SEC: Paul Haynes

SEC viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
10:00
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Saturday feels a little like the calm before the storm in the SEC. There are eight games on the docket, including a couple of intriguing matchups, and yet everybody is already talking about the rivalry games next week.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a preview of this Saturday’s slate. All times ET.

Noon

Eastern Kentucky at Florida, SEC Network: It might be a bit strange to see Will Muschamp on the sideline Saturday considering he won’t be back at Florida next season, but he’s staying on to coach the team’s last two regular-season games. How will the players respond to a coach who’s on his way out? Based on Dante Fowler Jr.'s tweet this week, I'd expect them to come out and play hard for their coach. Also, the Gators become bowl eligible with a win.

South Alabama at South Carolina, ESPN3: Raise your hand if you had South Alabama becoming bowl eligible before South Carolina this season. If your hand is raised, you’re lying. Credit the job Joey Jones has done in his sixth season with the Jaguars, but don’t expect an upset on Saturday. The Gamecocks bounced back from that excruciating overtime loss to Tennessee with a solid, come-from-behind win in the Swamp last weekend.

Charleston Southern at No. 10 Georgia, SEC Network: If there was ever a week to give Nick Chubb a break, this would be it. With Todd Gurley out for the season, Chubb is once again the man in Georgia’s backfield, but fellow freshman Sony Michel is expected to return Saturday, and both he and Brendan Douglas should see plenty of carries. All three backs could be in for a big day against the Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss will have a tough matchup Saturday against an Arkansas defense fresh off a shutout win over LSU.
3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Ole Miss at Arkansas, CBS: After last weekend, Ole Miss still has a chance to win the SEC West. Auburn knocking off Alabama isn’t likely, but crazier things have happened. First, though, the Rebels have to take care of business Saturday against an Arkansas team that is dangerous at home and confident after winning its first conference game in over two years. The Razorbacks allowed a total of 31 points to Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU this season. That doesn’t bode well for Bo Wallace, who will be without top target Laquon Treadwell. With rain in the forecast, points might be hard to come by in this one.

4 p.m.

Western Carolina at No. 1 Alabama, SEC Network: The Alabama basketball team had trouble with the Catamounts earlier this week, but I don’t expect much of a struggle for the football team on Saturday. Western Carolina might be a “good little team,” as Nick Saban put it, but the Crimson Tide have dominated all three previous meetings and should do the same this season. If anything, it will give us another look at backup quarterback Jake Coker.

7 p.m.

Samford at No. 14 Auburn, ESPNU: There are a lot of connections between these two in-state schools. Samford coach Pat Sullivan won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn back in 1971. Samford assistant coach Kodi Burns played and coached at Auburn. And Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent a year at Samford before joining Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. The game itself won’t be very entertaining, but it should get the Tigers back on track.

7:30 p.m.

No. 20 Missouri at Tennessee, ESPN: Missouri has to lose, right? There’s no way the Tigers can get back to Atlanta for the second straight season. Consider this -- Gary Pinkel’s team has won 12 of its past 14 conference games and has won nine straight road games, including seven straight in the SEC. Maybe it’s time we start taking this team seriously. The Tigers are going to have their hands full Saturday against a Tennessee team on the rise. The Volunteers have won back-to-back games with Joshua Dobbs under center, and a win over Missouri would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Vanderbilt at No. 4 Mississippi State, SEC Network: Dan Mullen was a happy man Tuesday when the latest College Football Playoff rankings came out, as his Bulldogs were still among the four playoff teams despite losing to Alabama the week before. Now the question is: Can they stay in the top four and hold off teams such as TCU, Ohio State and Baylor? Mississippi State has two chances left to impress the committee, beginning with Saturday’s tilt against the Commodores. It’s important the Bulldogs not only win, but win big.

SEC lunch links

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
12:07
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Checking on what's making news in the SEC:

SEC: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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It seems like only yesterday people were talking about an LSU-USC national championship, and weren't totally sold on Alabama making another run to a national title.

Oh, how things change in a matter of a month.

Now that September has come and gone, it's time to take a look back at some of the SEC's best and worst moments from the first month of the college football season. We'll also take a look at three storylines to keep an eye on in October:

September's best:

1. Alabama's dominant run to No. 1 in the polls: In September, it appeared the Crimson Tide were just reloading after their national championship season. Alabama destroyed Michigan in its season opener at Cowboys Stadium and has mangled its past four opponents by a combined score of 160-21, including a 52-0 romp over Arkansas in Fayetteville. Questions surrounded Alabama's defense, but it's been utterly dominant, leading the nation in scoring defense and ranking in the top four in total, rushing and passing defense. There's no question that this is the best, most complete team in the country.

2. Florida's emergence in the East: We didn't know what we were going to get from the Gators in Year 2 of Will Muschamp's coaching career. The defense hasn't really surprised us with how it's played, but the offense has made tremendous strides since last season, thanks to Jeff Driskel and Mike Gillislee. Driskel has been splendid for the Gators, running that offense like a vet with his ability to own the second half of games. Gillislee has given this offense the downhill running threat it's missed since Tim Tebow was around. The Gators have dominated in the second half of games and haven't allowed any fourth-quarter points.

3. Georgia's sensational freshman duo: The Bulldogs had to find some success in their running game after Isaiah Crowell's dismissal, and with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall tearing it up, Crowell is a distant memory. The fabulous freshmen have combined for 964 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gurley currently leads the SEC with 536 yards and nine touchdowns. He's also averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Marshall, who has displayed some of the best open-field speed in the SEC, is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and cranked out touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards against Tennessee over the weekend. It's hard to stop a train, let alone two.

