SEC: Jameon Lewis

Four SEC players appear on the Biletnikoff Award watch list that debuted on Tuesday.

The conference had a finalist for the award -- which goes to the top wide receiver in college football -- last season in Texas A&M's Mike Evans. But Evans and the conference's other four leading receivers (Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, LSU's Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief), and nine of the top 11, have all left the league.

The only returning members of that top 11 are Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis (sixth in the SEC with 923 receiving yards in 2013) and Auburn's Sammie Coates (seventh, 902), both of whom made the Biletnikoff list.

Here are the four SEC players on the list:

Sammie Coates, Auburn
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Mississippi State.

Most important game: Sept. 20 at LSU

Key players: In a way, highlighting the "key players" is a part of why this game is so important for Mississippi State. Because, given all that LSU lost from last season, we can't have any way of knowing who will make an impact on this game. The Tigers won't have an established starter at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. The defense, while promising, won't be on its feet yet.

In other words, it's the perfect time for Mississippi State to get LSU. You don't want to face a team that talented when it's had time to realize its potential.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, is loaded with experience. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned starting quarterback, and he has all the tools to make coach Dan Mullen's offense go. The running backs, led by Josh Robinson, are deep, as is the wide receiver corps, which features a couple of playmakers in Jameon Lewis and De'Runnya Wilson. But the real question will be how the offensive line, minus former great Gabe Jackson, will hold up against a defense in LSU's that routinely dominates the line of scrimmage.

Why it matters: This will be a "prove it" type of game for Mullen and Mississippi State. There's so much reason for optimism around Starkville -- a talented quarterback, an emerging group of playmakers, a defense that is truly two-deep at every position -- but until we see results, it's hard to believe that this year will be any different. By beating a team like LSU on the road, it would send a message that this year's Bulldogs are for real.

The second reason -- and maybe the most compelling -- for this being a pivotal game is the way the schedule sets up, which is about as well as any coach could ask for. Mississippi State feasts on cupcakes the first three weeks of the season (Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama) before going on the road to LSU (again, you want the Tigers early). If the Bulldogs survive Baton Rouge, then they get a well-timed bye week before hosting Texas A&M and Auburn (you want both at home). Survive that and there's another bye week before a nice run of winnable games against Kentucky, Arkansas and UT Martin.

Think its unreasonable that Mississippi State goes 8-1 in that time? Think again.

If Mississippi State beats LSU early and gains the accompanying confidence of such a win, the outlook of its season and the SEC West as a whole changes considerably. Lose that game and you start to question whether this really is the year for the Bulldogs to contend for the division title.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
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Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
In honor of the greatest movie monster to ever live making his much-anticipated return to the silver screen, we only thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the monsters the SEC has to offer.

Can any of them live up to the legendary status Godzilla holds? Only time will tell, but you still wouldn’t want to get caught in their path. Nothing good can come of those who oppose these monsters from the SEC East and West:

EAST MONSTERS

1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia -- During his first year on campus, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 quarterback hurries. Jordan Jenkins gets a lot of attention on this defense, but Floyd might have the most NFL talent out there. He's ferocious off the edge and should wreak plenty of havoc this season with even more teaching. Double-team him if you want to have a chance.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. isn't a player that you want to mess with too often.
2. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida -- At 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds, you don't want to cross his path if you're in his backfield hunting grounds. Fowler is Florida's best edge rusher and can play standing up or with his hand on the ground. He has incredibly fast, violent arms to go with a truckload of speed. Fowler has six career sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and is already viewed as a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.

3. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri -- Well, with that head of hair, he already has the Predator look down. And he's just as lethal on the field. With fellow ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy both gone, Golden will have a lot more time on the field, giving him more room to roam and track down his next victims. He's got a scary burst and a load of strength that should help him pass the 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss he had last season.

4. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia -- He can bowl you over or blow past you with his speed. He has a scary combination of speed, strength and elusiveness that make him an absolute terror to bring down. Nagging injuries have plagued him during his two years on campus, but he still has 2,374 career rushing yards and has averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 387 career carries. Gurley is arguably the nation's best and scariest running back when healthy.

5. Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina -- He already has a menacing frame at 6-8, 348 pounds, which is just frightening in itself. But his job is to push guys such as Fowler around all season, and he seems to really get a kick out of it, too. Robinson can smother oncoming defenders with his size and strength. Trying to hit his quarterback comes with a price.

WEST MONSTERS

1. Landon Collins, S, Alabama -- You want a safety who can cover a lot of ground and deliver bone-rattling hits? Well, Collins is the guy for you. He really started to understand the safety position more last season and proved to be a real terror for the Crimson Tide's defense. Collins has first-round draft pick capability, and he's upset with how last season ended. You don't want to see him when he's angry.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesSophomore WR Laquon Treadwell is an absolute monster, pun intended, in the open field for Ole Miss.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- I know that T.J. Yeldon is still the starter in Tuscaloosa, but Henry has that scary talent that just doesn't come around all that often. Like Gurley, he can pound the ball through the middle with all that strength, but has the ability to make defenders miss and hit that gut-wrenching home-run play. Henry is going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall, no matter how many carries he gets.

3. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn -- Big things are expected from the rising sophomore after a season in which he slowly started to develop into a solid player off the edge. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson loved how he started to combine that freaky athleticism with technique and knowledge this spring. He's arguably Auburn's most talented lineman and will be doing plenty of head hunting this fall.

4. Jameon Lewis, WR, Mississippi State -- Don't let his 5-9, 183-pound frame fool you, Lewis will make plays on you. He has all the speed and athleticism to run circles around opposing secondaries and he's learning how to be a better route-runner. He just missed out on grabbing 1,000 yards last season and is the kind of player who will slash his way through defenses with an offense that is perfect for his quickness.

5. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss -- He can leap out of any gym and he's the kind of person who is already more athletic than you, no matter the setting. As a freshman last season, Treadwell led the Rebels with 72 receptions, but is now the main attraction at receiver for Ole Miss. Treadwell is a freak of nature that isn't afraid to get physical with defenders, and he can hit the deep ball with all that speed he owns.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.
Running? Receiving? Fielding kicks? Those are all fine qualities to have. But what about the guys that do it all?

More and more offenses are moving away from the typical pro-style schemes and formations of generations past. A tight end isn’t just a tight end anymore. A running back isn’t just a running back. A wide receiver isn't … well, you get the point. Alabama’s O.J. Howard can put his hand on the ground at tight end or H-back, or he can split out at wide receiver. South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper is listed as a wide receiver, but he’s just as valuable a running back or return specialist for the Gamecocks. Jameon Lewis can line up at receiver, running back or quarterback for Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJameson Lewis
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisVersatile and dangerous weapons like Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis make plays no matter where they line up or how they get the ball.
Up and down the SEC, there are athletes who do it all on offense -- and sometimes special teams, too.

Often on the SEC Blog we rank the top players by each position for the coming year. But it’s time we give Mr. Versatile his due. With that said, here’s a look at the league’s top all-purpose offensive athletes in 2014.

Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Bruce Ellington will be missed, but don’t weep for the Gamecocks. It’s Pharoh Cooper to the rescue. Coach Steve Spurrier called Cooper a “natural talent.” His numbers as a true freshman were promising -- 655 all-purpose yards -- and enough to land him on the Freshman All-SEC team. But he could do even more as a sophomore. He’ll continue to factor into the return game, play wide receiver and even take some direct snaps at quarterback.

Christion Jones, Alabama

Alabama may not run the most inventive offense in the SEC, but it finds a way to get Jones the football. The lightning-quick senior has started at wide receiver and in the return game each of the past two seasons. He carried the ball 13 times for an average of 17 yards in 2013 and finished 14th in the SEC with in all-purpose yards per game (102.7). Additionally, he returned two punts and one kickoff for a touchdown last season.

Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State

Had Damian Williams been unable to play against Ole Miss, Dan Mullen would have turned to Lewis as his starting quarterback. Seriously. With Tyler Russell sidelined and Dak Prescott injured, the 5-foot-9 junior would have been forced under center. Thankfully that never happened, but it’s just a taste of Lewis’ versatility. The speedy Mississippi native is someone Mullen looks to get the ball in space, whether that’s at receiver, running back or quarterback. He not only led the team with 923 yards receiving, he finished fifth in rushing with 117 yards. All told, he had five receiving touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. He even threw three passes, completing all three attempts for touchdowns.

