SEC: Jonathan Stewart
The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.
Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).
For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.
The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.
But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.
One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.
So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
- In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
- The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
- The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope
Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.
Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.
Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.
Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.
If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews
LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)
1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.
2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.
3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.
1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.
2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) on campus.
3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special-teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
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There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.
A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.
After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.
"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."
Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.
If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.
To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.
Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.
“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.
And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.
Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.
"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."
What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.
Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.
"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”
Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.
It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.
"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.
"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."
Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.
But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.
Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:
Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.
Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?
Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.
Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.
Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.
Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.
Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.
Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.
Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.
Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.
Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.
But which exiting players will be toughest to replace in 2013? ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner tackled that exact question earlier this week .
When it came to the SEC, Texas A&M's loss of defensive end Damontre Moore and Mississippi State's loss of cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay were chosen as the toughest voids to fill in the SEC this fall.
As far as Moore goes, he was easily the best defender for the Aggies and ended the season as one of the top overall players in the country. He was a game-changer with his speed, strength and versatility and the Aggies will have to replace 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.
Replacing Moore's talent and playmaking skills would be tough for any team, but it makes it that much harder for the Aggies to mask the loss of Moore because of all the other defenders leaving with him. Senior linebackers Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart and Steven Jenkins will all be gone, and so will senior defensive linemen Spencer Nealy and Jonathan Mathis. That's a lot of missing bodies. As Joyner points out, the Aggies will be losing 23.5 of its 31 total sacks from this past season.
For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are losing both starting cornerbacks, who at one time were considered the best corner duo in the country. Banks, who had a tremendous career at Mississippi State, won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2012 as the top defensive back, while Slay led the team with five interceptions.
While both struggled in the second half of the season, Joyner has them on because Banks' big-play ability will be missed and Slay coverage skills will be missed. While Banks garnered all of the attention -- and the Thorpe Award -- Slay was a better cover man in 2012. Joyner writes that in nine games against BCS teams, Slay allowed 5.5 yards per attempt with two interceptions, while Banks allowed 11.5 YPA with no interceptions.
Couple that with losing senior Corey Broomfield in the defensive backfield, and the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do in the secondary in 2013.
Athlon Sports brings us a few links for Friday:
Twenty-five Twitter accounts SEC fans can't live without.
Twenty statistical highlights from LSU-South Carolina games.
Week 7 SEC storylines and predictions.
- Comparisons to Alabama's 2010 team are put to rest with the Tide's 5-0 record and improved leadership.
- Because of his father, Nick Saban did the right thing.
- Running back Knile Davis could be more of a factor in Arkansas' matchup with Kentucky.
- Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com writes that Auburn coach Gene Chizik's buyout is not as steep as you think.
- Auburn just wants to run and run some more.
- Florida's downfield passing game is a concern.
- Georgia defensive end Ray Drew is having to learn patience in his second year with the Bulldogs.
- Kentucky coach Joker Phillips says his young team doesn't understand what it's facing this weekend.
- Talented defensive ends abound in the LSU-South Carolina game.
- Mississippi State is set to play Oklahoma State in 2013.
- Missouri's defense will have its hands full against Alabama's offense.
- Frustrated rivals will meet when Ole Miss takes on Auburn.
- At the midpoint of the season, South Carolina continues making the grade while surpassing the 1984 team.
- Tennessee is aiming to avoid a bloody October.
- Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart is planning a big trip home this weekend.
- Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy has become more of a vocal leader for the Commodores.
Long gone is the top-10 national ranking and the talk of possible BCS title contention. That has been replaced by speculation about who the next coach might be and whether the Razorbacks (1-3) will even make a bowl game after dropping three consecutive games to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama and Rutgers.
It's still early in the season and the Aggies (2-1) are preparing for just their second Southeastern Conference game. In their first SEC tilt, they put up a respectable showing against then-No. 24 Florida, a team that is now 4-0 and 11th in the rankings.
The Aggies didn't win that game -- falling 20-17 -- but showed that they could compete with a quality SEC team. When they meet the Razorbacks on Saturday, it will be A&M's first SEC West Division game. In reality, it might be too early to call anything a "must-win" but if the Aggies are to earn the respect they seek from those in SEC country, let alone nationally, that means winning games in situations like these: a home game versus a struggling ballclub against whom they're favored.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin warns that because the Razorbacks are struggling, it could make them tough to deal with.
"They're coming in here, they've got a lot to prove," Sumlin said. "The old deal, 'A wounded animal may be the most dangerous one,' I think it applies in this case. But we've got a lot to play for too."
The Aggies do have plenty at stake. For starters, they'd like to notch that first SEC win, something they expected to do against Florida. If they have their sights set on a bowl game -- or beyond -- a win Saturday would help immensely, because the schedule doesn't get any easier.
