SEC: Zach Mettenberger

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Fullback is a disappearing position in the NFL. Connor Neighbors understands this reality.

That's why LSU's senior fullback is less concerned about his positioning for the NFL draft than he is about finding a pro team that still uses players with his skillset in this era of wide-open offensive schemes.

[+] EnlargeConnor Neighbors
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisLSU's Connor Neighbors is hoping a trip to the Senior Bowl in his home state of Alabama can help match him with an NFL team in need of a fullback.
"I don't really care about the draft," Neighbors said. "If I get drafted, that's fine. I just want to have a chance to play on a team. And I'm a football player, too. I can play special teams. I can do all that stuff. So as long as I have a chance and I seize the opportunity and make a team, that's all I really care about."

His recently accepted invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game shows that scouts believe Neighbors has the makings of a pro fullback. But Neighbors is smart to hedge his bets on becoming an actual draft pick.

Since 2007, when a whopping nine fullbacks came off the board in the draft, the number of players drafted from Neighbors' position has dwindled. In each of the last three drafts, only three fullbacks have been selected. And in the last five years, a total of 16 fullbacks came off the board.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and NFLDraftScout.com both rate Neighbors as the No. 5 fullback prospect in the upcoming draft, which indicates that becoming a late-round pick or undrafted free agent might be Neighbors' most likely path to an NFL roster.

If he goes the undrafted free agent route, Neighbors will have to find a club that makes use of his position -- and he admits he has been paying attention to where he might be a good fit.

"Ever since I moved to the position, when I've watched football, I've seen that," Neighbors said. "I know that a lot of teams, they have a package for [fullbacks]. Not everyone, NFL teams, they don't really use it that often. ...

"Tennessee uses one. [Former LSU quarterback and current Titans rookie Zach Mettenberger is] trying to get me to go there. He's like, 'How awesome would it be?' if I was there. That would be tight," Neighbors continued. "I know Atlanta uses one. Green Bay, they use one -- and they give him the ball -- so that would be tight if I went there. I try not to worry about that stuff, though, because I can't determine the outcome except with my play."

His performances in the Senior Bowl practices can help. Scouts flock to observe the game-week practices each year in order to see many of the nation's top senior prospects go head to head. For a player with three career carries for 6 yards and 11 career receptions for 119 yards, this is a good chance for Neighbors to show them that he can handle the ball, as well as block and cover kicks.

"I heard it's a pretty intense week, so we'll see what happens," Neighbors said.

Neighbors has a first-hand source who can attest to that intensity. His dad, Wes, played in the Senior Bowl in 1987 after an All-SEC career at Alabama. His late grandfather Billy, a College Football Hall of Famer, was an All-American at Alabama and played in the game in 1962.

Since the Senior Bowl is played in Neighbors' home state of Alabama -- in Mobile -- friends and family won't have far to travel to see him become the third Neighbors to compete in the game. And Neighbors expects plenty of them to show up for his final college game.

"That's what my dad said," Neighbors said, "so I've got to play good so I don't embarrass anybody."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The game rested on Anthony Jennings' young shoulders when he took the field last season against Arkansas. This was no time for the 19-year-old quarterback to play like a tentative true freshman.

"Obviously if you come in like a mouse talking to the huddle and things, they won't believe me," Jennings recalled, "so I had to come in with confidence high and tell the guys, 'Here we go. We're going to go score.'"

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe last time LSU played Arkansas, on Nov. 29, 2013, Anthony Jennings (pictured) and Travin Dural forged a lasting quarterback-to-receiver bond.
Jennings' LSU team trailed the Razorbacks 27-24 in the fourth quarter and Jennings was standing in his own end zone when he took the first snap on a possession that would forever tie his name with that of Travin Dural in LSU lore.

To that point in the season, Jennings had appeared only on a few select running plays and in garbage time, but here he was replacing injured senior starter Zach Mettenberger and needing to drive the Tigers 99 yards in the game's final 3:04 if LSU was to avoid a huge upset.

When the Tigers' backup quarterback entered the huddle, he projected the necessary confident tone, said Dural, then a redshirt freshman who spent most of the season in veteran stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham's shadows.

"He came in like he had been playing the whole game and came in like he was the starter and the offense never missed a beat," said Dural, whose Tigers (7-3, 3-3 SEC) will visit Arkansas (4-5, 0-5) on Saturday.

The drive started with a 2-yard Jennings run to get the Tigers some breathing room away from the goal line. Completions of 16 yards to tight end Dillon Gordon and 11 yards to Landry soon followed. Then Jennings broke a 21-yard run to push the Tigers past midfield.

The drive started to stall from there, however. Jennings tossed an incomplete pass to Kadron Boone and then completed a screen pass to tailback Jeremy Hill, but Arkansas' Deatrich Wise stopped him for no gain. The Tigers called a timeout, facing third-and-10 from the Arkansas 49-yard line with just 1:22 to play.

