SEC: Randall Mackey

Here are three keys for Ole Miss in its matchup with Pittsburgh in Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN):

1. Patience is a virtue: Pittsburgh has a pretty sturdy defense. Even with those six losses on the season, the Panthers' defense ranks 17th nationally. The Panthers have allowed just 14 passing plays of 25 yards or more, tied for sixth nationally. That means Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace will have to be patient with his throws. Pittsburgh intercepted 13 passes on the season and allowed just 12 touchdowns through the air, so Wallace can't take a lot of chances with this defense -- and he has taken a lot of chances this season. Wallace has thrown 15 interceptions on the season, so his careless play could really cost the Rebels on Saturday. Pittsburgh is stingy enough that Wallace doesn't need to help it out.

2. Bring the pressure: Ole Miss' defensive line has been a pleasant surprise for the Rebels this season. It was supposed to be a weak point, but it came on in a big way. The Rebels enter the game second in the SEC in sacks (34) and tackles for loss (92). The Panthers have struggled this season in pass protection, so if this Ole Miss line can play like it has for most of the year, Pittsburgh could be in trouble. Quarterback Tino Sunseri has been pretty efficient this season, throwing for 3,103 yards with 19 touchdowns to two interceptions. He hasn't thrown a pick since Sept. 15, so the Rebels have to put him in awkward situations in order to force him to finally make some mistakes. The defense has been better compared to last season, but it showed it isn't built for a shootout. Pitt hasn't really been involved in any, but if the Rebels can't get good pressure on Sunseri, one might break out anyway.

3. Run, run and run some more: The Panthers have held their own for the most part on defense, but if the Rebels are going to be successful for 60 minutes, they have to get a solid run game going. Ole Miss averages 169.7 rushing yards per game, while Pitt is surrendering just 129.1. That's good enough for 25th nationally, so the Rebels have to establish a running game to open things up for Wallace and the passing game. Running back Jeff Scott has to be a big factor. He's the Rebels' best rushing weapon, and while he isn't the biggest thing out there, he can turn regular runs into big plays with his speed and elusiveness. He'll have help with Wallace and with athlete Randall Mackey, who will line up in the backfield as well, but Ole Miss has to be patient. Running the ball effectively will be key to wearing down the Panthers' defense.

Ole Miss bowl X factor

January, 4, 2013
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Ole Miss takes on Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon, but we're taking a look at the Rebels' X factor a day early:

X FACTOR

Jeff Scott, Jr., RB: Ole Miss' offense has been pretty fun to watch all year, but it will face a Pittsburgh defense that has been pretty stingy this season, despite the Panthers' 6-6 record. Pitt ranks 17th in total defense, so if the Rebels want to open things up offensively, they'll have to get things going on the ground. Scott finished the regular season with 828 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but he has the ability to make big-time plays in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. To crack this Pitt defense, the Rebels will look to run first, and Scott will have to be on his game because the Panthers rank 26th nationally in rushing defense. The Rebels will try to get the running game going with quarterback Bo Wallace and utility man Randall Mackey, but Scott will have to carry the load in order to wear down Pitt's front. He isn't the biggest player out there, but he isn't afraid to deliver a pounding to his opponents. Plus, if he can extend drives with longer plays, he'll keep the ball in the Rebels' hands which will tire out that Panthers defense.

Lunchtime links

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Homer: What are the odds on Santa's Little Helper?
Clerk: 99 to 1.
Homer: Wow! You hear that, Boy? 99 times 13 equals Merry Christmas!

-----

Marge: Oh, listen to Bart. Doesn't he sound like a little angel?
Bart: Oh, Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg. The Batmobile broke it's wheel, and the Joker got aw...

SEC: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 9, 2012
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The Rebels are a win away from making a major statement in the SEC.

With a win over of Vanderbilt on Saturday, Ole Miss will be bowl eligible for the first time since 2009, and if its going to get that required sixth win, it'll need utility man Randall Mackey to have a big day inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium.

Before the season, Ole Miss' coaches thought Mackey might be the Rebels' top offensive weapon. He can run, throw and catch, so the Rebels' staff has lined him up all over the place. He has 558 total yards of offense this season, but the Rebels will really need him to be electric on Saturday.

The Commodores have one of the more underrated defenses around. Vandy is fifth in the SEC in total defense and is third nationally in pass defense, giving up just 151. 9 yards per game through the air. But the Commodores haven't been very sound stopping the run. Vandy is allowing 164 yards on the ground a game.

