SEC: Roc Thomas

The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.

But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.

Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).

The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.

After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:

  1. Auburn
  2. Georgia
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Arkansas
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Texas A&M
  9. Missouri
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Florida
  13. Kentucky
  14. Vanderbilt

FIRST ROUND

In Memphis, Tennessee

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry looks to build on a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M

SECOND ROUND

In Charlotte, North Carolina

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWill Muschamp takes over an Auburn passing defense that was ranked 86th in yards per game allowed last season.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn

In Orlando, Florida

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee

FINAL FOUR

In Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn

One thing's for sure in the SEC: It is definitely not the Year of the Quarterback, but it will be the Year of Finding the Quarterback.

At least five teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina -- will be breaking in new quarterbacks, while three others -- Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt -- could potentially have new signal-callers under center thanks to intriguing quarterback battles. Then, you have Arkansas and Missouri, which must have better play at quarterback if those teams are going to make championship runs in 2015.

Ten SEC teams have some sort of serious quarterback question, but there's good news for most: There are quality running backs to help carry the load. Those backfield bulls are back to help push when quarterbacks can't. There are safety nets all around the league that could help quarterbacks needing a boost this fall.

For instance, look at Georgia. The Bulldogs return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, but for the second straight year will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. The difference in 2015 is that the Dawgs are dealing with both youth and inexperience. But whichever quarterback makes the final cut will have the pleasure of handing the off to Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb, who might have been the SEC's best running back last year, rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry should alleviate the pressure on whichever new quarterback Alabama has under center next fall.
And he has friends. Fellow sophomore Sony Michel is back with his 410 yards and five touchdowns, while the hope is that veteran Keith Marshall will bounce back from another tough knee injury.

Turn your attention a little southwest of Athens, and you'll find an Alabama team wondering if Jake Coker can finally take over this team or if some youngster will be thrown in the fire. The good thing about that fire is that rising junior Derrick Henry is there to fan the flames. Despite being second in carries last year (172) Henry led Alabama with 990 rushing yards and had 11 touchdowns. Like Chubb, Henry is a freight train with his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame and track star speed. Couple that with the eventual return of home-run threat Kenyan Drake (leg) and some talented youngsters, like freshman Bo Scarbrough, and Alabama's next quarterback has quite the stable to work with and relieve some of the pressure.

Auburn is an interesting case because Nick Marshall is gone, but the more pass-savvy Jeremy Johnson is the runaway favorite at quarterback. Still, he's a new starter, and the Tigers lost SEC-leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards). Sophomore Roc Thomas has loads of potential, and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson could be a star in the making. Auburn has owned the SEC's top rusher in each of Gus Malzahn's first two years as the Tigers' head coach so don't be shocked by another dominant running game.

For Arkansas and Missouri, it's about making sure their returning starting quarterbacks are, well, better. Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Maty Mauk (Missouri) struggled mightily at times last year and were wildly inconsistent, as neither completed better than 56 percent of his passes and both failed to average even 190 yards per game. That's not even close to good enough if either one of these teams is going to make a run in 2015.

Arkansas returns the SEC's best rushing duo in Jonathan Williams (1,190) and Alex Collins (1,100), which definitely has to have Allen smiling. Mizzou will have quite a few new faces around Mauk, but Russell Hansbrough was one of the SEC's best running backs, registering 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers should go up with Marcus Murphy gone and with the likelihood that the Tigers will probably be a more run-oriented team early this fall.

Two other teams to keep an eye on are LSU and South Carolina. The Tigers have a very intriguing QB battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, and while LSU has to be exceedingly better at quarterback, having an older, wiser Leonard Fournette handling the rock will certainly help. Fournette didn't exactly explode onto the scene as quickly as everyone envisioned last year, but he finished with 1,034 yards and will return as a Heisman favorite. There's isn't a lot of experience behind him, but Fournette is built to be both an every-down rusher and a slasher.

South Carolina lost starting quarterback Dylan Thompson and starting running back Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds has 1,277 career rushing yards and should be Mr. Reliable for South Carolina's new starting quarterback, which will likely by redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch. Wilds isn't elite, but he's tough and a grinder.

Even Vanderblit, which has a log-jam battle at quarterback, has a solid running back in sophomore Ralph Webb, who ran for 907 yards last year, but has to improve on his four touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry.

On paper, the SEC has enough wealth at running back to counter the newbies and uncertainty at quarterback. These guys aren't total cures, but their play will go a long way toward shoring up those uncertain passing games.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: RB

February, 24, 2015
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One thing the SEC will never be short on is talented running backs. This league is consistently very deep at the position, and 2015 is no exception. The league is loaded with immediate star power and has a few youngsters waiting in the wings to really strut their stuff in 2015. Good luck defenses.

1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind them, the Hogs have some talented depth to keep any eye on, starting with redshirt freshman Juan Day and fullback Kody Walker, whom the coaches really like, and 2015 signee Rawleigh Williams III.

2. Georgia: There’s no debate right now that sophomore Nick Chubb returns as the SEC’s best running back. Actually, after rushing for 1,547 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts (all 100-yard performances), Chubb might be the nation’s best returning running back. Fellow sophomore Soachny Michel rushed for 410 yards and five touchdowns last year, and veteran Keith Marshall is almost back to full speed after dealing with injury yet again last year.

