SEC: Trey Wilson
Alabama and LSU led the way for the conference with nine draft picks each and both registered double-digit wins last season. Alabama won 13 games and a national championship last year, while LSU went 10-3.
Georgia, which went 12-2 last year, and 11-2 Florida both had eight draft picks, while 11-2 South Carolina had seven.
But take a gander at Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 9-4 in James Franklin's second year, but did it with just two future NFL draft picks -- running back Zac Stacy (first Vandy running back drafted since 1980) and offensive lineman Ryan Seymour. Vandy had eight draft-eligible players this year.
It's clear Franklin and his staff were able to do a lot -- including making it to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history -- with less than the other big boys around the league.
Three SEC teams with less wins in 2012 had more draft picks than Vandy this year:
- Arkansas (4-8) -- 4
- Mississippi State (8-5) -- 3
- Tennessee (5-7) -- 4
Granted, the Commodores return two top-flight wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, and have some solid defensive players coming back in 2013, but they lost some key starters from last season, including quarterback Jordan Rodgers, Stacy and Seymour on offense. They also lost their top corner in Trey Wilson, a solid defensive tackle in Rob Lohr and hard-nosed linebacker Archibald Barnes.
Vandy will likely have more draft picks next year, but you have to commend the coaching job Franklin and his crew have done in their two years. Only two Commodores were drafted in the 2012 draft, too, and this program hasn't had near the success it's having now in a very, very long time.
Players have completely bought into Franklin's philosophy and the coaches are doing a very good job developing players. The offensive line was one of the most improved units in the SEC in 2012, thanks to line coach Herb Hand's teachings, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has totally turned this defense around. Vandy is one of five SEC schools to finish in the top 20 nationally each of the past two seasons in total defense.
The Commodores have also showcased a pretty explosive offense during the past two seasons and won five conference games in 2012 for the first time since 1935.
It's been a pretty impressive two-year run for Franklin and his Commodores, and they've done it without the same amount of top-grade talent as the bigger guys.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
The defense will lose a lot up front, but linebacker Archibald Barnes and cornerback Trey Wilson are the only other significant losses.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.
“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.
The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.
As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”
The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.
“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.
Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.
The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.
In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.
“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”
Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.
The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.
Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.
“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.
“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
It's always one of the treats of the three-day event -- seeing who among the players can take home the "best dressed" award.
Vanderbilt's threesome of quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and cornerback Trey Wilson were hard to miss as they strolled around the Wynfrey Hotel in their threads. All three were, as they say, clean.
And how about Stacy's mom, Barbara, rushing to the rescue and buying him a pair of pants that morning at the adjacent mall after he realized he'd left his slacks at home? Stacy is from nearby Centreville, Ala., and Barbara works just minutes from the Wynfrey Hotel.
Here's a little more on the Commodores' style show in Hoover.
Best interview: Yes, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe had a pretty good time with the media in Hoover and Arkansas coach John L. Smith seemed to win over the main ballroom during his press conference, but the best interview of the week had to go to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The veteran strolled right into our interview room munching on pecan pie bites without a care in the world. But the real magic came during his video interview where he playfully crushed his best friend and former teammate William Vlachos and gave fellow SEC blogger Chris Low a shout out during his hit. Jones came prepared and knew how to have fun.
- Moe on what's different about the SEC: “They say girls are prettier here, air’s fresher and toilet paper is thicker.” -- Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher later told us that this line was planned after a conversation during the trip over.
- But Moe wasn't done there: "Apparently Ryan Swope is a god because he can come in and get first-team all-SEC. But that’s fine.”
- And this one really got to Arkansas running back Knile Davis: “In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense. [In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Best moment: Davis was as cool and relaxed as ever during his time in Hoover. He had no problem proclaiming that he still was the league's best running back, but the best moment came when he was leaving our room. As Davis headed toward the door, Chris asked him if he still thought he was the best and Davis replied with a smile, "Still the best and tell Marcus [Lattimore] I'm coming for him."
Best interviewer: We paled in comparison to the journalistic skills of Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who took some time to interview Chris on camera. Chris looked like a deer in headlights when Jackson started firing hard-hitting questions and then asked him to name as many dog breeds as he could in 10 seconds. The tongue-tied Chris didn't even mention bulldog.
Most improved: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has had a very up-and-down college career, but he walked right into media days without a nervous fiber in his body. He's known to boast a little about his talents and had every opportunity to once again, but didn't. He was very humble and praised his teammates before even mentioning his ability. Plus, he handled questions about his past at Georgia like a pro.
