SEC: Martrell Spaight

SEC morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
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A day after Auburn's Corey Grant burned up the track at Auburn's pro day, another former SEC player who didn't attend the NFL combine also helped his cause. Mississippi State's Matt Wells ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the best of any player at the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday. State was one of three SEC schools to hold a pro day on Wednesday, along with Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Aggies' pro day lacked the fanfare of a year ago when Johnny Manziel worked out for scouts -- particularly with star tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sidelined by a knee injury -- but a dozen former A&M players still took advantage of the opportunity to show what they could do. Likewise, 16 former Razorbacks -- including All-SEC honorees Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers -- showed off for scouts at Arkansas' workout on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
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Arkansas opened a lot of eyes this season, going 7-6 and making a bowl game in Bret Bielema’s second season. Let’s grade how the team fared this year:

Offense: B. The Razorbacks were in the middle of the pack in the SEC offensively, averaging 31.9 points per game (seventh in the league) and 406 yards per game (eighth). The running game was the Hogs’ calling card as they averaged a strong 218 yards per game rushing (24th nationally) and had two 1,000-yard rushers in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Quarterback Brandon Allen made some significant strides himself, throwing 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Arkansas was also a good third-down team, converting 46.8 percent of their chances (17th in the country).

Defense: A. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith oversaw a vastly improved unit in his first season in Fayetteville. Arkansas went from near the bottom of the SEC in most statistical categories before Smith’s arrival to being in the top five in the league in most of those same areas. Led by Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, the Hogs were second in the SEC in yards per game allowed (323.4), fourth in scoring defense (19.2 points per game) and they recorded two shutouts. In their final four games, they allowed only 28 total points and their performance in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl was memorable, holding Texas to an FBS season low 59 yards and just two rushing yards.

Special teams: B. The Hogs were strong in some areas and not so strong in others. Place-kicking could have been better (Arkansas was 9-of-14 on field goals for the season), but they were one of the nation’s best kickoff return teams, averaging 25.7 yards per return (second in the country). Arkansas was solid in both punting and punt returns but allowed opponents more average kickoff return yards (23.84) than all but one SEC team (Missouri). Bonus points for punter Sam Irwin-Hill, who scored a touchdown on a 51-yard run on a fake punt against Texas A&M in September.

Coaching: A. Arkansas finished 7-6 but the Razorbacks were close to winning a few more games. They tested then-ranked opponents Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri, losing to all of them by only seven points or fewer. Getting a team that was 3-9 the season before to believe it can go toe-to-toe -- and in some instances beat -- highly ranked teams isn’t easy and Bret Bielema and his staff did it with regularity. The Razorbacks clearly improved as the season progressed, the sign of a well-coached team. They saved one of their best performances for last with the resounding 31-7 win over Texas in the Texas Bowl, giving the program a ton of momentum heading into 2015.

Overall: B-plus. Considering where they were in 2013, it was a pretty good 2014 for the Razorbacks. The only thing keeping them from an A is the fact that the Hogs still did finish last in the SEC West. Going to a bowl game was a significant accomplishment for a program that struggled recently but it’s not the end destination for Bielema & Co. He has his eyes set on bigger and better goals, starting with moving up the SEC West standings and out of the cellar. The Hogs are certainly moving in the right direction.
Now that you've seen our first round of the SEC's best 25 players from the 2014 season, it's time to see who made the next cut in our countdown:

16. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas
Flowers left Arkansas on a very high note after a very productive 2014 season. One of the league's best defensive linemen, Flowers ranked fourth in the SEC with 15.5 tackles for loss and led the Hogs with six sacks. Flowers finished his Arkansas career with 18 career sacks. Last season, he ranked third on the team in total tackles (68) and solo stops (34). Flowers also led the team with nine quarterback hurries, and he defended six passes. Another aspect of Flowers' game that made him so successful was how he could create plays for other teammates. Flowers was such a disruptive player that he was able to direct plays away from himself and right into the hands of his teammates.

17. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Yet again, Hargreaves was one of the SEC's best cover corners. Scratch that, he was yet again one of the nation's best cover corners. For the second straight year, Hargreaves was named All-SEC, and for the second straight year he grabbed three interceptions. In 2014, he ranked second in the SEC with 16 passes defended and averaged 1.33 passes defended per game. Hargreaves wasn't always perfect (see the Alabama game against Amari Cooper), but quarterbacks always took a risk throwing to his side of the field. Hargreaves lined up outside and inside throughout the season, and with his speed and strength, he was able to make play after play while draping the guys he was covering. He had 50 tackles, including two for loss, and recovered two fumbles.

18. Bud Dupree, DE, Kentucky
Dupree might be the best player no one has really talked about enough over the last three years. His sack totals have increased every year, and after registering 7.5 sacks in 2014, Dupree finished his Kentucky career with 23.5 sacks. Dupree can play both defensive end and linebacker, and has during his career. In 2014, he recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. He also snagged an interception. The All-SEC selection recorded at least three tackles in all 12 games he played in this season, and was second on the team with 60 total tackles, including having 45 solo stops. Dupree is a physical freak who has been productive every year at Kentucky, and he has possibly played himself into being a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

19. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Somehow, this kid was a freshman in 2014, yet he became one of the SEC's best pass-rushers after finishing second in the league with 20.5 tackles for loss and tying for fourth with 10 sacks. Both numbers were records for a true freshman at Tennessee. Barnett also tied for first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally in tackles for loss per game (1.6). He notched 72 tackles, including 47 solo stops. Barnett, who started 10 games for the Vols in 2014, recorded at least a half-tackle for loss in 11 games. He also had three multisack games, including two games with three sacks (the three sacks are a school record). All of Barnett's sacks came in SEC play, while 18 of his tackles for loss occurred in league play and led the SEC. Let me repeat that Barnett did all this -- and was named an All-SEC second-teamer by both the Associated Press and league coaches -- as a true freshman.

20. Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas
Spaight was a lightning rod for production in 2014. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound All-SEC first-teamer led the league with 128 tackles and led the Razorbacks with 63 solo tackles. He became the first player in Arkansas history to lead the SEC in tackles. Spaight had no problem flying around the field to make plays in the middle and side to side, but he was also third on Arkansas' team with 10.5 tackles for loss and also had a sack. He defended four passes with an interception and forced two fumbles, and he was credited with four quarterback hurries. Spaight recorded at least five tackles in every game this season and started all 13 games.

SEC all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
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The postseason wasn't just about the SEC Western Division going 2-5, sending the rest of the country into a state of euphoria. There were also some impressive individual performances that the league could hang its hat on, and it's time to acknowledge them.

Here's our All-SEC bowl team:

Offense

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: His team might have faltered in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but no other quarterback had close to the numbers he did in the Bulldogs' loss. Prescott threw for 453 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards with another score.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb had an SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the Belk Bowl against Louisville.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Is there anything this freshman can't do? He earned Belk Bowl MVP honors with his SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the win over Louisville.

RB: Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Another incredibly talented freshman, Hurd ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in Tennessee's Outback Bowl win over Iowa.

WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' star receiver had a nice closing act to the season, catching nine passes for 170 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown to jump-start South Carolina's offense in a win over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

WR: De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: He was Prescott's top receiving threat all season, and he didn't disappoint in the bowl game, catching nine passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

WR/TE: Amari Cooper, Alabama: Cooper's final game in an Alabama uniform didn't go exactly as planned, but he still had an impressive night with nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide's 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

OL: Jacob Gilliam, Tennessee: Despite playing with a torn ACL in his left knee and a heavily wrapped, injured left hand, Gilliam, a former walk-on, was an intricate part of Tennessee's impressive offensive performance against Iowa.

OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The main cog on South Carolina's line for years, Cann had another impressive day for the Gamecocks, helping push South Carolina's offense to 344 yards.

OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies piled up 529 yards of offense in the win over West Virginia with Ogbuehi leading the way on the left side. He didn't have the most impressive year, but a solid showing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl helped send the Aggies off on a high note.

OL: Evan Boehm, Missouri: Yes, he's a center, but he was just too good in the Tigers' 33-17 win against Minnesota in the Florida Citrus Bowl. It didn't hurt that the Tigers ran for 337 yards.

C: David Andrews, Georgia: Chubb was able to do a lot of his damage because of his own talent, but Andrews helped by having a very impressive game in front of him. Georgia finished with 492 offensive yards.