Mackey has the ability to hurt the Commodores in all three of those areas, especially the rushing department. He's only averaging 10 rushing yards in SEC games, but he'll do much more than that against the Commodores.

He's been used as the Rebels' Wildcat quarterback at times, and his role there could put a lot of pressure on this defense. He's so elusive and fast that if he wants to keep the ball, he can gash the Commodores on keeper plays. And he's likely to bring a lot of attention when he rolls out, which should open up things downfield for him.

He won't throw the ball a ton, but getting him the ball a handful of times will certainly keep Vandy's defense on its heels. This is a tough defense to frustrate. That's why getting Mackey the ball in the run game will be important. He's slippery enough to make some big plays for the Rebels, and he'll help take some of the pressure off of starting running back Jeff Scott.

Having a multi-purpose weapon like Mackey is exactly what Ole Miss needs against Vandy's defense. He'll do most of his damage in the run game, but he'll also provide the Rebels with some quality plays in the passing game, where he can really do damage when wide receiver Donte Moncrief absorbs most of the attention from the defense.

Ole Miss needs Mackey to step up in a big way if it's going to get its sixth win, and he will.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has heard an awful lot about his offense in the past few weeks. But he's turned some of his focus to the offense he'll face this weekend in Oxford, Miss.

Ole Miss might be coming off of a 19-point loss to No. 1 Alabama, but Sumlin isn't overlooking the ability the Rebels have in their offensive arsenal, saying the defensive preparation for this week has been "pretty tedious" with all the formations, shifts and movements he expects to see from the Rebels.

Currently, Ole Miss has the SEC's No. 4 offense (434 yards per game).

While the Rebels are dealing with yet another quarterback battle on their hands, Sumlin said there's potential for a lot of firepower out of Ole Miss' running game. The Rebels own the SEC's No. 4 rushing offense (224.2) and it is ranked 21st nationally.

Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti might be fighting for the starting spot at quarterback, but both can be very dangerous with their legs. Wallace has rushed for 165 yard this season, and Brunetti has rushed for 154.

Sumlin has also paid a lot of attention to running backs Jeff Scott and Randall Mackey, who have run for 317 and 204 yards, respectively.

"Randall Mackey and Jeff Scott back there can really fly," Sumlin said.

One thing that will help the Aggies is that Ole Miss' up-tempo, no-huddle offense is very similar to the one the Aggies run. Having to face that sort of offense every day in practice should prepare A&M for most of what they'll see from Ole Miss on Saturday.

"Fortunately, we're a no-huddle team, too," Sumlin said. "So the ability to adjust on the fly shouldn't be as difficult for us as it is for some."

Sumlin also expects his defense to continue its current run of keeping teams away from the end zone. In the past three games (all wins), the Aggies have allowed just 27 points. The Rebels might have some flash to their offense, but Sumlin is hoping his defense will help take some shine off the Rebels this weekend.

"Our defense has been pretty sound this year, and I don't expect that to change very much this week," he said.

Lunchtime links

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
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I can smell the barbecue, chicken tenders and potato salad. It's time to put the ball and glove away. It's football season!

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
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It's here.

After hundreds of days of having to watch and follow inferior sports, take up new hobbies and do extra cute things with your better half just to pass the time, we are finally here.

It's college football season, again! The helmets are perfectly shined. The jerseys are hung so neatly and ironed so sweetly. You've gone to the store in advance to prep for the artery-bursting feast that awaits this weekend. Some are even lucky enough to be tailgating as we speak!

Cue up the bands, the grills and the fryers and the big-screen TVs. It's football season, and here's what to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is one of three star running backs to keep an eye on this weekend.
1. Running backs return: If not for Texas A&M’s game getting postponed, we’d get to see three elite running backs returning to the field after injuries cut their 2011 seasons short. Christine Michael's debut will have to wait, but we’ll still get to see how South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis do with the ball in their hands. When they’re 100 percent, it’s hard to find two better running backs out there.

2. Quarterback battles: Florida and Ole Miss still don’t know who their starting quarterbacks will be. Florida coach Will Muschamp said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will alternate quarters to start Saturday’s game, while Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze anticipates playing both Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti in the opener. This could be the final round of competition at both schools.

3. Questionable offensive lines: So many offensive lines have questions entering the fall. Keep an eye on Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Auburn and Georgia are working in a few new parts, while Florida is hoping most of the parts from last year’s line have improved. Mizzou has all sorts of injury issues and Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy are just hoping to stay healthy because depth is an issue for all three.