September's worst

1. Arkansas' total meltdown: Heading into the season, I had a feeling that this team would struggle with adversity without Bobby Petrino around. This team hasn't just struggled, it has totally collapsed. John L. Smith has lost this team, as the Razorbacks are 1-4 and have been outscored 203-116. Against Alabama and Texas A&M, the Hogs were outscored by 100 points. This all started with Petrino's now-infamous motorcycle ride back in April, but trouble on the field was magnified by Arkansas' overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Since then, there hasn't been a lot of fight out of this team and quarterback Tyler Wilson went as far as to say his team "quit" against Alabama. The same should have been said about the 58-10 loss to Texas A&M.

2. Defensive woes: It was a rough month for some of the SEC's defenses that were supposed to be better in 2012. Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee are all giving up more than 400 yards a game, after all hired new defensive coordinators. The Hogs own the SEC's worst defense, allowing 510.2 yards per game and 40.6 points per game under Paul Haynes. Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been through the SEC before, but the Tigers are allowing 419.3 yards per game. As Tennessee continues to transition to Sal Sunseri's 3-4 defense, it's clear the Vols aren't ready for it, as they are allowing 425.8 yards and nearly 30 points a game.

3. Missouri's SEC start: After Mizzou's first two SEC games, the Tigers are a decisive 0-2 and have been outscored by Georgia and South Carolina by a combined 72-30 margin. Mizzou put up a good fight through the first three quarters against Georgia, but had no steam in the fourth. This team barely looked alive against South Carolina, as the Gamecocks just pushed the Tigers around all day. The Tigers said they could handle the size and speed of the SEC, but haven't through two games.

October storylines:

1. Will the real LSU stand up? Entering the season, LSU was one of the country's best teams on paper. Now, we're all wondering what this team will do going forward after it ended the month with less than flattering outings against Auburn and Towson. LSU's offense struggled to get much of anything going against an overmatched Auburn defense, and the Tigers' defense then allowed 188 rushing yards and 22 points to Towson. It isn't panic time in Baton Rouge, but what's this team's true identity? A lot has to be cleaned up in a month that features trips to Florida and Texas A&M and a home game against South Carolina.

2. Can Manziel continue his red-hot run? Georgia's frosh duo at running back has stolen the freshman headlines, but Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has been spectacular this year. Through four games, the redshirt freshman has passed for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns (no interceptions) and has rushed for a team-high 366 yards and six more scores. He's been the league's best dual-threat quarterback, and while his feet have made him and A&M's offense that much more dangerous, he's turning into a better passer with each game. Against Arkansas, his 557 yards of total offense (453 passing yards and 104 rushing yards) set an SEC record.

3. East race could settle itself: This month, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina all play each other. That means that come Nov. 1, we might know who really has the upper hand in the East race. Florida has a chance to really make a statement by playing LSU on Saturday, while either Georgia or South Carolina will drop a game back this weekend, as they play each other in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina then goes to LSU. Florida ends the month playing South Carolina and Georgia back-to-back, but both games are in the state of Florida.
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The wet, gloomy scene preceding Arkansas’ game with No. 1 Alabama was a classic case of foreshadowing for the Razorbacks.

Rain washed away any really furious tailgating plans, while last week’s overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe expunged most of the excitement and enthusiasm revolving around a program once thought of as a national championship contender.

Adding on to the grim setting in and around the stadium was the fact that starting quarterback Tyler Wilson wasn’t playing, even though he tossed out minute hope that he’d play by warming up in full pads.

That was about the high point, as Alabama routed Arkansas 52-0, handing Arkansas its first shutout in Fayetteville since losing to Baylor 7-0 on Oct. 8, 1966.

It left a fan base despondent and a coach speechless.

“It’s kind of hard to say anything at this point,” John L. Smith said. “That’s about as bad as I can every remember as a football team goes.”

Even with the Crimson Tide not playing close to its best game, Alabama dominated every phase.

And I mean dominated.

With 11:32 remaining in the game, AJ McCarron had long since departed, Bama had 45 points and the Hogs had just 93 yards of offense and four turnovers. By that time, Alabama’s backups’ backups were in -- and scoring -- against Arkansas’ horrendous defense.

A team that had so much promise and real championship aspirations limped out of its own stadium as a squad that has been outscored 79-10 in its past seven quarters -- and one with hardly any confidence.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Beth Hall/US Presswire"As a leader it sucks to see people not do their jobs and things go wrong," said Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson, who didn't play against Alabama.
This team has been through so much drama, starting with Bobby Petrino’s embarrassing exit, and when it had a chance to stand up and show some guts, it fell flat. Yes, it ran into a battering ram named “Alabama,” but this team looked dazed from the moment Will Coleman tossed his snap over punter Dylan Breeding’s head, leading to Alabama’s first touchdown.

Smith blamed himself for the loss, but Arkansas’ players didn’t do much to help him.

Calling an impromptu news conference after the game, Wilson spoke from the heart and expressed those exact feelings.

Players who don’t play rarely speak to the media, but Wilson approached members of Arkansas’ staff late in the game and told them he wanted to.

Boy, did he.

“First of all, it wasn’t very pretty to watch,” said Wilson, who spoke for almost a minute and a half.

“Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there? Yeah, absolutely. As a leader it sucks to see people not do their jobs and things go wrong. There have been a lot of people jump off of the bandwagon and it is my responsibility as a leader to keep everyone in this organization, in this team in that locker room together.”

Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who has seen his defense surrender 1,310 yards through three games, agreed with Wilson’s assessment.

“When you give up big plays at the end and nobody’s around him at all, then you sit there and you may question that,” Haynes said.

Wilson’s words resembled Tim Tebow’s famous speech after Florida's 2008 loss to Ole Miss. The Gators went on to win 10 straight and a national championship, and Wilson hopes he sparks a similar run.

Arkansas likely won’t match Florida, but an SEC title still isn’t out of sight. Still, this team has to band together and fight for something.

