SEC: Scot Loeffler

Season report card: Auburn

January, 16, 2013
As you might expect, Auburn’s report card for the 2012 season isn't pretty.

OFFENSE: There were a lot of things that went wrong for Auburn this past season, but it was a total train wreck on offense. The Tigers finished 115th nationally (out of 120 FBS teams) in total offense, and tied for 112th in scoring offense. They were held to 13 or fewer points in six of their eight SEC contests, and finished with more turnovers (25) than offensive touchdowns (24). The offensive system utilized by first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler just never meshed with the Tigers’ personnel. The other glaring issue was that Auburn never found any consistency at quarterback, as evidenced by the Tigers’ eight touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. They were abysmal on third down. Kiehl Frazier opened the season as the starter, but struggled to make anything happen in the passing game. Clint Moseley took over midway through the season and was sidelined by an ankle injury. True freshman Jonathan Wallace finished the season as the Tigers’ starter. The only real highlight for Auburn offensively was sophomore running back Tre Mason rushing for 1,002 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Otherwise, it was an unmitigated disaster. GRADE: F

DEFENSE: There was considerable grumbling about Auburn’s defense in 2011, and fairly or unfairly, veteran defensive coordinator Ted Roof was the scapegoat. But things only got worse after Roof departed and gave way to Brian VanGorder. The Tigers were torched for 38 or more points in four of their final five SEC games. They finished next-to-last in the league in total defense, going from giving up an average of 408 yards per game in 2011 to 420.5 yards per game this past season. They only forced 13 turnovers in 12 games, including two interceptions -- which tied for the fewest in college football. Stopping the run was also a huge problem despite a defensive line that was thought to be one of the team’s strengths when the season began. Auburn finished dead last in the SEC in rushing defense (197.6 yards per game) and gave up an average of 263.4 yards on the ground in its last five SEC contests. The Tigers’ best defensive performance came in their 12-10 loss to LSU the fourth week of the season. But after that, they didn’t stop much of anybody. GRADE: F

OVERALL: Just how bad was the 2012 season for Auburn? In short, it was the kind of crash we’d never seen in college football, at least not two years removed from winning a national championship. Clearly, it got away from Gene Chizik after reaching the mountaintop two years earlier, and everything unraveled during a 3-9 season that was Auburn’s worst in 60 years. The Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC for the first time ever, and by the time November arrived, it was obvious that Chizik wasn’t going to survive. He was fired the day after Auburn’s embarrassing 49-0 loss to Alabama to end the season, marking his 11th loss in his last 12 SEC games dating to the 2011 season. The Tigers all but waved the white flag down the stretch and were outscored 150-21 in their last three SEC games. It’s a season they will do their darnedest to forget on the Plains. GRADE: F

Gene Chizik fired at Auburn

November, 25, 2012
Two years ago, Auburn coach Gene Chizik was celebrating an undefeated season and a national championship. On Saturday, he coached his last game as the Tigers' head coach.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesGene Chizik was dismissed two years after leading the Tigers to their first national title since 1957.
The dismissal of Chizik doesn't come as a surprise at all. Two years removed from a national championship, the Tigers ended the 2012 season 3-9 and went 0-8 in SEC play. It was Auburn's worst season since the Tigers went 3-8 overall and 1-7 in SEC play in 1998. It was also the first time Auburn went winless in SEC play since going 0-6 in 1980. The Tigers had never gone 0-8 against SEC opponents in a season.

The Tigers also finished the regular season near the bottom of the SEC in most major offensive and defensive categories and were outscored 340-224 this season, including 272-81 in SEC play.

It definitely didn't help that the Tigers suffered some absolutely embarrassing losses this season. A 63-21 loss to Texas A&M this season was the worst loss by Auburn since its 68-7 loss to Georgia Tech in 1917. Auburn was also shut out in its last two SEC games and was outscored 150-21 in its final three SEC contests. The Tigers have been outscored by archrival Alabama 91-14 in the past two years.

Although Auburn was relatively young this season, the product on the field wasn't getting better as the year went on, and two new coordinators didn't have much of a positive influence on the Tigers in games. With new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, the Tigers finished the season ranked 118th nationally in total offense (305 yards per game), and under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, they ranked 84th in total defense (420.5).

Chizik finished his four-year Auburn career with a 33-19 record (with 14 of those wins coming during the 2010 season) and was 15-17 against SEC opponents. Since winning the national championship in 2010, the Tigers have gone just 11-14 and totally fell apart this fall. There just weren't enough positive signs for the future with Chizik in charge.

