SEC: Zac Stacy

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 30 days

July, 30, 2013
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We're at 30 days and counting until we have some real, live football in the SEC.

And if you're going to win at a high level in this league, you better be able to run the football and have a couple of guys you can lean on in the running game, which brings us to the number of the day: 1,000.
Five players return in the SEC who rushed for 1,000 yards last season. They’re headlined by Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (1,410 yards). The other four are running backs – Georgia’s Todd Gurley (1,385 yards), Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards), Mississippi State’s LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards) and Auburn’s Tre Mason (1,002 yards). All told, the SEC had nine players reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark last season, which was the most in league history. Who are the top candidates to rush for 1,000 yards in 2013? Doing it in back-to-back years isn’t all that common in the SEC. In fact, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy became only the ninth player in the SEC over the past decade to rush for 1,000 yards in successive seasons. Some of the newer faces to keep an eye on are Florida’s Matt Jones, Texas A&M’s Brandon Williams, South Carolina’s Mike Davis and Alabama’s Derrick Henry. If Missouri’s Henry Josey is healthy, he’s already proven that he can get there, while Texas A&M’s Ben Malena and Georgia’s Keith Marshall were in the ballpark last season. Tennessee’s offensive line should be good enough that either Rajion Neal or Marlin Lane could make a push, and certainly Jeremy Hill will be one of the top backs in the league if he gets his legal issues resolved and returns to LSU’s team. Even without Hill, Alfred Blue and/or Kenny Hilliard could make a run. It’s worth noting that over the past five years Alabama and Auburn lead the SEC with five 1,000-yard rushers apiece. The only year during that stretch that the Crimson Tide didn’t have a player to rush for 1,000 yards was 2010. The Tigers didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008, but have produced one each of the past four seasons. Cam Newton and Michael Dyer both topped the 1,000-yard mark during the 2010 national championship season.

Lunchtime links

April, 29, 2013
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Quite the NFL draft for the SEC ...
Looking at the NFL draft, it's easy to see how some of the SEC teams had so much success in 2012.

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.

SEC lunch links

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
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A look at what's shaking in the SEC:

Opening spring camp: Vanderbilt

March, 15, 2013
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Schedule: The Commodores open spring practice on Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET and will conclude the spring April 13 with their Black & Gold spring game at 2 p.m. ET at Vanderbilt Stadium. Two Saturday practices, on March 23 and March 30, will be open to the public.

What’s new: Vanderbilt’s coaching staff returns intact. Head coach James Franklin, who fielded his own inquiries this offseason, said members of his staff received anywhere from seven to nine major offers to go elsewhere, but turned them all down. Brent Pry, Vanderbilt’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, has added the title of assistant head coach to his duties.

On the mend: Junior defensive tackle Barron Dixon (shoulder) will miss the spring. Senior defensive tackle Jared Morse, meanwhile, is not in school this semester after a violation of university rules. The Commodores are hopeful that both players will be back in the fall.

On the move: Sophomore Josh Grady is moving back to quarterback after playing receiver last season. He came to Vanderbilt as a quarterback. Sophomore Derek King will move to running back from cornerback, while sophomore Jacquese Kirk will move to cornerback from receiver. Three redshirt freshmen are also switching positions. Torey Agee is moving to defensive tackle from defensive end. Cory Batey is moving to strong safety from receiver and Adam Butler will work at defensive tackle this spring after spending his first year on campus as an offensive lineman.

New faces: The Commodores have two early enrollees who will go through spring practice as true freshmen -- quarterback Johnny McCrary and offensive tackle Sean Dowling. Several redshirt freshmen could work their way into the rotation on the offensive line. Among them: Barrett Gouger, Andrew Jelks, Kevin McCoy, Blake Fromang and Will Holden. Agee and Butler, two more redshirt freshmen, will get a lot of work at defensive tackle this spring.

Key battle: Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette are the top candidates to replace Jordan Rodgers as the Commodores’ starting quarterback. Carta-Samuels, a starter at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt, played in a backup role last season to Rodgers and started and played the whole way against Presbyterian. Grady will also re-join the quarterback battle this spring.

Breaking out: Zac Stacy was the heart and soul of Vanderbilt’s running game the last two seasons. Now that he’s gone, senior Wesley Tate is next in line. At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, Tate has the size and speed to give the Commodores a 1,000-yard rusher for the third consecutive season. If he gets it rolling early, he could be one of the top breakout players in the SEC. On defense, keep an eye on junior defensive end Kyle Woestmann. He had all five of his sacks last season during Vanderbilt's season-ending seven-game winning streak and was a terror in the Commodores' 38-24 victory over North Carolina State in the bowl game. He's one of the hardest workers on the team.