3. Alabama: Derrick Henry is one of the SEC’s best pure athletes and led the Crimson Tide in rushing last year (990) despite having 22 less carries than starter T.J. Yeldon. Henry is a bull and homerun threat, but the return of veteran Kenyan Drake (leg) will provide Alabama with the perfect complement in the backfield with his tremendous speed and elusiveness. The arrival of talented freshman Bo Scarbrough was a blessing with the transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the indefinite suspension of Tyren Jones.

4. Tennessee: There certainly is something special about sophomore Jalen Hurd, and it’s scary to think what he’ll learn/do in 2015. There’s little doubt that Hurd will surpass his 899 yards from last year. The Vols are pretty thin here, but the arrival of junior college transfer – and former Alabama running back – Alvin Kamara is a very welcomed one. The coaches think the shifty back could be special and should complement Hurd well. Tennessee also signed John Kelly.

5. LSU: Leonard Fournette took a little longer to develop than Chubb, but there’s no denying his ability, strength and athleticism. Fournette finished his freshman year with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, but should be even better in 2015. Sophomore Darrel Williams (302 yards) is a fan favorite, but depth is on the unproven side. LSU did sign three running backs this year, including two ESPN 300 members.

6. Auburn: The Tigers lost two productive seniors, including SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, but sophomore Roc Thomas could be a special talent. However, keep an eye on Jovon Robinson, who was the nation’s No. 1 juco running back. He rushed for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, and might be the favorite to start. Peyton Barber is another solid option returning, but in Gus Malzahn’s system, any running back can be uber-successful.

7. Missouri: Russell Hansbroughh is one of the league’s best and had a breakout year in 2014 with his 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. His role will increase even more with the departure of Marcus Murphy. The Tigers then have some unproven parts though. Freshman Ish Witter ran for 101 yards last year, and Morgan Steward could be the No. 2 back if he can successfully return from last year’s hip injury. Youngster Trevon Walters is a speedster, and the Tigers finally got JUCO Chase Abbington on campus.

8. Texas A&M: Trey Williams’ somewhat surprising depature to the NFL leaves a hole at running back, but Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are back. Carson, who led the team with 581 rushing yards last year, should be the feature back, but Brandon Williams has a lot of potential; he just needs to put everything together. The coaches are also excited about sophomore James White, who played sparingly last year, but can do a little bit of everything at running back.

9. South Carolina: Mike Davis’ departure hurts, but the Gamecocks are in good hands with former walk-on Brandon Wilds taking over the lead back role. The senior has 1,277 career rushing yards, including gaining 570 last year. Redshirt sophomore David Williams has caught the eyes of his coaches after his reserve role in 2014. Maybe this is the season senior Shon Carson, who has shown flashes in the past, can finally contribute more, too.

10. Florida: The Gators lost their best running back in Matt Jones to the NFL draft, but it’s time for junior Kelvin Taylor prove that he can be a leader and an every-down back for the Gators. He has just one 100-yard game in two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Adam Lane showed some promise with his 109-yard bowl performance, and you have to wonder if undersized Brandon Powell will stay at running back. Freshman Jordan Scarlett could see immediate playing time this fall.

11. Mississippi State: Bowling ball Josh Robinson is gone, but the there’s certainly some depth to work with in Starkville. However, no one there is quite sure who is going to be the lead back or if things will operate by committee. Ashton Shumpert played well down the stretch last year, but impressions out of practice were that freshman Aeris Williams might have been the best of them all. Like Shumpert, Brandon Holloway also rushed for nearly 300 yards last year.

12. Kentucky: The loss of Braylon Heard to the NFL early didn’t help, but this position was in need of some major work anyway. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp were OK last year, but the Wildcats need them to be much better this fall. The two combined for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Mikel Horton rushed for 302 yards last year, so he’ll definitely be in the mix, too.

13. Vanderbilt: Sophomore Ralph Webb almost ran for 1,000 yards last year, and might be the Commodores’ best offensive threat. However, the Dores will need more than just Webb to get the running game going, and right now that’s a problem with only two other returning backs. Sophomore Dallas Rivers is the only other back returning with any sort of real production (218 yards). Vandy will have to get their two incoming freshman ready immediately.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren’t great here last year to begin with. Ole Miss ranked 74th nationally in rushing and Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Bigger back Jordan Wilkins needs to be more productive than his 361 yards from last year. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodsonhave transferred, leaving Ole Miss thin here. A lot will be expected – and likely needed -- from freshman Eric Swinney.
Anybody projecting Auburn as a playoff contender is placing a lot of faith in potential.

This is a program that tumbled back to earth in 2014, falling from BCS National Championship game participant one season to 8-5 the next, with losses in four of its last five games. But the potential certainly exists for Gus Malzahn’s Tigers to make a playoff run.

For starters, the Malzahn-Rhett Lashlee combination has proven effective at putting points on the board. The Tigers lose a lot of skill talent – namely quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates – but the offense will still have plenty of firepower.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson has done well in fill-in opportunities.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson (57-135, 858 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs in his first two seasons) seems to be the front-runner to inherit the starting job, and he has been outstanding in limited playing time. Roc Thomas, Kerryon Johnson and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson are more than capable enough to carry the Tigers’ ground game. And Duke Williams and Ricardo Louis already have made some huge plays at wideout.