That's when Jennings lined up in the shotgun and launched a perfect strike down the left sideline to a wide-open Dural, who had streaked 10 yards behind Arkansas defensive back Jared Collins. Dural hauled in the pass and crossed the goal line to give LSU a 31-27 lead, and the final score, with 1:15 remaining.

It was one of the most exciting moments of the entire season for the Tigers, and it was a pair of freshmen who hooked up to make it happen.

"You're always going to remember that play and that 99-yard drive," Jennings said. "That's the story and then being a freshman at that, I'm always going to remember that."

Jennings and Dural used that game-winning touchdown pass as a launching point, with both players enjoying much more prominent roles in the Tigers' offense as sophomores.

Dural (30 catches for 701 yards, 7 TDs), who has started every game this season and ranks fourth in the SEC with an average of 70.1 receiving yards per game, said the Arkansas touchdown gave him confidence that he could become an impact player in the SEC.

"It was coming, but after that play it was really there," Dural said. "It kind of showed me, 'OK, I can make plays. I can do this.'"

Jennings (80-170, 1,266 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) has had an up-and-down sophomore season, but the Tigers have won eight of his 10 starts since he took over for Mettenberger.

He said he didn't need the Arkansas comeback to believe he belonged at LSU, although he first credited his teammates and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron for making the drive a success.

"I don't think it was confirmation. I think I always had that confidence in myself that I could play at a high level," Jennings said. "So just that happening was a product of all the teammates around me helping me, guiding me, coaching me, Coach Cameron calling great plays there. So it really was not on me. It's about the guys around me."

The duo has already combined to provide several other huge plays for the Tigers since the Arkansas game. They hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown in a season-opening win against Wisconsin and combined for a school-record 94-yard touchdown on LSU's first offensive play the following week against Sam Houston State.

Dural was also the recipient of a 41-yard pass from Jennings on third-and-25 that extended the Tigers' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter against Florida. He made a one-handed, 11-yard touchdown catch to cap the drive and give LSU a 27-24 lead with 2:40 to play.

Needless to say, Jennings-to-Dural has become one of the SEC's top big-play combinations this season, and it all started with an unlikely 99-yard drive last season against Arkansas where two freshmen showed up at the game's biggest moment.

"That was a big moment for both of those guys. It kind of jumpstarted both of their careers," senior running back Terrence Magee said. "They've made big plays throughout the year this year and we've counted on both of those guys and we're going to continue to count on them through the rest of this season.

"I think the big-play ability and the connection that they have with each other is going to be vital to the rest of this season and into the future for those guys."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Inexperience often reveals itself at the most inopportune times.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre, Cyrus Jones
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertMalachi Dupre has one of the few highlights for LSU receivers in a problem-filled Week 11 loss to Bama.
Such was the case last Saturday for LSU, when young Tigers dropped multiple catchable passes that could have extended drives -- and in the case of sophomore fullback Melvin Jones, given LSU a key first down during its unsuccessful overtime possession.

"We had some of our best receivers, I mean maybe the most talented ball-skill guys, drop balls [against Alabama]," LSU coach Les Miles said. "So I was surprised absolutely that that was the case. I would bet you that that wouldn't happen again like that for a long time."

But it did against Alabama, in the 20-13 OT loss. Twice when freshman Trey Quinn -- one of the Tigers' most sure-handed wideouts – dropped third-down passes from Anthony Jennings during drives in the fourth quarter. Fellow freshman Malachi Dupre also dropped a third-down pass that could have extended a first-quarter drive. And sophomore Travin Dural once picked up only 2 yards on a third-and-3 pass, although in his defense, the officials might have been a bit stingy with their spot.

Nonetheless, the collection of missteps in the passing game added up for LSU, particularly once Alabama was able to rally in the final minute and force overtime.

"There's just so much that's left on the table when you don't have drives that are continuous, down-the-field drives," Miles said. "That's ultimately the easiest way to extend an offensive productivity is to get so some of those plays you want to call after you've picked up a third down.

"In other words, just think about how many more plays would have happened if we pick up four third downs. Legitimately, minimum, eight to 10 max. Twenty?"

Dupre redeemed himself after his drop by making a one-handed touchdown catch on third down to cap LSU's next possession. But he also recognized that drops were a clear problem at his position against Alabama.

"Trey may have had a few questionable ones, Travin, myself," Dupre said. "Definitely we're guys who work extra hard to catch the football and [the Alabama game] isn't something that we want to keep doing. It definitely won't happen. I know I'll work harder, I know Trey will work very hard, Travin, and we'll get that fixed and it won't happen again."