Check the SEC blog and for more on Chizik's firing.

Lunchtime links

November, 20, 2012
We're checking out the SEC with some tasty lunch links.

SEC lunch links

September, 28, 2012
Happy Friday! It's time for a few links:

SEC power rankings: Week 3

September, 10, 2012
Another week has gone by and there is even more movement in our power rankings.

The top two teams are still the same, but we have a new No. 3 and there are some changes through the middle (LW: Last week's ranking):

1. Alabama (2-0; LW: 1): Despite what Nick Saban might have told the media, his team deserves all the praise it's getting. The Crimson Tide destroyed a ranked Michigan team in a neutral environment and then shut out a very, very overmatched Western Kentucky team. It could have been much worse in Tuscaloosa over the weekend if Saban didn't take his foot off the gas.

2. LSU (2-0; LW: 2): The Tigers haven't been very flashy, but they haven't needed to. LSU is giving up just 201 yards a game and only 3.47 yards per play. Washington was just another victim when it came to the Tigers' ferocious running game, which has averaged 279 yards in the first two games. LSU hasn't really been tested, but there's no denying that this team is good and should only get better.

3. Georgia (2-0, 1-0; LW: 4): The Bulldogs got a big win in Missouri over the weekend. This team's resiliency has been questioned in the past, but it played at its best in Columbia, Mo., with its back against the wall. Once the Bulldogs get back to full strength on defense, we'll really see how much talent Mark Richt is working with in Athens.

4. South Carolina (2-0, 1-0; LW: 5): Connor Shaw was out and Marcus Lattimore failed to eclipse the 50-yard rushing mark, but the Gamecocks had absolutely no problem overwhelming East Carolina. Dylan Thompson filled in well for Shaw, passing for 330 yards and three touchdowns, while the defense shut down the run. The secondary still has some issues to work out, though.

5. Tennessee (2-0; LW: 6): We're still not sure just how good Tennessee is, but it sure is fun watching that offense. Yes, the quality of opponents can be questioned, but both the offense and defense have looked very good, and there is finally quality depth in Knoxville. Tyler Bray continues to impress with his arm, and he has plenty of weapons to work with. He and his team get a real test Saturday against No. 18 Florida at home.

6. Florida (2-0, 1-0; LW: 7): The Gators squeaked out a win that probably wouldn't have come in the two years prior. It wasn't very pretty overall, but Florida was very impressive after all those second-half adjustments against Texas A&M. This team is tougher and looks more like the physical team Will Muschamp wants. Saturday's trip to Knoxville could really set the tone for the Gators moving forward.

7. Mississippi State (2-0, 1-0; LW: 8): Dan Mullen finally got a win over an SEC West opponent not named Ole Miss with that 28-10 win against Auburn over the weekend. Now, it's all about capitalizing on the weekend's success. The defense totally dominated the Tigers' offense, while Tyler Russell looked as poised as ever. If this team continues to play like it has in the first two weeks, Mississippi State could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Alabama game in late October.

8. Arkansas (1-1; LW: 3): The Razorbacks took a major tumble because of their 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe. After Tyler Wilson went down late in the second quarter, Arkansas had nothing going for itself. The defense was shredded by the Warhawks and the offensive line did a poor job of protecting all night. We found out there's a lot more missing in Fayetteville than just Bobby Petrino. Now, Wilson's health is an issue ...

9. Missouri (1-1, 0-1; LW: 9): No one can say the Tigers didn't play a tough SEC opener against Georgia. The Tigers hung with the Bulldogs for the better part of three quarters, but ran out of gas in the fourth. This team has a lot of talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but it has to be more conditioned to play four quarters in this league. You better believe this team is itching to get back on the field.

10. Texas A&M (0-1; LW: 10): Like Mizzou, the Aggies didn't have enough second-half steam. After leading 17-10 over Florida at halftime, Texas A&M was shut out 10-0 in the second half. This team has the talent up front on offense and defense to compete in this league, but the running game has to generate more between the tackles and have the stamina to compete for four quarters.

11. Ole Miss (2-0; LW: 13): The Rebels have won two straight for the first time since October 2010. The offense is tops in the SEC, averaging 551.5 yards per game. This team is actually fun to watch. OK, so the first two opponents weren't exactly hefty, but they were big wins for a program that has struggled so much recently. Saturday, No. 14 Texas rolls into the Grove.