4. More passing yards: Last year, SEC quarterbacks were laughed at. It seems like that won’t be the case in 2012. Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Tyler Bray and Tyler Wilson could all throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Missouri’s James Franklin has arguably the best pass-run ability in the league. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers is a year older and wiser, while Zach Mettenberger is a major upgrade for LSU. If Connor Shaw learns to be more of a pass-first player, he could have a big year.

5. Athletic multitasking: Two players to keep both eyes on this weekend are Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell and Ole Miss’ Randall Mackey. Mitchell will start at cornerback, but Mark Richt would like to play him at wide receiver and possibly have him return punts and kickoffs. He certainly is talented enough to do it, but I hope he gets a lot of sleep and loads up on 5-hour Energy. Mackey will start at running back, but since he’s played both quarterback and receiver for the Rebels, his coaches would like to move him around some. Expect him to line up out wide and as a Wildcat quarterback against Central Arkansas.

6. First days on the job: There will be a lot of debuts this weekend. Freeze will coach his first game at Ole Miss, Mettenberger takes over as LSU’s quarterback and Kiehl Frazier makes his first start at quarterback for Auburn. Freeze isn’t sure what he’ll see, but he’s looking to bring the Rebels’ fan base some much-needed excitement. Mettenberger has bided his time at both Georgia and LSU, but is finally the man. And Frazier can now call Auburn his team. He gets a very suspect defense in Clemson to start.

7. Alabama’s defense: There’s no question that Alabama lost a lot of talent from last year’s historic defense, but the thought is that the Tide will do more reloading than rebuilding. It will get a good first test against Michigan’s high-flying spread offense led by potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Denard Robinson. Nick Saban is still looking for key leaders to emerge, and he thinks he’ll finally find them come Saturday’s game. The key for this defense is getting out faster than it did when it was in a similar situation in 2010.

8. Tennessee’s passing game vs. NC State’s pass defense: Derek Dooley entered the season with a potent passing game, but the loss of Da’Rick Rogers suddenly makes that receiving depth not so attractive. Justin Hunter might be a little rusty and he’ll have a matchup with another potential first-rounder in corner David Amerson. We don’t know what Cordarrelle Patterson will do and he’ll battle Dontae Johnson, who beat out the talented C.J. Johnson before he was ruled ineligible. Dooley said he’s “very concerned” about his receivers, and this battle could determine Friday’s outcome.

9. Vanderbilt’s swagger: Thursday night is a chance for Vandy to make a strong statement to the rest of the SEC. Some are questioning if Vandy will build off of last year’s rebound or revert back to its old ways. The Dores don’t have to beat South Carolina, but they do have to show that same confidence they had last year and that they won’t back down.

10. Possible suspensions: It wouldn’t be opening day without some sort of controversy. Georgia starters Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree both reportedly failed drug tests this spring, and suspensions were expected. But Richt has been very quiet about it and has told everyone to wait until Saturday. Can’t wait …
First-year coach Hugh Freeze knew he’d be working with low numbers during his first year at Ole Miss, but his recent loss hurts a lot.

When the Rebels open the season against Central Arkansas on Saturday, they will likely be without top running back Jeff Scott, who has battled back issues this fall, Freeze said. Tests were run Wednesday morning, but Freeze said no one was sure what was going on with his back.

Freeze added that there’s still a possibility that Scott could play against the Bears, but he’s heavily leaning toward that not happening.

“I’m not real confident that Jeff will play this Saturday, as of right now,” Freeze said.

Scott was one of Ole Miss’ top overall players in 2011. He led the team with 529 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and added 386 total return yards and another score.

The Rebels will now have to fill Scott’s position by committee Saturday. Randall Mackey, who finally found a home at running back after moving from quarterback to wide receiver, will likely start in Scott’s place. The staff feels as though he might be the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon and could line up at three different positions Saturday.

Behind Mackey, Freeze will rely on true freshmen I’Tavius Mathers, who had a very good fall camp, and Jaylen Walton. Senior Devin Thomas and sophomore Nicholas Parker. For now, Mackey, Mathers and Walton are set to get the majority of the snaps at running back.

“Definitely, those first three we’re going to play,” Freeze said.

Also expected to play are a host of true freshmen. Ole Miss signed 13 in order to save some scholarships for next year’s class, and Freeze said seven or eight freshmen from the 2012 class could play in Saturday’s opener.

Video: Ole Miss' X factor

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
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video
Edward Aschoff discusses Ole Miss' X factor: Randall Mackey.
We all know that there is more to football than just big dudes smashing into each other.