Ricardo Louis, Auburn

Last season’s Georgia game might have been a glimpse of the future for Louis. The former No. 5 athlete in the ESPN 300 broke out in a big way against the Bulldogs, rushing for 66 yards on five carries while catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Even before his memorable game-winning Hail Mary, he was a difference in the game. His ability to play both receiver and running back makes for a tough matchup for any defense. And with Tre Mason and Chris Davis gone from the return game, Louis could become a factor there as well.

[+] EnlargeSpeedy Noil
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comTexas A&M signee Speedy Noil, who was ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, could make an immediate impact.
Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

Too soon? Not after all we’ve heard coming out of College Station, Texas, about the talented true freshman. Noil may not be that No. 2 this fall, but he could conjure up memories of Johnny Football with his ability to make plays in space. The former five-star prospect and No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300 drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates this spring. He’s already said to be the presumptive starter opposite Ricky Seals-Jones. Good luck covering those two as Seals-Jones is a monster at 6-5 and Noil is an elusive burner at 5-11. In addition to spending time at receiver, look for coach Kevin Sumlin to get Noil the ball in space wherever possible, whether that’s in the return game, at running back or even taking direct snaps at quarterback.

Five more to watch:
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It’s been nearly three months since the Super Bowl, and Dan Mullen is still gloating.

Before the big game in early February, he told his assistant coaches at Mississippi State to pay attention to Percy Harvin. He didn’t care that Harvin was more statue than standout for Seattle during the season. He took one look at Harvin's underwhelming production due to injuries -- three games played, four receptions, no touchdowns -- and knew not to be fooled.

Mullen understood the cold hard truth about playmakers like Harvin, whom he coached as offensive coordinator at Florida: In the biggest moments, they always show up.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen is looking for guys who can score, and the Mississippi State offense looks to have some options this fall.
“They said Percy wasn’t going to play much,” Mullen recalled. “I said, ‘It’s the Super Bowl. He’s playing. And not only is he playing, if they kick it to him he will score. As soon as he touches the ball on a kickoff in the open field, he will score.’ [Defensive coordinator] Geoff Collins texted me and said, ‘C’mon man!’”

On his first touch, Harvin took an end around 30 yards. After a short reception, he carried another end around 15 yards for a first down. And then, on the opening kickoff of the second half, he ran the ball back 87 yards for a touchdown.

Voilą!

Now if only Mullen could make another Percy Harvin magically appear.

When Mullen arrived at State in 2008, he was greeted with the usual sort of optimism. And in terms of wins, he has delivered, taking the Bulldogs to a bowl game in each of the last four seasons. But in terms of hype, he’s fallen short of creating the kind of dynamic offense he became known for at Florida, featuring multitalented weapons like Harvin, Tim Tebow and Chris Rainey. Instead, his quarterbacks have been inconsistent, his receivers underwhelming and his running backs, while productive, have never been home-run hitters.

This year Mullen hopes to change that. He sees playmakers emerging. Dak Prescott, who is being billed as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, won’t have to do it all on his own.

“We ask, Who can score?” Mullen said. “Dak can’t score. He can score inside the 5, but that means we have to get the ball all the way down inside the 5. But in the SEC, who can score? … Who in the field can make you miss, take a 5-yard play and turn it into a 50-yard play? That’s important to us.”

Because of his height (5-foot-9) and role as receiver/return specialist, Jameon Lewis fits the Harvin mold the best of any player on State’s roster. He may not have his top-end speed, but he has a version of it. And even a poor man’s Harvin can score plenty, as Lewis did with five receiving and three rushing touchdowns last season. His 118.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked sixth in the SEC.

Consistency, though, will be key. Of Lewis’ eight touchdowns, six were against sub-.500 or non-BCS opponents.

“We have to consistently get the ball in his hands,” Mullen said, whether that's motioning him in the backfield or having him take direct snaps. “He’s certainly helped himself as a wide receiver learning to be a route-runner. Instead of saying, ‘Hey coach, put the ball in my hands and I can run around like I did in high school and make stuff happen,’ I said, ‘Hey, you have to get open. You have to run routes so we can get the ball in your hands first.’”

