SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

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.
Spring practice is always a good time for players to make their cases for a move up the depth chart and much can be gleaned from position battles that occur this time of year. Given that, we take a look at some of the top position battles worth watching this spring in the SEC:

Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Scott Donaldson/Icon SportswireThroughout spring practice, Treon Harris will be competing for Florida's starting QB job.
Auburn: Running back
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.

Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.

Georgia: Quarterback
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.

LSU: Quarterback
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.

Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.

Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.

South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.

Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.

Vanderbilt: Quarterback
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
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 do fellow safeties Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore, who started seven games and six games, respectively. 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.
It all starts up front. So if you’re looking ahead to project which teams will have the best defenses in the SEC next season, look no further than the defensive line. Because if they’re on, the linebackers and secondary will be better off for it.

It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:

1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.

2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.

3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.

4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.

5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.

6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.

7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.

9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.

10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.

11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.

13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.

14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: OL

February, 26, 2015
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The SEC is still won in the trenches so the teams with good offensive line play will likely do well for themselves. As we look ahead to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest up front? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season arrives, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.

2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.

3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.

4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.

6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.

7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.

11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.

12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.

SEC morning links

February, 26, 2015
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1. Snow continued to hit the Southeast on Wednesday and with it came a flurry of coaching hires in the SEC. The most notable was at Arkansas where the Razorbacks hired Jemal Singleton as the new running backs' coach. Singleton, formerly at Oklahoma State, will replace Joel Thomas, who left for the same job with the New Orleans Saints. It's not a bad gig for Singleton who walks into what many consider the best backfield in the conference with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Elsewhere, Alabama brought back a familiar name in Freddie Roach. The former Crimson Tide linebacker left his job at South Alabama to take on an unspecified role at Alabama. And LSU made a pair of moves, hiring Ryan Pugh as a graduate assistant and Blaine Gautier as an offensive assistant. Pugh made 45 starts at center for Auburn from 2007-2010.

2. Speaking of new hires, Barry Odom will have the difficult challenge of trying to replace former Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel this season. Odom, a Mizzou graduate, spoke to the local media before Tuesday's basketball game. The big takeaway? He's not looking to “reinvent” the defense. Odom ran a 3-4 scheme at Memphis last year, but he says the Tigers will still run a base 4-3 with variations of a 3-4. That's common these days in college football. He was also asked about his contract, which hasn't been released yet, but evidently it's still being worked out with the school. “I'm working happily every day,” Odom said when asked about it.

3. Earlier in the week, we saw where Vanderbilt is trying out a new technology this spring where the players will have a GPS device inserted into their shoulder pads. Pretty cool, right? Well, Tennessee has come up with a pretty good idea of their own. No, the Vols aren't going all high-tech this spring. Instead, they are introducing “Fourth-and-1 Wednesday,” a weekly class designed to arm players with the knowledge of right from wrong. It will be taught by head coach Butch Jones, Vol for Life coordinator Antone Davis and assistant strength coach Ike Brown. Where's the name come from? Jones wants his players to treat situations off the field with the same focus and attention to detail as they'd treat fourth-and-1 in a game.

Around the SEC
Tweets of the day

Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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The last decade of SEC football has put the conference at the top of the college football world.

While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.

Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.

Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.

Here's what we came up with:

1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.

2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.

3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.

4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.

5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.

6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.

7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.

8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.

9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.

10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.

11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.

12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.

13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.

14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: WR/TE

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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The SEC has been a breeding ground for big-time receivers over the last few years. Alabama’s Amari Cooper is projected as a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft, and look at the seasons Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews all had as rookies.

As we turn the page to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest at the wide receiver/tight end position? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season gets here, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Texas A&M: Even with the departure of Malcome Kennedy, the Aggies are loaded. Eight different wide receivers return who caught touchdown passes last season. Josh Reynolds was one of the league's top breakout players a year ago with 13 touchdown catches and earned second-team All-SEC honors from the AP. Edward Pope, like Reynolds, is a big target at 6-foot-4. Ricky Seals-Jones is even bigger at 6-5 and will be two years removed from his ACL tear, and Speedy Noil is the most explosive of the bunch.

2. Tennessee: The Vols have depth, experience and versatility. Marquez North is the most physically imposing of the group, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury. Teams won’t be able to concentrate on him, though, because Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Jason Croom are all back along with Josh Smith, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Sophomore Ethan Wolf has all the tools to be Tennessee’s next All-SEC tight end.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren't the same offensively last season after Laquon Treadwell broke his leg in the Auburn game. He’s working his way back, and if healthy, will be one of the top receivers in the league. Veterans Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo are back, while redshirt freshman Sammie Epps and transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow, who played at Washington in 2013, should be nice additions. Markell Pack was mostly a punt returner last season and is a candidate to take Vince Sanders’ spot. Don't forget about Evan Engram, either. He led all SEC tight ends with 662 receiving yards last season.