12. Auburn (0-2; LW: 11): There has to be a lot of concern on the Plains. While the Tigers have a lot of young talent, they're also prone to a lot of mistakes and inefficiency. Kiehl Frazier was turned strictly into a pocket passer -- which Scot Loeffler would eventually like -- and he was completely ineffective against Mississippi State. The offensive line doesn't have much push, and the defense has major tackling issues. If Auburn isn't careful, it could find itself fighting for a bowl berth.

13. Kentucky (1-1; LW: 14): Saturday's 47-14 win against Kent State was huge. If the Wildcats are going to make it back to the postseason, they will need to win the remainder of their nonconference games after dropping the opener to Louisville. Maxwell Smith was also very impressive, passing for 354 yards and four touchdowns. The defense needs to continue to grow before SEC play and will get a chance to fine-tune things against Western Kentucky on Saturday.

14. Vanderbilt (0-2, 0-1; LW: 12): The Commodores suffered a bad loss at Northwestern over the weekend. This offense was supposed to be more explosive this year, but we just haven't seen it. Zac Stacy, who was the top rusher coming back in the SEC this year, has just 84 yards in two games and Vandy's offense ranks 13th in the SEC in total offense. The Commodores are 113th nationally in rushing yards and 112th in scoring.

Who will transform?

August, 31, 2012

It's Kiehl Frazier's time on the Plains.

The sophomore quarterback arrived at Auburn with a load of hype attached to his shoulder pads, but never looked ready to lead the Tigers. Now, he has that chance, as he'll walk onto the Georgia Dome turf in Atlanta on Saturday as Auburn's starting quarterback against No. 14 Clemson in the second game of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

The fans have been waiting. His coaches have been waiting. And he has been waiting. Now is his chance -- on a national stage, no less.

It wasn't easy for Frazier to get here. He was used more as a runner as a freshman, throwing the ball just 12 times with five completions and two interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Frazier hasn't completed a pass that traveled past the line of scrimmage in seven attempts -- unless you count his interceptions. It's no wonder Auburn's staff was so set on running him last year, as he carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

But new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler arrived with his pro-style offense and pledged to turn Frazier into more of a passer. And it appears he has, as Frazier beat out junior Clint Moseley and freshman Jonathan Wallace during fall camp.

Frazier has all of the tools to be sucessful in this league, and now he'll really get to show if he's ready to guide the Tigers. Coach Gene Chizik seems to think so.

“We expect Kiehl to be a leader for this team and to continue to work hard every day," Chizik said. "I am confident in his ability and leadership skills and look forward to watching him progress in both areas.”

And what a stage to do it on. Not only is Auburn playing on national television, but it's against the defending ACC champs. You know, the same champs who are still giving up points to West Virginia. Those Tigers might have a new defensive coordinator in Brent Venables, but questions still remain for a unit that surrendered 70 points to the Mountaineers in last year's Orange Bowl, and ranked 71st nationally in total defense and 81st in scoring defense.

Frazier's job now is to control Auburn's offense. We know how athletic he is. If the pocket breaks down, he knows how to use his feet to get out of trouble. It's time for him to use his arm more and create receiving targets for himself. He'll get plenty of help from Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen, but he'll need to get others involved, such as Trovon Reed, Quan Bray or Travante Stallworth.

He'll have the chances to do that and we'll see a new and improved Frazier Saturday. We saw a one-deminsional Frazier in 2011. He'll be more of a threat to run and throw this fall and that maturation begins Saturday inside the Georgia Dome.

Heading into the spring, the SEC had a few fun quarterback races to watch in both divisions. Some of those battles have come to an end, while a few still remain.

Let's take a look at each one from the spring and see where they currently stand:


The matchup: Sophomore Kiehl Frazier left the spring with the edge because he took most of the reps, as a sore shoulder sidelined junior Clint Moseley. This fall, freshman Jonathan Wallace entered the race and has continued to impress Auburn's staff.

The winner is: Frazier has the most athleticism and has felt much more comfortable throwing the ball with help from first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. While coach Gene Chizik continues to say the race is even between Frazier and Moseley, who is still dealing with shoulder soreness, we'll go with Frazier because of overall talent. He can make more plays with his feet and if his arm really does improve, he could be a solid dual-threat QB in this league.


The matchup: This two-horse race between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel has been intense since the spring. Brissett has had a little bit of the edge because of his game experience last year, but Driskel has made tremendous strides under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

The winner is: Will Muschamp continues to say the race is dead even. Driskel's bruised shoulder didn't even complicate the race. It doesn't sound like anyone really knows who has outperformed the other, but the concensus is the team and the coaches can win with either. With that said, Brissett has more experience and we assume is completely healthy, so we'll go with him, but both should play in the opener.