Don’t forget about: The Commodores finally have some real depth (and size) in the offensive line, and it’s a group led by senior left tackle Wesley Johnson. One of the SEC’s more underrated players, Johnson has made 38 career starts. The only position on the offensive line that he hasn’t started at is right guard. He’s played 2,462 snaps in his career at Vanderbilt and has never been flagged for a holding penalty.

All eyes on: Receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd return in 2013 after establishing themselves as the SEC’s most productive receiving duo last season. They combined to average 161.3 receiving yards per game. Matthews set a school record with 1,323 receiving yards. They combined to catch 13 touchdown passes.
Now is the time where we reveal our list of players who just missed the cut in our postseason player rankings.

Only 25 players could make the final cut, but we pleaded with the math gods to allow us to fit a couple more guys in there. They weren't budging, so we were stuck with that number.

We understand that a handful of players were very deserving of making the cut, and here are some of them:

Chris Low's just-missed list:
  • Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas, Sr.: One of the few constants for the Hogs last season, Hamilton led the SEC with a school-record 1,335 receiving yards and 7.5 catches per game. His 90 receptions were also a school record.
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, So.: If Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel was the SEC’s top left tackle in 2012, Kouandjio was a solid No. 2. He was an integral part of the best offensive line in college football.
  • Eric Reid, S, LSU, Jr.: Even though his junior season might not have been on par with his sophomore season, Reid still ranked among the top safeties in the SEC and finished third on LSU’s team with 91 total tackles.
  • Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina, Jr.: He was the Gamecocks’ top playmaker on offense and came up big in some key situations. Not only did he catch nine touchdown passes, but he also returned two punts for touchdowns.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, Fr.: One half of Alabama’s dynamic running back tandem, Yeldon had a sensational freshman season with 1,108 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in SEC play.
Edward Aschoff's just-missed list:
  • Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, Fr.: He was only a freshman last season, but he was still one of the league's best wideouts, ranking third in the SEC with 82 catches for 1,105 yards and had five touchdowns.
  • Hamilton: He battled double-teams all year, but still led the SEC in receiving yards. It's still tough to look at our list and not see his name on there.
  • Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, So.: Moncrief was one of the SEC's best offensive weapons in the month of November, registering 21 catches for 408 yards and five touchdowns.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt, Sr.: He was the workhorse yet again for Vandy's offense and became the school's all-time leading rusher after ranking fifth in the league with 1,141 rushing yards and adding 10 touchdowns.
  • D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina, Sr.: He was a tremendous safety net at the back of South Carolina's defense, was one of the hardest hitters around and had a knack for making plays all over the field, registering 62 solo tackles and seven pass breakups.
The NFL Combine is in full swing, and after some chatting, running and lifting, prospects are starting to see their draft stocks rise and fall.

The SEC had 79 players invited to Indianapolis, and a few really turned some heads over the weekend.

Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg might have really helped his chances in this year's draft after posting the fastest 40-yard dash time among tight ends with a time of 4.50. He blew away the competition, as the second-fastest time for a tight end was Maryland's Matt Furstenburg and his 4.62. He also led all tight ends with a vertical jump of 37.5 inches and a broad jump of 125 inches. Florida's Jordan Reed was sixth among tight ends with a time of 4.72, while Tennessee's Mychal Rivera was 10th with his 4.81 time.

Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel, who could be the top pick in April's NFL draft, bench pressed 225 pounds 27 times, ran a 5.3 in the 40, had a vertical jump of 28.5 inches, had a broad jump of 106 inches and was clocked at 7.4 seconds in the three-cone drill.

SEC skill position players showed off some pretty good speed on Sunday. Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb was clocked at an unofficial time of 4.21 in the 40, which beat Chris Johnson's record-setting time of 4.24 in 2008. His official time was 4.34, which led all running backs and is still a little faster than what I could churn out. Arkansas' Knile Davis was second to McCalebb with a time of 4.37. He was also second in the bench press among running backs (31 reps), while Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy and Texas A&M's Christine Michael tied for four with 27 reps.

Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope was the fastest of the SEC receivers and was third among wideouts with a time of 4.34. Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson ran a 4.42. Fellow Vols wide receiver Justin Hunter was clocked at 4.44 in the 40.

South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders, who shocked many with his decision to leave school early, didn't exactly help himself with his 40 time or his bench press. He ran a 4.58 40 and had just seven reps on the bench.