Helping Lewis will be De'Runnya Wilson, who present his own set of challenges at 6-5 with the ability to jump out of the gym. The part-time basketball player came into his own late during his freshman season, catching 16 passes and two touchdowns over his final five games. As Mullen said, “He might not run away from you, but one-on-one he can go over you.”

Wilson’s size and Lewis’ escapability play well off one another, making for a tough assignment on defense, Collins explained.

“De’Runnya is a big, physical receiver out on the edge,” he said. “Jameon is a mismatch for linebackers or even some nickel backs. And then you have Dak, who can throw it with the best of them and then is a threat to run, which makes it difficult for a play-caller to make sure you’re hitting all the right bases.”

LaDarius Perkins and Vick Ballard were solid running backs, but this season's group has the chance to be special.

“We’re better at running back this year than we were last year,” Mullen said. “Now that’s hard to say with Perkins being gone, who was a great player for us. But Josh Robinson is really now to the point where he’s developed into a legit back. He knows what he’s doing out there on the field. Ashton Shumpert is back, now with experience. Nick Griffin is as healthy as he’s been in three years. And I finally smartened up and put Brandon Holloway -- he was a high school tailback at 165 pounds that we tried to make into a slot receiver, he’s the fastest kid on the team -- back at running back.

“I hate comparing him to anyone up north,” Mullen added of Holloway, “but he’s a Dexter McCluster type player who isn’t a big guy, but plays off of contact a lot bigger than he is. … He’s electric in the perimeter and is physical enough of a player.”

Prescott, for his part, couldn’t help but smile. Running the read-option with those backs could be lethal. And as good as Lewis and Wilson could be, there’s also Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson to consider.

Prescott pointed to the come-from-behind victory over Ole Miss and the 44-point, 533-yard win against Rice as only the start of where the offense is headed.

“We have experience coming back at every position,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of talented receivers, big and small. They can do all do different things. We’ve got a great group of running backs that performed well this offseason.

“We can be as good as we want to.”
Three things we learned in the spring about the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

1. Expectations are fine: Mississippi State has long relished the underdog role behind Alabama, LSU and Auburn. But no longer. Armed with a dark horse Heisman contender at quarterback and a defense high on depth and talent, Dan Mullen and his staff are embracing sky-high expectations this spring as a legitimate contender to win the West and reach the SEC championship game.

2. Leadership on both sides: Mullen is in a position most coaches only dream about. Not only does he have a strong leader on offense and defense, but both players happen to be among the most talented athletes on the team. Dak Prescott, who dealt with injury and personal loss last season, is the heartbeat of the offense at quarterback, while veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney guides the defense after posting 173 tackles the last two seasons.

3. 1A and 1B: Chris Jones, who emerged as one of the most talented freshmen in the SEC last season, isn’t technically a starter. Instead, he’s a defensive lineman with the 1Bs. That’s how deep Mississippi State’s defense will be. Instead of ones and twos, coordinator Geoff Collins has a 1A and 1B unit. Both are littered with returning starters at all levels. Of the 25 or so players who saw action in 2013, 22 were back on campus this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesMississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott had a stellar outing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over Rice, completing 17 of 28 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns.
1. Prescott’s evolution: He has the intangibles. He has the talent. But what do we really know about Prescott? He has shown flashes of promise and finished last season with a bang, but we’ve yet to see consistency from the unseasoned starter. For him to become a legitimate Heisman contender, he’ll have to put the offense on his shoulders and take his team to another level.

2. Help on offense: Prescott won’t be able to do it on his own, though. Playmakers must emerge on offense. Mullen likes the tandem of Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson at wide receiver, and the running back situation is bright with Josh Robinson leading the charge. But like Prescott, they’re all largely unproven in their careers.

3. Kicking game: During the final practice before the spring game, Mississippi State’s kickers missed everything from extra points to chip shots. Groans could be heard from the sidelines every time the ball sailed shy of the goalpost. While Mullen has a lot to like about his offense and defense, without a strong kicking game it could all be for naught.

