Published August 16, 2012 - 2:20pm
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Field-flippers and game-changers.
In a league as competitive as the SEC, the “kicking game” always impacts the final score. Backed by the nation’s most prolific return man and a dominant punter, LSU piggy-backed off its special teams unit to run off 13 consecutive wins in 2011 before succumbing to Alabama in the BCS title game.
The loss of Tyrann Mathieu will, without question, affect the Tigers this season. His ability to alter momentum in big games was an intangible that’s tough to replace. Graduation losses, returning talent and new kickoff rules have also been taken into account as I break down the SEC’s top squads on special teams.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels were shaky on both sides of the football last season, but on special teams, Ole Miss was solid. Coverage units took a few hits, but Bryson Rose was one of the SEC’s most accurate kickers when given the chance and Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt, ranking him in the Top 5. Over the last two years, Rose has nailed 25-of-29 field goal tries when his team’s sputtering offense gives him an opportunity. Jeff Scott will hopefully come up big in the return game in a season where points will come at a premium. Rose could lead the league in makes with a banner final season.
4. Arkansas: How do you lose Joe Adams and still find a way into the Top 5? Easy, the Razorbacks welcome back their starting kicker, punter and two return guys with experience. Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade each averaged 25.6 yards per kick return playing in Adams’ touchdown-making shadow last season. The tandem reached the end zone twice. With Wade now gone for the season, Johnson is returning kicks and punts. Punter Dylan Breeding earned second team all-conference honors as a junior after leading the league in punt average at 45.3 yards per boot.
3. LSU: Australia-born sophomore Brad Wing is the SEC’s top returning weapon as a first team All-American. We all remember the gargantuan boot in the Alabama game that put him on the map so to speak. Veteran Drew Alleman will handle place-kicking duties as the SEC’s most accurate kicker. Alleman converted 16-of-18 tries last season. The loss of the Honey Badger, a Heisman front-runner and college football’s most dangerous weapon, forced me to reconfigure these rankings. Morris Claiborne is gone too and he returned 22 kickoffs for a 25.1-yard average last season. Junior Odell Beckham will be one of the league’s best special teamers at season’s end.
2. Auburn: Tre Mason and Onterrio McCalebb each returned kicks for touchdowns last season and ranked in the SEC’s Top 5 in kick return yardage. McCalebb’s 30.7 yards per try was tops in the league. They’ll both put the Tigers in great position to improve on an eight-win total along with kicker Cody Parkey, a third-team All-SECer as a sophomore. Punter Steven Clark made the first team. His 72 total punts was second only to Kentucky’s Ryan Tydlacka as Clark bailed out an offense that struggled in Gus Malzahn’s final season — the first without Cam Newton.
1. Florida: The Gators return nearly every playmaker on this side of the ball led by speedster Andre Dubose and kicker Caleb Sturgis, a Lou Groze finalist lock. Debose has a chance to lead the SEC in special teams touchdowns now that Arkansas’ Joe Adams is in the NFL. Sturgis converted 22-of-30 field goal tries after missing the previous season due to injury. He’s got a heck of a leg with five makes coming from 50 or more yards out. Sophomore Kyle Christy is the team’s returning starter at punter. Chris Rainey’s absence creates a drop in overall speed, but Will Muschamp’s group should still be the SEC’s best in return situations.