When asked if he worried about players hanging their heads or pointing fingers, defensive tackle Alfred Davis was emphatic in his response.

“No, because I know I’m not going to stop working and I’m not going to let the man beside me stop working, regardless of what the outcome of this football game was,” he said.

“We have to get into a place where we’re not quitting in football games, win, lose or draw.”

Getting over Saturday’s beatdown won’t be easy, but it’s all Arkansas can do. The loss of Petrino started this collapse, and the past two weeks have just piled on. If this team is going to rally, it has to grow up and it has to really stand by its coach.

It better do it now, because it didn’t Saturday.

“They’re going to hang together,” Smith said. “They’re going to come in ready to work. They know how to work. I have total confidence in these guys and the seniors are going to pull us together and the rest of the team is going to pull together.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
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We're heading into Week 3 in the SEC, so here's what to watch:

1. Quarterback health: The statuses of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and South Carolina's Connor Shaw are still unknown. Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, while Shaw is still nursing a bruised shoulder from Week 1. For the Gamecocks, losing Shaw for the second straight week won't really hurt South Carolina's offense. It was just fine without him against East Carolina. However, Arkansas isn't in the same position. Brandon Allen completed just 6 of 20 passes against Louisiana-Monroe in place of Wilson. Not having Wilson will make Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama that much tougher for the Razorbacks.

[+] EnlargeJohn L. Smith
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonCoach John L. Smith and his Razorbacks face a formidable foe in No. 1 Alabama this week.
2. Arkansas' defense: Speaking of the Razorbacks, what has happened to that defense? It was supposed to be more aggressive and more disciplined under Paul Haynes. We saw neither in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe, as the Razorbacks blew a 21-point lead. The defense was shredded against a lesser opponent and now has to play one of the most balanced attacks in the SEC. Last year, Alabama wore down this defense. If Arkansas is going to pick itself up, it has to play much tougher than it has in the first two games. Alabama has far more talent than Arkansas' first opponents and has the capability to really beat this unit down.

3. Tennessee’s passing game vs. Florida’s secondary: This game always comes down to the running game, but the difference this time will be Tennessee's passing game against Florida’s secondary. The Gators are loaded with talent back there and made tremendous strides during the second half of the Texas A&M game, while Tennessee might have the best passing game in the SEC, led by quarterback Tyler Bray. The matchups between Justin Hunter and Marcus Roberson and Cordarrelle Patterson and Loucheiz Purifoy should be great. Zach Rogers is another deep threat the Gators have to be careful about, but Matt Elam has the ability to take the deep ball away for Florida. Should be fun.

4. Must-wins: Both Auburn and Vanderbilt are 0-2 and are coming off tough losses. The Commodores blew a halftime lead at Northwestern, while Auburn was overmatched across the board at Mississippi State. The Tigers are struggling with or without the ball this season, and that's a major concern. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier has to get going, and he's facing the team that just knocked off Arkansas. Vandy just can't get anything going on offense. The explosion we expected to see has been mostly absent through two games and the Commodores have to generate some sort of offensive momentum this weekend against Presbyterian.

5. Mississippi State keeping its edge: Now that Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs have gotten over the hump of beating a West opponent not named Ole Miss, the Bulldogs can’t get complacent. That was just one win, and this team has far bigger goals than just beating Auburn. With the schedule Mississippi State has, it’s very possible the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Alabama game at the end of October. But this team has to focus on Troy and come out strong against a team that won’t be a pushover.

6. Showdown in the Grove: It’s been a long time since a game in Oxford got attention like Saturday’s showdown with Texas has been receiving. It’s eerily similar to the 2003 game with Eli Manning and LSU, although there isn’t hatred in the air. The Grove is gonna be poppin’ and Oxford is expected to double in size. There’s more confidence around that town because Ole Miss is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. The talent difference between Ole Miss and Texas is obvious, but the Rebels have some momentum and some conviction. Can the Rebels stop that burnt orange wave coming to town?

7. The newbie's returns: Missouri and Texas A&M got a nice taste of what life will be like in the SEC last weekend. Now, it's time for both teams to regroup. Both teams lost a lot of steam in the second half, which was expected. Missouri has the challenge of playing Arizona State and its high-flying offense. The Sun Devils have averaged 54 points through two games, averaging 532 offensive yards in the process. The Tigers got into a shootout with Arizona State last year, but can they handle another one after that physical loss to Georgia? The Aggies are taking on SMU in Dallas, and are also recovering from a tough loss to Florida. This is a game where Texas A&M should try to get more out of its running game, which has to generate more production up the middle.

8. Mettenberger’s arm: Through the first two games of the season, we’ve been anxiously waiting to see what Zach Mettenberger could really do in LSU’s offense. So far, he’s yet to eclipse the 200-yard passing mark in a game and has just two touchdowns -- pedestrian numbers compared to what everyone expected. But the Tigers have utilized their running game flawlessly and haven’t needed to send the ball downfield much. Saturday, that should change. It’s time to unleash Mettenberger and get him going more in the offense before LSU gets into conference play.

9. Lattimore’s workload: If Steve Spurrier wanted to push Marcus Lattimore anymore last week, he would have. But the Head Ball Coach gave his workhorse a bit of a rest against East Carolina, running him just 13 times. Maybe Spurrier just wanted to get his new quarterback, Dylan Thompson, a chance to show his stuff in place of Shaw. But as Lattimore continues to return from his knee injury, he’ll need to get more reps and get more comfortable on the field before league play revs up. UAB should provide him the opportunity to do that.