All-Purpose: Leonard Fournette, LSU: How about that? Another freshman running back. Fournette capped his first season in college football with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Defense

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: Considered one of the top defensive end prospects in this year's NFL draft, Fowler registered three sacks and was a constant disruptive force in Florida's win against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

DL: Markus Golden, Missouri: Not a real shocker that Golden ended the season on such a high note. He recorded 10 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and had three quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: During the Razorbacks' impressive defensive performance in their win against Texas, he had five tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: Another solid game for the SEC's top pass-rusher. Ray had four tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a forced fumble.

LB: Kris Frost, Auburn: Frost really cleaned up in the Outback Bowl despite the Tigers' loss. He piled up 12 tackles (nine solo) and a sack.

LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: The freshman just continued to impressive during the latter part of the season. He had eight tackles (tied for team lead) and a sack against Louisville.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He was all over the field for the Hogs, registering five tackles, including two for loss.

CB: Brian Poole, Florida: He returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble, recovered one and registered four tackles.

CB: Damian Swann, Georgia: In his final game with the Bulldogs, Swann grabbed an interception, broke up four passes and totaled three tackles.

S: Dominick Sanders, Georgia: The youngster snagged two interceptions and broke up another pass in Georgia's win against Louisville.

S: Jermaine Whitehead, Auburn: He finished Auburn's bowl game with eight tackles and two interceptions.

Special teams

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: When you hit 3 of 3 field goals, with a long of 41 yards, and all four extra points, you've done well.

P: JK Scott, Alabama: Another great game by Scott in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He boomed five punts 50-plus yards, including a long of 73 yards. Five of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

Arkansas season review

December, 15, 2014
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What started as a season that included several close SEC losses finished as one that has Arkansas playing in a bowl and feeling a sense of optimism for the first time in a while. With a throwback Southwest Conference battle against Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl looming on Dec. 29, let’s take a look back at the 2014 season for the Razorbacks:

Best win: Arkansas’ 17-0 victory over LSU probably felt the best because it ended the Razorbacks’ 17-game SEC losing streak, came over a rival and ended with fans storming the field, but the most impressive win came the following week over then-No. 8 Ole Miss. The Hogs shut out the Rebels 30-0, became bowl-eligible and dominated a team that was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally at one point. The Razorbacks forced six turnovers and it was the first time they shut out a conference team in back-to-back weeks since joining the SEC in 1992. It's hard to go wrong with either, but we’ll go with the victory over the Rebels on Nov. 22.

Worst loss: Every Razorbacks loss came to a team that was ranked in the Top 25 at the time, so it’s hard to nitpick about any of them, but the defeat that looked the worst was a 45-32 loss to Georgia. As Arkansas kept knocking on the door of an SEC win, the Razorbacks were a popular upset pick against the Bulldogs on Oct. 18 in Little Rock, but Georgia quickly erased such thoughts by racing out to a 38-6 halftime lead. The Hogs tried to rally in the second half but never trimmed Georgia’s lead to single digits. They surrendered 202 rushing yards to freshman Nick Chubb.

Players of year: Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. It’s hard to pick just one, and because the Razorbacks named them both team MVPs, we’ll do the same. Flowers finished the year with 63 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, six pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries. Spaight led the SEC with 123 tackles and had 8.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one recovery, a sack and an interception. Both players were critical to the Razorbacks’ defensive success.

Breakout players: There are a couple good choices here: Darius Philon and A.J. Derby. Philon, who was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2013, collected 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries en route to AP All-SEC second team honors. Derby, who was a quarterback before this season, switched to tight end and did an admirable job, becoming the team’s No. 3 receiver with 22 receptions for 303 yards and three scores. He had his best games against Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia.