Missouri receiver T.J. Moe ran only a 4.74 in the 40, but led all receivers with 26 reps in the bench press.

You can check out how all the former SEC players did over the weekend at NFL.com.

SEC has 79 players on NFL combine list

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
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The SEC leads the way with 79 players invited to the 2013 NFL combine.

LSU has 13 players on that list, which includes cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, and that ties the Tigers with Florida State for the most nationally. A year ago, the SEC sent 52 players to the NFL combine.

The only SEC school not sending anybody to the NFL combine this year is Ole Miss.

The combine runs Feb. 20-26 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here's a team-by-team breakdown in the SEC:

LSU (13)
GEORGIA (11)
ALABAMA (10)
FLORIDA (10)
SOUTH CAROLINA (7)
ARKANSAS (6)
TEXAS A&M (6)
TENNESSEE (5)
AUBURN (3)
MISSISSIPPI STATE (3)
MISSOURI (3)
KENTUCKY (1)
VANDERBILT (1)

Signing day booms and busts revisited

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
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There are always surprises and disappointments in every signing class.

It’s just the nature of the business, although I’m not sure it’s politically correct to refer to recruiting as a business. At least, not in the SEC.

Anyway, with most of the hay in the barn from national signing day 2013, keep in mind that it’s impossible to evaluate prospects only hours after their letters of intent are faxed in. So much can happen -- both good and bad -- over the next couple of years.

If you don’t believe so, here’s a look back at the “best surprises” and “biggest disappointments” for all 14 SEC teams going back four years ago to the 2009 signing class.

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeChance Warmack
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Chance Warmack developed into one of college football's top offensive linemen.
Best surprise: OG Chance Warmack (Atlanta)

Warmack was not an ESPN 150 prospect, and 34 other players were ranked ahead of him that year in the state of Georgia. The home-state Bulldogs didn’t recruit him, but he landed at Alabama and became a three-year starter for the Tide and established himself this past season as the most dominant interior offensive lineman in college football.

Biggest disappointment: WR Kendall Kelly (Gadsen, Ala.)

Ranked as the No. 7 receiver in the country by ESPN, Kelly moved to defensive back, experienced some health issues and wound up taking a medical hardship.

ARKANSAS

Best surprise: WR Cobi Hamilton (Texarkana, Texas)

Unranked among the top 40 receivers nationally, Hamilton didn’t get an offer from Texas until two weeks prior to signing day. He stuck with the Hogs and blossomed in Bobby Petrino’s offense. Hamilton led the SEC this past season with 1,335 receiving yards and caught 18 career touchdown passes.

Biggest disappointment: CB Darius Winston (Helena, Ark.)

Winston was the most coveted in-state prospect since Darren McFadden and ranked by ESPN as the No. 3 cornerback in the country. But he never developed into a full-time starter at Arkansas and struggled with consistency. He was injured for part of this past season, his final one in a Hogs uniform.

AUBURN

Best surprise: WR Emory Blake (Austin, Texas)

Blake was ranked as the No. 73 receiver in the country by ESPN and chose Auburn on signing day over Texas Tech and Colorado. He finished his career as Auburn’s fifth all-time receiver with 128 catches and 16 touchdown receptions.

Biggest disappointment: QB Tyrik Rollison (Sulphur Springs, Texas)

Rollison was a Parade All-American and considered one of the Tigers’ prized signees in the 2009 class. He redshirted his first season, and after being suspended for the Outback Bowl, transferred to Sam Houston State that next spring and then to Tyler (Texas) Junior College.

FLORIDA

Best surprise: OG Jon Halapio (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

The Gators got Halapio as the No. 144-ranked offensive guard in the country, and when he committed in May, he had very few offers. Now heading into his senior season at Florida, Halapio has 33 starts under his belt and is one of the leaders of the Gators' offense.

Biggest disappointment: DT Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla.)

Brown was ranked as the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country by ESPN, but reported to school overweight and redshirted his first season. He was dismissed that next February without ever playing a down at Florida following his arrest for allegedly slapping a woman at a party.

GEORGIA

Best surprise: S Shawn Williams (Damascus, Ga.)

Williams was not ranked among the top 30 prospects in the state of Georgia. He made his mark initially on special teams and then emerged as the Bulldogs’ enforcer in the secondary from his safety position. He was second on the team with 98 tackles this past season.

Biggest disappointment: RB Washaun Ealey (Twin City, Ga.)