10. Florida’s winning streak: The Gators have had Tennessee’s number for seven straight years now. Not since Dallas Baker’s infamous slap in Knoxville have the Vols bested Florida. This might be Tennessee’s best shot since. There’s no question that this is the best and most complete Vols team Derek Dooley has had. The Vols have cruised through the first two weeks, while Florida’s offense stumbles in with a lot of uncertainty concerning the passing game. Florida might have the edge on defense, but Tennessee’s offense knows how to put up points. Is this the year Tennessee finally gets the Gator off its back?
Arkansas middle linebacker Tenarius Wright is fresh off his first game at his new position. He moved from defensive end after linebacker Alonzo Highsmith went down with a hamstring injury.

The move started as a joke, but felt very natural once he moved. After making his linebacking debut with the Hogs against Jacksonville State, Wright took some time to talk with ESPN.com about his move and what he thinks about Arkansas' defense this season.

What was that move from defensive end to middle linebacker like for you?

Tenarius Wright: Once Highsmith went down in the weight room with his shoulder injury, the coaches came to me and said, "We're going to move you to middle linebacker and see how it folds out." Before that, I was playing with the coaches, joking with them to just look at me [at middle linebacker]. It started off as a joke, but turned into a reality. I was joking, but I was actually serious, and once I moved to middle linebacker I said I'd step my game up. It demanded me to be a bigger leader for our team. Moving to middle linebacker wasn't hard at all. It was something I did in high school, too.

[+] EnlargeTenarius Wright
AP Photo/April L. BrownIndeed, Arkansas' Tenarius Wright is enjoying life at middle linebacker.
What's it like moving to turn into basically the quarterback of this defense?

TW: At defensive end, when the play goes away, you have to check for the reverse, boot, cut back, but at middle linebacker, if the defense allows you to, you can go get it. I like to hunt the ball. Playing middle linebacker allows me to go left-to-right, sideline-to-sideline.

So, how did it feel to get out there and play your new position at linebacker? I know you were happy about it during the offseason, but how did it feel to move around in your new spot and get a game under your belt?

TW: I feel great after the game. I feel like I made some mistakes, but at the same time I made some great plays. I have to keep going forward and keep getting better each week and improve myself every week.

Were there any moments on the field last Saturday when you got caught up thinking like an end and you tried revert to some of your old ways?

TW: Yeah, I found myself reverting and going back to old habits, like taking off and going full speed on plays when I should have been sitting back and being patient. It's really something that I had to get on and since I missed some parts of camp toward the end I lost a couple of my fundamentals. I'm focusing on those now and regaining my steps and regaining the linebacker mentality.

How important is patience playing linebacker compared to defensive end, especially with all the moving around you're doing now?

TW: Linebacker is really different from defensive end. I was used to coming off the ball and taking contact and being ready to just blow things up and get after it. At linebacker, the patience is the key because some plays develop and take longer than others. Not every play is downhill and headed right at you. And with the coverages that we run, all my help could be to the boundaries, so I have to play the role of being a cut-back guy. That's really the most important thing about playing linebacker -- knowing where your help is.

With one game under your belt at linebacker, what do you like more: defensive end or linebacker?

TW: Well, both positions I can go line up at and play at during a game. I really don't have a preference, I just want to get out there and get after the ball carrier and play defense. Really, my mentality is that I'm a defensive-minded guy, so both positions work out well for me.

With this team, there has been a lot of talk about how you guys have no problem scoring points or putting up yards, but there are still questions about the defense. After the first game, what did you see coming from the defense?

TW: We finally got a chance to get our legs and our feet wet on the field and in a game atmosphere. They got some good plays and some certain plays down the field. They were nick-knacking us and getting quite the yardage from just the small plays there were doing. That's something that we have to keep working forward on to stop those plays. We did try to limit the big plays, but we gave up the small plays that just pounded on and got first down after first down. After that performance, it let us know that the small areas that we've worked on need to be worked on and they can be fixed. They can be altered and turned into the right direction.

You've had two games with defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. What's the main difference you see in this style compared to Coach [Willy] Robinson's style?

TW: We've had two different philosophies. I know for a fact that this year we are trying to step up our game and keep it as simple as possible and just go out and play our game in order to have a sound football game without thinking ahead of things and playing slow. That's really helping us out this year.

For this team to really make a run at an SEC title this year, how important is the defense going to be?

TW: Oh, the defense is very important. We all know that it's a proven fact that defense does win championships and without a defense you can't beat nobody and you don't have the chance to win a championship. We know that the defense is going to play a big role in that big step to trying to win a national championship. The defense is going to have a great deal to do with winning us a national championship.

Do you guys like that there is pressure on this defense and that people are questioning and criticizing you all this season?

TW: We take criticism daily, and we like to respond to criticism. I believe the adversity really gives us the edge and gives us the motivation to keep striving to get better every day. We just like to think of the criticism and think of the pressure as something that's needed, something that we should want. When you're having fun and playing defense and doing what you're supposed to do, there's no real pressure, especially when you're doing something you've done all your life.
I'm hearing a lot of overrated/underrated talk, so college football must be right around the corner.

ESPN colleague Travis Haney has jumped right into the mix, listing a few teams in the Top 25 that he considers overrated and underrated .

The only SEC team to make his list is Arkansas. The Razorbacks are actually mentioned twice. He listed them as "underrated" in 2011, after they began the season ranked 14th, but finished fifth. Arkansas rose as high as third in the BCS standings last season and were a win over LSU away from playing in the SEC title game.

But he also has Arkansas in the overrated category for 2012, as the Hogs will enter the fall ranked 10th.

Haney talks about Arkansas being equipped with the talent to make a run this fall, but he also mentions the fact that we still don't know how this team will react at the first sign of adversity with interim coach John L. Smith taking over for the fired Bobby Petrino. And I totally agree with that point. I've been saying it since he was hired that while the players adore Smith and basically pleaded with athletic director Jeff Long to hire a very familiar face, we don't know how much control he'll have or how much respect he'll demand/get if things go wrong.

So far, he's done a good job of running the team, but how much he'll do this fall is yet to be seen.