One way-too-early prediction:

Mississippi State’s schedule could be its savior as much as its doom. A nonconference slate of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT-Martin should be a cakewalk. Crossover games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky is as undaunting as it gets in the SEC. So where are the tests? Playing down to the level of competition could ultimately backfire against Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Make no mistake, Dan Mullen is a coach who thinks offense first. In addition to being the head coach at Mississippi State, he fancies himself the quarterbacks coach, sitting in on meetings and delivering pointers during practice. He wants his offense to go places in 2014, and with Dak Prescott, Jameon Lewis and Da’Runnya Wilson in place, he has the tools to see that vision through.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen sees the defense as Mississippi State's strength.
But Mullen is also a practical man. He knows that however good his offense is or however good it will be, Mississippi State will rely most heavily on its defense. He acknowledges that the unit, led by defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, is the strength of the program entering a season that promises to be special as both players and coaches are embracing expectations now, rather than playing the familiar role of underdog in the SEC West.

Mississippi State has the momentum of three straight wins to end last season thanks to its defense, which surrendered an average of 11.3 points per game against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Rice. If not for the scoreless second half the defense pitched in the Egg Bowl, the tenor of this spring might have been much different. The fairytale ending might have gone sideways.

“They grew up,” Mullen said of his defense, which lost three-quarters of its secondary from 2012, and then watched as its only returning starter, Jay Hughes, went down with a season-ending injury Week 1 against Oklahoma State. It was an uphill battle, but the defense eventually coalesced. “Coming into the season, we knew we had talent on the defensive side of the ball. We were just young. Both corners had gone on to the NFL. Our corners now are maybe better. They just hadn’t played. They were developing.”

It must be ringing in his ears constantly, because in multiple conversations with Mullen over the past few months he’s cited the fact that of the 25 or so defensive players who saw action a season ago, 22 are back. It’s been an emphasis for obvious reasons. There aren’t many SEC teams that can boast such strong numbers, which are usually a good indicator of future success. By developing them even further this spring -- “We put the pressure on them,” Mullen said -- the hope is they will become a defense capable of keeping Mississippi State close in games.

Losing Deontae Skinner, Nickoe Whitley and Denico Autry hurt, but there’s reason for optimism at every level of the defense this spring. Chris Jones is poised to become a household name on the defensive line, and he’s not even technically a starter, Nick James, a highly rated defensive tackle coming out of high school a season ago, is developing quickly, and the secondary is loaded with talent at corner and safety.

As Collins said: “They got thrown into the fire of SEC play last year. Now they’ve had a spring to sink their teeth into it.”

“He’s such a big, physical presence,” Collins said of Jones. “He’s a freakish athlete. The good thing about him is everyone talks about him a lot and he’s a high-profile kid, but the thing that’s nice about Chris is he knew his fundamentals and his technique had to improve. Last year we had to rely on his God-given ability. So he really took the time to be with [defensive line coach David Turner] to focus on technique, focus on fundamentals, really learn the scheme even more and invest in playing hard.”

[+] EnlargeJustin Cox
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJustin Cox is expected to be an impact player on defense this fall.
Collins was overwhelmingly positive in assessing his defense this spring. The two major questions he said he had entering the spring -- leadership and an eagerness to compete -- his defense passed with flying colors. Getting Benardrick McKinney back for his senior year was a huge boost in both areas.

“He’s such a great kid,” Collins said of McKinney, who is a vocal presence during every practice. “He’s blessed to be 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and run a 4.6. He has a 40-inch vertical jump. But he’s even a better kid than he is an athlete. His attention to detail, a great leader.

“The nice thing for us is we have Dak Prescott, who’s an incredible leader on the offense, and then you have Benardrick McKinney, who’s an incredible leader on the defensive side of the ball. And both of them are big-time players for us. So that’s a nice thing to have during the summer when the coaches can’t be around.”

It’s not just the front seven that has Collins excited, though. The secondary, he said, has “10 kids that can play SEC ball.”

“It’s just a lot of confidence, a lot of positive guys about kids who can step in and play for us,” he said.

One such defensive back to watch is Justin Cox, who was a high-profile junior college transfer to Mississippi State last season that ultimately played more of a reserve role at cornerback. Now he’s been moved to safety, where he said he’s much more comfortable.