Play of year: There’s zero doubt about this one: It’s the “fat guy touchdown pass” from offensive guard Sebastian Tretola to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio on Oct. 25 vs. UAB. It was a thing of beauty for offensive linemen everywhere who only dream of getting the glory that’s usually reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The Razorbacks lined up in a swinging-gate formation on fourth-and-goal, but rather than shifting into traditional field goal formation, the Hogs snapped the ball to Tretola whose pass – while leaning back away from pressure -- was picture-perfect to D’Appollonio for the 6-yard touchdown. The Razorbacks put together a Heisman Trophy campaign video for Tretola after the fact and Bret Bielema said afterward: “Come to Arkansas ... if you’re [an offensive] lineman, we’ll make you famous.”
video 2015 outlook: Though the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC West, the future seems bright. They were within seven points or fewer in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri, so another year of development and experience could turn some of those close losses into victories. Arkansas ended its SEC losing streak and became bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons, generating strong momentum for the program as Bielema enters his third season. And he seems committed to hanging around; he was rumored to be connected to the Nebraska opening, but Bielema stated he’s “All Hog.” The Hogs will have to replace some key defensive pieces, particularly Flowers and Spaight, next season, but the returning players’ experience gained in Robb Smith’s scheme as he enters his second year as defensive coordinator will help. Most of the offense returns, led by the backfield duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who both surpassed 1,000 rushing yards this season.

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
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Now that the Associated Press and the league coaches have spoken and cast their votes for their All-SEC teams, it's time for us to get in on the fun.

We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.

RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.

RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.

OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.

OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.

All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.

DEFENSE

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.

DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.

S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.

K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.

KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.
On Monday, we wrote about Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M as they all get ready for their upcoming bowl games. Earlier Tuesday, we looked at the two Mississippi schools as they prepare for their New Year’s Six bowl games. Now it’s time to look at the other four bowl-eligible SEC teams and their matchups.

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

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

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

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

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

AdvoCareV100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29
Arkansas vs. Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2
Tennessee vs. Iowa

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

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

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

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

SEC helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
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The slate of games wasn’t as dramatic as we’ve had in recent weeks but there were still some good individual performances worth highlighting in the SEC on Saturday. Among them:

Nick Chubb, Georgia: The freshman only carried the football in the first half on Saturday, but that’s all the Bulldogs needed in their 55-9 win over Charleston Southern. Chubb had nine carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 12.6 yards per carry. It is Chubb’s sixth consecutive game of more than 100 rushing yards and despite backing up Todd Gurley the first half of the season, he is second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,039) to only Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,276). Only Gurley (7.4 yards per carry) averaged more yards per tote than Chubb has this season (6.8).

Jeff Driskel, Florida: The junior has had more than his fair share of struggles in Gainesville but capped off Florida’s home schedule with a nice performance coming off the bench to relieve Treon Harris, who left with a bruised knee. Driskel scored four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and was 9-of-11 passing for 164 yards in the Gators’ 52-3 win over Eastern Kentucky. The victory clinched bowl eligibility for Florida.

Markus Golden, Missouri: The senior defensive end said last week that he’s 100 percent healthy after playing through a nagging hamstring injury that bothered him for weeks, and it shows. He picked up two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, six total tackles, recovered a fumble and had two quarterback hurries in Missouri’s 29-21 win over Tennessee. Golden has four sacks in his last two games and 7.5 for the season. He showed relentless effort, not just in rushing the passer, but pursuing tackles well downfield away from his customary defensive end spot.

Skai Moore, South Carolina: Moore tied for the team-lead with nine tackles and had two interceptions for the Gamecocks on Saturday in their 37-12 win over South Alabama. Moore returned his two interceptions for a combined 71 yards. The effort was part of a five-turnover performance for the South Carolina defense, the first time the Gamecocks have posted that many in a game since last November, when they had six vs. Clemson.

Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: The entire Arkansas defense was great in its 30-0 shutout win over Ole Miss, but the senior linebacker was at the heart of the effort. He had a team-high 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. Spaight was hitting hard and was all over the place in the Razorbacks’ win, which was their second straight shutout and made them bowl-eligible.
Arkansas and Tennessee aren’t so different. Both teams are currently 5-5, and both will host ranked opponents this weekend with the opportunity to become bowl eligible.

That might not sound like much, but it’s the next step in the rebuilding process that is beginning to take shape for second-year coaches Bret Bielema and Butch Jones. By next year, it’s not crazy to think that both the Razorbacks and the Vols could make a run in the SEC.

So we pose the question: Which school, Arkansas or Tennessee, has a brighter future and which is better equipped to win finish near the top of their division in 2015?

