SEC: Michael Ford

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson's job could have been awfully difficult this season if the wrong personalities existed within his running backs room at LSU.

Wilson -- the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach -- just bolstered his depth chart by adding the nation's top overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, plus Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,200 yards as a high school senior. If the other scholarship tailbacks on the roster, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, were jealous types, the dynamic in Wilson's meeting room could easily have turned poisonous.

Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite.

"They're so humble," Wilson said of Magee and Hilliard. "They've been so patient in their careers and they understand what it is to be a young pro and put themselves in position to embark on this senior year and have great success. So to have both of those guys here who are unselfish and lead our group is certainly positive for us."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertTerrence Magee is wearing the No. 18 jersey this season -- given to LSU's top leaders each fall -- in part because of his mentorship of young running backs like Leonard Fournette (7).
Even during spring practice, a few months before Fournette and Williams arrived on campus, Magee and Hilliard answered frequent questions about the new signees without balking. Despite the possibility that the Tigers' top back might become a freshman, the veterans immediately embraced the newcomers in an effort to get them ready for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

"I've been happy with that," Fournette said. "They're still teaching us, all the young running backs. Without them, we'd kind of be lost. Every day they teach us and we get better."

And they're happy to teach, Hilliard said, just as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did for him as a freshman in 2011.

"They were all brothers to us," Hilliard said. "They all took us underneath their wing and carried us."

The freshmen seem to be taking the right approach, as well.

"One thing I love about Darrel -- just like I love about Leonard -- I love his attitude," Magee said. "He might call me 20 times a day to ask me, ‘What do I do on this?' or 'What do I do on that?' He was blowing me up [the night before preseason camp opened]. But you like guys like that because they want to learn. For me, I want to teach him because I want to look back and say I was able to help that guy get to where he is today."

That's exactly the kind of selflessness those at LSU expected from Magee. The coaches handed him the No. 18 jersey for the season -- an honor that goes to one of the Tigers' top leaders each fall. And leadership is what he has shown toward Fournette, who might be the most heavily-hyped recruit in LSU history.

"You know when you meet someone and you know you're kind of alike? That's how it is with me and Terrence," Fournette said. "I enjoy being around him. He's another jokester. He likes to have fun and I think the brotherhood that we're creating, it's fun.

Fournette continued, "Without him I'd be lost. Every day he's taking his time after practice, he's coming by my house teaching me and telling me this is what this call means, this is what that call means. So that means a lot. I'm catching on faster outside of football practice with him helping me."

Magee and Hilliard aren't na´ve about what the 2014 season holds. They know that despite rushing for a combined 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as Jeremy Hill's backups, they will probably touch the ball fewer times as the freshmen adapt to SEC football.

All of them envision some sort of backfield timeshare, as that has become a common feature of LSU's running game in recent seasons.

"I think all of us are going to get a lot of carries, a lot of play and contribute to the team," Williams predicted.

And that's just fine with Magee and Hilliard.

Some players view their senior seasons as a final chance to shine -- and show NFL scouts that they're worthy of becoming draft picks. LSU's senior backs certainly hold that mindset, but realize they can think that way without being selfish toward their young teammates.

"When things get hard and people question our team, when it's tough out there when we're practicing, [his predecessors wearing No. 18 were] the first guys to step up and just lead this team, show everybody how it's done. ‘Follow me. Watch me,' " Magee said. "I really admire that about those guys. Sometimes you have young guys and they're looking around and looking for somebody to follow. Each guy that I've seen wear that since I've been here, they got it."

He and Hilliard seem to have willing followers in the two freshman backs.

"I really don't think about [starting] because we're still learning and the veterans are teaching us," Fournette said. "I don't expect to come in and right away in the game and start. So I'm just following Kenny and Terrence."

Fortunately for LSU, and for the future of its running game, Magee and Hilliard seem to be two good players for a freshman to follow.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By now it's no secret that LSU's offense will be loaded with freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen. Perhaps that's why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has emphasized since spring practice that his veterans have to do more than lead by example.

"There's no room for quiet leaders anymore. It's time for people to step up and start talking," said running back Terrence Magee, an understated senior who admitted that vocal leadership does not come naturally. "And if that's what I've got to do, then I'm willing to do it."

That's a theme that has resonated throughout the offensive roster. A crew of future stars like Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Brandon Harris joined the team this year, and the older players understand that the rookies need to see -- and hear -- things being done the right way.

Many older players already wanted to mentor the youngsters through their actions, but the verbal portion of leadership is new to some. Magee and senior left tackle La'el Collins both identified right tackle Jerald Hawkins as a naturally quiet starter who has become more verbal since Cameron sent that message in the spring. Collins added running back Kenny Hilliard and quarterbacks Harris and Anthony Jennings to the list of burgeoning vocal leaders.

"It's definitely more natural to me because that's just the way it was when I got here," Collins said. "That's something that I picked up on and it kind of died down a little bit, but it's just something that Coach Cam is kind of reinstating."

If Cameron's efforts are successful, they can have an impact far beyond the 2014 season as the young players continue to mature, Collins said.

"Guys around here and our younger guys especially, they need to see that. They need to see that is what sets the trend," Collins said. "That's what gets the young guys on one accord with us, makes sure we're moving in the same direction and when they become veterans, they'll be able to pass that along."

Moving around: As Coach Les Miles indicated before camp, quarterbacks Harris and Jennings switched practice groups in Monday and Tuesday's split-squad workouts. And they weren't alone.

