SEC: Kentucky Wildcats

Do Kentucky fans know that spring practice is taking place? Are they aware that the football team is hard at work, eager to get over last season and take the program to the next level? Or are they too consumed with the basketball team and its quest for perfection to pay any attention?

The truth is there are some passionate football fans in Big Blue Nation, more than you might think, but even they are more concerned with whether Kentucky can beat West Virginia in the Sweet 16 rather than who is going to replace Alvin Dupree on that defense.

But can you blame them? Even Mark Stoops, the head football coach, used the basketball team as a motivational tool for his own squad after practice Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeZach West
AP Photo/Garry Jones"You look at the excellence that the [basketball players] have had on and off the court, it just sets a precedent for all of us that we need to follow," Zach West said.

“I told our guys I had an opportunity to watch practice a couple days, and you just have to admire what they’re doing,” Stoops said. “I don’t know if Cal (John Calipari) gets enough credit because that’s an impressive team, but just watching his practice and seeing the organization, the structure -- it’s a well-oiled machine.”

That’s what Stoops wants for his team. He wants that same intensity, that same work ethic when his players are at practice because he knows that’s what it’s going to take.

Will it be easy? No. But it wasn’t always easy for Calipari either. He endured struggles early on as a college coach at Massachusetts and more notably as a coach in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets. He got through it, though, and now he’s doing everything he can to help Stoops get through a similar situation with this Kentucky football team.

“During some tough times my first two seasons, he was always there just to support me and talk with me,” Stoops said. “He knows what I’m building here and what I’m trying to do, and he knows that it’s going to be difficult at times. He’s been very supportive, and I appreciate that.”

That’s why, outside of maybe Ashley Judd, Stoops has become the basketball team’s biggest fan. He attended the SEC tournament in Nashville where he watched the Wildcats take home the title, and you can bet he’ll be watching from somewhere Thursday night.

The players have embraced it, too. They know what’s at stake. And whether it’s regularly attending home games at Rupp Arena or meeting Calipari on their recruiting visit, a lot of the football players have a connection to the basketball team. They want to see an undefeated season just as much if not more than the next person.

“I hope they do go undefeated,” offensive lineman Zach West said. “I think they will. I think everybody around here thinks they will.”

But West and the other football players didn’t come to Kentucky to see the basketball team make history. They came to make their own history.

“You look at the excellence that the [basketball players] have had on and off the court, it just sets a precedent for all of us that we need to follow,” West said. “With how well they have done and how well they are respected, why are we not at that level yet? We can get there doing exactly what they’re doing.”

That process has already started this spring. It started with nobody paying attention, with everybody too busy watching the basketball team chase history. And that’s OK as long as those same Kentucky fans are still talking about football next November.

For that to happen, the Wildcats need to win.

“I do feel an obligation to people to continue to improve our team and to deliver for this fan base because they’re starving for a great football team,” Stoops said.

Attrition hit the SEC hard this offseason, for some more than others, but every school has a player moving on that left a mark, a player that can't easily be replaced. So we asked the question, which player will be missed most on every SEC team? And more importantly, how does that team plan to fill the void left behind?

First up in the two-part series is a look at the SEC East.

Florida: DE Dante Fowler Jr.
New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will have his hands full trying to replace Fowler. The All-SEC star led the Gators last year in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (8.5), and it's going to take more than one player to replace that type of production. As Florida moves to a more traditional 4-3 scheme under Collins, defensive ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. will be responsible for getting to the quarterback. The two combined for 10 sacks last season. Five-star CeCe Jefferson is another name to watch, but he won't arrive on campus until the summer.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Dupree
AP Photo/Wade PayneHow will Kentucky fill the void at defensive end with Alvin "Bud" Dupree out of the mix in 2015?

Georgia: C David Andrews
Don't get me wrong. Running back Todd Gurley will be missed. But Georgia has Nick Chubb, one of the nation's top rushers, coming back and that should help ease the pain of losing Gurley. But losing Andrews hurts. He played in 50 games during his UGA career and started every game the past three seasons. It will look a little different with somebody else snapping the ball, but Mark Richt has already tabbed Hunter Long and Isaiah Wynn as the two main contenders to win the job this spring. Long has the experience, but Wynn has more upside. Take your pick.

