes to draft eligible players, Kiper has two SEC receivers currently in his top five, including Texas A&M redshirt sophomore Mike Evans at No. 3. He led the Aggies in catches (82) and yards (1,105) last season and also caught five touchdowns.
To me, he really stood out in the Alabama game. He only caught five passes for 40 yards that day, but he out-muscled guys to make catches. He carried a couple defenders for extra yards. He was just the tougher player at times. He's big and rangy, making him a prime target for Johnny Manziel. More will be asked of him this fall with Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu gone. He should expect more attention and plenty of double-teams. He'll really get a chance to show what he's made of in a few months.
Vanderbilt senior-to-be Jordan Matthews comes in at No. 5 on Kiper's list. Matthews could have left early for the NFL this year, but he decided to spend another year in school. Matthews was probably one of the more underrated players in the SEC last year. He doesn't really have game-breaking speed, but he's quick off the line and his 6-3, 205-pound frame causes problems for opposing defensive backs. He led the SEC with seven 100-yard receiving games and 94 catches last year.
Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell made Kiper's "Next up" list. Both could have really big seasons this fall. Mitchell will be all offense this fall, so that will help him get way more reps. He really is a top-tier player at receiver when he's out there enough.
Moncrief showed his big-play ability during the second half of the Rebels' season in 2012. He's big and has exceptional hands. He'll be looked at more by defenders this fall, but he's such a physical receiver that it might not matter too much.
Other draft-eligible receivers I'd keep an eye on this fall:
- Jarvis Landry, LSU: He really stepped up and looked like a true big-play threat in the Tigers' offense this spring.
- Marcus Lucas, Missouri: He has the makings to be a legitimate deep threat for Mizzou, but he has to work on his focus and consistency.
- Jonathan Rumph, Georgia: The junior college transfer has great size and speed and really impressed this spring.
As for defensive ends, only South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney made Kiper's cut. Clowney's appearance at the top of Kiper's list for defensive ends shouldn't surprise anyone. He could very well be the top pick in next year's draft, anyway.
Florida's Dominique Easley made Kiper's "Next up" list. It'll be interested to see what pro scouts think about Easley. He's extremely disruptive up front and can play either end or tackle. He's moving back inside this fall, but he'll probably venture out here and there.
Other draft eligible defensive ends I'd keep an eye on this fall:
- Denico Autry, Mississippi State: He didn't have a great 2012 season, but Autry showed lots of improvement this spring. He has all the talent to be a force off the edge, but he has to be more consistent.
- Alvin Dupree, Kentucky: He moved to defensive end this spring and could be a top pass rusher in the SEC this fall with his speed and strength off the line.
- Dee Ford, Auburn: He came back pretty strong from a back injury in 2011. Ford registered six sacks and eight quarterback hurries last year.
- C.J. Johnson, Ole Miss: He made a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and has the makings of a being a real star on the Rebels' defense.
- Chris Smith, Arkansas: The rising senior led the Razorbacks and ranked fourth in the SEC in sacks last year with 9.5. He can be very frustrating for tackles to deal with up front.
1. Alabama: Nick Saban is equipped with yet another national championship contender. Yes, it would be his third straight at Alabama and fourth in five years. An all-star cast returns on offense, led by veteran quarterback AJ McCarron and topflight receiver Amari Cooper. The offensive line lost three draft picks but had a good spring, and the defense is still loaded.
2. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost some important offensive pieces, including offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and left tackle Luke Joeckel, but there are still a lot of weapons to use. Johnny Manziel is still in town, and he'll have a loaded running back stable to work with as well as a host of talented, young receivers led by Mike Evans. The real worry has to be on defense, where five starters are gone from the front seven.
3. Georgia: We all know that the Bulldogs will score a lot of points this fall. Aaron Murray has his entire offensive line back, the league's top running back duo (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a slew of receiving targets, led by Malcolm Mitchell. But the defense is very young. There is talent, but replacing 12 players who started or saw significant time will create early growing pains.
4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return good balance on offense, starting with two quality quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis. The defense also has the luxury of having Jadeveon Clowney anchor what should be a very solid defensive line. The two-deep at linebacker is gone and there are holes in the secondary, so youth could be an issue.