Ealey was an ESPN 150 prospect and ranked as the No. 8 running back in the country. He led the Bulldogs in rushing each of his first two seasons, but a pair of suspensions landed him in hot water with coach Mark Richt. Ealey was encouraged to move on following his sophomore season and wound up transferring to Jacksonville State.

KENTUCKY

Best surprise: OG Larry Warford (Richmond, Ky.)

Not ranked among the top 50 guard prospects in the country, Warford established himself as one of the top guards in the SEC the past two seasons and earned All-SEC recognition as a senior.

Biggest disappointment: QB Morgan Newton (Carmel, Ind.)

An ESPN 150 prospect, Newton made the SEC All-Freshman Team his first season. But his career never took off from there, and he was plagued by a shoulder injury in 2011. He served mainly as a backup this past season and finished his career with 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.

LSU

Best surprise: DT Bennie Logan (Coushatta, La.)

Logan was ranked as the No. 72 defensive end in the country, and LSU initially offered him as a grayshirt. But a firm offer came in the weeks leading up to signing day, and Logan blossomed into one of the SEC’s top defensive tackles each of the past two seasons.

Biggest disappointment: DT Chris Davenport (Mansfield, La.)

Davenport was one of 10 ESPN 150 prospects LSU signed in 2009, and he was ranked as the No. 7 defensive tackle in the country. Some had him ranked as a five-star prospect, but he was never able to crack the defensive line rotation at LSU and eventually moved to offensive line. He transferred to Tulane after this past season without ever starting a game at LSU.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

[+] EnlargeJohnthan Banks
Spruce Derden/US PresswireJohnthan Banks went from unnoticed out of high school to arguably the nation's top defensive back.
Best surprise: CB Johnthan Banks (Maben, Miss)

Banks’ only scholarship offer was to Mississippi State. He was from a tiny town in Mississippi and flew under the radar, but wound up being a four-year starter and won the Jim Thorpe Award this past season as the top defensive back in college football. He finished with 16 career interceptions to tie the Bulldogs' all-time record.

Biggest disappointment: RB Montrell Conner (Monroe, La.)

Conner had offers from USC, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee and was ranked as the No. 7 running back prospect in the country by ESPN. He redshirted his first season and left the program in August of that next year. He attended junior college in 2010 and then signed with Troy.

MISSOURI

Best surprise: RB Kendial Lawrence (Rockwall, Texas)

Lawrence picked Missouri over SMU, Louisville and Iowa State and was ranked by ESPN as the No. 100 running back in the country. He capped a solid career at Missouri this past season by rushing for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: QB Blaine Dalton (Blue Springs, Mo.)

A dual-threat quarterback and one of the top prospects in the state of Missouri, Dalton enrolled in school early. But he was arrested twice in less than four months and dismissed from the team before he ever played in a game.

OLE MISS

Best surprise: LB Mike Marry (Largo, Fla.)

Ranked as the No. 94 prospect in the state of Florida and unranked in the ESPN 150, Marry has been one of the leaders of the Ole Miss defense the past two seasons from his middle linebacker position. He had 10.5 tackles for loss this past season to finish second on the team. A three-star prospect, Marry picked Ole Miss over Duke, Iowa State and South Florida.

Biggest disappointment: WR Pat Patterson (Macon, Miss.)

Ole Miss beat several big-name teams, including Alabama, to get Patterson, an ESPN 150 prospect and widely considered the top prospect in the state of Mississippi that year. He showed flashes as a true freshman, but couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field and was dismissed prior to his sophomore season after catching just 12 career passes.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Best surprise: S D.J. Swearinger (Greenwood, S.C.)

A three-star prospect, Swearinger was originally committed to Tennessee, but backed off that pledge after Phillip Fulmer was fired and signed with South Carolina. Swearinger ended up being a three-year starter for the Gamecocks and finished second on the team in tackles each of the past two seasons. He was a second-team All-SEC selection this past season.

Biggest disappointment: RB Jarvis Giles (Tampa, Fla.)

An ESPN 150 prospect and ranked as the No. 6 running back in the country, Giles left the team early during his sophomore season after plummeting down the depth chart behind Marcus Lattimore and a few others.

TENNESSEE

Best surprise: WR Zach Rogers (Nashville, Tenn.)

Even though he wasn’t nearly as heralded as most of the signees in the Vols’ 2009 class, Rogers emerged this past season as one of the more underrated receivers in the SEC with 32 catches, including seven touchdowns, and averaged 15.3 yards per catch.

Biggest disappointment: RB Bryce Brown (Wichita, Kan.)

