SEC: Trovon Reed
AUBURN, Ala. -- In the season opener, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall looked all out of sorts in the first half. He was nervous and understandably so -- it was his first start for the Tigers. However, before the second game, the junior college transfer turned to an unlikely source for advice.
“I talked to Jonathan Wallace before the game, and he told me just to be cool, calm and collected, so that's what I did,” Marshall said. “I just went out there and did what I do best.”
The encouragement from his fellow quarterback must have worked. On his first pass attempt, Marshall rolled out and connected with Trovon Reed for 17 yards and a first down. He completed his next two throws and capped the opening drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Davis, his first at Auburn.
“Early on, I thought he was clicking a lot better,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “As the game went on he had some ups and downs, but as a whole, I think he felt more comfortable.”
The second drive was more of the same for Marshall, who used both his arm and his legs to drive the Tigers down the field for another score. Two drives, two touchdowns, and the Auburn quarterback looked not just comfortable, but dangerous.
After back-to-back three-and-outs, Marshall struck again, this time with the deep ball. He hit Sammie Coates in stride on a 68-yard touchdown pass, a connection that had been close multiple times through the first two games but not quite there.
“That big pass play was huge,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I mean, that kind of gave us a sigh of relief right there, so we could open up and play.
“It was a well-executed play. The line did a good job on their blocks, and we got the safety down. He ran a really good route at the top, and it was a really good throw. That’s what it is supposed to look like.”
At halftime, Marshall was 7 of 12 for 139 yards with the two touchdowns. He also led the team with 59 yards rushing. In all, it was a far cry from his first-half performance in the opener.
“I think he did a great job,” running back Corey Grant said. “It seemed like he got better [Saturday]. It seemed like he didn't really have any jitters. He came out playing real smooth from the start, and you could see how he played that it carried over from practice.”
In the second half, Marshall completed just three passes for eight yards, but that’s because he was handing the ball off the majority of the time. The coaches were conservative with him down the stretch, partly because he fumbled the ball in the third quarter while trying to elude a pass rush. It was his first and only turnover through the first two games.
Despite the miscue, Marshall still showed improvement. He knows he’s going to have to continue that trend with conference play right around the corner.
“I felt way better than I did last week,” he said after Saturday’s victory over Arkansas State. “There's still more improvement in the offense, but we're just going to get better as the year goes on. We're looking for more rhythm and really just more execution.”
Marshall will face his first SEC test this weekend when Mississippi State comes to town.
“Going out, it’s the same thing,” he said. “Everyone still has 11 people on the field, so we’re just going to play, go at them and take care of business.”
Coach: Gus Malzahn (9-3 overall, 0-0 at Auburn)
2012 record: 3-9, 0-8 SEC
Key returners: RB Tre Mason, OT Greg Robinson, C Reese Dismukes, WR Ricardo Louis, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal
Newcomer to watch: Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson has impressed the staff since stepping on campus and has the tools to help improve Auburn's pass rush this fall.
Biggest games in 2013: Washington State, Aug. 31; Mississippi State, Sept. 14; Ole Miss, Oct. 5; at Arkansas, Nov. 2; at Tennessee, Nov. 9
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With the news that Kiehl Frazier is moving to safety, Auburn's quarterback battle is down to three players. Right now, it looks like newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson are pulling ahead of sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who started the final four games for Auburn last season. Marshall and Johnson have been very impressive this fall and split first-team reps during Tuesday's scrimmage. Regardless of who starts, Malzahn will have his eighth different starting quarterback in eight years.
Forecast: Auburn returns a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, but neither side was very good at all last season. Auburn ranked last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in total defense. Auburn barely scored 18 points per game and allowed nearly 30. All of that has to change in 2013, and with Malzahn back on the Plains, many believe it will.