Sure, they provide most of the entertainment, but you can't have a college football season without some fearless predictions to start the year off with. Yes, us media folk are allowed a little fun and some of the attention.

Last year, fellow SEC blogger Chris Low and I split our predictions up, as we came up with 10 each that can be viewed here and here. This year, we're cleaning things up and creating just one list of 10 SEC predictions for the 2012 season.

We both had are share of hits and misses last year. I only got one of my 10 predictions correct when I said that Chris Rainey would score touchdowns three different ways. I crossed that off Week 1. Some I missed on were predicting that the Heisman trophy would stay in the SEC, Brandon Bolden finally getting 1,000 rushing yards, Zach Mettenberger having more touchdowns than Jarrett Lee and the SEC sending 10 teams bowling.

I was pretty close with my prediction that Morris Claiborne would lead the SEC in interceptions and Tyrann Mathieu would lead in defensive touchdowns. Claiborne was third with six, while Mathieu finished with four total touchdowns with two being defensive.

However, Chris showed his veteran ability and hit on seven of his 10. He really is a showoff. But he did whiff on Spencer Ware rushing for 1,200 yards. Ware only got 707 yards.

Enough of the walk down memory lane, here are our 10 fearless predictions for 2012:

1. The SEC will make it seven in a row: This is starting to become the surest bet in college football. The only thing that changes is the team and the year. And who knows? The team might not change this season. Alabama is trying to become the first outright repeat national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. We won’t go as far as to predict an Alabama repeat, but that crystal trophy will stay right where it’s been the last six years -- somewhere on an SEC campus.

2. Arkansas will beat either Alabama or LSU: Despite becoming relevant nationally again and joining the SEC’s elite along the way, Arkansas is just 1-5 against Alabama and LSU the last three years. The Hogs get both teams in Fayetteville this season and will knock off at least one of the West kingpins on their way to a third straight season of 10 or more wins.

3. Marcus Lattimore, Knile Davis and Christine Michael will all eclipse 1,200 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns: They are all coming off of season-ending injuries, but they should all be 100 percent when they suit up this fall. We could have quite the running back battle on our hands this fall, as all three are the complete package when it comes to running back. They're big, fast, agile and aren't afraid to punch defenders right in the mouth. For the first time since 2009, the SEC will have at least three backs breaks 1,200 yards.

4. T.J. Yeldon will lead Alabama in all-purpose yards: The true freshman running back enjoyed quite the spring and just continues to impress Alabama's coaches. While Eddie Lacy is the starter, Yeldon has the talent to eat into his carries, and he'll be used in the passing game, where he's just as dangerous. Lacy has always had issues with staying healthy, so Yeldon has to be ready to see solid playing time this fall.

5. Jadeveon Clowney will lead the SEC in sacks: He enjoyed a fine debut in 2011, but more is expected from Clowney. Now that he's comfortable in South Carolina's defense, the coaches having him lining up all over the field. He'll now have more opportunities to harass quarterbacks. It helps that Devin Taylor will help take some of the attention at the other end position. Georgia's Jarvis Jones might be the league's best pass rusher, but he'll be dethroned by the extremely fast, athletic and terrifying Clowney this fall.

6. The SEC’s All-Dismissal Team would be unbeaten if there were such a league: Take a long look at those players in the SEC who’ve been sent packing since the end of last season. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu, Georgia’s Isaiah Crowell, Tennessee’s Da’Rick Rogers, Auburn’s Michael Dyer and Ole Miss’ Nickolas Brassell were all marquee players in this league with NFL potential. Now, they’re players with baggage trying to salvage their careers elsewhere.

7. Randall Mackey will score three different ways for Ole Miss: Mackey has enjoyed playing three different positions this year. He started at quarterback before moving to wide receiver and is now at running back. The coaches have a few packages for the very versatile Mackey. He'll have the opportunity to rush for a touchdown, catch one and throw one as the Wildcat QB -- and he'll do all three.

8. Zach Mettenberger will throw as many touchdown passes by the middle of October as Jordan Jefferson did his last two seasons combined: For the record, Jefferson threw six touchdown passes last season and seven in 2010 for a total of 13 in 23 career games. The Tigers insist they’re going to open up their passing game with Mettenberger pulling the trigger, and they should. He gives them a chance to really spread defenses out with his ability to throw the ball down the field and generate big plays in the passing game.