The matchup: Sophomore Maxwell Smith took all of the first-team reps this spring, while senior Morgan Newton recovered from shoulder surgery. However, Newton returned to get back into the race this fall. Joining them this fall were freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.

The winner is: Smith. Joker Phillips named Smith the starter on Monday, so this race has come to an end. The offense can now focus on running around Smith, who has been the most consistent of Kentucky's quarterbacks since the spring. This isn't a surprise.


The matchup: Neither of Hugh Freeze's quarterbacks have proven much at all and have struggled with consistency since spring. Barry Brunetti was given the starting job at the beginning of last season, but lost it almost immediately, and Bo Wallace is fresh off a season in the junior college ranks. Wallace, however, did spend a year with Freeze at Arkansas State.

The winner is: Wallace seemed to have the edge for part of the spring, and then lost it as Brunetti got more comfortable with Freeze's offense. Both quarterbacks and Freeze felt things were very even heading into champ, but Wallace has had a much stronger champ. Both could end up playing in the opener, but we'll go with Wallace.


The matchup: Sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the only game experience at quarter, and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel were nearly neck-and-neck for most of the spring, but Showers seemed to pull away little toward the end. Sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis also competed this spring.

The winner is: Manziel. It seemed as though Showers had the edge in this one, but Manziel outplayed him during fall camp. After a solid outing during one of the Aggies' scrimmages, coach Kevin Sumlin decided to end the battle and give the starting job to Manziel.


The matchup: Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith last season, but still showed inconsistency on the field at times. So, this spring, he had a battle on his hands with Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009.

The winner: Rodgers. This was probably always his job to lose, and he didn't. He had a very good spring and fall camp. Rodgers said this summer that he felt way more comfortable with the people around him this spring and is poised to have a much better year this fall.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Philip Lutzenkirchen doesn’t come close to resembling a diva.

He’s too rugged and barrel-chested for that sort of persona.

But Auburn’s senior tight end can’t help but be a little excited about having the chance to expand his personal limelight as he steps into more of a pass-catching role for the Tigers this fall.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Philip Lutzenkirchen
John Reed/US PRESSWIREPhilip Lutzenkirchen caught 24 passes for 238 yards and 7 touchdowns last season.
“To get back to the opportunity where I’m going to be thrown at seven to 10 times a game, like coach [Scot] Loeffler said, is very exciting,” Lutzenkirchen said Wednesday.

Lutzenkirchen, who caught 24 passes for 238 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, can thank the NCAA and new fullback Jay Prosch for his new-found happiness. Prosch transferred from Illinois this spring and was cleared by the NCAA to play immediately.

Prosch will take over some of the blocking responsibilities that Lutzenkirchen had as more of an H-back in Gus Malzahn’s offense. That means Lutzenkirchen can move out to be more of a traditional tight end and help the Tigers’ passing game, which is full of unproven talent. He expects to not just help out underneath but stretch the field at times, too.

“It’s been a real blessing in disguise to have Jay transfer to Auburn and take on that true fullback role that I’ve been playing the past two seasons in coach Malzahn’s offense,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of the blocking responsibility off me.

“It’ll take a lot of hits off of me.”

He also anticipates being very helpful to Auburn’s young quarterbacks and offensive line. He expects the Tigers to meet a lot of early-season blitzes from opponents because of its youth and he’ll turn into a nice option underneath for either Kiehl Frazier or Clint Moseley.

“For whoever does start at quarterback, I’m going to be a pretty valuable weapon and short third downs,” he said.
Auburn transfer fullback Jay Prosch had his waiver request granted by the NCAA and has been cleared to play during the 2012 season.

Prosch, who transferred to Auburn from Illinois in January, was cleared to play by the NCAA because he changed schools to be closer to his ailing mother, who is battling cancer and lives in Mobile, Ala.

“I’m extremely blessed and very thankful to have my waiver cleared by the NCAA,” Prosch said. “I’m excited and can’t wait for my mother and family to be able to see me play this fall.”

Prosch, who will be a junior this fall, was a two-year letter winner at Illinois, playing in 25 games and starting 12. He was named a first-team All-American by Pro Football Weekly as a sophomore, and was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.

“We’re happy for Jay that his waiver was granted by the NCAA, and are appreciative for their understanding of his desire to attend school and play closer to home so that he could spend more time with his family,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.