Brown has some serious competition for this dubious distinction. There were multiple disappointments in the Vols’ 2009 class. But as ESPN’s No. 2-ranked running back prospect in the country, Brown gets the nod. He rushed for 460 yards as a freshman, but sat out that next spring practice and never played again for the Vols after Lane Kiffin left for USC.

TEXAS A&M

Best surprise: WR Ryan Swope (Austin, Texas)

Swope was more of a running back coming out of high school and ranked by ESPN as the No. 116 athlete in the country. He carved out a splendid career at Texas A&M in becoming the Aggies’ all-time leading receiver. In his last two seasons, he caught 161 passes, including 19 touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: DT Chris Henderson (Dallas)

Henderson was ranked by ESPN as the No. 16 defensive tackle in the country, but failed to qualify academically and didn’t make it to campus.

VANDERBILT

Best surprise: RB Zac Stacy (Centerville, Ala.)

Alabama and Auburn both passed on Stacy, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 98 running back prospect nationally. He finished his Vanderbilt career this past season by rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight year and set the Commodores’ all-time rushing record in the process.

Biggest disappointment: WR Brady Brown (Argyle, Texas)

Brown was ranked among the top 60 prospects in the state of Texas, and the Commodores were hoping he could add some punch to their passing game. He suffered a leg injury as a freshman and wound up leaving the program following the 2011 season without catching any career passes.
We checked on the SEC's 3,000-yard passers from 2012 on Thursday, so we're taking a look at the running backs who hit the coveted 1,000-yard mark last fall.

Last summer, we looked at 10 running backs we thought could eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The SEC had four players reach 1,000 yards on the ground in 2011, and had nine, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, in 2012. I thought it was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback?

Here's how the 10 running backs we looked at last year did in 2012:

1. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia: Well, maybe if he actually played a down for the Bulldogs this year he might have had a chance to reach 1,000 yards. Instead, Crowell was dismissed before the season and spent 2012 rushing for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns at Alabama State.

2. Knile Davis, Arkansas: Davis said he was 100 percent after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury, but he never displayed the explosiveness and strength that made him a star in 2010. Davis was still hesitant at times and carried the ball only 112 times for 377 yards and two touchdowns.

3. James Franklin, Missouri: His laundry list of injuries and a banged-up offensive line didn't really help the dual-threat quarterback when it came to running the ball. A year removed from almost getting to 1,000 yards, Franklin rushed for just 122 yards and averaged 1.4 yards per carry in the process.

4. Eddie Lacy, Alabama: Real shocker that an Alabama running back bulldozed his way past 1,000 yards. Lacy overpowered defenders and left plenty looking silly with his patented spin move all year, finishing the season ranking third in the SEC with 1,322 yards and tying for second with 17 touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry.

5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: For the second straight year, Lattimore's pursuit of 1,000 yards was cut short by a devastating knee injury. He rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns on 143 attempts before dislocating his right knee and tearing multiple ligaments against Tennessee on Oct. 27.

6. Christine Michael, Texas A&M: Like Lattimore, Michael was coming off of an ACL injury this fall, but he never seemed to really fit in the Aggies' new spread scheme. Eventually, he really wasn't Texas A&M's first option at running back and he finished the season with 417 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games of action.

7. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: Perkins spent most of the year near the top of the SEC in all-purpose yards and was one of the toughest runners in the league. He averaged a stout 5 yards per carry and finished the year with 1,024 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

8. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt: For the second straight year, Stacy finished the season with more than 1,000 yards for the Commodores. Even with a few more weapons to use on the offensive side, Stacy rushed for 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns on 207 carries.

9. Spencer Ware, LSU: Ware wasn't the same workhorse that he was for the Tigers in 2011. He played in 12 games, but only started four and carried the ball just 94 times for 367 yards (that's just 3.9 yards per carry). He finished fourth on the team in rushing and scored just one touchdown in 2012.

10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Pretty good assumption last summer. Yeldon made sure he and Lacy were a migraine for defenses, as he pounded and darted his way to 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and 74.1 yards in SEC games. Lacy packed the punch, while Yeldon showcased the moves last fall.