Jennings practiced with the varsity on Monday -- a group largely composed of starters with a handful of freshmen mixed in -- and shifted to the reserves/freshmen group on Tuesday afternoon, and vice versa for Harris. That gives both players a chance to work with a full range of personnel.

"This is designed so that everybody's getting maximum reps, and it may be as deceptive as we want this linebacker to be with that linebacker so he can see it being done extremely well," Miles said. "So don't spend a lot of time saying, ‘Why's he here, why's he there?' It is fully for a teaching purpose and for everybody to get really great reps."

In addition to the quarterbacks, several other players switched from the afternoon to the morning group on Tuesday. Among Tuesday's morning newcomers were tight ends DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes, after Dillon Gordon and Travis Dickson worked with the first-teamers on Monday, and safety Jalen Mills. Backup quarterback Jared Foster also practiced with the morning group after working in the afternoon Monday.

Right guard competition: LSU has four starters back along the offensive line, but the competition for the vacant starting position could last well into the season.

Hoko Fanaika was the first to line up at right guard with the starting offensive line Tuesday, but he and fellow senior Evan Washington know their battle will truly renew once the team begins practicing in pads on Friday.

"We've been getting pretty much equal reps," Fanaika said after Tuesday morning's practice.

Miles and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes -- both former right guards in college -- have individually worked with the guards in practice this week, and Fanaika said their instruction has been helpful.

"[Miles] just pretty much sharpens up my technique," Fanaika said. "Whatever Grimes teaches me, he just adds on, so he's just helping me better my craft."

Plenty of reps for RBs: LSU has only four scholarship tailbacks on the roster -- Magee and fellow senior Hilliard, plus Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams -- so there have been plenty of carries to go around for the backs in the split-squad workouts.

That's a major change for the veterans, who encountered a significantly different depth-chart situation when they first became Tigers. Hilliard was a reserve who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns for the 2011 SEC championship club, while Magee played much less, totaling 27 carries for 133 yards that season as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Hilliard played bigger roles.

"When I got here, it was about six or eight of us and we were fighting for reps. You might get one or two a day," Magee chuckled on Monday. "But me and Kenny, we're getting our share of them right now, and Darrel and Leonard, they're going to get their share of them this afternoon. We'll be glad when we all come together and it's all four of us so we don't have to take the whole load."

Quote of the day: Miles on watching freshman tailback Fournette practicing Monday for the first time at LSU in helmet and shorts, since the team doesn't practice in full pads until Friday: "That's kind of like having Tiger Woods on a golf course with a putter. You just want to see him tee off, don't you? Well, we have to put pads on before we can see him tee off."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.

LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.

“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsSenior Kenny Hilliard is one of two tailbacks that LSU returns from last season, joining Terrence Magee.
This is an unusual time for LSU’s tailbacks -- a position group known in the recent past for its impressive depth. In 2011, LSU had four players (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Hilliard) rush for 300 or more yards and score at least seven touchdowns. It was more of the same last season, with Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs), Magee (626-8), Blue (343-1) and Hilliard (310-7) all going for 300-plus and Hill, Magee and Hilliard all scoring at least seven times.

But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.

“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”

Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.

Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.

“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”

Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.

“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”

Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.

“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”

Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.

He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.

Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.

“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.

But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.

It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
John David Mercer-USA Today SportsJohnny Manziel and Texas A&M, ranked fifth by Mark Schlabach, host way-too-early No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 in the SEC opener for both teams.
Oh, and a not-so-tretcherous schedule won't hurt the Tide's chances either.

But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.

South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.

LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.

The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.

It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.

The defense will lose a lot up front, but linebacker Archibald Barnes and cornerback Trey Wilson are the only other significant losses.

There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...

Instant analysis: LSU 37, Miss. State 17

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
10:44
PM ET


BATON ROUGE, La. -- The 37-17 score was a bit deceiving, as LSU didn't quite have its way with Mississippi State on Saturday night. But the Tigers bounced back from the loss to Alabama with a solid SEC win -- a win that was aided by a second straight big performance from LSU's much-maligned passing game.

Here's how the Tigers celebrated Les Miles' 59th birthday from a chilly Tiger Stadium:

It was over when: LSU safety Craig Loston picked off Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell late in the fourth quarter and raced 100 yards for a touchdown. The full-field pick-six put the Tigers up by 20 points with less than two minutes to play. Loston made the interception in LSU's end zone, where a Mississippi State touchdown would have cut the Tigers' lead to six.

Game ball goes to: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger followed up his aerial explosion against Alabama with another impressive performance against the Bulldogs. The junior once again showed off the talent LSU fans were hoping for in the offseason by completing 19 of 30 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Mettenberger once again showed great chemistry with sophomore wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who hauled in nine receptions for 109 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown catch.

Game ball, part II: It would be unfair not to recognize a superb effort from Russell, even in a loss. Russell dissected the LSU secondary for 295 yards on 26-of-38 passing. He completed 68 percent of his passes and was essentially mistake-free up until the heartbreaking interception to Loston. Even more impressive was that he carried the load without starting tailback LaDarius Perkins, who left the game early in the first half and did not return. Mississippi State rushed for a measly 47 yards.

Key stat: 154. That number isn't a passing total or a rushing total -- it's the discrepancy between LSU's 273 passing yards and 119 rushing yards. Anyone who has watched the Tigers play in the last two or three years knows that it's a bit unusual to see a Les Miles-coached team lean on the passing game en route to a win. LSU struggled on the ground but made up for it with a dynamic passing effort -- however odd that might be to admit.