9. Vanderbilt will make it to back-to-back bowls for the first time ... ever: This team is no longer a pushover and while the Commodores won't sneak up on anyone this fall, enough talent returns that Vandy will win at least six games yet again. The Commodores will have to sweep their tougher nonconference slate, and should add at least two SEC wins. That will get Vandy bowling in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

10. Ohio State will lose again to the SEC in a bowl game: Oops, my bad. Ohio State is being sanctioned and ineligible to go to a bowl game this season. But if the Buckeyes weren’t in the NCAA’s jailhouse, you could bet they’d find a way to lose to an SEC team. It’s a time-honored tradition … even with Urban Meyer calling the shots in Columbus.
Randall Mackey hasn't had much time to rest since new coach Hugh Freeze took over at Ole Miss.

Mackey began the Freeze era in Oxford as a quarterback, but quickly moved to wide receiver this spring. After having a pretty decent spring, Mackey was on the move again at the beginning of fall camp, as the staff moved him to running back.

The extremely athletic -- and versatile -- senior has his third home on the field in less than a year, but he's yet to complain about all the movement. He actually embraces it and thinks he's finally settled at a position in which he believes he can showcase the most skill.

[+] EnlargeRandall Mackey
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi plans to take advantage of Randall Mackey's versatility this season.
"I love playing running back," Mackey said. "That's the best one of all of them that I like. I have the feel for it now."

At first, it seemed as though quarterback was the best spot for him. Despite thinking he'd be a receiver for the Rebels, Mackey battled for the starting spot before the 2011 season, but a preseason arrest moved him down the depth chart.

But after it seemed no one could throw the ball straight for the Rebels last season, Mackey got his shot again in early October against Fresno State, where he completed eight of his 18 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown. He ended up starting six games and led Ole Miss with 1,112 passing yards and seven touchdowns.

However, he quickly fell behind Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Bo Wallace this spring and got the early sense that his quarterbacking days were over.

"I wasn't making it happen at quarterback that much, and Barry and Bo were doing a better job," he said.

So, he was temporarily moved to receiver before running backs coach Derrick Nix got in his ear. At first, it was merely a joke, but as fall camp drew closer and closer, Ole Miss' coaches got more serious about moving him. When camp arrived, Mackey was officially a running back.

In order to get his body ready for the punishment running backs take, Mackey said he ballooned to 205 pounds. Unfortunately, that was too much weight for the 5-foot-11 athlete, and Mackey felt sluggish and tired. His speed suffered because of it, so he dropped five pounds and found his footing.

Now, his coaches consider him one of the Rebels' top offensive threats because of his running ability and the fact that he can still line up all over. Mackey said he'll shift out wide on some plays, and still has Wildcat packages to throw from.

What makes running back so appealing to Mackey is the fact that he can improve more on the field and just "play my game."

"That's what I've been wanting to do since I came to Ole Miss," he said.

"My style is just try and get the ball to the end zone."

One advantage for Mackey at running back is working with the starter, Jeff Scott. The junior playmaker has helped Mackey adjust to his new position with tutoring away from the field. Mackey also tries to mimic some of Scott's running style in order to improve his field speed.

The smaller Scott should be thrilled that his roommate is following in his footsteps, because it will help ease some of the load t a position that is lacking depth.

Mackey said he's a full-time running back, but will move around, which he likes. He just wants to help his team, and hopes that what started as a joke will have him getting the last laugh this fall against defenses.

"Whatever coach needs me to do," he said, "I'm going to do it to help my team."
The dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu has created quite the debate about whether or not LSU should still be considered a legit contender for the national championship.

Yes, Mathieu was a big play waiting to happen whenever he was on the field last year, but was he so special that LSU's chances at competing for and winning a national championship should be considerably hindered? I think not. There's just too much talent on both sides of the ball in Baton Rouge.

Mathieu's playmaking ability and knack for creating turnovers will be deeply missed on defense, as will his ability to generate a huge play in the punt return game, but there are enough pieces to fill in and keep the Tigers in the hunt for multiple championships this season.

By that logic, Mathieue doesn't qualify as one of the SEC's most indispensable players. The Tigers might be better with him, but they certainly aren't slouches without him.

So who are the players teams can't survive without? Who are the most indispensable players for each team in the SEC?