Offensively, with the return of the spread offense, the Tigers will no longer be trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The Tigers had spread players last season, but were running a very uncomfortable pro-style attack that drastically set the offense back. While this team still has to figure out who its starting quarterback will be, the offense will likely revolve around running back Tre Mason, who was Auburn's only offensive weapon last season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He can be a downhill threat and has the ability to make plays in space.
A solid offensive line returns, but the Tigers are still looking for more consistency at receiver. The hope is that former big-time recruit Ricardo Louis' big spring translates to the fall, and that Quan Bray and Trovon Reed reach their big-play potential.
Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson wants a much more aggressive unit with his 4-2-5 scheme and might have budding stars in "Star" Justin Garrett and cornerback Chris Davis. There is talent up front, but the defensive line has to be much more disruptive this fall, and the secondary can't allow the big plays that crippled it in 2012.
There's no question that Auburn has the talent to return to a bowl game, but it's all about development. The Tigers just didn't have it during the last two years of the Gene Chizik era, but Malzhan and Co. have made it a priority. Johnson should have the defense in much better shape, while an improved offense will be a major reason why the Tigers return to the postseason in 2013.
Here's how all 14 SEC special teams units rank heading into the 2013 season:
1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return starting kicker Devon Bell, who hit 14 of his last 18 field goals last year, and punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 41.1 yards per kick last year and had a net of 39.9 yards. Jameon Lewis was Mississippi State's top return man last year, averaging 25.9 yards on his 20 kick returns. He also took one 100 yards for a touchdown. With Johnthan Banks gone, Lewis could move to punt returner, while LaDarius Perkins and Robert Johnson can handle kickoffs. Mississippi State also allowed just 6 yards on 13 punt returns (.46 yards per return), but did allow two touchdowns on kickoffs.
3. Vanderbilt: Carey Spear knocked 20-of-24 field goals through last year, setting the school record for field goals made and kick scoring. He also didn't miss anything within 43 yards. Vandy must replace solid punter Richard Kent. Redshirt freshman Colby Cooke and walk-on Taylor Hudson competed at punter this spring, but freshman Tommy Openshaw could get a shot as well. Jonathan Krause returned 25 punts for 281 yards and became the first Commodore in 45 years to return two punts for touchdowns last year. Both Brian Kimbrow and Andre Hal averaged a little more than 22 yards per kick return. Vandy was solid defending kickoffs, but was second-to-last in the SEC in defending punts (10.7 yards per return and one touchdown).
4. Missouri: The Tigers return one of the nation's best return men in Marcus Murphy, who took three kickoffs and a punt to the house last fall. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and 13.9 per punt return. Andrew Baggett, who only missed two kicks under 40 yards last year, was a an SEC All-Freshman Team member last year, but has to be more consistent in 2013. Punter is up for grabs with Trey Barrow gone. Junior Christian Brinser is the favorite, but has just one career punt.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide has one of the league's most reliable punters in Cody Mandell, whose 44.3 yards per kick, pinned 19 inside the 20 and booted 14 50-plus yards. Christion Jones averaged 26.6 yards per kick return (eight returns) and had a touchdown last year, while returning 21 punts for 213 yards. He could get help from the shifty Dee Hart, who returns from an ACL injury. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley is gone, but long-distance man Cade Foster is back. He's shown improvement, but hit just 4-of-9 kicks last year and could share duties with redshirt freshman Adam Griffith. Coverage has to improve as well.
6. LSU: The Tigers lost kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing. Losing Wing sounds like the most significant, but the staff feels pretty confident in fellow Aussie Jamie Keehn, who averaged 43.7 yards on 12 punts last year. Odell Beckham Jr. racked up 320 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns and might get more chances on kickoffs. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is extremely fast and shifty, so expect him to get work in the return game, too. LSU was also one of the best kick/punt coverage teams in the SEC last year. Finding a suitable kicker won't be easy, though. Two walk-ons competed for the kicking job this spring. Junior James Hairston has a monster leg, but has been inconsistent on field goals.