- After two weeks, SEC stadiums have been filled to an average of 95.09 percent capacity. In 18 games at SEC stadiums this season, the total attendance is 1,274,712, an average of 70,817 fans per game. Last season, SEC stadiums were filled to an average of 95.75 percent capacity and averaged 75,594 fans per game.
- SEC teams have scored touchdowns on their first offensive drives in 11 of 27 games thus far (40.7 percent). Ole Miss is the only SEC team to score on its first drive in both of its games this year.
- SEC teams have scored 115 touchdowns and have allowed just 58 this season. The league teams have scored 56 passing touchdowns (48.7percent) this season and 48 rushing touchdowns (41.7). Last year, the SEC teams scored 220 passing touchdowns (41.5) and 252 rushing touchdowns (47.5).
- SEC teams have scored on 43.2 percent of its offensive possessions (150 of 347) this season. SEC teams have scored touchdowns on 30.0 percent of its offensive possessions (104 of 347) this season. LSU leads the SEC in overall drive efficiency, scoring on 13 of its 23 (56.5 percent) of its offensive possessions. Ole Miss leads the SEC in touchdown drive efficiency, reaching the end zone on 11 of its 26 (42.3 percent) of its offensive drives.
- Georgia leads the SEC in fourth quarter scoring margin (+24), having scored 31 points and allowing seven. Florida is second in fourth quarter scoring margin (+17), having scored 17 points and not allowing any points. Last season, Georgia was ninth in the SEC in fourth quarter scoring margin (minus-13, 78-91) and Florida was 10th (minus-26; 59-85).
- SEC defenses have stopped opponents on three-and-outs without scoring 34.4 percent (121-of-352) of the time. LSU leads the SEC, stopping opponents on three plays 13 of 25 (52.0 percent) times. Florida is second in the SEC, stopping opponents 47.8 percent of the time (11-of-23) in three plays.
- SEC offenses have scored in two minutes or less 58 times this season compared to 17 drives that have lasted more than five minutes. Tennessee leads the SEC with nine drives of less than two minutes while LSU has four drives of more than five minutes.
- Only one SEC team has scored a touchdown on every trip into the red zone -- Arkansas has scored on all eight of its trips inside the 20. On defense, only South Carolina (0-for-3) has not allowed a touchdown in the red zone.
- Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson could become the SEC’s next career statistical record maker. Johnson has 2,611 career kickoff return yards and is third on the career charts. The SEC career record is 2,718 yards by Brandon James of Florida (2006-09). There are no other active SEC players among the Top 10 in career non-percentage record lists.
- Alabama’s opponents this season, Michigan and Western Kentucky, were under duress on half of their dropbacks (32-of-64). They completed 42.3 percent of their passes when under duress with two interception, no touchdowns and four sacks. Alabama was able to apply this pressure, despite sending four of fewer pass-rushers on 72.6 percent of its opponent’s dropbacks.
- Since the start of last season, Alabama has allowed 16.2 plays per game on its side of the 50, the fewest in FBS. Alabama has allowed fewer than 10 such plays in three straight games. No FBS team has more than two such games since the start of last season.
- Through two games, Tyler Bray is completing 76.2 percent of his passes that travel downfield 15 yards or longer. On shorter throws, his completion percentage drops to 72.5 percent. The key to Bray’s deep success is the play-action fake as 14 of his 16 completions on 15-yard throws have come after a run fake.
- For the season, the Gators have been far more efficient on defense in the second half, allowing half as many plays to gain 10 yards or more and forcing twice as many three-and-outs. Florida’s first-half will get a test Saturday. The Vols lead the SEC in yards (617) and 15+ yard plays (15) in the first half this season.
- Florida had 113 rushing yards on 13 carries outside the tackles in the second half last Saturday, including seven runs that gained 10 yards or more. Jeff Driskel led the way with 45 rushing yards and three 10-yard runs outside the tackles in the second half. The Gators were not quite as dominate in the first half, as they had minus-7 rushing yards outside the tackles.
- Alabama at Arkansas -- Tide QB AJ McCarron is third in the nation in passing efficiency; Hogs QB Tyler Wilson is fourth … Alabama has won five straight against the Razorbacks with the last win coming in 2006 in Fayetteville (24-23, 2OT) … Alabama has just nine scholarship seniors, tied for fourth least in FBS (with Marshall and Wisconsin) … Arkansas has 20 wins at home since beginning of 2010 season, tied for fourth most in FBS and second-most in SEC during that stretch.
- Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn -- Tigers lead the series 8-0 against the Warhawks … Saturday’s home opener for Auburn is the latest for Auburn since the 1984 opener against Southern Miss.