4. Mississippi State: This will be the most talented group of receivers Dan Mullen has had in Starkville, which is great news for returning senior quarterback Dak Prescott. It all starts with the 6-5, 225-pound De’Runnya Wilson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s most difficult matchups after making the switch from hoops to football. Fred Brown, Fred Ross and Joe Morrow are also back, and they combined to catch 11 touchdown passes last season. Speedy junior college signee Donald Gray is already on campus and looks like a natural in the slot. Darrion Hutcherson (6-7, 260) steps in at tight end after coming over from junior college a year ago.

5. LSU: The Tigers have the guys who can catch it and go get it. Finding somebody who can get the ball to them will be the trick. Junior Travin Dural was sensational at times a year ago and has averaged 20.5 yards per catch during his two seasons at LSU. Malachi Dupre has major star potential after catching five touchdown passes as a true freshman. John Diarse (redshirt freshman) and Trey Quinn (true freshman) were two other first-year players who contributed last season and round out a rotation capable of doing some real damage down the field. The Tigers did lose two senior tight ends.

6. Auburn: Sammie Coates might be gone, but that doesn’t mean Auburn will be hurting at receiver. Duke Williams’ decision to return for his senior season was a nice surprise, and he gives the Tigers one of the top go-to threats in the league. Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens are also back, and both have the kind of speed to stretch the field. The Tigers will be inexperienced at the tight end/H-back position with C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse gone. No returning scholarship player has played a snap at tight end.

7. Georgia: The X-factor of all X-factors is Malcolm Mitchell. Can he stay healthy? If he can avoid injuries, he has a chance to be one of the best deep threats in the league. It’s a similar story with Justin Scott-Wesley, who played in only six games last season. Look for dynamic return specialist Isaiah McKenzie to be more involved in the passing game, and holding onto prized freshman signee Terry Godwin was huge. He’ll play early. The Bulldogs’ tight end combo of Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome is the one of the best in the SEC.

8. South Carolina: The only reason the Gamecocks are this high is Pharoh Cooper. With Amari Cooper leaving early for the NFL, Pharoh Cooper returns as the best receiver in the SEC. He earned first-team All-SEC honors last season after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns. After Cooper, there are a bunch of unknowns. Four of the top five wide receivers from last year are gone. The Gamecocks think redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel could develop into a nice complement to Cooper, and tight end Jerell Adams is more talented than he has played and could be in store for a breakout senior season.

9. Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s top three pass-catchers from 2014 are gone, including record-setting Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper, who carried Alabama at times. With Cooper no longer around, look for tight end O.J. Howard to become a much more consistent threat in the passing game. Junior Chris Black will get his chance to shine. The same goes for third-year sophomore Robert Foster. The up-and-comer to watch is 6-4, 208-pound Cam Sims, who played some last season as a true freshman.

10. Arkansas: Just about all of Arkansas’ key figures in the passing game are back, but the Hogs need to find a way to be more explosive in 2015. Junior college signee Dominique Reed has the speed to fill that role. Hunter Henry returns as one of the best tight ends in the league. Senior Keon Hatcher is back after leading the Hogs in catches (43), yards (558) and touchdowns (six). Jared Cornelius showed flashes as a true freshman, and the two wild cards are sophomore Kendrick Edwards and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson, a pair of South Florida products.

11. Florida: The Gators haven’t had a receiver sniff first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches since Percy Harvin in 2008. So it has been a while since they’ve had a true difference-maker at receiver. Demarcus Robinson has a chance to blossom in Jim McElwain’s offense after catching seven touchdown passes a year ago. Tight end Jake McGee returns for his sixth season after getting a waiver from the NCAA. He’s a transfer from Virginia and led the Cavaliers with 43 catches in 2013. He broke his leg in the Gators' first game last season.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two of their most productive receivers from a year ago, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue. Ryan Timmons is back and is the most dynamic offensive threat on the team. He just needs to catch the ball more consistently. Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson both played as true freshmen last season, and each started multiple games and combined for 41 catches. Blake Bone also played as a true freshman. Early enrollee C.J. Conrad could be the answer at tight end. The Wildcats got very little production from that position last season.