7. Ole Miss: In hindsight, Ole Miss' coaches made a smart decision when they decided to redshirt Tyler Campbell. He was one of the country's best punters two years ago and has a career average of 44.6 yards per kick. In 2011, he downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Jaylen Walton became a dangerous returner for the Rebels last year, averaging 24.7 yards on 26 kick returns, and took one 100 yards for a score. The Rebels have to replace kicker Bryson Rose, but senior Andrew Ritter, who redshirted last year, should have the first crack at it. Though, he hasn't attempted a field goal in his career. Ole Miss also has to improve its kick coverage, as they gave up three total touchdowns on returns.
8. Auburn: The Tigers had some of the best numbers around when it came to defending kickoffs and punts. But that's because Auburn didn't kick off much and opponents rarely punted. So it's tough to say how good the Tigers are in those areas, but on five punt returns the Tigers allowed just 4 yards. Kicker Cody Parkey hit 11 of 14 kicks last year and didn't miss from within 46 yards. He's also hit 51 straight extra points. Punter Steven Clark averaged only 39.8 per kick, but his hang time forced only five returns last year. Onterio McCalebb is gone, finding a game-changer like him is up for grabs. Eyes are on Trovon Reed and Quan Bray.
9. Arkansas: Kicker Zach Hocker enters the season as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made (143), total points (287) and points per game (7.6). He'll have to improve on his 11-of-18 field-goal mark from last year. The Hogs were middle-of-the road when it came to defending returns and lost top return man Dennis Johnson. D'Arthur Cowan and Nate Holmes will handle return duties. Holmes ranked 10th in the SEC with a punt return average of 6.4 yards per return, while Cowan averaged 17.6 yards per kick return.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have one of the SEC's best returners in Trey Williams, who averaged 22.3 yards on 25 returns. Brandon Williams, who should be a big-play athlete for A&M, should also help out on kick returns. De'Vante Harris and Sabian Holmes should provide the Aggies with some solid return options on punts as well. A&M lost punter Ryan Epperson, but Drew Kaser shouldn't miss a beat as his replacement. Kicker Taylor Bertolet has to be much better, though. He hit just 13 of 22 field goals, missed seven extra points and was just 2-of-9 on field goals between 30 and 49 yards.
11. South Carolina: Bruce Ellington is a very good and very experienced kick returner. He averaged 22.6 yards per return last season and had a long of 50 yards. Now, replacing Ace Sanders at punt returner won't be easy, but Victor Hampton should be a viable option there. He's extremely fast and is a fast-twitch player, so he should be able to create plays in space. Speedy Damiere Byrd will get a chance on kickoffs and possesses the speed to hit a home run when he touches the ball. Punter Tyler Hull is back after averaging 39.4 per kick and pinning 12 inside the 20. Landon Ard left spring as the top placekicker, but has only handled kickoff duty during his career.
12. Tennessee: The Vols might have to rely on Michael Palardy to handle field goals, punts and kickoffs this fall. He hit 9 of 12 field goals last year, while Derrick Brodus hit 6-of-7. Only Palardy attempted a kick more than 40 yards last year and missed it. There will be competition at kicker, but Palardy should have the punter spot after averaging 43.1 yards per kick, pinning 16 inside the 20 and blasting 13 50-plus yards. With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, Devrin Young should take over kickoff and punt return duties. He was Tennessee's top punt returner last year.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats return one of the nation's best punters in Landon Foster, who averaged 42.9 yards per kick and had 22 kicks go for 50-plus yards last year. But Kentucky is still searching for a field goal kicker. Joe Mansour has been the kickoff guy for three years, but freshman Austin MacGinnis might be the guy the coaches are depending on the most when he gets in for fall camp. Kentucky has one of its top return guys coming back in Demarco Robinson, but lost DeMarcus Sweat this summer. Sweat averaged 20.5 yards per return.