[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
AP Photo/Richard ShiroWith sophomore Joshua Dobbs under center, the future looks bright for the Vols.
Greg Ostendorf: A month ago, I might have said Arkansas. The Hogs were the best team in college football who had yet to win a conference game. But with the way the Volunteers have played in the November, especially the past two weeks, I've changed my tune.

Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen this season. That’s insane. But it goes to show how talented that 2014 recruiting class was, and can you imagine players like Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone and Derek Barnett after a year in Knoxville? They’ll go through a full offseason with conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts, everything. Those 23 true freshmen will be bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced next year.

My one concern with this team early in the season was that Justin Worley was a senior, and they really didn’t have a “quarterback of the future” to turn to next year. Then I saw Joshua Dobbs rally the Vols back against South Carolina.

For as much as Dobbs struggled last year, he’s played outstanding this year. In three games, he’s thrown for 790 yards, rushed for 289 yards and scored a combined 11 touchdowns. And he’s only a sophomore. I’ll take that any day over whatever Allen brother is under center at Arkansas, and make no mistake about it -- this is a quarterback-driven league.

Sam Khan: Tennessee has a little bit of an advantage because it plays in the SEC East, which is more wide open, but I think Arkansas is the pick here. Despite their record it’s easy to see the gradual progress under Bielema. Last season the Razorbacks, even though they didn’t win an SEC game, got more competitive later in the season.

This year, the Razorbacks were competitive from the jump and continued to knock on the door of a win against the SEC West’s best teams but couldn’t quite knock it down until last week, finally scoring a win over LSU. I think that win is going to be a significant building block and springboard into next season for this group. I think they’ve made nice strides defensively under new coordinator Robb Smith and clearly they have the offensive line and running game to test anybody and under Bielema, that won’t change.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJunior QB Brandon Allen is having his best season, completing 58 percent of his passes with 15 TDs and five INTs.
The biggest question I have is, how good can Brandon Allen be? He also made strides this year, improving his numbers across the board (yards, completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio). Can he continue that upward progress and have a strong senior season? If so, I think the Razorbacks are a bowl team that could make a run at a spot in the top half of the SEC West standings. And considering the division that Arkansas plays in, that would be huge. I think there’s no question that if the Razorbacks were in the SEC East this season, they’d have a better record than Tennessee does at this point.

Ostendorf: I hate to admit this, but I agree that Arkansas would have the better record if it were in the East. I’d go as far as to say that the Razorbacks are the better team this year. But we’re not talking about this year. We’re talking about next year. And next year, the Hogs lose five seniors from their defense including All-SEC defensive end Trey Flowers and leading tackler Martrell Spaight. Meanwhile, Tennessee is expected to return eight starters on defense.

And the bad news for Arkansas is that it’s still going to be in the West next year. There’s no changing that. Good luck playing Alabama, Auburn, the two Mississippi schools and an LSU team that will be much improved by the beginning of next season.

We’ll find out who the better team is next October when they meet. Oh and did I mention the game is in Neyland Stadium?

As for the future, Jones has assembled another top-10 class so far in 2015. The Vols already have 26 commitments, including eight ranked in the ESPN 300. Pair this year’s freshman class with that class, and it’s scary how much talent will be in Knoxville. The fans just have to hope that the rumors of Jones going to Michigan aren’t true. He’s building a winner, brick by brick.

Khan: Did you just use “brick by brick”? Are you also going to call the 2015 Vols “Team 119”?

I will give you this: You’re right about recruiting. Jones has done a magnificent job hauling in talent and that’s critical to success. But a lot of those great freshmen playing this year will only be sophomores next year. A year of experience is nice but it might be asking a lot for a still-young team to make a real run at a division title.

Arkansas has most of its offense returning next season. The entire starting backfield will be back. That great Razorbacks’ offensive line? Only one senior starter on it (Brey Cook). Dynamic tight end Hunter Henry will be back as will leading receiver Keon Hatcher, the teams’ two top pass-catchers.

Defensively, Flowers is tough to lose but he’s the only senior on the defensive line depth chart. The Razorbacks will have work to do to replace some of the senior losses on the second and third level of the defense for sure.