Unsung hero: Michael Ford's stat line isn't bound to jump off the page at anyone. He carried once for five yards and had one reception for 27 yards. But he did average nearly 30 yards per return on three kickoff returns -- two of which gave LSU excellent field position on scoring drives. His lone reception was a beautifully-executed screen pass that set the Tigers up on Mississippi State's 4-yard line for an eventual touchdown.

What it means for LSU: The Tigers effectively put the loss to Alabama behind them with a nice, albeit not dominating, win against a ranked opponent. Fans might have been hoping for a more convincing effort, but the Tigers' offense maintained its groove, and the defense did enough -- though Loston's interception made the game look much more lopsided than it was. With Ole Miss and Arkansas remaining, 10-2 is an attainable goal for the end of the season -- which could put LSU into BCS-bowl consideration.

What it means for Mississippi State: There aren't any moral victories in the SEC, but anyone who watched the game knows the Bulldogs put up a much better effort against LSU than they did in their blowout losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. Mississippi State fell behind as much as 20-10 at halftime and 30-17 late in the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs bounced back and were able to keep the Tigers on their toes until the dying minutes, though it still was their third straight loss after a 7-0 start. The final two games, against Arkansas and Ole Miss, are winnable, which would give the Bulldogs good bowl standing.
Watching film of last year's LSU game must be traumatizing for Florida's defense.

All the Gators will notice is the constant pounding LSU's run game put on it. All those defenders were good for was getting pushed around and making each of LSU’s running backs look like a Heisman candidate.

That film is probably burning in a trash heap this very moment. And that's perfectly acceptable when you consider the Gators surrendered 238 rushing yards to the Tigers last season.

For as much push as Florida tried to give LSU up front, the Tigers doubled that intensity, constantly knocking the Gators back as they cruised to a 41-14 win at Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRonald Powell
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Tigers gashed the Gators defense for 238 yards on the ground in last year's meeting.
If the Gators are going to pull off the upset in the Swamp this weekend, the rush defense has to be infinitely better, and it's tangling with basically the same backfield that wore it out last year. LSU's multiback system is alive and pounding, as the Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 229.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

"They're a team that really likes to run the ball and grind down a team and win the game in the third and fourth quarter,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.

"We have to come out and make plays, too. We can't just let them come out and run the ball down our throats."

And that's exactly what happened to the Gators last year in October. In back-to-back weeks against the league's strongest running teams in Alabama and LSU, the Gators gave up a combined 464 yards and allowed both teams to run for more than 4 yards per carry.

It's obvious that toughness in the trenches was lacking. As the Gators enter the first weekend in October, they are light-years ahead of last year's squad in the toughness department. The blue-collar approach Will Muschamp wants from his defense is finally starting to come together, and that will go a long way against LSU.

"Toughness is everything," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said of stopping the run. "You have to have toughness, smartness and discipline. We're working on all of it. Toughness is a big factor when the run game is involved."

Florida is allowing a little less than 120 rushing yards a game and just 3.8 yards per carry, but the Gators have yet to play a team as physical and as deep in the run game.

LSU can throw four backs out on any given drive. There's the quick bruiser in Kenny Hilliard, the speedy Michael Ford, the pounding Spencer Ware and the dynamic Jeremy Hill, who has yet to really be unleashed this year. Also, the Tigers have a certified battering ram in 272-pound fullback J.C. Copeland.

All five are averaging more than 4 yards per carry, with Hilliard leading the group with 6.9 yards per rush.

"We have guys who can run fast and run hard. It's hard for defenses to prepare for," said Ford, who has 224 yards, but is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

"Even our defense, it's kind of hard because they always get a different look."

Fresh legs against huffing, puffing defenders is never a fair fight, and that's why the Gators found themselves on defense for the majority of the second half in last season’s game. Florida's defense couldn't get off the field on third downs, and you can’t win games like that.

"That's just an important storyline in this game -- winning on third down -- because this is a team that knows how to run it, and if they can possess the ball and continue to convert on third downs, it's a hard day," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.

The good news for Florida is that opponents have converted on third downs just 29 percent of the time this fall.

Part of Muschamp’s plan against the rush is to add defensive backs to the box and control the perimeter. He’s also harping on gap control.

But to Bostic, positioning isn’t everything. The mental side will be just as important and he wants players to have more composure and be more restrained this time. Overzealous play in pursuit could be detrimental against this running game, so patience is key.

"A lot of guys will get antsy and want to go make a play," he said. "You've got to let the big plays come to you."

LSU will go right at them ... again and again.

SEC mailbag: Florida a BCS buster?

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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It's time to take some questions as we enter the weekend:

Robert in Salt Lake City writes: How much of a role does UF have in determining who plays for the national title? Will possibly knocking off FSU put someone in it, or will FSU be on the outside looking in at that point?

Edward Aschoff: The Gators could be a real BCS buster for a few teams. For starters, Florida hosts LSU next week and a Gator win could throw a wrench in the Tigers' plans for a return to the national championship. Oh, and there are the games against Georgia and South Carolina. All three of those teams are ranked within the top 6, so the Gators are very much going to be a part of the national championship picture in some form or fashion. That doesn't mean Florida will be competing for it, but it could determine who plays in it because the Gators have a chance to beat each one of those teams. Now, will they? I don't know, but this team is better equipped to than it has been in the past two years. As for Florida State, the Seminoles still have to prove to me that they're back. Yes, they beat Clemson, but wasn't that supposed to be a vaunted defense? I believe it gave up 462 yards and gave up 37 points in the process. Also, beware of the Thursday night game at Virginia Tech. FSU has a way of losing those games it shouldn't …




Bobby in Ludowici, Ga., writes: Kentucky, Vandy, Arkansas, and Auburn are clearly the most struggling teams in the SEC, who has the best chance at making a bowl game?