In other words, the offense will be fine. But how quickly will new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp be able to turn around a bunch that surrendered nearly 27 points and 400 yards per game in 2014? That’s the key to Auburn’s New Year’s Six hopes.

Adding Muschamp was an enormous coup for Auburn, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts getting results in his return to the Tigers. Auburn returns eight starters, plus star defensive end Carl Lawson should be back after missing the 2014 season following knee surgery.

If Muschamp makes an immediate difference and Auburn’s reloading offense clicks while facing a challenging early schedule – the Tigers face Louisville in Atlanta, visit LSU and host Mississippi State within the first four games – this team could make some noise.

They close the SEC schedule with games against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, and all but the A&M game will be at home.

What could go wrong: Auburn’s defense has been a mess more often than not since Tommy Tuberville left town. The Tigers’ schedule is difficult enough that if Muschamp’s defense is slow to adapt to his teaching, Auburn could be out of the playoff conversation before midseason.

Preseason evaluations on the Tigers are mixed, with various college football writers ranking Auburn anywhere from second to 14th. Our own Mark Schlabach has the Tigers 12th in his Way-Too-Early Top 25 and the ESPN Stats & Information group ranks Auburn 18th in its Preseason Football Power Index.

Somewhere between those two spots feels like a reasonable place to rank the Tigers at this point. There are so many questions to answer that they simply are not a sure bet to jump back to the top of the heap in the challenging Western Division. They can get back there, but a lot of things will have to go right – much like they did during the Tigers’ unlikely run to the 2013 SEC title.
College football is getting younger and younger. Gone are the days of just relying on upperclassmen to guide your football programs. Really, gone are the days of waiting for freshmen to develop.

Getting guys on the field earlier and earlier is more than just the norm, it's a necessity. Just look at all the young skill players tearing it up around the country.

The SEC has a treasure trove of young stars, so today we're going to look at rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on in 2015.

Now, we aren't going to talk about the obvious guys. No All-SEC members from the coaches or the Associated Press. That's just too easy. We're diving into guys who just slid under the title of star in 2014 and could jump right in to the limelight this fall.

Here are the obvious guys who either made All-SEC teams, were honorable mentions or already are well known:
There are a ton of youngsters to choose from, so this certainly wasn't easy, but here are 10 rising sophomores and redshirt freshman from the SEC to keep an eye on in 2015:

EAST

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsJosh Malone didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but expectations for him remain high.
Will Grier, QB, Florida: He redshirted last year but will be in an all-out battle with Harris for the starting job. Some feel he might be more suited to run new coach Jim McElwain's more pro-style offense.

Jacob Park, QB, Georgia: Another quarterback who redshirted in 2014, Park will challenge for the starting spot in Athens, and he might be the most physically gifted of the three guys competing for that job this spring.

Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia: He really came on at the end of last season, proving to be one of the Bulldogs' best pass-rushers. He finished the year with 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

Isaiah McKenzie, WR/RS, Georgia: Running back Sony Michel should be fun to watch too, but McKenzie has a chance to really take a big step forward in the receiving, rushing and return game. He registered 684 all-purpose yards in 2014.

Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia: Sanders started all 13 games for the Bulldogs last season and finished the year on a very high note with a two-interception performance in Georgia's bowl win over Louisville.

Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky: He started seven games last season and finished the year with 10 tackles. He has to become a more disruptive player up front, but he really has a chance to help this defense in 2015.

Chris Lammons, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense will be a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser in 2015, and Lammons could be a big part of the improvements in the secondary.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: The Vols return a pretty deep receiving corps, but Malone could have a bright future in Knoxville and should improve on his 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown from 2014.

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee: Another talented, young weapon in the Vols' offense, Wolf made an instant impact as a freshman and should continue to be a key part of the Vols' aerial attack in 2015.

Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt: Not much went right for the Commodores in 2014, but Bowden could be a budding star. He led Vandy with 78 tackles and added two tackles for loss and a sack.

WEST

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Marquis Haynes led Ole Miss in sacks.
Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: He registered only seven tackles with two sacks in 2014, but Hand, a former five-star prospect, is a monster talent for the Tide who should see plenty of time this fall.

Marlon Humphrey/Tony Brown, CBs, Alabama: Brown played in 13 games, making two starts, while Humphrey redshirted. Alabama had issues at corner all year and these two youngsters, who might be the most talented corners on the team, will have every opportunity to take both starting spots.

Cam Sims, WR, Alabama: With Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones all departing, Alabama will be rebuilding at receiver. Sims, a former top high school prospect, could jump right into a key role at receiver for the Tide.

Jojo Robinson, WR, Arkansas: Coaches knew that he was really talented when he arrived last year, but he wasn't ready. There are high hopes for the former four-star prospect, who has a chance to make a strong impact in Arkansas' passing game.

Roc Thomas, RB, Auburn: In a crowded backfield, Thomas played in 12 games and registered 214 rushing yards with two touchdowns. With both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, Thomas will take over as Auburn's lead back so of course he'll be productive.

Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU: Eligibility issues cut into Valentine's chances of playing in 2014, but he has the potential to be a major player up front for the Tigers. He was probably physically ready to play last year.

Clifton Garrett, LB, LSU: Garrett didn’t really play much last season but was one of LSU's top prospects in its 2014 recruiting class. Garrett just wasn’t ready last season, but that will all change this year.

Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State: While he sat out the 2014 season, the good news is that he's built like Benardrick McKinney, who just left Starkville for the NFL. He's a big, fast, strong, long, athletic linebacker, who the coaches are very excited about.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: With Cody Prewitt gone, Hampton should step right in at that safety spot. There was even talk before the 2014 season that he could have replaced Prewitt and moved him to linebacker. He already has had good field experience, playing in 13 games.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: The Rebels are loaded with defensive line talent, but Haynes was Ole Miss' best pass-rusher in 2014. He started four of the 13 games he played in and led the team with 7.5 sacks while tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.

Teams to watch in the 2015 SEC race

January, 14, 2015
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Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
Nick Chubb or Leonard Fournette? It’s a debate that will continue all offseason. We even discussed it in today’s “Take Two.” But when discussing those two and which one was the best freshman running back in the SEC, there should be another name in the conversation: Jalen Hurd.

The Tennessee freshman finished with 899 rushing yards, 221 receiving yards and seven touchdowns his first year on campus. His rushing totals might not be on par with Chubb or Fournette, but he did a little bit of everything for the Volunteers and was a big reason why they played in a bowl game.

“He’s an all-purpose back,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “He’s an extremely well-rounded player. He runs with great physicality. He’s very good in pass protection. He’s good catching the ball out of the backfield.

[+] EnlargeJalen Hurd, Jordan Lomax
Phil Sears/USA TODAY Sports
“And he’s an intelligent player. He’s really studied the game and he’s really come a long ways in understanding our scheme and in particular our pass protections.”

Bajakian believes Hurd will be one of the SEC’s top running backs in 2015. Unlike many freshmen, Hurd got stronger as the season progressed and played some of his best games down the stretch. He rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the team’s last five games.

Against South Carolina on Nov. 1, Hurd rushed for a career-high 125 yards and his nifty 21-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-6 late in the game might have saved Tennessee’s season. If he doesn’t spin out of a tackle, the Vols don’t win that game.

That same intensity was there Jan. 2 in the TaxSlayer Bowl, when Hurd had rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns by the end of the first quarter. He was finishing his runs and picking up yards after contact, making it clear he wanted the ball in his hands. The former ESPN 300 prospect finished with 122 rushing yards in Tennessee’s 45-28 victory over Iowa.

"Jalen is one of those individuals who has continued to get better and better and better," Vols’ head coach Butch Jones told reporters after the game. "I just think [his performance] was up to his standard, what we expect from him."

The future is clearly bright for the Vols, and Hurd has a lot to do with that. He won’t be on any Heisman Trophy ballots heading into next season like his counterparts, but don’t let that fool you. He belongs in that upper echelon alongside Chubb and Fournette.

It's scary to think that all three of those players still have at least two seasons of college football left to play. But they’re not alone. The running back Class of 2014 was good to the SEC.

Kentucky freshman Stanley “Boom” Williams rushed for 100 yards or more on three occasions and capped his season with a career-high 126 rushing yards and two touchdowns against rival Louisville.

At Auburn, Roc Thomas was stuck behind the SEC’s leading rusher, Cameron Artis-Payne, this season. He played a bigger role in the second half of the season, but never got going. That could change next year with Artis-Payne moving on.

And then there’s Chubb’s teammate, Sony Michel. He missed five games to injury, but when he did play, he was terrific.

Who said the SEC was a quarterback league? The running backs are taking over.
The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.
Dak Prescott, Robert NkemdicheIcon Sportswire, AP PhotoDak Prescott and Robert Nkemdiche give the Mississippi schools plenty of hope for 2015.

Now is not the time for excuses.

Don’t tell me about a lack of motivation. Don’t tell me about key injuries. Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me about luck.

Last week, the SEC was exposed. The West, in particular, failed. Miserably. Undeniably. Disappointingly.

If we’re being honest about what we saw, it was destruction. Ole Miss fell flat on its face. Mississippi State continued its downward slide. Auburn’s defense, once again, had the resistance of a wet napkin. And Alabama, supposedly the best of the them all, couldn’t function on third down -- the money down -- if it’s life depended on it.

And before you start saying that it was about the SEC beating itself, stop. TCU, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Ohio State weren’t lucky beneficiaries; they were the better teams. Period. The Big Ten and Big 12 were superior conferences this bowl season.

Try that on for size: The SEC was a second-tier league when it mattered. Before any talk of next season, that must be accepted as fact.

But for how long can we expect that to continue? A week after the league’s meltdown on the national stage, that feels like the logical question.

Here’s a guess at the answer: Right up until the preseason polls come out.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette posted 100 rushing yards in five of LSU's final nine games.
It’s going to whip the #SECBias posse into a frenzy, but the league isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Because when you start projecting who will be among the top teams in college football next season, it’s going to look oddly familiar: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State. Nick Chubb will carry Georgia into the mix, and with enough good feelings toward Jim McElwain, the East might even gain more representation in the top 25.