As for the West, the Razorbacks have proven they can beat LSU. Who knows what Mississippi State and Ole Miss will look like next year (the Rebels graduate Bo Wallace; we’ll see if Dak Prescott returns or tries the draft). Texas A&M doesn’t look like a sure thing with no firm answer at quarterback and a floundering defense. And Auburn is losing steam down the stretch. The Razorbacks played them tight for a half in the season opener; I wonder how that game would play out if the teams played today.

I think the outlook is bright for the Hogs next year. Wooo Pig.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
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Week 12 in the SEC featured everything from last-minute comebacks to bitter rivalries to the fall of No. 1. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to hand out the helmet stickers from the weekend that was. Here are the five we think are most deserving.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: The return of Todd Gurley didn’t get in the way of Chubb doing what he’s been doing the past four weeks. Gurley rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown in his first game back from suspension, but he was overshadowed by the freshman Chubb, who finished with 144 yards rushing, 48 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Georgia’s 34-7 win over Auburn. The two form one of the top backfield duos in college football, though depending on the severity of Gurley’s knee injury, Chubb might be carrying the load on his own again next week.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: The South Carolina game was no fluke: Dobbs is the real deal, and he has the Volunteers rolling. On Saturday, Dobbs went 19 of 27 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions to lead Tennessee past Kentucky, 50-16. He also rushed for 48 yards and a score. The sophomore quarterback has now accounted for 1,079 total yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three games, and the Volunteers are one win away from becoming bowl eligible with Missouri and Vanderbilt left on the schedule.

Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri: Coming off maybe his worst career performance last week against Kentucky, Hansbrough rushed for a career-high 199 yards Saturday at Texas A&M. He had back-to-back long touchdown runs (45, 49) in the third quarter to first tie the game and then take the lead, a lead the Tigers never relinquished in their 34-27 win over the Aggies. As a team, Missouri rushed for 335 yards, but Hansbrough was the star. He now leads the Tigers with 591 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season.

Nick Perry, DB, Alabama: The entire Alabama defense deserves a helmet sticker for its performance against Dak Prescott and No. 1 Mississippi State, but if we’re giving it to one guy, it has to be Perry. The senior led the team with 12 tackles, and he also pulled down one of three Crimson Tide interceptions on the day. Though Jameon Lewis caught a touchdown for the Bulldogs, it was Perry who helped keep him in check for most of the game. At the end of the day, Alabama has its defense to thank for Saturday’s 25-20 win over the top-ranked Bulldogs.

Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas: Two defensive players on this list? That must be what happens when the temperature drops and teams start playing defense in the SEC. It’s also a credit to Spaight, who was the best player on the field Saturday in the Razorbacks’ 17-0 shutout win over LSU. The senior linebacker finished with 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry to lead this much-improved Arkansas defense against the Tigers. Spaight now has a team-high 97 tackles on the season with two games left to play.

Opening spring camp: Arkansas

March, 14, 2014
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Schedule: The Razorbacks open spring camp with their first practice on Sunday. They conclude with the Red-White Game on April 26 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. The spring game is free to attend.

What's new: Arkansas hired former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach Robb Smith as defensive coordinator to replace Chris Ash, who left for Ohio State. Prior to working in the NFL, Smith was the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. The Razorbacks replaced defensive line coach Charlie Partridge with Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford. They also hired Clay Jennings, who coached at TCU for the past six seasons, to replace defensive backs coach Taver Johnson, who went to Purdue. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon was promoted to senior associate head coach.

On the mend: The Hogs are healthy heading into their first practice this weekend. Just one player is out for the spring, junior tight end Mitchell Loewen (torn ACL).

On the move: Arkansas has a challenge in finding a replacement for center Travis Swanson, who started all 50 games of his career. Luke Charpentier was Swanson's top backup as a junior last season, but sophomore Cordale Boyd is moving from guard to compete for the job this spring. With the departure of senior fullback Kiero Small, the Razorbacks will move junior tailback Kody Walker and could also look to shift junior Jonathan Williams from tailback in order to stack the backfield. Williams has put on 15 pounds without sacrificing speed.