To date, third down has been an issue for LSU on several fronts. Not only have quarterbacks Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris failed to come anywhere near the production that senior Zach Mettenberger provided in the passing game last season, but the collection of young receivers haven't measured up to what departed veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham accomplished in 2013.

Landry, in particular, was one of the nation's top third-down receivers, catching 28 of the 35 passes where he was targeted and accumulating 474 yards and six touchdowns on third down alone. Beckham caught 15 of his 25 targets for 272 yards.

As a group, LSU's top four receivers -- Dural, Dupre, Quinn and John Diarse -- have caught 20 of the 55 passes where they were targeted for 291 yards and three touchdowns.

Dural (seven catches on 23 targets for 105 yards) is the leader, but the conversion rate is not particularly impressive for any of the quarterbacks' regular targets. Diarse (4-for-6 for 78 yards) has caught 67 percent of his third-down targets and achieved three first downs and a touchdown, but he has only been targeted on third down twice since the Louisana-Monroe win on Sept. 13.





For his part, Jennings accepted some of the blame for the incompletions, saying that some of his passes were not as accurate as they needed to be.

"Those guys don't want to drop passes," Jennings said. "I've just got to put it in better position for them to catch the ball and see it with strong hands. And basically [if I'm] more accurate with the football, I have confidence in those guys that they'll do a great job catching the ball."

It's part of the risk you run when relying on young players. Landry and Beckham were not the reliable third-down performers they would become as true freshmen, either, but they developed into one of the nation's top receiving tandems by the time they were juniors.

Their performances against Alabama are part of the growing process for LSU's freshmen, and Dupre said he hopes it will be the last time he and Quinn's drops figure into a Tigers' loss.

"I don't want to say it's the story of the game. We did a lot of things right," Dupre said. "It's definitely not a characteristic of us, but it happened [against Alabama]. We just have to get better moving forward and make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the bottom line."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s 2014 season is halfway home, but in some ways it feels like it’s already over.

The Tigers’ 41-7 loss to Auburn on Saturday night was the worst in Les Miles’ nine-plus seasons at LSU, a program that Miles and his staff have kept among the annual contenders in the SEC and national championship pictures. Not this year, though.

Today the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) are in an unfamiliar position: unranked and an afterthought in the loaded SEC West. After losing their first two games in conference play -- the first time that has happened since 2001 -- it's natural to wonder what LSU can do to salvage this season.

“Well, win, stupid,” you’re probably saying. Yes, closing the regular season with a six-game winning streak would certainly be a perfect salve for the wounds LSU suffered in its two SEC games thus far: losses to No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Mississippi State, which combined for 1,136 yards of total offense against John Chavis’ struggling defense.

But let’s be realistic. ESPN’s Football Power Index shows that LSU has the nation’s toughest remaining schedule. It hasn’t lost for the final time this season.

A program can’t lose this much underclassman talent to the NFL and reasonably expect not to feel the effects of those departures. Miles surely hoped talent (and LSU has plenty of that) would trump experience, but this is the wrong season in the West to test that assumption.

Mississippi State and Auburn both destroyed LSU with runs up the middle. Surprise, surprise, the Tigers lost both of last season’s starting defensive tackles, Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, who handled the vast majority of snaps at the position before entering the draft as underclassmen.

This year’s defensive line is young and has been ineffective. The Tigers have signed some coveted defensive line prospects in recent years, but many of those players either aren’t healthy or aren’t ready to perform.

Last year, LSU was the best offense in the nation at converting third downs, but all four of the most important skill players in that standing (quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) are gone. Three of them had eligibility remaining when they entered the draft.

With the exception of the disappointing offensive line, evaluations of just about any position group at LSU sound like a broken record: Talented, but inexperienced. Not playing to its potential yet. Over and over and over.

LSU’s problem, as a friend said to me last week, is that there is no free agency in college football. The Tigers aren’t the New York Yankees. They can’t break out the checkbook and sign a high-priced free agent who can fill an immediate need or trade prospects for a veteran who can help them contend for championships today.

The only way LSU can salvage this season is by developing the talent that will help the Tigers return to the top of the SEC West heap in the future. It might be painful in the short term, but this team has more than enough talent to compete for a College Football Playoff spot in the next couple of years. It wouldn’t hurt to think about the bigger picture, even if Miles understandably will refuse to write off this season.

Settle on a quarterback between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings and then let that guy endure the growing pains that will help him at crunch time in 2015 and 2016. Give lots of reps to sophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith and freshman safety Jamal Adams, the future leaders of the Tigers’ defense. Get those young defensive tackles on the field. Miles said last week on his radio show that true freshman Trey Lealaimatafao might play Saturday against Florida and that fellow signee Travonte Valentine might become eligible in the near future. Get that back to being the position of strength that it usually is at LSU.