Who was overlooked:
  • Mike Gillislee, Florida: He proclaimed before the season that he'd rush for 1,500 yards and more than 20 touchdowns. He didn't get there, but he did become the first Gator to rush for 1,000 yards (1,152) since 2004. He basically was Florida's offense and added 10 touchdowns on the ground.
  • Todd Gurley, Georgia: We looked at the wrong Bulldog last summer. Gurley made more of an impact for Georgia as a freshman than Crowell did in 2011, finishing second in the SEC in rushing (first among running backs) with 1,385 yards and added 17 touchdowns to his 6.2 yards per carry.
  • Kendial Lawrence, Missouri: He was almost forgotten because of the year Henry Josey had for most of the 2011 season, but Lawrence was Mizzou's most consistent offensive weapon last fall, rushing for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
  • Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The Heisman winner was arguably the nation's most elusive player in the country when he took off running. He shredded defenses all season and led the SEC with 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 7 yards per carry.
  • Tre Mason, Auburn: There wasn't a lot to smile about on the Plains this past fall, but Mason was the best weapon the Tigers had, as he rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry.

Season report card: Vanderbilt

January, 25, 2013
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We finish up our grading of all 14 SEC teams by checking out how the Vanderbilt Commodores did in 2012:

OFFENSE: A year ago, Vanderbilt had one of the most improved offenses, and even with some younger parts to work with, the Commodores still had a very solid offensive attack in 2012. For starters, quarterback Jordan Rodgers made a big leap from his junior season. Rodgers threw for 2,539 yards and 15 touchdown to just five interceptions. He was more efficient and more settled in the pocket in 2012, which was a major boost for the Commodores' offense last fall. Vandy wasn't a juggernaut on offense, but it was effective enough to help produce a nine-win season that included seven straight wins to end the season. Vandy finished the year eighth in the SEC in total offense (379.7 yards per game) and was seventh in scoring (30). Helping Rodgers in 2012 were dynamic receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Matthews led the SEC with 94 catches and registered 1,323 yards with eight touchdowns. Boyd caught 50 passes for 774 yards and five scores. Running back Zac Stacy produced his second straight 1,000-yard season (1,141) and scored 10 touchdowns. Again, the Commodores weren't flashy when they had the ball and registered middle-of-the-road numbers in SEC play, including averaging just 22.1 points per game against conference foes. Grade: B

DEFENSE: Year 2 under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was another success for the Commodores. Even though some key components -- and leaders -- were missing from last year's team, the Commodores' defense was one of the more underrated units in the league last fall. Vandy finished the season ranked fifth in the SEC in total defense (333.9) and had one of the top pass defenses, ranking 14th nationally, allowing 191.8 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt. The Commodores also grabbed 11 interceptions, while allowing seven passing touchdowns. Defensive backs Kenny Ladler and Andre Hal made real names for themselves in 2012. Ladler led the team with 90 tackles (60 solo) and Hal recorded two interceptions and was second in the SEC with 16 passes defended. Vandy did have its issues against the run in SEC play. The Commodores allowed 173.9 yards per game in SEC play and 12 touchdowns. In losses to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, they allowed an average of 277.7 yards and surrendered 10 touchdowns. In their five other SEC games, they gave up just two rushing touchdowns. Grade: B

OVERALL: James Franklin seems to really know what he's doing in Nashville. Year 1 was nice, but his second year was much better. Even after an 0-2 start, the Commodores rolled through the second half of the season. The close loss to South Carolina didn't hurt, but blowing a lead and losing by 10 on the road to Northwestern was a bad loss. The Commodores were then blown out by Georgia and lost to Florida to start 2-4, but those were the final low moments for the Commodores. They ripped off seven straight wins to finish the year and won nine games for the first time since 1915. They also won five conference games for the first time since 1935, routed rival Tennessee and soundly beat NC State in their bowl game to finish the year at No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll. Grade: A-

Past grades:

 

What we learned in the SEC bowls

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
11:00
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Now that the bowl season is over, it's time to take a look back at what we learned in the SEC during the postseason:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will be among the favorites to win the national title again next season.
1. It really is Alabama's world: For the second straight year and for the third time in four years, Alabama took home college football's crystal hardware. After the first 15 minutes of the Discover BCS National Championship, it didn't even look like No. 1 Notre Dame deserved to be on the same field as the Crimson Tide. Alabama wore down the Irish defense in the first half, and its defense tormented Notre Dame's offense for about 90 percent of Monday night's game. Nick Saban didn't have his most talented team, but he had his squad way more prepared than Brian Kelly did. Saban's way of making sure his players approach every game the same way proved to be excellent again. Notre Dame was completely overmatched, and with the talent coming back in 2013, Alabama should again be the favorite to win it all. Three-peat?