At 6-3 and in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, he fits the part. Mullen called him a “violent, aggressive player with some toughness -- and he runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash] so he can cover lots of ground out there.”

“You can see the light coming on for him,” Collins said. “He’s going to be another kid with tremendous physical gifts. With more confidence we’ll see him make a big impact for us.”

Armed with confidence, talent and depth, look for the entire Mississippi State defense to take off. The end of last season might have just been the prelude. Now Mullen and his staff hope they’re ready to turn the defense into the blockbuster surprise of the SEC.

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When Dan Mullen first took over as Mississippi State’s head coach before the 2009 season, the goal was very simple: Make it to bowl games.

For a program that lacked the historical success of the SEC’s big boys, a bowl game here and there was something Mississippi State was more than happy with.

But those were simpler times in Starkville.

Now, as Mullen enters his sixth season with the Bulldogs, just becoming bowl eligible isn’t good enough. When you make it to four straight, it’s time to take the next step, and the overwhelming feeling around the program is that the time is now for Mississippi State.

“When we got here, we talked about winning a championship,” Mullen told ESPN.com last week. “And guys thought that was good talk and was something they wanted to do, but they weren’t sure that it could [happen]. There’s still that hesitation of 'Well, it sounds great, but how real is it?'

“You look at this team, and our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year.”

And this isn’t just an up-and-coming team puffing smoke about the place. This is a team that returns 20 of 22 defenders who were on last season’s bowl roster. It has a potential All-SEC quarterback and lost five total starters from a 2013 team that finished on a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over archrival Ole Miss and a bowl blowout of Rice.

When Mullen approached his team shortly after the Bulldogs’ 44-7 drubbing of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he found an anxious group. Players wanted back on the field. The months before spring practice were too long, and they couldn’t even comprehend the thought of not smashing into someone not dressed in maroon for another nine months.

The momentum this team got from the tail end of the 2013 season has fueled players like no other season has, veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. Center Dillon Day said there’s a lot more trust throughout the roster with the improved depth at just about every position.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Mullen says Mississippi State has big goals this season: "Our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year."
There’s a familiarity within this team that has players salivating over improving on a 7-6 season that brought Mullen one win away from tying for second all-time at Mississippi State. The theme of this spring is gaining even more ground on the perceived SEC front-runners.

“We aren’t really given a shot with those types of teams, but this year I definitely feel like we’re going to be a factor to deal with,” Day said. “We definitely can beat those teams.

“This year, we have all the factors; we have every position filled up.”

Mullen understands that confidence alone won’t take the Bulldogs to their second SEC title game. Games have to be played and wins have to appear. Mullen might own the program’s highest winning percentage for a coach (36-28, .563) since the late Darrell Royal in 1954-55 (.600), but he has yet to even sniff the SEC West crown.

During his impressive 9-4 season in his second year, he finished just 4-4 in SEC play. He hasn’t eclipsed that many conference wins in a season since and has had losing conference records three times.

Mullen has had four straight winning seasons but hasn’t hit the double-digit mark for wins. On paper, the Bulldogs are a blip on the SEC’s radar, but to Mullen, he’s seen growth, development and an incredibly inspired team.

For a program littered with former two- and three-star high school prospects, the Bulldogs could prove to be a formidable opponent this season with so much experience coming back. Mullen sees it, players see it and fans are expecting more wins in the treacherous SEC West.

“I want those expectations,” Mullen said. “I want our fans to have those expectations; I want our people to have those expectations. I like it on the national level, having those expectations.”

It’s hard not to blame the Bulldogs’ for being confident. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who has already earned the dark-horse Heisman moniker from national pundits, ended last year with two very gutty performances against Ole Miss and Rice and returns his top-five receiving targets, including senior Jameon Lewis, who registered 923 receiving yards last year.

Running back LaDarius Perkins is gone, but Mullen said he’s pleased with the talent and depth he has at running back, which starts with potential breakout candidate Josh Robinson.

Then there’s that defense that finished 2013 fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally in total defense. The Bulldogs, which lost just two defensive starters from last year, held their final four opponents to 20 or fewer points and allowed an average of 296.3 yards during that span.