Getting those guys on the field is how LSU can make the second half of this season a productive one. Tigers fans might not like the immediate results, but something tells me that when those players are winning All-SEC honors and the Tigers are winning big again in the next couple of years, they’ll agree that having enduring those temporary (and unavoidable) growing pains made the wins that much more enjoyable.

Jennings takes lead in LSU QB race

September, 3, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Unlike last week, there is no mystery about who will start LSU’s second game at quarterback.

After Anthony Jennings played nearly the entire way in the Tigers’ season-opening win against Wisconsin – and was at the helm as his team rallied from a 24-7 deficit for a 28-24 win – the sophomore holds an advantage over true freshman Brandon Harris entering Saturday’s game against Sam Houston State.

“It was obvious in [the Wisconsin] game that the opportunity for us to win was, certainly right now, to get Anthony Jennings comfortable in there and let him play, and he did very well,” LSU coach Les Miles said Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean their quarterback duel is over, Miles said. It means that he plans to show patience as Harris – who failed to move the offense in one possession against Wisconsin – learns to function as a college quarterback. And in the meantime, Jennings will be the guy.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsDespite getting the win last Saturday, Anthony Jennings knows there is room for improvement.
It’s a good thing that the sophomore is coming off a game where he shook off an awful start to complete 4 of 6 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half. That made Jennings’ final passing line (9-for-21, 239 yards, 2 TDs) much more palatable as the Tigers allow Harris to develop at his own pace.

“After the half, you could see a change in Anthony,” receiver John Diarse said. “You could see the change in his eyes and you could really tell that he focused and he really relaxed and got comfortable in what we were doing and he trusted and believed in Coach Cam [Cameron] that he was going to put us in the right situation to make the plays.”

It was exactly the kind of confidence boost that Jennings likely needed. He was mediocre at best in his first career start – LSU’s Outback Bowl win against Iowa, when he took over for injured Zach Mettenberger – and followed that performance with a flat effort in LSU’s spring game.

But Jennings was able to complete more than just deep go routes to Travin Dural in the second half against Wisconsin, making a couple of nice throws that kept LSU drives moving and allowed the Tigers’ comeback to evolve.

“I feel like he did great,” running back Kenny Hilliard said. “He was able to go out there and make a couple plays for us and he led us to the victory. As a player and as a team, we feel like he got the job done.”

This was just a first step for both quarterbacks, however.

Jennings has more experience than his freshman counterpart, but he had only taken more than 100 career snaps when he took the field against Wisconsin. He is still extremely early in his development as a college quarterback, as well.

“I expect to be exponentially better,” Jennings said after the Wisconsin game. “I got this game under my belt and I’m getting more comfortable with the offense and those guys rallying around me. I’m just coming to practice every day and trying to get better.”

And Harris couldn’t have been satisfied with his playing time or with the results in his one series under center against the Badgers. He and Jennings have battled for the quarterback job since he arrived on campus in January, and Diarse made sure to remind him after the game that the battle is not over.

“We expect things and when we don’t get what we expect, we kind of get down,” Diarse said. “But like I told him after the game, I said, ‘Hey man, it’s not over. It’s just the beginning. Just stay in it, let’s ride it out and we’re going to win it.’"

In fact, if things go according to plan over the next couple of Saturdays – when the Tigers host Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe in a pair of nonconference matchups – Harris could be in line for considerably more playing time.

The score was too close and the competition too stiff for LSU’s coaches to take many risks at quarterback against Wisconsin. But even if Miles said his staff won’t predetermine Harris’ workload for Saturday; he almost certainly has a greater opportunity ahead – particularly if the Tigers take control early.

“I think Brandon will come into his own,” Diarse said. “I think he’s very pumped about this week knowing that he has the opportunity to play. I think his confidence level’s going to continue to rise. We expect great things from him just like we do Anthony. I think this week is going to really let him know that, ‘Hey, I can do this. I still have a chance.’ ”

Planning for success: LSU Tigers

August, 26, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The blueprint for an LSU victory on Saturday might seem awfully familiar to what the Tigers pulled off the last time we saw them in action.

Sure, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will add a few extra wrinkles for Saturday's meeting with No. 14 Wisconsin, but the basics might closely resemble what we saw from the Tigers when they defeated Iowa 21-14 in the Outback Bowl:

Pound the run

It wasn't a pretty game, but LSU hammered an Iowa defense that came in allowing 120.8 rushing yards per game for 220 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The Tigers rode a tough offensive line -- and only one of those starters has since left the team -- and a career-best rushing effort from Jeremy Hill (28 carries, 216 yards) to what could have been a comfortable win.

So what should we expect against a Wisconsin defense that must replace its entire front seven? With Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard running behind that experienced offensive line? It might not be as conservative as the start of the Outback Bowl, when LSU ran the ball on its first 12 plays from scrimmage, but until Wisconsin proves it can stop the run, the Badgers should expect heavy doses of Fournette and the boys barreling toward them.