A decade’s worth of dominance can’t be wiped away in a single bowl season. But more importantly, neither can a decade’s worth of recruiting.

Though the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all will surge forward in 2015, none will have the cache of talent the SEC still enjoys. None will lay claim to the same number of NFL-ready prospects.

When ESPN’s Scouts Inc. compiled its top 25 non-draft-eligible players last month, 13 hailed from the SEC. The next-closest conference: the ACC with five. Ole Miss alone had that many underclassmen on the list.

Before we start declaring Alabama’s dynasty dead, consider that the Crimson Tide are running out the clock on their fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class. If Jake Coker doesn’t work out replacing Blake Sims at quarterback, Nick Saban can turn to a pair of blue-chip prospects in David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. If they need help, there’s always Derrick Henry to hand the ball off to.

The other side to the Iron Bowl should be fine as well. Nick Marshall may be gone, but Jeremy Johnson has been preparing for his chance to lead Auburn for two years now. Thanks to Duke Williams’ return at receiver and the running back tandem of Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, Gus Malzahn’s offense should keep on humming. Coupled with the addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, the Tigers might find that scoring 30 points is enough.

LSU, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up. With Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre to build around, the offense is in good shape. And the defense, in spite of the loss of coordinator John Chavis, is still stacked with talent across the board.

The state of Mississippi may be hurting now, but that pain will soon give way to hope as both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have reasons to believe that next year could yield a breakthrough. The Rebs reload thanks to back-to-back stellar recruiting classes and could find better consistency at QB with Bo Wallace gone. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs already have their playmaker under center in Dak Prescott and a solid defensive line thanks to future pro Chris Jones.

And that’s just the teams that lost their bowl games from the SEC West.

In the division, there’s still Arkansas and Texas A&M to consider. No one will be caught sleeping on the Hogs in 2015, and with a change at coordinator, the Aggies might develop a defense to match the production on the other side of the ball.

In the East, Florida is a sleeping giant, and Georgia is a QB away from breaking through. Missouri is a program that in spite of appearances always finds a way, and keep an eye on Tennessee. The Vols blew out Iowa in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl, and Butch Jones has compiled a recruiting class that currently ranks sixth nationally.

If you’re setting the over/under on the number of preseason top 25 teams from the SEC, where does it lie? Say for argument’s sake that it’s eight. Do you dare take the under? If so, who do you leave out?

While preseason polls carry as much weight as skinny-armed Rob Lowe, it illustrates a point about perception. Today the perception is the SEC is an overinflated bubble that’s poised to pop, if it hasn’t already. But soon that will change.

The rest of the Power 5 conferences should enjoy mocking the SEC’s failures this bowl season. After the runaway hype of the regular season and how things ultimately played out, they have every right to call the West a joke and question the conference's strength as a whole.

When the playoff runs its course on Monday, it will have been two years without a national champion from the SEC.

Let's repeat that number: two. After seven titles in seven years.

Since when is a two-year drought the End of Days? The league isn't exactly wandering Egypt right now.

Downgrade the SEC if you must, but be careful because the league isn’t dead. The divide between conferences is just becoming thinner.
When Sammie Coates declared early for the NFL draft, the future prospects looked bleak for the Auburn receiving corps. Most assumed teammate and fellow wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams would join Coates and put his name in the draft as well, and the Tigers would lose more than 1,400 yards receiving and nine touchdowns from their offense.

However, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn announced Monday that Williams would be returning to school for his senior season.

Hallelujah. That was likely the reaction from quarterback Jeremy Johnson.

Set to take over for Nick Marshall next season, Johnson is already considered by many to be the best backup quarterback in the SEC. He has thrived in the limited opportunities he’s had, and he’s one of the league’s top breakout candidates for 2015.

“Jeremy Johnson has proven himself over the last two years to be as good a backup quarterback as there is in the whole country,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He could’ve started a lot of places, including in our league here.”

But it doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t have anybody to throw the ball to, and Johnson was in danger of losing the team’s top three wide receivers.

Coates, a junior, will be gone to the NFL and Quan Bray is a senior, so he’s not coming back. But the return of Williams solidifies the receiver position and gives Johnson a go-to target his first full season as the starter, assuming he wins the job.

The two are already familiar with each other. In the season opener against Arkansas, the first SEC start for both players, Johnson and Williams hooked up on seven passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

“That was nothing surprising,” Johnson said after the game. “That’s what we expect out of him. He’s an NFL-type player. Duke is amazing. That was nothing to me.”

The NFL will have to wait, though. And ultimately, it might turn out to be a blessing for both Johnson and Williams.

The decision to come back might be perplexing to some, especially considering Williams sprained his MCL late in the season, but can you imagine a full, healthy season catching passes from Johnson? No offense to Marshall, who set the single-game school record for passing yards at Alabama his last time out, but Johnson is the better passer.

So while Williams will help Johnson next year, Johnson will help Williams just as much, if not more. It’s a win-win for both players and ultimately a win for Auburn.

Not that anybody was worried about Malzahn’s offense, but with Johnson taking over at quarterback, Williams turning down the NFL, offensive guard Alex Kozan returning from injury, and a backfield consisting of Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the Tigers should once again have one of the top offenses in the SEC.