Kentucky: DE/LB Alvin "Bud" Dupree
There wasn't a better ambassador for Kentucky football over the past couple years than Dupree. And to think, he never even got to play in a bowl game. Now he's taking his game to the next level, and it's up to former ESPN 300 recruit Jason Hatcher to fill the void. Hatcher played some last season, finishing fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss, but how will he fare as an every-down player? The Wildcats need him to be the elite pass-rusher they recruited out of high school if they want to take that next step and reach a bowl game.

Missouri: DE Shane Ray
Really, this could go to Ray or teammate Markus Golden. They formed the top defensive end duo in the SEC last season and played a major role in getting Missouri back to the SEC title game. With both moving on, who's next in line at D-Line Zou? Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris are the two most viable candidates, as the coaches are high on both, but junior-to-be Rickey Hatley will also be in the mix as will five-star recruit Terry Beckner Jr. when he enrolls this summer. Though at 6-foot-4, 298 pounds, Beckner is better suited to play inside.

South Carolina: QB Dylan Thompson
It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Thompson, in his first full year as the starter, led the SEC in passing with 3,564 yards. Coach Steve Spurrier probably wishes Thompson had one more year of eligibility. But instead the Head Ball Coach has to find a new quarterback this spring. Connor Mitch served as the primary backup last season and looks to be the early favorite to win the job, but he's no lock. Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia are competing this spring, and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez will have a say when he arrives this summer.

Tennessee: CB Justin Coleman
With more and more teams going to spread offenses, the nickel cornerback has become a valuable asset to SEC defenses. Coleman was a perfect example. As a senior, he led the team with four interceptions. Now Tennessee, who could have one of the top secondaries in the conference, has to find a new nickel corner. Rashaan Gaulden impressed as a freshman on special teams and could be a perfect fit with his size and instincts, but juniors Devaun Swafford and Malik Foreman will also get a look. Swafford played there in 2013.

Vanderbilt: LB Kyle Woestmann
Learning a new defense is not easy, let alone a new position. Just ask Woestmann, who moved from defensive end to linebacker last spring. But he was a gamer. He did it, no questions asked. The only problem now is that Woestmann has moved on. That means it's up to the likes of Stephen Weatherly and Jonathan Wynn to fill the void at outside linebacker. The good news is that both Weatherly and Wynn are already familiar with the position. In fact, Weatherly led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss while Wynn finished with 13 tackles and a sack.

It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?

In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.

It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.

I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.

Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs
  2. Auburn Tigers
  3. Alabama Crimson Tide
  4. Tennessee Volunteers
  5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
  6. Arkansas Razorbacks
  7. Ole Miss Rebels
  8. Missouri Tigers
  9. LSU Tigers
  10. Texas A&M Aggies
  11. Florida Gators
  12. South Carolina Gamecocks
  13. Kentucky Wildcats
  14. Vanderbilt Commodores
[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsVolunteers QB Joshua Dobbs has a bounty of talented pass-catchers to throw to in 2015.

FIRST ROUND

In Memphis, Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee

No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Charlotte, North Carolina

No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU

In Orlando, Florida

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee

In Houston

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson is sure to surpass his 436 total yards passing from last season.

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas

SEMIFINALS

In Arlington, Texas

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn

The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.

But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.

Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).

The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.

After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:

  1. Auburn
  2. Georgia
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Arkansas
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Texas A&M
  9. Missouri
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Florida
  13. Kentucky
  14. Vanderbilt

FIRST ROUND

In Memphis, Tennessee

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry looks to build on a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M

SECOND ROUND

In Charlotte, North Carolina

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWill Muschamp takes over an Auburn passing defense that was ranked 86th in yards per game allowed last season.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn

In Orlando, Florida

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee

FINAL FOUR

In Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn

The state of Florida is generally loaded with playmakers at wide receiver. In fact, over the last five years, the state has produced at least eight ESPN 300 prospects in every class. This year’s group of wide receivers just might top them all. An astounding 15 wideouts from the Sunshine State are listed in the ESPN Junior 300. It’s the deepest wide receiver class to come out of Florida in recent memory.