5. Florida: Nobody will question the talent Florida possesses on defense. The Gators lost two first-round draft picks there, but Will Muschamp & Co. should reload with solid younger talent. But how good will the offense be? Quarterback Jeff Driskel will be a year older in the offense, the line should be better and the Gators will be stout running the ball, but there are no consistently reliable receiving targets.
6. LSU: Gradation and the NFL draft ravaged LSU's defense. Questions loom at linebacker and in the secondary, but coach Les Miles left spring pretty pleased with the defensive line. The offense should be improved with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's development, a solid line and all the receiving targets returning. But if running back Jeremy Hill's legal trouble sidelines him (he was suspended indefinitely after being charged with battery last week), the Tigers could be in trouble.
7. Vanderbilt: Coach James Franklin has to be pretty excited with the personnel he has coming back. He has competition at quarterback and running back, but receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, along with a stout offensive line, will help this offense go. The defense got stronger up front this spring, and there are quality starters at linebacker and in the secondary.
8. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze wants to make sure expectations are tempered in Oxford after last season's success and a monster recruiting haul. He lost just three starters from last season's team, and guys are motivated to top last year's 7-6 season. But injuries hurt the team this spring, and depth issues still exist at receiver and along both lines.
9. Auburn: The return of Gus Malzahn as coach has people on the Plains very excited. The offensive personnel fits his spread offense, and Ellis Johnson has instilled a new attitude on defense. The Tigers have to figure out their quarterback situation, and there are no proven receiving threats. Auburn will be better, but this team still has a ways to go.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs had a Jekyll and Hyde 2012 but also lost some key parts to last season's squad. Quarterback Tyler Russell has to work with a new receiving corps, while the secondary has to replace three starters, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. It sounds as though the defensive line made major strides this spring, especially ends Denico Autry and Ryan Brown.
11. Missouri: The Tigers didn't lose a lot from last season's 5-7 squad, but the offense dealt with a quarterback battle and protection problems from its offensive line. That's not good for a team that stumbled offensively all last season. The defense seemed to impress up front, but Mizzou is replacing two starting linebackers with a gang of inexperienced players.
12. Arkansas: Under new coach Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks got tougher across the board this spring. Bielema also found his quarterback in redshirt sophomore Brandon Allen, and both lines seemed to progress. But there are still questions at receiver, running back and with the lack of depth at linebacker. Plus, that regular-season schedule is just ugly for any first-year coach.
13. Tennessee: Butch Jones did a good job of supplying some much-needed energy within this football team, but he sure does have his hands full. Gone are the starting quarterback and basically all of last season's receiving production. He has a strong offensive line, and the defense seemed to adjust to the 4-3 scheme, but these players have to be much more consistent going forward.
14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops has received a ton of support from Big Blue Nation, but he knows that his team has a long way to go. He has to find his quarterback and offensive playmakers. He has to replace three starters in the secondary and is thin at linebacker. The good news is that the defensive line will be the core of this team, which is huge for the first-year coach.
1. It's still Alabama's world: The Crimson Tide went right down to the wire with fifth-ranked LSU. Alabama was outplayed for most of the game, but when it needed a game-winning drive, AJ McCarron delivered, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and the decisive 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Now the rest of the nation has to continue looking up at the Tide. If LSU had won, the SEC's BCS world might have been turned upside-down, but now Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame are all jockeying for position to play Alabama (if the Tide can continue their winning ways). Alabama controls its own destiny not only on the path to the SEC title game but also the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
2. Mississippi State isn't who we thought it was: The Bulldogs might have started 7-0, but it's clear that the soft early schedule helped mask some of the offensive and defensive issues this team has. The Bulldogs were pummeled by Alabama and then routed by Texas A&M, showing glaring weaknesses in their game. The defensive line is the biggest problem -- the Bulldogs just can't get any pressure on opposing backfields. That defensive line has been pushed around, and junior college transfer defensive end Denico Autry and veteran defensive tackle Josh Boyd haven't lived up to their preseason hype. The Bulldogs are losing the battle up front, and it's hurting the rest of the defense. There's no creativity, and the aggression is minimal. The offense hasn't found any consistency or rhythm in the past two weeks, and with a tough slate remaining in November, the 10 wins we thought Mississippi State could get might not happen anymore.