Most confident: We're naming our top four here:
- Moe: He's sick of hearing about transitioning over to the SEC and he let everyone know about it.
- Davis: No hesitation in claiming he's the SEC's best running back.
- Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: He doesn't talk much, but he made the statement that Tennessee will win the SEC this season. That's pretty gutsy.
- Florida running back Mike Gillislee: His goal for the season: 1,500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 and 24 rushing touchdowns would break Tim Tebow's record of 23.
Coming out of his shell: Florida outside linebacker/defensive end Lerentee McCray is pretty soft-spoken and can be shy around the media, but not in Hoover. He was talkative and showed a little confidence when he said his favorite part of football is hitting the quarterback so he can "wipe the smiles off their faces."
Just in the last three years, Morris Claiborne, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden and Kareem Jackson have all gone in the first round of the NFL draft.
There could be a few more first-rounders on the way.
Here’s the way we would rank the SEC’s top 10 cornerbacks heading into the 2012 season:
1. Tyrann Mathieu, Jr., LSU: OK, he’s not a true cover cornerback and doesn’t have ideal size. But as a playmaker, few are any better. Mathieu tied for the team lead in tackles last season (76) while forcing six fumbles and recovering five.
2. Johnthan Banks, Sr., Mississippi State: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Banks has terrific size, speed and ball skills. He intercepted five passes last season and has 12 for his career.
3. Dee Milliner, Jr., Alabama: The Tide’s third cornerback in all nickel and dime situations last season, Milliner is poised to make the kind of jump in 2012 that Dre Kirkpatrick did a year ago. Milliner led the team with three interceptions last season.
4. Tharold Simon, Jr., LSU: At 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, Simon is one of those corners who drapes all over a receiver. He steps in as the full-time starter for Morris Claiborne after intercepting two passes last season.
5. E.J. Gaines, Jr., Missouri: A first-team All-Big 12 selection a year ago in his first season as a starter, Gaines finished fourth nationally with 18 passes defended. He’s fearless and plenty explosive when he gets his hands on the ball.
6. Trey Wilson, Sr., Vanderbilt: One of the more underrated defensive backs in the SEC, Wilson had three interceptions and 11 passes defended last season. He has everything it takes to be an All-SEC player in 2012.
7. Prentiss Waggner, Sr., Tennessee: After bouncing around between safety and cornerback, Waggner is back home at corner. He’s been productive wherever he’s lined up and has seven interceptions in his last two seasons.
8. Sanders Commings, Sr., Georgia: The only downer for Commings is that he will be suspended for the first two games. He led the SEC with 12 pass breakups last season, and at 217 pounds, is one of the more physical corners in the league.
9. Marcus Roberson, Soph., Florida: A sprained neck caused Roberson to miss the final three games of his freshman season, but he was a starter in the first 10. He’s a special talent who could easily zoom up this list.
10. Tevin Mitchel, Soph., Arkansas: After a debut season that saw him finish third among SEC freshmen with 56 total tackles, Mitchel should be even better his second time through the league. The Hogs will look to him to make even more plays in 2012.
On to the league's secondaries:
2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.
3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.
4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.
5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.
6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.
8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.
9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.
10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.
11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.
12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.
14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 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.
The SEC returns four players that ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in interception. The top pick man returns this season, though he'll have to sit to start the fall.
Here's a look at No. 1:
Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia: He had eight interceptions and defended eight passes last season. With his size and strength, Rambo could play in the box and defend the run, but he never had any issue dropping back into coverage with his speed. Physically, Rambo was a beast, but his field vision was very underrated. He showed to have tremendous ball-hawking ability and could attack from all over the field. Rambo could have easily gone to the NFL after his junior year, but stayed, and even though he'll serve a suspension to start the year, he'll still be in the hunt to keep his crown.
The SEC returns three more players that ranked high in interceptions:
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: He had five interceptions and defended 14 passes.
Shawn Williams, S, Georgia: He had four interceptions and defended six passes.
Charles Sawyer, S, Ole Miss: He had four interceptions and defended nine passes.
All three of those players will have the opportunity to dethrone Rambo. Banks is one of the most underrated players in the league and he'll start to get a lot more national attention with his cover skills. Keep an eye on Sawyer. He said earlier this spring that he should have had at least two more picks last year and intends to have more in 2012.