2. The SEC's dominance is still being challenged: Even though Alabama brought home the SEC's seventh straight BCS title, the SEC's perception is still being challenged. Social media has been buzzing with chants of "overrated" directed toward the SEC because Mississippi State, LSU and Florida all fell flat in their bowl games. Mississippi State lost by 14 to Northwestern, LSU lost to Clemson on a last-second field goal and Florida was run ragged by Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heading into bowl season, Florida and LSU weren't expected to lose, but they got away from their ground games and paid for it dearly. Still, the SEC went 6-3 (.667) in bowl games, including Texas A&M's 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Georgia and South Carolina downing Big Ten teams. Only the WAC (2-0) and C-USA (4-1) had better winning percentages, and neither had nearly as many bowl teams. So is the SEC down? Well, while the SEC took a couple of bad losses in bowl season, seven teams finished the year in the Associated Press Top 25, including five in the top 10. The Big Ten and Big 12 had losing bowl records, the Pac-12 went 4-4 and the ACC was 4-2. So, if the SEC is overrated, what are the other conferences?

3. Florida's offensive issues are still a major problem: All season, we wondered what we'd see from Florida's offense. However, for 11 games, even if the offense came up short, the Gators found ways to win. Against Louisville, the Gators went in reverse and never got right again. Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six on the first possession, and the offense imploded from there. Mike Gillislee, who was easily Florida's best offensive weapon, carried the ball just nine times. The Gators panicked, but when they had to pass, they couldn't.

This has to be a major concern for the Gators going forward, because Gillislee is graduating and tight end Jordan Reed declared for the NFL draft. Driskel has to find some major help in the passing game this spring/summer, or Florida's offense will get pummeled again. Driskel's health is now a major concern because backup Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving the Gators with no experience behind Driskel.

4. More eyes will be on Ole Miss ... and Vanderbilt: Before the season, no one gave Ole Miss a chance at the postseason -- or even five wins -- but the Rebels went out and had a tremendous first year under Hugh Freeze. If not for a couple of horrendous second halves, the Rebels might have won eight games during the regular season. After a dominating performance in their BBVA Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, the Rebels could be looking at a spot in preseason Top 25 polls. Most of this team, including what could be a stellar recruiting class, will be in Oxford next fall, so expectations will be much higher.

The same can be said about James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. After a historic nine-win season that ended with a commanding bowl win over NC State, the Commodores will be expected to keep up this act after being even better in Year 2 of the Franklin era. Vandy will lose some talent up front defensively, and Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will be gone, but a host of playmakers will return, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.

5. Johnny Football's legend just keeps growing: After Texas A&M lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, Johnny Manziel's field maturity was really going to be judged in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against the Sooners. Well, all he did without one of his best mentors was set a bowl record for total yards (516) in the Aggies' rout inside Jerry's World. Manziel zigged and zagged as though Kingsbury was feeding him info through an earpiece. People don't understand how much Kingsbury helped Manziel with his composure during games, but Manziel did just fine without him. It shows how much he's grown during his Heisman year. Things will be different next season with some key players also missing on offense, but to see Manziel play like that without Kingsbury has to be very encouraging for Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Aggies' coaching staff.

Franklin building Vandy's program to last

December, 31, 2012
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James Franklin AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJames Franklin led the Commodores to their first nine-win season in nearly a century.
Merely reciting a long list of firsts doesn’t do justice to what Vanderbilt’s football program has accomplished under second-year coach James Franklin.

Sure, it helps when you process that Vanderbilt -- thanks to its 38-24 beatdown of North Carolina State on Monday in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl -- is basking in its first nine-win season since 1915.

To put into perspective how long ago that’s been, the Titanic sank to her watery grave only three years earlier in the North Atlantic.

The Commodores (9-4) also ended the season with a seven-game winning streak, the longest in the SEC and their longest since closing the 1948 season with eight straight wins.

We could sit here all day and talk history.

But Franklin’s crowning achievement is that he’s made Vanderbilt relevant in the big, bad SEC, and don’t think for a minute that his work is done.

If he thought it was, he would have undoubtedly jumped on one of the numerous overtures that came his way to go elsewhere this year. Refreshingly, in an age when college coaches change jobs about as often as most of us change socks, Franklin was more interested in finding a way to enhance the job that he already has.

That’s why his new contract, which will pay him more than $3 million per year, has language in it that requires Vanderbilt to continue to upgrade its stadium, its football complex and other facilities and player amenities that are crucial if the Commodores are going to recruit at a level that will make them a consistent winner in the SEC.

Franklin has already made some serious waves on the recruiting trail. He’s bringing in four-star prospects, which was once a fantasy at Vanderbilt.