- Florida at Tennessee -- This will be the first meeting since 2007 that both schools are ranked in the polls … Florida has won seven straight against Tennessee, but the Vols have an 11-10 edge in Knoxville … The Vols are ranked in the AP poll for the first time since being ranked 18th before first week of 2008 season … Vols have gained 500-plus yards in consecutive games (NCSU, Georgia State) for the first time since 2000 (Arkansas, Kentucky) … Head coaches Derek Dooley (UT) and Will Muschamp (UF) worked together on staffs at LSU (2001-04) and with the Miami Dolphins (2005).
- Florida Atlantic at Georgia -- This will be first-ever meeting between Owls and Bulldogs … Georgia has won 12 consecutive regular-season games (dating back to 2011), the longest such streak during the Mark Richt tenure at UGA.
- Western Kentucky at Kentucky -- The Wildcats lead the series against Hilltopppers, 3-0 … During Joker Phillips’ tenure at UK, Wildcats are 9-1 in games which they win the turnover margin; 2-4 when margin is tied; and 1-10 when UK loses more turnovers than its opponent.
- Idaho at LSU -- This will be the first-ever meeting between the Vandals and the Tigers … With a win, LSU would become the first team in NCAA history to win 40 straight nonconference regular season games … Tigers also riding a 19-game home win streak, which is one shy of the school record.
- Texas at Ole Miss -- The Longhorns hold a 5-1 series advantage against Ole Miss … Rebels QB Bo Wallace leads the SEC with 42 points responsible (5 pass TDs/2 rush TDs) and ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency (187.59 rating) … Ole Miss leads SEC with 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
- Mississippi State at Troy -- The series is tied, 1-1 … The Bulldog defense has allowed just one touchdown in their first two games. Only the 1998 and 1991 defenses allowed less since 1986.
- Arizona State at Missouri -- The series is tied, 3-3 … Mizzou has won 17 straight nonconference games in Columbia and the Tigers are 24-2 against nonconference foes in the Gary Pinkel era … QB James Franklin is currently second on school career pass-efficiency rating list (138.6 rating).
- UAB at South Carolina – South Carolina is 2-0 in the series … A win against the Blazers will give Steve Spurrier his 200th win as a college head coach … He would be the 71st coach in college history (all divisions) to accomplish the feat … RB Marcus Lattimore needs one touchdown to become the school record holder in career TDs … He currently has 33 career TDs.
- Texas A&M at SMU -- A&M leads the series with SMU, 42-29-7 … The Aggies lead the nation in sacks (8.00 per game) and are second in net punting (49.67 average per punt) … Damontre Moore leads the nation in sacks per game (3.00) while Jonathan Stewart leads nation in tackles per game (17.00).
- Presbyterian at Vanderbilt -- This is the first meeting between the Commodores and Blue Hose … Junior WR Jordan Matthews tops the SEC with 222 receiving yards (14 catches) … Senior RB Zac Stacy is seventh in Vandy history with 2,086 career rushing yards … Triple digits against the Blue Hose would put Stacy at least fourth in school history (4th-Jermaine Johnson, 2152 yards).
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin compares it to the adjustment a true freshman has to make in his first year of college football.
"The 'What to do' stage that every freshmen goes through figuring out what to do, transferring the playbook to the field," Sumlin said. "And then there's the 'How to do' stage, which comes down the road instead of just running to where the line is in the playbook. Now there's an adjustment, 'Now what do I do? How do I do it?' And for every player there's that adjustment with a new scheme."
"I'm really getting used to the defense," Porter said. "I've been up there with Snyder a lot during the summertime and I sat in on a few coaches meetings with him and I really got to get in his head a little bit during the summertime. So it was good for me. I think I've got the defense down pretty well, me and J-Stew (senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart)."
He also appears to be developing into a leader. Sumlin wanted to see some guys become more vocal on defense and Porter is doing that. Linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt sees the effort Porter is putting in not only to himself, but to his teammates.
"I know he wants to perform well against the best competition in the country in the SEC and get us jump-started in this league and win a bunch of ballgames and get us to a championship," Wallerstedt said. "Really for him, he's the one that's been driving the whole thing for the linebacking corps and pushing everybody not just on the field but with the film study and getting in there with those younger guys."
In order to do that, Porter has to have an increased attention to detail. Being a senior is not something that the preseason first-team All-SEC pick has taken lightly this fall.
"I have to make sure I get in the film room and that I relay all the little things that I pick up on the field to the younger guys," Porter said. "I think that senior leadership is going to be a big deal this year. As seniors we can see things that maybe a younger player can't see because we've been out there a couple more times. I think it's just stuff like that: senior leadership, film room, putting in extra reps in the weight room, extra runs after practice, things like that that will make us a little bit better and that'll get us a few more wins."
Last season, he led the Aggies with 9.5 sacks, but Porter -- who will play the strongside linebacker position this season -- said he's not concerned with his sack total this year, only with wins.