Offseason spotlight: Kentucky

March, 18, 2015
Mar 18
2:00
PM ET

Patrick Towles won Kentucky’s preseason quarterback battle last season, but is in competition once again this spring -- with redshirt freshman Drew Barker -- for the starting job in 2015.

Spotlight: Quarterback Patrick Towles, 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, junior.

[+] EnlargePatrick Towles
AP Photo/Garry JonesPatrick Towles will compete for Kentucky's starting QB job with redshirt freshman Drew Barker.

2014 summary: Towles had some bright moments in the season’s first half, helping lead Kentucky to a 5-1 mark. He was solid in all five Wildcat wins and was gritty in two losses: He threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-30 three-overtime loss to Florida, and in a loss to then-No. 1 ranked Mississippi State, Towles had four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing), threw for 390 yards and ran for 76. As the Wildcats faltered down the stretch, Towles’ performance also trended downward -- he didn’t complete more than 52.8 percent of his passes in any of the final six games and threw two touchdowns vs. five interceptions in Kentucky’s last four games.

The skinny: Barker and Towles are rotating reps with the first-team offense this spring, and head coach Mark Stoops made it clear when spring ball opened that the competition is wide open. Towles’ 12 starts are certainly a benefit, as there is no replacement for experience. Barker is a gifted player who was a highly touted prospect in Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class -- he was No. 173 in the ESPN 300, and the nation’s ninth-ranked pocket passer -- and will be given ample opportunity to compete for the job. Towles was a well-regarded recruit himself. Like Barker, Towles was the No. 1 player in the state of Kentucky in his class. Both have their hands full in their transition to the offensive tweaks installed by new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who, like his predecessor Neal Brown, is an Air Raid disciple, but Dawson uses different terminology. Regardless of whether Towles wins the job again, his role will be key considering the current lack of depth at the position for Kentucky (last year’s backup, Reese Phillips, is recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury, leaving Barker and Towles as the only scholarship quarterbacks currently on the field) and his experience is invaluable to a team that is still learning how to succeed in the SEC and hopes to make a bowl game this fall.

Shannon Dawson likes to move quickly.

He was that way at West Virginia where his offense averaged a mere 22.1 seconds of possession per play from 2012-14, the 13th fastest attack in the country over that time. A whopping 89 times the Mountaineers scored on drives of 2 minutes or less. The Hal Mumme disciple -- he was an assistant under the originator of the Air Raid Offense at Southeastern Louisiana -- orchestrated a game plan that produced 1,536 pass attempts and 11,561 passing yards at West Virginia, with both of those figures ranking among the top 15 nationally.

So when Dawson finally decided to cut ties with coach Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia to run his own offense at Kentucky, the 37-year-old wanted to hit the ground running. The time from his initial conversation with Wildcats’ coach Mark Stoops to a deal being finalized was all of 2-3 days, he said. And immediately after West Virginia wrapped up its bowl game, he and his wife were en route to Lexington. The next day they were with a realtor and were able to pick out a house before sundown.

[+] EnlargePatrick Towles
AP Photo/Garry JonesNew Kentucky coordinator Shannon Dawson is excited to work with QB Patrick Towles.
"I can be extremely decisive," Dawson joked.

Putting it in football terms, he said, "You have to be able to pull the trigger pretty quickly."

"You have to have a no-conscience approach to it," he explained. "Like rolling dice, there’s no conscience in that. There are going to be plays that work and plays that don’t work. You have to be able to move on."

Stoops said he talked to a number of offensive coordinators after Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy, but in the end he wanted to stick with the spread offense already in place. It came down to the big picture, he said, and when he learned of Dawson he was "sold on him right away."

The deciding factor? Not speed or eye-popping passing numbers. It was West Virginia’s recent emphasis on the power-running game, which began with Holgorsen’s acquisition of former Stanford tight ends/tackles coach Ron Crook just before the start of the 2013 season. By the end of 2014, the Mountaineers had gone from 1,784 yards rushing and 35.6 rush attempts per game to 2,376 yards and 43.31 attempts per game.