EA: Right now, it's hard to say if any will make a bowl game. All sit at 1-3, and all have tough roads ahead. Arkansas has four home games left, but could drop to 1-5 with back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn coming up. Auburn has five home games left, but Georgia and Texas A&M are on that list and Alabama is on the road. Three of Kentucky's remaining five home opponents are currently ranked, and Vanderbilt ends the season with three road games in the final four weeks. For Arkansas and Auburn, next week's matchup between the two will make or break the Hogs' bowl chances. A loss will likely terminate Arkansas' real bowl chances. Same for when Vandy plays Kentucky. At this point, I'm going to go with Auburn because of those five home games and road games at Ole Miss and Vandy. Auburn has to at least split those two road games and win three of its final five home games.




Steve in Virginia writes: Just from looking at the stats this year, it's starting to look like the Gamecocks might be more of a pass first team this year instead of a run first team. Do you think this will continue, or will the Gamecocks have to adjust back more to the running game against teams with solid DBs?

EA: I think as Marcus Lattimore gets stronger and healthier, Steve Spurrier will go back to him more. He was South Carolina's bread and butter for a year and a half, and once this team gets into the meat of the SEC season, look for him to get more carries. He's already starting to look stronger out there, and he carried the ball 21 times against Missouri. Connor Shaw has done a good job of spreading the wealth around in the passing game, but I'm sure he'd like to see someone other than Ace Sanders step up as a consistent target. If that doesn't happen, expect more from the running game.




Scott in Atlanta writes: Other than perhaps money, what are teams like Vandy and Kentucky (or even Ole Miss/Miss St) missing to consistently catch up to the rest of the SEC considering the amount of exposure the SEC has now after winning so many championships? Certainly they should be able to get some great kids that were not picked up by other SEC teams that want to play in the SEC instead of other conferences.

EA: Well, you have to consider that schools like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU don't really recruit, they just kind of gather talent. When you have that ability, you can pluck kids from just about anywhere. And that means schools like the ones you mentioned get hurt in the process. The schools you mentioned have to do a better job of developing players once their on campus. These schools won't just automatically start out-recruiting the Alabamas and LSUs. They have to start with development and getting more wins and getting signature wins over the big guys in the league. That will attract better players. They also have to fend off bigger schools from out side of the SEC. That's where you see a lot of the "great" players you referred to go. I think development will help with recruiting, but I don't see those schools getting to "plucking" status in this league.




Mark inTulsa, Okla., writes: I'm just curious to know how you can have a QB poll and NOT have A&M's Manziel on a list of the seven QB's. I mean, I could understand leaving him off of a Top 2 or even a Top 3 list, but Top 5? Look at the numbers per game.

EA: There's no doubt that Johnny Manziel has been impressive. He's really picked up on A&M's offense and brings a great element to it with his legs. But he was a no-show in the second half of the Aggies' loss to Florida -- the only real competition for Texas A&M this year. He was tremendous against SMU and South Carolina State, but the other quarterbacks on our list have done more against better competition. That's not to say Manziel won't make this last at the end of the year, but for now we want to see more from him against better talent.




Jblackburner in Atlanta writes: Which SEC team has the best RB depth, top-to-bottom, in your opinion? I say Bama.

EA: I'm still going with LSU. While I'm impressed with the slew of talent in Alabama's backfield, I just think the Tigers have a little more punch in their group. And both have injuries to key players in Jalston Fowler and Alfred Blue. Take Blue out of the equation, and Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford Spencer Ware and Jeremy Hill have rushed for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. Not to mention, they are averaging 6.3 yards per carry. But look beyond stats. These guys are absolute animals on the field. Ware just never goes down after one hit. It takes a couple of guys to bring him down, while Hilliard is more of the complete package with his strength and speed. Ford led the team in rushing last year and really looks like he's getting his burst back And Hill might be the most talented, but hasn't really been able to show all of his stuff. Also, add fullback J.C. Copeland to the mix and this is the tough backfield to face. With Fowler out, Alabama doesn't have the same big-bodied blocker and pounder that LSU has in Copeland.

Instant analysis: LSU 12, Auburn 10

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
10:55
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No. 2 LSU entered Jordan-Hare Stadium as a 20-point favorite Saturday night against Auburn. Instead, the Tigers escaped by the skin of their teeth with a 12-10 victory.

Here's how it transpired in a classic, defensive SEC nail-biter on the Plains.

It was over when: LSU cornerback Tharold Simon intercepted Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier on a fourth down desperation heave to end Auburn's bid at a last-second miracle win.

Game ball goes to: LSU running back Spencer Ware announced his return to college football with a hard-nosed night in place of injured starter Alfred Blue. Ware beat up on Auburn for 90 hard-earned yards on 16 carries. He also caught two passes for 44 yards, one of which was a 33-yard gain on a crucial third and four late in the fourth quarter.