Don't put young quarterback in bad situations

Anthony Jennings made his first career start against Iowa, taking over for injured quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Although awful weather conditions certainly played a role in Cameron's conservatism, it was apparent that he didn't want to put too much on Jennings' shoulders.

That turned out to be a good idea since Jennings often held onto the ball for too long -- Iowa sacked him four times -- and passed poorly (7-for-19 for 82 yards and one interception that Iowa's John Lowdermilk returned to the LSU goal line).

Both Jennings and Brandon Harris will play quarterback on Saturday, but Cameron's job will not be to ask them to win the game. It will be to prevent them from losing it. Their competition can continue against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe without the pressure they will face against Wisconsin. For now, Cameron probably wants to put the ball in the air only as much as will be necessary to win.

Play tough against the run

Wisconsin's ground game also figures to be its go-to weapon. The Badgers return one of the nation's top running backs in Melvin Gordon (1,609 yards, 12 TDs, 7.8 yards per carry in 2013) and four starters along the offensive line.

It's a group that moves the ball on the ground as effectively as SEC rivals like Auburn or Alabama. While the Tigers suffocated Iowa's ground attack in the bowl win (37 carries, 76 yards), Wisconsin's is more explosive than the typical plodding Big Ten offense.

LSU lost its two starting defensive tackles from last season and has reshuffled its linebackers. The Tigers think the restructured lineup has the potential to be outstanding -- and it will have to be on Saturday.

Playing it close to the vest earned LSU a win to close out the 2013 season, and that might be a winning formula against Wisconsin, as well. Cameron no doubt wants to open the playbook -- and he probably will do so once a quarterback establishes himself and the Tigers' young skill players get comfortable -- but it would make sense if the Tigers' coaches do their best to minimize their risks on Saturday.

LSU Tigers season preview

August, 12, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the LSU Tigers:

2013 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC). Beat Iowa 21-14 in the Outback Bowl.

Key losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Odell Beckham, WR Jarvis Landry, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Anthony Johnson, RB Alfred Blue.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins will anchor an LSU offensive line that will try to pave the way for the Tigers' inexperienced, albeit talented, skill-position players.
Key returnees: OT La'el Collins, DE Danielle Hunter, DE Jermauria Rasco, RB Terrence Magee, CB Tre'Davious White, OG Vadal Alexander, WR Travin Dural, LB D.J. Welter, LB Kwon Alexander, OT Jerald Hawkins, S Jalen Mills.

Instant impact newcomers: RB Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Trey Quinn, LB Clifton Garrett, S Jamal Adams, CB Ed Paris, DB John Battle.

Breakout player: It’s tempting to focus on Hunter or sophomore cornerbacks White and Rashard Robinson here, but let’s go with Fournette. As the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect and headliner of ESPN’s second-ranked 2014 recruiting class, the star tailback has already generated a ton of buzz. Magee, Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will all get some touches, but anything short of immediate stardom for Fournette would be a bit of a letdown.

Key position battle: Quarterback competitions always generate the most attention, and that will be the case this August at LSU. The battle between early enrollee Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings started in spring practice -- and the freshman won the first round by clearly outplaying Jennings in the spring game. LSU’s coaches were in no rush to name a starter at the time, though, so Jennings still has a chance to prove he deserves the job. He engineered the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas after replacing an injured Mettenberger and got a win (despite a disappointing performance) in his lone start, the bowl win over Iowa. Impressive dual-threat talent Harris is going to be awfully difficult to hold off, however.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Auburn. Sure, the Alabama game (Nov. 8 at Tiger Stadium) is the game every LSU fan has circled, and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin carries plenty of intrigue, but the Tigers’ midseason visit to the defending SEC champs might be the key to the season. LSU handed Auburn its only regular-season loss last season and has won six of the past seven in the series.

Biggest question mark: LSU is inexperienced at several key positions (most notably quarterback, receiver and defensive tackle), so the new starters’ abilities to quickly adapt to the grind of SEC football will likely determine whether the Tigers become serious contenders in the Western Division this season.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Florida. The Tigers will be only a week removed from what could be a street fight against Auburn when they visit The Swamp. Injury-depleted Florida became a punch line last season, but the Gators have plenty of talent and a chip on their shoulders after crumbling in 2013. LSU is understandably favored here, but getting a win will not be easy here.

