SEC: Auburn Tigers

SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
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With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It's been a little over a week since Will Muschamp took over as Auburn's new defensive coordinator, and he's wasted no time settling in to his new job. Just hours after his introductory news conference, the former Florida coach was already on the phone with recruits, persuading them to join him on the Plains.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonFormer Florida coach Will Muschamp has hit the ground running as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
Bowl practice began last week for the Tigers, and though Muschamp isn't running the defense just yet -- that's Charlie Harbison's job for now -- he was still out there taking it all in.

"It's been really good," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Muschamp's presence. "He's just trying to get to know our players, evaluate our current guys and our players have responded extremely well."

The defensive players knew Muschamp's name well before he was hired, and when rumors started to spread he was coming to Auburn, they did their research. They watched videos of their new coach and saw the passion and intensity that has defined him over the years.

Now that Muschamp has arrived on campus, the first impression has been no different.

"Really high intensity guy," linebacker Kris Frost said. "It's been mostly sitting back and observing us right now. But seeing the videos and also just meeting him and talking to him, you can just tell he loves what he does. He's a perfectionist at it. It's about us doing all we can to please him, and we know that next year, it's going to be a really fun year for us."

The first week of practice was "nerve-wrecking" for Frost and a lot of the players who are basically auditioning for next season. They know Muschamp is watching, and the energy has been cranked up as a result. Players are flying to the ball, and the 55-44 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl seems like a distant memory.

The focus has turned to Wisconsin and more importantly, impressing their new coach.

"I've been through a coaching change before," cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "It's the same thing. You're starting fresh, so it's a good thing for everybody. Whereas some coaches might already have a certain opinion about you, you're able to change their perception. It's a great thing being able to start fresh."

Jones, who leads Auburn with six interceptions this season, is penciled in as the team's No. 1 cornerback heading into next season, but even he knows how important it is to make a good first impression on the new defensive coordinator.

Muschamp has declined interviews through the bowl game, so it's likely we won't know his thoughts on the defense until the spring. But based on the numbers and the second-half collapse, he'll have his hands full retooling this Auburn defense.

One thing he can look forward to is the return of defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in spring practice.

Lawson returned to practice last week for the first time since the injury.

"It's great to see him out there in pads and a helmet," Malzahn said. "I know he's got a big smile on his face. He's doing what he can do, but it's really good to have his presence out there and his leadership.

"Anytime you come off a knee injury, it takes a little bit to get used to it and how it feels. One day it may be a little sore. I think it's very valuable he's able to do that now. Once he gets to spring, we'll turn him loose and we expect him to be back to normal."

The return of Lawson coupled with the presence of Muschamp has the players believing this defense can be one of the better defenses in the SEC next season. But first, they have to figure out a way to stop Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon in the Outback Bowl.

The new defensive coordinator will be watching.

SEC morning links

December, 18, 2014
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Plenty of recruiting news flying across the wire on Wednesday, which was signing day for midterm junior college prospects. Several SEC teams did well in inking JUCOs, led by Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn, three teams that were considered "winners" in Wednesday's junior college sweepstakes. Another SEC winner in recruiting on Wednesday was Texas A&M after it landed ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk, the No. 30 overall player in the ESPN 300. The Aggies have done well in the state of Arizona, where Kirk is from, recently, landing quarterback Kyle Allen (now the Aggies' starter) and defensive end Qualen Cunningham (who played as a true freshman) in the 2014 class. Kirk, who brings a strong skill set to College Station, Texas, will be able to join his good buddy Allen in the Aggies' offense next fall.

The Football Writers Association of America released its All-America team and there is plenty of SEC representation on it, including six members on the first team (Amari Cooper, Reese Dismukes, Shane Ray, Benardrick McKinney, Landon Collins and Senquez Golson. The SEC got seven total players on the two teams. On Tuesday, The Associated Press All-America teams were released and the SEC got 15 players across the three squads.