The other thing he’s done is embrace Vanderbilt’s stringent academic standards. He’s selling them rather than trying to work around them.

Franklin has also been masterful at assembling his staff, a group of coaches who’ve done as good a job the past two years as any staff in the league.

The Commodores still have a ways to go in terms of stockpiling the caliber and number of offensive and defensive linemen that it takes to be a contender in the SEC.

Nonetheless, turn on the tape and watch the way their guys play up front -- their technique, their smarts and their toughness.

That’s a credit to the coaches on Vanderbilt’s staff and their ability to develop players and get them in the right spots.

The Commodores will miss the seniors on this team. Guys like Zac Stacy, Jordan Rodgers, Trey Wilson, Ryan Seymour, Rob Lohr and Archibald Barnes were a huge part of Vanderbilt’s climb the past two years.

But so were Chris Marve, Casey Hayward and Tim Fugger the year before, and Vanderbilt still managed to take it to another level this season.

That’s because Franklin is building this thing to last, and he plans on sticking around long enough to see a few more firsts.

Vanderbilt keys for Music City Bowl

December, 31, 2012
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Here’s a look at three keys for Vanderbilt in Monday’s matchup with North Carolina State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl:

1. Winning the turnover battle: One of the remarkable things about Vanderbilt’s six-game winning streak heading into the bowl game is that the Commodores were minus-4 in turnover margin during those six wins. And in four of those games, the Commodores lost the turnover battle. That’s what you call playing with fire. They can’t afford to turn the ball over against North Carolina State, especially with the Wolfpack ranked No. 20 nationally in passing offense (304 yards per game) and capable of scoring points in bunches. Moreover, N.C. State has had its own problems in the turnover department. The team has committed 21 of its 28 turnovers this season in its five losses.

2. Pressuring Glennon: N.C. State’s Mike Glennon is 12th nationally in passing and ranked by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 3 senior quarterback in the 2013 draft. Glennon has passed for 3,648 yards with 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Getting to him early and forcing some errant throws will be important for the Commodores, who are ranked 10th nationally in passing defense. They’ve only given up 6 touchdown passes in 12 games, but Glennon is probably the best passer they’ve faced this season.

3. Running to glory: Vanderbilt senior running back Zac Stacy has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. When he’s going good, so are the Commodores. They’re averaging 170.4 yards per game on the ground, and stopping the run hasn’t been the Wolfpack’s strong suit. They’ve allowed more than 200 yards rushing in seven games this season. Establishing the run will help keep Glennon and the N.C. State passing game off the field, and Vanderbilt also doesn’t want to be in a lot of third-down situations. The Wolfpack are first nationally in third-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert just 27.2 percent of the time. The Commodores, meanwhile, are 100th nationally in converting third downs (34.5 percent).

Pregame: Music City Bowl

December, 31, 2012
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NC State (7-5, 4-4 ACC) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4, 5-3 SEC)

WHO TO WATCH: NC State quarterback Mike Glennon. He is a legitimate pro prospect who finished first in the ACC in passing yards per game (304) and second in total offense (292 yards per game). He was clutch in the fourth quarter of a dramatic upset of then-No. 3 Florida State during the regular season. He threw for 30 touchdowns this season and 14 interceptions. Vandy’s defense, though, has allowed just six passing touchdowns and an average of 175.8 passing yards to rank in the top 10 nationally in each category.

WHAT TO WATCH: NC State’s rushing defense against Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy. In conference play, All-SEC running back and school career rushing leader Stacy finished fifth in the league with 1,034 rushing yards. The Commodores ranked 53rd nationally with an average of 170.4 rushing yards per game. NC State’s rushing defense has been average this year, allowing 157.9 yards per game.

WHY TO WATCH: Vandy is on a hot streak under second-year coach James Franklin. The Commodores are riding a six-game winning streak, the program’s longest in three decades, and this is the first time in school history that Vanderbilt will make back-to-back postseason appearances. A win in the Music City Bowl would equal the team’s single-season record of nine victories, set in 1904 and matched in 1915. For NC State, it’s the last game with the Wolfpack for offensive coordinator/interim coach Dana Bible, who replaced good friend Tom O’Brien. O’Brien was fired at the end of the season and replaced by Dave Doeren of Northern Illinois.

PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 24, NC State 17: The Commodores’ defense will be the difference. Vanderbilt ranks No. 17 in the country in total defense, No. 15 in points allowed and No. 10 in passing defense. Vandy will fluster Glennon into making some mistakes, and a turnover or two will be the difference.

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