SEC: Jake Rudock

On Monday, we wrote about Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M as they all get ready for their upcoming bowl games. Earlier Tuesday, we looked at the two Mississippi schools as they prepare for their New Year’s Six bowl games. Now it’s time to look at the other four bowl-eligible SEC teams and their matchups.

Duck Commander Independence Bowl, Dec. 27
South Carolina vs. Miami

Initial thoughts: Before the season, nobody could’ve predicted South Carolina would end up in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks had aspirations of winning the SEC East and reaching the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ll head to Shreveport, Louisiana, to face a Miami team that has lost three straight. It’s not the ideal destination for the Head Ball Coach, but at least it’s a bowl game.

Key for South Carolina offense: Stay balanced. The Gamecocks have been unstoppable on offense at times this season. Dylan Thompson leads the SEC with 3,280 passing yards, and Pharoh Cooper is second only to Amari Cooper with 966 receiving yards. Those two will hook up early and often, but it’s important to get Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the ground game going. Their backfield is too talented not to.

Key for South Carolina defense: It won’t be easy, considering they haven’t stopped anybody all season, but the Gamecocks have to find a way to stop Duke Johnson. The Miami running back has 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He’s been held to less than 100 yards the last two games, so he’ll be primed to turn that trend around and finish the season on a high note. If he gets going, this one could quickly turn into a shootout.

What a win would mean: Looking back, most people won’t remember if South Carolina won or lost this game. The coaches will probably tell you the extra practice time is just as important as, if not more important than, the game itself. Still, it’d be nice to send Thompson off with a win in his final game.

AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas

Initial thoughts: Everybody was hoping to see Texas vs. Texas A&M in this game, and it almost happened, but Arkansas is not a bad consolation prize. The two teams were longtime rivals in the Southwest Conference, and this will be the 78th meeting between them. It brings you back to the days when Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal were manning opposite sidelines. Now we get Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong, two coaches rebuilding their respective programs.

Key for Arkansas offense: The Razorbacks got away from the run a little bit in the second half against Missouri, and it cost them. Expect Bielema to go right back to it in this one, using his tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins early and often against the Longhorns. Health will also be a factor. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be 100 percent, and he’ll get tight end AJ Derby back for this game.

Key for Arkansas defense: This is one of the more underrated units in the SEC, if not the nation. Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon have 24 tackles for loss between them, and linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles on the season. Needless to say, the Razorbacks should be able to wreak havoc in the backfield and keep Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes contained. The key will be not letting Swoopes beat them deep.

What a win would mean: It’s the next step in the rebuilding process. Arkansas proved it was competitive with every team in the SEC West, and back-to-back wins over LSU and Ole Miss validated this team. Now the Razorbacks have a chance to win their bowl game and gain some momentum heading into next season.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1
Missouri vs. Minnesota

Initial thoughts: Raise your hand if you had this Citrus Bowl matchup pegged before the season. No hands? Exactly. Missouri made it all the way to the SEC championship game, and after a loss to Alabama, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Tigers get snubbed again. Not this year. Instead, they were rewarded for a terrific season. The matchup might not be sexy, but the Citrus Bowl is the top SEC bowl game after the New Year’s Six. And it’s in Florida.

Key for Missouri offense: Is Maty Mauk just not the quarterback everybody thought he was? At times, he looks great. But more times than not, he’s been erratic and inconsistent this season. The running game has stepped up behind Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, but Mauk has to play better. He’s only a sophomore, and this is a perfect opportunity to play well and get his confidence back before next season.

Key for Missouri defense: Shane Ray will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Missouri defensive end still has one game left with the Tigers -- and don’t think he won’t be motivated after getting ejected in the first half against Alabama. It’s also the final game for fellow defensive end Markus Golden, and it’s the last chance we get to see the two together. Sacks, however, will be hard to come by against the Gophers, who are primarily a running team.

What a win would mean: All Missouri wants is a little respect. After all, this team has won the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, a win over Minnesota will do little to help that, but it would look much better than a loss. The Tigers typically play well in the postseason, winning four of their last six bowl games.

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa

Initial thoughts: Most people thought Tennessee would stay in state and play in either the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the SEC rewarded the Volunteers by sending them down to Florida for their bowl game. And why not? They finished the season on a high note, winning three of their last four games to become bowl eligible. It’s no surprise head coach Butch Jones was given a contract extension and raise earlier this week.

Key for Tennessee offense: How will the offensive line hold up against Iowa? It’s been the Achilles’ heel all season, but it’s a group that’s improved every game. It’s important they create room for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs off his back. And speaking of Dobbs, he’s one to keep an eye on. He’s struggled his last two games, but he has the talent to have a big day against the Hawkeyes.

Key for Tennessee defense: Third down for what? Inspired by the Lil’ Jon song, the Vols’ defense has been very good on third down this season, allowing a 35 percent conversion rate to opponents. As a whole, this unit is best when it’s getting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the secondary. Tennessee is among the SEC leaders in sacks (35) and interceptions (15), which is bad news for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.