Auburn season review

December, 15, 2014
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Auburn looked like a playoff contender early in the season, blowing out Arkansas in the opener and winning on the road at Kansas State. Even after a loss to Mississippi State, the Tigers were ranked as high as No. 3 in early November. But that’s when it started to fall apart. Defensive struggles plus a rigorous schedule finally caught up to them, and what looked to be a promising year turned into a disappointment on the Plains.

Best win: Winning at Kansas State early in the season was impressive, but the road victory at Ole Miss takes the cake. It was a classic SEC showdown: No. 3 versus No. 4. The teams went back and forth, trading go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After Cameron Artis-Payne scored to give the Tigers lead, it looked like Ole Miss was going to return the favor in the final minutes. Laquon Treadwell caught a pass and knifed his way through the defense, but just as he was about to score, Auburn linebacker Kris Frost pulled Treadwell down from behind and the ball came loose. Auburn recovered and escaped with a 35-31 win.

Worst loss: Auburn was at least competitive in every loss but one -- a 34-7 defeat to Georgia. The Tigers went down and scored on their opening drive to take an early lead, but those were the only points they got all game. Georgia’s defense swallowed up Nick Marshall and the potent Auburn rushing attack, and the Tigers had no answers for Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb, who combined to rush for 282 yards and three touchdowns.

Player of the year: Artis-Payne was the SEC’s leading rusher. Reese Dismukes was arguably the league’s top offensive lineman. But Marshall is who makes this offense go. The senior quarterback hasn’t received as much credit as he did a year ago, but his numbers are actually better. He threw for more yards (2,315) and touchdowns (18), and though his rushing numbers were down slightly, he still rushed for 780 yards and 11 touchdowns, second only to Dak Prescott among SEC quarterbacks. Marshall might translate better as a defensive back at the next level, but he was the perfect signal-caller for Gus Malzahn’s offense.

Breakout player: It didn’t take long for fans to know the name D’haquille “Duke” Williams. In his first game at Auburn, the junior college wide receiver finished with nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. Despite missing the better part of three games, Williams still finished among the conference’s top 10 in receptions (45) and receiving yards (730). He quickly became Marshall’s go-to target and was the perfect complement to fellow wide receiver Sammie Coates, the team’s deep threat. Williams might be a one-and-done on the Plains, but similar to Cam Newton, fans will remember his name long after he’s gone.

Play of the year: Marshall is one of the best in the country at throwing the deep ball, and Coates made a habit of making spectacular catches. This might have been his best of the year. The junior wide receiver made a circus catch with LSU defenders Rashard Robinson and Jalen Mills draped all over him and scored on the 56-yard connection. It might not have been the "kick-six" from a year ago, but it was still pretty impressive.

video 2015 outlook: Let’s start with the bad news. Auburn will lose Marshall, Artis-Payne, Dismukes and possibly Williams and/or Coates. That’s a pretty big chunk of the offense. The good news is that Jeremy Johnson, the SEC’s best backup quarterback, will finally get his chance to start, and the Tigers will be just fine at running back with Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and the addition of Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC50. The defense will also get a much-needed facelift with Will Muschamp taking over as defensive coordinator. The former Florida head coach is considered one of the best defensive minds in college football. The losses mentioned above would be crippling to most teams but not Auburn. This team will likely be in the playoff conversation against next season.

Alabama vs. Auburn primer

November, 28, 2014
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Throw out the records when Alabama and Auburn meet this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. It doesn't matter that the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 and playing for a spot in the SEC championship. This is the Iron Bowl. If we learned anything from last year's game, it's to expect the unexpected when these two in-state rivals clash.

Auburn has been trending in the wrong direction the past month, but the Tigers, though out of the playoff hunt, still have a chance to post back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1988-89 and only the second time in school history.

Both teams have plenty to play for Saturday. Here is a breakdown of the game:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's key against Auburn is to keep Nick Marshall from turning the game into a shootout.
Alabama's key to victory: Blake Sims shouldn't have trouble moving the ball seeing as how Auburn ranks ninth in the SEC in yards per game (375.0). So the real concern is avoiding a shootout, and that means the front seven stuffing Auburn's vaunted rushing game. With Nick Marshall running point and Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Roc Thomas to hand the ball off to, defending the zone-read won't be easy. It will mean the linemen minding their gaps and middle linebackers Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest reading their keys precisely. If outside linebackers Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson lose containment, it could mean big gains.

Auburn's key to victory: Obviously, it's important for Auburn to establish the run and pick up yards outside the tackles. That's an area where the Tigers struggled in their loss to Georgia two weeks ago. But if Auburn wants to win Saturday, it's up to the defense. This is a unit that has regressed all season, but if there was ever a time to step up, this is it. Don't expect the Tigers to shut down Alabama. However, if they can get turnovers, stops in the red zone and get off the field on third down, they will have a chance. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have been solid all season. Auburn needs them to be great Saturday.

Alabama X-factor: T.J. Yeldon needs to be close to 100 percent against Auburn. The difference he makes is too important to sum up in things like yards and touchdowns. Though he may not be Alabama's flashiest tailback, he is, as Nick Saban said earlier this week, its "most effective guy all the way around." That means running, blocking and receiving. Sims said Yeldon even helps him with calling out the protections before the snap. With the pressure of the Iron Bowl and a potential spot in the playoff weighing heavily, having Yeldon's experience and ability on the field will be invaluable.