Kentucky had a void to fill at offensive coordinator when Neal Brown left the Wildcats to become the head coach at Troy and it looks like Mark Stoops has his man. Several reports point to West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson as Stoops' pick to replace Brown at the position. It ensures some continuity for the Wildcats, who ran the well-known Air Raid offense under Brown the last two seasons. Dawson is also an Air Raid disciple, having worked under Dana Holgorsen. At West Virginia, Holgorsen was the playcaller, but Dawson has been in the offense long enough to be well-versed in it so the transition to handling those duties at Kentucky should be smooth. West Virginia averaged 502 offensive yards per game (11th nationally) while Kentucky averaged 384.5 yards per game (75th).

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day
The Associated Press announced its three-team list of All-Americans for the 2014 season on Tuesday, and the SEC is represented by 15 players, including four on the first team.

A couple of obvious first-team selections were Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was only the nation's best receiver, Alabama safety Landon Collins and Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray made the second team.

All good there.

But as you scan all three teams, you won't see Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. No, the one-time Heisman Trophy front-runner, who set all kinds of Mississippi State records and helped lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999, didn't make it. Instead, Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett made the cut.

Clearly, all three are worthy of All-America status, but so is Prescott after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014, including total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9) and touchdowns responsible for (37).

Four players for only three spots ...

Hey, there's always next season.

Here are the 15 SEC AP All-Americans:

FIRST TEAM

Offense

WR: Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama
C: Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn

Defense

CB: Senquez Golson, Sr., Ole Miss
S: Landon Collins, Jr., Alabama

SECOND TEAM

Offense

OT: La'el Collins, Sr., LSU
OG: Arie Kouandjio, Sr., Alabama
OG: A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina

Defense

DE: Shane Ray, Jr., Missouri
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Jr., Mississippi State
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida
S: Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Fr., Alabama

THIRD TEAM

Offense

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M
OG: Ben Beckwith, Sr., Mississippi State

SEC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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New Florida coach Jim McElwain made his first staff hire on Tuesday when he tabbed Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins as the Gators' new man at that position. Nicknamed the "Minister of Mayhem," Collins will bring his "swag chalice" and aggressive style to Gainesville as the Gators begin a new era. It could provide some awkwardness leading up to the bowl game as some believed McElwain would retain interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who was Will Muschamp's defensive coordinator, while Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted that he wishes his coaches would leave for head coaching positions, not "lateral positions." Regardless, Collins guided Mississippi State to the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and No. 1 in red zone defense; now he'll have better access to high-level talent and the Florida recruiting base that could help him have even more success as he joins the Gators.

Want to watch a literal implosion? You can, thanks to Texas A&M. On Sunday morning, the west side of Kyle Field will be imploded as the school continues its $450 million redevelopment of the Aggies' football stadium, which is scheduled for completion prior to next season. At 8 a.m. central time on Sunday, the massive 10-story structure will be brought to the ground so that the rebuild of that side can soon begin. A local television station and Texas A&M's athletics site will live stream the implosion and fans will to be allowed to view it in-person from just outside Reed Arena, the Aggies' basketball home.

There was plenty of speculation about Will Muschamp going to South Carolina before he eventually settled on Auburn, which can be understandably unsettling if you're a South Carolina defensive coach, considering Steve Spurrier hasn't made any changes in that regard. The Gamecocks' defensive coaches say they've tuned out the noise. "I don’t ride the rollercoaster," South Carolina’s secondary coach Grady Brown said. "That’s the business," defensive line coach Deke Adams said. It's natural for there to be speculation after the Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game allowed (433.6) and 12th in scoring (31.2 points per game allowed). For what it's worth, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward did not speak with reporters after Tuesday's practice.

Around the SEC
He’s a little older. The jacket is a little newer, a little sharper. But Will Muschamp looked right at home Monday wearing his Auburn gear at practice. It was the Tigers’ first bowl practice and Muschamp’s first opportunity to get a look at his new team.


The Auburn defense will change from the 4-2-5 style implemented by former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to a 3-4, 4-3 hybrid, the same defense Muschamp used the last time he was defensive coordinator on the Plains.

Here’s a look at five Auburn players who could thrive under Muschamp:

DT Montravius Adams: The coaches were disappointed with Adams, who failed to reach his potential as a sophomore. They expected more out of the former ESPN 300 star. He looked dominant at times but disappeared in bigger games. Maybe Muschamp will be the one who helps Adams maximize his talents. The 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive lineman played primarily at tackle under Johnson, but he probably will move to end when Auburn goes to a 3-4 set. Think A'Shawn Robinson at Alabama. Adams might not be that good, but that’s the type of role he’ll fill in Muschamp’s defense.