"The thing I liked from the style of offense they were doing is they brought some physicality and some run-game to this style of offense," Stoops, a defensive-minded coach, explained.

Said Dawson: "That’s probably one of the bigger reasons Coach Stoops hired me here. When we talked, I talked just as much about being physical and punching people in the mouth as throwing it down the field. In today’s game you have to be able to do both. Defenses play the pass a lot better than they did 5-6 years ago, and so if you can’t run the football a little bit and make them play honest, then you’re probably in a pickle."

A few days into spring practice, Dawson says he likes what he sees from the roster. The status of the offensive line remains to be seen, he said, but he was confident that, "We definitely have enough juice and firepower at our skill positions to make plays."

One of those skill players is quarterback Patrick Towles, who showed he had all the tools last season, throwing for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"As far as arm talent goes, I haven’t been around anybody with that arm strength," Dawson said of Towles.

But that doesn’t mean the starting job is automatically his.

Having strong arm is great, but Dawson said on the first day of practice, "That’s got little to do with playing football productively."

Drew Barker, who Stoops said was close to winning the starting job as a true freshman before redshirting, is splitting reps 50-50 with Towles.

"Obviously Patrick has some experience on Drew and all this and that, but I’m excited about both of those guys," Dawson said. "I’m open-minded about the position. I’m open-minded about every position. That’s the way you have to be when you go somewhere.

"[Towles] obviously knows he has the upper hand because he has the experience and Drew’s a younger kid, but he’s going to have to prove to me that he’s going to win the job."

Part of that process will be acclimating to Dawson’s way of doing things, a reprogramming process he says has both quarterbacks' heads spinning.

"We break it down to where there’s not a whole lot going on in their minds," he said. "We don’t get quarterbacks involved in a lot of protection shifts and this and that. He’s got to communicate with everyone on the field, and he’s got to have a clear mind and a clear thought process as far as his pre-snap thoughts."

And decisiveness?

"That’s the biggest thing," he said. "There’s much more problems in indecision than making the wrong decision."
I for one am very happy to see a playoff at the FBS level. More games, more drama, more fun.

Yes, I'd like to see more games, but that's for another day.

For now, the talk is on four games and what -- if anything -- can be done around those four games to make the College Football Playoff better. All week, esteemed colleague Heather Dinich has been diving deeper into the playoff, getting thoughts and opinions from various voices around college football. If you haven't read any of her pieces, you should because they're very insightful.

[+] Enlarge2009 Alabama
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe SEC championship game is too important to too many ever to go away.
On Wednesday, she tackled the subject of conference championship games and how they inevitably cut both ways for conferences. We certainly saw it last year with the Big 12 -- hello, Baylor and TCU -- and the Big Ten -- you're welcome Ohio State -- we've seen it in the past, and we'll likely see it for as long as postseason play is available in college football.

And while conference title games remain for leagues with at least 12 teams (get with it Big 12!), this does beg the question of whether conferences should consider or reconsider having league championships at the end of the regular season. As Dinich writes, the ACC and Big 12 have already petitioned the NCAA to loosen its restrictions on conference championship games, so maybe the consideration of change for some could be on the horizon.There's certainly a risk-reward factor that fluctuates depending on the conference. The Big 12 found out the hard way last year, but if things had worked out a little differently outside of the conference's own realm, the league would have looked great without a title game.

So should the SEC even entertain the thought of ever dumping its title game?

Uh, that notion should be met with an emphatic, no. Sorry, NO!

The SEC championship game means too much to the conference, it's too successful, and some might argue that it has become the second-biggest game in the country outside of the national championship game. If you look at the SEC's success during the BCS era, which included that run of seven straight national championships, the SEC title game has played a major part in the league's success.

Just look at 2006 and 2007. Florida's win over Arkansas in Atlanta in 2006 vaulted the No. 4 Gators past Michigan in the polls and into the BCS title game against Ohio State -- a game the Gators cruised in. A year later, 10-2 LSU beat No. 14 Tennessee in the title game to move from No. 7 to No. 2 and eventually faced -- and beat -- Ohio State in the national championship.