13. Missouri: Ranking the Tigers this low probably isn't very wise when you consider the way they've continued to reload at receiver and the job receivers coach Pat Washington has done. He'll have his work cut out in 2015. Mizzou lost its top three wide receivers from a year ago. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White combined to catch 23 of the team’s 25 touchdown passes. The Tigers will be looking for Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore to grow up in a hurry as sophomores. It helps that starting tight end Sean Culkin is back.

14. Vanderbilt: It’s a big offseason for C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford as the Commodores search for a true No. 1 threat. Trent Sherfield has a chance to be the team’s best deep threat after playing some as a true freshman. In fairness, it was difficult to evaluate the Commodores at receiver last season because they played so many different quarterbacks. Ronald Monroe is a redshirt freshman to watch, and senior tight end Steven Scheu returns after tying for the team lead with four touchdown catches a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors.

SEC morning links

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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Hope everyone is staying warm as winter makes its presence felt in SEC country. While you're bundling up, here's some reading material in the form of today's SEC morning links: Tweets of the day

SEC pre-spring position rankings: RB

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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One thing the SEC will never be short on is talented running backs. This league is consistently very deep at the position, and 2015 is no exception. The league is loaded with immediate star power and has a few youngsters waiting in the wings to really strut their stuff in 2015. Good luck defenses.

1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind them, the Hogs have some talented depth to keep any eye on, starting with redshirt freshman Juan Day and fullback Kody Walker, whom the coaches really like, and 2015 signee Rawleigh Williams III.

2. Georgia: There’s no debate right now that sophomore Nick Chubb returns as the SEC’s best running back. Actually, after rushing for 1,547 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts (all 100-yard performances), Chubb might be the nation’s best returning running back. Fellow sophomore Soachny Michel rushed for 410 yards and five touchdowns last year, and veteran Keith Marshall is almost back to full speed after dealing with injury yet again last year.

3. Alabama: Derrick Henry is one of the SEC’s best pure athletes and led the Crimson Tide in rushing last year (990) despite having 22 less carries than starter T.J. Yeldon. Henry is a bull and homerun threat, but the return of veteran Kenyan Drake (leg) will provide Alabama with the perfect complement in the backfield with his tremendous speed and elusiveness. The arrival of talented freshman Bo Scarbrough was a blessing with the transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the indefinite suspension of Tyren Jones.

4. Tennessee: There certainly is something special about sophomore Jalen Hurd, and it’s scary to think what he’ll learn/do in 2015. There’s little doubt that Hurd will surpass his 899 yards from last year. The Vols are pretty thin here, but the arrival of junior college transfer – and former Alabama running back – Alvin Kamara is a very welcomed one. The coaches think the shifty back could be special and should complement Hurd well. Tennessee also signed John Kelly.

5. LSU: Leonard Fournette took a little longer to develop than Chubb, but there’s no denying his ability, strength and athleticism. Fournette finished his freshman year with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, but should be even better in 2015. Sophomore Darrel Williams (302 yards) is a fan favorite, but depth is on the unproven side. LSU did sign three running backs this year, including two ESPN 300 members.

6. Auburn: The Tigers lost two productive seniors, including SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, but sophomore Roc Thomas could be a special talent. However, keep an eye on Jovon Robinson, who was the nation’s No. 1 juco running back. He rushed for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, and might be the favorite to start. Peyton Barber is another solid option returning, but in Gus Malzahn’s system, any running back can be uber-successful.

7. Missouri: Russell Hansbroughh is one of the league’s best and had a breakout year in 2014 with his 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. His role will increase even more with the departure of Marcus Murphy. The Tigers then have some unproven parts though. Freshman Ish Witter ran for 101 yards last year, and Morgan Steward could be the No. 2 back if he can successfully return from last year’s hip injury. Youngster Trevon Walters is a speedster, and the Tigers finally got JUCO Chase Abbington on campus.

8. Texas A&M: Trey Williams’ somewhat surprising depature to the NFL leaves a hole at running back, but Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are back. Carson, who led the team with 581 rushing yards last year, should be the feature back, but Brandon Williams has a lot of potential; he just needs to put everything together. The coaches are also excited about sophomore James White, who played sparingly last year, but can do a little bit of everything at running back.

9. South Carolina: Mike Davis’ departure hurts, but the Gamecocks are in good hands with former walk-on Brandon Wilds taking over the lead back role. The senior has 1,277 career rushing yards, including gaining 570 last year. Redshirt sophomore David Williams has caught the eyes of his coaches after his reserve role in 2014. Maybe this is the season senior Shon Carson, who has shown flashes in the past, can finally contribute more, too.