Let's take a look:

ALABAMA
  • AJ McCarron, QB: The Crimson Tide certainly has a wealth of talent on offense, but take McCarron out of the equation and Alabama would be sunk. Last year’s backup, Phillip Sims, transferred to Virginia, and there isn’t any experience behind McCarron. Alabama might have to put its offense in the hands of a freshman if McCarron went down.
ARKANSAS
  • Tyler Wilson, QB: Like Alabama, Arkansas’ offense would suffer without Wilson, who enters the fall as the league’s top quarterback. Wilson not only has elite skill but he’s an exceptional game manager. Backup Brandon Mitchell has game reps under his belt, but he’s still unproven and has spent fall camp working at receiver. Redshirt freshman Brandon Allen could be the future of the position, but is he ready to guide Arkansas through the SEC West?
AUBURN
  • Emory Blake, WR: Blake is one of the league’s best receivers and without him, Auburn lacks a true game-changing receiving threat. The Tigers have depth at wide receiver, but no one has made close to the impact Blake has in the Tigers’ offense. Without him, Auburn’s quarterback might have trouble finding a consistent target outside of tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
FLORIDA
  • Mike Gillislee, RB: While he’s had an up-and-down career as a backup thus far, Gillislee has a ton of support from his coaches, who think he’s Florida’s most important offensive player. Florida has two young QBs working this fall and they’ll need all they can get from the running game to help ease the pressure. Gillislee is the best option at running back and without him the Gators would be in trouble.
GEORGIA
  • Kenarious Gates, OT: Aaron Murray might be the face of the program, but the coaches like the potential backup Hutson Mason has. The offensive line, on the other hand, has little room for error and Gates is Georgia’s most talented and versatile lineman. If he were to go down, the Dawgs would have to reorganize an already fragile line and would lose its linchpin up front, causing the offense to regress.
KENTUCKY
  • Larry Warford, OG: Like Georgia, Kentucky can’t afford to lose anyone up front, especially not Warford. He’s the Wildcats’ best lineman and has the ability to move around if needed. This offense already has its issues and there are too many young, inexperienced bodies up front. Losing a talented vet like Warford could cost Kentucky’s offense a lot.
LSU
  • Eric Reid, S: The loss of the Honey Badger will sting, but to lose Reid as well means LSU would be without two All-American talents in its secondary. Reid takes the deep ball away and can make plays all over the field. Take him out of the lineup, and the Tigers would have to turn to sophomore Ronald Martin, who filled in when Reid was hurt last year, and redshirt frosh Micah Eugene.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Gabe Jackson, OG: The Bulldogs’ left guard is the most talented lineman on the team, and if last season proved anything, this line can’t afford to lose a key piece. Injuries rocked this line and Mississippi State’s offense last season. Losing Jackson, who has started 26 games, might be even worse for the Bulldogs and might cause the offense to take another dip in production.
MISSOURI
  • James Franklin, QB: He enjoyed a breakout season last year and enters his first season in the SEC as the Tigers’ most experienced quarterbacks. He’s probably the SEC’s best dual-threat QB as well. Offensive coordinator David Yost said Franklin is so important to Mizzou’s offensive scheme because he’s such a good runner and passer and understands the offense better than anyone. Losing him would put a dent in the Tigers’ first SEC season.
OLE MISS
  • Randall Mackey, WR: The former quarterback has quickly become very popular with Ole Miss’ coaches. They think he’s the Rebels’ most versatile offensive player and could be a nightmare for defenses to defend this fall. He’ll lineup all over, and the Rebels just don’t have anyone else who fits in the offense like Mackey.
SOUTH CAROLINA
  • Connor Shaw, QB: He’s turning more and more into the quarterback Steve Spurrier wants for his offense. Losing him now would be devastating, especially with the unproven players at wide receiver. The Gamecocks have depth at quarterback, but neither Andrew Clifford nor Dylan Thompson have much game experience at all.
TENNESSEE
  • Tyler Bray, QB: The Vols found out the hard way what life would be like without Bray in the lineup last year. Matt Sims and Justin Worley struggled mightily in relief, as the Vols went 1-4 without Bray. During that span, Tennessee scored more than seven points just once. Worley has grown and has solid weapons to work with, but not having Bray could cost Tennessee yet another bowl appearance.
TEXAS A&M
  • Luke Joeckel, OT: He’s one of the league’s top left tackles and is a future first-round draft pick. For a team working with young, inexperienced quarterbacks, losing Joeckel would be devastating. And experience is lacking behind him, as redshirt freshman Nathan Gutekunst is listed the No. 2 left tackle on the depth chart. You might see some rearranging in order to make up for the loss of Joeckel.
VANDERBILT
  • Wesley Johnson, OT: The left tackle is easily Vanderbilt’s top lineman. He can move around if needed and is more than solid at the most important position up front. The Commodores are already struggling with depth along the line, so having to replace Johnson would definitely halt its development and would set Vandy’s offense back in 2012.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Aaron MurrayAP Photo/David GoldmanAaron Murray and the Georgia quarterbacks rank as the top position group in the SEC.
As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, it's time for one of the blog's most popular items -- position rankings.