Vanderbilt cornerback Trey Wilson recorded three interceptions last season, but defended 11 passes. He's a solid cover corner and he'll get more opportunities to frustrate quarterbacks this fall with Casey Hayward gone. Missouri corner E.J. Gaines is another player to watch. He only had two interceptions, but defended 16 passes. He isn't the biggest defensive back, but he'll annoy a lot of receivers and quarterbacks this fall.
South Carolina has two players to monitor in safety D.J. Swearinger and Spur DeVonte Holloman. Swearinger is someone who can roam all over the field and should improve on his 2011 numbers. Holloman is back at his old position and anytime you have the chance to move around more, you're likely to find the ball more.
LSU's Tyrann Mathieu is a corner you can't ignore, either. Mathieu has a magnetic attraction to the football, even though he only registered two interceptions. He defended 11 passes last season, and with Morris Claiborne gone, he'll have a little more room to work with. Teammate Eric Reid (safety) could also have a shot with his range.
Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner only recorded two interceptions in 2011, but that was with him playing both free safety and cornerback. He's staying put at corner and we saw how successful he is there when he picked off five passes in 2010. He'll battle to be one of the top corners in the SEC this fall.
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 3
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OG Ryan Seymour, C Wesley Johnson, LB Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson
TE Brandon Barden, OT Kyle Fischer, DE Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zac Stacy* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers* (1,524 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (778 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve (91)
Sacks: Tim Fugger (8)
Interceptions: Casey Hayward (7)
1. Finding more leaders: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin wanted to leave spring with more leaders than started with. By his accounts, a few veterans stepped up with guys like Marve, Fugger, Hayward and Fischer gone. Franklin said that if the Commodores were going to build off of last season's success, some veterans had to step up and take hold of the team. Guys like Jordan Rodgers, Chase Garnham, Walker May, Trey Wilson and Zac Stacy really expanded their roles as leaders and will be leaned on even more this fall.
2. Marve's replacement: Finding someone to take over for Marve in the locker room was one thing, but filling his position on the field is another. Exiting the spring, Franklin thinks he found the perfect player for the job in Garnham. He moved from the outside to the middle and really excelled at Marve's old position. Garnham was one of the Vanderbilt's most consistent defensive players this spring and the coaches expect to perform this fall.
3. More playmakers: The Commodores return much of their offense this season, but it sounds like the coaches found a few more players. People know about Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but a few other players caught the coaches' eyes like redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, who were former quarterbacks. Grady showed his versatility by playing all over the field at receiver, running back and as a wildcat quarterback. It looks like Kentera earned some playing time at H-back this fall, helping to take pressure off Matthews and Boyd.
1. Offensive line: Spring practices have not addressed any of the issues the Commodores have on the offensive line. Ryan Seymour and Chase White began spring by rehabbing injuries, leaving Vandy with just nine healthy bodies up front. As spring went on, Franklin said there were times when his team sometimes had just seven linemen to work with. It was bad enough that Vandy rarely went through practices with a full offensive line taking reps. Six true freshmen linemen will enroll at Vandy this fall, but there's no question this unit is the biggest worry for the Commodores.
2. Quarterback consistency: While Rogers made improvements to his game, he still showed the inconsistency that frustrated Franklin last season. There's no question he has the athletic ability to be a solid starter in this league, but he sometimes fails to stand tall in the pocket and deliver solid throws when things collapse around him. That kind of play really hurt Vandy's offense last season. He was pushed by 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels during the spring and the battle is expected to continue through fall camp.
3. Warren Norman's health: After missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury, Norman returned to the practice field this spring. Though he was non-contact, he showed some improvement in his mobility. It's still unclear how healthy Norman will be and if really complement Stacy in the running game. Rising sophomore Jerron Seymour is the one other returning running back that registered carries last season.
It was most of the usual suspects, too -- Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
But right there at No. 18 nationally was Vanderbilt. First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop came in and did a masterful job. He inherited some veteran leaders and mixed in his aggressive, innovative approach, and the Commodores played the kind of defense that steered them to their fifth bowl appearance in school history.
He knows his stuff, and just as importantly, his players know that he knows his stuff.
So when he looked them in the eye this spring and told them that last season’s defensive performance wasn’t good enough, they sat straight up and listened … and then took that as their challenge on the practice field.
“I told our guys, ‘What does 18th in the country in total defense get you? Sixth in the SEC,’” Shoop recounted. “That’s where we were. That’s what it gets you, a 2-6 conference record. This is big-boy football. When you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we have a long way to go.”
Not only that, but some of the Commodores’ top playmakers on defense from a year ago have departed. Middle linebacker Chris Marve is gone, and so are cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson and defensive end Tim Fugger.