14. Georgia: The Bulldogs continued the trend of having issues defending returns, ranking last in the SEC in punt coverage (11.1 yards per return and a touchdown) and eighth in kickoff coverage (20.2 yards per return). Another concern is kicker, where Marshall Morgan could miss at least one game this fall following an arrest on June 29 for boating under the influence. He's Georgia's only scholarship kicker and was shaky last year, hitting 8 of 14 field goals. Punter Collin Barber averaged 41.5 yards per punt and pinned 19 of his 60 kicks inside the 20. Malcolm Mitchell has all the talent to be a return star, but his ill-advised decision-making has turned him into a liability.
It's time to check out Auburn's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:
Strongest position: Running back
The Tigers didn't have too many bright spots at all on offense last year, but running back Tre Mason barreled his way to more than 1,000 yards, eight touchdowns and 5.9 yards per carry. Mason is back in 2013, and he should have even more space to move around in with Gus Malzahn's spread offense coming back to the Plains. Auburn lost Onterio McCalebb and Mike Blakely, but Mason will have quality help with junior Corey Grant returning and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne on the roster. Grant is a big-bodied back who was once at Alabama and should help Mason stay fresh. Artis-Payne was the No. 2 juco running back last year, after rushing for 2,048 yards and 25 touchdowns last fall, and had a very strong spring for the Tigers. He was also named MVP of the Tigers' spring game with his 117 rushing yards and two receiving touchdowns. Auburn could have quite the trio on its hands at running back.
Weakest position: Wide receiver
Auburn really struggled to throw the ball last year and doesn't return anyone who registered more than 136 yards -- and that was tight end C.J. Uzomah, who could have a big year in Malzahn's spread. But as for actual wide receivers, Auburn returns just two who went over 100 yards last year -- Trovon Reed (122 yards) and Sammie Coates (114). While there was some improvement made this spring, the Tigers don't have any true proven weapons at wide receiver right now. Reed and Quan Bray, who leads all current Tigers with his 14 returning receptions from last year, have all the potential and skill to be valuable options in the passing and rushing game, but they have fallen below expectations during their time at Auburn. That has to change if this passing game is going to go anywhere in 2013. Sophomore Ricardo Louis was a prize recruit for the Tigers last year, but caught just three passes as a freshman. He had a good spring and showed that he can be a true deep threat for Auburn, but it has to translate to the field this fall. It will help that three ESPN 300 receivers will be on campus this fall.
Thirteen might be an unlucky number in the realm of superstition, but I think it could bring some good luck to a few offenses that weren't so good a year ago.
It's early, but here are three offenses that I think will rebound in 2013:
2012 total offense: 305 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 18.7 points per game
The Tigers' offense never really adapted to former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's pro-style offense. It was the whole square peg and round hole deal. Quarterback play suffered, which meant the receiving game struggled. The only real bright spots were running back Tre Mason and wide receiver Emory Blake. Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Blake registered 789 receiving yards, which was 650 yards more than the second-highest total on the team.
But help is on the way with Gus Malzahn bringing his spread offense back to the Plains. He has to find his quarterback, but Kiehl Frazier is very familiar with Malzahn, and Jonathan Wallace fits the spread nicely. Mason is back, but the Tigers have to find consistency at the receiver spot with Blake gone. Luckily, guys like junior Quan Bray and freshman Ricardo Lewis made good strides this spring. Trovon Reed will still be counted on, and so will tight ends Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah.
Having a solid offensive line and the return of the spread should help Auburn's offense dig itself out of the offensive cellar of the SEC.
2012 total offense: 334
2012 scoring offense: 26.5
If not for a solid running game (187.7 yards per game), the Gators' offense would have really sputtered. Quarterback Jeff Driskel averaged just 137.2 passing yards per game and failed to reach 100 yards in a game four times last fall. Outside of tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators had no real consistent receiving target. When a play had to be made, the passing game rarely delivered.