This is never easy. We go back and forth dozens of times before finding any sort of confidence in our lists. After checking with colleagues and people around the league, we come up with lists ranking each position and in the end someone gets upset. Someone has to be last and someone is always underrated or overrated.

Such is life.

The important factors for every position were great players, true game-changers, depth and experience. We also considered past performances, but we also had to think about possible projections for the upcoming season.

We’ll start with the quarterback position:

1. Georgia: Aaron Murray has thrown 59 touchdowns in his first two seasons and is on his way to breaking several school records. He has great toughness and mechanics, but needs to cut down on his 14 interceptions from a year ago. The staff is looking to redshirt Hutson Mason, but he might be the league's best quarterback insurance policy. He could be used if Murray suffers a serious injury. Freshmen Faton Bauta and Christian LeMay are both talented, but inexperienced.

2. Arkansas: Tyler Wilson is arguably the SEC’s best quarterback and probably would have been a first-rounder had he come out this past season. Junior Brandon Mitchell complements Wilson well with his running ability, but he'll be in an intense battle with redshirt freshman Brandon Allen, who is a stronger drop-back quarterback.

3. Tennessee: If Tyler Bray can stay healthy, he’s potentially a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown guy. Justin Worley was thrown into the fire last season and gained some valuable experience, and the Vols also have high hopes for true freshman Nathan Peterman, who showed promise in the spring before dislocating his finger.

4. Alabama: If AJ McCarron picks up from 2011, he could contend to be the league's top quarterback. He has all the tools, but needs to keep making strides with his decision-making. Behind McCarron, Alabama doesn't have much experience with Phillip Sims transferring to Virginia. Next in line would probably be redshirt freshman Phillip Ely, but true freshman Alec Morris has turned heads in summer workouts.

5. Vanderbilt: Jordan Rodgers put a charge into the Commodores’ offense when he took over midway through last season. He’s a big-play quarterback, but needs to cut down on his turnovers. The other thing Vanderbilt has going for it is Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started for two seasons at Wyoming and rolled up nearly 2,100 yards in total offense in 2010. Plus, the staff is excited about early enrollee Patton Robinette, who is one of the top quarterback prospects to sign with Vandy in a while.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Spruce Derden/US PresswireNow that Missouri is in the SEC, James Franklin enters as one of the most versatile quarterbacks.
6. Missouri: James Franklin enjoyed a breakout season in 2011 and enters his first year in the SEC as the league’s best dual-threat quarterback. However, will he be all the way back after undergoing shoulder surgery in the spring? With Franklin out, redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser worked with the Tigers' first team this spring and performed well. Junior Ashton Glaser is in his fourth season, but has barely played.

7. South Carolina: Connor Shaw is hardly the biggest quarterback in the SEC and runs a lot, so that’s never an ideal situation. However, he improved greatly toward the end of last season and made strides this spring to use his arm more than his legs. The Gamecocks have barely any experience behind Shaw, as Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford battle for the No. 2 spot.

8. LSU: It's Zach Mettenberger time in Baton Rouge, as he takes over a unit that has struggled with consistency. He was a very talented high school player a few years ago and helped make LSU's offense much more pass-friendly this spring. While he's an obvious upgrade for the Tigers, he's still pretty unproven at this level. Behind him, there's no experience, as Jerrard Randall and Stephen Rivers both redshirted in 2011.

9. Auburn: The Tigers should have quite the quarterback battle on their hands. Clint Moseley returns with more experience under center, but he lost ground to Kiehl Frazier this spring because of shoulder soreness. Frazier was a run-first QB last year, but looked much more confident with his arm this spring with help from new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Zeke Pike was a top QB prospect coming out of high school, but off-field issues sent him home for the summer.

10. Florida: Will Muschamp said following spring practice that he felt like he had two quarterbacks he could win with. Nonetheless, he wasn’t ready to name either Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel the starter. Both struggled for the most part last year, but both were very talented high school prospects and each could excel with more experience. The reality is that both will end up playing this season.

11. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen said this spring that he was very pleased with how Tyler Russell performed this spring, but Russell has had consistency issues in the past. The hope is that now that Russell knows he's the starter, he'll be more comfortable on the field. However, Mississippi State only has one other scholarship quarterback on its roster: redshirt freshman Dak Prescott. Quarterbacks Dylan Favre and Nick Schuessler both transferred.