Outside of Petrino's absence, I still have questions about the defense. This unit wasn't great last year, ranking eighth or worse in four major defensive categories (scoring defense, passing defense, rushing defense and total defense), but new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes does bring a more aggressive style to Fayetteville, which I think will help this unit out tremendously. Like Smith's leadership qualities, we'll have to wait and see with Haynes' style and the impact it has on Arkansas' defense.

With that said, I can't say that I think that Arkansas is overrated heading into the season. Tenth seems about right to me, considering the talent coming back and the fact that Alabama and LSU are both at home. At least getting a split between those two wouldn't be a surprise at all.

There is a lot of firepower on offense, starting with quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg. All four could be All-SEC performers. The offensive line is older and wiser and there are some solid young receivers lurking. This offense will put up points.

The defense returns six starters and should be strong within the front seven, even with Jake Bequette gone. Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright could be a deadly combo at linebacker, while there is solid depth at defensive tackle, led by Byran Jones, Robert Thomas and D.D. Jones. There will be some growing pains for this unit under Haynes, but I expect to see more production overall on this side of the ball.

I'm not saying this team will win the SEC West, but it has the talent to compete for the title to the very end. The defense might need some help from the offense, but something tells me that won't be a problem most of the time.
We're once again taking an early look at the 2012 college football season and colleague Mark Schlabach yet again provides us with a few talking points. On Friday, he unleashed his Way-Too-Early To0-Early 2012 Top 25 and it has six SEC teams in it:

1. LSU
2. USC
3. Alabama
4. Oregon
5. Georgia
6. Oklahoma
7. FSU
8. West Virginia
9. Michigan
10. South Carolina
11. Michigan State
12. Stanford
13. Arkansas
14. TCU
15. Wisconsin
16. Clemson
17. Ohio State
18. Kansas State
19. Texas
20. Florida
21. Washington
22. Oklahoma State
23. Virginia Tech
24. Nebraska
25. Georgia Tech

Some thoughts:
  • LSU and Alabama are ranked where I'd have them. Both look like they'll once again be two of the most talented teams in the country this fall. It seems hard to believe that LSU's offensive won't be better and more balanced with juco transfer Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback. LSU's defense has a couple of holes to fill, but it doesn't look like that will be too hard for the Tigers. Alabama should also see an offensive boost in the passing game with an older AJ McCarron and coach Nick Saban is making sure this year's defense doesn't go the way of the 2010 group.
  • Georgia has the schedule to make it back to Atlanta and that team that Mark Richt has isn't too bad either. But suspensions to four defensive starters to begin the season is a concern, especially with a trip to Missouri coming in Week 2. Quarterback Aaron Murray said this spring that despite the distractions that have come with the suspensions, this team is still very focused on its goals, but the pressure will surely be on the Dawgs in 2012.
  • South Carolina should probably be a little higher, but with Marcus Lattimore coming off of that knee injury, it's tough to know what this team will do this fall. The defense returns a handful of talent, while quarterback Connor Shaw picked up where he left off last season, which is a good thing for the Gamecocks' offense. South Carolina does face LSU and Arkansas this season, meaning the Gamecocks will have to at least split those to challenge Georgia for the East title.
  • The loss of Bobby Petrino has Arkansas trending down a bit, but if players rally the way they said they would under interim coach John L. Smith, the Razorbacks will be dangerous this fall. The offense is still loaded, led by quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, and new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes should help Arkansas have a more aggressive defense. There will still be questions surrounding this team with Petrino out and Smith in, but the Razorbacks are still very confident and don't anticipate taking steps back. Having Alabama and LSU at home this year will play in the Hogs' favor as well.
  • The Gators saw improvements on and off the field this spring and coach Will Muschamp is much happier now than he was a year ago. I think Florida is a little high on this list, but an improved offensive line and more confidence in Gainesville could go a long way for the Gators. While Muschamp was happy with the strides made on the field, he was even more pleased with the chemistry of his team. Players are stepping up as leaders and buying into the program more. Muschamp is in charge of a tougher team this fall, but will play his first two SEC games on the road this year.

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
11:00
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We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.

3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.

5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.

6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.

7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.

8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.

10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.

12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.

13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.

14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Paul Haynes and Taver Johnson were among the coaches entrusted to guide Ohio State through a storm 2011.

The last thing the two men could have expected at their next coaching stop was another tempest. And, in many ways, a more damaging one.

Haynes and Johnson are part of an Arkansas staff left to pick up the pieces from the Bobby Petrino scandal. Johnson, the Razorbacks' assistant head coach/linebackers coach, is in charge until a head coach is named, while Haynes serves as the Hogs' defensive coordinator after leaving Ohio State in December. Johnson had a chance to remain with Ohio State but left to join Hayes in Fayetteville.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who served as the Buckeyes' head coach last season after Jim Tressel's departure, has been in touch with Haynes since the Petrino scandal broke.

"A very, very difficult situation," Fickell told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Different in a lot of ways, but similar in some ways, too. Everybody learned from last year, whether they were an administrator here, whether they were an intern, a defensive coordinator or a head coach, you learn a lot of different things, and it's going to help them in the long run."

Fickell and Haynes are close friends and remain in regular contact, as do their wives. Fickell hasn't spoken as often with Johnson, but he's confident the two men don't need his advice despite another difficult situation.

"Hell, they were here, they know what happened," Fickell said. "Now if the situation [at Arkansas] stays the way it is, before they start a season, I'm sure just like I had, they'll have an opportunity to communicate with some different people and pick some brains. Right now, they're probably just trying to keep the whole ship afloat."

Through some very choppy waters.

The overriding feeling in the Ozarks was that this would be Bobby Petrino’s best football team at Arkansas.

But now that he’s not going to be around to coach that team, where do the Hogs go from here?