The good news is Florida will have the same offensive coordinator -- Brent Pease -- for consecutive years for the first time since Urban Meyer was in charge. Driskel feels -- and looks -- much more confident, and he'll have a more physical offensive line to work with. The receivers still have to prove themselves, but Driskel will be able to defer to his running game yet again. Mike Gillislee might be gone, but the staff was very impressed with sophomore Matt Jones this spring, while Mack Brown, Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane will provide the Gators with a nice running back stable.
Florida's coaches are counting on Quinton Dunbar and true freshman Demarcus Robinson to lead the receivers, but more players have to step up. Still, having a strong offensive line and another year in the same offensive system will really help the Gators this fall.
2012 total offense: 356.4
2012 scoring offense: 25.8
The Tigers dealt with a ton of injuries on offense last fall. Only Evan Boehm was able to stay healthy along the offensive line through the entire season, and quarterback James Franklin dealt with a bad shoulder, a concussion and a bad knee. Thanks to that, Mizzour averaged less than 220 passing yards last season.
Most of the same pieces are back on offense, and players seemed comfortable with new offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who was promoted after David Yost resigned. Franklin's shoulder is better, and his confidence is high. It also helps that his main receiving targets are back, and explosive running back Henry Josey is returning from his devastating 2011 knee injury. Dorial Green-Beckham, the former top recruit, is more mature and made a handful of plays this spring.
The offensive line was healthier this spring, but had some communication issues throughout the spring. That has to get fixed before the season. If it does, the Tigers' offense should make good strides in 2013.
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.
I’ll kick it off with five players in the West, and Edward will come back later today with five players in the East.
Keep in mind that there are all sorts of reasons why a player may have something to prove. Sometimes, it’s making that jump from a good player to a great player. Other times, it’s going from a hyped freshman to a key contributor, bouncing back from a so-so or injury-plagued season or simply filling some big shoes.
Here are five players in the West to watch. They’re listed alphabetically:
Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas: There’s still some mystery as to whether Davis is all the way back after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. The Hogs have held him out of full contact work this preseason in scrimmages, although his teammates say he’s looked like his old self in everything else. Davis led all SEC running backs in rushing in 2010 with 1,322 yards. There’s no doubting his talent, determination and heart. He just has to go show it on the field … again.
Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: From the day Kouandjio walked onto campus at Alabama, his teammates have raved about his pure physical ability. One of the most heralded prospects in the country two years ago, the 6-foot-6, 311-pound sophomore has been impressive enough that the Crimson Tide moved Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones to center to make room for Kouandjo at left tackle. That’s a lot of pressure for a first-time starter, but the feeling in and around the Alabama program is that he has a lot of game.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU: The Tigers were a consistent passing game away from winning the national championship last season. They think Mettenberger is the missing piece to the puzzle. He has a big arm and has been very impressive in both spring practice and preseason camp. He just doesn’t have any meaningful experience in SEC games. Coach Les Miles has said LSU will open up the passing game with Mettenberger at the helm. This is the second chance Mettenberger has been waiting for after getting in trouble at Georgia and being dismissed from the team earlier in his career.
Trovon Reed, WR, Auburn: Injuries have plagued Reed during his first two seasons on the Plains. He arrived with the reputation of being electric in the open field and the kind of player who can turn short passes into big gains. Auburn struggled to get anything going in the passing game a year ago, and with the uncertainty at quarterback going into this season, the Tigers are looking for as many playmakers as they can find on offense. They need Reed healthy and they need him to be the difference-maker everybody was convinced he was when they signed him.
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:
1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.
2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.
3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.
4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.
5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.
7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.
9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.
10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.
11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.
12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.
13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.
14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Now, it’s on to the West:
1. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU: Mettenberger finally gets his chance to lead a team in the SEC. He’s persevered through adversity. He’s got a big arm, and he understands what he’s up against when it comes to SEC defenses. The Tigers are counting on Mettenberger making them more balanced on offense with his ability to throw the ball down the field and keep defenses from loading up against the run. LSU is plenty talented enough to be right back in the BCS National Championship Game in 2012. The only thing the Tigers were missing a year ago was a consistent passing game when it counted most. That’s where Mettenberger comes in.
2. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas: If anybody can make it all the way back from three fractured ankles, it’s Davis. He was pushing to play at the end of last season and now insists that he’s 100 percent healthy. He was clocked this offseason at 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and is one of the Hogs’ strongest players. There simply aren’t many running backs that combine Davis’ blend of speed, power and strength. His biggest hurdle may be mental, which is why Arkansas plans to get him some live contact in preseason camp. Everybody will be watching to see if he can get back to his 2010 form when he led all SEC running backs with 1,322 rushing yards.
3. Trovon Reed, WR, Auburn: Trooper Taylor, Auburn’s receivers coach, once referred to Reed as a limousine with no gas. From the day Reed signed with the Tigers, he’s been pegged as one of those playmakers in space that gives every defensive coordinator nightmares. The only problem is that Reed has battled injuries each of his first two years on the Plains. He sat out his first season with a knee injury and was plagued by a shoulder injury last season as a redshirt freshman. He’s yet to score a touchdown for the Tigers, who are going to need more firepower from the receiver position in 2012. Emory Blake won’t be able to do it by himself.
4. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: With the Aggies moving to the SEC in 2012, it’s imperative that they man up in the defensive line. Moore is the most talented of the group, but he’s moving from a hybrid outside linebacker position in Texas A&M’s old 3-4 setup to defensive end in Mark Snyder’s new 4-3 scheme. Moore has shown in the past that he can get to the quarterback and make big plays. He led the Big 12 last season with 17.5 tackles for loss. The Aggies are counting on him to be more than just a pass-rusher this coming season. And while Moore won’t be the biggest defensive end in the league, he’ll need to play big in every game if the Aggies are going to hold their own up front.
5. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: It’s safe to say that McCarron has already proved himself on a big stage. He was outstanding last season in the BCS title game win over LSU with his poise, decision-making and accuracy. The Crimson Tide did a nice job of not putting too much on McCarron’s shoulders during the season. That’s going to change some as he enters his junior season. Alabama will look to stretch the field more in 2012. McCarron has an NFL-caliber arm, and teams will gear their defenses more to stop him in 2012. We’ll see if he can pick up where he left off in New Orleans and sustain that level of play for the entire season.
- Former Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders is making hits in mixed martial arts.
- Former Georgia safety Terreal Bierria begins trial on Monday and is accused of killing his childhood best friend in a bloody fight over drugs.
- The Big Ten's Jim Delany needs to get over his SEC obsession, writes David Climer of The Tennessean.
- College football isn't done yet with realignment, writes Tommy Hicks of The Mobile Press-Register.
- The 2013 signing class for Georgia will be one of the Bulldogs' larger ones, as they have room to back-count some players.
- Mike Strange of The Knoxville News-Sentinel wonders who will be the top-ranked college football coaches in 2022.
- The three Arkansas players that were arrested and charged with felony residential burglary are released from jail on bond.
- Auburn receiver Trovon Reed is arrested and charged with failing to appear in court in his hometown of Thibodaux, La.
- Will Muschamp leads the revival of Florida football.
- Former Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline is trying to make the most of his time learning under Tom Brady.
- What will become of the Kansas-Missouri rivalry when the games end?
- Arkansas' Knile Davis has no plans to leave, and has already spoken to athletic director Jeff Long about the search for Bobby Petrino's replacement.
- Alabama's Nick Saban is excited to see his first teams go head-to-head in Saturday's spring game.
- Auburn's Trovon Reed is learning to manage big expectations.
- Antonio Goodwin's defense rests without calling Gene Chizik or Trooper Taylor to the stand.
- Darrington Sentimore has been hard to miss this spring at Tennessee.
- Athlon ranks the SEC quarterbacks in 2012, and Georgia's Aaron Murray is at the top of the list.
- Georgia's Mark Richt voices support for his offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo.
- Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity defends the school's strict drug testing policy for athletes.