12. Kentucky: Maxwell Smith was far from perfect last year, but he took advantage of his time on the field. After replacing the injured Morgan Newton late in 2011, Smith was named to the SEC's All-Freshmen team. He also seemed to improve this spring with Newton watching and rehabbing. Newton's time as a starter could be over, but both will be pushed by incoming freshman Patrick Towles, who might be more physically gifted than the two ahead of him.

13. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin is working with a ton of inexperience at quarterback. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge, but he’s thrown all of five career passes. Things got even foggier for the Aggies when backup Johnny Manziel was arrested in late June and charged with disorderly conduct by fighting, failure to identify and having a fake driver's license. That leaves sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis with the chance to catch Showers.

14. Ole Miss: It looked like Bo Wallace would come in and snatch the starting job, but as spring went on Barry Brunetti played himself into a tie with Wallace. But Brunetti was the starter coming out of last spring and played in just five games last fall. Randall Mackey moved from quarterback to wide receiver, while Zack Stoudt left the team in June, so there is very little experience at the quarterback position in Oxford.

Ole Miss spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
8:00
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2011 overall record: 2-10
2011 conference record: 0-8
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Jeff Scott, WR Ja-Mes Logan, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Randall Mackey, C Evan Swindall, DE C.J. Johnson, LB Mike Marry, S Charles Sawyer, P Tyler Campbell

Key losses
RB Brandon Bolden, OT Bobby Massie, OT Bradley Sowell, DE Kentrell Lockett, DE Wayne Dorsey, S Damien Jackson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Jeff Scott* (529 yards)
Passing: Randall Mackey* (1,112 yards)
Receiving: Donte Moncrief* (454 yards)
Tackles: Mike Marry* (81)
Sacks: Wayne Dorsey (3)
Interceptions: Charles Sawyer* (4)

Spring answers

1. Secondary strength: With questions swirling surrounding Nickolas Brassell’s eligibility, some of the best news this spring for the Rebels centered around the play of cornerbacks Dehendret Collins and Wesley Pendleton. They were junior college teammates and look like they will be manning the starting corner positions this fall for Ole Miss. Add junior safety Charles Sawyer to the mix, and it’s a unit that should be much improved, especially if Brassell makes it academically and heralded true freshman Trae Elston is everything the Rebels think he is.

2. Kicking and screaming: It’s hard to find a team in the SEC that kicks it much better than the Rebels do with their combination of senior place-kicker Bryson Rose and senior punter Tyler Campbell. Rose was 9-of-11 on field goals last season and made 17 straight field goal attempts between 2010 and 2011, which was one shy of the SEC record. Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt and was second in the league with 28 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

3. Freezing them out: First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze spent much of the spring and offseason putting his stamp on the program. Not only do the Rebels have a new spread offense, but several of the players said there’s a new mindset, specifically when it comes to discipline and accountability. The players split into accountability groups, and they policed themselves. If one member of that group did something wrong or ran astray, they all were punished. Freeze exited the spring feeling as if everyone were on the same page in terms of knowing what the expectations were.

Fall questions

1. Making the grade: Junior running back Jeff Scott and Brassell are on the border academically and still have work to do to be eligible. Both players played in the spring game, but missed some practice time. The Rebels are in need of big-play guys on offense. Scott provides that with his speed. Brassell will play cornerback, but the Rebels also plan to use him situationally on offense. Tobias Singleton has moved from receiver to running back. If Scott and Brassell aren’t around this fall, that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Singleton in the backfield.

2. Shackelford’s health: The Rebels could desperately use D.T. Shackelford’s production and leadership on defense in 2012, but there’s no guarantee that he will be fully recovered from a second knee surgery this past March. He missed all of last season after tearing his ACL two springs ago. His knee didn’t respond to that first surgery, and he had to undergo a second procedure just prior to the start of this spring practice. Shackelford, a junior linebacker, led the Rebels with five sacks in 2010. More importantly, he’s the kind of player everybody rallies around. Getting him back would be huge for the Rebels.

3. Offensive line development: It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback or who’s running the ball if the offensive line doesn’t jell and play with more consistency than it did a year ago. The anchor is junior center Evan Swindall, but the Rebels need guys such as senior A.J. Hawkins and junior Emmanuel McCray to keep progressing. They moved some players around this spring up front, and several of them have starting experience. But they were still adjusting to the new spread offense, so finding the right combination will be critical in the fall.

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