New faces: There are eight early enrollees who will participate this spring: quarterback Rafe Peavey, wide receivers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister, cornerbacks Chris Murphy and Cornelius Floyd, linebacker Khalia Hackett, offensive lineman Frank Ragnow and defensive tackle Armon Watts.

Question marks: There are a lot after the Razorbacks went 3-9 in Bret Bielema's first season. Arkansas was also winless in conference play for the first time since 1942. So, is the head coach's honeymoon over already? Clearly some of the luster has worn off of Bielema's star just a year after Arkansas was widely praised for its surprise hire. Another question concerns his pace-of-play crusade. Was the intent to deflect attention from his team's performance? Now that the 10-second rule has been shelved, the focus shifts back to making progress on the field. Bielema will be under more scrutiny from a restless fan base in Year 2.

The next question, therefore, is how much can the Hogs improve? They've got a lot of work to do on a defense that gave up an average of 6.1 yards per play last season and allowed more than 30 points a game for the second straight year. On offense, Arkansas averaged just over 20 points a game in 2013, their lowest production since 1997. There are pieces in place on both sides of the ball for Bielema to engineer a quick turnaround, however, and he'll spend this spring building his players’ confidence.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas has announced the signing of Bret Bielema to a two-year contract extension, keeping the coach at the school through the 2020 season.
Key battle: The competition at quarterback will be a classic case of an underperforming veteran trying to fend off some talented newcomers. Brandon Allen struggled as a sophomore in his first go-round as a full-time starter. He threw for just 1,552 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but it was the 49.6 completion percentage that has Bielema looking for more. Last season, juco transfer AJ Derby got a start and some playing time but failed to impress. This spring Allen will be the favorite to keep his job, but he'll have to beat out his younger brother. Austin Allen was a four-star prospect who redshirted last season. One more challenger is Peavey, the true freshman. He's another four-star prospect whom ESPN ranked the No. 10 dual-threat QB prospect in the Class of 2014.

Breaking out: Linebacker is the other big position battle this spring, as it was a sore spot in 2013. Five different players made starts at linebacker last season. Braylon Mitchell tied for second on the team with 77 tackles as a junior, and juco transfer Martrell Spaight will have to improve on his 22 tackles. But the player whom Bielema has the most praise for is Fayetteville's own Brooks Ellis, who started the last four games of 2013 at middle linebacker as a true freshman. Look for Ellis to pick up where he left off in November.

Don't forget about: Arkansas' defensive line could be a strength and key the turnaround that is desperately needed on defense. Trey Flowers, who had a breakout season at defensive end in leading the team with 13.5 tackles for loss, resisted the lure of the NFL to return for his senior season. He's also put on 15 pounds and should play faster and more aggressively in Smith's defense. Defensive tackle Darius Philon was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after recording 46 tackles and three sacks. He stepped into the starting lineup due to an injury and never looked back.

All eyes on: Alex Collins was the crown jewel of Bielema's first recruiting class and lived up to expectations with an SEC Freshman of the Year performance. He became the first true freshman in Arkansas history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing. Making such a splash means that Collins is now the most visible Razorback and will be held to a higher standard. That's why Bielema suspended him from football activities and social media for a week in February. The head coach says Collins has responded well to the discipline, but Bielema is clearly keeping an eye on his star tailback.
Bret Bielema is the epitome of a man's man.

His personality and bravado would be welcomed at any fraternity party, while his barrel-chested frame and grittiness is perfect for a cage fight.

It's the latter persona that Bielema hopes his new team adopts during his first season as Arkansas' head coach while he tries to bring his more physical style from Wisconsin to Fayetteville, Ark.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBret Bielema is hoping his fiery personality carries over to his new team.
His players aren't exactly ready for the Octagon, but Bielema likes how guys have adapted to a more rugged style. For a team used to finesse on both offense and defense, the transition wasn't easy, but with the Razorbacks a day away from their first game under a new regime, Bielema is pleased with the strides made in the toughness department.

"They've embraced everything we've asked them to," Bielema said. "They train a certain way, they eat a certain way, they sleep a certain way and they recover in a way that allows them to be at full strength when they're playing. I couldn't be happier with the results."

To Bielema, everything is very much a work in progress, but the Hogs' baby steps have really impressed him. This team had to prepare for more hitting and contact in practice and harder training sessions. Bielema wanted players to hurt physically and mentally before they could fully appreciate his new brand of ball.