Game ball part II: You probably won't see a better performance from punters this season. LSU punter Brad Wing booted eight balls on the night for 338 yards -- a 42.3-yard average -- with three of those falling inside the Auburn 20. Auburn punter Steven Clark knocked seven punts of his own for 287 yards -- a 41-yard average -- with two of his punts downed inside the LSU 20.

Key stat: LSU committed nine penalties for 80 yards, several of them coming in dead-ball situations. The Bayou Bengals committed two costly turnovers in the first half, but they bounced back to force three Auburn turnovers in the second half.

Key stat part II: LSU scored its only touchdown of the night with 4:18 to play in the first quarter -- a one-yard run from running back Michael Ford. Auburn held the Tigers out of the end zone for the next 49 minutes of play after that.

What it means: This was LSU's first big test of the season -- the Tigers' first SEC game and their first trip outside the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium. To say they didn't live up to the No. 2 ranking is an understatement. The Tigers played ugly, and their offense at times displayed the same problems that limited LSU in 2011. That said, the LSU defense did its part by holding Auburn to a mere 183 yards of offense, and the Tigers got the all-important win.

Auburn showed resiliency in fighting to the end after a disappointing 1-2 start to the season. But moral victories don't count for much in the SEC, and Auburn is now an ugly 0-2 in SEC play. Frazier looked better than he did against Mississippi State, but he still only threw for 97 yards and threw two costly picks.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
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With several key conference tilts on tap, we take a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 2:

1. Hello Missouri, Hello Texas A&M: Even though Missouri has already played a game as an SEC member, Missouri and Texas A&M “officially” become league members Saturday when the Tigers take on Georgia and the Aggies face Florida. It’s fitting that the two newcomers would play traditional powers in their first league games, and it’s also fitting that both would open SEC play at home. The eyes of the league will turn to College Station, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. ET and then to Columbia, Mo., at 7:45 p.m. ET. It is indeed a new day in the SEC.

2. Missouri’s inexperience up front: Blocking Georgia’s defensive front with a veteran offensive line is no easy task, but the Tigers will try to do it a bit short-handed. Senior right guard Jack Meiners is questionable for the game with a knee injury. His size and strength inside would be invaluable against the Bulldogs. Former walk-on Max Copeland is scheduled to start in Meiners’ place. And at left guard, true freshman Evan Boehm is the starter. Senior Travis Ruth was slated to be the starter at left guard, but tore his left triceps tendon in August and underwent surgery.

3. More touches for Gurley: In his debut last week, Georgia freshman running back Todd Gurley carried the ball eight times for 100 yards and had touchdown runs of 55 and 10 yards. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Coach Mark Richt said he would “definitely” like to see Gurley touch the ball more Saturday against Missouri than he did last week. But the Bulldogs aren’t going to forget about fellow freshman Keith Marshall and sophomore Ken Malcome. Richt said Gurley probably would have carried it a few more times last week but that he got a little light-headed after his 100-yard kickoff return.

4. Driskel takes the reins: It’s Jeff Driskel's job, and Florida coach Will Muschamp has told him that there’s no need to be looking over his shoulder Saturday. It was important that the Gators settle on a starting quarterback prior to going to Texas A&M, and that’s exactly what Muschamp did coming out of Florida’s ho-hum 27-14 season-opening victory over Bowling Green. Driskel is a better runner than Jacoby Brissett and has a better chance of extending the play when things break down. More than anything, though, it’s going to be imperative that the Gators play well around Driskel. The running game looks to be in good hands with Mike Gillislee, but the Gators are going to need more big plays like the one Frankie Hammond turned in against Bowling Green. He took a quick out, shook a tackle and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown. It’s been a while since the Florida receivers have made those kind of plays consistently.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel earned the nod as Florida's starting quarterback heading into the SEC opener at Texas A&M; can his receivers step up?
5. More first-timers: In Week 1, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, Georgia’s Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace stole the show among the newcomers in the league. There are sure to be a few more that break out this week. Keep an eye on Missouri freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The Tigers will look to get him more involved in the offense. And at Texas A&M, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel makes his debut along with true freshman cornerback De'Vante Harris, who earned his way into the starting lineup soon after preseason camp began. Two other true freshmen worth watching at Texas A&M are both known for their big-play skills -- receiver Thomas Johnson and running back Trey Williams.

6. Ascending to No. 1: Alabama coach Nick Saban scolded the media this week for not giving Western Kentucky proper respect. That said, we’ll change the subject a little bit from the impending blowout this Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide moved to No. 1 in both polls after routing then-No. 8 Michigan 41-14 in the season opener. Since the preseason Associated Press poll began in 1950, only two teams have ascended to No. 1 in the poll after Week 1 and stayed there the rest of the season. Nebraska did it in 1971 after Notre Dame was the preseason No. 1 selection, and USC did it in 1972 after Nebraska was tabbed preseason No. 1.

7. Connor Shaw’s status: There’s still no final word on whether South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw will play Saturday against East Carolina, but he gave a thumbs-up to reporters as he left the practice field Wednesday. Coach Steve Spurrier said it could be a game-time decision. Spurrier said the key was Shaw being able to throw effectively Wednesday and Thursday in practice without considerable pain. Shaw’s teammates said he looked like his old self Wednesday in practice. Shaw is dealing with a bruised right (throwing) shoulder after taking a knee to the shoulder area last Thursday against Vanderbilt. Wednesday was the first time he’d done anything in practice since the season-opening victory over the Commodores. Sophomore Dylan Thompson is Shaw’s backup.