As we saw with both North Carolina and Ohio State a year ago, it’s never easy to navigate a season when your coach has been sent packing in the months leading up to that season.

Granted, Butch Davis was fired at North Carolina about a month before the 2011 season began, and Jim Tressel was forced out heading into June.

So Arkansas’ coaches and players at least have a little more time to process the situation, but this is the kind of thing that can fester for even the most resilient of football teams.

One day, Petrino is there, firmly in control and feverishly building on last season’s No. 5 finish in the polls.

And then one ill-fated motorcycle ride later, he’s gone.

There’s no way to prepare for such a sudden transition, no textbook, no therapist who can all of a sudden make everything right again.

Put yourself in the place of the Arkansas players.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas faces an uncertain 2012 season without Bobby Petrino at the helm.
Petrino had guided them to this position, and together, they engineered the kind of success the Hogs haven’t had for 30 years. He talks about doing things the right way, being accountable to your teammates and never losing sight of the fact that you’re representing an entire university and an entire state when you put on that Arkansas uniform.

Those words ring hollow now, and the only thing more hollow is the feeling that everybody associated with the football program must be experiencing.

There are so many unanswered questions going forward.

Petrino had obviously done a masterful job in making the Hogs relevant again nationally, so losing his leadership is one thing.

But what about his offensive genius?

Few coaches in football have a better feel for the game when it comes to breaking down defenses and calling plays.

Petrino called all of the Hogs’ plays on offense, so losing that dynamic is a huge blow.

What this team has going for it is talent, not to mention experience in key spots.

Talent has a way of covering up even the nastiest of wounds.

Having one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC helps, too, and Tyler Wilson now has a full season as a starter under his belt.

Wilson’s leadership in 2012 will be crucial. The same goes for running back Knile Davis, who knows a little something about dealing with hardship.

Davis, who missed all of last season after injuring his ankle, was already an inspiration to his teammates with the way he has continued to fight back from injuries.

The Hogs are going to need him more than ever, both on and off the field, in 2012.

Petrino had overhauled his defensive staff in the offseason, and it just so happens that two of the guys he brought in -- defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and linebackers/interim head coach Taver Johnson -- were at Ohio State last season.

If anybody has a clue what Arkansas is about to face, it’s Haynes and Johnson. They lived it last season with the Buckeyes following Tressel’s ouster.

Ultimately, the coaches will only be able to do so much.

If the Hogs are going to keep 2012 from being a lost season and fulfill the promise everybody had for this team prior to Petrino’s dismissal, it’s going to be on the players.

They have the talent to weather the storm. We’ll find out in the fall if they have the fortitude.

Opening spring camp: Arkansas

March, 14, 2012
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Schedule: Arkansas opens spring practice on Wednesday at 4:50 p.m. ET. Six of the Hogs’ 15 practices will be open this spring. Those dates are Wednesday and Thursday of this week, March 30, April 6, April 13 and the Red-White spring game on April 21, which will kick off at 3 p.m. ET.

What’s new: Paul Haynes takes over as the Hogs’ defensive coordinator after coming over from Ohio State, where he was the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach last season. He’d worked with the Buckeyes’ defensive backs from 2005-10. Haynes was hired in time to coach in the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season with the Hogs. He replaced Willy Robinson, who was fired. Paul Petrino returns to Arkansas as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after spending the past two seasons at Illinois. He replaces Garrick McGee, who left to take the head-coaching job at UAB. Other first-year assistants include linebackers coach Taver Johnson and defensive tackles coach Kevin Peoples. Defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell will add special teams to his duties after John L. Smith left to take the Weber State head-coaching job. Bobby Allen, who coached the Hogs' defensive tackles last season, will work with the secondary this season.

On the mend: Star running back Knile Davis has been cleared to practice after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle, but the Hogs have yet to decide if he will receive any live contact this spring.

On the move: Sophomore Brey Cook is moving back to offensive tackle after spending most of last season at guard. Sophomore Mitch Smothers is listed at guard this spring. Smothers started the first four games last season at offensive tackle. He became the first true freshman in Arkansas school history to start the season opener on the offensive line.

Key battle: The Hogs know what they have in senior receiver Cobi Hamilton, but they’re going to need other playmakers to emerge in the passing game with Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs all departing. Senior tight end Chris Gragg is sure to be one of Tyler Wilson’s favorite targets, but this spring is big for juniors Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon to establish themselves as consistent threats in the Hogs’ passing game. The same goes for sophomores Marquel Wade and Keante Minor, and 6-foot-4, 200-pound redshirt freshman Quinta Funderburk gets a chance to make his move.

New faces: Freshman tight end Demetrius Dean, who initially signed in 2011 with Arkansas, is on campus and will go through spring practice. Junior college defensive end Austin Flynn is another newcomer to watch. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Flynn played the past two seasons at Los Angeles Harbor Community College and has been clocked at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has referred to Flynn as a “clone” of Jake Bequette. Flynn is expected to compete with junior Chris Smith for one of the starting end positions.

Breaking out: The Hogs will no doubt be looking for linebackers this spring, but they welcome back one of the more underrated players in the league. Alonzo Highsmith returns to his starting linebacker spot after coming over from junior college last season and leading Arkansas' defenders with 12.5 tackles for loss. He was a very good player for the Hogs a year ago. Don’t be surprised if he develops into an All-SEC player his second time through the league. Highsmith will also need to be a leader. There’s not a lot of experience returning at linebacker. And staying on defense, sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel also has that look of a budding All-SEC player. He started in seven games last season as a true freshman and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team.

Don’t forget about: It’s always a good sign when you’re strong up the middle on both lines of scrimmage, and the Hogs have talent, experience and depth on the interior in both their offensive and defensive lines. On offense, junior center Travis Swanson and junior guard Alvin Bailey return as one of the best center-guard tandems in the league. Then on defense, the Hogs have five tackles returning who’ve seen extensive playing time. Juniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas are listed as the starters going into the spring, but seniors D.D. Jones, Alfred Davis and Lavunce Askew have all played a ton of snaps. Askew, who played some as a true freshman, redshirted last season.