Key stat: 12-211. With Landry and Beckham combining for 72 percent of LSU’s receiving production (2,345 of 3,263 yards), there weren’t a lot of balls to go around to everyone else. LSU’s tight ends combined for just 12 catches and 211 yards, led by Dillon Gordon (6-88) and Travis Dickson (5-109). Cam Cameron’s offenses have typically made good use of the tight end, and the group believes it will be more active in the passing game this fall. Keep an eye on sophomore DeSean Smith (1-14), who caught a touchdown in LSU’s spring game -- a day when the tight ends combined for eight catches and 131 yards.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.01 wins

Bovada over-under: 9 wins

Our take: Les Miles has led the Tigers to a school-record four straight seasons with at least 10 wins. Because of the massive production losses on offense -- including the first combination of a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in SEC history -- the Tigers are one of the biggest wild cards in the SEC. The defense looks like it’s rounding into the impressive form that characterized LSU’s best teams of the 2000s, but the Tigers’ record will likely rest on the progress the new quarterback makes, whether Fournette immediately lives up to his advance billing, and whether at least a couple of the young receivers can handle big roles. The window for this team is probably somewhere between eight and 10 wins. Let’s split the difference in our prediction and go with 9-3.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Maybe he doesn't want to give away anything to Wisconsin, maybe it truly is a tight battle -- and maybe it's both -- but LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris is too close to call.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
"The competition is so stiff every day in practice," Cameron said. "You can improve in two, two and a half hours like you wouldn't believe because the pressure you're under here every day. I've seen as much improvement in our quarterbacks this week as I've ever seen in a group of quarterbacks in that small a timeframe.

"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."

LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.

Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.

"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCan sophomore Anthony Jennings secure the starting quarterback job out of preseason training?
Also the Tigers' quarterbacks coach, Cameron agreed with that philosophy. The longer true competition exists, the better off Jennings and Harris will be, he said.

"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."

Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.

He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.

Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.

Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.

"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."

Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.

"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.

"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."

In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.

It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.

"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.

No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.

Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.

"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."

Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.

Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.

"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."

Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.

A Decade of Les: All-Miles team

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
10:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade with Miles helming the Tigers' program. Today we take a swing at naming a roster of the best players from the Miles era.

Let's break down the picks by offense, defense and special teams and discuss some of the tougher decisions.

OFFENSE
Among the most difficult positions to settle on were running back and wide receiver.

We went with Jeremy Hill (who set a record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 2013) and Jacob Hester at running back. Because of his ability to play fullback, Hester -- the leading rusher on the 2007 BCS championship club with 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns -- gets the nod over a host of talented alternatives like Charles Scott, Joseph Addai and Stevan Ridley.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJarvis Landry had 77 catches for 1,193 yards last season before being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round.
Receiver was an even more difficult position to evaluate. Wideouts such as Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet and Rueben Randle all belong on the list, but we went with Jarvis Landry, whose 2013 (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) was the best single-season effort in the Miles era, and Brandon LaFell, a two-time All-SEC pick who is LSU's career receiving leader (2,517 yards) under Miles. We added Odell Beckham Jr. as an all-purpose player thanks in large part to a standout 2013 season (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) when he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and ranked second nationally in all-purpose yardage (178.1 yards per game).

There are quarterbacks worth mentioning aside from JaMarcus Russell, namely Matt Flynn and Zach Mettenberger, but Russell completed one of the best seasons by a quarterback in LSU history in 2006 (232-of-342, 3,129 yards, 28 TDs) before becoming the top overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

La'el Collins gets the nod at one offensive tackle spot over candidates like Andrew Whitworth and Joe Barksdale, so he needs to prove he deserves that distinction this season. He has the potential to be the best pro prospect LSU has had at tackle under Miles.

LINEUP
QB: JaMarcus Russell
RB: Jeremy Hill
RB: Jacob Hester
WR: Brandon LaFell
WR: Jarvis Landry
TE: Richard Dickson
OT: Ciron Black
OG: Herman Johnson
C: Rudy Niswanger
OG: Will Blackwell
OT: La'el Collins
AP: Odell Beckham Jr.

DEFENSE
Defensive line and secondary have been loaded positions under Miles and John Chavis, so picking just two players at those positions wasn't easy.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards during the 2010 season.
At defensive end, we went with two-time All-SEC pick and eventual No. 3 overall draft pick Tyson Jackson and Sam Montgomery, LSU’s sack leader under Miles with 32.5 between 2010 and 2012, over alternatives like Barkevious Mingo and Melvin Oliver.

One tackle position was easy with 2007 Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott award winner Glenn Dorsey claiming one of the spots. The other tackle was a tough call, but we went with 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers over a ton of great options such as Drake Nevis, Al Woods, Bennie Logan, Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams.

It would have been awfully difficult to pick just two cornerbacks if we hadn’t added a nickelback spot for Tyrann Mathieu to occupy. One of the SEC’s leading defensive playmakers of the 2000s, he definitely belongs on the roster, but Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne feel like no-brainers at corner, too.

At safety, it wasn’t much fun leaving All-American Craig Steltz off the list, but Eric Reid and LaRon Landry both made All-America teams, too -- and both of them became first-round draft picks, while Steltz went in the fourth round in 2008.