4. Johnny Manziel poses a real threat to Alabama: With the way Zach Mettenberger threw the ball around Saturday, the coming weekend's Alabama-Texas A&M game just got a lot more interesting. Mettenberger registered a career-high 298 passing yards and a touchdown. Manziel has walked all over defenses this fall and he should be able to make some plays through the air on Alabama's secondary. He should be able to run around a little bit as well. Manziel struggled against Florida and LSU, but ran through Mississippi State over the weekend. He's growing each week and the Aggies offense is getting better and better. There are some holes in Alabama's defense that weren't there last season and Manziel has the ability to exploit them. Alabama should adjust through the week, but keeping up with Manziel will be a tall task for the Tide.
5. Georgia has the talent to take the SEC: When the Bulldogs can play a complete game on the field, they are very hard to stop. We've known that both sides of the ball are loaded with talent, but neither side has been able to live up to its potential at the same time in a game. Saturday, the Dawgs did that in their 37-10 victory over Ole Miss. The offense churned out 533 yards, while the defense held the Rebels' high-flying offense to just 234 yards and forced three turnovers. If Georgia can get past Auburn and play a complete game in Atlanta, the Dawgs could take the SEC title. Could this team beat Alabama? That's yet to be seen, but the team that we saw Saturday would have a chance with an offense that could test Alabama's secondary. Mettenberger picked on the Crimson Tide defensive backs all night, and Aaron Murray has the ability and the weapons to do the same thing. When that defense is clicking it could give Alabama's offense fits.
On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.
Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.
Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).
But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.
The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.
"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."
And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.
Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.
Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.
This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.
Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.
"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."
To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.
The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.
"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."
In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.
There might be a lot of attention on the matchups with the two SEC newbies, but make no mistake about it: Mississippi State-Auburn is huge.
It really set the tone for both schools last year, and that should be the same story this year as well. Auburn is coming off of a tough loss to Clemson last week, while Mississippi State is riding high off of a 56-9 route of Jackson State. But this game is completely different than the ones we saw last week. This one has league pride and momentum on the line.
Dan Mullen and Gene Chizik have both talked about the importance of this game, as it pertains to heading into the rest of the season. Getting behind in the SEC race is never a good thing.
For Auburn, there are a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. Poor tackling killed the Tigers against Clemson, while a lack of offensive efficiency in Clemson territory really put a dent in Auburn's scoring efforts. That has to change today. History is certainly on Auburn's side, as the Tigers have won four straight against the Bulldogs and 10 of the past 11 in this series. Auburn is also 18-1 in its past 19 SEC openers.
Like all SEC games, play up front will be key. Both teams bring in offensive lines with questions at both tackle spots. Auburn has either freshmen or redshirt freshmen at both right and left tackle in the two-deep, while Mississippi State is working with a junior college transfer (Charles Siddoway) and three sophomores in the two-deep at both tackle spots.
If Auburn defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford bring enough heat on the outside, it could be a long day for Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell. But the Bulldogs have a pretty talented defensive line as well. Josh Boyd should be able to generate some pressure through the middle, while Denico Autry has a chance to have a solid day at one of the end spots.
This is a big one in Starkville, as Mullen looks to grab his first SEC West win against a team not named Ole Miss. Should be fun.
We’ll now turn our attention to the Western Division and the key newcomers to look for on each team:
- Deion Belue, CB, Jr.: Following in the footsteps of former junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie, Belue has staked his claim to the starting cornerback job opposite Dee Milliner.
- Amari Cooper, WR, Fr.: He’s been one of the Crimson Tide’s most impressive receivers during preseason camp, although he’s been slowed recently by a foot injury.
- T.J. Yeldon, RB, Fr.: Eddie Lacy is the starter at running back, but he’s a bit banged up. Yeldon is an explosive threat who can make things happen both running it and catching it.
- Austin Flynn, DE, Jr.: Having had the benefit of going through spring practice, Flynn has worked his way into the rotation at end and will play a lot of snaps this fall.
- Mekale McKay, WR, Fr.: Also a standout basketball player in high school, the 6-foot-6 McKay was a late signee who has repeatedly turned heads in preseason camp with his ability to go up and get the football.
- Otha Peters, LB, Fr.: A big-time hitter, Peters has worked some with the first team while Tenarius Wright has been out with an injury. The Hogs are thin at linebacker, meaning Peters will play early and often.