Now, both teams needed some help, but without the SEC championship, we probably aren't discussing either team.

Fourth-ranked Florida benefited from the SEC title game again in 2008 with a win over No. 1 Alabama to make it another national championship before Alabama reversed fates with the Gators a year later. (Although without an SEC title game, the Gators and Tide would probably have played each other in the national championship in 2009). And if either Georgia or Missouri had won in Atlanta in 2012 and 2013, respectively, those teams, especially Georgia, would have had a great argument for a spot in the eventual BCS national championship game.

Yes, the SEC has been hurt by the title game in the past -- 2001 with No. 2 Tennessee losing to LSU immediately comes to mind -- but the reward far outweighs the risk for the SEC. And even more now with the league failing to win the last two national championships.

The league might have been able to get away with its name and its brand a little more during its improbable title run, but going 0-2 in as many seasons will put even more emphasis on conference title games from the playoff committee. The SEC likely wouldn't lose a ton of points in the committee's mind without a conference championship, but it certainly doesn't lose any with one.

It's better safe than sorry for the SEC, and the league has benefited too much from creating the conference championship. While other conferences contemplate both sides, the SEC should stick to what has helped it be so successful for more than a decade.

SEC morning links

March, 12, 2015
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1. I think all of us assume the Alabama quarterback job will come down to Jake Coker versus the young trio of former ESPN 300 signal callers already on campus. But have we forgotten about Alec Morris, the one who’s been around the longest? Blake Sims was the veteran last year, and he wound up winning the job. And speaking of Sims, the former Crimson Tide star believes Morris is "going to factor big-time" in the much-anticipated position battle. We’ll all get our first look this Friday when Alabama opens spring practice, and though it will be front and center, the quarterback competition isn’t the only storyline headed into practice. There are plenty of other question marks facing the defending SEC champs this spring.

2. You probably don’t know every single athletic director in the SEC. I’m not even sure I do. But that doesn’t take away from how important they are to a football program. And that is why Missouri fans have to be ecstatic to hear Gary Pinkel’s endorsement for Mack Rhoades, the school’s new athletic director, especially considering Pinkel has had the same boss since he was hired in 2001. The two have already spoken, and you can bet the south end zone improvements at Faurot Field were brought up in conversation. For more on Rhoades and what he brings to Missouri, be sure to read this column from Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It sure sounds like they found the right man for the job in Columbia.

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Schedule: The Wildcats open spring practice on Saturday and they wrap everything up with their final practice on April 15. There will be no spring football game this year because of ongoing construction at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky will also take a brief hiatus from March 15-22 for the school’s spring break, so there will be no practices in that window.

What’s new: Kentucky welcomes a new offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson. Previously at West Virginia, Dawson is part of the Air Raid offensive coaching tree, which should help the Wildcats keep some continuity offensively after the departure of Neal Brown, who was also an Air Raid disciple and left Lexington after two years as the offensive coordinator to be the head coach at Troy. Having worked under Dana Holgorsen, Dawson brings some keen insight and it should be interesting to see how the offense operates with him calling the plays. The Wildcats also brought in Andy Buh, most recently the defensive coordinator at Cal, to be Kentucky’s linebackers coach. Buh also made stops at Stanford, Nevada and Wisconsin in the last eight years.

Mark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsThe next challenge for coach Mark Stoops is leading the Wildcats to a bowl game.
On the mend: Sophomore quarterback Reese Phillips, who backed up Patrick Towles last season, will miss the spring with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He could return in the fall.

New faces: Six players enrolled early in the 2015 recruiting class: offensive lineman George Asafo-Adjei, tight end C.J. Conrad, defensive end Kengera Daniel, tight end Greg Hart, linebacker Jordan Jones and linebacker Courtney Love. Hart and Love transferred from Nebraska, the other four are high school signees that graduated early.

Question marks: Kentucky loses a lot of production on the defensive side of the ball with the departure of Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. The duo did wonders for the Wildcats’ pass rush and finding quality successors is a key task for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. Both players were also considered leaders on last year’s Kentucky teams, so finding new voices in that area is also important. Also, the Wildcats return four starters on the offensive line but must show some improvement from last season, where they were near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed and rushing yards.