The 6-foot, 253-pound Prosch will make life much easier -- and much more fun -- for tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. With Prosch on the field, Lutzenkirchen will be able to do more in the passing game, instead of having to block so much. That duty will go to Prosch.

Lutzenkirchen, who was third on Auburn's team with 24 catches for 238 yards and was second with seven touchdown receptions, will now have more freedom in Auburn's offense and will become an even better receiving target.

Also, having both block on running or passing downs will be a major plus for the Tigers. That's close to 500 pounds defenses will have to get through to disrupt things in Auburn's backfield.

This is a big win for Auburn's offense, as it slowly moves toward a more pro-style scheme under new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012

We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You ask for people to write into the mailbag and there's no hint of hesitation.

The mailbag is back this week and we were bombarded with questions. The pages went on for a while, so I'm sorry if I couldn't get to all of them. Keep them coming, though, because there's always next week.

Let's get to this week's questions:

Ethan in Cullman, Ala., writes: With the recent dominance of Alabama and Coach Saban do you see Auburn and Chizik really being relevant nationally? I realize they have recruited fairly well but I think we all know without Cameron Newton the 2010 Auburn Team was a 6-7 7-5 football team and in all honesty I don't see them improving their win-losses as long as Gene Chizik is the head coach. Take away the 14-0 season and Chizik has a total record of 21-29 as a collegiate head coach. Lets just be honest in the world of college football everything runs through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and I don't see that changing anytime soon. RTR (:

Edward Aschoff: Man, Auburn fans will love you now. I'm sure the Christmas cards are being written as we speak. While I don't see Auburn surpassing Alabama this season, or really next season, I don't think Auburn is going to fall off the map without Newton. Like you wrote, Chizik has recruited well and the team he has now is pretty young. It's going to take more time for this team to crawl back up the SEC standings, but I don't think it's going to take years and years. Auburn has the young talent to challenge some teams in the West this year. Yes, even Alabama. I'm one of the few still on the Auburn bandwagon. I see improvement on the offensive line, quarterback Kiehl Frazier really came along stronger this spring with Scot Loeffler's help and the defense can only get better after a lousy 2011 showing. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Auburn made more news nationally in 2013.

Jmathews in Weslaco, Texas, writes: Do you think Kevin Sumlin is going to surprise some teams this year with his offensive plan?

Edward Aschoff: It's a little unorthodox by SEC standards, for sure, but I'm not sure if SEC defenses will be confused by that air game. Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury will have to run the ball more in order to catch some defenses off guard. I know that flashy passing game was fun at Houston, but you have to run the ball to survive in the SEC. Balance will be key because we all know that Sumlin is going to want to throw the ball as much as he can. I don't think we'll truly see what all Sumlin wants to do because he's working with such young quarterbacks. That will restrict a lot of it and could make Christine Michael that much more important at running back. Once Sumlin has the right pieces in place then you'll see some offenses have to plan differently. For now, I think it's a work in progress.

Jimmy in Pikeville, Ky., writes: Do you believe that Joker Phillips will be able to get the Kentucky Wildcats back to a bowl game this season?

Edward Aschoff: Phillips thinks he's found more offensive playmakers this spring, with youngsters such as Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and Ronnie Shields stepping up, and that's huge for the Wildcats. They didn't have many at all last year and that was a main reason Kentucky's offense was so bad. But we still need to see what those players can do against SEC competition in October. And a consistent quarterback has to step up. Maxwell Smith has the lead, but the race isn't over. The schedule is going to be tough for the Wildcats, as well. I think Kentucky needs to sweep nonconference play to ensure a bowl birth. That means beating Louisville to start the season. The Louisville loss was a big one for the Cats last year and right now, Louisville is still a better team. Getting those four nonconference wins will go a long way for Kentucky.

Reed in Beijing, China, writes: Ex-pat hog fan here in Beijing. I wanted to get your opinion on how Arkansas will split carries between Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis, and Dennis Johnson this year. Also, who besides Cobi Hamilton do you think will step up to fill the void at receiver?

Edward Aschoff: If Davis is healthy, he'll get the majority of the carries. I don't think there's any debate there. He is in another league compared to the other backs. After that, I think Arkansas goes Johnson then Wingo. Johnson came on during the second half of the season, while Wingo was inconsistent in my opinion. As for receiver, I think Marquel Wade could have a big year, along with tight end Chris Gragg. Wade is a very good athlete and the coaches loved what he did in practice last year. He's someone who has that dynamic feel in the offense and can make big plays. Gragg is big, athletic and tough. Tyler Wilson will key in on him a bunch this fall. He's probably the top returning tight end in the league.