Auburn's X-factor: Similar to Yeldon, Auburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams isn't quite at 100 percent. But he's planning to play this Saturday regardless. Williams, who leads the team in receptions (38), yards (609) and touchdowns (five), missed the last two games after straining his MCL against Texas A&M earlier this month. The offense struggled as a result. Now he's back in what could be his one and only Iron Bowl. Alabama has done OK against similar wide receivers this season -- players like Laquon Treadwell, Marquez North and De'Runnya Wilson -- but when healthy, Williams is on a different level.

Playoff impact: Win and you're in. That's the situation facing Alabama, even if the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1. With one loss already, another would simply be too much to overcome. Mississippi State, if it beats Ole Miss, would jump into first place in the West and play for the SEC title. Meanwhile, Baylor, TCU and Ohio State would get their wish and bicker over the remaining fourth playoff spot.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 13

November, 26, 2014
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Compared to two weekends ago, when the SEC's true freshmen collectively had their best Saturday of the season, last weekend was relatively quiet for the group. Still, several of the rookies had big games on Saturday.

Here are five who stood out and six more notables:

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did: In the Volunteers' loss to Missouri, Barnett finished second on the team with eight tackles, plus he posted half a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.

What it means: The freshman continues to be one of the SEC's most consistent pass-rushers, increasing his total of tackles for loss to 18.5 against Mizzou. He is second in the SEC in TFLs and his nine sacks are tied for third with teammate Curt Maggitt.

KOR Evan Berry, Tennessee

What he did: The little brother of Volunteers legend Eric Berry, Evan returned four kickoffs for 121 yards (30.3 yards per return) against Missouri, including a 58-yard runback in the second quarter that set up a field goal.

What it means: The freshman speedster took over the kickoff return duties around midseason and has handled the job extremely well. In 13 returns, Berry is averaging 30.9 yards per return with a long of 68 yards against Chattanooga. He has a return of at least 33 yards in each of the six games where he has returned a kick.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did: Chubb's string of games with at least 140 rushing yards ended at five, but only because the Bulldogs didn't need to use Chubb after the earlygoing against Charleston Southern. He accumulated 113 rushing yards on just nine carries and scored on touchdown runs of 83 and 8 yards.

What it means: He piled up all of that yardage in the first half alone, so it's not like Chubb's production dropped off at all in the blowout win. In fact, the 83-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was Georgia's longest since 1985 and the eighth-longest in school history. Entering this weekend's game against Georgia Tech, Chubb has 1,152 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and is a full-fledged star who no longer sits in Todd Gurley's shadow.

QB Treon Harris, Florida

What he did: Harris suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky and sat out most of the second half of the 52-3 victory. To that point, he was 4-for-12 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus he had run five times for 8 yards.

What it means: The good news is that Harris' knee contusion will not keep him out of this week's game against Florida State. Harris has helped the Gators' offense become more effective since he entered the starting lineup four games ago -- a stretch where Florida is 3-1.

DL Gerald Willis, Florida

What he did: Willis recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown and also recorded five tackles and a quarterback hurry in Florida's blowout win against Eastern Kentucky.

What it means: Willis was a huge recruit for the Gators, but has had a quiet first season for the most part. He has just 10 tackles in six games this fall. Willis and several youngsters on the defensive line had good games on Saturday, showing that the future should be bright along the line of scrimmage in 2015 and beyond.

Other notables:

DB Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee: Recorded a career-high six tackles against Missouri.

PK Aaron Medley, Tennessee: Made field goals of 38 and 39 yards and hit his only PAT try against Missouri.

DB Malkom Parrish, Georgia: Recorded four tackles and a tackle for loss against Charleston Southern.

PK Gunnar Raborn, Alabama: Made field goals of 20 and 28 yards and went 6-for-6 on PATs in a 48-14 win against Western Carolina.

WR Cam Sims, Alabama: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass for Alabama's first score and finished with three receptions for 33 yards against Western Carolina.

RB Roc Thomas, Auburn: Ran five times for 26 yards against Samford and scored on a 1-yard run, plus he made two receptions for 2 yards.
How will this Auburn team look in 2015? The Tigers will have a new quarterback, new running backs, a new center and a handful of new faces on the defense. Will the offense change? Will Ellis Johnson still be the defensive coordinator?

Obviously we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, not when Auburn still has the Iron Bowl next week. But Saturday’s game against Samford might give us a small glimpse into that future as a number of backups and younger players should get their opportunity to play in the second half. It will be good for both the fans and the coaches to see who’s next on the Plains.

Here are five names to keep an eye on Saturday. They might not be starting yet, but they will be by the time next season rolls around.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson should get some chances to throw more on Saturday.
QB Jeremy Johnson: We know the name. There might not be a better backup quarterback in all of college football. But after he lit up Arkansas in the first half of the season opener, Johnson has attempted only 17 passes. In his first action since early October, the sophomore played late in last week’s loss to Georgia and went 4 of 5 for 30 yards. He should play more this week even if it is Nick Marshall’s final home game. The coaches want to give him more reps and make sure he’s ready to go by next season. It’s not the ideal situation for Johnson, who will be handing off more than he normally would, but it’s still an opportunity to get out there and play.