8. Breaking through in the SEC opener: Dropping the SEC opener hasn’t just been a problem for Mississippi State since Dan Mullen has been on the job. The Bulldogs haven’t won their SEC opener since 1999, when they beat South Carolina 17-0. They started 8-0 that season. Under Mullen, they’ve lost their past three SEC openers to Auburn, including the past two by a combined 10 points. The Bulldogs get a chance to end that drought Saturday when Auburn visits Scott Field. It’s also a chance for Mullen to break through in the West. His only three wins over Western Division foes since taking the job in 2009 have been over Ole Miss. He’s 0-12 against everybody else in the West.

9. LSU’s running back carousel: As problems go in this league, it’s a great one to have. LSU may have too many good running backs ... if that’s possible. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue each rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU’s opener. Hilliard had 141, and Blue, who started the game, had 123. A year ago, it was Michael Ford and Spencer Ware carrying most of the load for the Tigers in the running game, although Hilliard’s role grew later in the season. Ford led the team with 756 yards in 2011, and Ware had 707 yards. Ford had eight carries for 50 yards in the opener. His eligibility had been in question until he won an appeal the week before the game. Ware didn’t play in the opener after he was slowed by a thigh injury. Can you play four running backs and keep them all happy? Something says the Tigers are going to find out. Either way, it’s a sweet luxury to have.

10. Hamilton does Little Rock: Arkansas senior receiver Cobi Hamilton left the Hogs’ opener last week in the first quarter after catching two passes for 13 yards. Arkansas didn’t specify his injury other than to say it was above his shoulders. Coach John L. Smith said Hamilton should be fine for this week, which goes without saying. The game is in Little Rock, and Hamilton has been at his best in War Memorial Stadium. He’s played in six games there for the Hogs and has 22 catches for 644 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of his five 100-yard receiving games have come in Little Rock. In other words, if you have Hamilton on your fantasy team, you might want to be sure he’s in your lineup this week.

Opening preseason camp: LSU

August, 1, 2012
8/01/12
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Schedule: The Tigers’ first practice is Thursday morning with the varsity players. The freshmen and selected veterans will practice later in the day. The first full-squad practice is Sunday, and the first day in pads is scheduled for Monday. LSU opens the season Sept. 1 against North Texas in Tiger Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by ESPNU.

Returning starters: Six on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.

Star power: Junior cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. He tied for the team lead with 76 total tackles and led the SEC with six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He also returned two punts for touchdowns.

New faces: Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist, a pair of true freshmen, went through spring drills and showed enough that that they’re going to be in the rotation at linebacker this season. Also keep an eye on incoming true freshman Kwon Alexander. In the secondary, redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could end up being the Tigers’ third cornerback, while redshirt freshman Micah Eugene is expected to push Craig Loston for the starting strong-safety spot.

Don’t forget about: Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk didn’t go through the spring and missed all of last season with a knee injury. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and he adds a wealth of experience to an already-talented offensive line. Dworaczyk started at left guard in all 13 games of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but will have to beat out promising sophomore La'El Collins if he’s going to return to the starting lineup.

Big shoes to fill: Morris Claiborne picked up right where Patrick Peterson left off the year before and took away one whole side of the field at cornerback last season. He was an eraser back there for the Tigers and also contributed a key 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia. Next in line is junior Tharold Simon, who has the size, skills and drive to be the next great corner to come out of LSU.

Key battle: LSU coach Les Miles likes to play a lot of running backs, but he can’t play five, and the Tigers have five who could start for a lot of teams. The new kid on the block is 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman Jeremy Hill, who might be the most complete package physically. Juniors Michael Ford and Spencer Ware combined for more than 1,450 rushing yards last season, and 240-pound sophomore Kenny Hilliard came on toward the end of the season. There’s also junior Alfred Blue, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry a year ago. The competition at running back should be fierce over the next month.

Rising star: After starring on special teams last season and blowing up a few opposing return men, sophomore Jarvis Landry is ready to make his mark at receiver. He runs excellent routes and catches everything. He’ll be a vital part of the Tigers’ passing game this fall.

Bottom line: The Tigers came up one game short a year ago after winning 13 in a row against a brutal schedule and then laying an egg in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. They lost three talented underclassmen to the NFL draft, but the defense has a chance to be even better in 2012. Good luck in finding a deeper, more talented defensive line this side of the NFL. The secondary won’t be too far behind. If quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have success throwing the ball down the field, it’s going to open up all sorts of things on offense for the Tigers. Their running game will be as potent as ever. The schedule is also much easier, and Alabama has to come to Baton Rouge this season. When you add it all up, it has the feel of another national-championship run for the Tigers, who are still smarting from what happened to them in New Orleans last season.
Earlier, we ranked all 14 SEC running back groups, so it's time to look at the league's top 10 rushers heading into the 2012 season. As usual, there are some pretty talented backs in the league, so narrowing it down to just 10 backs wasn't easy to say the least. But someone had to do it!

Past rankings:
Like all the other positions, we're looking at overall talent, game-changing ability and experience. We also looked at past performances and projections for 2012.

Here are our top 10 SEC running backs:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireMarcus Lattimore is apparently ahead of schedule with his rehab after tearing his ACL last season.
1. Marcus Lattimore, Jr., South Carolina: He might be the nation's best all-around running back, and all indications are that he's ahead of schedule with his rehab after tearing his ACL halfway through last season. Before his injury, he led the SEC in rushing and has a tremendous combination of size, speed and strength that make him one of the toughest players to stop.