- Kris Frost, LB, RFr.: He would have played some last season as a true freshman had it not been for a shoulder injury. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Frost is a freakish athlete who will find his way onto the field at outside linebacker.
- Jay Prosch, FB, Jr.: The transfer from Illinois should not only help open up some holes for the Tigers’ running game, but his arrival also frees up Philip Lutzenkirchen to be a true tight end and more involved in the passing game.
- Greg Robinson, OT, RFr.: Now that he’s had a redshirt season to mature both physically and mentally, Robinson takes over at left tackle for the Tigers and has a huge upside.
- Jalen Collins, CB, RFr.: There’s obviously a big opportunity in the LSU secondary with Tyrann Mathieu gone. Collins will open the season as one of the starting cornerbacks outside when the Tigers go to their nickel package.
- Deion Jones, LB, Fr.: LSU needed reinforcements at linebacker and went out and signed some serious talent in the 2012 class. Jones has been as impressive as anybody to this point and will also be a beast on special teams.
- Jalen Mills, CB, Fr.: How much confidence do the LSU coaches have in the true freshman? He’s poised to be a starter at cornerback in the base defense and has also been working at nickel when the Tigers go to five defensive backs.
- Denico Autry, DE, Jr.: The Bulldogs are banking on Autry being that finisher off the edge that they lacked at times last season. His specialty is rushing the passer.
- Benardrick McKinney, LB, RFr.: The redshirt year was good for McKinney, who appears to have edged out sophomore Ferlando Bohanna for the starting middle linebacker job.
- Charles Siddoway, OT, Jr.: The Bulldogs were looking for some junior college help on the offensive line, and Siddoway looks like he could be the opening-day starter at right tackle.
- Pierce Burton, OT, Jr.: One of several newcomers who will see the field early for the Rebels, Burton has been the starter at right tackle almost from the time he arrived in Oxford from junior college.
- Dehendret Collins, CB, Jr.: Another junior college transfer who will start, Collins will line up inside at the “Husky” position and be the third corner in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.
- I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Fr.: Mathers has been the talk of the Rebels’ preseason scrimmages with his ability to accelerate and generate big plays. He’ll get plenty of carries this fall.
- De’Vante Harris, CB, Fr.: It’s not every day in the SEC that a true freshman starts at cornerback in his very first game. Harris has played with confidence and great instincts this preseason, which is why he’s earned a starting job.
- Johnny Manziel, QB, RFr.: A fan favorite a year ago, “Johnny Football” will open the season as the Aggies’ starter at quarterback and won’t be hesitant about taking his shots in Kevin Sumlin’s fast-break offense.
- Trey Williams, RB, Fr.: Now that Brandon Williams has not been cleared to play this season by the NCAA, Trey Williams becomes even more valuable in sharing the backfield duties with Christine Michael.
We've selected five strong candidates, and now it's on you via our SportsNation poll to tell us which newcomer in the SEC will have the biggest impact in 2012.
Of the three candidates we've selected, three are receivers -- Missouri true freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, South Carolina true freshman Shaq Roland and Tennessee junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson.
Mississippi State defensive end Denico Autry and Alabama cornerback Deion Belue are two more junior college transfers poised to make a big splash in 2012.
But the biggest splash?
That's up to you to decide. We'll go over the results in the coming days on the SEC blog.
Returning starters: Five on offense, seven on defense and the punter on special teams.
Star power: Johnthan Banks enters his senior season as one of the premier cornerbacks in college football. He’s tied for fourth among active FBS players with 12 career interceptions.
New faces: It didn’t take junior college newcomer Denico Autry long this spring to show what he could do. He’s the outside pass-rusher the Bulldogs lacked at end last season. Another junior college transfer, Charles Siddoway, may end up starting at right offensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney will compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Two more redshirt freshmen, Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton, make for what will be a deep running back stable, while redshirt freshman receiver Joe Morrow is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound target who will be a key addition to the Bulldogs’ receiving corps. The true freshman they’re all waiting to see this season is defensive tackle Quay Evans, who enrolled early and had three sacks in the spring game.