“This 2012 version of the Vanderbilt defense will be different,” Shoop said. “We’re searching for leadership. We’re still going to be running to the ball as well as anybody in the country, and pressure. We’re a high-pressure defense. But some new playmakers are going to have to emerge.”
The good thing is that Shoop likes what he saw this spring. Up front, Walker May and Rob Lohr are both poised for big seasons, and Chase Garnham made a nice transition to middle linebacker after playing on the outside last season. Trey Wilson has a chance to be that next premier Vanderbilt cornerback, and Shoop thought safety Javon Marshall was one of the more underrated players in the SEC last season. Lohr and Marshall missed the spring while recovering from injuries.
Shoop thinks some of the incoming freshmen will have to help, particularly in the defensive line. The Commodores played 10 guys up front last season, and there wasn’t a guy on the defensive line who played more than 45 snaps a game.
Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring enrolled early and went through spring practice, which is a rarity at Vanderbilt. Shoop also thinks incoming freshman linebacker Jake Sealand can help this fall.
Vanderbilt had 29 takeaways last season, which was fourth in the SEC. It also scored five defensive touchdowns. Shoop said it’s imperative that the unit is equally opportunistic in 2012.
“Takeaways are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a bad defense into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into a championship defense.”
While some of the faces will be different, Wilson said the way the Commodores play defense next season will be exactly the same.
“We can’t be focused on making mistakes,” said Wilson, who had three interceptions last season. “If you’re going to do it, do it full speed. The worst mistake you can make on a football field is slowing down and letting a play happen.
“We have a lot of guys who played last year, so it’s not like they’re new guys.”
Who are those players who've blossomed this spring?
We've pinpointed 10 players who weren't stars last season, and in some cases, didn't even start, but players who've shown that they're poised to have big seasons in 2012.
Here's what we came up with:
Adrian Hubbard, LB, Alabama: The Crimson Tide feel like they've found somebody to replace Courtney Upshaw as a finisher off the edge on passing downs. The 6-6 Hubbard is now pushing 250 pounds entering his sophomore season and is an excellent fit at Jack linebacker. He had three sacks in Alabama's spring game.
Byron Jerideau, DT, South Carolina: The former junior college transfer ran into trouble off the field earlier this year, but bounced back with an impressive spring. The 6-3, 316-pound senior is the strongest player on the team and has squatted 670 pounds. He's just another reason this South Carolina defensive line should be something to see in 2012.
Malcolm Johnson, TE, Mississippi State: As a freshman last season, Johnson caught 11 passes, but three of those were for touchdowns. Judging by way the he's played this spring, the 6-2, 230-pound sophomore has a chance to be one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league in 2012.
Bennie Logan, DT, LSU: Overshadowed by Michael Brockers in the middle of that LSU defensive line last season, Logan was one of the more underrated players in the SEC. In fact, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis thinks the 6-3, 290-pound junior is right there in that same class as Brockers.
Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Fans in the Show Me State got just a little taste of how good Lucas can be last season. He started in three games, but caught five touchdown passes. Look for the 6-5, 215-pound junior to emerge in 2012 as one of the SEC's top big-play threats.
Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: After seeing spot duty as a freshman, Richardson has been good enough this spring that senior Dallas Thomas has moved inside to guard and Richardson has stepped in as the starter at left tackle. The Vols weren't physical enough up front last season, but the 6-6, 329-pound Richardson should help change that.
Marquel Wade, WR, Arkansas: As a freshman last season, Wade took a kickoff return back for a touchdown. He's showcased that same explosiveness at receiver this spring and is one of the reasons the Hogs aren't panicking about the loss of Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs.
Jermaine Whitehead, CB, Auburn: He came in and played as a true freshman a year ago and immediately demonstrated that he wasn't afraid to mix it up. This spring, Whitehead also demonstrated his versatility. He's somebody who could end up playing cornerback, safety or nickel in Brian VanGorder's system.
Trey Wilson, CB, Vanderbilt: The Commodores just seem to breed outstanding defensive backs, and Wilson is the next in line. The 5-11, 192-pound senior will take over for Casey Hayward as Vanderbilt's shutdown corner and has the talent, smarts and experience to be an All-SEC player in 2012.
He’s not celebrating, either.
It took him all of one season to steer Vanderbilt to only its fifth bowl appearance in school history, and that was on the heels of back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
And since his arrival in Nashville in December of 2010, he hasn’t been shy when it comes to stirring the pot, or perhaps better stated from the Vanderbilt side of things, making sure the days of treating the Commodores as a second-class citizen in the SEC were never coming back … ever.