2. Knile Davis, Jr., Arkansas: Like Lattimore, Davis is coming off of a devastating injury from last year. He had yet another ankle injury that cost him all of his 2011 season, but it sounds like he's more than ready to return to the playing field. He's one of the most dynamic rushers in the country, and when he was healthy in 2010 he averaged 146.9 yards in the last seven games of the season.

3. Christine Michael, Sr., Texas A&M: He's another back coming off a season-ending injury. Before he tore his ACL last fall, Michael rushed for 899 yards and is a true workhorse. His punch-you-in-the-mouth, explosive, downhill running style will fit right in in the SEC. He should be good to go this fall, and if he's 100 percent he'll certainly challenge for the rushing title.

4. Zac Stacy, Sr., Vanderbilt: He was a real surprise in the SEC last season and returns as the league's top statistical rusher, with 1,193 yards from a year ago. He isn't the fastest back, but he's strong, works hard and has excellent vision. Last season, Stacy tied for the SEC lead with runs of 40 or more yards, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against SEC defenses.

5. Eddie Lacy, Jr., Alabama: Lacy takes over for the very talented Trent Richardson, but he's no slouch. Lacy has shown pretty good explosion and strength when he's had the ball, averaging 7.1 yards per carry last season. Nagging injuries have slowed him in the past, but if he's healthy he'll make plenty of defenders miserable -- and sore -- this fall.

6. Spencer Ware, Jr., LSU: Ware was one of the top backs in the league during the first part of last season, but was never the same after his midseason suspension. Word is that he's very determined to redeem himself this fall. He's a true bruiser who can soften defenses, and has a knack for pushing through for an extra yard or three.

7. Michael Ford, Jr., LSU: He's considered the fastest of LSU's five-headed rushing monster and ended up leading the Tigers in rushing last season (756), after starting just three games. Ford might be LSU's best big-play threat at running back, but he's also not afraid to put his head down and knock someone over.

8. Onterio McCalebb, Sr., Auburn: McCalebb might not be the every-down back the Tigers need in replacing Michael Dyer, but he's one of the best home run threats in the league. He's at his best when he takes runs to the outside, and can be deadly in the passing game, too.

9. Dennis Johnson, Sr., Arkansas: After taking over for Davis last season, Johnson led the Hogs with 670 yards on just 106 carries. He might be known more for his kick return ability, but Johnson could probably start at running back for a few teams in the SEC. He has a solid blend of power and speed, but has to get over his fumbling issues.

10. Nick Griffin, So, Mississippi State: LaDarius Perkins might be the starter to open the season and has big-time speed, but Griffin is the complete package and is probably the closest thing the Bulldogs have on their roster to the departed Vick Ballard. The coaches are especially excited about his potential, and it would be no surprise if Griffin eventually takes the bulk of the carries for the Bulldogs this fall.
We continue our position rankings by looking at some of the hardest working players in the league. Running backs are very important in the SEC and more is always better around these parts.

Past rankings:
On to the running backs:

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe powerful Spencer Ware should be a key part of LSU's running back depth this upcoming season.
1. LSU: The Tigers claim the top spot thanks to depth, talent and more depth. They have five guys back there who could start for a lot of teams. Michael Ford is the speed guy. Spencer Ware is a bruiser who also has great cutting ability, Alfred Blue is extremely versatile and strong, and Kenny Hilliard is an even bigger bruiser. This group combined for 2,338 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns last fall. Keep an eye out for freshman Jeremy Hill, too.

2. South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore alone would warrant the Gamecocks being near the top. All reports coming out of Columbia are that he’s healthy and ready to pick up where he left off when he hurt his knee. Sophomore Brandon Wilds was excellent in filling in for Lattimore last season, veteran Kenny Miles has said he will be back for his senior season and the talented Shon Carson should be back after his ACL injury.

3. Arkansas: It was a close call between the Hogs and the Gamecocks. Similar to Lattimore, Knile Davis insists he’s as good as new after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. Dennis Johnson can do a little bit of everything and certainly won’t be forgotten about in the Hogs’ offense, while Ronnie Wingo Jr. returns for his senior season.

4. Alabama: Eddie Lacy gets his shot to be the Crimson Tide’s feature back now that Trent Richardson is gone, but Nick Saban prefers to share the wealth. Who wouldn’t when you’ve got a true freshman on campus as talented as T.J. Yeldon? Don’t forget about Dee Hart, either. Hart would have played some last season had he not been injured. And Jalston Fowler adds another big, bruising body to Bama's backfield.

5. Texas A&M: If the NCAA rules that Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams is eligible this season, the Aggies may move up this list. Williams was sensational this spring, and Christine Michael also returns after rushing for 899 yards last season prior to tearing his ACL. In addition, incoming freshman Trey Williams was one of the premier running back prospects in the country.

6. Vanderbilt: We're still not sure what Warren Norman can do, as he returns from his knee injury. Jerron Seymour is a do-it-all guy. The centerpiece of the Commodores’ offense will again be Zac Stacy, who set a school record last season with 1,193 rushing yards. He’s the leading returning rusher in the SEC. Highly-touted freshman Brian Kimbrow could also be used at running back.

7. Mississippi State: The competition this preseason at running back ought to be fierce at Mississippi State. Speedy LaDarius Perkins is the likely starter, but the Bulldogs’ coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Nick Griffin can do. There are two talented redshirt freshmen -- Josh Robinson and Derek Milton -- who’ve also been waiting their turn.