All eyes on: How healthy does Knile Davis look? By all accounts, he’s ready to go and in great shape. Petrino said that Davis recently ran a personal-best 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. Davis was practicing some toward the end of last season, so getting back onto the practice field won’t be entirely new to him. The reality is that the Hogs will be guarded (and should be) with any live contact Davis receives. He doesn’t have anything to prove this spring. Arkansas returns a deep backfield stable with seniors Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. listed behind Davis on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Kody Walker is also back. He scored five touchdowns before a stress fracture in his shin forced him to have season-ending surgery.

SEC postseason coaching staff rankings

February, 13, 2012
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Saban-MIles-Spurrier Getty ImagesNick Saban, Les Miles and Steve Spurrier lead the SEC's top coaching staffs.

Now that we’ve gone through our position rankings in the SEC for the 2011 season, the only thing left is the coaches.

The head coach is obviously a big part of these rankings, but we’re taking into account the total staff and the job all of the coaches did this season in developing players, developing the team and getting the team to play its best in the biggest moments.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The only blemish for the national champions was the LSU game in the regular season, and that was an overtime loss. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain did an excellent job bringing along quarterback AJ McCarron, and it was hard to beat the Tide’s balance on offense. What more can you say about Kirby Smart and the defense? It’s a group that rates up there among the best in Alabama history, and when Nick Saban gets to the title game, he’s money. Alabama was easily the most prepared team on Jan. 9 in the Big Easy.

2. LSU: For 13 games, Les Miles and his entire staff did as good a job as any staff in America. There were several off-the-field issues that Miles handled well, and through it all, he kept his team on point against a killer schedule. Defensive coordinator John Chavis did a masterful job all season and won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country. But in the end, the Tigers were poorly prepared offensively in the title game and never made any significant adjustments. Miles’ refusal to at least try another quarterback remains a mystery.

3. South Carolina: It’s been a while since Steve Spurrier has been this happy about a football season. The Head Ball Coach and his staff have a lot to be happy about. The Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time ever, beat rival Clemson for the third straight season and did so despite their best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, going down with a knee injury during the middle of the season. It was one of Ellis Johnson’ best defenses at South Carolina, and after he left to take the Southern Miss head job, Lorenzo Ward saw to it that the Gamecocks didn’t miss a beat defensively in their Capital Bowl win over Nebraska.

4. Arkansas: With Tyler Wilson taking over for Ryan Mallett at quarterback, the Hogs were as potent as ever offensively, and that’s a credit to both Bobby Petrino and his right-hand man, Garrick McGee, who left at season’s end to take the UAB head job. Special teams were very good all season, although the Hogs gave up punt returns for touchdowns in their two biggest games of the season against Alabama and LSU. The disappointment was on defense, where Arkansas took a step backward from 2011, which is why Petrino parted ways with Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDefensive coordinator Todd Grantham's defense finished the season ranked No. 5 nationally.
5. Georgia: Mark Richt and his staff get serious props for recovering from an 0-2 start and steering the Bulldogs to the SEC championship game. A lot of teams would have folded after that South Carolina loss. In particular, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was invaluable with the mental toughness he brought to a unit that finished fifth nationally in total defense. The only real disappointment for the Bulldogs was how poorly they played on special teams, and the way Richt managed that first overtime in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State is another reason Georgia’s staff isn’t ranked a little higher.

6. Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ best win came in the regular-season finale when they routed Wake Forest on the road to qualify for a bowl game. And even though they lost their bowl game and wound up with a losing record, first-year coach James Franklin and his staff breathed new life into a program that had only gone to four bowl games previously in school history. The Commodores lost four of their six SEC games by a total of 19 points, and they improved dramatically on offense, especially in the offensive line. As much as anything, Franklin brought an edge to the program that it had been lacking.

7. Auburn: It’s never easy to go from a 14-0 national championship season to a ho-hum season where you lose three of your last four SEC games by a total of 101 points. The Tigers’ defense was dreadful for most of the season, and other than former tailback Michael Dyer, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about on offense, either. Nonetheless, Gene Chizik and his staff still found a way to carve out eight victories, including wins over five teams that finished the season with winning records.

8. Mississippi State: Maybe the expectations for Mississippi State at the start of the season were a tad unrealistic, but Dan Mullen helped create those expectations by winning nine games in his second season and spanking Michigan in the bowl game. Chris Wilson’s defense came around the second half of the season, but the Bulldogs didn’t take the step most thought they would on offense. They were a couple of plays away from winning nine games again, and it’s the first time Mississippi State has put together back-to-back winning seasons since Jackie Sherrill had four in a row from 1997-2000.

9. Florida: The first year was a mulligan of sorts for Will Muschamp, who inherited some issues off the field he needed to solve. He made a tough (and the right) decision by kicking off his best player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, after multiple drug arrests. The Gators also held their ground defensively. But the Charlie Weis experiment as offensive coordinator wasn’t a good fit, and the Gators were as bad offensively as they were the year before during Urban Meyer’s last season.

10. Kentucky: Had the Wildcats played just 11 games in 2011, Joker Phillips and his staff might have been ranked even lower. But then came the finale against Tennessee and the end of the 26-game losing streak to the Vols. Not only that, but the Wildcats figured out a way to win with receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback. It was a struggle the whole way offensively during the season, but first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter deserves credit for bringing a more aggressive approach to the defense and forcing more turnovers.