Don’t forget about: Senior Tobias Smith has been one of the SEC’s hardest luck players. He’s missed 31 games because of injuries and went down against LSU in the third week last season with a torn ACL. He returns at his right guard spot, and the Bulldogs desperately need him to stay healthy. He provides the kind of stability up front that would make a big difference for an offense that averaged just 18.1 points per game in SEC play last season.
Big shoes to fill: Fletcher Cox closed out last season as one of the more dominant interior defensive linemen in the league, which is a big reason he was drafted in the first round. Now that Cox is gone, it’s on Josh Boyd to raise his game to another level. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior tackle is certainly capable. He had eight tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks last season.
Key battle: The Bulldogs return three senior receivers in Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, but Morrow will push all three for playing time. He made a ton of plays in the spring. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is counting on the receivers being one of the most improved units on the team this fall.
Rising star: Mississippi State is oozing with depth at running back, and there are only so many carries to go around in a game. Nonetheless, sophomore Nick Griffin possesses a blend of size, speed and strength that could make him a special back in this league. The 6-foot, 225-pound Griffin was slowed by a knee injury to begin his career at Mississippi State, but this may be the year he breaks out and becomes a consistent playmaker for the Bulldogs.
Bottom line: The Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back winning seasons, and the last time that happened was 1999 and 2000. They’ve also won bowl games each of the past two seasons and won three in a row over archrival Ole Miss, so Mullen has the program headed in the right direction. But as he enters his fourth season, the real challenge will be kicking down that door in the Western Division. Ole Miss is the only West team Mullen has beaten since taking the job in 2009. What’s more, the Bulldogs were 2-6 in the SEC last season. There have been several close losses along the way, and Mullen is adamant that Mississippi State isn’t that far away from competing for an SEC championship. It’s a must that the Bulldogs get off to a good start this season. They play five of their first seven games at home, and the two road dates are at Troy and at Kentucky. It sounds like Mullen is going to open up the passing game and let junior quarterback Tyler Russell air it out. Protecting him will be the key. If a couple of new faces come through on defense, the Bulldogs could surprise a few teams in the West this season. The home game against Auburn the second week of the season is huge. Mississippi State has lost its SEC opener each of the past 12 seasons.
Below is the way we would rank the top 10 defensive ends in the SEC heading into the 2012 season. One thing to note is that Florida’s Ronald Powell, who plays a hybrid end/linebacker role for the Gators, is not on this list because he’s recovering from ACL surgery and could miss the first part of the season.
Here’s what we came up with:
2. Jadeveon Clowney, Soph., South Carolina: His freshman season was just a glimpse. Clowney had eight sacks and five forced fumbles and was playing on talent alone. He’ll be an every-down force in 2012.
3. Barkevious Mingo, Jr., LSU: LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis predicted that Mingo would emerge as the best pass-rusher in the SEC. He’s well on his way after racking up 15 tackles for loss last season.
4. Corey Lemonier, Jr. Auburn: He’s the leading returning sack man among SEC defensive ends with 9.5 last season. Lemonier could play his way into the first round of the NFL draft with a big junior season.
5. Damontre Moore, Jr., Texas A&M: He may be new to the SEC, but Moore will quickly introduce himself to opposing quarterbacks in this league. He finished with 17.5 tackles for loss a year ago and forced four fumbles.
6. Devin Taylor, Sr., South Carolina: He’s the “other” defensive end for the Gamecocks and plenty productive in his own right. The 6-foot-8, 267-pounds Taylor had six sacks last season.
7. Abry Jones, Sr., Georgia: An end in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme, the 6-foot-3, 309-pounds Jones is extremely active and one of the most improved players on the team. Look for him to have a big senior season.
8. Brad Madison, Sr., Missouri: A painful shoulder injury limited Madison last season, and he missed the spring after undergoing surgery. He should be good to go this fall and return to the same form he displayed as a sophomore.
9. Denico Autry, Jr., Mississippi State: The only newcomer to make the list, Autry was a big hit this spring for the Bulldogs after coming over from junior college. His specialty is rushing the passer.
10. Damion Square, Sr., Alabama: Even though Square didn’t have big sack numbers last season, don’t be fooled. He’s a veteran player who played his best football down the stretch. He’ll be even better as a senior.
As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.
ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .
Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.
We'll find out this season.
We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?
Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.
- Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
- Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
- Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
- Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 4-3 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
- Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
- Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
- Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
- Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.