8. Georgia: Losing Isaiah Crowell was a real blow for the Bulldogs, but they’re not lacking in talent. We won’t have to wait long to see if true freshman Keith Marshall is the real deal, but he's at his best when he's in space or used in the passing game. Ken Malcome had a very good spring and was a co-starter heading into summer. Incoming freshman Todd Gurley will be called upon this fall as well.

9. Auburn: Onterio McCalebb remains one of the top breakaway threats in the league, but he's going to need help. Tre Mason could emerge as the Tigers' every-down back. Transfers Mike Blakely and Corey Grant also impressed this spring and will add good depth. Either way, losing a player the caliber of Michael Dyer always stings.

10. Missouri: People forget that Kendial Lawrence was the starter before he went down with an injury last year. He regrouped well and was even better this spring. Marcus Murphy was out last season with a shoulder injury, but will be back and adds explosion to the backfield. Big-bodied rising senior Jared McGriff-Culver returns and should get carries along with redshirt sophomore Greg White. It still looks as though leading rusher Henry Josey won't be healthy enough for the fall.

11. Florida: Mike Gillislee has been inconsistent during his career, but is perhaps the key to the team and is the first downhill runner Florida has had since Tim Tebow. The Gators also hope this is the year finally Mack Brown comes on. Hunter Joyer might be best true fullback in the league and Trey Burton will also play a role as an H-back/fullback.

12. Tennessee: The Vols will be searching this preseason for their go-to back. Junior Rajion Neal has gotten bigger and stronger and may be the most explosive back. He left spring practice tied with an improved Marlin Lane and Devrin Young for the starting spot. Tennessee's rushing game has to improve greatly, as it ranked 116th nationally last year.

13. Kentucky: All four top rushers are back, but none eclipsed the 500-yard mark last year. The Wildcats hope Josh Clemons can recover from a knee injury that cut short his promising freshman season. CoShik Williams was Kentucky's leading rusher last year (486) and is one of the Wildcats' more elusive backs. Jonathan George will be in the mix again, while Raymond Sanders figures to be healthier this fall.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels can’t afford to lose top back Jeff Scott, whose academics are still being monitored. Seniors Devin Thomas and H.R. Greer provide depth, but have combined for 125 career rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore Nicholas Parker has dealt with shape issues and has yet to see any game action, while Tobias Singleton moved from receiver to running back this spring. The Rebels will have to turn to their incoming freshmen for help here.
Tyrann MathieuHowie McCormick/Icon SMILSU's top-10 defense from last season returns relatively intact.
From billboards to an untimely joy ride, the SEC has seen a lot of change in recent months.

The black Missouri billboards sprinkled around the South, reading “PROUD TO BE SEC: MIZZOU” coupled with those not-so-discrete Texas A&M/SEC TV adds ushered in the arrival of the SEC’s new families. But their exodus from the Big 12 wasn’t the only big change for the league.

The league said goodbye to a load of defensive talent and lost a couple of head coaches -- and even more assistants. Still, for as much change that has been made, it seems the overall results will be the same.

“You have to give the SEC a lot of credit,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I tell a lot of people that we played in the Big 12, which is a great conference, but they just have more good team in [the SEC]. It’s remarkably competitive.”

LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, four top-10 defenses from a season ago, return relatively intact this fall. Of those four, all but Florida will be involved in national championship discussions to start the season, especially LSU.

On paper, the Tigers might be the most talented team in the country. The defensive line possesses three potential first-rounders and the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is still lurking in a secondary stocked with talent and athleticism.

The offense has to be better with Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback. He possesses the skill to throw the ball pretty much whenever he’s asked to, so that will be a major upgrade. He’ll also have plenty of weapons with five able running backs to choose from -- including Michael Ford and Spencer Ware who were both ranked in the top 10 in SEC rushing -- and a talented, young receiving group.

The scary thought is that a lot of people around the program think Les Miles might have a better team in 2012.

Georgia has 15 total starters returning, including a potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Aaron Murray, and yet again has a favorable schedule. South Carolina looks like it’s a healthy Marcus Lattimore and a more polished Connor Shaw away from making it back to Atlanta.

While defending national champion Alabama is down a handful of defensive starters from last season, the Crimson Tide can’t be counted out. The defense has more than capable players ready to fill holes. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are ready to take over at linebacker, while Jesse Williams and Damion Square will lead up front. The secondary still has veterans Dee Milliner and Robert Lester and welcomes junior college studs Deion Belue and Travell Dixon.

“We’re going to be younger on defense. We don’t have as much experience, but we’ve got some good players,” coach Nick Saban said.

“I was pleased with the progress that we made -- not satisfied with where we need to be.”

Then, there’s Arkansas.

After Bobby Petrino's infamous motorcycle ride, the Razorbacks look to bounce back with an offense capable of pushing Arkansas to an SEC title and beyond. We still don’t know how effective interim coach John L. Smith will be, but he’ll have quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and receiver Cobi Hamilton at his disposal, and that will make things easier.

With an improved offensive line and some talented, young receivers, Arkansas will score points. Now if only the defense can keep up …

There will no doubt be awkward situations ahead in the SEC. Making flights to Kansas City and Houston will seem wrong. Watching an entertaining coach’s news conference at Arkansas will feel unnatural. And not knowing what to expect from a Saban defense will confuse you.

But with everything that has changed, one thing that should remain is another championship run.

There’s still just too much clicking for the SEC.

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