Ryan in Anaheim, Calif., writes: Is it safe to say that Vanderbilt will have one of the best offenses in the SEC this year? Returning Rodgers, Stacy, Matthews, and Boyd, while also getting Norman back and explosive freshman in Kimbrow. The only weakness I see is the O-line which will be inexperienced, but will that hold them back that much?

Edward Aschoff: That line barely got through spring practice, so it's a problem. Injuries and numbers really hurt the line. The good news is that six true freshmen will be on campus this summer. The bad news is that they are true freshmen. Jordan Rodgers still has to be more comfortable in the pocket. He can be really sporadic at times and coach James Franklin knows it. If he can't improve on the mental side, this offense will struggle. Brian Kimbrow is someone who can be used all over the field, so that will really benefit this offense. The other playmakers you mentioned are solid, no question, but there are some good offenses to battle near the top, such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.

Kyle in Gainesville, Fla., writes: The Gators haven't had many people drafted in the past two years, but next year will be much better. Who do you think could be drafted in the top 2 rounds next year? Bostic, Jenkins, Powell, Easley, Floyd, Elam, Nixon, Debose, and Reed are all guys I think can if they have a big year.

Edward Aschoff: Well, if Ronald Powell doesn't come back from his knee injury don't count on him heading to the draft. NFL scouts love Dominique Easley's potential. He's so strong and athletic and just pounds his way through offensive lines. He did suffer that knee injury, so his health will be monitored closely. Elam will compete to be the top safety in the SEC, but his name hasn't been thrown out as much as someone like Eric Reid. Jelani Jenkins is someone scouts like because of his speed and strength. He isn't the biggest linebacker, but he's extremely smart and that will help him a lot. Jon Bostic is getting some attention and a big year will boost his stock for sure. Xavier Nixon has to improve on a bad 2011 and Andre Debose and Jordan Reed have to be more consistent. Of all of them, I think Easley and Jenkins are Florida's top pro prospects.

Brad in Longview, Texas, writes: If you could take one player from the SEC, outside of a QB, who would it be?

Edward Aschoff: Last year, the answer was easy: Trent Richardson. This year, it's a little more difficult. I don't think I'd go with another offensive player, so I'm going to go with Georgia's Jarvis Jones. He was one of the best players in the nation last year and was the SEC's top defensive player, after getting 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He's a superb athlete, has tremendous speed and has a relentless attitude. He's also a great leader. He commands respect in the locker room and on the field. It's hard to find a better linebacker out there.
Spring practice is officially over in the SEC and the NFL draft is behind us. We've ushered in the new and pushed out the old. As we count down the hundred-something days until college football's 2012 season officially begins, we thought it'd be a good idea to look at the most productive players coming back at their respective positions.

We'll look at the top passers, running backs, wide receivers, defenders, etc., over the next few days and judge things on statistical categories, such as yards for quarterbacks and skill players.

Note: No offensive linemen are on this list because we aren't counting pancakes. This isn't EA Sports' NCAA Football. Also Missouri and Texas A&M players aren't here, either, because they weren't in the league last season, but that won't keep us from talking about them.

We'll start things off with the quarterbacks, and unlike 2011, this year's crop has a little bit more experience and name power. That's because hardly any starters departed, so that means the race to be crowned the SEC's top signal caller is up for grabs in 2012.

Here's a look at the top statistical quarterback returning this season, and the others who finished 2011 in the top 10 statistically:

Tyler Wilson, Arkansas: Wilson threw past the competition in 2011, leading the SEC with 3,638 yards, which was 489 yards more than the No. 2 statistical passer, Georgia's Aaron Murray. He also led the SEC with a rating of 148.4. He was second in the league with 24 touchdown passes, but threw just six interceptions. He probably also led the league in times he was leveled by opposing defenders without the ball in his hands. Somehow, that tough guy just kept getting up. Wilson led the SEC with 261.3 passing yards per game against conference foes, and was second with 14 passing touchdowns in league games. Wilson had three NFL receivers and one of the league's most talented tight ends at his disposal, but he has cannon for a right arm, and when he's settled in the pocket, his delivery is as pretty as it gets.

The SEC returns five more of the top 10 statistical passers from a year ago:
  • Aaron Murray, Georgia: He passed for 3,149 yards, a league-high 35 touchdowns with 14 interceptions, and had a rating of 146.4
  • AJ McCarron, Alabama: He passed for 2,634 yards, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions, and had a rating of 147.3
  • Tyler Bray, Tennessee: Though he was injured for the middle part of the season, he passed for 1,983 yards, with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions, and had a rating of 144.8.
  • Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt: He passed for 1,524 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and had a rating of 113.8.
  • Connor Shaw, South Carolina: He passed for 1,448 yards, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, and had a rating of 148.3.