RB Roc Thomas: Ever since the Mississippi State game, Thomas has carved out a bigger role in this offense. The freshman isn’t necessarily getting more carries – Auburn still has Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher – but he’s getting more meaningful carries. He’s making an impact in the first and second quarter as opposed to coming in late when the game is out of hand. Artis-Payne’s day could be done early this Saturday which opens the door for Thomas to not only play early but play often. How will his stats look with 10-15 carries? If given the chance, don’t be surprised if he goes over 100 yards against Samford.

OL Braden Smith: The Auburn coaches have been trying to find ways to get Smith on the field all season. They have even used him as a sixth offensive lineman in some sets. That’s how highly they think of him. And to think, he’s just a freshman. Imagine the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Smith after a year in the program. He’ll be bigger, stronger (if possible) and more experienced. Don’t be surprised if he takes over for Shon Coleman at left tackle next season. At the very least, he’ll make it a competition. Coleman will be the starter this Saturday, but Smith should get another audition over there and another chance to impress the coaching staff.

DE Gimel President: Who? Exactly. President was a three-star recruit who signed with Auburn in 2012. He redshirted his first year and played in only three games last year. This season, he’s been forced into action with the injury to Carl Lawson, and he’s responded. He has 24 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack in nine games. The sophomore hasn’t been as productive as fellow defensive end Davonte Lambert, but his emergence has been a pleasant surprise for a team lacking in that area. With Lawson and Lambert coming back next year, President might not be the first choice to start, but his recent play will put him in the conversation.

DB Nick Ruffin: If Johnson stays on as defensive coordinator, it’s important to find a player who can fill that Star role on the defense. Senior Robenson Therezie has made a ton of plays at the position over the last two years, but he struggles in pass coverage. Ruffin might be a better fit for the future. He’s already played there some this season and while he might not be big enough or strong enough just yet, he’s a natural in pass coverage. If it doesn’t work out at Star, Ruffin could also be an option to replace Jonathon Mincy at cornerback. It will be interesting to see where the coaches play him this Saturday.
On any given Saturday, you are bound to see a true freshman make a play. It is becoming the norm in college football, and the SEC is no different. LSU running back Leonard Fournette looks like he’s ready for the NFL right now and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is as good a pass-rusher as we’ve seen at that age since a kid named Clowney.

But playing early in the SEC isn’t all about talent. It’s about what position you play, too. Some positions are easier to make a quick transition from high school to college while others take years to adjust.

Here’s a position-by-position look at how easy or difficult it is for a true freshman to play in college (10 being the hardest, 1 being the easiest).

Quarterback
Degree of difficulty: 10
Name the last true freshmen quarterback to have success in the SEC. Exactly. Jeremy Johnson was pretty good for Auburn last season, but that was against Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. It’s more typical to see debuts similar to what LSU’s Brandon Harris or Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen had this season. Not only do you have to be able to make more accurate throws, but you have to grasp the offense and make quicker reads at the line of scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU's Leonard Fournette, a true freshman, is making his presence felt in the SEC.
Running back
Degree of difficulty: 3
This number might be higher if not for all the freshman running backs in the SEC who are making it look easy this season. Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb are the two that stand out, but Jalen Hurd has had a solid freshman season at Tennessee and Roc Thomas is beginning to make a bigger impact at Auburn. As long as you are strong enough and fast enough, and you protect the football, you can play running back in the SEC.

Wide receiver
Degree of difficulty: 4
Similar to running back, talent alone can get you on the field early as a wide receiver. There weren’t many like Julio Jones and A.J. Green, but both former SEC stars took the league by storm as freshmen in 2008. Now you’re seeing players like Speedy Noil, Malachi Dupre and Josh Malone step in and make an impact from day one. They might not all be polished, but they can all make plays.

Offensive line
Degree of difficulty: 9
It’s almost impossible for an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman. The game is faster, and you are facing players twice as big and five times stronger than you did in high school. It’s what makes Cam Robinson's season at Alabama that much more impressive. Until a recent ankle injury, Robinson had started every game for the Tide at left tackle, arguably the most important position on the offensive line, and he hasn’t missed a beat.

Defensive line
Degree of difficulty: 7
Defensive tackle? You can almost forget about it. But more and more pass-rushers are coming into the league and playing as freshmen. If you can get to the quarterback, you can play. Garrett is currently second in the SEC with 11 sacks. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is second in the league with 14 tackles for loss. The hardest part for a defensive lineman is to maintain that production for a whole season.

Linebacker
Degree of difficulty: 6
Outside linebacker can be similar to defensive end. The coaches will throw you out there on athleticism alone and expect you to make plays. Middle linebacker is a different story. They are typically the quarterback of the defense. They make the calls, which means they need to know the defense inside and out. That can be a lot for a true freshman who has only been on campus for maybe a couple months.

Defensive back
Degree of difficulty: 8
The difference between wide receiver and cornerback is that if you screw up as a wide receiver, the result is likely an incomplete pass. If you screw up as a cornerback, it could wind up being a touchdown for the other team. Coaches rarely trust true freshmen to play in the secondary, especially at cornerback. Safety can be a little easier to pick up, but a missed assignment or busted coverage could still end very poorly.

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