DE Carl Lawson: There might not be a more important piece to Auburn’s defense next season. Lawson tore his ACL in the spring and missed the entire 2014 season, but he returned to practice Monday for the first time since the injury, an encouraging sign for next year. When he does return, he’ll no longer just be rushing the quarterback off the edge with his hand in the dirt. He’ll do some of that, but look for Muschamp to try him at Buck linebacker, a hybrid role where the 6-2, 261-pounder also will have to stand up at times. If the transition goes well, Lawson could become the next Dante Fowler Jr., Florida’s leader in sacks this season.

DB Tray Matthews: Fellow safety Johnathan Ford led the team in tackles this past season, but keep an eye on Matthews, who will be eligible to play next fall. The former four-star recruit started six games at Georgia his freshman year before transferring. He finished with 36 tackles, four passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble. Now he gets a full offseason under Muschamp, who typically works hands on with the safeties in practice. Muschamp has coached and developed NFL safeties such as Matt Elam, Earl Thomas, Ahmad Black and Josh Evans. Matthews and Ford have the potential to be next on that list.

LB Cassanova McKinzy: Muschamp loves versatility, players who can move around and play multiple positions on defense. McKinzy might be one of the most versatile on the team. He played both linebacker spots in the previous 4-2-5 scheme, and he dabbled some this season as an edge rusher on third-down-and-long situations. What’s not to like? And on top that, he has been one of Auburn’s most productive players the last two years. He was second on the team with 82 tackles and led the team with 10 tackles for loss. It will be interesting where all McKinzy plays in the new scheme, but he’s a guy Muschamp can’t wait to get his hands on.

DB Nick Ruffin: Recruited as a cornerback, Ruffin was moved to the Star position before the season. The freshman played well in a limited role and showed glimpses of his potential, but the Star position left with the former defensive coordinator. That means Ruffin will likely move back to cornerback where the Tigers desperately need help next season. At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Ruffin has good size to play cornerback for Muschamp. It’s just a matter of how he holds up in man-to-man coverage. He and fellow freshman Kalvaraz Bessent, who redshirted this year, are the two best options to start opposite Jonathan Jones next year in the secondary.

Play that changed the SEC race

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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Getting through the SEC West Division this season showed the country a whole new kind of toughness. Congratulations, Alabama. What you did was incredibly impressive, and you deserve every bit of that No. 1 ranking and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

However, there's another team that had a chance to make a similar run, if not for a catastrophic play in a crucial SEC game. That would be the Ole Miss Rebels and the play was Laquon Treadwell's tragic goal-line injury on what began as a wonderful 19-yard catch-and-run.

What started as a magnificent play by Treadwell on third-and-3 from Auburn's 20-yard line with just 1:39 left ended with a horrific leg injury and fumble by Treadwell during an awkward tackle from Auburn linebacker Kris Frost just ahead of the end zone. Right before Treadwell's body helplessly collapsed into the end zone, Frost dragged him down, pinning his leg underneath, causing Treadwell to drop the ball. Auburn's Cassanova McKinzy then fell on the ball in the end zone.

video

The play was originally ruled a touchdown, but after review, Auburn was awarded possession and eventually won 35-31.

With the loss, the Rebels lost their best player to a broken leg and were pushed to the fringe of the SEC and playoff races. They were officially eliminated after losing 30-0 three weeks later at Arkansas.

But if Treadwell isn't lost for the season and doesn't fumble, the Rebels might have beaten Auburn. And you could argue that equipping quarterback Bo Wallace with a healthy Treadwell gives the Rebels a big advantage against the Razorbacks. So if Ole Miss, which was fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings, wins that game, they are still right in the thick of the playoff hunt. Beat Arkansas, and the Rebels control their destiny in both the playoff and the SEC West race.

With a win over Alabama already, Ole Miss held the tiebreaker and only needed to beat Mississippi State at home to win the West and still be firmly alive in the playoff. And after watching the Rebels dismantle Mississippi State without Treadwell, it's hard to see them losing that final game.