His grasp of what the Aggies are doing defensively should help that pursuit.
"We're at the point where we've got more and more guys doing that across the board," Sumlin said. "Sean understood it quicker and I think he's been able to become a leader quicker because he just understands things and he's able to communicate with our coaches.
"We're going to need his leadership to get through camp and not only get through camp but through this season. He's doing everything we've asked him to do."
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
Let's see what the Aggies might do in their first season in the SEC:
Texas A&M will break through and win at least eight games: Key playmakers are still around on offense and defense.
There are holes on both sides of the ball that must be filled by the Aggies, but there is still some quality talent that will take the field this fall. Offensively, Texas A&M returns what could be one of the top lines in the SEC. It's headlined by left tackle Luke Joeckel and right tackle Jake Matthews, who could be early NFL draft picks next year, and should help provide good time for whichever young quarterback takes snaps this fall. There are also solid players in the middle, starting with veteran center Patrick Lewis. Behind that line you have potential 1,000-yard rusher Christine Michael, who appears to be 100 percent after tearing his ACL last season, and there's still the possibility that Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams could be cleared to play this fall. Wide receiver isn't too bad, either, as seniors Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu return. The two combined for 139 catches, 1,846 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. There are also a few potential breakout candidates at receiver.
On defense, the front seven has some strong components with outside linebacker Sean Porter and converted defensive end Damontre Moore returning. Both combined for 18 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss last year. Add senior Steven Jackson to outside linebacker, and the Aggies could yet again have another ferocious pass rush like the one that generated a nation-best 51 sacks last season. Having leading tackler Jonathan Stewart back at middle linebacker is a plus as well.
The Aggies are facing new challenges in the SEC, but with the key talent returning, they won't be pushovers for their new competition. If these players stay healthy, Texas A&M could pull a couple of surprises.
Why it won't: Too many changes.
While the Aggies do have some talented playmakers coming back, a lot will be different in College Station this fall. For starters, a brand new coaching staff is in place and so is a new offense and defense. The Aggies are moving to a 4-3 defensive scheme and Kevin Sumlin is hoping to incorporate as much of his up-tempo spread offense as possible. He'll do so with a gang of young quarterbacks, who have combined for five career pass attempts -- all from sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the edge at starter. Defensively, the Aggies return studs in the front seven but have a completely new secondary, which could feature three sophomore starters. There were bright spots from Texas A&M's young secondary, especially from Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven, this spring, but they are still young and they'll have to grow up in the SEC.
Besides the personnel changes, Texas A&M is also entering college football's toughest conference. Division games will now include Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. Linemen are a little faster and a little bigger around these parts. Running backs pound a little harder and skill players have a little more kick in their steps. It's going to take some time for the Aggies to adjust and this year could be full of growing pains.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Larry Jackson ventured to Norman to join the staff at Oklahoma in 2004, it was a business decision.
After spending six seasons at Texas A&M, his alma mater, as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, Jackson made a decision that he felt was best for his family. In 2006, when the chance to become a head strength and conditioning coach (or director of sports performance, as it is termed at Houston) opened, Jackson took it. Again, it was a business decision.
When Kevin Sumlin offered Jackson the chance to become the Aggies' director of sports performance after he accepted the head coaching job, Jackson took it. Being back in College Station, the place where Jackson spent his playing career and started his coaching career, is different.
"Whenever this job came around, after years of watching them play and obviously they weren't succeeding the way that they wanted to, then it became a very big deal when I came back to get this job," Jackson said. "This wasn't just business for me, this was a personal decision."
"When you come back to your alma mater and you played and you get to coach here, all the things that my buddies care about, for them it's a personal deal too because they feel like they have one of their own back in there," Jackson said from his office in the Aggies' new Player Development Center. "So all the guys that I played with, they know that for me, it's more than just a paycheck."
While the fruits of Jackson's labor won't be evident until the Aggies take the field against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30, the players are already seeing his impact.
"Coach Jackson, he's a great guy, he's been working hard with us and pushing us," senior receiver Ryan Swope said. "You know this whole staff has done a great job this summer really taking us and pushing us to the max level. All the guys want to do extra; he's just been pushing us that hard. He just really shows us that this team has a lot of character."
Senior linebacker Sean Porter called Jackson "a player's coach."
While the 40-year-old Jackson can relate to his players well and has a personality that the Aggies appreciate, there are certainly times when the relationship isn't rosy.
"[Jackson’s] the devil during the workout," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said with a laugh. "You can get really upset because of what he's doing, but post-workout, you feel great. You'll go home and eat something nutritious and you feel like 'Wow, I got better today.' With his workouts, you feel like you've gotten better rather than just going in there and doing something redundant and coming out as the same person."
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.