Missouri's James Franklin could find himself high on the list of SEC quarterbacks this fall, as well. He was sixth in the Big 12 with 2,865 passing yards, throwing 21 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions, but also rushed for 981 yards and 15 more scores. He said this spring that he's looking to be much more of a throw-first quarterback in 2012.

SEC passing games were bashed left and right last season, but I don't think that will be the case in 2012. The players mentioned above are one reason, and the other is that there is a solid cast of unheralded players heading up offenses this fall. Auburn's Kiehl Frazier made strides this spring under new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, and his battle with Clint Moseley should be pretty fun this fall. Florida's sophomores-to-be -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- improved a lot under new coordinator Brent Pease.

You also can't forget about juniors Zach Mettenberger at LSU and Tyler Russell at Mississippi State. Mettenberger has the potential to be a top passer in this league, and will be a major upgrade for the Tigers' offense. Russell was much more confident at quarterback this spring at Mississippi State.

This will always be a run-first league, but the quarterbacks should earn more respect in 2012.
The maturation of Auburn’s football team could clearly be seen on a first-and-goal late in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl.

The Tigers were sitting at the 4-yard line, only steps from scoring, but there wasn’t any urgency. There wasn’t any desire to take those few steps because the game was well in hand. So instead of shooting for 50 points, Auburn knelt on the ball twice to run the clock out.

Moments later, Auburn was celebrating its 43-24 thrashing of Virginia without starting quarterback Clint Moseley or starting running back Michael Dyer.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireGene Chizik has been impressed with his team's maturity heading into the 2012 season.
The team buried in youth and inexperience for most of the season looked like a group vets with its composure and dominance.

The squad that left the Georgia Dome that night was a much better representation of the Tigers than any prior last season, and coach Gene Chizik said that New Year’s Eve win propelled this team into the offseason.

“There’s a lot of value in playing in a bowl game and winning it,” Chizik said.

That value has come in the form of a more competitive and faster spring on the Plains. Even with the addition of two new coordinators in Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, Chizik said this team was further ahead as far as maturation and development within the schemes than last spring‘s group.

“It’s been a really productive offseason,“ Chizik said. “We know that we’ve got a long way to go, but I think our kids understand that our future here is very bright and the foundation has been laid and will continue to work in that direction. Everybody’s very upbeat, very positive and understanding that there’s an urgency to be a better football team than we were the previous year.

“We’re excited about it and our kids are, too.”

One side of the ball that made a lot of progress was the offense. Auburn’s players were entrenched in a spread style with Gus Malzahn running the show, but with Loeffler in town, the Tigers have added more pro-style sets. The good thing, Chizik said, is that Loeffler has a background in both styles, which made it easier for players to adapt this spring.

Loeffler would rather run more of a pro-style offense, but he isn’t na´ve. He knows what his talent can do, and while Chizik wouldn’t exactly give the blueprint for Auburn’s offense, he did hint that there could be elements of both styles this fall.

“We’re going to come up with our own package and our own identity,“ he said. “We’re going to try and get good at just a few things, but we have certainly moved forward in terms of finding out exactly what we can and can’t do this spring; no question about it.”

Another thing that isn’t totally clear is who will throw the ball for the Tigers this fall. Moseley, who started the last six games of the season, was sidelined for most of the spring with a sore shoulder, while rising sophomore Kiehl Frazier, who was used more for running situations last year, took a bit of a lead.

Frazier fits more of a spread style, but Loeffler’s teaching really helped him develop more of his game, especially as a passer, this spring.

“I don’t think that there’s any question about it; he certainly improved in a lot of aspects this spring,” Chizik said. “He had a lot of opportunities. He’s maturing as a quarterback, but he’s learning a lot. He’s still a young 19-year-old kid that has a lot in front of him, but we’re asking a lot of him. I thought he handled it very well.

“His best days are certainly ahead of him, but he made a lot of strides this spring.”

And Chizik thinks the best days are ahead for his entire team. Offensively and defensively, this team will still be young, as close to 70 percent of Auburn’s scholarship players will be underclassmen, but Chizik said the level of maturity this year doesn’t resemble a group of underclassmen.

Development still has a ways to go, Chizik said, but the want to improve and win is exactly where he wants it.