But there's more: If Ole Miss and Alabama had won out, there's a chance that Alabama would have joined Ole Miss (eventual SEC champ) in the playoff. After all, they would have likely ended the regular season ranked No. 1 and 2.

Would Alabama have received the TCU treatment? Hard to say when it's A-L-A-B-A-M-A.

Instead, the loss kept everything in front of Alabama and left the Rebels on the outside of what could have been a special run for the program.

SEC morning links

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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1. Well, we know that Florida has a new head coach for the 2015 season, but what we don't know is what assistants will accompany Jim McElwain. The problem is that McElwain has to get out on the road and recruit, so he hasn't exactly had a lot of time to take care of that, but recruits also need to know who their position coaches and coordinators will be. Whether McElwain is in a hurry or not isn't really known, and it sounds like people at Florida aren't really sure what to think, either. But it sounds like defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will have his choice of jobs, as reports are out there that North Carolina is targeting him as its next DC. Here's a portion of a report from InsideCarolina.com:
“Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora met with Durkin on Sunday, sources confirmed, and the UNC administration has granted Fedora the ability to offer a competitive financial package."

Durkin was named the Gators' interim coach for Florida's bowl game, but his return as defensive coordinator isn't a sure thing. Surely, McElwain won't wait until after the bowl game to figure out his staff, right?

2. It truly was heartbreaking to hear about the tragic death of Auburn freshman Jakell Mitchell, who was shot and killed early Sunday morning. On Monday, hundreds gathered to mourn and remember Mitchell at a candlelight vigil in Opelika, Alabama. Funeral arrangements have also been made for Mitchell:
  • The funeral will be held at noon on Saturday at Greater Peace Baptist Church at 650 Jeter Avenue in Opelika.
  • The visitation will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday night.

Former teammates also remembered Mitchell.

3. The Ole Miss Rebels have a lot going on around them, as they prepare to face No. 6 TCU in the Peach Bowl. For starters, the Rebels just lost linebackers coach Tom Allen to South Florida, where he will go to be the Bulls' new defensive coordinator.

Also, offensive guard Aaron Morris will miss the bowl game -- and then some -- with a torn ACL. That's a big blow to the Rebels' offense, and it will force Justin Bell to move to left guard, with freshman Rod Taylor now starting at right guard. Oh, and quarterback Bo Wallace is playing in his final game with the Rebels, while nursing an ankle injury. With a win over the Horned Frogs, Wallace would become the first Ole Miss quarterback to start and win three bowl games.

Auburn season review

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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Auburn looked like a playoff contender early in the season, blowing out Arkansas in the opener and winning on the road at Kansas State. Even after a loss to Mississippi State, the Tigers were ranked as high as No. 3 in early November. But that’s when it started to fall apart. Defensive struggles plus a rigorous schedule finally caught up to them, and what looked to be a promising year turned into a disappointment on the Plains.

Best win: Winning at Kansas State early in the season was impressive, but the road victory at Ole Miss takes the cake. It was a classic SEC showdown: No. 3 versus No. 4. The teams went back and forth, trading go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth quarter. After Cameron Artis-Payne scored to give the Tigers lead, it looked like Ole Miss was going to return the favor in the final minutes. Laquon Treadwell caught a pass and knifed his way through the defense, but just as he was about to score, Auburn linebacker Kris Frost pulled Treadwell down from behind and the ball came loose. Auburn recovered and escaped with a 35-31 win.

Worst loss: Auburn was at least competitive in every loss but one -- a 34-7 defeat to Georgia. The Tigers went down and scored on their opening drive to take an early lead, but those were the only points they got all game. Georgia’s defense swallowed up Nick Marshall and the potent Auburn rushing attack, and the Tigers had no answers for Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb, who combined to rush for 282 yards and three touchdowns.