- Missouri running back Kendial Lawrence welcomes good health.
- The Vanderbilt players select quarterback Jordan Rodgers and defensive end Walker May as team captains for the 2012 season.
- Florida strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman seeks to keep the Gators' momentum going in the offseason.
- Ole Miss' coaches think C.J. Johnson is destined for greatness at defensive end.
- Mississippi State's offense is looking for revenge in Friday night's scrimmage.
They need to play better on the road.
In fact, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday it would take the Tigers' best road effort of the season to beat the Bulldogs. Auburn's lone road win this season came over South Carolina, a 16-13 decision back on Oct. 1.
In the Tigers' three road losses, they've been outscored by a 121-48 margin and given up an average of 485 yards in total offense. It's worth noting that Clemson rolled up 624 yards, so the Tigers have improved some on the defensive side away from home. It just hasn't been good enough.
The other thing they've done in their three road losses is turn the ball over. They've committed six turnovers and forced only two.
Big scoring plays have also been a problem. In all three losses, Auburn has allowed a scoring play of more than 40 yards. No. 1 LSU had two in the 45-10 blowout of Auburn two weeks ago.
What the Tigers have going for them heading to Sanford Stadium this weekend is that they're rested and should be as healthy as they've been in a while. Auburn had played nine straight weeks before getting a bye last week, which was longer than any other SEC team.
The extra recovery time looks like it's going to pay dividends at the receiver position. Emory Blake and Trovon Reed will both be on the field Saturday against Georgia in what's been an injury-plagued season for both of them.
As Chizik pointed out, even if they're just 85 or 95 percent, having them both on the field at the same time should be a huge boost for an Auburn passing game that has struggled to make plays down the field all season.
- Arkansas isn't consumed by its slip this week in the BCS standings.
- The newly expanded SEC will stick with an eight-game conference schedule next season.
- Florida quarterback John Brantley is expected to play Saturday against South Carolina.
- It's been a rocky road so far for injury-plagued Auburn receiver Trovon Reed.
- Alabama is hungry and hurting and focused on Mississippi State, but wants a rematch with LSU.
- Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has his cast off, but is unlikely to play this week against Arkansas.
- LSU coach Les Miles says both of his quarterbacks will play the rest of the way, but he's in no hurry to name a starter.
- Recruiting failures led to Houston Nutt's downfall at Ole Miss, writes Rick Cleveland of The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen says Alabama has feasted on the Bulldogs' mistakes.
- Expansion could jeopardize the Kentucky-Louisville football series.
However, receiver Emory Blake (ankle) is doubtful. DeAngelo Benton will start in place of Blake, who has missed all but one play of the last two games.
Reed has been out the last three games. Without Reed and Blake, Auburn's passing game has struggled to get anything going down the field.
Blake and Reed were both dressed and warming up with the rest of the team Saturday prior to the game.
South Carolina is looking to show that its offense can actually do something when Marcus Lattimore isn't touching the ball, and Auburn wants to prove that it does have a defense somewhere out there.
These teams picked the best time to play each other and someone will come away from this game feeling much better about one particular side of the ball.
For Auburn, I'm interested to see what kind of pass rush the Tigers generate. Dee Ford, who had been rotating in and out at defensive end, is out for the season after undergoing back surgery earlier this week. That means redshirt freshman LaDarius Owens and sophomore Craig Sanders will get rotated in behind Nosa Eguae and Corey Lemonier. Expect Owens to get most of the snaps.
But the Tigers should benefit from left tackle Kyle Nunn being out of the starting lineup for South Carolina. Freshman Mike Matulis will start in his place. This is a great opportunity for Auburn to get its pass rush going by attacking the freshman. Remember, the Tigers have just three sacks on the season.
Auburn will also be without Trovon Reed at wide receiver, meaning freshman Quan Bray and senior Quindarius Carr will get much more action today. Jonathan Mincy will also start over Chris Davis at cornerback for the Tigers.