Mississippi State won’t get much real national championship talk, but the SEC title isn’t out of the question. With the unknowns surging throughout the league, the Bulldogs are set up to rub shoulders with and maybe push around the SEC’s elite.

“I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said. “I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”


SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a burning question or hot debate facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Spring practice is alive and well, but we're all immersed in the madness that is March with the NCAA tournament in full swing. And in keeping with the Big Dance theme, it's time to talk Cinderellas.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of playing SEC Cinderella in 2014 -- Florida or Mississippi State?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff: Honestly, the SEC as a whole is going to be so much fun to watch this fall because of all the uncertainty when it comes to finding a true frontrunner. But when it comes to finding this year's Cinderella, I'm leaning toward the Gators. A year removed from a disastrous 4-8 season that set records in ineptitude in Gainesville, Florida will break through and challenge for the SEC this fall. Remember when injuries crushed Missouri's offensive hopes in 2012 and the Tigers took the SEC East by storm a year later? Well, the Gators will be similar with the return of starters Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.

The Gators ranked last in the SEC in scoring and total offense in 2013, struggling without key parts on both sides of the ball. Having Driskel back is huge, but the biggest thing for him is that he'll be manning a new offense that actually suits his skill set better. Kurt Roper's more spread approach that will feature a lot more shotgun and zone-read will open things up for Driskel and allow him to use his feet more. It'll make Florida's run game more dangerous and should get receivers more involved. The key, of course, is Driskel knowing this offense backward and forward before spring practice ends so that he can teach, teach, teach during summer and fall workouts.

The defense will be fine. There were inconsistencies during the second half of the season, but it's tough when a defense has to stay on the field for so long. Will Muschamp has recruited well enough during his tenure that the defense will suffer only a few hits from the loss of some 2013 studs.

Florida has the advantage of playing LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home.

Take 2: Chris Low: First, I'd like to point out that we had this same debate a year ago at this time, and the two teams we selected were ... Auburn and Missouri. So we nailed it last year. Let's see if we can make it two years in a row.

It's always a gamble to pick a Cinderella out of the Western Division, which is easily the most rugged division in all of college football. Each of the last five national championship games has included a team from the West, with Auburn losing to Florida State last season in Pasadena. Alabama and LSU played each other for the title in 2011. And, now, with Texas A&M in the mix, it's a big-boy division if there ever was one and only getting stronger. According to ESPN's recruiting rankings in February, Alabama's class was No. 1 nationally, LSU's No. 2, Texas A&M's No. 4 and Auburn's No. 8.

Even though Mississippi State hasn't been a regular among the recruiting heavyweights, Dan Mullen has assembled and developed a nice nucleus of talent entering the 2014 season, and this has a chance to be his best team in Starkville. It starts with junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who's the type of run-pass option that puts so much pressure on opposing defenses. The Bulldogs need to keep him healthy. They also have an underrated group of receivers around Prescott, led by senior Jameon Lewis, who was the star of the Bulldogs' bowl win last season.

Defensively, the Bulldogs should be a load in their front seven. They have depth, and good luck to anybody trying to block 6-5, 300-pound Chris Jones, who's a force at both end and tackle. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are also playmakers. The cornerback tandem of Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love produced six interceptions last season, and the Bulldogs also expect to get back senior safety Jay Hughes, who was injured in 2013. The secondary could be the deepest unit on the team.

The key game, if the Bulldogs are going to make some serious noise in the West, is at LSU on Sept. 20. They get a week off after that game before coming back home to face Texas A&M and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Mullen has guided Mississippi State to four straight winning seasons, beaten rival Ole Miss four of his five years on the job and engineered three bowl victories. The next step is knocking off one or two of the "big boys" in the West. And even though the Bulldogs have struggled against nationally-ranked foes (they've lost 15 in a row), this is the year that changes.
Mississippi State’s progress report midway through the season might not have been impressive, but a furious comeback turned things around into a final grade the Bulldogs can be proud to bring home.

OFFENSE: C+
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.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Mullen and Mississippi State finished with a flourish in 2013.
DEFENSE: B
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.

OVERALL: C
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.

Past grades:
LSU
Kentucky
Georgia
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

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