Linebackers Kevin Minter (130 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss in 2012) and Kelvin Sheppard (116 tackles in 2010) posted the top single-season tackle totals of the Miles era, while Ali Highsmith earned one All-America designation when he totaled 101 tackles and nine tackles for a loss on the 2007 BCS championship club.

LINEUP
DE: Sam Montgomery
DT: Glenn Dorsey
DT: Michael Brockers
DE: Tyson Jackson
LB: Ali Highsmith
LB: Kevin Minter
LB: Kelvin Sheppard
CB: Patrick Peterson
S: Eric Reid
S: LaRon Landry
CB: Morris Claiborne
Nickel: Tyrann Mathieu

SPECIAL TEAMS
LSU has had a bunch of electric kick returners under Miles. Peterson, Claiborne and Beckham would have been among the top options among kickoff returners, but since they're already on the roster, we went with Trindon Holliday, LSU's career kickoff return yardage leader under Miles (1,806 yards between 2006 and 2009). Peterson, Beckham, Holliday and Mathieu were phenomenal punt returners, so let’s add another new name to the list in Skyler Green, who ranks second all-time among LSU punt returners with 1,064 yards between 2002 and 2005.

It's tough to ignore LSU's single-season and career kicker scoring leader Colt David, but Josh Jasper is the most accurate field goal kicker in school history (83.9 percent) and trails only David on the kicker scoring list with 120 career points.

Brad Wing posted two of the top five seasons by a punter in school history in 2011 (an All-America season where he averaged 44.37 yards per punt) and 2012 (44.8), so he gets the nod over Derek Helton, Patrick Fisher and Chris Jackson.

LINEUP
PK: Josh Jasper
P: Brad Wing
KOR: Trindon Holliday
PR: Skyler Green
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at the five best recruiting classes of the Miles era.

5. 2013
ESPN class ranking: Seventh
We’re making a call based on potential here, since several of the most talented members of this group have yet to make much of an impact (or haven’t played yet at all). Cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson and quarterback Anthony Jennings are the headliners thus far. But players like tight end DeSean Smith; defensive tackles Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron; and linebacker Kendell Beckwith could all become household names among LSU fans before the 2014 season is over.

4. 2007
ESPN class ranking: Sixth
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver was the highest-rated prospect in this 27-man class, and he had a fine college career, but other 2007 signees became the more important college players. The Tigers had three players in this signing class (kicker Josh Jasper, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and offensive lineman Will Blackwell) who became All-Americans according to at least one organization. They also had six players (Blackwell, Jasper, Nevis, defensive lineman Joe Barksdale, safety Chad Jones and running back Stevan Ridley) who made at least one All-SEC team and six (Jones, Ridley, Nevis, Barksdale, cornerback Ron Brooks and receiver Demetrius Byrd) who became NFL draft picks.

3. 2011
ESPN class ranking: 10th
No. 2 overall prospect Anthony Johnson was the biggest fish in this class, but “The Freak” didn’t quite live up to his advance billing in three seasons at LSU before becoming an undrafted free agent in the most recent NFL draft. However, this class was loaded with impact players -- including two of the most productive receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) in school history, a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen from 2013 (La'el Collins and Trai Turner) and several others who should make an impact this season (running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, defensive end Jermauria Rasco, safety Ronald Martin and defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, among others). LSU also added quarterback Zach Mettenberger as a junior college transfer and signed running back Jeremy Hill in this class, although Hill didn’t contribute as a member of the team until 2012.

2. 2014
ESPN class ranking: Second
Yes, this is completely unfair. These kids haven’t played a single snap in college yet. Much like the 2013 class, it will be several more years before we know the full impact that this class will have at LSU. But with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect (running back Leonard Fournette), the No. 1 players at three different positions (Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive guard Garrett Brumfield) and other exciting additions like quarterback Brandon Harris, record-setting receiver Trey Quinn, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett, this could conceivably become one of the best recruiting classes in school history before it’s all over. Miles said on national signing day that he believes this class can help LSU contend for several national championships, and it certainly has the talent to do so.

1. 2009
ESPN class ranking: First
No. 1 athlete Russell Shepard was initially the crown jewel in the nation’s top signing class, but he wasn’t the guy who eventually made this such a successful class. Sure there were several star prospects who panned out in this class -- including No. 1 safety Craig Loston, No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle, No. 2 defensive end Sam Montgomery and No. 11 outside linebacker Kevin Minter -- but the Tigers got as much out of the players who weren’t considered to rank among the highest-rated signees at the time. The Tigers signed 10 ESPN 150 honorees in the 25-man class. Among those who didn’t make the list of the top 150 prospects: cornerback Morris Claiborne; defensive linemen Michael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan; offensive lineman Chris Faulk and linebacker Lamin Barrow. Claiborne, Brockers and Mingo all became first-round NFL draft picks, and five members of that group made at least one All-SEC team.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris for LSU's starting quarterback job will renew on Monday when the Tigers hold their first preseason practice.