Player of the year: Artis-Payne was the SEC’s leading rusher. Reese Dismukes was arguably the league’s top offensive lineman. But Marshall is who makes this offense go. The senior quarterback hasn’t received as much credit as he did a year ago, but his numbers are actually better. He threw for more yards (2,315) and touchdowns (18), and though his rushing numbers were down slightly, he still rushed for 780 yards and 11 touchdowns, second only to Dak Prescott among SEC quarterbacks. Marshall might translate better as a defensive back at the next level, but he was the perfect signal-caller for Gus Malzahn’s offense.

Breakout player: It didn’t take long for fans to know the name D’haquille “Duke” Williams. In his first game at Auburn, the junior college wide receiver finished with nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. Despite missing the better part of three games, Williams still finished among the conference’s top 10 in receptions (45) and receiving yards (730). He quickly became Marshall’s go-to target and was the perfect complement to fellow wide receiver Sammie Coates, the team’s deep threat. Williams might be a one-and-done on the Plains, but similar to Cam Newton, fans will remember his name long after he’s gone.

Play of the year: Marshall is one of the best in the country at throwing the deep ball, and Coates made a habit of making spectacular catches. This might have been his best of the year. The junior wide receiver made a circus catch with LSU defenders Rashard Robinson and Jalen Mills draped all over him and scored on the 56-yard connection. It might not have been the "kick-six" from a year ago, but it was still pretty impressive.

video 2015 outlook: Let’s start with the bad news. Auburn will lose Marshall, Artis-Payne, Dismukes and possibly Williams and/or Coates. That’s a pretty big chunk of the offense. The good news is that Jeremy Johnson, the SEC’s best backup quarterback, will finally get his chance to start, and the Tigers will be just fine at running back with Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and the addition of Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC50. The defense will also get a much-needed facelift with Will Muschamp taking over as defensive coordinator. The former Florida head coach is considered one of the best defensive minds in college football. The losses mentioned above would be crippling to most teams but not Auburn. This team will likely be in the playoff conversation against next season.
Now that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has strutted away with the Heisman Trophy in an utter landslide, it's time to look into the future to see who could be up for that bronze beauty next year.

What's that? We haven't gotten to bowl season? Santa hasn't even come to fill our stockings?

Pssssh! It's never too early for some prognostication that has nothing to do with the current season. And looking ahead to the Heisman is so much fun.

So who could be in the mix for a trip to Times Square next December? I think the SEC has a few candidates to keep an eye on. Too bad Todd Gurley isn't returning, because he would be at the top of this list. In fact, if he didn't deal with that NCAA suspension or lose his season to an ACL injury, Gurley might have won the Heisman over Mariota. But that's a story for another day.

Also, Heisman finalist Amari Cooper isn't on our list because he would be crazy not to bolt to the NFL.

Here's our very early list of possible SEC Heisman candidates in 2015:
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: This hinges on Prescott's NFL prospects. He is awaiting his draft grade, but if Prescott isn't projected to go in the first or second round, expect him to come back for his senior year. Prescott was an early Heisman front-runner in 2014, but his numbers fell in the final month of the season. Still, if he returns, he will be a favorite from the SEC after breaking 10 Mississippi State single-season records in 2014: total offense (3,935), total offense per game (327.9), touchdowns responsible for (37), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (2,996), passing yards per game (249.7), 200-yard passing games (11), passing touchdowns (24), passing efficiency (151.3) and rushing yards by a quarterback (939).
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: With Gurley sidelined for the second half of the season, Chubb took off. Already impressing everyone when he came in to relieve Gurley, Chubb finished the season with seven straight 100-yard games (all starts), was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged a league-high 6.9 yards per carry. Chubb is explosive and powerful with his runs, and his vision is incredible.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Another special sophomore-to-be to keep an eye on, Fournette needed some time to really get going. But when he did, he was usually the best player on the field. He finished the season with 891 yards and capped the season with 146 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a dominating performance against Texas A&M. Avert your eyes, Aggies! Fournette is a special talent who will be doing a lot more of this in the next couple of years.
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Before his season was cut short by a devastating ankle injury against Auburn, Treadwell was one of the SEC's best overall players. With Cooper most likely jetting for the NFL, Treadwell will return as the SEC's best receiver in 2015. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Treadwell, who has incredible athleticism, led the Rebels with 48 catches. He finished with 632 yards and five touchdowns.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Though he didn't have the season most -- including me -- expected, Henry is a freak of an athlete capable of having a special season. If he is the lead guy in Alabama's backfield next fall, he should compete for the title of best running back in the SEC and improve on the 895 yards and 10 touchdowns he had while splitting carries this fall.
  • Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: The bowling ball had a fantastic season in Starkville, rushing for 1,128 yards (third in the SEC) and 11 touchdowns. Robinson was at the top of the SEC's rushing chart for most of the season and rushed for at least 100 yards four times. His numbers fell off during the final portion of the season, but Robinson is a big-play machine. Small in stature, he is a bull of a runner with a knack for tossing defenders off him or slipping out of their grasp for extra yards.
The NFL could claim these guys:
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: He leads Alabama with 932 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns, but he could take his game to the next level. He wasn't completely healthy this season, but his vision and ball security improved a lot in 2014.
  • D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: He missed two games but still led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Another top-tier athlete, Williams made a ton of clutch plays for Auburn this fall. But with his incredible athleticism and size, he's very much a candidate to leave early.
Keep an eye on:
  • Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M: He had only 559 receiving yards and five touchdowns, but when you are regularly making plays like this, people better be on the lookout for you. Noil is a supreme athlete who will grow with more time in the Aggies' offense.