11. Tennessee: A very average season for the Vols turned into a forgettable season thanks to their lackluster 10-7 loss to Kentucky. The Vols were slowed by key injuries to Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray and were playing a lot of younger players, but Derek Dooley has been the first to say that they also need to coach better going forward. The running game was a no-show in 2011, and there was a serious problem with team chemistry as the season wore on, something Dooley must correct if he’s going to be around long-term on Rocky Top.

12. Ole Miss: It was a tough end to a 14-year SEC coaching run for Houston Nutt. Some poor recruiting classes at the start of his Ole Miss tenure caught up to him, and so did some crippling injuries. There were no answers at quarterback, and even though the numbers were ugly on defense, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is a much better football coach than the numbers would suggest. The reality is that when you lose 14 straight conference games over two seasons, you’re not going to be ranked very high in any rankings.

Offseason to-do list: Western Division

January, 19, 2012
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Hard as it is to believe, the start of spring practice for some teams isn’t too far away.

In other words, the offseason is upon us, and we all know how important these next five or six months are to the development of any team.

Today, we’ll unveil our offseason to-do lists for all 12 SEC teams. I’ll start with the Western Division teams, and Edward will come back later Thursday with the Eastern Division teams:

ALABAMA
  • With Doug Nussmeier coming over from Washington to take over the offense, a priority this offseason will be the players getting up to speed with the new terminology and Nussmeier’s system. The same goes for Nussmeier gaining a feel for his personnel.
  • The Crimson Tide took a major hit in the secondary with three of the four starters departing. Finding some new leaders back there, not to mention some consistent playmakers, will be vital. The good news is there’s no shortage of talent waiting in the wings.
ARKANSAS
  • Identifying the leaders on defense will be at the top of the Hogs’ list, especially with the likes of Jake Bequette, Tramain Thomas, Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson all gone.
  • Speaking of defense, Paul Haynes is now in charge, and his mission is clear: Help get the Hogs to a championship level on that side of the ball. This will be a critical spring in terms of putting in his defense and establishing the kind of identity he wants on defense.
  • Rising senior Cobi Hamilton has certainly proven himself, but he’s going to need help from some of the younger guys at receiver with Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs all departing.
AUBURN
  • The first order of business is hiring an offensive coordinator. Gene Chizik’s search to replace Gus Malzahn has not only been quiet, but it’s been lengthy.
  • In keeping with the offensive theme, the Tigers also have to settle on their quarterback. It would seem that it’s Kiehl Frazier’s job to lose, but Clint Moseley will have something to say about that. Of course, who Chizik hires as coordinator and what kind of offense the Tigers are going to run will play a big role in who’s the starter next fall. Either way, the Tigers will be opening the 2012 season with a different starting quarterback for the sixth consecutive year.
  • Defense was a dirty word in Auburn’s camp in 2011. That’s because the Tigers didn’t play a whole lot of defense this past season, at least quality defense. New coordinator Brian VanGorder gets his shot at turning things around, and you can bet he won’t waste any time in setting the right tone.
LSU
  • It’s Zach Mettenberger’s show now at quarterback for the Tigers, and he needs to work on making it his team over these next five or six months in the way he goes about his business both on and off the field.
  • With Mettenberger taking over at quarterback, the Tigers will have a new identity on offense. Les Miles has already said they will throw the ball more next season. The work starts now if they’re going to become a better throwing team, and it’s not confined to just the quarterbacks and receivers.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Being a more consistent offense will be something Mississippi State places a premium on next season, and that starts this offseason. Senior quarterback Chris Relf is gone, and so is senior running back Vick Ballard. Obviously, there are some new pieces to put into place.
  • Rising junior quarterback Tyler Russell isn’t new to the team, but he does need to take on a new role, and that’s being a leader.
  • Developing some of the younger defensive linemen and younger linebackers will be critical, especially with All-SEC tackle Fletcher Cox leaving early for the NFL draft and linebacker Brandon Wilson exhausting his eligibility.
OLE MISS
  • First-year coach Hugh Freeze needs to get to learn his players, and they need to get to learn Freeze and the new staff. The only holdover from the previous staff is Derrick Nix. So there’s a lot to learn by just about everybody.
  • Quarterback was a big issue last season for the Rebels, and they need to start sorting through who’s going to be their quarterback in 2012 over these next few months.
  • Restoring some confidence on defense will be equally important. Getting a healthy D.T. Shackelford back will help, but the Rebels need to put last season behind them once and for all.
TEXAS A&M
  • First-year head coach Kevin Sumlin will obviously want to put his stamp on the program, and just as pressing will be implementing his offense and making sure everybody understands it and is on the same page.
  • The Aggies need to find a replacement at quarterback for Ryan Tannehill, which likely means getting Jameill Showers ready. If it’s not Showers, then maybe Johnny Manziel makes his move.
  • Something says Sumlin and the new staff will see to it that the Aggies’ second-half issues from last season are also addressed.
Arkansas added to its staff Sunday when coach Bobby Petrino announced the hiring of Taver Johnson.

Johnson, who spent the past five season as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, will serve as assistant head coach/linebackers coach for the Razorbacks.

“Taver is an extremely enthusiastic and devoted coach,” Petrino said. “He has a strong work ethic, is a great teacher of the game and is skillful at relating to his players. During his time at Ohio State, he became familiar with the principles Coach [Paul] Haynes has worked to incorporate here. He has also been a part of a program with a culture of consistently winning and will be instrumental in preparing our players to compete for championships.”

During his five seasons at Ohio State, Johnson helped produce 2008 Jim Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins who was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer. The Buckeyes had three cornerbacks selected in the NFL draft between 2008-11, led by Jenkins, who was the 14th overall pick by New Orleans in 2009. Ohio State had three different cornerbacks earn four first-team All-Big Ten honors under Johnson.

In 2011, with new Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes serving as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, the Buckeyes ranked fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense. Ohio State also ranked in the top 30 nationally in total defense and scoring defense.

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