Key battle: Quarterback will be a position to watch again this spring. Towles won the job and performed respectably last season, helping Kentucky to a tremendous first half before the Wildcats struggled in the season’s second half. With Phillips out, the primary contender to push Towles this spring is redshirt freshman Drew Barker. Remember, Barker came in last season with a lot of buzz because of his lofty status as a recruit -- the ESPN 300 prospect was the No. 9 ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class and was the state of Kentucky’s top-rated recruit. After a redshirt year, how much will Barker challenge Towles for the starting job?

Breaking out: Stanley Williams showed some real promise late last season, rushing for a 126 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Louisville and 100 yards and a score against Georgia. The man they call “Boom” will be a sophomore and with Braylon Heard gone, there are more carries to go around between Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton. The Wildcats also have a wealth of gifted young receivers who are continuing to grow. Keep an eye on junior Ryan Timmons (45 catches, 536 yards last season), sophomore Garrett Johnson (22 catches, 271 yards), sophomore Dorian Baker (19 catches, 199 yards) and sophomore Blake Bone (14 catches, 194 yards) as guys who could potentially see their production jump this year.

Don’t forget about: Safety A.J. Stamps. The junior college transfer had a promising start to last season, picking off three passes in the Wildcats’ first five games and ended the season with his fourth interception in the season finale against Louisville. If he can take a step forward and become more consistent, that would be good for the back end of the defense. Don’t forget about Kentucky’s linebackers either. The Wildcats have some talent there with the likes of Josh Forrest, who was fifth in the league with 110 tackles. Veteran Khalid Henderson returns, as does Ryan Flannigan. If the unit can get a boost from the NCAA in the form of ruling Courtney Love immediately eligible rather than having to sit out a year, that would be a nice boost.

All eyes on: Mark Stoops. He has done a solid job building the Wildcats in his short time there, recruiting well and showing signs of on-field progress. Now the question is whether they can take the next step under Stoops and make a bowl game. For a short time last season it looked like they might do it in 2014 but lost six straight to close out the year. Stoops was rewarded for his good job so far with a deserved raise and contract extension, now fans are hoping he can keep that progress going by getting Kentucky into the postseason.

SEC morning links

March, 6, 2015
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March, 5, 2015
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A day after Auburn's Corey Grant burned up the track at Auburn's pro day, another former SEC player who didn't attend the NFL combine also helped his cause. Mississippi State's Matt Wells ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the best of any player at the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday. State was one of three SEC schools to hold a pro day on Wednesday, along with Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Aggies' pro day lacked the fanfare of a year ago when Johnny Manziel worked out for scouts -- particularly with star tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sidelined by a knee injury -- but a dozen former A&M players still took advantage of the opportunity to show what they could do. Likewise, 16 former Razorbacks -- including All-SEC honorees Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers -- showed off for scouts at Arkansas' workout on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
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We'll finally end our pre-spring position rankings in the SEC by taking a look at special teams. Kickers and punters rejoice!

1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.

2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.

3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.

4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.

5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.

6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.

8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.

11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.

12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.

13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
We continue our series looking at the position groups around the SEC by looking at the defensive backs Wednesday.

1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.

2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so does fellow safeties Quincy Mauger, who started seven games. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.

3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.

4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.

5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.

6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.

7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.

8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.

9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.

10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.

10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.

13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.

14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.
e SEC lost some playmakers at linebacker this past year, but the position still looks strong heading into 2015 thanks to a handful of players that turned down the NFL to return to school. The league also signed five of the top 10 linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class.

It's only March and spring practice has yet to begin for the majority of the SEC, but here's an early look at how the teams stacks up at linebacker as part of our pre-spring rankings:

1. Georgia: Despite losing their two leading tacklers, the Bulldogs still take the top spot heading into 2015. That's because they return Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter, three dynamic pass-rushers on the outside who all have a future in the NFL. In the middle, Tim Kimbrough should emerge given more opportunity, and Jake Ganus comes over from UAB where he led the Blazers with 70 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss.