And it wasn't for everyone. Bielema saw -- and expected -- transfers before heading into fall camp and expects other issues as the fall progresses.

"With the style of play that we like to do, you're going to have a little bit of a spike in injuries," Bielema said. "The good fortune is that only one has been season-ending."

But that season-ending injury came at a position already suffering to find an identity: wide receiver.

The relatively inexperienced unit took a major blow when senior Demetrius Wilson, who was the team's top receiver this spring and fall, went down with an ACL injury. Linebacker Otha Peters (broken arm) and tight end Austin Tate (shoulder surgery) could also miss six weeks, while receiver D'Arthur Cowan could also miss significant time after breaking a bone in his foot.

Bielema estimated that 10-12 other players went down with nagging injuries during fall camp, but were all able to return. Bielema considers the injuries "a true blessing in disguise" by allowing younger players get more reps, especially at receiver. Guys like Eric Hawkins, Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield have been able to get their feet wetter than expected and will make their Arkansas debuts Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.

"It's going to be fun to see the next man in," Bielema said. "That's all that good football teams do. They continue to improve, even though people leave the lineup."

Losing receivers hurts, but in order for Bielema's offense to go, he needs a bruising back to take the reins and he one in sophomore Jonathan Williams, who possesses a ferocious downhill running style at 6-foot, 222 pounds.

He'll get help from fullback Kiero Small and freshman Alex Collins, but Bielema has no problem handing Williams the keys to the offense.

"He definitely has the shoulder pads over his toes," Bielema said. "He goes and gets the 4 yards. He takes advantage of a hole that might turn 4 (yards) into 40. On the flip side, he isn't looking for anybody to give him any freebee or anything. He wants to earn every inch and when you get that combined with a lot of ability, you usually get something good."

Defensively, Bielema has one of the SEC's best defensive lines, but he's had to find depth at linebacker by rotating a lot of bodies, especially in the middle where Bielema said Austin Jones and Martrell Spaight have really developed. He's also been pleased with Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell outside.

There are still hiccups here and there, but Bielema likes where his players' heads are. The Hogs have been through so much turmoil in the last year and a half, but they're trying to pave their own way out of the darkness that was 2012. They know their past has everyone counting them out, but Bielema embraces low expectations. He and his team are motivated by being told what they can't do.

"Prognosticators are going to think what they think," he said. "The ones that really matter are the people that are in our room and our kids have worked very, very hard to achieve a certain level of success and they expect to get it. They don't expect anyone to give them anything they didn't earn. They just want to go out there and earn what they can see where that can take them."

Opening camp: Arkansas

August, 2, 2013
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Schedule: The Hogs will open preseason practice on Monday. Their first day in full pads is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 9.

On the mend: Sophomore linebackers A.J. Turner (wrist) and Otha Peters (hip) didn’t do much in the spring while recovering from injuries. Senior safety Eric Bennett battled through an assortment of injuries last season, but is healthy heading into camp.

Key battle: Sorting things out at linebacker is at the top of the Hogs’ to-do list this preseason. A pair of junior college newcomers will factor in prominently -- Myke Tavarres and Martrell Spaight. Tavarres enrolled in January and went through spring practice. True freshman Brooks Ellis could also get an early look. The spring ended with fourth-year junior Daunte Carr, a former safety, listed No. 1 at middle linebacker along with fourth-year junior Braylon Mitchell at strongside linebacker and senior Jarrett Lake at weakside linebacker. Turner and Peters both had their moments as true freshmen and will almost certainly climb back into the rotation as long as they’re healthy. Former Miami head coach Randy Shannon is the Hogs’ linebackers coach, and he will mix and match to get the right combinations on the field.

Of note: Bret Bielema won 12 games in his first season as head coach at Wisconsin (2006), but it wasn’t until his fifth season that the Badgers won a Big Ten championship, the first of three straight Big Ten titles on Bielema’s watch.

Predicted order of finish: Picked seventh in the West at SEC media days.

They said it: “It’s a spread world right now, so seeing a coach who’s going to come in and run the football and play a physical brand of football is something we were all excited about.” -- Arkansas fullback Kiero Small
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

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