SEC morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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1. Sometimes you’re just at a loss of words. That’s how I felt when I found out that Auburn freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed early Sunday morning. I knew Mitchell well from when I covered recruiting, and I remember talking to him on signing day. He and high school teammate Stephen Roberts were excited to start their next chapter at Auburn. Now, as Jay G. Tate wrote, Mitchell is gone "far too soon." Tragedy has become all too familiar on the Plains as Mitchell becomes the latest casualty, joining former football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, who were shot and killed at the same apartment complex as Mitchell in 2012, and more recently Philip Lutzenkirchen, who died in a car accident before this season.

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2. On a lighter note, Auburn snagged Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator this weekend, making him the highest paid assistant coach in college football. Why pay so much for a defensive coach when the SEC, and football in general, is more about how many points you score? Because a good defense is still necessary to win a championship, and the price of playing good defense is going up. The thought of Muschamp teaming up with Gus Malzahn is scary for opposing SEC teams. It’s not so different from what Alabama did last offseason, hiring Lane Kiffin to join forces with Nick Saban. Look how that turned out. And how about next year’s Iron Bowl? Malzahn and Muschamp vs. Saban and Kiffin? Sign me up.

3. Amari Cooper might have finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting Saturday, but the Alabama wide receiver won over some fans with his humility and specifically the story he told about his childhood. His family didn’t have a car growing up, so they had to walk about three miles to the store to get groceries. From AL.com’s story:
Cooper remembered telling his mom he was too tired to make the walk there and back one day. When she returned, marks lined [her] arms where she carried all the bags a few miles home.

"It was just an example of how hard she worked, her getting off work so late or working so hard all ready," Cooper said. "She sacrificed for us. You want to know how much somebody loves you, just look at how much they sacrifice."

3a. And speaking of the Heisman Trophy, is it too early to start looking at the 2015 favorites? USA Today put out its top 10 contenders, which included two from the SEC -- Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Georgia running back Nick Chubb. Prescott, who might still leave early for the NFL, flirted with the Heisman this season, and Chubb earned Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC for his performance in place of Todd Gurley.
It was a sad day for the Auburn football team. A day after Will Muschamp was announced as the new defensive coordinator, the Tigers lost one of their own when freshman tight end Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed early Sunday morning.

“I’m devastated and saddened by the passing of Jakell Mitchell,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with Jakell’s family and friends, who are suffering through this senseless tragedy.

“I know the Auburn family is hurting, especially our players and coaches, and we are going to love and support them through this difficult time. We have lost a member of our family too young, too soon.”

The loss of Mitchell, who grew up not far from Auburn’s campus, prompted several of his coaches and teammates to express their grief via Twitter on Sunday.
Even some former Alabama players, now playing in the NFL, shared their condolences to Mitchell and the Auburn family before Sunday's game.

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
Dec 13
1:21
AM ET
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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ESPN 300 defensive end D'Andre Walker got a little creative when he decided to announce his top three list of schools Friday morning.