2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide also lost a couple key names from last year, but there's still plenty of talent to go around. The star is Reggie Ragland, an All-SEC selection who flirted with the NFL before opting to come back for his senior year. He heads a group that lacks in experience but not in talent. Denzel Devall should be healthy; Ryan Anderson is primed for a breakout season; and Reuben Foster might finally become more than just a special teams ace.

3. Missouri: We might need to change the name from “D-Line Zou” to “Linebacker Zou” in 2015. That's not to take anything away from Missouri's defensive line. It's simply a testament to the linebackers. The Tigers return two of the SEC's leading tacklers from a year ago in Kentrell Brothers (122) and Michael Scherer (114), and when you throw in the likes of Donavin Newsom, Eric Beisel and Clarence Green, it's also one of the deeper groups in the conference.

4. Auburn: The defense was bad last year, but let's not blame the linebackers. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost actually played well for most of the season and both are returning this fall. They should benefit from the arrival of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp whose new scheme will also provide more opportunities for sophomore-to-be Tre Williams and the quartet of ESPN 300 linebackers that signed in February.

5. Tennessee: Losing A.J. Johnson hurts, but the Volunteers played without him the final three games last year and didn't miss a beat. They return leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin, as well as Curt Maggitt, an All-SEC selection who bounced back after missing all of 2013 due to injury. Sophomore-to-be Jakob Johnson filled in admirably for A.J. Johnson down the stretch, but he's no lock to win the job. Incoming freshman Darren Kirkland Jr. will be in the mix once healthy.

6. LSU: This could've been a top-3 group had Kwon Alexander not left early, but don't be fooled by the lack of household names. It's still a solid unit. Kendell Beckwith is back. He was second on the team in tackles (77) and tackles for loss (7.5). Lamar Louis and Deion Jones both have game experience. And look for Clifton Garrett to play an expanded role as a sophomore.

7. Vanderbilt: Too high considering Vanderbilt's record last year? If anything, it's too low. Derek Mason is building his defense around the linebackers, and it shows. Between Stephen Weatherly, Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham, this has the potential to be one of the better units in the SEC. The addition of junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell only makes it better.

8. South Carolina: Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton form one of the better linebacker tandems in the SEC. They finished among the team leaders in tackles a year ago, and are primed to take another step in 2015. Moore and Walton highlight a deep group that got even deeper in January when the Gamecocks added three early enrollees at the linebacker spot.

9. Mississippi State: Richie Brown became best known for his beard last year, but he quietly put together a solid season on the field. And to think, he's not even the best Brown in the group. That title goes to Beniquez Brown, the team's second-leading tackler. The Bulldogs will miss Benardrick McKinney, but the addition of ESPN 300 star Leo Lewis will help ease the pain.

10. Florida: The Gators are one of the SEC's bigger unknowns when it comes to linebackers. We don't know how healthy Antonio Morrison will be after his injury in the bowl game. When healthy, he's one of the league's best. We don't know who the new coaching staff will favor, but Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian are both candidates for increased playing time.

11. Kentucky: Alvin “Bud” Dupree was the star of this defense a year ago, but linebacker Josh Forrest quietly shined with 110 tackles, fifth most in the SEC. He's back along with Ryan Flannigan, a junior college transfer who eventually took over the job at weakside linebacker. The Wildcats are hoping Nebraska transfer Courtney Love is eligible to play right away.

12. Arkansas: Gone is Martrell Spaight, a first-team All-SEC player who led the conference with 128 tackles last year. Who is going to step up and replace that production for the Razorbacks this fall? The most likely candidate is Brooks Ellis. The junior-to-be finished second on the team in tackles and will be asked to take on more of a leadership role this coming season.

13. Ole Miss: The only linebacker with any experience returning is Denzel Nkemdiche, and he's still not 100 percent after breaking his leg in the fall, though the videos of him running recently bode well for the Rebels going forward. Christian Russell, who got his feet wet last year, is the early favorite to take over in the middle.

14. Texas A&M: This was the Achilles' heel for a defense that struggled mightily last year. Will the unit improve? It can't get much worse, but don't expect a huge turnaround overnight. There's still work to be done. The key will be rising sophomore Otaro Alaka who has the potential to become a star in the SEC.

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