“As long as you have young, eager guys that are wanting to succeed and wanting to better themselves,“ he said, “I think you always got a great chance to have a successful year.”

SEC lunch links

April, 25, 2012
It's that time again as we make our rounds in the SEC:

Auburn's Blake embraces fresh start

March, 29, 2012
As one of the unquestioned leaders on Auburn’s football team, Emory Blake has a problem with anybody labeling last season as a transition year.

Sure, the Tigers were coming off an unbeaten 14-0 season and national championship in 2010, and it’s a fact that only six starters returned from that team. Gone were Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton, Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley and four senior starters on the offensive line.

It was an entirely different football team -- one with first- and second-year players dominating the depth chart -- that scratched out an 8-5 season a year ago.

But a transition year?

Blake isn’t buying it; not at Auburn.

“For us, we never think of a year as a transition year,” said Blake, who led the Tigers in catches (36) and receiving yards (613) last season despite missing three games with a high-ankle sprain.

[+] EnlargeEmory Blake
John Reed/US PresswireEmory Blake takes a lot of confidence into his senior season.
“We’re out there trying to win every game. That’s just the attitude we have at Auburn. It doesn’t matter who we lost or who we have coming back. That’s the standard here. We’re going to go into every game and fight and feel like we’re supposed to win. I felt like we did that. We just had some things go against us and weren’t as successful as we were the year before.”

One of those things that went against Auburn was a passing game that was virtually non-existent, particularly the downfield passing game.

Nobody in the SEC completed fewer passes than Auburn in regular-season play, and the only two teams that had fewer passing yards than the Tigers were Ole Miss and Kentucky.

“We just never could get our passing game going, and that made us easy to defend,” Blake said.

Even more frustrating for Blake was the high-ankle sprain that plagued him the second half of the season. He suffered the injury in the 16-13 win over South Carolina, and his only action the next three games was one play against Florida.

That’s after catching four touchdown passes in his first five games. He only caught one more the rest of the way, although he came back and hauled in six catches for 108 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl once he had a chance to fully rest the ankle.

“That’s just what we needed, our offense having one of its best games at the end of the year and everybody finally not being banged-up, because it’s carried over into the offseason,” Blake said.

This spring has only created more excitement for Blake, who’s moving around a lot more in the Tigers’ new offense than he did in the past. First-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is installing more of a pro-style system, according to Blake, and the Auburn staff has made it clear that one of the goals is to get the ball to Blake during his senior season.

In fact, receivers coach Trooper Taylor has thrown out there the “80 for 80” theme.

Blake, who wears No. 80, is all for that idea. Then again, what receiver doesn’t want to catch 80 passes?

“I feel like I have the confidence, the ability and the experience to be one of the top receivers in the SEC, and if you’re one of the top receivers in the SEC, you’re one of the top receivers in the country,” Blake said. “We’re all excited about the possibilities in this new offense. We’re still learning, but it’s a fresh start, a clean slate for a lot of guys.”

Whereas the Tigers leaned on Michael Dyer and the running game last season, they won’t have that option in 2012. Dyer followed Gus Malzahn to Arkansas State.

The 6-foot-2, 197-pound Blake is now the closest thing the Tigers have to a proven go-to guy on offense.

In his last 13 games dating back to the national championship season, he’s caught eight touchdown passes. His 13 touchdown catches over the past two seasons are more than any returning SEC player.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a receiver that runs better routes or is smarter,” Taylor said. “He may not be the fastest or the biggest or the strongest, but I guarantee he’s productive.”

Blake also has the luxury of talking shop with his dad, Jeff Blake, who was a quarterback in the NFL for 14 seasons.

And now that the Tigers are running an offense that more closely resembles what they’re running in the NFL, Blake looks forward to even more of those conversations.

“It’s a more universal offense,” Blake explained. “Coach Malzahn’s offense was more his offense, more the stuff he created. This is more pro-based now, especially the lingo, and my dad can relate more. I can call him now and talk about what we’re doing, and I think that’s going to be a big help in learning the offense.”

Blake doesn’t think the learning curve will be a steep one. He already sees considerable progress with everybody. In particular, he says Loeffler has zeroed in on the quarterbacks.

“With everybody we have coming back and everything Coach Loeffler brings to the table, we should be a much more consistent offense,” Blake said. “Just seeing how quarterback-oriented [Loeffler] is, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to have whoever wins that job ready to play.

“We have to help the defense out more this year. There were too many times that we didn’t do our part last year. We need to create more explosive plays and finish games, and we have the players and the attitude to do that.”