10. Florida: The Gators lost their best running back in Matt Jones to the NFL draft, but it’s time for junior Kelvin Taylor prove that he can be a leader and an every-down back for the Gators. He has just one 100-yard game in two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Adam Lane showed some promise with his 109-yard bowl performance, and you have to wonder if undersized Brandon Powell will stay at running back. Freshman Jordan Scarlett could see immediate playing time this fall.

11. Mississippi State: Bowling ball Josh Robinson is gone, but the there’s certainly some depth to work with in Starkville. However, no one there is quite sure who is going to be the lead back or if things will operate by committee. Ashton Shumpert played well down the stretch last year, but impressions out of practice were that freshman Aeris Williams might have been the best of them all. Like Shumpert, Brandon Holloway also rushed for nearly 300 yards last year.

12. Kentucky: The loss of Braylon Heard to the NFL early didn’t help, but this position was in need of some major work anyway. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp were OK last year, but the Wildcats need them to be much better this fall. The two combined for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Mikel Horton rushed for 302 yards last year, so he’ll definitely be in the mix, too.

13. Vanderbilt: Sophomore Ralph Webb almost ran for 1,000 yards last year, and might be the Commodores’ best offensive threat. However, the Dores will need more than just Webb to get the running game going, and right now that’s a problem with only two other returning backs. Sophomore Dallas Rivers is the only other back returning with any sort of real production (218 yards). Vandy will have to get their two incoming freshman ready immediately.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren’t great here last year to begin with. Ole Miss ranked 74th nationally in rushing and Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Bigger back Jordan Wilkins needs to be more productive than his 361 yards from last year. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodsonhave transferred, leaving Ole Miss thin here. A lot will be expected – and likely needed -- from freshman Eric Swinney.

SEC morning links

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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Monday was the final day of the 2015 NFL scouting combine and defensive backs took center stage. Of course, plenty of SEC stars showcased their skills, so that leads today's links, but there's plenty of non-combine stuff too:

From the NFL combine:
Non-combine links from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day
The NFL scouting combine wrapped up Monday with the defensive backs going through the on-field workouts. As always, the SEC was well represented at the event. Former Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley put on a show while a trio of LSU defenders -- Kwon Alexander, Jalen Collins and Danielle Hunter -- proved just how athletic that defense was last season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIn his freshman season at LSU, Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Who's next? The SEC has plenty of athletes made for the combine, and we decided to look at which returning players will turn heads when it's their turn to go through the gauntlet.

LB Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt: Don't be so shocked a Vandy player made the list. Azubike is a freak athletically. He's 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and there's not an ounce of fat on his body. As a junior, he started off strong but injuries derailed his season down the stretch. The senior-to-be will look to finish his career on a high note and earn his invite to the combine.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama: Brown is one of four Crimson Tide football players who double up with track and field. He played sparingly as a freshman last fall, but the expectations are high for the former five-star defensive back. On the track, he's the team's fastest runner in the 60-meter hurdles, and he recently ran the 60-meter dash in 6.82 seconds.

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: Who else remembers that picture of Chubb showing off his vertical before a track and field event at his high school last May? If not, here you go. The guy looks like he could jump over a car. After a sensational freshman season, he'll be one of the more talked about athletes when it's his turn at the combine. Odds are he won't disappoint.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Chubb isn't the only freshman running back we can't wait to see at the combine. Fournette, the former No. 1 player in the country, has all the skills to put on a show when he goes and works out. He's big, fast, and there always seems to be a chip on his shoulder. It won't be any different at the combine.

DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Chiseled would be the best word to describe Garrett's physique. The freshman is a weight room freak and should put up big numbers on bench press. The scary part is he'll be just as impressive in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle. There's a reason he broke the SEC freshman sack record, previously held by No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney.

CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: 4.3 is the new 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and Hargreaves has a chance to run in that 4.3 range. A performance like that could solidify his stock as a top-10 pick in next year's draft, assuming he decides to leave early. And don't be surprised if the former high school track star clears 40 inches in the vertical jump.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: Everybody wants to see what Henry is going to do when he goes to the combine. Players that big (6-3, 241) aren't supposed to run that fast. Henry likely won't be among the fastest at his position, but he did run a 4.45 at the 2012 Nike SPARQ competition. Granted, it was on a faster surface, but still -- that's moving for a guy his size.

DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: To nobody's surprise, another former No. 1 player in the ESPN 300 makes this list. Nkemdiche has always been gifted athletically, and though he might not be as fast as his brother, his overall performance will certainly grab the media's attention at the combine. Simply put, he's the complete package.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: It's all in the name. Wouldn't it be great if the fastest 40 time came from a guy named Speedy? It could happen. Noil won the Nike SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013 with a 40 time of 4.46 seconds and a vertical jump of 44.1 inches. He also ran the shuttle in a blistering quick 3.87 seconds.

OT Braden Smith, Auburn: Former Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers was deemed the strongest man at the combine this year after he put up 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Per Auburn's strength coach, Smith can already put up at least 30 reps and he's still a freshman. Imagine what he'll be able to do in two-to-three years when it's his turn.

Honorable mention
RB Alex Collins, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
WR Ricardo Louis, Auburn
WR Demarcus Robinson, Florida
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

SEC roundtable: Toughest coaching job

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
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This week, ESPN counts down the most attractive coaching jobs in college football Insider. There will inevitably be a number of SEC schools near the top, but that doesn’t mean every job in the conference is easy. As we kick off our three-day roundtable series, we ask the question: Which SEC job is the toughest?

Edward Aschoff: Mississippi State
I know Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the easy picks here, but how about Mississippi State? It can’t be stressed enough how impressive a job Dan Mullen has done in Starkville since he arrived in 2009. Mississippi State doesn't have the name or tradition of bigger schools, and recruiting to Starkville isn't exactly easy. Before the Bulldogs’ impressive run in 2014, Mississippi State hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1999. Mullen has now won nine games in a season twice, something Vanderbilt did in back-to-back seasons under James Franklin. Staying relevant at Mississippi State is a tall order; just look at the history of the school. SEC titles are few and far between, and with the West so strong, the Bulldogs will always have an uphill battle. That’s just the reality in Starkville. It’s already tough to consistently recruit top talent to Mississippi schools, and it doesn't help battling Ole Miss, which has cleaned up in recruiting recently.

Chris Low: Vanderbilt
There’s no such thing as an easy head-coaching job in the SEC, but some are a heck of a lot harder than others -- one in particular. There’s a reason Vanderbilt has had just five winning seasons in the past 40 years. Yes, two of those came under Franklin in 2012 and 2013, which is a credit to Franklin and his staff, but the challenge of winning consistently at Vanderbilt is the most daunting challenge in all of college football. Vanderbilt’s stringent academic standards mean that the Commodores, for the most part, are recruiting in a different pool than everybody else in the SEC, so stockpiling the kind of quality depth that most everybody else in the league enjoys is a losing battle. The facilities have improved in recent years, but they still pale in comparison to the rest of the SEC. Franklin proved it was possible to get to nine wins at Vanderbilt. He did it in each of his last two seasons before bolting to Penn State. But even when Franklin was there, the Commodores’ 40,000-seat stadium was rarely full, and he was just 4-14 against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record.

Greg Ostendorf: Missouri
Is Missouri a more difficult job than the one at Vanderbilt? No. I think we can all agree on that. But make no mistake about it -- it’s not easy to win at Missouri. Credit Gary Pinkel for winning two division titles in three years since joining the SEC. Nobody predicted that, and at this point, nobody will be surprised if he pulls it off again next season. But despite the recent success, Missouri is new to the league. It doesn’t have the tradition. It doesn’t have a 90,000-plus-seat stadium or the latest and greatest facilities, although renovations are on the way. And recruiting will never be easy considering its location. In fact, this year's recruiting class (ranked No. 18 nationally) was the first one ranked in the top 30 since the Tigers joined the SEC, and the top two signees came from their own backyard. I don’t expect Missouri to fall off as long as Pinkel is in charge, but what happens when he’s gone? How will the next coach fare? If you think it will be easy to keep the Tigers on top, think again.

Sam Khan: Kentucky
When you have a reputation as a basketball school in a conference that is so well-known for its football dominance, it's never easy. But that's reality for Kentucky. The Wildcats are similar to Vanderbilt in terms of historical win total (Vanderbilt actually has more all-time wins, while Kentucky has more SEC wins than Vandy), so expectations aren't always high. In recruiting, Kentucky has to battle not only other SEC teams but also Big Ten teams given Lexington's proximity to Ohio, which is Big Ten country. That said, Mark Stoops and his staff are to be commended for the success they've had recruiting Ohio since his arrival. Fortunately for Cats fans, Stoops currently has the program moving in the right direction, and the school has shown financial commitment not only to Stoops but also to improving facilities with renovations to Commonwealth Stadium and plans for a new practice and training facility.
You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.

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