What a win would mean: The goal this season was to play in a bowl game. This Tennessee team reached that goal. For most of the players, it will be their first bowl game, but they’re not satisfied with just playing in one. They want to win. There’s already talk of the Volunteers making a run at the SEC East next season. It starts Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 7, 2014
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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

Tale of the tape: LSU-Iowa

December, 10, 2013
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These programs gave us one of the most memorable finishes in bowl history nine years ago, and now they return to sunny Florida on New Year's Day for the Outback Bowl. Let's take a closer look at the matchup between No. 16 LSU (9-3) and Iowa (8-4) when they meet at 1 p.m. at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

Who's under center?: This was something of a question for both teams before their coaches cleared it up in the last few days. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Jake Rudock should be “absolutely fine” to play against LSU after leaving the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a right knee injury. Meanwhile, LSU's Les Miles said freshman Anthony Jennings will take over for the injured Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter. Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in the finale against Arkansas, but Jennings came on to complete the Tigers' comeback, hitting Travin Dural with the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play.

When last we met: Iowa fans will never forget how the 2005 Capital One Bowl ended, when Drew Tate hit little-used receiver Warren Holloway with a 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired. That 30-25 loss marked an ugly end to Nick Saban's LSU tenure, as he left to coach the Miami Dolphins immediately afterward. Within hours of the game's end, Miles was named as Saban's successor.

What's at stake: Not much, really. Fresh off an awful 4-8 record in 2012, Iowa started the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. But it's certainly possible that Ferentz's Hawkeyes can finish the season as a ranked team if they beat LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers have already bid farewell to Mettenberger and could be featuring some of their top draft-eligible skill players for the final time as well. A win in the bowl would give LSU its fourth straight season with at least 10 wins, a school record.

Hit the ground running: It would not be a surprise to see this become a run-heavy game. Without Mettenberger -- who was one of the nation's most effective passers -- LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might opt to lean heavily on Jeremy Hill (1,185 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Terrence Magee (614-8) against the Hawkeyes. The problem there is that Iowa's defense is no pushover. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense (303.2 ypg) and are 17th against the run (120.8 ypg). On the other hand, all Iowa wants to do is run. The bruising Mark Weisman (937-7) and slippery duo of Damon Bullock (467-1) and Jordan Canzeri (451-2) take most of the carries for Iowa, which ranks 41st nationally in rushing (188.6 ypg).

Back to the Outback: This will be LSU's second visit to the Outback (formerly Hall of Fame) Bowl, having last played in Tampa at the end of the 1988 season when it lost 23-10 to Syracuse. Iowa has played an SEC club in this bowl three times in the previous 11 seasons, beating Florida 37-17 in 2003, losing 31-24 to the Gators in 2005 and blasting South Carolina 31-10 in 2008.

Best wins: It didn't seem like much at the time, but LSU was the only team to beat No. 2 Auburn, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and winning 35-21 on Sept. 21. LSU also posted a memorable 34-10 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M near the end of the season. Iowa closed with a three-game winning streak to secure its first winning record (5-3) in league play since 2009. That run included a 24-21 win over Michigan and a decisive 38-17 victory at Nebraska to conclude the season.

Worst losses: Iowa's four losses are all respectable, particularly since three of the teams that beat the Hawkeyes -- Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State -- finished with 12-1 records, and the other was to 9-3 Wisconsin. LSU's worst loss was certainly its 27-24 defeat against Ole Miss, although the 38-17 loss at Alabama also felt like a low point.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith LSU's Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury, Iowa has the edge at QB with Jake Rudock.
Offensive stars: He doesn't generate as many headlines as Rudock or the running backs, but All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff certainly ranks among Iowa's most valuable players. Scherff announced on Monday that he will return for his senior season. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (57 catches, 1,117 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (75-1,172, 10 TDs) will both go down as two of the most dangerous wideouts in LSU history.

Defensive stars: All-Big Ten linebackers Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFLs) are the headliners for Iowa's stingy defense along with defensive back B.J. Lowery (55 tackles, three interceptions, 16 pass breakups). Linebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU's defense with 86 tackles, while defensive linemen Anthony Johnson (32 tackles, 7 TFLs) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) lead the defensive front and safety Craig Loston (51 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Jalen Mills (61 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) anchor the back end of the defense.

X-factor: Even if both teams run and run some more, quarterback play could be the determining factor. Jennings will surely need to get the ball to Beckham, Landry and company -- and do so without many costly turnovers -- to force the Hawkeyes to respect the pass. And Rudock will have to prove he can get the job done against a strong opponent. In Iowa's eight wins, he hit 64 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in the Hawkeyes' four losses -- against the only four ranked teams on their schedule -- he completed 55 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and six picks.

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