Shortly after his team reported for camp on Sunday afternoon, LSU coach Les Miles said he will not set a deadline for when his staff must pick the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

“I never have, never will,” Miles said. “We’ll have to see each day, how they proceed, how things go.”

The competition between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris started in the spring, shortly after Harris arrived on campus as an early enrollee. Jennings has a slight experience edge, having played as Zach Mettenberger's backup in 2013, but Harris clearly outperformed him during the Tigers’ spring game.

However, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said at the time that he was in no rush to establish a quarterback pecking order -- and Miles said on Sunday that their abilities to make big plays, and avoid devastating ones, will factor heavily into the decision.

“I think maturity’s the whole deal. I think it’s the deal for both of them. I think recognizing the style of throw and the kind of play and seeing them understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, how we’re attacking a defense,” Miles said, “I think that is something that both guys have a good, solid base premise, but it’s going to be that time in the game where you have the opportunity to extend the play and make a play and their self-interpretation at some point in time will be, in my opinion, the criteria by which you pick the starter.”

For the first four practice days, the Tigers will split into two groups -- one that works out in the morning and one that practices in the afternoon. He said the quarterbacks will rotate between the two groups.

“We’ll give both guys an opportunity at helmet practices and shells [shoulder pads] practices with the first and/or the second center,” Miles said.

As for the rest of the team, Miles said he expected all of his players to report on Sunday except signee Travonte Valentine and defensive back Jalen Mills.

Valentine, a four-star defensive tackle prospect, has not yet been academically cleared to enroll at LSU, but Miles hopes a resolution will come soon.

“The high school and the [NCAA] clearinghouse have to communicate,” Miles said. “I think they’re doing that, I think they’re trying, so sometimes there’s easy answers and sometimes there’s not. Hopefully this will be an easy answer.”

Starting safety Mills remains indefinitely suspended following an offseason arrest, and his legal case has not yet been settled. Miles said “I don’t know what’s going on” with where Mills’ case stands, “so I’ll just go forward.”

“I really don’t know. I have not tried to, nor do I intend to pressure the process in any way. ... Jalen Mills, everybody in this room has a responsibility to handle his business and this is his business,” Miles said.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU officially added another name to its list of summer departures on Monday when a school spokesman confirmed that senior Rob Bolden intends to transfer.

In addition to the seven Tigers who sacrificed their remaining eligibility in order to enter the 2014 NFL draft, four others have announced plans to transfer, including defensive end Jordan Allen (Arizona) and quarterbacks Stephen Rivers (Vanderbilt) and Hayden Rettig (Rutgers). Now Bolden becomes the third player capable of lining up under center who has opted to continue his career elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeBolden
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRob Bolden is the third player capable of playing quarterback to transfer from LSU this offseason.
Bolden played receiver this spring after spending the past two seasons as a backup quarterback at LSU -- he never appeared in an actual game -- and the two seasons before that as a part-time starting quarterback at Penn State. He transferred to LSU in 2012 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

Had he remained at LSU, he would have been one of the most veteran players at whichever position he played. Of the nine wideouts listed on the preseason depth chart LSU released Monday, Quantavius Leslie is the only senior, there are no juniors and Travin Dural is the only sophomore.

Bolden attempted to put a positive spin on his shift to receiver during the spring, but obviously something changed since then. A report on Monday by SpartanNation.com had the Michigan native transferring to Eastern Michigan in order to play quarterback.

LSU's more pressing issue now is at quarterback, where the trio's departure leaves sophomore Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris as the only scholarship players and walk-ons Brad Kragthorpe, Jake Clise and Brandon Bergeron as reserves.

That isn't necessarily a nightmare scenario so long as Jennings and Harris stay healthy this fall. LSU used only two quarterbacks -- senior Zach Mettenberger and Jennings -- all of last season, even though Mettenberger dealt with minor injuries for a portion of the fall before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Arkansas.

It obviously helped from a continuity standpoint that Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who possessed extensive college experience and an NFL-level skillset. Jennings and Harris are both early in their developmental cycle, which already leaves LSU with little breathing room at the position even before potential injuries enter the equation.

LSU's coaches made it clear during the spring that Jennings and Harris are their top two options -- hence the departures of the three backup quarterbacks -- so Bolden would have been nothing more than an emergency option as long as the youngsters stayed upright. But he would have been an awfully useful emergency option.

In 2010, Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback to start a game at Penn State in 100 years and he went on to start 17 games between that season and the next before transferring to LSU. Backup quarterbacks with that kind of major-conference experience aren't particularly plentiful, and now LSU has decided to spend his last season of eligibility elsewhere.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

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