Those were Franklin’s words last October after he and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham went nose-to-nose on the field following the Bulldogs’ hard-fought 33-28 victory over the Commodores.
Both coaches felt like they were sticking up for their players.
In Franklin’s mind, it was about time somebody stuck up for the Commodores -- period.
“Everything I do is calculated, but that’s also who I am. I’m a fighter,” Franklin said. “You’re talking about a blue-collar guy who’s worked his way up the ladder for everything he’s got. I understand that respect and all those things are earned. I do. But what I noticed right when I got here, and I don’t think people meant it, was that people talked down to us.
“It was almost as if, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. You’ve always been there. How dare you try to improve your place? This is where you’re supposed to be?’ I think people were used to being able to put Vanderbilt in the “W” column before the season started, and how dare we try to fight back?”
Franklin was fighting back the moment he took what many consider to be one of the hardest jobs in all of college football. He still bristles when he hears about the supposed ceiling on Vanderbilt football and is so focused on making Vanderbilt a destination stop for top recruits that he frowns on his players even mentioning that they grew up a fan of somebody other than the Commodores.
“Between what we’ve done on the field and what we’ve done in recruiting, our pool has changed,” said Franklin, who signed the highest-rated class in Vanderbilt history this past February.
“The first year we got here, there were only certain kids willing to listen to us. Then after this first season and what we did on the field, there were a lot more kids interested. Now, it’s on a whole different level.
“We’ve taken steps, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Franklin is hell-bent to get there, and he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes along the way.
Franklin also has a renewed commitment, really an unprecedented commitment, from the Vanderbilt administration to make football a priority at one of America’s most prestigious universities.
Already, renovations are underway at the McGugin Center that will include a new locker room, team meeting rooms and a 140-seat theatre-style classroom. Vanderbilt Stadium is also being spruced up and will get new playing turf as well as a JumboTron.
And by 2014, a new indoor practice facility will be in place on campus.
Franklin had all of these improvements written into his new contract, which was announced last December.
And speaking of commitment, Franklin’s new deal, according to sources, is paying him right around $2.5 million per year.
So the head football coach at Vanderbilt is making more than the head football coach at Tennessee. Derek Dooley is set to earn just over $2 million in 2012.
“The important thing is that the commitment is in place here, and everybody is on board,” Franklin said.
There’s also an energy and a charisma surrounding the program that Franklin has worked tirelessly to create. The Vanderbilt players say they feed off Franklin’s intensity and the way he’s gone to bat for them.
“Any man who will fight for you like that, you’re going to give your all to have his back, especially when he’s willing to put himself in the crosshairs for the team,” senior cornerback Trey Wilson said. “We can look to that and say, ‘That’s somebody I can go out there and give my all for.’”
Don’t expect much to change during Franklin’s second tour through the league.
“People might get upset or frustrated or taken aback, but I’m like, ‘We’re just doing what everybody else in this league has been doing for a long time. You just don’t expect it from us,’” Franklin said. “A lot of it’s my personality, but it’s magnified because people aren’t used to that at Vanderbilt.”
They’re also not used to the Commodores taking the SEC’s big boys to the wire, either. Their losses to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee last season were by a combined 19 points, and the loss to the Vols came in overtime.
“That’s the next step, making sure we finish those games,” Wilson said. “Going to a bowl was just one of our goals, so there’s no complacency. We have the underdog mentality. Nobody wants to give us the respect we feel like we deserve, so we go out there and do whatever we have to do to take it.”
That lack of respect was never more apparent than the Tennessee game last season. Following the Vols’ 27-21 overtime win in Knoxville, a video surfaced of Dooley telling his players while they celebrated in the locker room, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the (expletive) out of Vanderbilt.”
At the time, Franklin said it was a wound that he would leave open and wouldn’t heal any time soon.
Well, it’s obvious that it still hasn’t healed, although Franklin warns that placing too much importance on one game in the SEC is foolish.
“There are situations that happen that are personal,” Franklin conceded. “I really don’t want it to be personal, because what happens is that your team and your coaches can sense that this game is more important than another, and the most important game for us is the next game on the schedule.
“Now, do things happen that get your juices flowing and make it a little personal? Yes. We don’t talk about those things a whole lot, but it’s more symbolic that our team understands that we’re not going to let other people define who and what we’re going to be.”