Walker used YouTube and a holiday app called Elf Yourself to create a festive video to announce Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn are his final three schools.

Walker is the 19th-ranked defensive end and the 241st-ranked player overall in the ESPN 300.

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
9:00
AM ET
Now that the Associated Press and the league coaches have spoken and cast their votes for their All-SEC teams, it's time for us to get in on the fun.

We here at the ESPN.com's SEC blog put our heads together for days trying to come up with what we thought was the perfect team, and, of course, we think we got it all right. Correction: We KNOW we got it right.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott directed the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1999. He led the SEC with 3,970 yards of offense and was responsible for 228 points (38 touchdowns), which ranks fifth nationally.

RB: Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Like Tre Mason before him, Artis-Payne finished the regular season leading the SEC in rushing. The senior rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.

RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Only a true freshman, Chubb was second in the SEC with 1,281 rushing yards and tied for first in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. Chubb rushed for at least 113 yards in the seven games he started.

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama: The record-breaking athlete and SEC Offensive Player of the Year is easily the nation's best wide receiver and led the nation with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards. He had seven 100-yard receiving games.

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn: Just a freak of an athlete, Williams led the Tigers with 45 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games near the end of the season.

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Engram became the Rebels' top receiving target after Laquon Treadwell went down and finished second on the team with 37 receptions. His 651 receiving yards led all SEC tight ends.

OT/G: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas: He was one of the SEC's best linemen with his ability to play both inside and outside for the Razorbacks, and he even provided us with a touchdown pass this season.

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The four-year starter has started 50 of the 51 games he's played in at South Carolina and is a top NFL draft guard prospect who is excellent blocking both the pass and rush.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: The two-time first-team All-SEC member has been the linchpin of the Tigers' offensive line the last two seasons and was excellent in 2014.

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State: The burly Beckwith was the only player to be named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week three times this season.

OT: La'el Collins, LSU: Another top NFL draft prospect at his position, Collins was good enough to leave early last year, but got even better protecting LSU quarterbacks in 2014.

All-purpose: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Cooper finished the regular season with 1,242 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 966 receiving yards.

DEFENSE

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: The SEC Defensive Player of the Year led the league with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Ray registered at least half a tackle for loss in 12 games this season.

DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He might not have had the numbers of other defensive linemen around him in this league because of a slow start, but Robinson proved to be one of the league's most disruptive defenders up front.

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The hybrid defender was one of the SEC's best pass-rushers this season, leading the Gators with 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: The Hogs' lineman faced more double-teams this season but still cranked out a productive season, leading the team with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also totaled 63 tackles.

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Another guy who didn't put up monster stats, the possible first-round draft pick was the leader of Mississippi State's defense, the most consistent player for the Bulldogs and the unquestioned quarterback of the defense.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He led the league with 123 total tackles and tied for the league lead with 60 solo stops. Spaight also forced two fumbles and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss.

LB: Kwon Alexander, LSU: One of the SEC's most athletic linebackers, Alexander was the ultimate playmaker for the Tigers, leading LSU with 79 tackles with 32 being solo.

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss: Golson did a complete 180 in 2014, becoming one of the nation's best cover corners, as he was second nationally with nine interceptions and first in the SEC with 17 passes defensed.

S: Landon Collins, Alabama: Another top NFL draft prospect, Collins played the role of dynamic ball hawk for the Crimson Tide and was able to make plays all over the field. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions.

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: An All-American last season, Prewitt didn't fall off. While he only registered two interceptions, Prewitt made plays all over the field for the Rebels, not shying away from combat in the box.

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: The youngster just keeps getting better. He grabbed just two interceptions, but was an excellent one-on-one defender, defending 15 passes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: JK Scott, Alabama: There's a reason Alabama's fans joked about a potential Heisman run for Scott. He averaged 47 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards, downing 26 inside the 20-yard line and had 18 kicks go 50-plus yards.

K: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky: He connected on 21 of his 27 attempts and hit 8 of 12 from 40 yards and beyond, including a long of 54 yards.

KR: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Murphy averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return (478 yards) and scored two touchdowns. He also had 273 punt return yards and a touchdown.

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